Sacred art doesn’t always speak with words. Mostly, it tells the story of who we are, and our relationship to the Divine in symbols, colors, forms, shapes, and spaces. These stories grant a voice to painted figures, walls, and even shafts of light.
The Abbey’s processional cross, or as we call it, the “Eden Cross”, is a chapter in the story elegantly narrated by the art cycle in the Abbey church. Crafted of lebanese cedar, gilded in gold leaf, with amethysts and coral jewels set in silver and gold, this processional cross was crafted in three countries on two continents, Spain, Italy, and the United States. On either face of the cross, extremely fine figures and decorations are diligently painted in egg tempera. The decorations speak of our fall from grace through Adam and Eve, and our return to paradise through Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The book of Genesis reads, "So God drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
But Christ, crucified and resurrected, leads us back to the blessed garden – and now Eden is open! Its gates have been breached by the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, the angelic flaming sword of flame no longer keeps them from the Tree of Life, but lights the open way to it.
Therefore, one side of the processional cross presents the fruits, the flowers, the colorful winged creatures of Paradise, all painted over gold.
The other side of the cross presents a central figure of Christ crucified, surrounded by saints. The cross itself springs from another element below it, an exquisitely painted Virgin and Child, representing the Incarnation of Our Lord.
Apart from being one of the finest expressions of craftsmanship in sacred art in the past half century, the symbols evoked are an enthusiastic invitation to encounter the saving death of the Lord and its powerful effects.
As we gaze upon the crucified Lord, He offers his Body, born of Mary on His one side. He offers his Body by the hands his beloved priest and friend St. John in the Mass on the other. He is further accompanied round about by us repentant sinners, led by St. Peter the Apostle and the holy Magdalene. All of us join on the open way to Paradise, which is now found wherever we celebrate the mysteries the cross accompanies.
The Tree of Life is the Holy Cross — and its life giving fruit which nourishes us is the Body of the Son of Mary, hanging from it. This Body we offer up and adore on our altars and receive in Holy Communion. Christ the fruit of Mary’s womb declares “the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”
All this is all ours.
The Abbey community thus expectantly carries the Eden cross as it approaches the sanctuary: the Tree of Life, the Holy Cross, the life-giving Fruit, the Blessed Body of the New Adam, born of the New Eve on Christmas day.
And the same community victoriously returns from the altar led by the Eden cross to announce these mysteries to sinners and saints, and to bring them, full circle, back in before the dazzling spectacle of that Paradise Lost, Regained in the Holy Liturgy.
How our hearts are healed and strengthened by our Catholic worship in the abbey church under the sign of the Tree of Life! What inexhaustible joy it is to eat of its fruit and live forever, escaping the punishment for sin, and feasting on blessedness.
The Eden Cross, the processional cross of Saint Michael’s Abbey, is a poignant work of craftsmanship and liturgical art. From afar, it is a triumphant banner laden with symbolism that expresses glory and joy, while up close it is a jewel to be appreciated for its astonishing attention to detail, summarizing all that is best about the arts in the service of true worship.
Mr. Selvaggi is Creative Director for Saint Michael’s Abbey and is the designer of the sacred art cycle in the Abbey Church. Mr. Selvaggi’s firm, Heritage Liturgical, was commissioned to design the mosaics, murals, statuary, and organ cases in the Abbey Church, among other furnishings and artwork. He speaks and writes regularly on Sacred Art and traditional architecture.