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Fabre, Jan - VM - Sheridan Voysey

Jan Fabre: The Man Who Bears the Cross

A Token of Love

by Sheridan Voysey

Last year, on a visit to Antwerp’s Cathedral in Belgium, I was struck by one of its many artworks. Struck, because it seemed so out of place with the rest of the cathedral’s pieces. Struck, because I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or even sacrilegious. A man dressed in a trench coat, boots and glasses gazes up at a cross he balances in one hand. I circled round it, taking pictures. Take a look at it. What do you think?

Called The Man Who Bears the Cross, the polished bronze sculpture by contemporary artist Jan Fabre was installed in the cathedral in 2015, the first new addition to its collection since 1924. It is positioned near Rubens’ seventeenth-century masterpiece The Descent from the Cross, a triptych of paintings above one of the cathedral’s altars. Here modern and classical meet. Or perhaps clash.

Photo by Attilio Maranzano © Angelos bvba

The Man Who Bears the Cross is a self-portrait of Fabre, one of a series of similar pieces including The Man Who Measures the Clouds, The Man Who Gives a Light and The Man Who Writes on Water. When a wax predecessor was spotted by parish priest Bart Paepen, he thought it the perfect piece to bridge the worlds of church and contemporary art, and so commissioned the bronze version for the church.

In contrast to the cathedral’s other pieces, The Man Who Bears the Cross doesn’t proclaim a message but instead invites individual interpretation. And there are many. For one critic, the sculpture symbolises ‘the balancing of dualities in all of us—good and bad, joy and sorrow, life and death.’ For another it speaks of the balance between ‘realism and relativism, between art and religion/science,’ while giving a nod to ‘the impossible possibility to live without art’. Ok then.

Fabre himself has suggested a number of meanings for the sculpture—saying it represents his identity as an artist who is ‘searching, doubting, taking risks, choosing to experiment, asking questions.’ At other times he’s suggested the cross is the meeting of humanity and nature, or the ultimate symbol of belief which asks us ‘Do we believe in God, or do we not?’

Contemplating The Man Who Bears the Cross I couldn’t get past how light the cross looks. Or that the figure balances it so perfectly and effortlessly. Or that in some way the whole thing looks like a circus trick: ‘Step right up, folks! Watch me balance a Roman torture device on one hand!’ How different this feels to both the physical and spiritual weight of the original cross it references—a weight Rubens and other classical artists around it depict.

‘Rather than bearing the weight of the cross,’ one critic writes, ‘Fabre prefers to play with it.’ Such ‘presumptuous self-glorification’, he adds, is a sign of the ‘decline of art’. Ouch.

So what did Bart Paepen, the cathedral’s parish priest, see in the work? Here’s his 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 good about it. Then it could be that you have found a goal and a meaning in your life.

Picture credit: Philippe Wojazer (Reuters)

The world saw another cross recently—one just as golden but also caked in the ash of 850 years of history and irreplaceable architecture. When Notre Dame burned, its ancient roof collapsed, its steeple falling as the city wept and the faithful sung hymns, this image emerged in the aftermath—a dimly-lit cross amongst the rubble. Maybe it’s a little weightier now from its ordeal, carrying all that ash and dust, all those tears and prayers.

The timing of this tragedy hasn’t been missed by news anchors. All this happened in Holy Week, a mere three days before Good Fridaythe day that original cross is contemplated in earnest. As secular France mourns the loss of its spiritual heart, as the world mourns with it, perhaps Bart Paepen’s words are more than apt: “Take the cross in your hands. Feel it. Contemplate it. You may find new meaning for your life by doing so.” And France, you may find new life.

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Jan Fabre: The Man Who Bears the Cross2015, bronze, 394 × 200 × 100 cm. All photos ©Sheridan Voysey unless otherwise stated.

Jan Fabre was born in 1958 in Antwerp where he lives and works. He has worked in the theatre and is an internationally renowned choreographer. Over the last twenty years he has also developed a body of artworks based on a variety of materials, including blood, ball-point pen ink, beetle wings, bones, stuffed animals and marble. Jan Fabre creates sculptures and installations that explore topics such as metamorphosis, the dialogue between art and science, humankind’s relationship to nature and the artist as a warrior of beauty. www.janfabre.be

Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker, broadcaster, and author of The Making of UsResurrection YearResilient and other books. He is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 2 and other international networks, and has featured on BBC Breakfast, BBC News, Day of Discovery, and publications like The Sunday Telegraph. He is married to Merryn, and lives and travels from Oxford, United Kingdom. Find him on FacebookTwitterInstagram and at www.sheridanvoysey.com

ArtWay Visual Meditation June 30, 2019