The Crucifixion of Christ

The crucifixion of Jesus is a profound moment in salvific history and hence an image of the crucifixion is found in every Catholic church. An usual and truly American version of the event embellishes a window on the west wall of the nave of St. John’s.
Each of the Evangelists recounts the crucifixion with John and Mathew especially offering rich narrative descriptions. St. John tells how Jesus was crucified with two other convicts, one on either side. To advertise his crime Pilate had the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, written on a plaque in three languages—Hebrew, Latin, and Greek—and placed on the cross, an act which the Jews condemned. After nailing Jesus to the cross, the soldiers divided his garments and casts lots for his tunic, a seamless garment, in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesy, “They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” As Jesus hung on the cross, his mother Mary, his mother’s sister Mary, wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and John kept vigil below. Seeing his mother, Jesus asked John to take her into his home, which he did, an event depicted in a window on the east wall of the nave. Upon making this request, Jesus grew thirsty. In response to his need, a soldier put a sponge soaked with vinegar and hyssop to his mouth. Immediately afterwards Jesus died, saying “It is finished.” Matthew adds a number of details: he recounts how passers-by heckled Jesus; how from the sixth to the ninth hour darkness covered the land, and how an earthquake shook the earth, tearing the curtain of the temple in two and opening the tombs of many holy people. Witnessing the earthquake, a centurion guarding Jesus, exclaimed, “This truly was the Son of God!”
Prominently featured in the center of the window Jesus hangs dead upon the cross. His closed eyes, pale flesh and the surrounding dark clouds signify his passing. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell how darkness came over the entire earth from the sixth to the ninth hour, the moment when Christ died. To Jesus’ right is St. John, the beloved disciple, who remained with him to the end and for this reason always figures in crucifixion scenes. The artist has depicted John lovingly gazing upon his teacher and friend and praying to him with outstretched hands. On Jesus’ left is a woman draped in an American flag who can only be Lady Liberty. She replaces the Virgin Mary who traditionally stands opposite John at the foot of the cross. Perhaps to disassociate her from Mary, the artist has placed her on Jesus’ left, as Mary traditionally stands on his right. In the foreground, below the cross, an American sailor and soldier kneel. The latter, known as a doughboy, holds low to the ground an American flag that unfurls on the steps leading to the cross, an act which suggests that God is greater than country.
The presence of Lady Liberty and the military figures is explained by the words in the cartouche below, the only non-Biblical text among all the windows, "In memory of our soldiers and sailors who fought and died in the World War for the fatherland." Another explanation for their presence is the common European practice of commemorating the deaths of soldiers killed in the war through commissions of stained glass windows for churches. The remembrance of fallen soldiers would have been especially relevant at St. John’s in the late 1920s when the windows were ordered, as men from the Chapel community fought and died in the war. The quote at the top of the window, "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) echoes the theme of soldiers fallen in war. The juxtaposition of the image of the crucifixion with the two quotes suggests the analogy that as Christ gave his life for the salvation of the world, the men who fought in the war gave their lives for their fellow Americans.
The theme of death is echoed in visual details in the window. The stepped pedestal out of which the cross projects and the golden scrolls atop the steps, elements associated with grave markers, transform Calvary into a tomb. The roses that lie on the steps extend this allusion, as flowers are traditionally placed on graves. The dark clouds that hover behind Jesus, as mentioned above, signify death. The placement of the crucifixion next to the nativity must be purposeful. In this juxtaposition we have the birth and death of Christ, the two crucial moments of his life as man. Together these windows reminds us that it is but a short span between birth, death and eternal life.