Crosses and Craftsmanship

When my church did some remodeling, they salvaged several painted pine boards and commissioned me to make some decorative crosses out of the wood. Some were gifts for volunteers; others were sold in a missions fundraiser.

From a joinery point of view, these crosses could hardly be simpler to make. It was just a matter of cutting the stock to size, smoothing the edges with a handplane, and cutting one simple lap-joint for the crosspiece. The whole operation required very few tools, and I was able to complete about ten of them in a single morning, though I think I made about 30 in all.

Since the cross is quite literally the crucial symbol of Christianity, we Christians see crosses all the time. That familiarity tends to obscure the historical reality of crosses as they were used in ancient Rome. Doing this project, I found that I could not build crosses without imaginatively entering the first-century Roman world in which crosses were made not to hang on a wall but to hang people on, not to decorate a room but to publicly torture criminals to death.

In what follows, I want to explain the process I used to make these crosses from this special wood, while contrasting that with how I imagine an original Roman cross might have been put together–without, hopefully, going into too much graphic detail.

Let’s begin with overall design and stock-selection.

I had my stock provided to me. It was pre-painted and pre-distressed pine 1X4s that were 2′ to 4′ long, so the first job was cutting out smaller sections to appropriate lengths and widths. In doing so, I had to cut around a few really big knots, but I also endeavored to retain as much character in the wood as possible. Since the wood had been salvaged, I wanted it to look salvaged. The smoothed sides and lightly chamfered edges contrast nicely with the rougher, distressed surface on the front.

The overall dimensions of the crosses were determined by the available stock. Because I was cutting the stock out of 1X4s, I made the pieces just over 1″ wide, allowing me to rip each 1X4 into thirds. Beginning with the width, I calculated that the top and two arms would need to project about three times the width of the center joint, and the bottom would need to be twice that again, or a little more. So I cut the long pieces 11″ long and the crosspieces 7″ long. On the finished pieces, these dimensions allow for a finished cross that shows off just enough of the distressed surface to be visually interesting, but not so much that the whole thing looks blocky. It should be able to hang on a wall in a fairly small space.

I can only assume that the dimensions of an original Roman cross would have been just enough to accommodate an average human body. A 6′ crosspiece would be about right, with the vertical piece needing to be a little longer, plus extra length to drop into a hole in the ground. An 8′ beam would be plenty. In most illustrations of the crucifixion of Christ, we see dimensioned wood used in the cross. But I can’t imagine anyone bothering to square up timbers for such a use. I suspect that a Roman cross would have been assembled from timbers in the round, probably no more than 3″ or 4″ in diameter. Given the landscape and climate of ancient Israel, timber of all kinds must have been at a premium. Probably only the knottiest, most defect-ridden logs would have been used for crosses. Come to think of it, though, this would also have been a good use for reclaimed timber, so I suppose it’s just possible that some crosses could have been made of dimensioned timbers after all.

For this project, I pulled only a few tools out of my tool chest. And so, I suppose, would a Roman craftsman. Other than cutting the timbers to length with an axe or saw, there wouldn’t have been much to making a cross in those days. It seems most probable to me that the beams would have been lashed together with rope. You probably wouldn’t have wasted good hardware like expensive, handmade nails on a project like that. Yet a cross would have had to have been study enough to bear human weight, and (without going into extra-gory detail) to withstand some real stresses of movement during use. Perhaps the maker would have cut out a rough notch or two with an axe so as to reinforce the lashing, or perhaps the whole thing was nailed together after all.

On these crosses, I opted for a single notch in the crosspiece, which makes the crosspiece stand out a little from the upright, giving the whole object just a little bit of visual depth. Because the joint is not load-bearing, it only needed to be tight enough to look tidy.

After planing the edges of the stock smooth and straight, I turned the stock over and placed the crosspiece exactly where I wanted it, and made sure it was centered on the upright.

I marked out the joint with a knife and marking gauge and then sawed each side. Finally, I popped out the bulk of the waste with a chisel and pared down to the line. The lap joint was then ready to assemble with just a couple drops of glue to keep everything together.

But first, I used a block plane to chamfer the edges a little bit. Especially on the stock with the darker paint, the chamfers really emphasize the color contrast. (The cat was annoyed that I was working in his favorite napping spot.) Because these are decorative pieces, a little decorative touch that didn’t take too long seemed appropriate.

Roman crosses, on the other hand, were emphatically not decorative. Aesthetics were surely not a consideration at all. Yet the crosses were built for display–for the public execution of enemies of the state. They and their victims were meant to be seen–even to be stared at. And they were intended to be ugly and horrific.

And we know they were made and used in batches. Jesus was one of three men crucified on a single day. Accounts of other crucifixions have reported hundreds of victims being executed at a time–a typical Roman response to, say, an insurrection. In such exceptional cases, they probably used whatever timber came to hand: dry or freshly-cut, new or reclaimed, really anything you could drive a nail into. But in Jesus’s case, I can only assume that there was probably a pile of ready-made crosses available for the small but steady stream of capital sentences meted out by the government, and that the same crosses would have been reused on victim after victim until they inevitably deteriorated into firewood.

Batch production is efficient, and the Romans could build things with remarkable efficiency when their public honor was at stake. I can only assume the same was true of the crosses on which they executed their criminals. An order of a dozen crosses would not have taken long to fill. The maker, who might well have been a slave, would have had to make each one quickly but also “to spec,” and could only hope that he would never end up on one himself.

It seems that Christians began to use the cross as a religious symbol only after crucifixion was abandoned as an execution method in the Roman world–or perhaps it was abandoned because of the spread of Christianity, which worshiped a very specific victim of crucifixion. Regardless, crosses only begin to appear regularly in Christian art several hundred years after the death of Christ.

And now, here we are, with twenty centuries between us and the original event. The cross has become a symbol–an emblem that evokes a deep, even spiritual response from people who know something of what it means. It is a sign of pain, shame, and death, but paradoxically it is also a sign of hope and of life eternal. As an image, a cross could not be simpler–a horizontal line crossing a vertical one. Anybody can draw one. Nearly anybody could make one.

This whole project puts me in mind of an old poem called “The Dream of the Rood,” one of the oldest known poems in the English language, in which a man dreams that he sees the cross of Christ, both as a gruesome instrument of death and as a bejeweled beacon of hope. Here are a few lines in which the dreamer tries to describe the cross as it appears in his dream:

I could still look upon its traumas,
wretched & old, so that it began at once
to sweat blood along its right half.
In every part I was dredged in regret —
I was afeared for its fearful beauty.

I witnessed the change, the streaking beacon,
warping its own in clad & color:
sometimes it was blood steaming,
swilling in trills & rills of ruddy sweat;
sometimes it was bedazzled with richness.

You can read a translation of the whole poem here.

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1 Response to Crosses and Craftsmanship

  1. Tim says:

    I made a cross for an Easter observance at church: 4 by 4 lumber, 6 feet long, to be carried by the youth group. Roughly chiseling a half lap, I too reflected on those who made the instruments of the Roman Empire’s brutal rule. Very different woodworking from a cathedral’s beautiful carving but a more direct lesson in mortality, suffering and sacrifice.

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