Ways of seeing the cross
10th March 2020
This article first appeared in issue 2 of Alban Life – a quarterly printed magazine which is distributed to all parishes in the diocese. Click here to read more articles from the ‘Alban Bites’ blog.
The cross is at the heart of the Christian faith and was at the heart of the Cultivate Arts Festival, held in Harpenden for the first time in 2018.
Harpenden’s Cultivate Arts Festival is a joyful celebration of the creative arts in all their forms, and is open to everyone.
John Swain from Harpenden Churches Together, explains: ‘The idea came from a similar event I’d seen when on holiday, where people from the local area came together to share their enthusiasm for the arts. Hosting art events in our churches makes them seem more accessible and less scary, and conversations are prompted about art, beauty, and God’s love.’
At St John’s church in Southdown, an ambitious art installation filled the space with colour and ribbons, based on the theme of the environment and our place within it. The 2019 theme was Generosity. ‘Our idea is to begin a conversation around how using our creativity can shape a generous mind-set,’ explains Liz Sergeant, one of the organising team members from St John’s church. ‘Sharing our creative gifts with our neighbours, and expecting nothing in return, will hopefully surprise, delight and in turn foster the spirit of generosity in others.’
‘We’d like to encourage people to slow down and enjoy the moment as they contemplate an art work, a poem, a play or a concert,’ adds Kate Buchanan, from the High Street Methodist church. ‘The festival offers the opportunity for people to feel restored and reconnected to each other and to God through their participation in the creative arts.’
Where we see the cross affects how we see it, what we are moved by and how we next want to see it. Revd James Brown, curate at St John’s Harpenden, describes below, his experiences of the cross.
In Lent 2018, our neighbour, Chelmsford Diocese, ran a campaign asking people to look for a symbol of the cross in as many places as they could. For a brief time, Twitter was flooded with crosses spotted in window frames, paving slabs, and in shadows cast.
There is something about symbols that we instinctively connect to. Throughout human history and across countless cultures, images have become depositaries and sources of meaning. They feed our imaginations, they absorb and interact with our deepest thoughts.
The cross is no different and each representation of it reveals a fresh angle on our lives and faith. Having helped to construct a cross as part of last year’s Cultivate Arts Festival in Harpenden (see left), I reflect on the variety of spiritual truths found in three different depictions of the cross.
While travelling across Europe many years ago, I visited Dachau in Germany. This is the site of the first concentration camp of the Second World War, and within its grounds now sits a Protestant chapel. As you enter, you descend bleak concrete slopes until you find yourself in a bare chapel made with that same cold, grey industry. On its wall is an equally stark crucifix. Four cuboid metal blocks frame the abstracted Christ figure in its centre. The ambiguity tells something of the riches of the cross. Are the cruel slabs crushing Christ? Or is he bursting out? In the most horrendous setting, the cross speaks of Christ’s identification with murderous worst at the hands of oppressive regimes. Yet it hints too at the eternal hope present amidst even the greatest evil.
Six years after the war ended, Salvador Dalí painted one of the most reproduced cross images, ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross’, 1951. His inspiration came first from a dream through which he considered ‘the very unity of the universe, the Christ!’ (1) His second source was a simple sketch by the Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross. He too had a vision 400 years before Dalí of Jesus on the cross seen from above. This aspect gives an impression of the divine view, and the cosmic reach of the cross: the universal impact of this event as the very crux of history. There is no blood. There are no nails. Far from the anguish of the Dachau cross, it reveals a timeless mystery.
Last summer I was part of team that assembled a large cross as part of the art installation at St John’s, Harpenden for the Cultivate Arts Festival. We dragged large branches from the woods near the church to make it. I knew its weight, I felt its splinters and its scrapes. Elsewhere in the installation were charred and blackened branches as part of our exploration of God’s creation and our place within it. The cross too was burnt and broken as it shared in its essence all our earthly mess.
And yet from within its tangled form grew fresh, green shoots. The cross of Christ is the place where death and life come crashing together and only one is the victor. This knotted cross was, unlike Dachau and Dalí, an empty one for it could not contain our Lord.
We find in each representation of the cross a fresh spiritual and theological understanding. How could the most profound moment in history have just a single meaning? Like our friends in Chelmsford may we too find the cross of Christ everywhere we look, and each time we look may we find a new vision of the heart of God.
Three views of the Cultivate Arts Festival wooden cross
We encounter the cross in reality and in our imagination. We see the cross in, on and in the shape of, churches. Crosses can be the focus of a work of art. Crosses can be works of art in themselves. Does the appearance and presentation of the cross determine our experience of it? Does it affect which aspect of Christ’s crucifixion we think of in that moment? Or does it make no difference?
These three images show the simple wooden Cultivate Festival cross presented in different ways. Although an empty cross, the bare cross on the left makes the knarled wood stand out, making us think perhaps of the stark reality of crucifixion. The leafy cross in the middle points more to new life, aided by the sunlight falling on it. Finally, dressing the cross with poppies creates, through the instant association with Remembrance, a shrine where we can take our memories, hopes and prayers.