Love Made Visible: The Painting of a Crucifix for St. Thomas More in Darien

DARIEN- Parishioners of St. Thomas More in Darien are currently gathering for Sunday Mass in the Parish Hall while the 1973-built church undergoes extensive renovation. The Hall was restored in 2017 as part of the Next Generation project and now provides a beautiful multi-purpose space for parish activities.

But since it was not designed as a church, some creative thinking was required to set up a temporary Sanctuary for Mass. Since the sojourn was to be for an extended period of time, and included the Paschal Triduum, Confirmations and First Communions, it needed to ‘feel like church’ in order to sustain the life of the worshipping community.

The Pastor, Fr. Paul G. Murphy, wanted to make sure that there was a Crucifix of sufficient size and quality to provide a focal point of devotion. Nothing already on campus fitted the bill – they were either too small, or the iconography was not quite right. An Altar Cross is meant to evoke compassion, so that the onlooker is actively caught up in the drama of the Paschal Mystery.

A straightforward answer would have been to purchase a new one, but some voices were concerned that a traditional wooden Crucifix would look too stark and too cold against a black curtain – it would be ideal for Good Friday, but not for our weekly Mass, where the Lord’s Passion is always seen in the light of His definitive triumph over sin and death.

In short, a bit of color was needed – and so thoughts turned to the hanging roods of northern Italy, made famous by the San Damianoexample, from which the Lord spoke to St. Francis. These crucifixes are quite large and some are suspended in mid-air, as if caught in a motion picture freeze-frame. They frequently include not just the Lord, but also His Mother and the Beloved Disciple, so that the onlooker is present with Mary and John at Calvary.

Seminarian-in-residence (and amateur artist), Michael Clark, came up with the idea of making a professional-quality print of a suitable original and mounting it on board to hang behind the altar. Enquiries were made and two possible candidates emerged: one on a black background and the other on a vividbluebackground. Fr. Murphy preferred the blue background and this became the prototype.

The original is not an Altar Cross at all. It is a Processional Cross, only around 90cm tall, painted by an otherwise anonymous artist known as the Master of St. Francis. It dates to around 1265 and was painted in egg tempera on poplar wood and now hangs in the National Gallery in London, England. The Masteris the same artist responsible for some of the decoration of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi itself, and may well have been a member of the Order.

The Franciscans were at the cutting edge of liturgical art in the C13. They were expanding rapidly and commissioning many new pieces for their foundations. They quickly developed a distinctive style, in part influenced by the great icon-painting tradition of the East, but with innovations in figurative painting that went beyond the typographical rigor of Eastern iconography. It was the classic meeting of East and West: bold colors and raw emotions joining together to draw viewers into the drama of the Paschal Mystery.

At this time there was considerable contact and commerce between the Christian East and Northern Italy due to the influence of the Republic of Venice, which traded on the seas. Constantinople, also known as New Rome, was still a Christian city, inhabited by people who called themselves Romans(not ‘Byzantines’ as history has subsequently designated) and although the history was not always peaceful, there was a certain degree of cultural cross-pollination.

The original design of the Master of St. Francisshows distinctive Eastern influences – the use of tempera and gold leaf and the very stylized poses of Christ, the three Maries and John – which lend an otherworldly or transcendental air to the piece. However, it does not conform to the precise rules of iconography, so it is very much a product of the Latin West.

The print was successful and the colors worked nicely in situ, but something was not quite right. Since the image was around twice the original size, some of the clarity and sharpness was lost. A potential disaster! But just at this moment Providence intervened:

Michael was pondering to mount the image, when a chance visit to the home of longstanding parishioners, the Catino family, led to Jim Catino giving a guided tour of his very professional workshop. Jim’s wife, Patty, is the Office Manager at St. Thomas More and after a few wistful conversations a plan began to hatch. Jim very kindly offered to build the frame Michael needed, so that the print out could serve as an Altar Cross.

Michael traced the image at 5 feet in length so that Jim could get to work. In subsequent discussions Jim advised that the frame should be made out of oak, in order to resist warping – and this is where things began to change radically. Jim explained that he wanted to use planks of oak jointed with slivers of beech wood called ‘biscuits’ for strength and resilience. Master carpenter that he is, the Cross took shape in record time.

When Michael saw the handcrafted masterpiece Jim had made out of finely planed and mitered wood he was blown away:

It was so beautiful: I realized then and there that he could not use this stunning piece of craftsmanship to hold a mere photograph of the Lord’s image: I knew I had to do better than that: I had to paint it for real.

Looking at Jim’s masterpiece Michael thought of a line from George Herbert’s poem, Easter:

 The Cross taught all wood to resound His name,
Who bore the same

Reflecting on these things put Michael’s own artistic skills into perspective. Although drawing and sketching all his life, he considers himself very much an amateur. But he could not ignore the sense that God wantedthis Cross to be painted. Further reassurance came from how Herbert finishes the same poem:

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

Michael realized that if it was God’s will, then the Holy Spirit would surely ‘make up his defects’, so he began work with this prayer:

Lord, help me to paint what you want your people in Darien to see.

There is a certain depth to the resulting image, which Michael explains in his own words:

Each day there was something new to learn. 10 layers of chalky-white gesso were the foundation of a dark undercoat for the gilded parts. It is important to get this stage right, because, without gesso, it is almost impossible to paint on wood. After the base was prepared, I sketched out the figures onto the gesso freehand, in pencil, and the basic design took shape.

The design derives entirely, but not slavishly from the C13 original, because it cannot really be surpassed. So in my version, as the Master of St. Francis first conceived, we do not just gaze upon the crucified Lord in isolation: He is attended by the three Maries (Our Lady, Mary Magdalene and Mary Clopas) on one side and John the Evangelist on the other.

There are some differences from the original because this image speaks to our situation in Fairfield County and draws upon the experiences and aspirations of the people I have met here. It has since become known as the ‘Darien Crucifix’, which I am really happy about. It was very much a parish effort in conception and execution and it is fitting that it should remain here for as long as it is useful.

The painting is somewhat more figurative: that is to say a little less stylized and a bit more lifelike with shading and proportion. This was a deliberate choice, to enable us to relate to the scene and help us to feel both pity and comfort in the depiction of Our Lord’s suffering: pitythat Jesus should suffer so much on our behalf, but comfortthat He was prepared to do so.

The Lord sleeps the sleep of death on the Cross. He has uttered His very last word, which, according to the Evangelist standing right there beside Him, was “tetélestai”.Sparsely translated from Greek this means “it is finished” – but it has a richer meaning than that. It is a verb derived from the noun, “telos”which means “end” or “purpose”, from which our English word ‘teleology’ comes. The Lord’s final word signals to the world that His offering of Himself is complete or consummated: He has truly died in the flesh – but in dying He has destroyeddeath and opened the way to eternal life from His wounded side.

The Lord’s body is notably curved, which highlights two things: first of all the full extent of His suffering and pain, but secondly the fact that the Cross itself cannot contain this expression of His love. His life is completely, and freely, given up and the foursquare Cross cannot hold it in! It flows out – across time and space – even to us here today.

The bodies of the bystanders also display a range of emotions: Our Lady is doubled over in agony – an agony She shares with Her Son. A sword of pain pierces Her Immaculate Heart (cf. Lk 2:35) just as the lance just pierced Her Son’s Sacred Heart. Mary was chosen by God to play a pivotal role in the Redemption of humanity by her presence at the foot of the Cross. She teaches us how to be compassionatein the literal sense of that word – how to unite our sufferings with those of Jesus and, therefore, how best to participate in the Eucharist.

Our Lady is held from falling by the comforting arms of Mary Magdalene, wrapped around her like a shawl. In the depiction, the Magdalene’s mantle is the same blood red as the Lord’s wounds and it completely covers the Blessed Mother. Here the symbolism is of the Ark of Covenant: just as the Ark was sprinkled with blood on Yom Kippur, here Mary, the true Ark, is symbolically sprinkled by being present at the Savior’s side as He atones for mankind as Priest and Victim.

Behind them, Mary Clopas looks a different way: her eyes are raised to the Cross as she peers over the crowd contemplating the Lord’s suffering. She is a figure for us – standing alongside the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross, looking up at the One whom we have pierced.

John the Evangelist, the ‘Beloved Disciple’ is aghast with grief; he holds his hand to his face, unable to contain his sorrow. He is an eyewitness (cf. Jn 19:35) and reports that he saw the Lord’s side being pierced. It is his account that informs the entire composition: he himself tells us of his own presence – and that of the three Maries at Calvary. His mantle is slightly different from the original: it is rose-colored, which is traditional for later depictions of him.

Something quite unplanned happened when drawing this figure: the Master of St. Francismade a deliberate link between the Lord’s head and John’s head which I reproduced – they are similar in shape and expression, undoubtedly to underline John’s own understanding of the Lord’s Passion. However in my version, quite accidentally, John’s whole body echoes the curves of Christ’s body. They are perfectly aligned so that, like Mary, but to a different degree, John alsoparticipates in Christ’s saving action in his body and also provides a model for our own ‘active participation’ in the Eucharist.

Omitted from my version is the Roman soldier to John’s left in the original design. Whilst true to the Biblical account, I felt that the gilding creates a sacred halo around the figures, so really only those considered holy should be within that heavenly light. The whole composition shows the different ways we are invited to participate in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery and it seemed appropriate that only those responding to it with the eyes of Faith should be included.

A new feature was also added at the foot of the Cross: the vertical beam springs up from a rocky outcrop, in which there is a cave with a depiction of a skull and crossbones. This is not a reference to pirates: they are Adam’s bones. A pious tradition has always existed that Calvary was also the location of Adam’s tomb – and the inclusion of his bones at the foot of the Cross is an allusion to the fact that he too is redeemed by the blood of Christ shed on that same mountain. The inclusion of our First Father shows how the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery are the apex of God’s response to the Fall. Our disobedience is cured by the Lord’s perfect obedience; our blood by His blood and through His suffering, our dry bones are brought to life at the cost of His life.

A good work of art should not need too much explanation, but I thought it would be helpful to explain a little of the history and iconography of this addition to the Hall at St. Thomas More. It is a little token of my immense gratitude to all the parishioners there for their support and prayers as I have been among them for the past few months. I hope it is something that helps them to contemplate the mystery of God’s love– and His many blessings on the parish as it continues to journey along the path first trod by wounded feet.”

By: Michael Vian Clark