Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lifted Up

The verses before the familiar John 3:16 recall the text from Numbers 21 that is the Lent 4B reading from Hebrew scripture. Moses is instructed to make a metal snake and place it on a pole (which brings to mind the prohibition of images in the second word of the decalogue...but that's another post). Anyone who is "snakebit" only has to look at the image and be healed. That episode is what is called to mind before we are reminded of how much God loved the world (John 3:13-22).

Today, atop Mount Nebo is a sculpture by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni. Mount Nebo is identified in the last chapter of Deuteronomy as the vantage point from which Moses is given a view into the Promised Land. Fantoni's sculpture, called the Brazen Serpent Sculpture (also Serpent Cross Sculpture), illustrates the story from Numbers but overlays it with Christ's crucifixion. The large metal piece features simplified forms expressed through various textures, lines and combinations of forms.
Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni on Mount Nebo
Placed by the Franciscans at their friary on Nebo, the sculpture easily reads as the crucifixion from a distance. It's form also bears a resemblance to the staurogram, a letterform combination of the Greek letters tau and rho. The tau resembles an uppercase T while the rho resembles the uppercase P. Superimposed over one another, the letters resemble a crucified figure on a tau cross (a cross shaped like an uppercase T). The two letters are both part of stauros, Greek for "cross" (stauroo is "to crucify"). Scribes began to use the graphic shortcut as the abbreviation for cross or crucifixion in Greek texts.
Iconography ("image writing") at its most basic, the staurogram has been advanced as the earliest depiction of the crucifixion, which also puts this small symbol at the very beginning of Christian art and symbolism.

These texts, objects and images trace the cross from a Mosaic antecedent through earliest Christian reflection on Christ's cross and crucifixion through contemporary expressions of the stories of our faith. As we move through Lent toward Good Friday, the cross looms larger and larger, just as it loomed over Jesus as he moved closer and closer to Jerusalem.

A rooster, a tortoise and Ephesians. See how it all comes together on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. Click on this link

For additional A&FM thoughts on the Lent 4B readings, click here.

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