The Altarpiece of the Holy Cross, Adam Elsheimer
Adam Elsheimer
The Altarpiece of the Holy Cross
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This work consists of multiple parts

Adam Elsheimer

The Altarpiece of the Holy Cross, ca. 1603 – ca. 1605

134.0 x 107.0 x 14.0 cm
Physical Description
Oil on copper
Inventory Number
2024; 2054; 2118; 2119; 2131; 2140; 2142
Acquired in 1950 and 1955 (inv. no. 2024, 2054), in 1971 and 1978 by Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V. (2118, 2119, 2140), in 1975 by Städelscher Museums-Vereins e.V. with funds provided by Imprimatur Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft mbH and through a fundraising campaign (2131), and in 1981 as a gift from Imprimatur Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft mbH (2142)
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About the Work

Between 1950 and 1981, the Städel succeeded in reuniting the parts of Elsheimer’s greatest work, which was documented but presumed lost. The modern frame of this domestic altarpiece was reconstructed after sketches made in 1612. While the central panel shows the exaltation of the Cross, the six scenes around it recount the legend of the finding of the Cross by St Helena and its later return to Jerusalem by Emperor Heraclius. With their striking compositions and dramatic lighting, the panels represent special highlights of Elsheimer’s late period.

About the Acquisition

When the Städelsches Kunstinstitut was founded, the Frankfurt artist Adam Elsheimer immediately became the focus of its collecting policy and research interest. Johann Friedrich Städel himself believed he owned a work by the famous Baroque fine artist. Especially after the Second World War, intensive efforts began with regard to the artist, culminating in an Elsheimer exhibition in 1966. In those days, no one could have foreseen that a small miracle would soon take place. Between 1971 and 1981 the Städel was able to reunite the seven-part Altar of the Holy Cross, familiar from archive material, by purchasing the five remaining panels scattered across the world. The Museums-Verein, which had been founded in 1899 and reorganised in 1957, played the main role in financing the purchase with its specific fundraising campaigns.


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Work Data

Property and Acquisition

Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Picture Copyright
Public Domain
Acquired in 1950 and 1955 (inv. no. 2024, 2054), in 1971 and 1978 by Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V. (2118, 2119, 2140), in 1975 by Städelscher Museums-Vereins e.V. with funds provided by Imprimatur Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft mbH and through a fundraising campaign (2131), and in 1981 as a gift from Imprimatur Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft mbH (2142)

Work Content

Motifs and References

Main Motif
Persons Shown
Associated Persons and Institutions
Illustrated Passage
  • siehe Einzeldarstellung
Associated Source
  • Historiarum ab inclinatione Romani imperii decades III (Biondo, Flavio; um 1440 geschrieben, erstmals 1483 in Venedig veröffentlicht)


  • 11D411 legend of the True Cross
  • 11HH(HELENA)4 non-miraculous activities and events ~ St. Helena
  • 11HH(HELENA) empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great; possible attributes: model of church, (royal) crown, crown of thorns, cross, three nails
  • 46C(+621) traffic and transport (+ getting in; mounting; embarkation)
  • 11D41161 Judas, a Jew, put into a well by Helena, mother of Constantine ~ legend of the True Cross
  • 52EE1 Asking, Question, Interrogation
  • 44G253 interrogation of arrested person
  • 11D4116 the finding of the True Cross
  • 11D41163 Helena identifies the True Cross: a human corpse is restored to life when it touches the cross
  • 11D4117 the raising of the True Cross, Exaltation of the Holy Cross
  • 11D411721 emperor Heraclius' entry into Jerusalem, riding on an ass or on horseback ~ legend of the True Cross
  • 11D41172 Heraclius' entry into Jerusalem: as asked by an angel, the emperor, stripped of his royal robes, carries the True Cross into the city
  • 73E791 coronation of Mary by God the Father
  • 11G angels
  • 11H saints
  • 11I14 other groups of prophets
  • 11H(AMBROSE) Ambrose, bishop of Milan; possible attributes: beehive, cradle with baby, three-knotted scourge
  • 11H(AUGUSTINE) Augustine, bishop of Hippo; possible attributes: arrows piercing his breast, book, child with spoon, flaming heart, heart (pierced with arrows), pen
  • 11H(BENEDICT) Benedict of Nurcia, abbot of Monte Cassino and founder of the Benedictine Order; possible attributes: aspergillum, book, cup (sometimes broken), raven with loaf, sieve (or tray)
  • 11H(DOMINIC) Dominic(us) Guzman of Calerueja, founder of the Order of Preachers (or Dominican (Black) Friars; possible attributes: book, dog with flaming torch, lily, loaf of bread, rosary, star
  • 11H(FRANCIS) founder of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), Francis(cus) of Assisi; possible attributes: book, crucifix, lily, skull, stigmata
  • 11H(JEROME) the monk and hermit Jerome (Hieronymus); possible attributes: book, cardinal's hat, crucifix, hour-glass, lion, skull, stone
  • 11HH(CATHERINE) the virgin martyr Catherine of Alexandria; possible attributes: book, crown, emperor Maxentius, palm-branch, ring, sword, wheel
  • 11H(LAURENCE) the martyr and deacon Laurence of Rome; possible attributes: book, censer, cross, dalmatic, gridiron, palm, purse (or cup with golden coins)
  • 11H(GREGORY) pope Gregory the Great; possible attributes: dove, emperor Trajan
  • 11H(SEBASTIAN) the martyr Sebastian; possible attributes: arrow(s), bow, tree-trunk
  • 11H(STEPHEN) the deacon and (proto)martyr Stephen; possible attributes: censer, stones
  • 71C1 story of Abraham
  • 71P the story of the prophet Daniel; his visions and prophecies
  • 71H story of David
  • 71C2 story of Isaac
  • 11I62(JONAH) male persons from the Old Testament (JONAH) (JONAH)
  • 11H(JOSEPH) the foster-father of Christ, Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary; possible attributes: flowering rod or wand, lily, carpenter's tools
  • 11HH(MARY MAGDALENE) the penitent harlot Mary Magdalene; possible attributes: book (or scroll), crown, crown of thorns, crucifix, jar of ointment, mirror, musical instrument, palm-branch, rosary, scourge
  • 11H(LUKE) Luke the evangelist; possible attributes: book, (winged) ox, portrait of the Virgin, surgical instruments, painter's utensils, scroll
  • 11H(MARK) Mark (Marcus) the evangelist, and bishop of Alexandria; possible attributes: book, (winged) lion, pen and inkhorn, scroll
  • 11I62(ADAM & EVE) Adam and Eve (not in biblical context)

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