|Welsh artist John Petts - Detail|
This Lent I would like to focus on the CRUCIFIXION of CHRIST and some modern artists who are "fixated" on this most Sacred event.
The crucifixion of Jesus has been depicted in religious art since the 4th century. In the first three centuries of Early Christian art, the crucifixion was rarely depicted. Constantine I forbade crucifixion as a method of execution, and early church leaders regarded crucifixion with horror, and thus, as an unfit subject for artistic portrayal.
The discovery of the True Cross by Constantine's mother, St. Helena, and the development of Golgotha as a site for pilgrimage, together with the dispersal of fragments of the relic across the Christian world, led to a change of attitude. It was probably in Palestine that the image developed, and many of the earliest depictions are on the Monza ampullae, small metal flasks for holy oil, that were pilgrim's souvenirs from the Holy Land, as well as 5th century ivory reliefs from Italy. Prior to the Middle Ages, early Christians preferred to focus on the "triumphant" Christ, rather than a dying one, because the concept of the risen Christ was so central to their faith. The plain cross became depicted, often as a "glorified" symbol, as the crux gemmata, covered with jewels.
Early depictions showed a living Christ, and tended to minimize the appearance of suffering, so as to draw attention to the positive message of resurrection and faith, rather than to the physical realities of execution. In the Middle Ages, Jesus was more often seen as a human being, capable of suffering.
In our own day Crucifixion has appeared repeatedly as a theme in many forms of art. Each week in Lent we will study an artist whose life was "changed" or bettered by this theme.
One amazing example of the place of Crucifixion art in our own country, took place after a shocking incident that could have rent our nation apart.
Over fifty years ago on the 15th of September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls attending Sunday school. The Church was one of the primary institutions in the black community and became the organizing center for the local civil rights movement. The bombing marked a turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement, having the opposite effect of what was intended, ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
News of the tragedy stirred John Petts, a stained glass artist, at his home in Llansteffan, Wales: “the news on the radio … left me sick at heart … as a father … I was horrified by the death of the children; as an artist-craftsman, hearing that the stained-glass windows of the church had been destroyed, I was appalled … and I thought to myself … what can we do about this?”
He contacted David Cole, the Western Mail’s editor, who enthusiastically took up the idea and the next day the Western Mail launched a campaign with the headline: ‘Alabama: Chance for Wales to Show the Way”. It was agreed that individual donations would not exceed half a crown . “We don’t want some rich man … paying for the whole window. We want it to be given by the people of Wales.” Money flooded in, the £500 target reached within days and the fund closed at £900.
When a telegram was sent offering the window as "a gesture of comfort and support", a reply accepting the offer was received stating that ‘Wales was the only country to offer such direct and material assistance’. John Petts stipulated that this window was his gift and the monies received were to pay for the shipment to Alabama.
The church has become an important historical landmark, yearly attracting thousands of visitors. The window is regarded as one of the key icons of the American Civil Rights Movement, a powerful protest against intolerance and injustice.