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The beauty of holiness

27 September 2013

Nicholas Cranfield on connections between cross and eucharist, and the visual arts

The crucifixion panel in the Redemption Window in the corona at Canterbury Cathedral, discussed in Christopher Irvine's book, and illustrated. Both images on this page appear courtesy of their respective cathedrals

The crucifixion panel in the Redemption Window in the corona at Canterbury Cathedral, discussed in Christopher Irvine's book, and illustrated. Both ...

The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art
Christopher Irvine
SPCK (Alcuin Club Collections 88) £19.99
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AROUND 1608, the Bolognese painter Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619) was commissioned for the large canvas (62 ins × 88 ins) Christ in the Wilderness Served by Angels. The choice of subject is uncommon, and the iconography is strikingly unusual.

Jesus is shown standing in front of a rocky mountain pass overgrown with trees. Behind him is spread a long table with a white linen tablecloth, on which is set a cup of wine and a bread roll. Other gifts are being brought to the table. One angel holds a basin in front of him, while another pours water over his fingers from a ewer. Two behind him hold out a white towel for him to dry his hands.

In Gallery XV of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, this painting seems wildly out of place. The Cecco del Caravaggio next to it, of Christ Driving out the Moneychangers, is at least more immediately recognisable, but what is the non- scriptural scene in the wilderness meant to suggest, and why was it commissioned?

Christopher Irvine, who does not discuss this particular painting, brilliantly breathes liturgical life into similar paintings and sculptures by taking them from galleries and museums and demonstrating their original purpose. This is a welcome follow-up to his 2005 book The Art of God, making clear how art is used to make places sacred, besides becoming sacred by being brought into churches. The book is fittingly offered as a gift to mark the 40th anniversaries of ordination of two priests with whom he has long worked, at Mirfield and in the Close at Canterbury.

The author uses the range of images for the cross, whether as the tree of life or as the tree of victory, the noble tree and the tree of shame, to chart the liturgy and spread of Christian theology in both the West and Eastern traditions. He leaves us to guess that one cause of the bare cross was the Iconoclastic period in Late Antiquity, but writes as fluently of the Ethiopic tradition as of the Celtic.

Although he discusses earlier images, the emphasis of the book is on the period after Charlemagne when the cross and the eucharist first became linked. This allows for a discussion of the development of the reredos and retable; rood screens are mentioned in passing.

Fonts, as the origin of the Christian community and as signifiers of paradise restored, are crucial to this account. The font from the basilica of St Felix, Kélibia, which is now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, turns out to be a memorial to St Cyprian, the African bishop and church writer who died in 258 on the day later celebrated as Holy Cross Day, an observance of which Irvine writes extensively.

Besides many sacred works of art from Fra Angelico to Norman Adams, he draws on The Dream of the Rood and the poetry of George Herbert, but somewhat inexplicably omits Donne's great poem "The Crosse" - which was probably written at the same time as Carracci was painting in Rome - in which the word itself is repeated more than in any other English poem.

Canon Irvine has chosen publication with a learned society. A more diligent editor would have known that James VI and I could never have heard Bishop Andrewes preach at Whitechapel; would have been able to harmonise the Anglicisation of church dedications (St Gall but Santa Maria Antiqua, St Clemente, and San Clemente); and should have provided for a more extensive list of selected artworks.

The exiguous index needs overhauling. Mary Carruthers (precisely) appears, but not Emperor Heraclius, Macarius, or the Queen of Sheba. One might imagine that Dom Gregory Dix had not even been consulted.

A revised second edition might place the book where it ought to find its much deserved readership if it was fully illustrated. Time and time again as I read, I needed to remind myself, by going to other books and histories, which particular mosaic or picture was being so beautifully described and interpreted for me.

In the case of the Carracci painting (which can be found on the Google Art Project, or the home page for the Berlin museums), a priest preparing to say mass would have found it in a sacristy near the vesting chest.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was taken into the wilderness of temptation and was ministered to by angels. Priests know all too well the profound sense of being alone, and of celebrating the commonness of our baptism. Where once Jesus prepared to offer himself as the self-immolating sacrifice, priests offer the gifts of creation after a period of wilderness prayer and silence.

Priests and lay people reading this book will be both spiritually encouraged and liturgically informed, as they find more meaning in the matrix of communicative signs and symbols that abound in places used for worship.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south London.

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