Look at this crucifix,” said Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. He pushed a book across the table and pointed to a photograph of a silver sculpture of Jesus nailed to the cross. The statuette was made in tenth-century A.D. Georgia, on the east coast of the Black Sea. Jesus’ face, hair and waistcloth, as well as the cross itself, are covered with gold; Jesus’ head tilts softly to his right, while his body is taut and angular, as if stretched on a rack.
“There’s no Byzantine equivalent for that,” Vikan continued. “No Greek or Russian would have made an icon in relief. The theology of the sacred image put a premium on transparency, a layer of paint on a piece of wood, for example. The Georgians acknowledged the weight of the body; they wanted it to come out from the surface—the comfort of a three-dimensional image sculpted in precious metal. It’s absolutely astounding.”