The Great Cross
Front side: 12' x8', St. Bernard Abbey, Cullman Alabama
Front of The Great Cross
All the love in heaven and earthy meet in the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God the eternal Father gives himself to us wholly in the Son. By taking upon his pure body the ravages of all sin, the Son breaks the chain of consequences that have doomed us. Now all that would result from our ungodly acts is fallen, not on us but upon him. And we who will, gaze by heart upon this utter catastrophe of justice, and are transformed. The authority of his love makes the cosmic injustice of this murder fertile in our souls. By suffering the wreck of our outrageous rebellion, he presents himself to us extended upon the cross, the whole truth about who we are by what we have done. It is in this revelation that the power of his love tears away the decay of sin gripping our heats and we are able to lift ourselves into the embrace of his forgiveness.
From eternity, the Father pours himself into his beloved Son. The Son, lifted up between earth and heaven, pours out his very heart's blood upon us. And we, washed in this holy flood, recapitulate that love in the holocaust of our lives.
Can any painted image circumscribe what neither human mind nor heart is competent to measure? But this great love fills the soul with song, and that song must find a voice.
There are as many ways to think about the crucifixion of our Lord as there are crucifixes, artists, poets, theologians, and devout souls to contemplate this most sacred event. Yet the sum of all these does not exhaust its subject.
Christ was first shown in the art of the Church by the image of a shepherd. Later he was painted on the cross in regal robes and reigning as if already in the power of his resurrection. The Byzantine Church represented our Lord’s body nailed upon the cross without reference to his anguish. The first images of the suffering Christ appear much later in the church toward the end of the medieval period. While there have been many representations of the agony of his sacred person throughout the second millennia of our Christian era, it was left to the distortions of twentieth century art to present the sacred body falsely deformed as well as wounded. But this is the twenty-first century, and we may hope for better things.
My crucifix represents Christ in the repose of death, still somehow lucid with the echo of his ineffable life. He hangs suspended; yet, he seems to rise. With one hand he grips the mandate of his mission, while the other gestures its consummation. Even in death his head is not bowed but fixed by the immutability of his own holiness, which is represented by a dramatic halo. His orientation is to the earth, where he has descended to "lead captivity captive and give gifts to men.”
I have represented Christ’s sacred body not as I have seen, but as I have understood it. I wanted to show him fair and pure and not of this world. God, the Word, has communicated Himself to us through a human body by His Incarnation. He spoke divine truth to us with real lips, and healed us with tangible hands. This same body was the arena in which His love and forgiveness vanquished sin. It was His flesh that suffered on the cross, and in bearing that suffering, His forgiveness came against the whole power of death and exhausted it. He now gives us this body for our spiritual food, to staunch in us as well the power of sin.
Above his head we see represented in initials the writing, “Jesus Nazarenes Rex Judaeorum,” which Pilate commanded to be nailed to the cross. We see him king of thorns and nails and blood, the off souring of our rampaging will. He is killed in the vain hope that his word may die through which all the meaning of the universe coheres.
A sigh of the Holy Trinity, ever united in all these acts, is at the summit of the cross. In this context the symbol of the Trinity supposes a kind of lock or the interlocking quality of God’s perfect justice to which our Lord’s immolation is the key.
Back of The Great Cross
The Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John are lifted out of the temporal world where they stood at the foot of the cross. They are placed on the wings of the crossbeam in their metaphysical relation to Christ as grieving mother and beloved disciple.
The colors of this painting evoke a somber mood, the pallor of death pooled in melancholy form. The church, with its solemn and monumental space, answers the mysterious form. I labored to make this crucifix as quiet as its environment.
Once drawn into the ambit of the altar, the viewer is involved with the mass of the cross and its three dimensional qualities. Then passing round to the choir side, the unexpected yet somehow inevitable configuration of Christ in Glory bursts upon the sight.
The situation of the freestanding altar at the transept or crossing of the Abbey Church creates a still point above which our Lord is shown to the congregation in his death, and to the choir in his glory. This simultaneous representation of his mortality and immortality complete the entire mystery of our redemption, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Benedictine life is a life of prayer that is ordered to the formal recitation of the psalms, ”ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus.” These very psalms provide the substance for the painting before you because they are ever addressed to the Lord reigning in heaven. "Oh give thanks to the God of heaven: for his Mercy endureth for ever." And again: "Forever, Oh Lord, thy Word is settled in Heaven."..."The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord's throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his eyelids try the children of men.”...He will send from heaven and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.” “Whom have I in heaven but thee: and there is none on earth beside thee.” “Return, we beseech thee, Oh God of hosts: Look down from heaven and behold, and visit this vine.”
The glorified Christ must be shown splendid. Our God is precious, solemn, high and lifted up. And yet because of his bodily ascension, we know we shall see him then still also a man.
The radiance behind Christ is the traditional Byzantine mandorla. I have made it as a sun to illustrate a text of the Apocalypse where St. John describes his heavenly vision of our Lord saying: “his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.”
Upon the bosom of Christ is a medallion of his own sacred heart to remind us that all the judgments of God are works of love.
I have attempted to imbue the passion side of the crucifix with a monastic spirituality, but on the glory side I have incorporated actual Benedictine symbols with representations of founder Saints Benedict and Bernard.
The heaven in which our Lord is seated is filled with stars in the form of Benedictine crosses. These stars represent the many saints, known and unknown, of the Benedictine order who lived and died in imitation of Christ.
The gold cross behind the figure of Christ is not fully extended because, in his glory, it no longer confines Him. He is him. On it are the abbreviations taken from the medal of St. Benedict: "Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux, Nunquam Draco Sit Mihi Dux." ("Sacred cross, be thou my light, never, Dragon, be my leader.")
On the four extreme ends of the cross are representations of the Tetramorph. These characters of lion and calf man and eagle (not seen in photograph) stand for the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are shown holding golden scrolls which represent their divinely inspired accounts of the life and death and resurrection of our Lord. This ancient motif, often found on early crucifixes, binds the passion of our Lord to the eyewitness accounts of Sacred Scripture. They are appropriate to the glory side of this crucifix because these creatures are also described by St. John in the Apocalypse as surrounding the throne of God.
A work of art, even in the service of God, is only a work of art. And never are its limitations more apparent than when its subject is in very essence sublime. For all God’s inestimable goodness for which I could fine no equivalent, I beg your indulgence. And if I awakened any intuition of that beauty in whom we live and move and have our being, return your thanks with me to God who inhabits the praises of his saints.
Gloria Thomas, artist