Faith through Art: Praying with the many facets of the Rosano Cross
By Norman Farmer
This magnificent 9 foot by 7 foot painted cross in the Christus triumphans (or Christ Resurrected) mode of the 12th century rather than the Christus patiens (or humanized and suffering Christ) mode of modern times, reconnects us with our mystagogical and liturgical antecedents while opening fresh perspectives for timeless reflections on the Paschal mystery.
In either case St. Paul offers us the keys to the divine mysteries evoked by the great Rosano Cross –– and they are both numerous and transforming. First, as he says to the Galatians, “Christ [must] be formed in you” (Gal 4:19) That is, he must be present in memory and imagination which give us the faith to know him as “the image of the invisible God”(Col 1:15) and “the Light shin[ing] out of darkness” (2 Cor 4:6).
Second, such faith grows from acceptance that “the Lord is the spirit” and that “all of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18). The rich imagery of the Rosano crucifix shows us the way past impediments to understanding, the veils of incomprehension and spiritual passivity, allowing us, as Paul says to the Philippians (Phil 3:10), to be “conformed to [Christ’s] death” and reconciled to God through images that we may scrutinize and contemplate.
No longer affixed to the cross, yet showing the stigmata of his crucifixion, the risen Christ stands erect and independently before it, his eyes open and responsive and his arms thrust wide apart in the traditional Mass greeting: “The Lord be with you” (Ru 2:4). Indeed, his head is slightly tilted in an assuring gesture that says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
Now we notice that there are two crosses here. One, impenetrably black, is set within another larger cross that pulses with the colors of the rainbow. At the extremities of its frame and upon the apron beneath its horizontal extensions are nine exquisitely designed and brilliantly colored panels. The two beyond Christ’s open palms, which reach out across the horizon of the created world, depict Mary Clopas and the Magdalen (Jn 19:25) and Christ’s “mother and the disciple ... whom he loved” (Jn 19:26-7). Six more panels upon the apron depict episodes from the Passion narrative in Scripture: (1) the Betrayal and Capture (Mk 14:18, 42-48), (2) the Deposition (Mt 27:59; Lk 23:53), (3) the Entombment (Jn 19:38-42), (4) the Descent into Hell, (5) the Three Marys at the Tomb, and (6) the Encounter on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-31) where Jesus “vanished from their sight,” figured here as his departure through a shimmering cloud-like blue doorway, painted with the highest grade of crushed lapis lazuli.
Then, at the foot of the Cross –– the “tree” planted among rocks and skulls upon Golgotha, (Mt 27:33; Lk 23:33), a seventh panel depicts Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10-11) following the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles where Peter gestures toward that same shimmering blue doorway, while the Abbess of the Assumption Priory acknowledges Peter as she welcomes all who would visit the house of God. Now we notice that the risen Christ all but completely covers the black cross of sin and death as he welcomes us into the light emanating from the Cross of his Resurrection. And we notice as well that his halo, signed by the cross of his victory over sin and death, completely obliterates Pilate’s titulus (Lk 23:38) as well, proclaims him a king whom Pilate could never imagine.
And the Paschal mystery continues to unfold before our eyes, proving, as St. Cyril explained in the fourth century, that “Seeing is far more persuasive than hearing.” For as we read the six panels in their chronological order, our eyes pass three times across the immaculate body of the risen Christ, silently signing the Gloria Patria with our eyes and thoughts as we have contemplated the glorified body of the Lord. Doing so, we come ever so slowly to realize that Christ’s luminous purity, “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12) that is expressed at Easter by the paschal candle, is likewise present in the form of Christ Triumphant, whose pure light was refracted into the beauties of the created world long before he died, was buried, and rose again from the dead (CCC 638; 1 Cor 15:4).
One final, but profoundly touching detail: the intersecting halos of God’s divine and beloved Son and his Beloved Mother in the Deposition panel is a masterpiece of artistic genius inspired by the Holy Spirit. And it is just one of many more mysteries remaining to be discerned and adored before the painted Cross at Rosano.