By David Johns
I went to the Museo de Arte Moderno de Carrillo Gil in January with one goal in mind: to see the painting I had been thinking about for the past two years. Like the song you can’t quite get out of your head, this painting, Cristo destruye su cruz (Christ destroys his cross), has found its way into my conversations and into my classroom. I was in Mexico City again, so I took the Metrobús south along Insurgentes to the Altavista platform and walked about six blocks to the museum on Avenida Revolución.
It wasn’t there.
“It’s in the archives,” one of the staffers told me, and it wouldn’t be exhibited any time soon.
“A private exhibition, maybe?” I asked, thinking it couldn’t hurt.
Not likely; but she said I should send a letter stating why I needed to see the painting. So, I sent the letter. Then I sent another. After a few weeks they sent one to me.
José Clemente Orozco was a contemporary of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, the paint-splattered trio of muralists who gave visual expression to a new vision of Mexico emerging from the Revolution. Orozco blew off his left hand as a child while playing with fireworks so he never had to “let his right hand know what his left was doing,” he could simply be free; and that’s what he was as an artist.
He painted the theme, Cristo destruye su cruz, three times in his life, twice as murals—one of which still survives at Darmouth College—and once on a 4’ x 3’ canvas. The third he painted in 1943 in a studio at 132 Ignacio Mariscal in Mexico City, where today a Friends meeting gathers each Sunday.
“Parece como si fuera un leñador,” I told someone who asked how Jesus was portrayed in the painting; he looks like a lumberjack. After being crucified—that is obvious from his disfigured foot—Jesus swings a wooden handled ax and chops down the cross.
Taking down the cross is not enough. If one lives in the life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, as Fox declared, more than war needs to go. Orozco’s Jesus is surrounded by symbols of those things that lead to crucifixions, Jesus’ as well as the crucifixion of countless, faceless others who are sacrificed in world where power crushes the vulnerable.
I returned to the museum and sat in the chief curator’s office for an hour talking about Mexican art, Orozco’s politics, creativity, and liberation theology. She was curious what a theologian from Indiana saw in this work. Then she led me into the archives, a small warehouse-like area where the work of masters was tucked away waiting their turn to breathe again in the galleries.
Cristo destruye su cruz was propped up against some shelving. I spent an hour with Orozco’s ax-swinging Jesus, on my hands and knees, examining color, lines, images, and the little things that aren’t so little when in the hands of a great artist.
For three hours in the museum’s research library I read everything the director placed in front of me—exhibition catalogues, biographies, reviews.
I was invited one last time to sit with Orozco’s canvas. Deeply grateful, I offered the curator a gift. She declined.
“I see something new in this work,” she said. “When Christ destroys his cross it’s not an act of revenge.”
It’s an act of hope for all creation.
David Johns is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. He is an Associate Editor of Quaker Religious Thought, a member of First Friends Meeting, Richmond, and a proud member of the Associación Teológica Ecuménica Mexicana.