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Experts puzzled by rare Spanish cross found on site of English Maryland colony

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Photo Courtesy of Historic St. Mary's City

J-P Mauro - published on 02/02/22

The Caravaca cross originated in Spain, so how did 17th-century English colonists have one in Maryland?

In 2019, archaeologists unearthed the oldest fort in Maryland, located in St. Mary’s City. The discovery led to a two-year excavation that revealed the historic St. Mary’s Fort, dated to 1634. Now, a rare 17th-century Caravaca cross has been found at the ruin, but it’s unclear how or why the Spanish styled cross found its way to the English American colonies. 

Caravaca cross legend

This style of cross was developed in the Spanish city of Caravaca de la Cruz, which was named the fifth Holy City in 1998. In the 13th century, the city was occupied by the Moorish king Zeyt-Abuzeyt, who took an interest in the Christian faith.According to legend, he ordered a missionary priest named Don Gínes Pérez Chirinos de Cuenca to demonstrate the procedure of consecration. 

Don Gines was reluctant, as only the faithful were generally present for such holy matters, but he eventually agreed and gathered all he needed: an altar draped in a pall cloth, bread, and wine. One thing he was missing, however, was a cross. While Don Gines explained this to the king, a pair of angels flew through the window and placed the Caravaca cross on the altar. 

Sanctuario de la Vera Cruz

Spanish tradition claims this cross was made from the True Cross, on which Jesus was Crucified. It is housed in Sanctuario de la Vera Cruz, where it is venerated in perpetual jubilee. The Caravaca cross is a patriarchal cross in design, which features two cross-bars instead of one. On a Caravaca crucifix, the arms of Christ are nailed to the uppermost bar, which makes it different from Orthodox patriarchal crosses. 

For around 800 years, the Sanctuario de la Vera Cruz has been a popular pilgrimage spot for the faithful, especially in Spain. In that time, the Caravaca cross has become a symbol of the region’s faith and is prevalent in jewelry and Catholic paraphernalia of the region. The Bay Net notes that it is said Caravaca crosses were distributed in times of pandemic to ward off outbreaks, or to commemorate the end of an outbreak.

St. Mary’s Fort cross

Still, as prevalent as the Caravaca cross was in Spain, it is unclear why one would appear in an English settlement in the New World. Experts at the site are questioning this, as the majority of documented settlers in St. Mary’s City were English Catholics who fled their homeland to avoid persecution, as well as some Irish Catholics.

SM News Net posits that it could have belonged to an English colonist or Jesuit missionary who had previously visited Spain. Another theory is that Spanish colonists had traded the cross to indigenous people of the American South and it slowly made its way north through other barters and trades. 

In comments supplied by Archeology.org, archaeologist Travis Parno of Historic St. Mary’s City said: 

“Given the [tense] relationships between Spain and England it’s always interesting to find a Spanish object.” Parno thinks it may have been acquired by a colonist through trade with local people who had contact with Spanish missionaries. “We know that Spanish material culture, particularly religious material culture, was … traded in … networks up and down the East coast.”

More investigation needs to be conducted before experts can determine why the Spanish-style cross was present in an English colony. Until then, it remains a fascinating Christian mystery at one of America’s oldest archaeological sites.

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