A Good Friday reflection on John Collier’s Crucifix

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 4, 2007

The Tree-of-Life Crucifix, a very distinctive work of art, was recently installed in the Day Chapel of Cochrane’s St. Mary’s Church. Photo by Warren Harbeck.

The cross is inseparable from the central teaching of Christianity. The empty cross is often seen as synonymous with the empty tomb of Jesus Christ’s Easter morning resurrection from the dead. More often, in word, song and art, it is the cross with Christ still nailed to it that is in focus – the cross of Good Friday. Historically, the latter cross frequently finds physical expression in crucifixes.

For my Christian Holy Week column this year, I’d like to celebrate a particular crucifix, a significant work of art created by American sculptor John Collier and installed last week in the Day Chapel of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Cochrane.

Tree-of-Life Crucifix is a ten-and-a-half-foot-high cross and corpus (body) of bonded resin, patinated with oil paint and terra cotta dust, and waxed. It weighs about 500 lbs.

The cross itself is not the smooth, straight-edged, symmetrical kind usually encountered, but rather an old rugged, bent tree trunk and branch. On the tree is a tattered, whipped, and fallen Jesus, now nailed to the place of His death.

As Cochrane coffee companion and pottery artist Nicole Byl said upon first seeing Collier’s Crucifix, this is “raw and real.”

Renowned sculptor John Collier prepares the crucifix for installation March 28. Photo by Warren Harbeck.

And yet, for artist Collier, this is not a tree of death, but of life. It alludes to the first tree of life, found in the Garden of Eden and withheld from Adam and Eve because of their disobedience to God. Now at His crucifixion, Jesus, the “second Adam,” dies on a tree to restore life and hope for the human race, a remedy for Adam’s fall.

Collier is highly regarded for his sensitive interpretations of religious themes. It is especially noteworthy that he was chosen as the chief artist for the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero in New York. Dedicated in 2005, his contribution consists of four sculptures representing Mary Magdalene and the patron saints of police officers, firefighters, and workers. For this he received the Optimé Award in Ministry and Liturgy.

At a reception in Collier’s honour, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke of how the artist had helped a grieving population discover anew “the significance of the timeless values of courage, faith, and community” in the process of “meeting the challenges of remembering, recovering, and rebuilding.”

Collier sees clearly the role of religious art in remembering and recognizing the importance of persons and events.

“Human beings have always made art about what they think is important,” he wrote in a letter to St. Mary’s Church. “In fact, much of the reason we think one thing or another is important is because someone has taken the time to make art about it. Movies and books about historical figures, the architecture of your local courthouse, the statue of a local hero in the park, all reinforce a community’s sense of their subject’s importance. I think our Lord is important. I make art about Him.”

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the inseparability of art and worship. It’s not at all that we worship the art, but rather, art becomes a window through which we experience more meaningfully the One we do worship and the world in which He has placed us.

So with the crucifix as a spiritual window: for me, and for many, the cross on which Christ died is not only a symbol of God’s love and forgiveness, but a call to patient endurance during difficult times, as well. After all, do not the Christian scriptures urge Christ’s followers to contemplate the Crucified One, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . . so that you may not grow weary or lose heart”? (Hebrews 12:2–3)

Then, of course, there is the life-changing significance of contemplating the cross for straightening out our values and priorities – for restoring humility and authenticity to our lives. This was captured by Isaac Watts 300 years ago in a hymn well known across all denominational lines. I’ll wrap up this Holy Week column with the words to that hymn, with special gratitude to John Collier for so artfully making the cross present to me and to a whole new generation of those who find rest in its shadow:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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