No symbol is quite as universally recognized as the cross. Whether it is in art, churches, jewellery, or decoration, it is a part of our world, whether we are religious or no. It is a peculiar thing that a Roman method of a torturous death has become a ubiquitous emblem representing hope, strength, oppression, suffering, or resistance, all very disparate yet sometimes closely related concepts. I remember vividly the first time I went inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and seeing the carved crosses leading down to the original parts of the building, all dating from 1099 when the crusaders reached and captured Jerusalem, each cross standing for an individual crusader (below). The massacre that was carried out by those men, those very same men who created these crosses, has had centuries of repercussions. Even today, Hebrew uses ﬩ instead of + as its mathematical and grammatical plus sign, to avoid the controversial connotations of the cross.
The crucifixion has been a favourite subject for artists for centuries, related to the church commissions that rewarded painters but also because of the challenge of representing humanity in the midst of barbarism, of triumph in a scene of desperation, of love amidst hatred. Many years ago I went to confession in Westminster Cathedral in London, where there is a priest hearing confessions throughout the day, every day, in a busy church located in a bustling city. I made my matter-of-fact account of my banal sins and following absolution, just as I was about to get up and leave, the cleric caught me unawares with a parting remark that reduced me to tears: “Go in peace, now. You might think that you’ve come here to this little corner of a church in London, but what you are doing is kneeling at that timeless scene before the Cross at Calvary, receiving that same forgiveness earned there two thousand years ago”.
My personal favourite artistic representation of the Crucifixion is not medieval or baroque, but rather from the mid-twentieth century, above, the Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí. The work was executed in 1951 and is based, very loosely, on a sketch by the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, thus the name. Dalí’s painting is very bold since it rejects the traditional perspective of the Cross, usually seen from below or in its direct face, as well as omitting the gore and blood that is customary, perhaps integral, to this topic. What the artist does is offer a phenomenal fresh representation of a very old icon. He endows the scene with a timelessness – Christ is above the first-century Sea of Galilee yet seems to transcend all ages- in addition to a cosmic aspect. This, as Dalí admitted, was linked to the advent of the Atomic Age and the dreadful possibilities it brought to humankind, now crucified by the Cold War. For me, the most striking component to the painting is the fact that the central figure’s face is hidden. We put a face on Jesus in those we reject, ignore, and hate, for it is our personal tragedy that we are often more the soldiers in that scene than the protagonist.
Dalí returned to the Cross three years later, with a 1954 work known as the Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). The same preoccupations are present in this painting. It really is an extraordinary image, with his wife having been the model for the solitary figure of Mary Magdalene, making the theme of redemption explicit, a notable absence from the 1951 version. The unorthodox and decidedly brazen heterodox shape of the cross is, I think, a very affectionate and respectful homage to the universal iconography of the cross. What stands out most for me is the chessboard underneath, and here Dalí suggests the very ancient metaphor of life being a chess game in which we always lose. Is it a coincidence that Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal was released only three years later, being one of the greatest movies by one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century, concerning the chess game between a knight and Death, who, of course, cheats, as he always cheats everyone out of their very lives?
Today’s cufflinks evoke the theme of the cross. They are made out of sterling silver and bear no maker’s mark, though they look very much like German studio work of the early 1970s, with very attractive sculpted grooves, enhanced by oxidization. They really are both attractive and simple. While the cross represents many things to different people, some positive and some negative, I would like to cling to the outrageousness of the cross with its deeply shocking message of hope, despite everything and, more crucially, in spite of everyone. Happy Easter!