Cross of Ely
Graham Sutherland ( British, 1903 - 1980 )
Louis Osman ( British, 1914 - 1996 )
Graham Sutherland's work during the 1930s and early 1940s was dominated by expressionistic abstraction from nature, so that the commission in 1944 by the vicar of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Northampton, England for a painting of the Crucifixion to accompany Henry Moore's Madonna and Child, the project came as a special challenge. It represented his first life-size figure painting and introduced a series of religious subjects leading eventually to the Ely Cross.
This work, his most ambitious sculpture, also came as a commission. With an enlightened belief that good modern art could harmonize with the Romanesque and Gothic splendor of their cathedral, authorities at Ely ordered as a collaboration between Sutherland and the architect-goldsmith Louis Osman a gold and silver cross for the nave altar. Work was completed in May 1964 for the enthronement of the new Bishop of Ely.
The cross stands forty-three and one half inches high and weighs seventy-seven pounds. Complexly formed from forty-five separate parts, it consists of a square central plaque, supported vertically from a high stand, which is surrounded on all sides by four pads with gold finger-like additions representing the hands or power of God. At the center is a small crucifix set against a heart suggesting love, devotion, and eternal life. The silver forms were cast by the Morris Singer Foundry in London and several of them (the "hands" and heart) were then enamelled in black niello. The gold crucifix was cast by Johnson Matthey of Hatton Garden. The overall design is attributed to Osman, while Sutherland contributed the crucifix with heart and the gold fingers.
With its precious metals, highly polished surfaces, and rough modelling, the cross gleams in even dim ambient light. Indeed, it was this reflectivity (together perhaps with the cross's highly modern character) which caused church leaders to reject it in 1965 after its initial installation. The Dean of Ely was quoted as saying that "because of the way its surface is broken up it becomes almost invisible in its position on the high altar..." Donations made to the church to pay for the cross were returned, and the cross was transferred to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London, which also helped to fund it. It was purchased from this group by Wendy and Emery Reves, who had seen it on exhibition prior to installation at Ely and had been deeply moved by its power. Five years later, Sutherland, a close friend of theirs, presented to them the wax model for the crucifix. [1985.R.70]
- Steven A. Nash, "Cross of Ely," The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1985), 148-149.