The Unique Cross of St. Euphrosyne: a Revered Relic and a Masterpiece of Ancient Art

Last week we posted an article about Saint Euphrosyne of Polotsk, the great Belarusian saint. Today, we are going to tell you about the Cross of St. Euphrosyne, which is a revered relic and a masterpiece of ancient art.

The six-point Holy Table Cross was made in 1161 by a local jeweler named Lazar Bohša for the Holy Savior Church of Polotsk Convent to the order of Saint Euphrosyne, the abbess of that convent.

The cross was 20” tall. It was made of cypress. The jeweler used cloisonne enamel, a technique well-known in Byzantium (but not in Polotsk lands) to cover the wooden base with sheets of gold and gilded silver with images on them. The exquisite ornament made by Lazar was on par with precious gemstones and pearls.

The craftsman portrayed the Lord Jesus Christ; the Mother of God; St. John the Baptist; Archangels Gabriel and Michael; Evangelists Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke; Saint Euphrosyne of Alexandria who was our St. Euphrosyne’s heavenly patroness; as well as Great Martyr George the Victory-Bearer and Martyr Sophia who were the heavenly patrons of the abbess’ parents on the front side of the cross. He put small icons of St. Stephen, St. Panteleimon, and St. Demetrius; Holy Apostles Peter and Paul; and the Three Holy Hierarchs (St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Theologian) on the reverse side of the cross.

Great Christian relics, such as a piece of the Lord’s Cross with a drop of his Blood; pieces of the stones of the Lord’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Mother of God; particles of relics of Protomartyr Stephen and Great Martyr Panteleimon; a drop of blood of St. Demetrius of Thessalonica were inserted in special reliquaries on the cross. Just imagine how they managed to bring all those relics to Polotsk back in the 12th century!

The cross has inscriptions, too, which makes it a masterpiece of ancient calligraphy as well as art. One of the inscriptions is a rare case of a craftsman leaving his own name on a work of church art, “Lord help thy servant Lazar named Bohša, who made this cross of the Holy Savior and Euphrosyne.”

The handwriting is typical of the first half of the 12th century (similar to the Galician Gospel of 1144), which allowed researchers to prove its authenticity. Thus, the Cross of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk is a first-rate treasure of the Old Russian culture.

One of the inscriptions turned out to be some kind of a will of St. Euphrosyne herself: “May this cross never be taken away from the convent, not by means of purchase or as a gift. If anyone disobeys it and takes it out of the convent, may the Holy Cross not be his helper neither in this life nor in the afterlife.”

Unfortunately, the prohibition was trespassed. The cross was relocated to Smolensk in the 13th century. It was returned to Polotsk by Ivan the Terrible. When Polotsk became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the convent was handed over to Catholics, while the cross was taken by the Orthodox and stayed in the St. Sophia Cathedral. Soon after the Union of Brest, the cathedral and the cross became property of the Uniates. It has been pointed out that Jesuits made several attempts to seize the cross from the Uniates. They sued the Uniates and even tried to steal the cross in exchange for a fake one but they didn’t succeed. During the 1812 war with Napoleon, the cross was immured into one of the walls of the cathedral and taken out only after the French troops left the Russian Empire.

When the Union was canceled in 1839, the cross was returned to the Orthodox. On May 23 (O. S.), 1842, the day of St. Euphrosyne, the cross was solemnly carried by a procession from the St. Sophia Cathedral back to the convent’s Holy Transfiguration Church to be stored forever in the cell of Saint Euphrosyne, located near the choir loft of the said church.

When the Soviets began their requisition campaign in 1921-1922, the cross was transferred to Polotsk financial department. Many people were terrified by that because they knew how exceptional and unique this cross was. In 1928 the nationalized relic was taken to Minsk, then, in 1929, to Mahilioŭ History Museum. The cross was on display in the museum first but the authorities didn’t like the fact that people crossed themselves when they approached the cross, so they locked it in a safe box of the regional Communist Party headquarters. Our country was invaded by Germans in 1941. Mahilioŭ was occupied. The Soviet authorities hadn’t managed to evacuate all valuable items from the museum, and the Cross of St. Euphrosyne disappeared mysteriously. There have been quite a few guesses as to what happened to the relic but its location remains unknown.

An officially endorsed replica of the Cross was made with the blessing of Metropolitan Philaret, the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, in 1992-97. The replica was made using the same methods and techniques and contains the same relics as the original Cross by Lazar Bohša. It was possible thanks to the fact that the cross was thoroughly photographed for the record in 1896. The craftsman who restored the Cross was Nikolay Kuzmich, a jeweler from Brest. The relic was brought to St. Euphrosyne Convent, where it has been stored ever since, in 1997 on the eve of the Exaltation of Holy Cross. A year later, His Holiness Alexis II, the Patriarch of Moscow, performed the rite of Exaltation of the restored Cross.

About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.

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