Over the last few years, the cross as a work of art hasn’t gotten much respect. Take the medium of Madonna’s chest: the cross, her symbol of irreverence (and ironically of nostalgia) can usually be seen dangling on a chain between her pushed-up bosom. Then there’s painter Andres Serrano’s urine: in 1989, the cross was seen submerged in a jar of it.

For the next few months, though, the cross can be seen in–who’d have guessed it?–a church! Thirty-five artists from around the world who have painted, photographed, or made crosses from wood, metal, ceramic, and other materials will display their work through the end of March in “The Cross–A Contemporary Image” at Second Presbyterian Church, 1936 S. Michigan.

“The artists have treated the cross with reverence,” says Paul Waggoner, a longtime art dealer and deacon of the church. Even though it has been popular to desecrate recently, the cross remains a sanctified image, Waggoner says. “Just because someone has used the cross in an un-Christian way doesn’t make the form itself bad. One artist in our show, Neraldo de la Paz, did a painting called “Eighteen” in which he depicts 18 different crosses. One of them looks like a swastika! But the swastika isn’t just the symbol of the Nazis. It was really a cross form from antiquity that the Nazis usurped.”

Waggoner and Chicago artist Don Baum, whose contribution to the show is made from paint-by-numbers panels depicting the Last Supper, have been tossing around the idea of staging the exhibit for some time. Waggoner got approval to hold the exhibit at his church–the perfect venue for an art exhibit, according to Waggoner, because it is itself a work of art. “It is referred to as the crown jewel of the Arts and Crafts Movement” in the midwest, he says.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain in the 1880s and ’90s and crossed over to this country around the turn of the century. It was a return to hand manufacturing, in everything from homes to dinnerware. “The movement was a rebellion against mass production,” says Waggoner, ” . . . to protect the artist’s craft.”

The results of that movement can be seen in almost every corner of the church. The original structure, built on the site in the early 1870s, was ravaged by fire in 1900. Socially prominent local architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who reconstructed the interior after the fire, incorporated countless elements of handicraft. There are hand-carved oak pews, hand-sewn horsehair pew cushions, murals of the Tree of Life and the Procession of Angels by Frederic Clay Bartlett, and stained-glass tableaux designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge among others. Perhaps most magnificent of all is the limestone baptismal font next to the dark oak communion table up front. The font was hand-carved by Florentine craftsmen and depicts a thick bundle of intertwined lilies, the minute detail of which testifies to months of tedious labor.

The structure has been designated a landmark by the city, state, and federal governments. “The church is always open for tours,” Waggoner says, although he rues the day an unruly class came to visit and ran wild through the place. Some kids jumped up and yanked so hard at the rope in the bell tower that it snapped, temporarily putting the four-ton bell out of service. “They’ve never been back,” Waggoner laughs.

Second Presbyterian also boasts a colorful past. Its membership roll has included the Pullman, Armour, Swift, and Glessner families, who lived in the exclusive area just east of the church now called the Prairie Avenue Historic District. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, was a trustee of the church in the late 1880s, and his mother often worshipped there. William Jennings Bryan once spoke there, according to church histories.

The church came into being in 1842, when First Presbyterian Church of Chicago voted to advocate immediate abolition of slavery. Some members supported a more gradual form of abolition and broke away to form a second church.

“Now, almost 150 years later, the church is made up of more African American people than white people,” Waggoner says. “Chicago is so racially segregated, but this church has a beautifully integrated congregation. It’s an excellent example of how an organization can be such a mix. I think it has to do with the Presbyterians encouraging an intellectual approach to spiritual life. The people who come here are attracted by that; they don’t come here because of an ethnic background.”

Now there’s another mix in the church. It’s of art–from Chicago, Greece, Ethiopia, Belize, Mexico, Peru, the Zulu tribe, Canada, and Haiti. Dean Jaramillo, an instructor at the Ice Sculpture School of Chicago, will carve a cross from a block of ice throughout the day today near the entrance of the church, weather permitting. Other works will include a cross painted on a kite hanging high within the church by Michael Frazier Thompson, a sterling pendant by silversmith William Frederick, an iron sculpture by 92-year-old Haitian artist Georges Liataud, a reproduction of a ninth-century fresco using modern materials by Laurence Conn, large photo transparencies by Greek-born local artist Freedom Lialios, a found-object construction by south-sider Derek Webster, and photos, paintings, and prints by five Lithuanian artists from Chicago and the home country.

Some of the artists are Christians; others are not. But they all present strong images of this symbol. None of the artists, Waggoner hastens to add, has desecrated the cross, but some of the works are sure to stir the pot. “I’m not saying it’ll necessarily be controversial, but this show gives artists the opportunity to think about the cross, and the result of that thinking will not exactly be the safe and folksy rendering of the cross that you’ll see in your typical midwestern church.”

“The Cross–A Contemporary Image” opens tonight with a reception from 5 to 8 and will run through Easter Sunday, March 31. Viewing hours are Tuesday through Friday 9 to 4, Saturday 9 to noon, and Sunday following the 11 AM service. For more information call Second Presbyterian Church at 225-4951.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.