Cross of Lothair II

Large, colorful gems ornament this magnificent Ottonian cross, likely made for emperor Otto III.

Cross of Lothair II, c. 1000 (Ottonian), oak core, gold, silver, gems, pearls, Augustus spolia cameo, cloisonné enamel, 50 x 38.5 x 2.3 cm, base dates to the 14th century, dedicated by Otto III (Aachen Cathedral Treasury Germany). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Additional resources

Eliza Garrison, “Otto III at Aachen,” Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, volume 3, number 1 (2010), pp. 83–137.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”crosslothairii1000ottonianoakgold,”]

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] We are in the treasury in Aachen in Germany, a city that had been the imperial capital for the Carolingians and later the Ottonians, and we’re looking at one of the real treasures, a magnificent jeweled cross, that was almost certainly made for the emperor Otto III.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:20] The treasury was a historical part of the palace chapel built by the emperor Charlemagne around the year 800. Emperors would donate objects to the treasury, and one of those is what we’re looking at, the “Cross of Lothair.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] The cross is magnificent. It is covered with large gems of every color, many of which had been carved in the ancient world and are simply reused here. This is a kind of spolia, a reuse of ancient objects. They bring with them not only their own monetary value, but that preciousness is enhanced because of the lineage to the ancient world.

[1:06] In the center is a very large cameo from antiquity that shows the pagan Roman emperor, Augustus.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] It is rather astounding to have this emperor, who lived a thousand years before this cross was made, on this Christian image.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] Otto III was an emperor, just like Augustus, and he wanted to reclaim the prestige and the power of the ancient Roman emperors.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] Even more than that, Otto III sought the renewal of the Roman Empire, and he actually made Rome the capital of his Holy Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] Otto III is one of a number of Ottonians, that is, a dynasty of rulers that came to power after the Carolingians.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] What we see here is Otto III not only connecting himself back to the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, but also connecting himself to a Carolingian emperor, Lothair II. We see the crystal seal of Lothair II toward the base of the cross. So here is Otto III, very self-consciously connecting himself back to ancient Rome and also Lothair II, a Carolingian emperor.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] Lothair must have been representing himself in the likeness of an ancient Roman emperor himself, so Otto III is just continuing that tradition.

Dr. Harris: [2:26] The reuse of forms, like stones, is typical of the Ottonians, who were anxious to connect themselves to this broad European history of rulership.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] This is a technique that even the ancient Romans had used. The 4th century emperor Constantine, who during the medieval period was understood to be Christian, himself borrowed sculptures from earlier emperors that were deemed to be good emperors and put them together on his enormous triumphal arch. And so Otto III is continuing in the footsteps of these earlier rulers.

Dr. Harris: [3:00] Let’s take a look at the other side of the cross.

Dr. Zucker: [3:02] At first glance, the other side of the cross looks almost plain, but then the light catches the fine lines that have been engraved into the surface and we see Christ hanging from the cross. His body is pulled down by gravity. We can see the pain within the posture of the body.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] Blood spurts from his side. On either side of the arms we see the sun and the moon, and above, the hand of God, who’s reaching down with a wreath to crown Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] The triumph of good over evil can be seen in the form of a serpent.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] It’s interesting to think about these two very different sides of the cross. One which is so colorful and so three-dimensional, and this side, which is flat, and to me this feels like the earthly side, Christ suffering here on Earth as a human being. The other side seems to me like it represents the idea of paradise, of eternal life.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] That’s so interesting, because I completely understand that perspective but I have a slightly different reading. I see the jeweled side, the opulence, as an expression of earthly power, and here I see something that’s more abstract, more ethereal, heavenly. Of course, there is no right answer, but the contrast is striking.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Cross of Lothair II," in Smarthistory, August 3, 2023, accessed April 20, 2024,