In Antwerp Cathedral’s latest art acquisition, a skeptic weighs the truth of Christianity

The sixteenth-century Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, home to Peter Paul Rubens’s famous Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross, is now also home to a bronze sculpture by contemporary artist Jan Fabre, called The Man Who Bears the Cross. It is a self-portrait of the artist surveying a large cross that he balances in the palm of his hand.

The Man Who Bears the Cross by Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre (Belgian, 1958–), The Man Who Bears the Cross, 2015. Bronze, 394 × 200 × 100 cm. Permanently installed in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium, on November 18, 2015. Photo by Attilio Maranzano © Angelos bvba.
The Man Who Bears the Cross by Jan Fabre
Photo by Attilio Maranzano © Angelos bvba.

Open ended rather than declamatory, The Man Who Bears the Cross was originally shown in wax in the 2014 exhibition “The Spiritual Skeptic” at Antwerp’s At The Gallery. There it was spotted by parish priest Bart Paepen, who had been “looking for a way of making a connection between the world of the church and that of contemporary art” for some time, and thought this piece would be a perfect fit for Our Lady. The last time the cathedral acquired a new piece of art was in 1924.

This six-minute film by Wannes Peremans shows the sculpture being installed and includes interviews with Paepen and local art historian Joanna De Vos.  

See lots of great detail photos of the sculpture in its new home at http://marcwalker.de/jan-fabre2/.

Fabre has said that the cross is a symbol of the question, “Do we believe in God, or don’t we?” Paepen elaborates on this interpretation:

A man bears an enormous wooden cross on his right-hand palm. He is not a prophet, nor an apostle, a martyr, or a saint. He is someone who does what we invite every visitor of the cathedral to do, regardless of his background or his convictions. Take the cross in your hands, a token of the God that is celebrated here, a token of his love for the whole of humankind, a token of the engagement that he asks from all his followers. Take up the cross and balance it. Perhaps you will not succeed in holding it upright. Perhaps it is too heavy or too difficult. Perhaps you should try again later. Perhaps you don’t like it. Just let it down then. Who knows—you may succeed and feel right. Then it could be that you have found a goal and a meaning in your life. (Source)

He continues, “The work is noncommittal but at the same time challenging and inviting. Just feel what we stand for.”

When one thinks of “bearing the cross,” a hefty, crushing burden likely comes to mind, flashes of Christ on the road to Calvary, where the cross is borne on the back. In Christian parlance, those who “bear the cross” are those who willingly take on the personal suffering associated with living out the gospel.

But in The Man Who Bears the Cross, “bearing the cross” has a different connotation. It is borne on the palm—held out and lifted up before view, an object of consideration. It’s still weighty, but that weight is negotiated through a balancing act. The sculpture visualizes an internal process that everyone must undergo: deciding whether to accept Christ and him crucified, or to reject him. Some people spend most of their lives weighing the two options, not ready to commit to either yea or nay. Some don’t even see the options as worth handling. Some perhaps jump on the Christian bandwagon too quickly without first counting the cost.

As Paepen said, Fabre’s sculpture doesn’t dictate a “right” response to the cross, but it does ask that we at least take the time to ponder its claims. To bear—to accept, to endure. Will visitors to the church bear the challenge?

The Man Who Bears the Cross in the Cathedral of Our Lady is the first edition of eight. Another cast is on display through October 2 at the Forte di Belvedere in Florence, Italy, as part of an exhibition called “Spiritual Guards.” Read about it at The Florentine here and here.

The Man Who Bears the Cross by Jan Fabre
Temporary installation of Jan Fabre’s The Man Who Bears the Cross, Forte di Belvedere, Florence, Italy. Photo taken May 12, 2016, by Andrea Paoletti, @ANDYFI03.

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