Why Catholics care about the Cross

Guido Reni's Crucifixion in San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome

Good Friday still has a hold on the popular imagination, even in this country, where there are few crucifixes and Crosses on public display. The Cross is such an important symbol for us Christians, and the crucifix is supposed to have a dominant place in every church, and indeed to be on or near the altar.

Italy is the country for Mount Calvaries, that is, hills that have been turned into arduous Stations of the Cross, with 14 chapels, each with a tableau representing one of the stations, the main chapel being of course the church of the crucifix. One such is to be found above Domodossola, Piedmont. The rather florid carvings may not be to everyone’s taste.

The nearest equivalent that I have come across in England is the much more restrained Mount Calvary at Mount St Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire, which adapts a rather bleak rocky outcrop to admirable devotional purposes. It ought to be better known and is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area.

In Romanesque churches, of the sort you find in ancient Italian towns, there is often a large crucifix just within the door of the church. This brings you up sharp as you enter, and reminds you that the Cross is the point of mediation between the sacred and the profane, our “way in” to the holy. Again this is the point behind the rood screen, so beloved of Pugin.

The screen divides the holy space from the less holy, and the Cross is the crossing point between the two. Indeed, every time we look at a crucifix, we should feel the call of the divine, the call to leave the profane and embrace the sacred which has been won for us by Christ.

Baroque Crucifixion scenes are in a class of their own. In the great Baroque churches of Rome the crucifix was often relegated to a side chapel, which is, usually, the most popular side chapel in the church. My favourite will always be Guido Reni’s painting of the Crucifixion which, unusually, hangs over the high altar in San Lorenzo in Lucina. It is a wonderful piece of work, capturing the suffering and ecstasy of Our Lord on the Cross, the city of Jerusalem and a turbulent sky behind him. It is a painting that captures the key moment in the drama of our salvation. For me, this is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, perfectly rendered.

Why do we Catholics care so much about the Cross and crucifixes? Well, it is simple: the crucifix tells us a simple fact that goes beyond words, namely that God loves us, all of us, and died for all of us. That is why one gets so annoyed by people who want to ban the Cross and the crucifix, or who brand it as somehow offensive. How can it be, when it is the image of universal love?