Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis

IMG_8850Suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the nave of Peterborough Cathedral hangs Frank Roper’s ‘Crucifixion’. It is a commanding and striking presence in the cathedral. It is fifteen feet high and weighs more than half a ton. The wooden cross, painted red with intricate interwoven gold decoration on the back, supports a more than life-size gilded Christ looking tormented as he is crucified. The red and the gold are reminiscent for me of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ and it was Nicholas Bury’s Holy Week addresses on this poem in 2013 that opened my eyes to see this sculpture afresh. I frequently find my gaze rising to ponder it during the early morning Eucharist, positioned as it is just behind the main nave altar platform where our early morning prayers tend to be held.

 

The work was the gift of Revd William Elborne, a longstanding friend of the cathedral, in memory of his wife Gwendoline Constance Edith Elborne[1]. At the service of dedication on 13th September 1975 the choir sang an ‘Obsecration before the Crucifix’, set to music by the donor[2]. Chapter minutes record that William Elborne did not favour a ‘hanging rood’ when it was first suggested in 1972.[3] The cathedral architect was dispatched to discuss it with him and he clearly came round to the idea.

 

The first plan seems to have been to position the cross on the East side of the crossing. This did not appeal to the Chapter and after experiments with a full-size cardboard model, the present location was arrived at.[4] The cost rose from the original estimate of £1,500 in 1973 to £2,505 a year later[5]. Approval was also given, when the time came, for William Elborne’s cremated remains to be interred in a vault beneath the suspended crucifix with a suitable inscribed ledger stone, which can be seen in that position today.[6]

 

The image changes depending on the angle from which it is viewed. From one point the figure is full and enfleshed. From another it is thin and emaciated, almost flattened. The eyes are hollow, but again how these appear depends on where you are standing. Looking at the eyes, with the red of the cross behind them, they can look scary. Indeed some school children find it frightens them. Standing just in front of it, about a pace to the west of William Elborne’s memorial stone, and looking straight up through the eyes to the roof above they have a presence and a depth as if we are gazing through them into the mystery of the divine. This is an effect created by the lozenge shapes in the roof being visible through the eye openings.

 

In the 1950s Frank Roper became interested in casting aluminium and a number of his pieces use gilding, as ours does. From the 1960s he collaborated with the cathedral’s then architect George Pace, and this piece is the result of their working together. He has been described as “a man of entrancing contradictions: a modernist whose work absorbed tradition, deeply conservative but a vivid individualist”.[7] These traits are visible in the piece that occupies the central position in the cathedral nave.

 

Roods have a long history, crosses and crucifixes set in a prominent position in the church. They don’t begin to appear until the fifth century but one of the earliest recorded is a figureless bejeweled gold cross in Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople from that time[8]. Three centuries later there is reference to a life-size crucifix in gold foil around a wooden core hanging in Charlemagne’s eighth century Imperial Palace Chapel in Aachen. In the eleventh century we find the famous Lady Godiva giving a necklace to the Virgin Mary accompanying the rood in Evesham Abbey. Many parish churches contain the remnants of the stairs to their rood lofts, though the screen itself has in most cases disappeared. These snap shots provide a brief outline of the prominent place roods have had in church architectural focus.

 

In Peterborough the location of the medieval rood and nave altar are marked by the Agnus Dei lozenge in the ceiling (lamb with cross bleeding into the chalice). This is over where the brass eagle lectern stands today. Frank Roper’s cross is suspended from the image depicting a monkey with an owl riding a goat. At the time this was thought to be the location of the medieval rood, but that has been re-evaluated. The symbolism is puzzling, but the motif also appears in the thirteenth century Peterborough Psalter. Paul Binski suggests a possible link with the monastic moral life being contrasted with the encircling evils of the world[9]. Encircling evils to be confronted and triumphed over fits with the placing of the crucifix at this point even though that is purely coincidental. The cross triumphs over all assaults, even death itself.

 

It is the Latin caption underneath which gives it a further layer of meaning. “Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis” is the motto of the Carthusian Order. I have seen this being variously translated, so I consulted a friend who teaches Classics at Harvard University. Her rendition is “The cross stands still/steady while the world turns”. It is, as she went on to comment, “a pointed contrast between the steadfastness of the cross and the busyness of the world”.[10] The cross is the still and static place while the world is turbulent and revolving. The cross becomes the place where the transitory nature of creation and its turmoil is given resolution and a point of anchor.

 

The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084 by St Bruno of Cologne when he set up the first house in the valley of the Chartreuse Mountains in the French Alps. I haven’t been able to trace the reason for choosing their motto to accompany the Peterborough crucifix, but Jack Higham’s piece for this journal in 1990[11] cites the Dean at the time it was introduced, Dick Wingfield-Digby, saying it was the suggestion of the donor. There does not seem to be a record of why he chose this text.

 

The provenance of this motto is also proving elusive. Some sources attribute Martin, the eleventh general of the Order, as giving the motto to them. Others credit Bernard of Clairvaux as the author. Again I have not been able to find the actual source and I would like to. Jack Higham similarly could not trace it. The best source is a letter Dean Wingfield-Digby received from Dom Maurice Laporte of the Abbey of the Grande Chartreuse. In this letter he stated that the motto first appears in 1600 in the work of a historian of the Carthusian Order, Dom Nicolas Molin. It is not known if it was already in use or is his composition. He offers it as an explanation of their symbol, a cross over a globe. The letter continues that there is a second part to the phrase, “et mundo inconcussa supersto”, which my friend translated as “and steadfast/unshaken I stand on top of the world”.

 

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

et mundo inconcussa supersto

The cross stands still/steady while the world turns

and steadfast/unshaken I stand on top of the world

 

The ‘I’ seems to refer to the cross, which she added in passing is feminine. With that a whole new line of thought opened up.

 

The first half of the motto appears in the nineteenth century in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in which he attributes it to being the Carthusian Motto, so clearly by then it was in use. I suspect that the exact origin is not known because there is no mention of this in the most recent history of the Order by Tim Peeters[12] (2015). He merely refers to it without further historical comment.

 

It was reflecting on the crucifix in the centre of our cathedral and its motto that I felt inspired to write this prayer. Having looked into it in more depth for this article it now has even more resonance for me and will continue to draw my thoughts during early morning prayers.

 

Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis

Amidst the turbulence of the world

your cross O Christ stands

holding all that would be lost.

Bless us in your redeeming love

and bring us through your passion

to the joy of your resurrection.

In the power of the Holy Spirit

we make our prayer to the Father.

Amen.

 

This article was printed in the Peterborough Cathedral Friends Journal 2016

 

Notes:

[1] ‘Dean’s Review’ in Friends of Peterborough Cathedral Journal 1975

[2] From the service paper in the Cathedral Archives

[3] Chapter Minutes 26th January 1972 in the Cathedral Archives

[4] Chapter Minutes 11th May 1973 in the Cathedral Archives

[5] Chapter Minutes 3rd April 1974 in the Cathedral Archives

[6] Chapter Minutes 16th September 1975 in the Cathedral Archives

[7] Peter Wakelin Frank Roper: Sculptor entranced by ancient subjects and modern materials Obituary in The Guardian, 11th December 2000

[8] Diarmaid MacCulloch A history of Christianity (Allen Lane, 2009) p179

[9] Paul Binski ‘Iconography and Influences’ in Jackie Hall and Susan M Wright Conservation and Discovery: Peterborough Cathedral Nave Ceiling and Related Structures (Museum of London Archaeology, 2015) pp99-101

[10] I am grateful to Professor Emma Dench of the Department of Classics at Harvard University for her help with the Latin translations (via the twenty-first century wonders of Facebook messaging and email)

[11] Jack Higham ‘Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis’ in Friends of Peterborough Cathedral Journal 1990

[12] Tim Peeters When Silence Speaks: The Spiritual Way of the Carthusian Order (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2015)

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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One Response to Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis

  1. Pingback: The Still Point in a Turning World | Liturgy

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