The Common Cross
"The cross," someone said recently, "has become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore." The words at once sent through me a rush of lament, which then settled into a pool of reflection. How can this be true? How can an image once shameful enough to bow the proudest heads become ordinary? Could the gallows ever be innocuous? Would the death sentence of someone near us ever fail to get our attention?
Theodore Prescott is a sculptor who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the cross. In the 1980's he began working on a series of crosses using different materials, forms, and processes hoping to reconstitute the cultural and scriptural imagery of the Roman cross. In a sense, Prescott attempts to portray the incongruous. The Roman cross was a loathsome manner of execution that inflicted an anguished death; the Cross of Christ held a man who went willingly—and without guilt. Though a reflection of beauty and sacrifice, the cross is also an image of physical torture, inseparable from flesh and blood. There was a body on these beams. Its image bears both startling realities—the presence of outstretched limbs and the mystery of being scandalously vacant. These contrasts alone are replete with a peculiar depth. Yet, our daily intake of the cross "precludes contemplation," notes Prescott. The cross has become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore.
Maybe he is right. But if the cross has become merely a symbol of Christianity, an emblem of one religion in a sea of others, it is still a symbol that stands secluded and unique. Even as an image among many, it remains conspicuously on its own. The symbol of the cross is an instrument of death. Far from ordinary, it suggests, at the very least, a love quite beyond us, scandalous, and impenetrable. Perhaps it is we who have become ordinary, our senses dulled to unconsciousness by the daily matters we give precedence. Even in his own time, the apostle Paul lamented such a blurring of the cross, calling us to a greater vision. "[A]s I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:18-20).
For those who will not look carefully, the cross can be perceived as foolish or not perceived at all. It can be stripped of meaning or emptied of beauty, hope, and depth. But it cannot be emptied of Christ.
I stumbled into making crosses almost 30 years ago. I made a piece that many people saw as a cruciform image, though that was not my intention. But the resemblance was clear, and started me thinking about crosses and their imagery. In the early 1980s I embarked on a series. Two crosses from that initial series, Florentine and Selma Cross are exhibited here. My goal was to make useful liturgical objects for the church.
If the purpose of the cross is symbolic, the question is “what is being symbolized?” In my experience the answer found in too many church crosses is, “not much.” Their conventionality precludes contemplation. Their ubiquity and repetition make them almost invisible, and possibilities for spiritual reflection are muffled by a barely audible drone. So after that initial series, I resolved to treat the cross as sculpture, and to draw upon the forms, materials, and ideas that moved me as an artist. My goal was to begin to reconstitute this basic Christian symbol.
The sculpture I love has a strong material presence, a visible sense of the processes involved in making, and simple forms originating in nature or utilitarian objects. The imagery of this kind of art is not divorced from its physical embodiment. By contrast, we may easily forget that television imagery depends on a stream of electrons, since we are so taken with the projected characters and stories. But the sculptural imagery I prefer requires some interaction of form, material, and process.
This interaction can be readily seen in the Salt Lick Cross, which was assembled, and then taken to a pasture where cattle used it. The cattle modified the block forms of the salt as they drew sustenance from it, and the rich rust patina of the steel background was the result of corrosion from the cow’s saliva. Both the material and the process join with the cross form to create an image with specific, suggestive content.
Crosses like Law and Grace and Broken Tablet use paired stones which are often associated with the law. But they also resemble instruments or tools, and some people see them as weapons, or containing the potential for violence. It is important, I think, to recall that the cross was an instrument of torture, and whatever we derive from its image is inextricably linked to that.
I have included one piece, Taste and See, that is obviously not a cross. The title comes from Psalm 34: 8. The reconstitution of the cross is not just about new images for faith or art. It is something that can be tasted. The honey in this piece, Tupelo Honey, is the one kind of honey that never crystallizes. It always stays fresh.