A master carver and the Feet of Jesus

By Richard J. Grace, Special to The Anchor

From my location in the choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River, I am more or less at eye level with the feet of Jesus on the great carved crucifix that is suspended from the front column next to me. That perspective has often led me to think of the lines of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”: 

cathedral crucifix.gif

“And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green? 
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”

Blake was alluding to an ancient British legend that the young Jesus visited England in the company of Joseph of Arimethea, then a tin merchant engaged in commercial travel. There is no Biblical basis for the legend, which survives in British folklore. Blake (1757-1827) was a unconventional poet, painter and engraver, who held an unusual concept of Christianity. The poetic lines cited here come from the preface to his long, visionary poem “Milton.” However, it is “those feet” and not England that I am concerned with. 

The feet were carved by an extraordinary artist named Johannes Kirchmayer, whose image of the crucifixion has been in the cathedral for more than a hundred years. On commission from Father (later Bishop) James Cassidy, rector of the cathedral at the time of major renovations just prior to World War I, Kirchmayer produced a life-sized depiction of the crucified Christ that is powerful both for its artistic achievement and its emotional impact.

The carver was born in 1860, in Oberammergau, Germany, the Bavarian town where a famous Passion Play continues to be performed every 10 years. Its first presentation was given in 1634 as fulfillment of a promise that if the town were spared from bubonic plague, its people would perform a Passion Play every 10 years. As a young man Kirchmayer took the role of Joseph (son of Jacob) in the play, and he became familiar with the basic elements of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion and death. Knowing the Biblical characters in the Passion Play would be an influence in his later carving of figures for churches.

Born out of wedlock, Kirchmayer was raised in the Catholic household of his grandfather and retained his mother’s name (though his natural father eventually became prominent as the mayor of Oberammergau). Although his grandfather taught him the rudiments of carving, it was his uncle Georg, a professional carver, who encouraged him to draw extensively, as an essential foundation for skilled carving. 

In 1880, at the age of 20, Kirchmayer made his way to New York. Soon thereafter he became acquainted with Stanford White, who provided young “John” (as he called himself in America) with introductions to other architects. One of those architects was Ralph Adams Cram (designer of the Fall River Public Library); another was Henry Vaughan. When Kirchmayer settled in Boston, the firms that employed him, notably Irving and Casson, and later the William F. Ross Company, who provided wooden ornamentation for major public buildings and large houses, came to recognize that this carver was a genius with wood, especially oak.

Before coming to American, Kirchmayer had studied anatomy at Augsburg and acquired the skill of conceiving a figure that was balanced in its proportions of torso and limbs. When describing how he approached his art, he stated: “First of all I plan what I am to make. If it is a saint I am to carve, I read the history of that saint until I know just what kind of man he was. On my block in charcoal I draw the figure — always nude. Then in crayon I draw the drapery over the figure. Then I chop it out.”

Kirchmayer was at the top of his form, and in great demand by the clients of architects, during the first two decades of the 20th century. It was during this period that he produced the great crucifix at St. Mary’s Cathedral. We do not see it today exactly as he conceived it, because the post and crossbar of the cross were downsized during one of the renovations of the cathedral; and because the corpus originally retained the natural light coloring of the oak, so that it could appear flesh-colored.

While he greatly admired the 17th-century English carver Grinling Gibbons, Kirchmayer developed a style of his own. He called it “American Gothic. ” Ralph Adams Cram said that Johannes Kirchmayer seemed to embrace the whole medieval tradition of art.

When the railroad baron James J. Hill (“the empire builder”) determined to build a palatial house in St. Paul, Minn., in the early 1890s, Kirchmayer was dispatched by Irving and Casson to be the chief carver for the project. In addition to wooden panels and doors, he fashioned some of the furniture for Hill House. He did other notable work outside of New England, but the Boston area was his great theater of carving. His art can be found in the Church of the Advent, Boston; All Saints’ Church, Ashmont; Wellesley College; Harvard University; and the Methuen Music Hall. Closer to our home in southeastern New England, he created pieces for Sacred Heart Church, Taunton (now Annunciation of the Lord); the bishop’s residence, Providence, R.I.; St. John the Evangelist Church, Newport, R.I.; and Unitarian Memorial Church, Fairhaven.

The crucifix at St. Mary’s was formally blessed at a service on the evening of Good Friday, 1909, after being unveiled by Father Cassidy at the Mass of the Pre-sanctified that morning. The church was filled to capacity for the evening service, and during the hours that followed, thousands more visited the cathedral and viewed the new crucifix. The commission cost $800 (equal to about $21,000 today), which had been raised by contributions from parishioners during the parish retreat in the fall of 1908. The crucifix was attached to the first column on the left side of the church (opposite its current location). 

Christ is depicted at the moment when life is ebbing from Him, but not yet finally gone.

His head is tilted in resignation, but not resting on His shoulder as many crucifixes portray Him in death. The strain of hanging on the cross is represented by the muscles of the torso pulling against His rib cage, but the carving is restrained in its representation of His agony. It is not a gory depiction, but a sympathetic portrayal of an ideal Body brutalized. The feet which I see every Sunday are not torn and bleeding, from the way of the cross, but perfectly normal human feet, except for the nail through them. The muscles of the arms and legs show the tensions of the downward strain of His weight, but they are anatomically accurate rather than approximations. The effect of Kirchmayer’s composition is to represent a dying Savior Whose image simultaneously elicits responses of grief and love. The carver had other options, but what he produced is not a wreckage of a Body but an anticipation of the restored and glorified Body that came forth from the tomb on the third day.

“And did those feet,” was set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916, just a few years after Kirchmayer carved this cross. In succeeding years it became a frequently-sung anthem in English churches. It was adopted by the English suffragettes, has been used by various English political parties, and was sung at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Every year it is sung on the last night of the Proms (summer concert series which concludes at Royal Albert Hall), just before “God Save the Queen.” Many of the people standing in the sweeping circles of the great arena sing it from memory, as if it were virtually the second national anthem. They sing Blake’s words. But for those of us who have seen the Kirchmayer crucifix, the poet’s words might be tweaked just a little:

“And did those feet in ancient times, walk upon . . . our sins.”

Richard J. Grace is an emeritus professor of history at Providence College and a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts