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Ancient Splendor Renewed

3/1/2017

by Columbia staff

The Knights of Columbus helps to restore the oldest wooden crucifix in St. Peter’s Basilica

Pope Francis is pictured with the newly restored crucifix

Pope Francis is pictured with the newly restored medieval crucifix (at right) during the Jubilee Mass for Prisoners in St. Peter’s Basilica Nov. 6, 2016. Photo by L’Osservatore Romano

On the occasion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Knights of Columbus was proud to support an initiative to restore a stunning — yet nearly forgotten — masterpiece of sacred art: a 700-year-old crucifix in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Depicting the dying Christ with his head resting on his right shoulder, the wooden sculpture was caked with nine layers of paint and riddled with cracks and woodworm holes. Once a popular and much venerated work, it was eventually relegated to a peripheral chapel of the basilica behind an elevator shaft.

Plans that were already in motion to renovate the crucifix were accelerated with the April 2015 announcement of the holy year.

“We hope that this remarkable image of Christ’s suffering will serve as a reminder to all who see it of the great love our Savior has for each one of us,” said Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, “and of the depths of his mercy, always ready to embrace and forgive us.”

After 15 months of painstaking labor by a professional team of restorers and the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office responsible for maintaining the basilica, the refurbished crucifix was exposed for public devotion during the final weeks of the holy year in late 2016.

At the request of Pope Francis, it was first displayed at the basilica’s Altar of the Confession, to the right of Bernini’s baldacchino, for the Jubilee Mass for Prisoners Nov. 6, 2016, and then again for the Jubilee Mass for the Socially Marginalized Nov. 13.

“The oldest wooden crucifix of St. Peter’s Basilica, dating back to the 14th century, was restored for the devotion of the faithful,” Pope Francis announced at the conclusion of his Nov. 13 Angelus address. “After arduous restorations, it was brought back to its ancient splendor and will be placed in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament as a reminder of the Jubilee of Mercy.”

PRESERVING HISTORY

The crucifix was carved in the early 1300s by an anonymous sculptor of remarkable skill and religious sensitivity. The figure of Christ is represented at the moment of his death.

“The face is marvelous — his eyes are still open, yet the astonished pupils are already fixed on eternity; the lips of his half-open mouth are strained in the last spasm of life,” explained Dr. Pietro Zander, chief archeologist of the Fabbrica di San Pietro. “One could say that the artist has captured the instant when, according to the Gospel accounts, Jesus uttered a loud cry (Mk 15:37) and exclaimed, ‘It is finished.’ Then bowing his head he handed over his spirit (Jn 19:30).”

Measuring 7 feet from head to toe, the torso and legs were crafted from a single piece of seasoned walnut; the arms, made from separate pieces of the same tree, span 6 feet 4 inches. Altogether, it weighs 159 pounds.

“It is amazing how many precise anatomical details in this work are not found in other wooden crucifixes,” said Msgr. Vittorio Lanzani, secretary of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, during an Oct. 28 interview with Vatican Radio. “The sculptor was an expert in anatomy, starting from the veins in the arms and legs, the contracted tendons and finally the ribs. At the wound in the side we actually see two openings: one in the living flesh and the other in the pierced skin that is folded back. This was a crucifix created to elicit the compassion of the dying Christ.”

Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica and president of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, in a Dec. 11 interview with Rome Reports, stated: “It is a crucifix that has looked, we could say, with compassion over human history and the history of the Church.”

Antique archival documents and prints reveal that the Crucifix of St. Peter, as it came to be called, was installed in nine separate locations within the original, fourth-century basilica and the current Renaissance structure, which was completed in 1626. The crucifix was first placed in the central nave above the altar of Sts. Simon and Jude, one of the seven privileged altars of the old basilica. There it inspired the prayers of a multitude of visitors and pilgrims, including St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380).

During the Sack of Rome in 1547, marauding mercenaries dressed the crucifix in their uniform and desecrated the basilica, using it as a horse stable.

Over the course of the next century, with construction of the new basilica underway, the crucifix was moved to six different chapels and altars. In 1629, it was hung on the inside of the Holy Door while awaiting the completion of its own special chapel, where it remained until 1749. It was then relocated to make way for Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Before moving in 1750 to the adjacent Relics Chapel, its final location until the recent restoration, the crucifix underwent major repairs to fill wormholes and other damage. Having already been painted several times to resemble bronze, it received three more coats of even darker pigment.

In 1888, the Relics Chapel was fitted with an ornate metal door, making the crucifix less accessible. Finally, during the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939), an elevator was installed in the center of the chapel, obscuring the crucifix even more. Thus confined to a neglected and practically unreachable corner of the basilica, the crucifix was essentially withdrawn from the faithful and nearly forgotten.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and his wife visit the Vatican

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and his wife, Dorian, visit the Vatican workshop to admire the restoration work June 27, 2016. Photo by Mallio Falcioni, courtesy of the Fabbrica di San Pietro

RESURRECTED FROM OBSCURITY

The Fabbrica di San Pietro, aware of the history of the ancient crucifix, alerted the Knights of Columbus to the possibility of a restoration project to coincide with the Year of Mercy. With support from the Order, the restoration was undertaken by Lorenza D’Alessandro and Giorgio Capriotti. Experienced professionals, the two worked with the Fabbrica di San Pietro in 2013 on the Order-supported restorations of two venerated fresco paintings: the Madonna of the Column, also known as Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church), and the Madonna del Soccorso (Our Lady of Help).

The meticulous restoration of the crucifix began with careful UV-florescent photographic investigation and diagnostic studies. Through these processes, D’Alessandro and Capriotti determined they would be able to unearth the sculpture’s original appearance from beneath the many layers of paint and protective coatings.

To remove the most recent layers, the restorers used a high precision laser, but much detailed technical work remained.

“We could not reach the original layer of paint directly with the laser, since it would have been ruined,” D’Alessandro told Vatican Radio in October 2016. “So the only way to preserve the precious information of all of the restorations was to remove the layers one by one. Every new layer of paint needed a particular solvent or a certain tool. … It was truly a journey back in time!”

The restoration recovered 90 percent of the figure’s strikingly realistic original paint and revealed other lost artistic details.

“When all of the paint that covered the crucifix was removed,” Msgr. Lanzani told Vatican Radio, “we discovered that the eyes were open, whereas before it was believed that they were closed. It was truly incredible!”

Cardinal Comastri was particularly struck by the gaze of Christ’s face as it emerged. “As the workers were cleaning the eye,” he said, “it seemed to me that, in a way, the crucifix was looking at me as if to say: ‘What are you waiting for? Do you see love? Then respond.’”

While the restoration was entering its final months — its progress having been carefully documented through photographs and 3-D imaging — two major features remained before the crucifix returned to public view.

The workshop of the Fabbrica di San Pietro built a new wooden cross based on historical prints that portray the original, which was removed in 1749. Measuring 13 feet high by 8 feet wide, the cross is made of wood from an old walnut tree that grew near the Marian shrine of Montemisio in central Italy.

Finally, the restorers replaced the “crown of thorns” made of rope, which the sculpture had borne since the 1800s, with a true crown of thorns. D’Alessandro explained, “In this case, a specific kind of thorn was chosen: the Spina Christi, which is a Mediterranean shrub.”

On Nov. 17, three days before the conclusion of the Year of Mercy, the crucifix was carried in procession to the basilica’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where it was blessed and permanently installed to the left of the tabernacle.

“All who now come to encounter and pray to Christ in the Eucharist,” said Dr. Zander, “will also be able to contemplate his image in this crucifix, filled with divine mercy, gentleness and humanity.”