March 3, 2021 // Perspective

A wrought-iron meditation

Guest Commentary by Bob Nowak

Occasionally, it helps to remember our humanness. It helps to recognize the fragile nature of our shared need to simply breathe. The healthy bluster of team spirit aside, it helps, at times, to lay down our flags and banners to recognize, in all humility, the interdependence of our existence on this spinning planet because the journey we take through the universe is one we take together. 

I write these thoughts as a pandemic leaves a trail of emptiness and loss across the globe; heightening our awareness of the tenuous nature of existence; causing us to take stock, wait and re-imagine our connections.

Spending seemingly endless days in a masked dance of awkward social distance, I find my formative years rushing suddenly to mind as I work and teach in a way I’ve never expected. It is as if my personal dictum that every aesthetic experi  ence informs all subsequent human experiences is being put to the test, causing me to search through my visual memory for images capable of resonating with my need to cope. 

Scanning mentally through the past 67 years, I am reminded of how I came to find my place and purpose by embracing the study of a broad range of creative expression. I realized this most recently as I was preparing an 18th century wrought-iron sculpture of the crucified Christ for potential display. In this singular corpus, the physicality of both subject and material merge in a compelling metaphor for the human condition.

Iron, steel, bronze and brass were integral to my introduction to art as life. I cannot look at a piece of wrought iron without hearing my father’s voice describing the beauty and strength of the first iron gate I saw waiting for repair in his workshop. Born in the late 1920s with a keen awareness of the good life being wrapped in a weave of family, faith and purposeful work, my father, the first college-educated member of his family, chose to root his business instinct in the working of metal. He married a painter’s daughter and together they raised six children. Artisanship being an ever-ascending path, my father’s growing facility with all forms of metal became written in the texture and color of his hands.

While leaving the need for forging and casting to others, my father’s ability to fabricate and refinish became his calling card. As a child, I was given the freedom to explore his workshop filled with piles of scrap ornamental pieces stacked with an eye toward accessibility, waiting to become whatever he imagined. I came to know the brittle, muted character of cast iron, the glorious visual resonance of weathered bronze, and the lyrical pattern of hammered copper. I learned to appreciate a well-chased casting, the glow of a finely polished brass lamp, and the permeating taste and smell of welding, grinding and buffing. 

Though my father worked a minimum of 12 hours a day, six days a week, for nearly all my childhood, he never missed Sunday Mass or dinner, and these priorities seem somehow present in the wrought-iron corpus.

Employed in the making of weapons, tools and functional forms across many cultures, wrought iron, or “worked iron,” has been a utilitarian standard since 500 B.C. Iron used in the wrought-iron process is low in carbon content and more fibrous than cast iron, which cannot be formed with a hammer. Wrought-iron work can be as small as a nail and as large as a city gate. Beyond its intended use, it often consists of twists, turns and flourishes that are at once functional and ornamental. 

Occasionally, a master metal worker will smith a figurative work. Artisans in the Congo have been doing so for centuries. Due to the difficulty of maintaining control of a large piece of white-hot iron, most are small, 14 cm to 50 cm, but in the hands of skilled artisans, as with the figure of Christ in front of me, such objects carry an aesthetic weight well beyond the gravitational pull of the material.

Dating between A.D. 1780 and A.D. 1820, the figure is clearly European, most likely forged in the Netherlands, where it appeared in an estate sale. The corpus is 30 cm tall from head to foot. The outstretched arms extend the form to 38 cm with the hands 25 cm apart. Forged independent of a cruciform support, the artist, most likely a master blacksmith, provided a welded loop from which the corpus can be hung in position. It is unknown whether the cross on which this corpus hung was initially wrought iron or wood. 

It would have taken several hands to secure the heat-drenched metal as it was shaped: constantly turning and hammering, reheating and tooling. The body, arms, legs and head are all of one piece. Once a bar of iron, it was heated in the forge, split with hammer and chisel to create arms and legs and then slowly beaten into form. The hair, crown of thorns and the cloth around Christ’s mid-section were added after the body was complete.

The figure’s rich, burnt-umber hue aside, what is most striking about this sculpture is the face. 

The head is long and crowned with a double-wrapped wreath of thorns. The blacksmith’s focus is to reclaim the moment following Christ’s last breath. With His head turned, falling at a 45-degree angle to the direction of the body, Christ’s suffering has passed. With eyes swollen and closed, the lower lip relaxes. Christ’s hair, matted and looping down and across His shoulders, is delicately tooled. His beard, scraping the middle of His chest, is full and reminiscent of those early scenes of the crucifixion found in Romanesque paintings and sculptures of 11th century. 

A ubiquitous symbol in Catholic practice, many depictions of the Christ crucified are overly sentimental, mass-produced and given less individual attention than a street sign. This image, however, is not among them. It is a word spoken from the heart. An honest gut-wrenching gasp of faith reverberating like the ping of a hammer striking metal. Through it, the maker is clearly seen to be praying in iron.

The process of forging and refining ore is a biblical metaphor for human suffering, something of which I believe these artisans, both master and apprentice, were deeply aware. The power to create form and meaning from inert materials is the artist’s lot; none take it lightly. Those who are closest to the elemental nature of materiality, the anonymous blacksmiths and my father among them, nurture a physical relationship with their media; knowing the metal is essential to the creative process. 

I believe both the artisan who created this corpus and my father would find common ground in talking about how the work defines the maker as the maker gives form to the work. Undoubtedly, the 18th-century artisan would have experienced the hammering and battering of Jesus’ body, pulled deep from a bed of coals 1300-1500 degrees Celsius, as a palpable visual reading of the passion story. There would be no escaping this awareness.

As an image of meditation, whatever transformation this work accomplished for its creator continues in today’s visual reading. The paradox of an almighty God sharing in human suffering by submitting to the full measure of human cruelty in an effort to affect a deeper understanding of the gift of our existence, is a rare story among the peoples of the earth. 

Regardless of who imagines control of the Christian narrative, the image of Christ’s crucifixion endures for this simple, cross-cultural, boundary-jumping reason: All of us will suffer in life, and yet, it need not consume us. Suffering is present at each person’s birth and walks with us, accompanied by hope and strength, all of our days. If we, like the Christ, find the courage to set aside our protective barriers and see our own face in the experience of others, then we will endure. 

As the sculpture reveals, occasionally … it helps to remember our humanness. It helps to personally recognize our shared vulnerability; to gather the strength to reach through the veil of human suffering, and, in so doing, touch at least one hand, so that none may journey through life alone. I can think of no better salve, no better word, and no better image to help heal the loss laid before us.

Bob Nowalk is a teacher at Culver Academies, a college preparatory boarding school in Culver, Indiana. This article is from his blog, The Unintended Curator.

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.