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. 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 forms came to hold a special place in the devotional life of Christians.
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. The explanatory texts for these cross images are arranged in alphabetical order, according to the name of their makers, their countries of origin, or by descriptive titles.
African wood carvings. As Christianity has spread across central and southern Africa in the last hundred years, its key symbol has been reconfigured for local faith communities in indigenous art forms like wood carving. Sculptor George Obeng from Ghana has created a crucifix out of mahogany with subtle West African variations on traditional Western Passion imagery. An unknown artist from the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast depicts Christ on the Cross in the expressive, abstracted style of African figure carving, which so inspired Modernists in the West like Pablo Picasso. A third crucifix renders the simple, elongated form of the Crucified Christ in dark wood, typical of carvings from the Makonde people of East Africa.
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.
Armenian Khachkar. Armenia is the oldest Christian nation in the world with a proud tradition of sacred art-making. Translated from Armenian, khachkar means “cross stone,” a reference to upright stone carvings decorated with crosses, dating back to the 9th century. These memorial steles served as grave markers and votive offerings and commemorated military victories and events of sacred history. The central “winged” cross is usually placed above a solar rosette and framed by intricate geometric patterns or intertwining vines with grapes and pomegranates, a symbol of fertility and good fortune. This wooden khachkar was carved by an Armenian artisan in the country’s capital of Yerevan in 1975 in the style of a traditional medieval stone marker.
Gabriel Bien-Aime. Born in 1951, Haitian Folk Artist Gabriel Bien-Aime carries on a craft identified with his hometown of Croix-des-Bouquet, a market village northeast of Port-du-Prince famed for its oil drum art. Local artisans collect barrels from the nearby port of the Haitian capital, flatten them with hammers, then, cut out patterns in the metal sheets and emboss them with hammer, chisels and nails into sculptural works like the hammered metal crucifix by Bien-Aime on display here. A onetime auto mechanic, Bien-Aime was apprenticed to Metalworker Janvier Louis-Juste, a student of George Liautaud, the welder of iron-bar cemetery crosses who first used oil barrels to make these unique folk art pieces. Bien-Aime has his own distinctive style, twisting the hammered metal sheets to create three-dimentional effects. He is considered, along with Serge Jolimeau, to be one of Haiti's two leading contemporary sculptors in metal.
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 in thanks for answered prayers. 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.
Binford “Benny” Carter (1943-2014). Carter came to art later in life, when he lost his job in 1991 at a North Carolina copper mill. A self-taught assemblage artist, he created everything from totem poles and clocks to comic sculptures and birdhouses from whatever he could find in flea markets and yard sales. Raised in a southern Baptist community, he often turned to the Bible for inspiration. At the foot of his sculpture of Christ on the Cross, constructed from carved wood pieces, you can see a pair of dice, recalling the lots the Roman soldiers cast for Christ’s robe and a key-chain skull, reminding us that Golgotha means “Place of the Skull.” Inscribed on the base are the opening words of the much-loved “salvation” passage from John 3: 16 (KJV): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
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.
George Colin: Born in Hollywood, California, Colin worked for thirty years in the unglamorous job of sacking flour in a Pillsbury mill in the Midwest. He learned art-making in the 1950s by a Norman Rockwell correspondence course, dabbling in oils and pastels in his spare time until his retirement in the late 1970s allowed him to pursue his artistic passion. Colin used to display his art pieces by the side of the road near his converted garage-studio in Pleasant Plains, Illinois, until he was discovered by Chicago galleries at the beginning of the “outsider art” boom of the 1980s. A prolific artist, Colin has produced over 4,000 wooden folk art sculptures and furniture pieces in an eclectic pastiche of modernist styles, including the Picasso-like assemblage cross in my collection. Colin deliberately leaves his works untitled, so buyers can see whatever they wish in them. I had no trouble naming this cross made from brightly colored pieces of scrap wood: Purple Cubist Crucifix.
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.
Hutsul Carved Wood Crucifix. The Hutsuls are a Slavic ethnic group who mostly live on the southern slopes of the eastern Carpathian mountains in what is now Ukraine. The axe is an ancient emblem for this culture of woodcutters, who inhabit forested areas with a diverse range of woods from pines and plane trees to oaks and willows. The Hutsuls are known for their skill in timber-rafting logs and crafting intricately carved wooden objects like this Hutsul crucifix in my collection. It is made with two bars ending in trefoils in a style typical for Ukrainian Greek Catholics, who acknowledge the Pope in Rome while following an Eastern Orthodox style of worship. The criss-cross and floral motifs lightly cut with a knife into the panels surrounding the central image of the Crucified Christ suggest the complex geometric patterns of traditional Ukrainian folk embroidery and pysanka Easter egg decorations.
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.
Alexander Gaun: This Russian folk artist is already known to collection visitors as the creator of lacquer boxes on biblical themes. Gaun lives in Mstera, a village on the Golden Ring of historic towns just north of Moscow, once renowned as a center for icon-making until the atheistic Bolshevik regime forced its religious painters to find work as secular artisans. Gaun has revived the region’s rich sacred art traditions in this hand-painted wood cut-out crucifix with three crossbars in the traditional Russian Orthodox style. The upper crossbar, where a Roman sign was posted above Christ’s head, shows the iconographic image of Christ “made without hands.“ Two angels underneath hold towels in their role as ministering servants of God. The inscription on the central crossbar reads: “The Crucifixion of the Lord God Our Savior Jesus Christ. We bow down before your Cross, O Lord, and worship your true Resurrection.” The sun and moon in its upper corners recall Joel 2:31(KJV): “The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.” The foot rest, tilting downward from left to right, is said to represent the balance of justice, now shifted in favor of the repentant thief, whose sins were forgiven by the dying Christ. The Virgin Mary and the Apostle John have been incorporated into the design of this third crossbar along with the lance and sponge, instruments of Christ’s Passion. Hidden in a dark recess beneath the Cross is the skull of Adam, whose Fall in the Garden of Eden has now been atoned for by the sacrificial death of Christ the Second Adam. The title of the cross comes from an inscription painted on the back.
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.
Janina Karczewska-Konieczna. Born in the Polish port city of Gdynia in 1934, Karczewska-Konieczna has been making ceramic pieces for over 55 years and was honored for her work by an international jury in France, under the patronage of Picasso. Since the 1980s, she has devoted herself mostly to religious themes, creating sculptural pieces for churches and chapels across Poland. Karczewska-Konieczna’s pottery evokes the natural world, the shape of animals and plants, cloud patterns, and the undulating waves of her native Baltic seacoast. The cosmos has been torn in two in her ceramic crucifix in my collection, recalling the parting of the veil in Jerusalem’s Temple. Amid storm and struggle and fluttering cloth, Christ dies on the Cross and rises from the tomb.
Max Le Verrier (1891-1973): This 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 the fore after he was shot down behind enemy lines in World War I and took up sculpting during three years in a German prisoner-of-war 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 came to define 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. There are two sculpted Le Verrier cross images from this period in my collection. The first work in cast bronze was inspired by the Crucifixion panel of a 9th century, carved ivory diptych from the Rambona Abbey in Central Italy, now in the Vatican Museum. While God the Father looks down from a medallion at the top of the panel, Christ (with eyes wide open) hangs on the Cross with the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John on each side and a personified sun and moon above him. One curious feature is the image of the she-wolf nursing the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, at the bottom, symbolizing, perhaps, the dominance of the new faith in the old pagan empire. The second bronze crucifix 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.
Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962) Mestrovic is numbered among the special generation of East European artists who endured two world wars, the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and post-war Communist rule. A shepherd-boy turned stone mason from Dalmatia, Mestrovic was internationally renowned in the period between the two World Wars for his monumental pieces on historical and biblical themes in a style melding together the art of Byzantium, the Middle Ages, the early modern Vienna Secessionists, and French Impressionist Sculptor Auguste Rodin. He refused to collaborate with the Fascists or the Communists and spent the last years of his life in artistic exile in the U.S. at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. This cross is a scaled-down bronze casting of a carved wood crucifix, dating from 1916, which Mestrovic created for a restored convent chapel on his estate at Kastelet-Crikvine near Split, Croatia—now the Ivan Mestrovic Museum.
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. “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. The central support of her Exalted Be My Savior Crucifix is an old prison bar, found behind a Birmingham glass shop. The jails of this Southern city played a grim role in the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the !960s. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, while kept behind bars like this one for organizing non-violent protests against racial segregation in April 1963. One month later, city jails were filled to overflowing with school children who marched in support of civil rights, an event now known as the Children‘s Crusade. Partain's prison bar crucifix has a direct connection to these events of a half-century ago. “Exalt comes from the Latin word, 'to lift up'" explains Partain “Just as Christ walked before Martin Luther King and the Children Crusaders as their surest way to freedom, his exultation on the Cross meant their exaltation, their lifting up out of despair, and freedom for future generations.”
Miguel Pineda. This Mexican artist has devoted almost fifty years of his life to making enamel, incorporating sacred motifs from Byzantine and medieval art into many of his handmade, semi-sculptural pieces. He often takes on commissions for the Roman Catholic Church and spent three years designing and crafting 36 large enamel-on-copper panels for the doors of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. His Visigothic Cross in my collection was inspired by the stained glass-styled enamel work of the Christianized Germanic peoples who dominated Southern France and the Iberian peninsula from the 5th to 8th centuries Three different images of Christ form the vertical shaft of the Pineda cross with two doves at the top matched by head-to-head eagles in the bottom panel. The short cross bar is finished off by another winged pairing; this time, of angels. Visigothic Cross is a fine example of champleve enamel work, where hollowed out indentations in a copper surface are filled with powdered glass, then, fired to create enamel fused to metal.
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.”
Michee Ramil Remy (1970-2012): Haitian Folk Artisit Michee Ramil Remy learned the trade of crafting sculptural works from oil drums as a teenager from his stepfather, Gabriel Bien-Aime. 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.
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.
Giovanni Reno. That, at least, is my interpretation of the signature scrawled the on back of this colored, molded glass depiction of Christ on the Cross, a recently “rediscovered” piece by a craftsman from the San Polo district of Venice, purchased on an Italian holiday taken many years before the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection began. This Romanesque image of the Dying Christ replicates an 11th century gold and cloisonné enamel Crucifix on the cover of the Pax of Ariberto, a lavishly decorated wooden holder for the Gospels in the Milan Cathedral Treasury
Rafael Rivera Garcia (1929-2014). Born in New York City, Garcia made his home in Puerto Rico and became an important figure in the island’s cultural life. He was especially known for his public murals on historic and mythological themes in a Neo-Figurative style, an art movement similar to Cubism, originating in Mexico and Spain in the 1960s, where recognizable images are expressively reshaped through the manipulation of form and color. In Garcia’s carved wood crucifix in my collection, the figure of the suffering Christ is a striking vertical construct of hollowed-out muscles, ligaments and tendons, brightly colored in yellow, orange, white, and black.
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 (1935-2914): 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 eventually settled in New Mexico. Singleton sculpted both religious and Western-themed pieces and is represented 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.
Jurgen Wolke (1942-2010) This German artist, best known for his doll house-like “found object” assemblage pieces, has transformed a manufactured crucifix of a kind available at any religious gift shop into an strikingly colored, original Pop Art image of the Cross as Tree of Life, using vibrant graffito patterns and elementary colors. Heavenly bodies, leafy branches, and budding blooms appear beneath a bright red heart in this bold contemporary make-over of a less-than-memorable mass market devotional object.