One of the gems of the Vatican's priceless religious art collection _ a 6th century reliquary containing what is revered as fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified _ has been restored to its Byzantine-era glory.
The Vatican on Thursday unveiled the restored Crux Vaticana, a foot-high (40-centimeter-high) jewel-encrusted golden cross containing what tradition holds are shards of Jesus' cross inside.
The Associated Press was given an early look at the piece, and Byzantine art experts said the restoration rendered the cross much closer to what it would have looked like at the time the Byzantine Emperor Justin II gave it to the people of Rome.
Most significantly, the restoration corrected a botched 19th century restoration that threatened to corrode the piece. And it replaced the brightly colored gems that were added in previous centuries with the large, imperfect pearls that are emblematic of Byzantine-era imperial masterpieces, said restorer Sante Guido.
A circle of 12 pearls now surrounds the relic, and pearls around the cross' edge now alternate with emeralds and sapphires _ the two other gems most often associated with Byzantine emperors, he said.
While there are purported fragments of Christ's cross in churches around the world _ including at Paris' Notre Dame and even across town at Rome's Holy Cross basilica _ the Crux Vaticana is considered the oldest reliquary of the cross. It is the crown in the Vatican's Treasury of St. Peter's collection of religious and historic artifacts.
In addition to the relic inside, the cross itself is an important piece of early Christian art. Measuring 40 centimeters by 31 centimeters (15.75 inches by 11.81 inches) it's a rare example of an imperial gift and an expression of the emperor's Christian faith. Across the piece is written in Latin: "With the wood with which Christ conquered man's enemy, Justin gives his help to Rome and his wife offers the ornamentation."
"It's the most important reliquary of the 'true cross' that we have," Guido told the AP. "It's particularly important because it's the only reliquary that came from an emperor, so there are various levels of religious and historic significance."
For centuries, the cross was used in the Vatican's most solemn ceremonies at Christmas and Easter. But 1,500 years of candle wax and smoke had dulled the gems and the cross' warm golden hue _ grime that has been removed following a two-year restoration.
The work was paid for by an anonymous donor who didn't want the pricetag to be made public, officials said.
Ioli Kalavrezou, a Byzantine art history professor at Harvard University who has taught classes on the cross, said the restoration clearly rendered the cross closer to what it would have looked like when it was presented to Romans sometime between 565-578.
"I can't say it's exactly as it would've been, but it comes much closer to what an object like that would've looked like," she said in a phone interview.
The exact circumstances of why Justin gave Rome the relic are unclear. Guido noted that even though the eastern Byzantine Empire gained prominence in Constantinople after the 476 fall of the Roman Empire, Rome remained a religious capital because it was the "city of martyrs" _ where Saints Peter and Paul were buried.
Emperor Justin clearly wanted to give the pope and people of Rome "a recognition of Rome as a city of Christianity," Guido said. At the time, most parts of Christ's cross were in the hands of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople after being moved from Jerusalem in the 4th century, Kalavrezou noted.
"This is one of the earliest examples of this imperial gift, where he (Justin) shows the power he has in his hands _ to control the most important relic in Christiandom and to have the luxury to make a gift of that," she said from Washington, where she is a visiting scholar at the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine research library.
The cross will be on public display inside St. Peter's Basilica through April 12.