Crosses and Crucifixes
We have St. Helena to thank for our crosses and crucifixes. When the mother of the Emperor Constantine was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326, she is said to have uncovered the True Cross on which Christ was crucified and sent fragments of it back to Constantinople and Rome. Whatever the truth of this tale, it, certainly, made believers aware of the Cross as a physical object, something they could hold in their hands, which connected them in a material way with the Passion of Christ.
By the Middle Ages, there were enough reputed pieces of Helena’s archaeological find circulating around Europe for scoffers to claim a whole church could be built from them. Those not fortunate enough to have access to True Cross reliquaries had to make do with copies of the cross on which Christ died. And so, crosses in various sculpted forms came to hold a special place in the devotional life of Christians in the West, which was unthinkable among the Eastern Orthodox, who rejected three-dimensional sacred art as a form of idolatry.
Christians may accept the Cross as their defining emblem, but the moment you add the figure of the dying Christ to make a crucifix, the theological debate begins. Early representations of the Crucifixion emphasized Christ’s divinity, showing the Savior nailed to the Cross with eyes open, triumphing over death. Down the centuries, images of a suffering Jesus of ever greater realism found favor among Christians, seeking to identify more fully with his humanity. After the Reformation, militant Protestants accused Roman Catholics of paying too much attention to Christ’s death and left their crosses bare to proclaim his Resurrection.
Whatever else might be said about the sad state of disunity in Christendom, it has, certainly, fostered extraordinary diversity in Cross and Crucifixion imagery! The pieces displayed here are a small sampling of this very rich genre of contemporary sacred art. There are original creations by established and “outsider” artists and folk art pieces of traditional design. One crucifix has graced the pastoral staff of Pope John Paul II, while another cross was carved to be carried by Ethiopian Orthodox clerics. Some have stories to tell, while the origins of others remain a mystery.
I have arranged the explanatory texts for these cross images in alphabetical order, according to the name of their makers (whenever known), their countries of origin, or by descriptive titles.
Fernando Arellano. Mexican Artist Arellano’s folk art piece pays homage to the traditional practice of attaching small metal amulets and charms, called milagros (from the Spanish word for “miracles”) to church altars, sacred statues, and crosses as offerings for healing, protection, and guidance; or as token gifts for answered prayers. Nailed to this cross of wood is an artistic arrangement of tiny eyes, ears, arms, legs, and other body parts, representing healings; miniscule houses, ears of corn, fowl and livestock, associated with personal prosperity; and miniature images of praying hands, the Eucharistic chalice, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Emile Bluteau. Every time French-Canadian Folk Artist Emile Bluteau carves a naif-styled crucifix out of wood, he keeps alive a sacred art tradition as old as his native Quebec. When Explorer Jacques Cartier first claimed the territory for the King of France in 1534, he raised a 10-meter high cross on the shores of Gaspe Bay. As many as 3,000 wayside crosses can still be found throughout this French-speaking province of Canada, set up as boundary line and road markers; outdoor shrines; memorials to the dead; or votive offerings put up in thanks for answered prayers or invoking God’s protection on farms and fields. The crosses of Quebec come in three traditional variations: plain crosses, sometimes decorated with a heart or with flowers; crosses showing the instruments of Christ’s Passion; and crosses with the body of the Crucified Christ. The two Bluteau wood carvings in the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection belong to this third category. The greenish-blue bird atop one crucifix represents the cock that crowed when Peter denied Christ, a symbol for the Apostle seen on church steeples across the province. Bluteau makes his wood carvings at his home in Wickham in Southern Quebec during the long winter months. Then, with the change of seasons, he loads his truck with boxes of his wooden creations and sells them at the famous farmers’ market in Lachute
Gerald Anthony Coles (1929-2004). Known for his expressive monotypes and woodcuts of the human figure, English Artist Coles was also an accomplished designer of stained glass, who began his career in a studio, making church windows and ecclesiastical furnishings. The images of The Crucifixion and the robed Christ on the Cross, most likely, date from this workshop period in the late 1940s and may have been used as a template for an architectural piece. Although the image appears to be carved into the wood, it is actually a pen and ink drawing on a mahogany veneer cut-out.
Richard W. Cummings. An art professor at College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Cummings creates, mostly, abstract sculptures out of found objects, letting their shapes define the form of the work. I saw this assemblage piece at a Christians in the Visual Arts exhibition and was intrigued by the way one “found” object (in this case, a Christ figure detached from a crucifix) completely dominates our visible perception of the assembled piece because of its rich historic, symbolic, aesthetic, and spiritual associations. Cummings speaks of his art as "Bits of Redemption," which become visual metaphors for Christ's redeeming work. As his Artist Statement explains: "Pieces long forgotten and thought worthless are given value in their potential to unite with other redeemed bits to form a new aesthetic."
Cubist Christ. This beautifully simplified, geometric Jesus, whose outstretched arms form a cross, was carved out of a single piece of wood sometime in the 1950s. Its elegant, rhythmic line work suggests the hand of a master. A smudged ink signature on the base reads H. Oiticica. However tempting it might be to attribute the crucifix to Brazilian Modernist Helio Oiticica, the piece bears little resemblance to his non-figurative abstracts, and its provenance remains unknown.
Elizabeth Hoak-Doering. Pennsylvania-born Artist Hoak-Doering, who now lives on the island of Cyprus, created this painted cross for me from pieces of wood, washed up on the banks of the Delaware River at Philadelphia. She has decorated the piece with Mediterranean motifs: an olive tree, representing life and fertility, whose roots mingle with the weathered ends of the drift wood; two fish, traditional emblems of Christ; and a ripe pomegranate, torn open to show its ruby-red seeds, a symbol derived from the Greek myth of Persephone in the Underworld, signifying Christ’s sacrificial death and Resurrection.
Ethiopian Cross. Priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church carry ceremonial crosses like this carved wood piece in religious processions or when fulfilling their normal pastoral duties. They hold them out by the center staff to offer a blessing to the faithful, who, then, lean forward to kiss them. This version with its entwined rope motif (perhaps, symbolizing the two natures of Christ) is topped by a Coptic cross with bars of equal length, ending in three points, representing the Trinity. I bought this piece from an Ethiopian nun who kept a religious artifacts shop on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Pablo Flores. New Mexican Artist Flores was in and out of rehab centers, battling alcoholism and drug addiction, when he found his way to a mission. There, he says, “God let me come back to life again.” Now an ordained minister, Flores tries to make at least one cross a day out of what he calls “redeemed objects,” in this case, broken pieces of wood, a metal strainer, an old coffee can, and a sardine tin with a coiled key opener. Flores believes discarded things are like discarded lives. Just as he was saved by faith, they, too, can be transformed by art.
The Gonzales Brothers. This beautiful folk art crucifix by two Peruvian brothers, Javier and Pedro Gonzales, is a variant of traditional Arma Christi crosses, which display the “arsenal of arms” Christ used to defeat the Devil. Encrusted on the cross are little sculpted objects, mostly associated with Christ’s Passion, including Veronica’s Veil with the image of Christ; a bag with the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Christ; a scourge and rope whip, used by the Roman guards; the spear, which pierced Christ’s side and the sponge, filled with the vinegar mixture he was given to drink; the seamless robe of Christ, along with the dice the Golgotha guard cast for it; the cock, which crowed after Peter’s denial of Christ; the ladder used in the Deposition from the Cross; the knife from Jesus’ circumcision; a palm branch from the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem; and images of a Eucharistic chalice and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Gonzales brothers represent the fourth generation of artisans in their family and live in the Central Andes Mountains. They construct their pieces from the wood-like fibers of the maguey plant (also known as the century plant), associated with the Tree of Life in the mythology of the native peoples of Latin America.
Felix Jacques (1897-1966). There is little biographical material about this Art Deco designer of sacred art objects. He may have been French or Belgian, since there are markings from a Brussels foundry on his cast metal pieces. The sculpted torsos of the two crucifixes by Jacques in the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection are mounted on simple wooden crossbars. The Christ of Art Deco Crucifix has the same geometrically proportioned styling as Rio de Janeiro‘s Art Deco icon, the monumental stature of Christ the Redeemer. The figure of Christ in Crucifix in a Medieval Style recalls the elongated and contorted forms of Romanesque sacred sculpture in the tympanum carvings at the 12th century abbey in Vezelay, France.
Max Le Verrier (1891-1973): The French artist whose elegant sculptural pieces epitomize the Art Deco era started out at an agricultural school and first found work perfecting airplane engines in the early years of aviation. Le Verrier’s artistic abilities only came to fore after he was shot down behind enemy lines in World War I, and the captured pilot took up sculpting during three years in a German prison camp. After the war, Le Verrier opened a studio in Paris. His line of decorative pieces proved popular, and he won the gold prize at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris, which has defined the style known as Art Deco. Le Verrier was active in the French Resistance in World War II, escaped arrest, and returned to Paris after the war to find his workshop sacked. He rebuilt his business in the post war years, specializing in bronze works; many of them, religious objects inspired by medieval masterworks. The signed bronze crucifix in the Sacred Art Pilgrim collection dates from this period and shows the stylized line work typical of this Art Deco master. It reads on the back: “From about 1462.”
Liberation Theology Crucifix. The rough hewn facial features, emaciated body, and gnarled hands of this Christ on the Cross link the clay crucifix to a school of expressionist sacred folk art, associated with Peruvian Ceramic Artist Edilberto Merida and the Liberation Theology movement in the Roman Catholic Church of Latin America. Merida molded sacred figures out of clay, using impoverished farmers from among the Quechua people of the remote Andes Mountains as his models. He wanted his images of the suffering Christ to represent the marginalized and underprivileged everywhere in the Developing World and took inspiration from his compatriot, the Dominican Priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, whose influential book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, first published in 1971, called on the Church to become actively involved in the struggle against social, economic and political injustice and display a “preferential option for the poor.” Like the ceramic works of Merida, the Liberation Theology Crucifix in the Sacred Art Pilgrim collection combines elements of traditional Inca pottery and the Spanish Colonial style, an offshoot of Baroque art, which developed in Spain’s New World empire.
Nance Lopez. New Mexican Artist Lopez and her family are dedicated practitioners of the sacred folk art traditions of the American Southwest. Her husband, Roman Jose Lopez, is a noted painter of santos (images of the saints), and their four children have exhibited religious artwork at the annual Spanish Colonial Market in Santa Fe. Lopez, herself, works in mixed media in a more eclectic, contemporary style. Her syncretistic cross with its central image of Warner Sallman’s famous Head of Cross is embellished with a talisman of the Buddha, a prehistoric fertility totem, a pre-Columbian head, coins with Arabic and Chinese script, and a medallion, inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer.
Catherine Partain: Making crosses is the life mission of this assemblage artist from Birmingham, Alabama. Partain was coming to terms with a difficult divorce, seeking a new direction in life, when she awoke one night in the fall of 2008 and sensed a call from God to create crosses. She put together her first piece from odds and ends of broken furniture. Then, with the help of a metal-working friend, Partain learned how to weld together crosses from rusted railroad spikes. When her friend died suddenly, she found giving the pieces to his friends and family brought consolation and inner healing. Since then, Partain has created over 500 crosses out of everything from seashells and wood to stained glass shards and cable wire. She uses only scrap and found objects. “I use scrap because that’s how God uses us,” says Partain. “God sees beauty in the rusted out, useless junk we hold inside of us.” The Author of Salvation Cross in the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection has special meaning for the Alabama artist. She assembled it from a bench leg and bits of ornamental ironwork salvaged from her grandparents' home, destroyed in the April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes across the American South. For Partain, the cross is a sign of God’s unconditional love and symbolizes “victory over all the defeats we have suffered.”
Missionary Mary Proctor. A Self-Taught Artist, Proctor was a flea market junk dealer in Northern Florida, when a family tragedy moved her to make art. As she was struggling to come to terms with the deaths of her grandmother, aunt and uncle in a trailer fire, she received a vision from God and the call to create holy, healing art pieces. Proctor began painting images on doors from her junkyard and now crafts assembled works out of various collectibles. In The Cross, Jesus’ loin cloth is bejeweled with baubles, bangles and beads, attached to a wood panel with hot glue, and sprayed with gold paint. Mary sees art-making as her life ministry and signs all her creations with “Missionary Mary Proctor.”
Lawrence Reiter. My search for Lawrence Reiter turned up references (without photos) to a drawing and piece of textile art, both on religious themes, in the Cleveland Art Museum collection, as well as images of two paintings in a Post-Impressionist style, neither of them as cutting edge as this intriguing quasi-sculptural panel. Reiter’s “cross cluster” has been assembled from bits of wood, Indian fabric, polished stones, a faux turquoise necklace, gold paper cuts outs, mirrors, and a perfume vial.
Michee Ramil Remy (1970-2012). Haitian Folk Artist Michee Ramil Remy carried on a craft, identified with Croix-des-Bouquet, a market town northeast of Port-du-Prince, where local blacksmiths forged cast off iron bars and scrap metal crosses of unusual designs for the local cemetery. Remy learned the trade of metal-working as a teenager from his stepfather, Gabriel Bien-Aime, internationally known for his folk art pieces made from recycled oil drums. The 55 gallon barrels are flattened, then, cut and embossed with hammer, chisels and nails into semi-sculptural works like the hammered metal crucifix by Remy in the Sacred Art Pilgrim collection. Remy was one of three artists chosen in 2009 to create commemorative awards for the Clinton Global Initiative, a “think tank” founded by President Bill Clinton in 2005 to encourage international development projects with an environmental emphasis like the recycled metal art workshops of Croix-des-Bouquet. Religious art in Haiti is a syncretic mix of French, African, Roman Catholic, and Voodoo motifs. In Remy’s Crucifix, birds perch beside Christ on a cross from which a flower blooms, turning this traditional emblem of redemptive death into the Tree of Life.
Romanian Cemetery Cross. This carved wooden cross, vividly decorated in the Romanian national colors of blue, yellow and red, is a replica of a grave marker in the famous “Merry Cemetery” in Sapanta, crafted by an unknown Romanian folk artist. The “Merry Cemetery” gets its name from its hundreds of carved oak sculptures, inscribed with humorous poems or sardonic epitaphs. They often display portraits of the departed and representative scenes of their life or manner of death, rendered in a naif style. Wood-carver Stan Ioan Patras began making the markers on which this piece is based back in the mid 1930s, and the work is carried on today by his apprentices. The inscription on this plaque reads: “To those who are watching us--you will be here, too.”
Elizabeth Schickel-Robinson. The daughter of noted Sacred Artist William Schickel, Schickel-Robinson lives and works near the Grailville religious community in Loveland, Ohio, where she and her ten siblings were born and raised, and meets for prayer at the community's oratory, the iconic contemporary sanctuary her father created out of an old barn. Schickel-Robinson is an accomplished sacred artist in her own right, a painter, sculptor, mobile-maker, calligrapher, and stained-glass designer, and the family talent has passed to a third generation. Her son, Emil, is a painter; her daughter, Kristen, a set-designer. The cast-bronze, wood, and hammered metal crucifix Elizabeth created for me beautifully captures the suffering humanity of Christ on the Cross, while reminding us of the Resurrection in the encompassing image of a blazing, fully-risen sun.
Gib Singleton. This harrowing representation of a spread-eagled Christ on the cross, (seen, here, in a cast bronze replica), is one of the most photographed crucifixes in history. Pope John Paul II once carried it atop his pastoral staff on pilgrimages around the globe. As familiar as those poignant pictures may be of the late Pope with head pressed against this crucifix-staff, few people know it is the work of an American artist, the Missouri-born Singleton, now living in New Mexico. Singleton sculpts both religious and Western-themed pieces and has works in the collections of both the Vatican and Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem. Some traditionalists look askance at this “bent” cross, but it moves me to reflect on the sacrificial burden of Christ, so heavy the crossbeam sags under its weight.
Nyoman Subrata. Sacred wood carving has a long history on the Indonesian island of Bali, where skilled artisans have been decorating temples and home altars with images of the gods and goddesses of Balinese Hinduism since at least the 13th century. Christian art pieces like this cross with a grape vine motif by Balinese Wood Carver Nyoman Subrata are relatively rare on the island, no doubt, created with an overseas market in mind. Wood carving is a family affair for Subrata. He learned his craft from an elder brother, who studied with master Balinese carvers, and creates his pieces in a home workshop with help from his wife, four daughters, and son. The grape vine on this mahogany cross has special theological resonance. The title, Parable of the Vine, suggests Jesus’ story of the generous vineyard owner and the laborers in Matthew 20:1-16. It also brings to mind Christ’s words, “I am the vine,” in John 15:5. The fruit of the vine becomes the wine, which Christians drink in remembrance of Christ’s death on the Cross. Subrata creates purely decorative crosses, as well, carved with hibiscus blossoms and lotus flowers.
Mose Tolliver (1920-2006). The son of an Alabama share-cropper, Self-Taught Artist Tolliver devoted himself to painting, after an accident in a furniture factory left him disabled. He used left-over cans of house paint to decorate whatever discarded pieces of wood he could find with animals, plants, landscapes, portraits, and occasional religious subjects like this painted wood crucifix, reduced to elemental shapes in flat perspective with a limited color palette. Tolliver was fascinated by birds and includes two, here, flapping their wings like horrified angels, as blood shoots out in red rays from the clothes-pin-like Christ figure, wearing a crown of spikes. Like many Tolliver pieces, this one comes with his trademark soda can pull-tab wall hanger.
James Quentin Young. A retired art teacher from Minnesota, Young creates his unusual crosses from objects found in dumps, dumpsters, swamps, construction sites, garage sales, and flea markets, not altering them in any way, except for a light wash of paint or some metal-shaping. He dates his fascination with crosses to time spent in Mexico, where he found them to be a ubiquitous part of the landscape. His abstract pieces like this assemblage cross in my collection force us to take a new look at all those elaborate gold and silver altar crosses so common in churches. Since Golgotha was the city dump of Jerusalem, he argues, the Roman guard may very well have made Christ’s cross from pieces of discarded wood. The “redeemed” trash in his work represents, in Young’s words, “lost and discarded humanity, which Christ gathers to himself.”