Illustrating the Faith: Crucifixes in the Diocese of Shreveport

by Linda Webster

This is the first article in a new series that will explore works of faithful art on display in churches across the Diocese of Shreveport.

Giunta crucifix in St. Michael the Archangel Chapel at the Cathedral

The crucifix defines a Catholic Church visually. We expect to see some representation of Christ crucified near the altar because it is an artistic element illustrating that fundamental part of our faith rooted in sacrifice. But there are as many ways to represent this sacrifice as there are artists. There is a full spectrum of artistic examples across the Diocese of Shreveport.

A 13th century Giunta crucifix is on display in St. Michael the Archangel Chapel at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. According to Fr. Peter Magnum and Carol Gates, the cross was stolen from a church during the 16th century Greco-Turkish wars. It was discovered in Istanbul early in the 20th century and sold at auction in New York to Mr. and Mrs. George Haddad of Shreveport after a failed attempt to return it to the original church.
“It hung at the back of the choir loft from 1928 until the chapel was completed in 1995,” explained Fr. Magnum. “It was really too small for the space and difficult to see until it was moved.”

This is one of only four Giunta crucifixes in the world and the only one in the United States. The artist, Giunta Pisano who was thought to be active from around 1200-1250, is known for depicting Christ in agony on these crucifixes which was an artistic departure from the earlier, more serene Byzantine representations of his death. Blood gushes from the wound in his side, from his hands, and from his feet while his head is slumped to the side and his mouth hangs open in a style described by some as barbarous.By contrast, the cross itself is decorated with elaborate gilded plaster fretwork. Symbols of Saints John, Mark, Luke and Matthew adorn the four corners of the cross providing a startling contrast between Christs’ agony and the glorious gift of salvation endowed through that suffering.

Paul Chambers describes how the faithful process images to get at the truth or theological elements behind the artistry in his article “The Power of Passion Imagery.” “There is the danger that Christianity’s discomforting and ‘distasteful’ elements be falsely prettified for an era characterized by a lack of depth,” he notes in reference to contemporary art. He explains that the earliest depictions of Christ’s passion, which showed stark images of venal human expression in contrast to Christ’s holy visage, seemed to arise in the thirteenth century, inspired by Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Francis of Assisi. This would encompass the era in which Giunta would have been creating his religious art.

Catholics who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church would recognize the crucifix hanging behind the altar at St. Clement in Vivian. The near-life-sized Christ figure dominates with fingers extending beyond the crosstree and the body composed in a posture suggesting death. While the wounds at the hands, the feet, and the side are set off with crimson, the posture and the otherwise unblemished body radiate a certain tranquility.

Crucifix at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Shreveport

The crucifix was stored for some years when a pastor decided that a smaller icon would be preferable. According to Patricia Whitecotton, church secretary and parish historian, it was stored in the confessional at the back of the sanctuary. “One of our parishioners showed up for confession at the scheduled time, opened the door, and got quite a fright. There she was, face-to-face with Jesus!”

Rosie Spearman, now deceased, had not been told that the crucifix was angled into the space with the corpus facing outward.  Eventually, it was returned to the wall behind the concrete altar where it remains today.

A similar crucifix is mounted high above the altar centered on a dramatic, soaring white wall at Sacred Heart Church of Jesus Church in Shreveport. However, the corpus is conscious and the gaze is upward. As a result, there is no gash in Jesus’ side and only his hands and feet show wounds.

Jeffrey Smith, a historian of Jesuit art in the early Reformation, explains that art is tied to Christian formation.  We connect emotionally with an image that should stimulate thought and increase faith as we meditate on the scriptural and traditional elements represented. None of this is accidental nor is it new. Smith writes that the theory behind engaging the senses and promoting spiritual reflection through imagery is documented as far back as the early sixteenth century. It is, however, up to the individual to make the connection and actively meditate on the meaning behind that sensual reaction.
A more contemporary rendering of the crucifix at Christ the King Parish in Bossier City shows Christ crowned and vested. “Msgr. LaCaze travelled the state to choose the type of church we would build in the 1970s,” said a life-long parishioner.  “Then he wanted a crucifix of the risen Christ. Stan Gall in Crowley, LA, had a catalog and Msgr. LaCaze chose this one.”

The figure is hand-carved lindenwood from the Art Studio Demetz in Italy, according to Mary Gall Fontenot of Louisiana Church Interiors in Crowley. The carved figure is serene and almost relaxed in the crucifixion posture. The gaze is directly ahead, the head and neck are upright, and there is tension in the arms and legs suggesting full consciousness.  The Christ figure has conquered the cross and stands erect in victory. There is very little ornamentation other than stylized, Byzantine-influenced extensions to the four points of the cross.   This is a relatively small icon but it hangs suspended high above the altar in front of a high white wall lit by a skylight overhead.

Modern crucifix at St. Theresa Church, Delhi.

“Properly lit, the crucifix should project the images of God and of a dove on the back wall so that the trinity is represented,” explained the parishioner.
Probably the most contemporary rendering of a crucifix in the diocese hangs in St. Theresa Church in Delhi. As part of a massive renovation in 1996, a stylized Christ figure was etched into a large glass cross suspended above the altar.

“That’s my favorite part of this church,” said Fr. Philip Pazhayakari, CMI in 2011 during an interview.  “When I walked into the church for the first time and saw the three-fold crucifix up on that wall, I was mesmerized.  It’s so beautiful.” •

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