by Ethan Starr
Rarely does a day pass for a Boston College student where he or she does not see a crucifix around campus—whether in one of the chapels, some of the dining halls, or most of the classrooms. The symbol of Christ’s suffering is largely ubiquitous around campus today, perhaps to a degree that they remain unnoticed by many students. However, as important symbols of the university’s Catholic identity, their substantial presence on campus is worth considering.
Conversation surrounding the campus crucifixes reached a peak a decade ago during the 2008-2009 school year, when, over winter break, crucifixes were placed in almost all classrooms in North and South Stokes Halls, as well as in some of the other buildings. The episode drew intense attention from both students and faculty upon the resumption of the school year, with several outspoken professors complaining of the measure’s “insensitivity.” Others complained about a lack of campus-wide notification preceding the installation of the crosses. These few disgruntled professors attracted widespread media attention, as their quotes appeared in the Boston Globe and Herald, in Catholic media outlets across the country, and in publications as distant as the St. Louis Dispatch.
Critics of the University’s Catholic identity have seemingly lost interest in the crucifixes’ presence in the intervening years. Most members of the BC community, if they have not embraced the University’s Catholic identity, at least respect its prerogative to display Christian art in an academic setting. In fact, many of the crucifixes installed in the early 2000s around campus are products of foreign craftsmanship, brought to campus from mission trips abroad. They constitute legitimate artworks worthy of display, regardless of their religious nature. Unfortunately, most of these crucifixes that have reached BC’s classrooms from international origins lack descriptions regarding the cultures that produced them. I include below explanations of some of the more intriguing crucifixes of Boston College.
After a survey of the classrooms of Lyons Hall and Stokes Hall, I catalogued each of the many crucifixes that spawned the 2009 controversy. While many classrooms display small icons in place of Jesus on the cross, most are adorned with either a souvenir from a service trip or a more mass-produced, standardized cross. In only a few cases, additional context for the crosses includes small plaques specifying only “Immersion Trip Honduras 2004,” or “B.C. Immersion Trip Mexico 2000.” Multiple instances, unfortunately, reveal only a residue of where a crucifix was once glued, the cross having presumably fallen off.
A tour of Stokes reveals a few rustic crucifixes, fashioned from overlapping sticks and featuring crisp plant materials for Jesus’ garments and hair. These assemblages of flammables are ironically placed next to the fire alarms. A recent ungluing resulted in the disappearance of the crucifix popularly known to students as “Cowboy Jesus,” so called for what resembled a cowboy hat atop Jesus’ head.
Stokes Hall also features several painted crosses, done in a fashion I would label Latin-American, which depict Jesus among villagers and workers. In one, Jesus is flanked by a cohort of children who are holding hands standing on all sides of a globe. In another, Jesus stands below a stylized dove, arms outstretched on the flanks of the cross. The most common crucifix throughout Stokes Hall consists of a silver-clad Jesus upon a plain wooden cross. His disproportionately large hands and arms are well-defined, as are his textured crown and ribs.
Finally, one of the more interesting crucifixes of Boston College resides above the door of Lyons 202, typically a linguistics classroom. Carved from the exceptionally strong African blackwood, Jesus hangs directly atop the wall, not backed by the planks of a cross, although they are implied by Jesus’ nailed arms. The arms, head, and hands are screwed directly into the wall behind. The black Jesus is rendered with an intricate, cratered pattern of hair, flattened nose amidst a beardless face, and a neatly folded loincloth. While surely West African in origin, it is impossible to determine the crucifix’s precise region of production without further information.
Perhaps a renewed interest in the campus’ religious art will someday result in greater understanding not just of the reason for their presence, but their histories as artworks as well.