Tuesday, November 4, 2008

We venerate Your Cross, O Christ

I'm 51 years old. I grew up at a time when there were three major television networks, a public television station, and, in the Chicagoland area anyway, some ghostly channels on a dial marked UHF that catered to those like my father who needed the live stock market feed or who, like yours truly, watched Don Cortez Cornelius host the Soul Train after school. It was not a time of round-the-clock news coverage. A news junkie was one who read the morning and evening newspapers, or watched the early evening and late night news. It took a crisis of epic proportions, the death of a figure of world-wide stature, or a NASA launch, to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming, or to make a dent on my consciousness. Really important news stories reached me, cutting through my mental preoccupation with the latest Beatles or Monkees song, or Batman episode, by means of the weekly LIFE magazine. Those of us my age or older make an annual ritual of recounting exactly where we were when we first heard that President Kennedy, or his brother, or Martin Luther King, was assassinated, but there were other stories which, I'm sure, left their marks on our memories: the deaths of Pope John XXIII and of Sir Winston Churchill, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the starvation brought on by the war in Biafra, the Chicago Riots.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of one such event: the flooding of Florence by the River Arno on November 4, 1966. (Appropriately, it's been raining all day.) At its highest point, the waters were 22 feet high. I remembering poring over images of the destruction, in some cases irreparable, caused by the muddy water to works of art which I'd never seen before then, but which, through their reproduction in LIFE and National Geographic magazines, were to haunt me from then on. One image in particular has never left me: that of a severely damaged 13th-century Crucifix by Cimabue, which had been hanging in the refectory of the Franciscans at the Church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross), in the area of the worst flooding. It was a more genuinely Byzantine image of the Crucified than any I was at the time familiar with from my own local parish, Sts Constantine and Helen of Gary, Indiana. I was 9 years old and much more comfortable with a less stylized Jesus - the Byzantine revival had yet to reach the churches of the American Midwest - and so I remember thinking His arms and legs were too long, too thin and His face too strange, too Oriental. But more importantly, I remember being troubled by the fact of its vulnerability. What had happened to it was unfair; God should have intervened to protect his image. I'm sure I didn't appreciate the irony at the time. The image of the Crucified is, of course, the very image of injustice, the very image of the Invulnerable presenting Himself without defense, vulnerable to the worst we could do to Him, to demonstrate the immensity of His love for us. The scars inflicted by nature did not diminish it; in a mysterious way, they enhanced it. As I stood at the foot of that enormous, still-scarred Christ this past Saturday, nearly 42 years after I'd first encountered the image in the pages of LIFE, I realized at last that it retains its power to pierce the heart not in spite of, but because of, its damaged state.

Here's what it would have looked like before November 4, 1966: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Cimabue_025.jpg. I've posted a couple of my own photos of it in its present condition on www.flickr.com/photos/bishopsavas. I've also included a couple of the Arno in a calmer mood, taken this past Sunday afternoon, from the Ponte Santa Trinita, the Holy Trinity Bridge, which is just west of the Ponte Vecchio. The whitish building to the south of the river (on the right side of the picture, as I was pointing east) is the apse of St Iakovos Greek Orthodox Church.

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