The Presence of the Sacred: A 13th-century cult image from Saaremaa (Estonia)


  • Krista Andreson



Four Nails Crucifix, Medieval Cult Image, 13th Century Churches in Saaremaa, Medieval Mural Paintings


This article undertakes a closer examination of the small (52-cm) oak figure of the crucified Christ on permanent exhibit at the Saaremaa Museum in Kuressaare. The original crossbar of the crucifix has not survived, it is covered with modern polychrome and there is no definitive information on which church the sculpture initially belonged to. If we wish
to reconstruct the initial function of the sculpture in the sacral context, we must rely primarily on the object itself, its particular iconographical properties and style of depiction, as well as the results of technological
research. In addition, we can seek additional information from the network of relationships between visual objects and liturgy of the past. On the one hand, Saaremaa’s crucified Christ is characterised by an “old-fashioned” method of attachment to the cross using four nails, and on the other, Christ’s chest wounds and the traits characteristic of a tense, hanging body are emphasised. Since changes in the number of nails and method of attachment to the cross started to appear in the middle of the 12th century, and the great breakthrough did not occur until the late 1210s and early 1220s, and it became prevalent by the middle of the 13th century at the latest, this time period establishes the temporal framework for the completion of the Saaremaa crucifix. The Saaremaa crucified Christ is also characterised by a specific iconography, which alludes to Passion piety and respect for the bodily Christ in the first half of the 13th century. Recent technological research provides a basis to believe that the back (and probably the head) of the figure initially contained a sepulchrum, which traditionally contained a relic or piece of the Host. As such, the Saaremaa crucified Christ is a medieval cult image, and in addition to the existence of the repository, is unusual due the fact that it dates back to the period of the first written information on the existence of Christian houses of worship on Estonian territory. However, the Christianisation of the Estonian area had yet to be completed and the network of churches was still in the process of being developed. The sculpture’s artistic parallels point to a group of  crucifixes of German origin completed in the second quarter of the 13th century – to comparative material from a region, from which, along with ecclesiastical and political contacts, artistic impulses arrived in Saaremaa, and more broadly in Livonia during this period.


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Author Biography

Krista Andreson

Krista Andreson is a research fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Tartu. She has studied art history at the University of Tartu, at the University of Kiel (Germany), as well as held shorter
academic residencies in Leipzig and Greifswald. From 2003 to 2010, Andreson was a research fellow at the Niguliste Museum (Art Museum of Estonia). Her main area of research is medieval ecclesiastical art and she has published several research papers on the  medieval wooden sculptures in the Baltic Sea Region. The topic of Krista Andreson’s doctoral thesis is “The Relations between Art and Culture in Old Livonia
Based on the Example of Ecclesiastical Art: Wooden Sculptures from the 13th Century to the First Half of the 15th Century”.