Monday, June 24, 2013

Some Art Historical Musings About the Bent Cross. Is It Expressive or Satanic?

In April of this year, Pope Francis began carrying the rough-hewn silver papal staff that is shown in the above photo to some of his public appearances. This staff isn't new. It has been carried by four popes since Pope Paul VI. Partway through Pope Benedict XVI's reign, the staff was temporarily retired. Some critics of the staff's design are decidely not happy to see it back in use again.

Storms of controversy have always swirled around the staff's design. Some critics of the staff are disturbed by how the corpus, the figure of Christ, is distorted and how the crossbar of the cross is bent. Some believe that the distortions are appropriately expressive of the intense weight of the burden of our sins that Christ bore on the Cross, while others believe that the distortions and what they call the "bent cross" are Satanic in origin and intent. My intention here is to describe the origins of this disputed papal staff, and show some of its artistic predecessors in hopes of setting the record straight. Like it or not, it is a valid sacred symbol.

Paul VI, Lello Scorzelli, and the Commission of the Pastoral Staff

As mentioned above, Pope Paul VI was the first to carry this staff, which was created for him by sculptor Lello Scorzelli.  As I discovered when I started researching this post, Paul VI was an active patron of the arts like many popes before him. While he was still Archbishop Montini, Paul VI began a long association with Scorzelli[1]. Montini first hired Scorzelli in 1959 to make portraits of all the clergy who participated in Vatican II, and those portraits are now in the Vatican Museum.

After he was elected pope, Paul VI gave Scorzelli a studio in the Vatican in 1963, where the sculptor lived for 15 years. Scorzelli executed several big works during that time, including panels of the Stations of the Cross and the Last Supper for the Pope’s private chapel. The most presigious of Scorzelli's pieces by far were four bas-reliefs Scorzelli created for Porta della Preghiera, which is one of the five doors of St. Peter's Basilica. (Two other doors of St. Peter were also commissioned from other artists by Pope Paul VI.)[2].

However, the most well known of all of Scorzelli's creations for Paul VI is the papal staff.

 The Staff with the Upward Curving Crossbar
Paul VI Pastoral Staff
What is not as well known  is that Pope Paul VI actually used multiple staffs with a similar hanging corpus, one with straight cross bar, and another with a crossbar that curved upward [3].
Staff with upward-curving crossbar

The staff with the downward curving crossbar is the only one that continued in use by popes after Paul VI's reign.











The History of Papal Staffs

It is significant to realize that before Paul V previous popes did not use staffs, which are also called ferulas. According to an article title "The Staff"  at the Vatican website,  the staff has been the liturgical insignia of bishops and abbots since at least the seventh century, but not of popes.  "The reason why the pope did not use the staff resides in the fact that the staff was a symbol of investiture of a newly elected bishop given to him by the metropolitan archbishop or by another bishop ... . The pope, however, did not receive investiture from another bishop. ... The pope receives his power from God alone."

Around the time of the High Middle Ages or earlier, the "traditional crozier came into use as an expression of papal authority. ... The use of the staff [crozier] was never a part of the papal liturgy, except on some occasions such as the opening of the Holy Door and the consecration of churches." With all that historical precedent I'm sure firmly in mind, Pope Paul VI invented a new type of staff, and he first used it at the closing of the Second Vatican Council. Paul VI's new staff was called a pastoral staff, and he used the papal pastoral staff in most liturgical celebrations.

After Pope Paul VI died, Pope John Paul I used the pastoral staff of Paul VI  during his month-long reign, and Pope John Paul II took it up when he was elected to the office after his predecessor's death. And the staff with the downward curving cross bar is most identified with him.

Partway through his reign, Pope John Paul II started using a lighter modified copy of the staff. Pope Benedict also carried the staff with the downward curving cross for several years (although it is not clear whether the one he used was the original or the copy). 
Pope Benedict XVI with the Staff of Paul VI
Then in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made more liturgical history when he started using the crozier of Pope Pius IX, which bears a traditional cross without a corpus.  This was not a totally unprecedented departure, since this crozier had been used by  Pope John XXIII in some liturgical celebrations during Vatican II.  In 2009, Benedict XVI, began to use a new staff that was similar in style to the Pius IX crozier. And now the current pope is using the Paul VI pastoral staff alternately with the Pius IX-style crozier of Benedict XVI.



Satanic Symbol? Come On, Do You Really Think So?

Some have expressed a hatred and misunderstanding about the so-called bent cross on the pastoral staff that Pope Francis has begun to carry. Some seem to despise it just as a modernist piece of bad art.

Others go so far as to claim that the bent cross is a deliberately chosen Satanic symbol. A 1983 book that makes this extravagent claim is quoted by some extreme Protestant sects who use it to support their claims hat the Church is the anti-Christ.  Satanists, they claim, twist our holy symbols to pervert them, and the distorted corpus denotes the anti-Christ.  They claim that the reason that last four popes after the second Vatican council carried this staff with the bent cross is that the Vatican has been infiltrated with satanists.

These fantastic ideas have even been picked up by some traditionalist Catholics of my acquaintance. I ask them how they can believe such things and still be Catholic, and I haven't heard a satisfactory answer yet.

The Actual Truth
The actual truth seems to be that the distorted figure of Christ on the controversial papal staff was based on a drawing made by the great Carmelite mystic monk, St. John of the Cross, from a vision that he had of Christ crucified.

One reason John Paul II  liked this staff may be that he himself almost became a Carmelite contemplative, before he was told by his bishop that the Church needed him to stay in the world instead of be cloistered away in a monastery. The title of the doctoral dissertation written by Karol Wotyla, the future pope, was titled Faith in the Mystical Writings of Saint John of the Cross.

Papal Pastoral Staff or Crozier by Taylor Marshall is a good article that speculates on the source of the bent cross design. Marshall mentioned Salvador Dali's painting Christ of St. John of the Cross without showing it.  The image below is from the surprisingly good Wikipedia article about Salvador Dali's painting. Notice that in Dali's depiction of the suffering body of Christ on the Cross, the corpus is bent but not the cross.
Marshall also posted the Grunewald crucifixion, without specifically attributing it as an inspiration for the bent cross. But really, all you have to do is look at it to grasp the connection between the Grunewald painting and the Scorzelli staff.


[1] Article on Scorzelli's life and work
[2] Italian article about Saint Peter's with a description of the basilica's five doors.

[3[ Details about the papal staffs used by Paul VI 
[4] Article from the Vatican website from November 2013 titled "The Staff."



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