The Dagmar Cross – The Dano-Byzantine Connection

March 27, 2021

The Dagmar Cross – The Dano-Byzantine Connection

Saint Bendt’s Church in Ringsted

The Royal Cross

In 1683 Provst (Dean) Christian Blichfeld of Sct. Bendt’s Church in Ringsted wanted to make room for a gravesite for his wife inside the church, this meant the partial decommission of two medieval royal graves. Those of Queen Dagmar and Queen Richizas. It was apparently in one of the damaged graves that a Byzantine pectoral cross was found. 

The cross was handed over to The Royal Chamber of Art in 1895, and it was around this time that the cross became associated with the mediaeval Queen Dagmar (She was the wife of King Valdemar II The Victorious and she died in 1212), who had been a very prominent character in Danish medieval history. Modern scholars however find it more likely that the cross came from the grave of her sister in law Queen Richizas (Richizas died in 1220 and was the sister of the Danish king as well as consort of the Swedish King).

The Cross itself

The reliquary cross depicts a crucifix on one side, and Christ as well as the Byzantine saints St Basil, St John Chrysostom, Mary the Virgin and St John the Apostle-Evangelist on the other.

The cross is a so-called reliquary cross crafted in the period 1000-1200. It is made in byzantine style and is presumed crafted within the Byzantine Empire, or at least in parts of Eastern Europe under Byzantine influence. The cross is made from gold and enamel, and has a small cavity where a small relic could be placed (like a small piece of the true cross). On one side it depicts a crucifix and the other side portraits of Christ in the center, surrounded by portraits of St Basil, St John Chrysostom, Mary the Virgin and St John the Apostle.

The Cross is on display at the National Museum of Denmark.

Modern Uses

Modern Danes are blissfully unaware of the cross byzantine past, but rather views it as a national symbol with roots in the Danish medieval period. It is a traditional gift for baptism and confirmation, and every year thousands of replicas are purchased in gold and silver. Many versions are stylized, though some stay true to the Byzantine imagery. These days however the Byzantine saints are often replaced by an inscription of The Lord’s Prayer in the form used in The Church of Denmark.

How did it become so popular?

In Denmark during the Middle Ages, the myth of Dagmar as a particularly pious and beautiful queen arose. Her real name was actually Margaretha of Bohemia but her nickname Dragomir was Danishized to Dagmar. Many Danish medieval folk songs celebrate Dagmar (who died very young, and according to popular belief during childbirth), and contrasts her with Valdemar II’s second wife, Queen Berengaria of Portugal (ca. 1197-1221), who is portrayed as harsh and evil. The folk songs contributed to Dagmar becoming one of the most famous Danish queens from the Middle Ages, and that historians in the 17th and 18th centuries were particularly interested in her. When national romanticism flourished in the 19th century, interest reached new heights, not least because of the positive portrayal of Dagmar in Bernhard Severin Ingemann’s popular historical novels.    

In 1863, Frederick VII donated a copy of the cross to Princess Alexandra, daughter of the later King Christian IX, when she married the Prince of Wales, the later Edward VII of England . In this connection, the original cross was exhibited at Amalienborg, and the newspapers wrote enthusiastically about the cross, which was linked to Dagmar. Interest in the cross did not diminish when Alexandra wore the cross at her coronation as Queen of England in 1902.

One wonder is a similar cross was given to Alexandra’s sister princess Dagmar, though she would change her name to Maria Feodorovna when she moved to Russia to marry the future Tsar.

Traditional Danish folksong about Queen Dagmar

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