Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest Wood and sweetest Iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee.
—John Mason Neale’s translation of Venantius Fortunatus’ Passiontide hymn Pange Lingua Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis.
Si Fece Carne: He Became Flesh, an exhibit of contemporary sacred art, opened earlier this month at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, as part of the 2015 Italian Bishops’ Conference (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana). The exhibit, whose contemporary works explore themes of Christ as the source of our humanity, and focus on the dignity of the human person, includes “Tree of Mercy, Tree of Life,”a triptych by painter: Susan S. Kanaga.
Speaking about her work, Kanaga states, “Tree of Mercy, Tree of Life, explores ‘the tree’ as symbol: man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind on a tree, and Crux Fidelis ‘noble tree beyond compare.’ Each panel glimpses one part of the salvation mystery, and together as a triptych, they speak of man’s hope in God’s promise of redemption.”
In Kanaga’s work the faithful cross takes the central position in the triptych, shining forth in two tones of gold. This is the noble tree beyond compare from the Fortunatus’ hymn’s refrain. While a traditional presentation of the Crucifixion would typically be flanked by scene’s from Christ’s passion, Tree of Mercy, Tree of Life positions two contrasting tree images on either side of the central cruciform. The left hand tree, more fully articulated than its counterpart represents “man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.” In the context of the artist’s reference to Fortunatus’ hymn we may address it with these verses:
“For, when Adam first offended,
Eating that forbidden fruit,
Not all hopes of glory ended
With the serpent at the root:
Broken nature would be mended
By a second tree and shoot.”
“Thus the tempter was outwitted
By a wisdom deeper still:
Remedy and ailment fitted,
Means to cure and means to kill;
That the world might be acquitted,
Christ would do his Father’s will.”
The right hand tree, is alive with movement, bursting its frame. To it we may ascribe the verse:
“Lofty timber, smooth your roughness,
Flex your boughs for blossoming;
Let your fibers lose their toughness,
Gently let your tendrils cling;
Lay aside your native gruffness,
Clasp the body of your King!”
These symbolic trees, occupy the same visual plane directing the viewer to consider their relationship. One emerges into the certain light of the triumphant cross from connotations of serpents and rotten fruit, while the other is animated by an energy as irrepressible as the force of holy wind. Facing, as they do into the brightness of the central panel, their rich earth colors: raw umber, dark violets, reds, dark greys, and deep blues beg for the mediation of the light. Color, ever an important voice in the work, unifies the wings of the triptych and propels them into the center. Each panel comments on the meaning of its neighbors. “The fall” seen in the context of Christ’s sacrifice and that sacrifice originating, as it does, ultimately in the mercy of God sends a powerful message of hope.