A Cross for Fátima
The difficult thing is expressing simplicity
Interview with Robert Schad by August Heuser on February 27, 2008 in the Church of St. Stephan in Karlsruhe.
Mr. Schad, the first question I asked myself when I started to look at your Crucifix in Fátima was: What is Robert Schad doing in Fátima?
Good question! People generally go to Fátima as pilgrims. My reasons were different. I come from a Catholic family in which representations of the appearances of Our Lady at Fátima and Lourdes had a big impression on us children, because Mary appeared to children, not adults. I went to Fátima for the first time in the late 1970s as a tour guide and used the money to finance my studies. I studied at the art school in Porto in the early 1980s. I immediately fell in love with this city and the north of Portugal, but Fátima was not yet a particularly important location for me. A little later I bought a small watermill for the modest sum which I had received from an art prize in Vila Nova de Cerveira in northern Portugal. I restored the watermill and made it my home. Since then, we have regularly spent a few weeks each year in north Portugal. However, this did not lead to me being accepted into the circle of artists who were to work for the new church in Fátima. The Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis asked me about three years ago if I wanted to contribute artistically to his “Santissima Trindade” Church construction project in Fátima. He had seen my work previously in an exhibition in Paris.
We can almost see a European cross emerging between Ravensburg, your birthplace, and Fátima and Paris…
…and Athens, the city Alexandros Tombazis comes from. He put considerable effort into the realization of the artistic contributions. In fact, the new pilgrimage center in Fátima also communicates an idea aesthetically which spreads far beyond Portugal and which has brought together artists from all over Europe, including the Greek architect and his Portuguese colleague Álvaro Siza-Vieira, who has produced a tile painting, which is over 20 meters wide, for the subterranean level of the church complex. The painter Pedro Calapez from Lisbon designed the large main entrance to the church, Joe Kelly from Canada the glass entrance wings, Ivan Rupnik from Slovenia and Catherine Green from Ireland the choir area and, finally, Czeslaw Dzwigaj from Poland and Benedetto Pietrogrande from Italy created monumental individual sculptures. My crucifix is thus part of an international aesthetic concept.
But is there something linking you with the piety in Fátima? What do you find interesting about the piety and faith of the people in Fátima?
Fátima is a place of pilgrimage which Portuguese farmers and workers like to visit. And their lived-out religiosity has nothing to do with an elitist character of a place of pilgrimage. Fátima is a focal point of their religious and cultural identity, where they feel safe and at home. You could also feel this on the opening evening of the new church on October 13, 2007. Thousands of people spent the whole night on the square; they celebrated, sang, ate and slept and we were in the middle of it. It was like a gigantic festical.
So that means that you made your cross also or especially for these people?
Of course. I definitely designed this cross for these people, but not just for the Portuguese. I wanted to create a symbol which is as simple as possible in form, has intercultural references and does not get lost in realistic details. Indeed, the difficult thing is expressing simplicity. It is very difficult to pinpoint something by saying it must be like this and nothing else, particularly in this huge dimension and also in an architectural and spatial context. On the one hand, I saw it as a kind of artistic game with the location, but on the other also as a profound dialog with the architect.
Your crucifix is next to the large new church in Fátima. Iron versus stone, horizontal versus vertical, line versus space. How did you approach the predesigned architecture and the layout of the square?
Despite its simplicity and asceticism, the architecture does indeed have properties which the shape of my cross also characterizes. One of the interesting things about this architecture is how it leads people inside the church. A powerful pair of arches leads to the large main entrance, which grants direct access to the open, light-flooded church hall, which can accommodate almost 10,000 believers. There is no trace of the gloomy spatial character of Iberian church interiors with their mystic orchestrations of light. Instead there is an unusually bright, almost metaphysical space, which invites people not to pray for forgiveness, but to meditate on the secret of Fátima. The axial view of the altar, focused in front of the entrance, expands and dissipates when you enter the church. The exterior closedness of the architecture (the building has no windows) is followed by the light brightness of the interior.
From a distance, the building may look like a disk. It is not imposed upon observers that this is a church. There is no sign of a church spire. Here the crucifix, in its dimensions and materiality, is the formal partner of the architecture and a sign indicating how the building is used. The delicately aspiring steel crucifix and the stone bulk of the building protruding vertically stand opposite each other in dialog. Both, the church building and the crucifix, need each other and despite their great formal differences, they form one aesthetic entity.
So, with this crucifix you are naturally part of a long chain in the history of art, but also in a history of spirituality and piety. What moved you when you started formulating initial ideas for a crucifix one day at your drawing table? What does an artist do when faced with all the possibilities we can think of from the early Christian crosses in the catacombs to Joseph Beuys?
Yes, it was not easy to find this form. Of course, there is the typical church sculptor, who refers to well-known conventions of form when he designs a crucifix. As a rule, the traditional guidelines for Christian representations leave artists little freedom.
Representations of the crucifixion from all ages reflect social conditions and the role of the Catholic Church and of faith over centuries.
I spent a great deal of time studying Christian art, especially Medieval Christian art. Early depictions of the crucifixion from the 6th century show Christ without a beard resembling ancient examples of Roman gods, while in the early Romantic Age the hieratic, painless version prevailed. Then, in the time of the great plagues of the 14th century, the otherworldly, romanticized reproductions gave way to drastically realistic ones, with which people we able to identify in their suffering. In the Renaissance people started to become interested in representations of the naked human body as a symbol of the ideal and the search for the beautiful, animated human figure. After the hyper-realistic and ecstatically overreaching Mannerist depictions, the Baroque presented theatrical representations of the Passion story to observers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists produced little new work on this theme. Religion became a private affair. Then in the 20th century, the Church definitively lost its significance as a primary sponsor of the arts.
Looking at the history of art, the question arose: What can and should a crucifix look like today? A crucifix cannot just be a symbol of the Western world given the fact that most Christians do not live in Europe at all, but in Africa and South America. Thus it was obvious that I needed to focus on Christian representations by evangelized peoples in Africa and South America.
The expressiveness in simplicity, as we see in African art, confirmed my wish not to use realistic details in the depiction of the body. These artistic freedoms encouraged me to look beyond established formal dogmas of Christian art. I believe that it is important in a place like Fátima, which is significant for Christians all over the world, to set a global example and create a kind of concentrate as the result of historical reflections and art-historical studies, which reflects and pinpoints the different positive and negative experiences of the individual. The aim is to evoke very personal, different and ambivalent possibilities of representation; this is what I consider to be my responsibility as an artist in this place. It is meant to be a cross from our time into our time. It is not designed to decorate or commentate, but mark a place which challenges seeing and thinking.
If I have understood you correctly, you have found a global visual language with and in your crucifix. But is that enough to bring the crucifix up to the level of our time as regards its message?
I believe that the contemporary aspect in Fátima in terms of my crucifix and the entire architecture is firstly the combined effect of contemporary arts with the church in a form I have not seen anywhere to such an extent in our time. The direct cooperation between the client, architect and artist, which is a precondition for the creation of a complete artwork such as this, ran almost perfectly. Despite its topicality, the language of the art and architecture created in Fátima is timeless, which is why I am certain that later generations will be able to appreciate and understand it. In my opinion, deliberately limiting art and architecture to the existential and essential, and even the ascetic, is something which is able to set an antipode to a world of sensory overload.
But what is the contemporary aspect of your crucifix? Observers quickly notice the material, steel, which is a symbol of our era.
Steel is not a present-day invention; the great steel structures of the 19th century spring to mind. It is not easy giving this material a message of human proportions. However, I try to imbue the material with a language which lets your forget the steel. You can only build a cross of this height in steel for structural reasons. We had to draw up structural calculations to make sure that the stability of the cross would be guaranteed, even in high winds and earthquakes. The cross is extremely tall and as far as I know, it is the tallest crucifix in the world.
Through oxidization, steel takes on a very natural surface character. Steel can age as a person ages. I first had to convince the religious clients of this, who preferred a blue-black surface coating. Rust is a living thing. In dry weather the sculpture has a glowing reddish brown color and is almost black in the rain. In addition, the sculpture is made of thick-walled Corten steel, whose layer of rust protects the material. There is absolutely no possibility of the material rusting through.
Steel is a material which forms the foundation of your entire artistic work. It is the constant in your work. Form is a smaller constant in your art. How did you develop the form of Christ’s body on your cross?
When we look at historical crucifixes, we repeatedly see that cross and body are one. Originally, I looked for formal solutions which do not use the cross and only show the body in order to make the suffering body become one with the cross. Here a question arises about the content: If the body itself is the cross then the focus is n the spiritual and physical state that causes a person to become one with the cross. A form such as this would probably have severely confused the pilgrims’ religious world view. Working for the Church is different to working for secular clients. The artist has to assert his freedoms against iconographic and liturgical overall conditions. However, I did not manage that in this case. Thus although the final crucifix does indeed have a cross, it does not simply serve as a support for the body, but becomes one with it, merges with it, owing to the constant choice of material.
But how did your colleagues react to you doing something like this? When you work for the Church, you are quickly put in the drawer of applied art.
You are quite right and it has happened to me too. I showed my designs to some colleagues and art historian friends and received completely different reactions ranging from frenetic enthusiasm to profound rejection. For me, the decisive point was the exploration of the subject which has accompanied the history of art for centuries, in order to find a symbol of our own times. As such, it was important for me to remain loyal to my artistic language, which I have developed over recent decades.
Still, you could have refused to make the crucifix. Why did you accept the job, perhaps unlike many of your colleagues would have done?
One of an artist’s important tasks is to ask questions which are under discussion. A good artwork allows diverse answers and maintains its effect, as long as it stimulates thought. Everyone has their own special relationship to a crucifix. For some it is an object of prayer, found in churches, processions over fields, meadows and through cities or it is worn around the neck as a symbol or talisman. Others see it as a threat. Therefore it is a very personal experience to design such a large crucifix for this place, which occupies a central point in Christianity.
I do not wish to pry, but allow me to ask what personal source or personal sign of life beyond artistic considerations forms the basis of this “very personal experience” you just mentioned?
It is this symbolically charged crucifix form which, when you work with it, engages and challenges you in a very different way to a free sculpture, because millions of people project their desires, hopes and fears in the cross.
In the planning stage, I constantly had the question in my head, whether simple believers would accept a form such as the one I was suggesting.
I also asked myself why I of all people, who had never worked for the Church before, should make the large main cross for Fátima.
My birthday, which falls on the day we remember Christ’s birth, made me start to wonder and encouraged me to look for further possible numerical coincidences. In doing this, I happened upon the fact that the sum of digits of my birthday (12. 24. 1953) is equal to that of the date of the first appearance (5. 13. 1917). This couldn of course simply be a coincidence.
Observers are always also curious about what the artist actually means, about his attitude towards his artwork.
I would like to keep the range of associations pertaining to my crucifix as open as possible given the subject matter. However, choosing to work on the crucifix also means exploring one’s own cultural roots and I am doing this with the means available to me. My work is antipodal. In it, constructive rigidity and vibrancy, optical lightness and physical heaviness confront each other. My work represents the permanent search to overcome these apparent opposites. You do not see the enormous weight in my works. The same goes for my Fátima crucifix.
What connects you to the cross and what bearing does it have on your life? What idea did you develop in this crucifix?
On the one hand it derives from the history of art, on the other from that which I know from all my experiences since childhood. I was baptized a Roman Catholic and have had very different experiences with the Church. My childhood religiosity was shaped by a Benedictine priest who was very committed to our salvation and had a very fatherly and charismatic personality. In the following years, doubt and skepticism increasingly shaped my relationship with the Catholic Church because of its conflicting role especially during the colonial wars and fascism in the 20th century. Then I started looking into other religions, especially Buddhism, which opened up my view of the world. My current renewed exploration of the crucifix means, for me personally, a kind of appraisal of my attitude towards the Catholic Church, which has, for a few years now, indeed been increasingly intervening in social, cultural and global political debates in favor of people’s well-being in a way which is appropriate in this day and age.
You said that your artistic work is the permanent search to overcome apparent opposites. What do you mean by that?
I have already referred to the fact that among other things, I am interested in overcoming immense physical weight in my crucifix by means of apparent lightness. I wanted the rigidity of the steel structure to give way to the impression of living movement. The raw and cold steel conveys messages which lie behind that which the eye perceives. In this way, my crucifix can be a monument for any overcoming of opposites in thought and action. The religious clients in Fátima have certainly done this in their own way. With the construction of the monumental Church of the Holy Trinity and its crucifix, they have risked setting the cult of the Virgin Mary a counter balance. In Portugal, statues of Our Lady are clearly favored over the crucifix both in private and public spaces. And with the aesthetics of the newly designed place of pilgrimage, they have self-confidently presented new paths to the future. Fátima can be seen as an invitation to follow this path.
How long did the project take from the time the architect first contacted you to the installation of the crucifix?
I received Alexandros Tombazis’ invitation in late 2005. We had our first meetings in Fátima in 2006 and I subsequently started preparations for the project. In 2007, the crucifix was made at a large steel construction firm near Portos. It was installed in August 2007. The cross was transported to Fátima in four parts, and was assembled and erected in a few days. It had been difficult to image its appearance before it was installed. My structural engineer’s suggestion to raise the height of the cross from 28 to 34 meters intensified the presence of the crucifix and its weighting opposite the church building. It forms a diagonal axis with the visitation chapel in the otherwise axially symmetrical complex with its religious buildings.
The long-distance effect of the crucifix surprised everyone who worked on its installation. If you approach the pilgrimage center from the freeway, you can already see it above the rooftops of the city.
Now that the crucifix is standing, I have the feeling that after all the time we spent planning and building it, it has “cut the cord” from me. The Fátima crucifix has become a public form which no longer just belongs to me, but has been passed on to people who are increasingly taking spiritual possession of it. Only time will tell if it can fulfill its task in the way I wanted it to and win a permanent place in the hearts of the people.