Raising the Cross

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why do you want a cross in Goodson Chapel? What does the cross represent in this room? What do you want the cross to do?

Those were among the first questions sculptor Thomas H. Sayre of Clearscapes, a Raleigh, N.C.-based design firm, asked a committee selected to commission a cross for Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School.

“We wanted the cross to convey the sorrow and hope of the crucifixion,” said the Rev. Sally Bates, Divinity School chaplain and committee member. “Not simply human suffering but also the hope of eternal life through Christ.”

The one-year project culminated Nov. 1 with the official dedication of a 600-pound, 8-foot high by 5-foot wide, earth-cast cross during the All Saints Day Worship Service in the chapel. The cross is anchored to the 38-foot ceiling of the Gothic-style chapel by two thin metal cables, with the bottom of the cross 16 feet above the chancel.

The cross was made possible by a generous donation from Duke Divinity School alumnus the Rev. Dr. F. Owen Fitzgerald, Jr., D’54, and his wife, Mary-Owens Fitzgerald, of Raleigh, in honor of their children and grandchildren. He is a retired United Methodist minister from the North Carolina Conference, past president of the Divinity Alumni Association, and Board of Visitors member-emeritus.

The opportunity to have a cross become the focal point of Goodson Chapel completes the art for the chapel, which opened in 2005, said Bates. In addition to Bates, the committee included the Fitzgeralds, Sayre, and Divinity School Dean Richard B. Hays, Associate Dean for External Relations Wes Brown, Director of Field Education Susan Jones (who helped lead the chapel building effort), and Professor Richard Lischer, associate dean for faculty development.

The cross is made of earth-cast concrete — a mixture of cement, gravel, sand, and water — that is a common building material used across the world, and thus familiar to persons of all social and economic levels, Bates said. The process involved casting the reinforced concrete, slightly tinted to suggest the color of North Carolina red clay, directly into a cross-shaped mold cut into the earth, and then curing it for 28 days before carefully digging it out.

The arms of the cross were constructed and poured around a smooth plastic channel that was removed when the cross was excavated. The resulting negative space inside the cross is filled with natural light which is reflected on the smooth, highly polished inside surfaces. 

“The cross has beautiful exterior details including the impressions left by leaves, stones, and other debris in the soil as well as the marks left by the artisans’ hands and tools,” said Bates, “while having a reflective center channel of a negative space which allows the natural light to come through. The cross was cured in the earth and is a perfect metaphor for the resurrection of the Christ, who was buried three days and then was raised from the tomb.”

Sayre, who has designed and built award-winning art projects all over the world, was the perfect choice for this project because he was able to translate theology into art, said Bates. Sayre also grew up in the shadow of the Washington National Cathedral, where his father was dean.

His work with the committee was one of the best collaborative processes that he’s ever been involved with, said Sayre, citing the group's commitment and thoughtfulness.

“They knew early on that the cross should be a counterpoint to the oak, limestone, and wrought iron that makes up Goodson Chapel,” he said. “It was clear they wanted the nature of the cross to be rough and to speak of the violence of the crucifixion, but also to have a pristine crisp slot in the center that was smooth and reflective on the inside that says the cross is a counterpoint to earthbound suffering.”

Visitors are welcome inside Goodson Chapel weekdays during business hours to view the cross unless there is a worship service or other activity going on.