Mother of God of Canada is by Slavko Protic. Jesus’ robe is decorated with a gold fleur-de-lis within a maple leaf, expressing the artist’s love of Canada.
TO MARK THE second millennium of Christ’s birth, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., has mounted a huge exhibit called Under the Sign of the Cross: Creative Expressions of Christianity in Canada.
In it, fine art and folk art rub shoulders as does whimsy and kitsch. The 130 religious objects created by Canadians include paintings, icons, sculptures, Bibles, stamps, miniatures, models and music which reflect the three great streams of Christianity: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant.
The exhibit is not without some controversy. A bronze sculpture, Canada’s Golgotha (1918), by Francis Derwent Wood is likely a piece of wartime propaganda. There is no evidence to substantiate its story of the crucifixion of a Canadian soldier. On an esthetic level, a soldier crucified in his great coat and boots lacks the vulnerability of a naked figure. German soldiers jeer but it all seems contrived.
A delightful wood and metal carving by non-aboriginal artist Philip Melvin, of a young aboriginal child gazing upon a crucified Christ bears the awkward title, A Nice Holy Little Indian Girl (1981). Yet the actual work is charming. Contemporary aboriginal artists have rendered Christianity in their own compelling images.
Two striking pieces are Christ (1976) by Tsimshian artist Roy Henry Vickers of B.C., a serigraph print of the head of Christ with a crown of thorns, and Arctic Angel (1969), a stonecut by renowned Inuit printmaker Pudlo Pudlat of Cape Dorset.
The exhibit’s nine galleries are laid out in a cruciform and stress the three pivotal events in the earthly life of Christ: his birth, crucifixion and resurrection.
A visitor is captivated first by the diminutive sculpture in patinated plaster cast of Madonna and Child (1987) by Montreal sculptress, Sylvia Daoust. With an exquisite delicacy, Mary holds Jesus and shows him to us with an extraordinary intimacy.
Towering over the whole exhibit is a weathered wayside cross, a crude but imposing form by an unknown Quebec artist.
The Resurrection of Christ (1999) by Denis Lacasse of Gatineau, Que., is a three-dimensional work of free-standing stained glass. A more striking use of colour would better have revealed the strange power of the resurrection.
In the icon, Mother of God of Canada (1992), Slavko Protic of Vancouver adorns the Christ Child’s robe with a gold fleur-de- lis within a maple leaf while embellishing Mary’s garment with a maple leaf motif. Even within this tender scene, the Christ Child turns to view the instrument of his death: the cross held by the angel.
In the gallery Christians at War and on the Battlefield, ordinary artifacts are charged with extraordinary significance. Testifying to faith under fire are portable communion kits with which unarmed priests administered communion and the last rites, a lifeboat New Testament and dog-eared prayer books from various war zones. A letter of sympathy from a RCAF chaplain to a father whose son was killed in action in 1944 is particularly touching.
In contrast there are more playful objects in a gallery of models which include a church-shaped maple sugar mould and Szopka (1960), an elaborate Polish Christmas decoration of wood, paper, glass and sequins.
In a gallery entitled Reading the Word of God are various Bibles and prayer books translated into Inuktitut, Micmac, Cree, Ojibwa and Chippewa. Missionaries devised written alphabets for what were then only oral languages. Also displayed are a number of Bible boxes carved by lumberjacks for their sweethearts. The most extraordinary case has a serpent’s head rearing from its side.
In a music gallery visitors can select recordings of everything from Gregorian chant to folk and gospel music. Only Christian rock is absent.
Canadian iconographer Heiko Schlieper is the exhibit’s artist-in-residence. Visitors can watch Schlieper create a huge icon, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.
Many of the artifacts are juxtaposed with quotations about religion from both devout and secular observers. Novelist W.P. Kinsella (a non-Native) is quoted from the Fencepost Chronicles, “For us Indians, what religion we is, depends on who is holding the church picnic.”
There are some disappointments. The Stations of the Cross by Ugo Chyurlia (1961), are crude mosaics which do little to inspire contemplation. Vancouver artist Chris Woods’ Stations of the Cross would have provoked more thought and controversy. And where was anything by the great William Kurelek?
Under the Sign of the Cross gives Christians a chance to stretch, to grasp motifs and symbols from a vast diversity of historical, denominational and geographical backgrounds. The show continues until March 18, 2001.
Sue Careless is a Toronto freelance writer. A longer version of this review first appeared in ChristianWeek.