Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Cross & Crucifix’

Theological Interpretations

April 19th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

In a re-post here I attempted to analyze the differing visual and emotional interpretations presented to us in paintings by Raphael Sanzio and Peter Paul Rubens.

There are different theological interpretations that can also be drawn from the two works.

(click on pictures for a clearer, sharper image)

Raphael Crucifixion

Raphael Sanzio’s Crucifixion

Raphael’s Crucifixion displays an ontological theology. In his view of the crucifixion, Christ has already risen and ascended back to the Father. Rather than the realistic cruelty of a fallen world we see before us a world of peaceful harmony attained through the Incarnation, the climax of which was the sacrifice of the Cross. The world in this interpretation of the crucifixion has been restored and is again at one with God. The event here is in God’s time. What originally took place in earthy time is shown to us to exist in eternal time, God’s time, once and for all. The un-bloody sacrifice of the Mass, celebrated in the church building on the altar below this painting in “real” time, taps into that “once and for all” sacrifice.


Peter Paul Ruben’s Crucifixion

Ruben’s Crucifixion comforts us with another theological interpretation, the moment of the actual victory of the cross –victory in apparent defeat. Here the moment of climax has arrived symbolized by the thrusting spear piercing the heart of the Savior. Evil has spent itself, evil has exhausted itself. All is in horrible, violent, noisy confusion. Yet, there is the good thief with his arm visually attached to the Savior. He is with His Savior in the Kingdom as we who remain faithful will be, as a result of this victory.

Notice also, that the Cross and Christ’s Body in Ruben’s violent painting forms a mighty upright vertical line, standing triumphantly in the middle of the confusion withstanding everything attacking it.

Evil is defeated at the moment it seems to have conquered. There is the bad thief symbolizing evil, thrust aside, visually separated from the Savior by darkness and tumbling out of the picture.

Two Contrasting Interpretations

April 18th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

From a Lenten series in 2011.

Previously here


Click on pictures for sharper images

“Mond Crucifixion” by Raphael Sanzio

“Christ Between Two Thieves” by Peter Paul Rubens

In this post we see two contrasting interpretations of the crucifixion, each coming out of a different historical period. The Mond Crucifixion (or Crocifissione Gavari; the names are of former owners) is a High Renaissance painting by Raphael Sanzio. The other a painting, Christ, Between Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens, is from the later Baroque period.

Reflecting the Renaissance interest in a rebirth of the Classical Greek and Roman intellectual values based on reason, Raphael’s Renaissance painting expresses idealized stability and harmony. Ruben’s painting, on the other hand, is exciting and dramatic, reflecting an interest in engaging the emotions. Raphael’s Crucifixion is serene and peaceful.  Ruben’s is calamitous and noisy.

Raphael deploys design principles in a typically Renaissance fashion to create his image. The design is balanced symmetrically; the right side pretty much mirrors the left in the placement of shapes and distribution of lights and darks. His composition carefully arranges forms to create a predictable pattern of vertical lines. Forms are subtly modeled and rendered in clear, ‘clean’ colors. The arrangement of shapes and forms reflects an underlying idealized geometric plan based on the triangle and circle.

Raphael shows us that even Christ’s horrendous crucifixion reflects God’s ultimate plan. All is well in this painting; all is for a purpose regardless of appearances to the contrary.

Rubens deploys design principles for a whole other purpose. He has been commissioned by the so-called Counter Reformation Church to counter the Protestant reformers’ attack on Catholic emotion, piety, practices, and use of art. He does so by upping the ante and dramatically stimulating the emotions. In contrast to Renaissance artists Baroque artists, like Rubens, use forms, shapes, colors, and all the other elements of design in a forceful, asymmetrical composition. Forms fall into diagonal arrangements trusting us into the action. Contrasting diagonals create tension. Light and dark areas dramatically contrast creating a kind of visual thunder. Bodies are twisted or contorted. Colors are mixed and textures contrasted. In these ways Rubens creates dramatic movement and an unstable environment that arouses interest in the viewer and invites emotional involvement. We enter into the event. The image invites not so much contemplation as emotional attachment and commitment.

Let Them Flee Before His Face

August 31st, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie
Processional Crucifix, ca. 1150, Possibly made in Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, Champlevé enamel, copper-gilt, Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941. Photo Credit:*&what=Enamels|Crosses&pos=7.


web 1150 Spain front


Processional crosses came into use very early in the church, perhaps as early as the 7th century. The cross was viewed as a ‘victory standard’ similar to those carried at the head of a victorious army as it processed into a capital city, such as Rome. The cross, of course, symbolized the victory of Christ and Christianity over evil and the pagan world — Christianity had conquered the Roman Empire and the Cross is the Christians’ standard.

Scattered 14th and 15th century liturgical manuscripts from England refer to processional crosses used in the entrance procession of Mass. Evidence suggests that the general practice across medieval Europe was for processional crosses to be carried at or close to the front of the entrance procession at more solemn Masses. A 13th-century Pontifical of the Roman Curia lists the processional cross as the first of the objects to be carried in the entrance possession.1

The crucifix, in contrast to the plain cross, was being used in some liturgical celebrations as early as the 10th century. A 14th century rubric directed that in all processions the cross should be carried with “the face of the image of the cross”, that is, the face (corpus) of the crucified Christ, “turned toward the people”.2

Psalm 67:2 was cited by Pope Innocent III (died 1216) as the reason for carrying the cross at the head of processions:3

“Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: and let them that hate Him flee before His face.”

God arises (the standard/cross is lifted up) and His enemies flee before His face (the corpus of the crucifix).

I think it would be helpful if priests and deacons and catechetical folks would find opportunities to promote this understanding or explanation for the use of the processional cross, especially its analogy to Psalm 67:2.  Wouldn’t congregations be better predisposed to derive more grace from the entrance procession of the Mass knowing that analogy? Wouldn’t the people tend to view the entrance procession with deeper appreciation? Upon seeing the Crucifix at the head of the procession would not the congregation visualize evil fleeing before the face of Christ?  Wouldn’t it more effectively predispose the congregation to receive the graces that flow from the victory enacted and celebrated at the altar?


1 James Monti, “A Sense of the Sacred – Roman Catholic Worship During the Middle Ages”, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 2012) p. 30

2 Monti p. 31

3 Monti p. 31

Photo 1:“Processional Crucifix”, ca. 1180–90, Made in Limoges, France Champlevé enamel, copper-gilt, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917. Photo Credit:*&what=Enamels|Crosses&pos=7. 

Photo 2: “Processional Crucifix”, ca. 1150, Possibly made in Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, Champlevé enamel, copper-gilt, Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941. Photo Credit:*&what=Enamels|Crosses&pos=7.

A Gem in Geneva – Part I

September 20th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Many of you are probably already familiar with St. Stephen’s Church in Geneva, NY and know of its beautiful sacred art. But, yesterday was my first visit there and I can encourage anyone who hasn’t been there to go.

(click on pictures to see clearer images)

Icons of the Great Feasts: Raising Aloft of the Precious Cross

September 14th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Constantine and his mother stand on the left in the icon. The architecture in the background represents the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

(click on the icon for a sharper image)

(This post was originally published September 2011.)

Today, September 14, is the Great Feast of the  Exultation of the Cross.

We in the Western Church call the feast the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross but in the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches it is usually called the Raising (Aloft) of the (Precious) Cross. Anglicans call the feast Holy Cross Day while Lutherans refer to it as the Feast of the Glorious Cross.

Tradition holds that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great discovered the Cross of the crucifixion in Jerusalem while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Constantine was interested in uncovering as many of the important holy places associated with the life of Christ as he could. The site of the discovery was included in the construction of the building complex of the Church of the Resurrection (The Church of the Holy Sepulcher). The feast of the Raising of the Cross and the dedication of the church, which happened in 335, became associated with each other.

In a pilgrim’s account of her journey to Jerusalem in 400, reference is made to the solemn celebration of the feast of the dedication of the church “because the Cross of the Lord was discovered on that day.” Before long, however, the annual celebration of the dedication was entirely eclipsed by that of the Feast of the Cross.

But let’s go back to the day after the dedication in 335 when the people were first admitted to venerate the sacred wood of the Cross. Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, while standing on an ambo at the rock of Golgotha and, with the help of some of his clergy, raised high the actual Cross and announced “Behold the Holy Cross!” and the people responded with “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy) at least three times, and probably more. On September 14, 614 the ceremony was performed for the first time in Constantinople. It was repeated there again in 633 when a portion of the Cross that had been carried off by the Persians was recaptured and brought to the capital. The patriarch of Constantinople carried it in procession through the streets of the city. The rite was celebrated for the first time in Rome under Pope Sergius (687-701).

The theological and political meaning of the ceremony could not possibly have been lost on the crowd and the clergy that first time in Jerusalem. The Cross was the instrument by which Christ accomplished the redemption of man: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor.1:25). The Cross was the glorious weapon whereby the evil one was defeated and the curse incurred by Adam, abolished. Eternal life with God was possible again. The new Adam accomplished redemption through the agency of the new Tree of Life –the Cross. All creation was again incorruptible and blossoming with new flowers. That’s the theological meaning.

But, there was a political sense, as well. It was by the Cross that Constantine had conquered and been victorious. His conversion and patronage of the Christian Church ended 300 years of intermittent and sometimes horrendous persecution.

The Cross is the ultimate symbol of “invincible victory.”



The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) pp.148-50

Picture Source

Unfortunately, I don’t have any information regarding the artist, studio or company that produced this icon.

Christ of Saint John of the Cross

April 13th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie


Continuing our Lenten series on crosses, crucifixes and crucifixion scenes

Previously here

(Click on pictures for larger images)

Christ of Saint John of the Cross

By Salvador Dali, 1951

This very unusual crucifixion scene was inspired by two experiences of Dali. “In the first place, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in color and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe’, the Christ!”  In the second place, Dali was directed by a Carmelite priest to a drawing of the crucified Christ made by St. John of the Cross following a mystical vision.

In both instances the viewpoint is from above the cross, looking down rather than a traditional frontal or low angle view.  It is almost as if we are being invited to see the crucified Lord from the viewpoint of heaven, from the Father’s viewpoint.  The seascape in the bottom part of the painting is rendered in normal perspective and so we seem to be transported to another dimension that is both real because of the realistic treatment of forms and surfaces, and dream-like because of the incorporation of two different perspectives. The scene is surreal.

In fact Salvador Dali is probably the single best-known Surrealist artist. Surrealism can be found throughout the history of art but its most concentrated period as a distinct movement was from 1924 to 1950. It is a style in which dream-like imagery from the subconscious mind is used with no intention of making the work logically comprehensible. It was primarily a European movement that attracted artists of the radical Dada movement and was deeply influenced by the psychoanalytical work of Freud and Jung. Dali eventually broke with the members of the Surrealists group due to his right-wing politics as leftism became the fashion among Surrealists, as it was in almost all intellectual circles.

Corpus Hypercubus, 1954

Dali, born Catholic, became an atheist but returned later to Catholicism combining in his work Catholic imagery with his so-called ‘nuclear mysticism.’ In addition to the “Christ of Saint John of the Cross” he painted other religious works like his “Corpus Hypercubus”  in which “Christ is suspended on an eight sided dodecahedron –an octahedral hypercube or a cube in the fourth dimension.” Dali called this

“Metaphysical, transcendent cubism, it is based entirely on the Trearise on Cubic Form by Juan de Herrera, Philip the 2nd’s architect, builder of the Escorial Palace: it is a treatise inspired by Ars Magna of the Catalonian philosopher and alchemist Raymond Llle. The cross is formed by an octahedral hypercube. The number nine is identifiable and becomes especiall consubstantial with the body of Christ. The extremely noble figure of Gala is the perfect union of the development of the hyper cubic octahedron on the human level of the cube. She is depicted in front of the Bay of Port Lligat. The most noble beings were painted by Velazques and Zurbaran; I only approach nobility while painting Gala, and nobility can only be inspired by the human being.”

(I have no idea what that all means except that I know Gala was his wife and the Bay of Port Lligat is where they had a home! And, yes, I know the work of Velazques and Zurbaran.)

Thomas Banchoff a Brown professor who did pioneering work using computer graphics to illustrate geometry beyond the third dimension in the 1970’s insists that Dali “… knew what he was talking about; he was not just using the symbols.”

In the “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”, Dali worked out geometrically a triangle and a circle, which “aesthetically summarized my previous experiments, and I inscribed my Christ in this triangle.” The cross forms a triangle symbolizing the Holy Trinity. Christ’s head forms a circle within the triangle meaning that Christ, and the fulfillment of His Father’s will, is the center and meaning of everything in the universe. Christ and His Father’s love for us should be at the center of every person’s life.


“Christ of Saint John of the Cross” was not well received when it was first exhibited in London and was called “banal” by an important art critic. Several years later -1961- it was slashed by a fanatic upset over the unusual perspective of looking down on the cross. Repaired, it hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.

In 2006, with 29% of the vote, “Christ of Saint John of the Cross” won a poll to decided Scotland’s favorite painting.

Celtic High Crosses

April 10th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our Lenten series on crosses, crucifixes, and crucifixion scenes


Click on pictures for sharper images.


The largest category of free-standing sculpture created in Western Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance period of the Italian city-states is the high crosses we think of as uniquely Irish –a tall Latin cross with a ring encircling the interestion. The specific form of the crosses may have originated in Ireland, but they also survive in Cornwall, Wales, Northern England and parts of Scotland, probably as a result of contact with Irish missionaries during the so-called “Dark Ages.” High crosses are more popularly identified as Celtic.


The stone crosses were erected by Irish monks from the 8th to the 12th century with the 9th and 10th centuries the most productive period. Metal covered wood crosses that served as precursors to the stone ones were probably created at least a century before the stone ones.

The crosses were used as boundary markers of monastic lands or as devotional monuments at important crossroads. They also were employed to commemorate a miraculous event, the dedication of a church, or a place associated with a local saint. Inscriptions on the crosses sometimes invite prayers for the patron, the person who sponsored construction of the cross. They were not used as grave stones.

It is the ring around the intersection of the arms of the cross that makes the cross unique among the various Christian designs for crosses. The design actually predates Christianity. Called sun crosses they have been found in Bronze Age Europe. The arms of the sun cross, however, do not extend beyond the circle as the Christian ones do, and they sometimes have more than four arms.


The Christian Celtic cross may not have been meant, primarily, as a representation of the crucifixion at all but rather as an image of the early chi rho monogram. Some point out that the circle, or wreath, in connection with a Greek or Latin cross, or with a chi rho, was a symbol of triumph used by Constantine following the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century [3].


A more remote possibly is that Celtic crosses may have had their origins in the early Coptic crosses of Christian Egypt. There is an interesting similarity between the ankh –the ancient Egyptian symbol of life- and variations of the cross or ankh with a circle on the Coptic stella and textiles from as early as the 5th century [4].


The earliest extant Celtic crosses are covered in geometric ornament including interlace [5] and round bosses [2] with the most important characteristic being the shape of the cross itself. In subsequent development the crosses became more pictorial and are known as transitionary crosses. They in turn led to scripture crosses, literally and liberally covered with biblical scenes carved in panels on the sides of the crosses [6]. These are generally considered to be High Crosses proper. Crosses made in the later 11th century and through the 12th century show a return to geometric patterns, or an image of the crucified Christ. Most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed or damaged by iconoclasm after the Reformation and typically only sections of the shafts remain.


With the Anglo-Norman invasion and influence of the more austere Cistercians no new High Crosses were constructed.


The crosses were constructed of sandstone or granite in sections topped off by a capstone which was often depicted as a small house with a sloping roof. The carvings were rendered once the plain cross was erected (carved in situ). It is now thought by some experts that the crosses were painted in bright colors like the insular illuminated manuscripts and metalwork of the time. This is highly conjectural, but the colors may have resembled those found in metalwork and the manuscripts: yellow, green, blue, and dark red.


There are crosses in France that look very similar but are not really considered as Celtic crosses, certainly not High Crosses. But all the French examples are analogous in shape to each other. They are found mostly in the Western part of France in Normand, Britanny and Limousin as far as Auvergne in the center. Those were constructed in the 15th century well after the period of the High Crosses.



Picture credits:

1.  By Johnbod

2. By Wayne Brown

4. By Su55

5.    By Johnbod




The Gero Crucifix

April 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our Lenten series on crosses and crucifixion images.

Previously here.

This crucifix is 6’2” in height and is the first monumental sculpture of the crucified Christ still in existence. Made of wood and painted, it was commissioned in 970 by Gero, Archbishop of Cologne, Germany, for his cathedral.

When the Gero image was carved, the controversies over the use of religious images (the iconoclastic crisis) had still not subsided and large sculpture-in-the-round images of Christ, Mary and the saints would have been considered as encouraging idolatry.  The veneration of relics, however, enjoyed a renewed popularity and energy in northern Europe where the Gero cross was made. The relics were often contained and displayed in table-top sized reliquaries that had cavities for holding them. These reliquaries were often small sculpted or cast figures, no more than a foot or two in height, at most.

Crucifixes too became popular objects in early German sculpture and, like reliquaries, were usually small and cast in bronze.  The Gero Crucifix, therefore, must have been something of a sensation when it was created and put on display for the first time in the cathedral.

Upper Cover of the Lindau Gospel Book ca. 875

In addition to the sensationalism of its size must have been the image’s realistic treatment of the crucified Christ. Prior to this time in Christian art, Crucifixion icons and illustrations in books depicted a type of crucified Christ that suggested the dual natures of Christ: the crucified body, his humanity; his non-suffering serene expression, his divinity (left). But, in the Gero Crucifix, we see a very human Christ who actually hangs upon the cross, his body sagging from dead weight.  The muscles and skin are stretched from the shoulders across the chest. The stomach bulges out from the weight of the torso pressing down from above. The eyes of Christ are closed in death and blood streams down across His forehead. The lips are contorted and the mouth at the corners hangs down. Between the bottom lip and the chin a deep cup indicates that the head fell down onto the chest at the moment of death. This is not a serene image.

Why the change from the traditional dogmatic image of Christ to a totally human one? Some would say that mysticism prevalent in the early middle ages resulted in an intense spirituality that was expressed through human emotions. The Gero Crucifix depicted a suffering Christ whose agony paralleled the spirit of the times. In other words, this was an image with which people could emotionally identify because it seemed to sum up their own lives.

The Gero Crucifix inaugurated in Christian art -alongside the dogmatic tradition- a tradition of realistic portrayals of Christ’s crucifixion. It would reach its most powerful expression in the exaggerated realism of the Crucifixion panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The Isenheim Altarpiece

March 28th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our Lenten series on crosses or crucifixion scenes in art.

Previously here.

Click on the pictures to see larger and sharper images.

Probably the most powerful picture of the crucifixion of Christ comes to us out of the 16th century. Matthias Grünewald in 1506-1515 painted an altarpiece consisting of several different panels for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France. The monks there specialized in hospital work and were noted for their successful treatment of patients suffering from skin diseases such as ergotism. The skin of Christ in the crucifixion scene appears to exhibit the symptoms of the disease. Given the context we can assume that the altarpiece was meant to have a profound impression on the patients, inviting them to identify their sufferings with Christ’s. 

The altarpiece is thought to have been displayed in the infirmity where the patients were treated and, if so, would have been perhaps visible to them from their beds. It is a large piece that would have had a looming presence. I suppose it would have been terribly depressing except for the fact that the altarpiece consisted of many panels that opened and folded in such a way as to reveal the entire story of the Incarnation and Paschal Mysteries. Used in that way during the liturgical year it would certainly have been uplifting for the suffering patients. Three different configurations were possible.

The first view shows the Crucifixion scene flanked by images of St. Anthony of the Dessert, patron of the monks, and St. Sabastian. Below is a predella with depicts the Lamentation over the body of the Lord. The Lamentation is visible under the second configuration, as well. When the flanking panels with the saints are opened, the Crucifixion is hidden and the second view reveals scenes of the Annunciation, Mary Bathing the Christ Child, and the Resurrection. Finally, then, the innermost configuration reveals a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490 and flankinig scenes of the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the meeting of St. Anthony and Paul, the Hermit.

BTW: Some of our renovated or new churches that are so minimalistic when it comes to art in the chancel might want to consider a large multi-panel (altar)piece on the chancel wall behind the altar. Its different configurations of religious scenes could add to the meaningful experiences of the Mysteries celebrated throughout the Church year.

There is a nice write-up about the altarpiece by Nicolas Pioch for the website, WebMuseum: Paris

Also, there is a short video comment by Father Barone here.

San Damiano Icon Crucifix

March 20th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie
We continue with our Lenten series on crosses and crucifixes. Previously: here and here.

Click on pictures to see larger images

The San Damiano crucifix which we see here is one of the better known of all images of Christ’s Crucifixion. Its popularity is attributed to its role in the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) from a life of self-indulgence to a life of total obedience to God. One day in 1206, the saint stopped into the abandoned and dilapidated Chapel of San Damiano just outside of Assisi to pray before this crucifix which was still hanging above the altar. Three times he heard a voice coming from it say, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” He thought he was being enlisted to repair the chapel building but later determined that it was the dilapidated condition of the universal Church at the time to which the voice was referring.

This Crucifixion scene is in the tradition of Byzantine icon painting which took root in Italy as a result of Greek icon painters and monks fleeing from the East during the period of the iconoclastic persecution between 730 and 787. It’s a classic Byzantine dogmatic or programmatic icon which presents us with several stories and doctrines in one unified image. Before us is not just represented the scene of the Crucifixion but the entire Paschal event.

The Crucified Christ is the most obvious image we notice. Like the ivory carving of the earliest Crucifixion scene we looked at in a previous post, this one presents us with a crucified Christ who is not only free of suffering but apparently strong, robust, serene and self-confident. Here, again, we see illustrated the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ: the bleeding wounds of the body indicate His humanity and the calm and serene psychological expression suggests his divinity.

Those who witnessed the Crucifixion (John 19:25–27) are depicted behind Christ at about the mid-point of the cross. On the left is Mary His mother and St. John, the apostle to whom Christ entrusted His mother. Mary’s hand is raised to her face as she mourns for her son. On the right, first is Mary of Magdala, also with her hand to her face, His mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and then the centurion who proclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). The smaller figures depict the soldier Longinus on the left with his spear, and on the right, Stephaton who put the sponge soaked in wine to Christ’s mouth. This central part of the image therefore depicts the mystery of the Crucifixion of the Son of God.

Directing our attention now to the bar of the cross, behind the arms of Christ, we can see a long horizontal black shape representing the empty tomb of Easter. Notice the figures of Peter and John, as described in John 20:2–10, peering into the emptiness of the tomb at either end of the tomb. Four angels, two on each side along the bottom of the tomb, excitedly react to the mystery of the Crucifixion and the mystery of the Resurrection.

Finally, the third mystery, the Ascension, is depicted at the top of the cross in the ‘T’ shape. Christ is shown being welcomed by a heavenly host of angels into heaven where he will sit at the right hand of the Father. The Father is symbolized by a blessing hand indicating that His will has been accomplished.

Here is an except of a reflection on the San Damiano cross from The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, San Francisco, California:

“To the world, the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23); but to the eyes of faith the cross is the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension, in their full simultaneous reality…

Francis learned to rejoice in the overwhelming beauty of God’s creation—a beauty signfying God’s love—yet he did not desire anything of the material world for his own fulfillment. Instead, he desired nothing but to receive our Lord with a pure heart and chaste body.

And, as he showed through the rest of his life, Francis fully understood the reason for the odd depiction of Christ’s serenity upon the San Damiano crucifix. For when someone accepts injustice, cruelty, and contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, and endures it all with charity and total faith, what else can we call it but perfect joy? And so, right from the beginning, Francis understood that the “background” to all human suffering must be total faith in the ultimate triumph of the Cross.”

Earliest Known Crucifixion Scenes in Christian Art

March 13th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously and Related

As we are in the holy season of Lent I thought maybe we could look at images of the cross, and scenes of the crucifixion, as shown by artists from different periods or working in a variety of styles.

Below are the earliest known representations of the crucifixion of Christ.  Note that it is not until the fifth century that scenes of the crucifixion began to appear in Christian art. The cross, itself, only began to be used as a symbol of Christianity about the same time. Prior to the fourth and fifth centuries the plain cross usually was disguised in some way or obliquely referenced.  I have written elsewhere of the possible reasons for the delayed use of the cross in Christian art.


This first image of the crucifixion of Christ appears on a single relief panel on the early 5th c. wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome. Santa Sabina is the church at which the pope celebrates Ash Wednesday each year. Construction commenced during the pontificate of Pope Celestine I (422-433) and was consecrated in 440. There are two fascinating aspects of this work. First, it is the only representation of the crucifixion taking this design. You will note that crosses are not clearly represented, only three pediment shapes, a horizontal beam, and two vertical posts in the background seemingly dividing the composition into sections. (A vertical post might be suggested just above the head of the left figure.) If the background represents tau crosses surmounted by pitched roof shapes for emphasis, it is puzzling that the crucified figures are not attached to the crosses. The arrangement may represent a building (note the window in the left ‘pediment.’) The carved figures stand (?) in the orans position of prayer although there are nails visible in the hands. Second, the crucifixion panel is at the very top of the left hand door, in the left corner –a rather ‘out-of-the-way’ location. Needless to say, much debate and conjecture surrounds this particular image.


This second image may have been made earlier than the Santa Sabina one (which makes the Sabina one even more puzzling if a ‘canon’ for representing the crucifixion had already been established). It was carved as a relief panel for a small ivory box, probably in Rome but perhaps in Gaul, around 420-30. It is 3 x 4 inches in size. This, of course, is a more traditional representation of the event. We can see that the suicide of Judas is depicted on the left. This carving has artistic and stylistic characteristics of much interest to art historians but I would like to point out a more theological aspect.

The erect posture of Christ on the cross and his alertness and robust body (unlike the limp body of Judas) might strike us, who are used to seeing the suffering Christ on the cross, as strange and unreal. In fact, this crucified and yet ‘live’ Christ appears indestructible and triumphant. This crucifixion scene may reflect the Christological debates that raged across Christianity from the 2nd through 6th centuries. The non-suffering Christ may be expressive of an aspect of one of the theories that influenced the doctrine adopted at the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Council declared that in Christ there are two natures, human and divine; each retaining its own properties, and together united in one subsistence and in one single person. The triumphant Christ is meant to remind people that the person Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human. This early representation of the non-suffering but crucified Christ is the first in the oldest and longest running tradition of representations of the crucified Christ. It is an especially strong tradition in the icons of ‘Eastern’ Christianity.

Crucifixion in the Grove

March 10th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Refectory of the Holy Cross Fathers, Katpadi, (Near Udipi, Mangalore). Oil and acrylic on cloth pasted on board.

Sutherland’s “Crucifixion” – Good Liturgical Art?

August 27th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

"The Crucifixion" by Graham Sutherland, 1946*

Which subjects are appropriate for chancel images?

That’s an interesting question to me. (I hope it’s also an interesting question for you!) It’s an easier question to answer for Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox than it is for us. Our Western tradition has not developed as clear a focus as to appropriate subjects and styles. Controversy swirled around many liturgical works unveiled in the Church’s past. But addressing the question helps us to think about our faith and the liturgical art that is meant to help communicate it. And so, it’s interesting to put before you -the readers- examples to get your reactions.

The previous example (The Great Banquet) elicited a little hesitation (except for Gen). I personally don’t think it passes muster but I’m unable to settle on reasons why. I keep going back and forth on it in a “Yes, but…” conversation with myself.

Anyway, here is another work for you to consider: Graham Sutherland’s The Crucifixion which he completed in 1946. Sutherland converted to Catholicism in 1926 and was deeply religious until his death in 1980. He worked as a war artist during the Second World War depicting mining, industry, and bomb damage.

Sutherland painted numerous crucifixion scenes. This one hangs in the south transept of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Northampton, England. Many of you may already be familiar with it or with several other versions of its composition.

I won’t go into any analysis or description of the painting for fear I may prejudice your reactions.

In your opinion is this an appropriate liturgical work of art for display in the chancel over the altar in a Catholic church? Would it contribute to, and complement, the Liturgy in an appropriately meaningful way? Does it reinforce Catholic doctrine? Why or why not?

A REQUEST: Can you recommend a liturgical work of art from one of our Diocese of Rochester churches that you think is particularly good –or bad? Let’s limit your nominations to paintings, sculptures, mosaics, or windows. Send me a brief description (or picture, if you have one) and information on its location. Your identity will not be revealed. Send me an email: You can nominate in the Comment Box if you wish.

*Picture Source

Drama in the Chancel!

August 11th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

"Calvary and Our Lady of Sorrows" photo by Stephen, O. Cist.

I came upon this picture by Stephen, a Cistercian monk, on his blog, SUB TUUM. It’s a photo of a side chapel in the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges (Our Lady of the Angels) in Collioure, France, just north of the border with Spain. Notice the curtain to the right of the sculptural scene of the crucifixion, above the altar. It looks to be a real, functioning curtain meant to be pulled shut and opened. This three-dimensional crucifixion scene appears as a motionless  drama -presented on a stage -a “tableau vivant.” The feeling is heightened by the fact that Mary wears actual clothing.

The chapel reminded me of another, more famous, side chapel that presents a theater-like environment, The Cornaro Chapel, in the left transept of the Church of S. Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

"Cornaro Chapel" and detail by Bernini, Church of S. Maria della Vittoria, Rome

The scene over the altar there is of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa di Avila by Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The ecstatic moment of Theresa is viewed from flanking theater balconies by Bernini’s sculpted cardinals and doges of the Cornaro family. Natural light descends upon the angel and St. Theresa from a real window hidden behind the crowning entablature/pediment.