Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Monday 08 March |
Saint of the Day: St. John of God
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

Shell crosses from the Holy Land: a 500-year-old tradition


Photo by Lucien de Guise

Lucien de Guise - published on 02/16/21

Franciscan friars first developed the technique of making crosses inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

For the first step on the long journey of the crucifix, could there be anywhere better to begin than Jerusalem?For centuries, the city of Christ’s Passion has attracted pilgrims from around the world. For most of that time it was a difficult and dangerous journey.

Mother-of-pearl crosses

Then, as now, most visitors returned home with souvenirs. Crosses inlaid with mother-of-pearl have always been a favorite. There are few places as expert with this inflexible material as the Holy Land. Franciscan friars from Italy developed the technique there at least 500 years ago. The shells came from the Red Sea.

After centuries of refinement, even the critical eye of the American Journal of Science and Arts wrote admiringly about their output in 1837: “The inlaying of mother of pearl has been brought to high perfection in Jerusalem.” It remains an important cottage industry in Palestine, run mainly by local Christian families.

This cross with its matching Corpus Christi is from the 19th century and would have been an item de luxe. It is only nine inches high and yet the weight in your hand reveals its quality. Unlike most of these wares, which use minimal mother-of-pearl, the olive wood underneath this one is entirely covered. The cross has a sepulchral coldness to the touch, making it a tactile memento mori as well as a memento of the Passion.

Photo by Lucien de Guise

The engraving on the reverse is expressively highlighted with black ink.

Photo by Lucien de Guise

Among the most vivid symbols of the Arma Christi are the veil of Veronica and the robe of Jesus. The sword on the right is a reminder of the Garden of Gethsemane. It provides a regional flavor as the artisan has seen it as a curved scimitar of the type that became popular much later in the history of the Middle East. The Bible doesn’t describe the shape of the sword used by the impetuous St Peter when he cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. This was left to the local imagination. Whatever the sword looked like, the incident is a reminder of Our Lord’s mercy and healing powers. After reprimanding Peter for his actions, Jesus reattached the severed ear. This would be His last miracle before the Resurrection.

The virtual Museum of the Cross

This crucifix is from the collection of the Museum of the Cross, the first institution dedicated to the diversity of the most powerful and far-reaching symbol in history. After ten years of preparation, the museum was almost ready to open; then came COVID-19. In the meantime, the virtual museum is starting an instagram account to engage with Aleteia readers and the stories of their own crucifixes: @crossXmuseum


Read more:
How the cross came to be the symbol of Christianity

ArtFaithHoly Land
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Philip Kosloski
10 Mysterious things to know about guardian angels
Philip Kosloski
5 Important things to notice in a Catholic church
Philip Kosloski
10 Things you should know about St. Joseph
Kathleen N. Hattrup
Do you know the 3 words that describe God’s style? Pope Fra...
Ziggurat of Ur
John Burger
Pope’s trip to Iraq is like a pilgrimage to a Holy Land
Kathleen N. Hattrup
Pope calls us to Abraham’s hope: Full text of address in Ur
Pope in Iraq: Schedule and key events
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.