Collection Vatican Treasury

ON THE COVER: The infancy of Jesus is depicted in gold and enamel on this cross-shaped reliquary, commissioned by Pope Paschal I (817–824) to hold fragments of the True Cross. The seven scenes on the cross represent (from top to bottom) the Annunciation, the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, the Journey to Bethlehem (left of center), the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi (right of center), the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Baptism of Jesus.

Several unusual details indicate these are not straight representations of New Testament stories: For example, midwives, never mentioned in the Bible, bathe Jesus in the Nativity scene, and a young man accompanies Joseph and the pregnant Mary on their journey to Bethlehem, although the Gospels indicate they traveled alone. The startling identity of the young man (a son of Joseph) and the role of the midwives are revealed in the early Christian Apocrypha—a collection of gospels, epistles, apocalypses and other texts that did not make the cut into the New Testament.

In “The Christian Apochrypha: Preserved in Art,” David R. Cartlidge argues that this cross and countless other Christian artworks demonstrate the church’s sanction of these apocryphal stories.