Two Tau Croziers: Coptic or Armenian?
By Sharon Weadick
These two tau croziers are unique in the National Museum of Ireland’s
collection and are recorded as being Coptic in origin. They were purchased by
the museum in 1906 at auction at Sotheby’s in London. Both were transferred from
the Art and Industry Division to the Irish Antiquities Division in 1948.
Description of the croziers
The entries in the museum’s register read:
1948:6 (A&I 1906:66)
“Tau cross; bronze gilt head, formed as two serpent affrontés; the staff
in three parts (screwed together and to the head) of ebony carved with
interlacing, inlaid with bone, and mounted with silver” and was "used by the
bishops in the Coptic church".
1948:7 (A&I 1906:138)
“Tau cross carved, carved ivory head - two serpent affrontés on one side,
the crucifixion on the other the Blessed Virgin (Mater Dolorosa); the shaft of
ebony in three lengths screwed together; bone ferrule. Christian
The head of both croziers takes the form of a tau cross carved with two
serpent heads on either side. The symbolism of the serpents and the tau cross is
a biblical reference to a passage from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9).
Moses makes a bronze snake and mounts it on a pole to cure the Israelites of
snake bites inflicted on them by the “fiery serpents“ as punishment for
complaining against Yahweh (God).
What is a crozier?
A crozier is a hooked staff carried by bishops or abbots as a symbol of
pastoral office and authority. In Western Christianity, the crozier head is
usually shaped like a shepherds crook; in the Eastern Church the head is more
commonly Tau-shaped (Lucas, 1973, 114).
What is a tau cross?
Allegedly derived from the Greek capital ‘T’, the origins of the tau cross,
crux ansata or the cross of St. Anthony can also be traced back to the
ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic Ankh, meaning the “key of Life” or “the Key
of the Nile”. In the 3rd century A.D. the tau cross became affiliated with St.
Anthony, one of the founding fathers of the ascetic monastic movement within the
Questioning the origins of the two croziers
Unfortunately, the information in the museum’s registers is rather scant,
especially regarding the exact find place and date of the croziers. It is likely
that both descriptions were transcribed from Sotheby’s catalogue after they were
acquired by the museum.
While carrying out research for this article it became apparent that tau-head
croziers are, in fact, quite rare. There is one tau crozier (RIA1901:61) from
Ireland on exhibition in the museum. However, recent research has shown that it
is more likely to be a T-shaped crozier fitting rather than a tau crozier head
(Murray, 2007, 80-81). Searches for ‘Coptic tau croziers’ in the on-line
catalogues for The British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum, The Louvre and the
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) all failed to produce any results.
Coptic or Armenian?
On examining the croziers two things became immediately clear: the croziers
appear to be no more than a few hundred years old, and the script of the
inscriptions does not appear to be Coptic.
On further examination it became clear that they are remarkably similar to
the 17th and 18th century tau croziers from Armenia in the V&A collection.
They bear a particular resemblance to the ivory
tau crozier head and the silver tau
crozier which belong to the V&A’s Armenian
collection. Like the two tau croziers in the Museum collection, the tau
croziers/ crozier heads from the V&A are also formed by two serpent
affrontés curling or facing up rather than down as sometimes seen on other tau
It now seems that the Museum register entries for the croziers were incorrect
and that they cannot be Coptic in origin. The details regarding the croziers’
origins appear to have gone unchecked after they were acquired by the museum –
leaving this error in their records undetected until now. Further research will
be required to confirm whether or not the two tau croziers are of Armenian
origin and date. The Museum has a very small collection of ten Armenian objects.
However, this recent discovery could greatly enrich that collection.
These objects are not currently on public display as they are part of the
European and Irish
croziers are on display in the Medieval
Ireland exhibition on the first floor in the National
Museum of Ireland – Archaeology on Kildare Street.
Pastoral Staff from People of Ar Blog
Pieces from Cairo's Coptic Museum
& Albert Museum's Ivory Armenian Tau Head
& Albert Museum's Silver Armenian Tau Head
Healey, T. 1977. ‘The symbolism of the Cross in Sacred and Secular Art’ in
Leonardo, 10, No. 4 (Autumn), 289-294.
Lucas, A.T. 1973. Treasures of Ireland. Dublin.
Murray, Griffin. 2007. ‘Insular-type croziers: their construction and
characteristic’ in R. Moss (ed.), Making and Meaning in Insular Art:
proceedings of the fifth international Conference on Insular Art, 79-94.
With thanks to Mary Cahill curator of the Museum’s Egyptian, Gold
collections for her comments.
Thanks also to Valerie Dowling and Anne Keenan from the Photographic
Department for the use of the image of the tau crozier (RIA1901:61).