The new crucifix in our church is your gift to your church and parish. It has been purchased with the donations you made to the “a Christmas gift to your parish” appeal in December 2010. Some of you may have seen a similar crucifix in our Cathedral of the Epiphany in Sioux City.
Our new crucifix was fabricated, carved & painted by Conrad Moroder Woodcarvers in Val Gardena, Italy. The price: $7,650. Shipping & customs: $850. It is a famous work of art produced by the Italian artist Cenni di Pepo, commonly known as Cimabue.
Cimabue was a Florentine (Florence/Firenze, Italy) painter. Little is known of his life c. 1240-1302. He was born about 15 years after the death of Saint Francis of Assisi. Cimabue is generally believed to be the teacher of the great artist Giotto (who painted the frescoes in the upper Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi) and certainly one of the fathers of the Italian Renaissance. His fame is attested by the poet Dante’s mention of Cimabue in his Divine Comedy.
Cimabue’s most famous works (in addition to this crucifix–the original hangs in San Dominco Church in Arezzo, Italy) include paintings: Madonna & Child in the Paris Louvre, Madonna & Child with Angels in the London National Gallery, Virgin with Child and Saint Francis (I have a copy hanging outside my office door) in the Assisi Basilica of Saint Francis, mosaics in the Pisa Cathedral, & another crucifix in Florence’s Santa Croce church (destroyed in the 1966 flooding of Florence)…I have seen all of these.
A bit more about Cimabue’s crucifix.
Jesus’ head is surrounded with a halo, a circle of light. The liturgical symbolism of light (think of the Paschal Candle, the Easter Vigil and baptism ritual of holding a burning candle) we associate with God’s eternal life-giving grace, mediated to us through Christ. Jesus’ horrific suffering is not empty. It is life-giving, profoundly meaningful.
On Jesus’ right is an icon of Mary. On Jesus’ left is an icon of Saint John. They were standing by the cross of Jesus: Gospel according to John 19:25. Of course Cimabue painted them facing Jesus.
Above Jesus’ head, Cimabue painted the inscription that had been ordered by Pontius Pilate, which is noted by all four evangelists. Cimabue painted it in Latin: IHS NAZARENUS REX JUDEORUM. (IHS=Jesus; NAZARENUS=of Nazareth; REX=King; JUDEORUM=of the Jews).
Behind the body of Jesus is a red Florentine panel. (There is an artistic word for this which I cannot recall.) It is a common Renaissance feature intended to visually “enclose” or frame the central figure. It is a kind of backdrop or “foil” that draws the viewer’s eyes to the most important part of the painting; in this crucifix it is Jesus’ body, twisted in agony.
Let me share a bit about crosses and crucifixes.
The cross is an instrument of torture & execution. The Roman cross consisted of a stake in the ground. The victim carried the crossbeam to the site of execution where it was fastened to the upright stake. The victim was stripped of all clothing. The victim’s wrists were either nailed or tied to the crossbeam and his feet nailed to the upright stake. Death came slowly, often after several days, usually by exhaustion and asphyxiation, as the weight of the body gradually prevented breathing. Death could be hastened by breaking the victim’s legs, preventing him from lifting himself to relieve pressure on his diaphragm. Crucifixion was a heinous practice (borrowed from Persians & Phoenicians) which the Romans saw as the most shameful form of punishment, reserved for slaves and aliens and forbidden for Roman citizens.
Though the cross denoted shame and disgrace, Saint Paul boasted of the cross of Christ and saw in the cross God’s saving desire. Through the cross Christ brought about the reconciliation of all creation with the Father. The heart of Paul’s preaching is this: Christ crucified.
The crucifix is a cross that bears the image of the crucified Christ. The portrayal of Christ on the cross was absent in the first centuries of Christian art: an empty cross was the sign of Christ’s triumph over death. As Christological controversies (is Christ truly human? truly divine?) were resolved in the 4th and 5th centuries, the body of Jesus began to be added to the cross. The rise of Byzantine influence in Italy in the 7th century led to depictions of Jesus as an iconic figure: flat, expressionless, more transcendent and divine than human.
By the 13th century, depiction of Jesus became more realistic, emphasizing physical details of his suffering. Cimabue (and later, Giotto) understood that the human form could express ideas: Jesus’ solidarity with all of humanity, suffering can be redemptive and life-giving, the body not only contains but reveals the spirit. And so Cimabue’s Jesus, with his body twisted in agony and his eyes closed in pain (he has not yet died), can be seen as one of us, a human being who inhabits our space and breathes the same air we breathe.
Earlier depictions of the crucified Jesus suggested a divinely effortless triumph over death. Cimabue’s Jesus has the weight and presence of living flesh that suffers. Jesus’ body is tense with pain. His straining chest and abdomen reveal muscles that are flexed to help him breathe and remain alive. The rectangular severity of the cross contrasts with the twisted curve of his desperate, dying body. Jesus’ eyes are closed in a private ordeal an offering we dread to share.
Cimabue carved Jesus’ body with naturalism that is tense, taut with suffering, bannered against the elegant Florentine panel, surrounded by magnificent gold leaf...this beautiful, ornate cross showing us a gripping monument in recognizable flesh. This is love.
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