For about two months, quietly, and mostly in the evening hours, a young artist from Romania has been working on a new Taizé cross for University Church here in Dublin. Watching her work is a bit like my own work in music composition – working on layer after layer, reworkings, refigurings, entering deeply into the art, stepping away. It has been a fascinating journey, watching this process evolve.
First, there were scores of discussions: what would the face of Christ look like? What disposition? Anguish? Pleading? Resignation? Pain? Detachment? And what saints were to be included on either side of the corpus? Traditionally, this would always be depicted with Saint John and Mary flanking either side. But this was to be an Irish cross...
And what other symbols might be involved? These discussions were largely about hagiography – how saints' images are depicted, what symbols are used and how. Every detail was important.
The decision was made to use Irish saints on both sides of the crucifix, a reflection of the country and tradition where the cross was to be housed. Patrick on Christ's right hand, Brigid on the left. Both had their own symbols of association: for Patrick, the shamrock as a sign of his teaching of the Trinity, and the snake at his feet, illustrating the story of his expulsion of the reptile from this island nation. Brigid is most often depicted with two symbols: the crozier (pay attention to this, men!), and her cradling the Church in her hands. Combined with that is her own symbol of the oak leaf, which hearkens back to Cill Dara – Kildare, the church of the oak.
Our artist, Mona Damian, deftly wove these signs around the two saints – both appearing in their shepherd staffs.
Then there was the face of Christ. Here, the face has the look of quiet resignation – not anger, or desperation, or even remorse. The love is still in the eyes, not extinguished in the face of torture, pain and betrayal. The ability to capture this expression is one of the many compelling parts of this portrayal of the Crucifixion.
Mona also seized upon one of the hidden artistic components of University Church. Woven subtly throughout the lunettes of the saints in the nave are small pieces of glass – now so old and aged that they look more like stones than pieces of glass. The decision was made to incorporate these shards of glass into all the haloes of the cross: the Saviour, both of the saints, and even high above the cross itself, as a representation of the wingéd hope of the Advocate.
Week by week Mona worked, moving from the blank white palette which she sketched out on day one. Layer after layer, the corpus emerged, as if being released from a tomb. The Cross began to find small tendrils emerging from it – signs of growth emanating from the Tree of Life. Then came the saints, gazing up directly into the face of the Saviour. Finally, the symbol of the Trinity: the hands of the Father, the heart of the Son, and the wings of the Spirit, all looking down on the Sacrifice of Calvary.
Now it is all done, curing, hardening in the gallery of University Church: all the layers of paint and lacquer and glass. Ageing, as all art does, becoming darker and more compelling as the days and weeks and months slip by. By September, it will be brought down into the heart of Newman's Church, at the end of the nave, surrounded by candlelight, held in place by the granite communion rail that marks off the altar where the Sacrifice is repeated, day after day. As we enter into the autumn days, we will be ready to have this new work of art become the focal point of our Taizé prayer, a new project stewarded by our incoming members of Dublin's House of Brigid, Teach Bhríde.
Behold the wood. The wood of the Cross. Behold our salvation, which even in the darkest hour, holds the promise of grace and beauty and deliverance from all that would cause us to lose hope.