Holy Rood Crucifix Modelled After the Shroud of Turin (Columbia, South Carolina)

St. Joseph's church in Columbia, South Carolina is very fortunate to have one of the most beautiful hand-carved crucifixes in the nation.  Thirty years ago I had the privilege of visiting here for the first time and it was a thrill to return this year to see its holy rood group once again - a crucifix of heroic size enshrined in the sanctuary, carved in oak with smaller versions of Our Lady and St. John attached at the bottom. 

The figure of Christ is on a scale suited to the size of the church, eight feet six inches high, attached to a weighty oak cross, with the corpus modeled after the impression of Our Lord's body left on the Shroud of Turin. Indeed, this is one of the most interesting and beautiful crucifixes I have seen in the U.S. The resemblance to the Shroud of Turin, the holiest relic in the Christian world, is remarkably accurate, with the addition of a decorative crown of thorns (not depicted as a cap, but instead as a king's diadem). 

St. Jospeh's church is a work of art dedicated in 1949 to the honor and glory of God. It was designed by the American-born Fr. Michael McInerney, O.S.B. (1877-1963), an architect and designer who was a Benedictine monk of Belmont Abbey near Charlotte, North Carolina. Fr. McInerney drew his substance and inspiration from monastic architecture, articulating his style according to values he associated with the life and importance of religion.  His preferred style was Gothic Revival, reflected in St. Jospeh's elegant design. 

In his day, Fr. McInerney designed more than 220 churches, many of them in the American south. He built to inspire and enhance the faith of the local populace, with an aim for his building projects to inspire well into the future. He always believed every building should be an ornament itself with discreet use of symbolic decoration to give character and charm to the building so as to endow it with a real beauty which would enhance with age. In his book Commonplace, he recorded this quote from the English architect who inspired him, John Ruskin: 

"When we build...let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, see! This our fathers did for us."  

The floor plan of St. Jospeh's is cruciform in design, symbolic of the cross upon which Christ died. The sanctuary plan represents the place of his thorn-crowned head; the crossing of the two transepts represent His sacred arms outstretched on the cross, and the nave represents the place of His sword-pierced body, while the narthex (vestibule main entrance) represents where His sacred feet were spiked to the wood of the cross. 

The keynote of the whole interior design is the beautiful crucifix in the sanctuary attached to the high altar. The main altar, under the crucifix, is of clean cut polished marble, massive in design. The mensa or top of the altar table is of solid marble, ten feet long, four feet wide, and ten inches thick. The praedella or platform where the priest stands in front of the altar and the three steps leading up to the high altar are of the same marble. Massive columns on each side of the mensa rise up some twenty feet to projecting brackets, which carry the large vaulted canopy of stone extending over the crucifix and altar. The main altar's full width is over all is twenty-four feet. The total height from the sanctuary floor to the top of the altar canopy is thirty-four feet. These are elements of strength and height that bring an elegance of design to the crucifix.  

Behind the altar is a new golden tabernacle made by Granda in Spain. From behind this tabernacle rises the the crucifix group, resting on a marble pedestal. The scene is framed by a reredos with an arched canopy, symbolizing the holy hill of Calvary in Jerusalem. This provides a fitting background for the group, an imposing scene with the spandril of the arch and columns and a colorful altar dossal, with rich fabric draperies hanging behind of velour and silk (these can be changed to reflect differing colors throughout the liturgical year such as red, white, green, purple, gold - the liturgical colors prescribed by the rubrics). 

At the peak of the arched canopy is carved, on the face of the marble, the figure of a dove descending, a symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the sacrifice of the altar. The panel on the front of the altar bears a carving of a pelican feeding her young even to the last drop of her life's blood, symbolic of Christ feeding the faithful with His own flesh and blood. On the face of each column, resting upon corbels, two angels stand guard on either side, carved of Carrara marble from Italy. They represent the angels that stand about the three of God in Heaven singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts" (cf. Revelation 4).   

3-D image of the Shroud of Turin

As the St. Joseph's choir sang Sicut Cervus on the Sunday of my visit, I must say how deeply moved I was by the setting. The solemnity of the music compliments the art of the crucifix. This brought to mind a quote from Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest musicians of all times: "The sole object of all music should be the glory of God and pleasant recreation."  There is no better way to use the art of music than in a church choir, giving glory to God and enhancing the spiritual experience of all by complimenting the majestic art.  The church choir is like an intermediary that delivers to God the message of the people, transmitting through the sensitive expression which is music, the soaring feelings of the congregation. The inspiring choice of Latin hymns lent to the feeling of the art and ritual, greatly enhancing the solemnity and majesty of the occasion.  Many thanks to the choir and its director for giving this parish and all who visit a high order of liturgical expression which is fundamental to the religious experience.  

Finally, below is a similar image from the fascinating Shroud Exhibition in the Holy Land that is called "Who is the Man of the Shroud?" that can be seen at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.  


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