The Cross Altar by Eduardo Chillida

Gurutz Aldare - the Cross Altar by Eduardo Chillida in the Jesuit Church in Cologne


Cross altars have a long tradition in church architecture.  In the double-choired monastery and cathedral churches of the early Middle Ages, the altar dedicated to the holy cross (s. crucis) was placed in the geometrical center of the space and thus symbolized the central significance of the cross of Christ in history.  After the church naves were opened to the faithful in the high Middle Ages, the cross altar became the people's altar at which the faithful received Communion. (1)  The altar was situated close to the rood screen which was set between the monks' (or chapter) choir at the intersection of the longitudinal nave and transepts.  In this way architectonic and symbolic meanings were superimposed; form and content came into contact.  This is also true of the altar which is the topic of this essay, the Gurutz Aldare (Cross Altar), 2000, of Eduardo Chillida.


In the year 2000, when the Basque sculptor donated this altar to the Cologne Jesuits as part of the four-year restoration of their venerable Gothic city church, a 33-year old project of the artist was finally realized.  Three previous attempts had failed; the success of the fourth try was due to the long-standing relationship between the artist, his family, and the Jesuits in San Sebastian and Cologne.  The relationship had been built up over years of personal meetings, exhibitions and accompanying publications and journalistic activity. (2)


Two developments stood behind the birth of this work of art:  the artist's return to the block form, and his work with alabaster.  In the 1950s, Chillida worked mostly with open steel sculptures, where the forms were set around an exposed interior volume.  But around 1962 he began to focus more and more on the closed block, which required him to work on it from the outside.  This resulted in new spatial constructions in steel and stone, in which the interior volumes remained enclosed, obscured by shadow, or even concealed.  Yet such works had the power to awaken the attention of the beholder, and evoked a strong resonance.  For many viewers, these sculptures made space itself palpable.  It was made present to them in a kind of imaginary empathy - even if one did not physically see it, one felt it indirectly.


A few years later, in 1966, Chillida began to experiment with a new material - alabaster.  The smoothness of this soft stone reflected light, and the transparency of its structure even allowed light to penetrate it.  As the sculptor experimented with these characteristics, hollowing out the stone, carving into it, he could feel the layers and differentiations of the degrees of brightness that the stone released.  Due to the way in which the light was making the space physically palpable, the artist was now not just shaping the material but also defining space at the same time.  This discovery led to a group of block-like works that let the light penetrate into the material.  Entering from different sides, the piercing shafts of light came together and opened up a dynamic and glowing interior space.  For many observers this had not only an architectonic but also a spiritual quality.  The glowing layers articulated these mysterious inner spaces.  The goal of making them visible and palpable increasingly pushed Chillida's work forward.  It was becoming clear that, for a sensitive viewer, even emptiness could be given form.  Such a void then possessed the same real quality as mass itself, although on a different level.  This discovery led to a subsequent group of works which successfully demonstrated that the inner core of each sculpture was to be found in the agitated (and agitating) dialectic of mass and void.  The essence of the sculpture was becoming visible in its form.


In the very next year, 1967, Chillida presented one of these new works as a proposal for a sculpture in a public square in the Swedish university city and bishopric of Lund; it was the c. 35 cm. high Proyecto para un monumento (1967).  Like a surgeon, he had cut apart a square stone of this light-material into four parts, opened it up and thus exposed its inner volume.  The individual parts, in their impressive separate forms, reached into each other like arms of a cross and thus mysteriously set free what they had apparently encompassed and held.  They could be placed at different distances from each other.  When the distance between them was small, they led inside from the side entrances and shafts, as if to a mysterious place that was revealed in the composition.  If set too far apart, this effect would no longer be observable.


Chillida wanted to execute the final sculpture, whose character he had explored in the alabaster model, in an almost three-meter high granite block, since it was not possible to create a work of this size in alabaster.  Visitors in Lund would have been able to climb into the work from entrances at different heights in order to get a feeling for its real dimensions and especially for its mass, light, and shadows.  At the same time they could have experienced the inner space in a bodily way, as it was felt in the beholder as a kind of psychic echo, a mixture of enthusiasm and stifling, irritation and self-experience.  These plans for Lund came to nothing, unfortunately, but Chillida refused to abandon the inner concept of this design; for here was demonstrated for the first time "the visible idea of an active space whose powers could, like breathing, stretch elements apart and press them together." (3)


Only two years later, this concept was used again as the basis of a proposal for a multilevel project for a city square in the small Basque city of Durango.  Chillida modified his first model by removing one of the original four elements.  This time he presented a maquette (preliminary model) built of iron for the Proyecto para un monumento (1969), which was to be carved from red granite about 140 cm. high.  In this work, the inner volume of the largely closed sculpture would have faced toward the open square like a sheltering place of refuge, or a protective bay in the sea.  The two small empty spaces between the three parts would have acted like unknown arms of a protecting power reaching out of the emptiness.  But again the plans came to naught, this time because of inner conflicts in the planning committee. (4)


A short time later Chillida was invited by the Franciscan monks of the Basque pilgrimage place of Aránzazu to make an altar for their newly built church.  As both Basque and artist, Chillida was familiar with this place; as early as 1954 he had done the four main portals in his first public commission:  eight huge iron collages. (5)  Now for the altar, the sculptor once again modified his project.  He returned to the alabaster material he had proposed two years earlier for Lund, and as in the Durango version, set the three elements with their variable distances into a new relationship with each other; this time as the Proyecto para un altar (1969).  But once again there were difficulties.  The Fathers found the altar too small for the large space, for they projected that as many as 20 priests were to concelebrate around it on high feast days.  Chillida was unwilling to offer alternative proposals, however, and they failed to come to agreement.  Still intrigued with the submitted proposal, however, the fathers then offered the lower church for his altar - a seductive opportunity, since the entrance was right next to his impressive iron portals.  Chillida took it under consideration, and would have accepted the proposal under the condition that the entire furnishing of the crypt would be left in his hands.  But the fathers did not want to agree to this, since they had given their word to uncover and restore some metaphorical paintings of the Basque artist Néstor Basterrechea which had been whitewashed in an artistic controversy back in 1955.  So, here too, all further plans came to naught. (6)


In a retrospective interview with Martin Ugalde some years later, Chillida spoke about this proposal and took the occasion to clarify his conception of how a work that had begun as an open-air sculpture was to be transformed into an altar.  In this conversion, he transferred the compositional structures to the symbolic level.  Thus the altar sculpture would have been built of three elements:  "one of which is firmly set and the side elements are moveable.  This altar would have needed nothing further put on it, neither a cross nor anything else.  The altar itself consists of three crosses, it is a Mount Calvary, and one of these crosses is the Tao-cross, the cross of Saint Francis." (7)


Eduardo gave up his plans for bringing this idea to reality in an altar in Aránzazu, but he honored this proposal via a gift to Pope Paul VI.  In a general encyclical, the Pope requested artists from all over the world to donate works for the contemporary collection of the Vatican Museums.  Since then, this small sculpture has been standing like a lonely sentinel just before the entrance into the Sistine Chapel, in a desperate attempt to bring it to reality in the papal collection.  When, in another context, Chillida was asked how it was possible to take a project initially intended for a profane space and later to transfer it to a spiritual space, he answered:  "I am a religious man.  The questions of faith and my problems as an artist lay close side by side.  Of course my conception of space has a spiritual dimension, just as it also has a philosophical one.  My constant rebellion against the laws of gravity has a religious aspect.  It's all a question of what name you give it." (8)


Before that, the Proyecto para un altar had been the subject of an incidental conversation between the sculptor and the author of this essay.  We were visiting the exhibition Chillida en San Sebastián together when suddenly the artist blurted out:  "Padre, I once even made an altar!" And he showed me the iron model, saying:  "A variant of it is in the Vatican Museum." That was in 1992 in the Palacio Miramar.


Five years later the theme came up again.  The late Gothic Jesuit church of St.  Peter's in Cologne, had to be closed for structural reasons.  Its naturally fragile character and inadequately repaired war damage had made renovation urgently necessary.  This opened up the potential of a new configuration, including the possibility of cleaning up the altar space since the church was still in a preconciliar condition with two main altars.  Moreover, a more than three-meter high altar painting by Peter Paul Rubens of the Crucifixion of Peter (1640), also hung there, but without a proper setting.  The Rubens family had lived for a time in the parish district of Cologne; towards the end of his life Rubens had created this painting for the apse of the church where he grew up.  The image shows the upside down crucifixion of the saint.  Chillida had already shown himself to be much taken by this work in the course of exhibitions and visits to Cologne.  Now the idea arose to combine this painting and the dimensions of the space with the cross variations of his altar proposal.  To harmonize with these dimensions, his proposed altar was to be one meter high.  In the year 2000, as the reopening of the church approached, the altar was constructed under the supervision of the artist by stone masons from the building firm entrusted with the renovation of the church. (9)  


In San Sebastian, Chillida selected the stone and discussed the work to be done with the craftsmen; in Cologne the work was executed and regularly approved by co-workers of the artist.  On the third of November, 2000, with the approval of the art commission of the archdiocese of Cologne, and as a gift from Eduardo and Pilar Chillida, the community took possession of its new altar:  Gurutz Aldare (Cross Altar), 1967/2000.  Granite, 100.5 x 201 x 99 cm.; fig. 2).  On the following Sunday, the community celebrated its first Holy Mass after the reopening.  After the completion of all the renovations of the church, the consecration will be performed by the Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Cardinal Meisner.


The altar sculpture is made of a hard stone, with the external planes of the block opened by cuts and some excisions.  The material is a white granite, lightly flecked with black, from North America.  The roughing of its outer surface prevents any glossiness or reflection.  Light and shadow are caught in it, and it appears as an object in quiet repose within its space.  Separated from each other, its three parts allow the changing cast of light and shadow from the church windows to enter into its interior. In this way it is made part of, and given its place in, the bright Gothic space.  Seen from the nave of the church, the arms of the cross reach out toward and into each other at different heights and from different directions, but they nonetheless concentrate attention on the cross form at the center.  At the same time this generates differentiated outer and inner spaces, most importantly for Chillida,  the inner space that opens toward the apse.  It is formed from emptiness, and holds the forces of the stone masses in tension.


Along with its physical levels, the work also has an artistic and symbolic dimension.  This can be felt in the church in a kind of mystical sense.  This makes clear what could only be surmised before:  how the artist, in composing and setting up his work, overlays the material with the spiritual, the compact with the open, the hermetic with the outreaching, the formal with the symbolic.  Eduardo Chillida noted this a few years ago in an interview about his baptismal cross in the rear of the church of Santa Maria in the old section of his home city.  His remarks at that time also clarify his intention in Saint Peter's:  "I wanted to make a work that enters into a dialogue with light.  In this church space there are different kinds of light:  physical light and spiritual light connected with this space.  In the long axis of the central nave stands . . . the main altar of the church. . .  This sets up a certain relationship that opens a path of spiritual light in this church space.  To create this dimension was one of the original ideas behind this work.  Thus, the sculpture is functionally related to its space." (10)


The obvious cruciform structure of both the individual elements and the sculpture as a whole corresponds to a structural principle that is immanent throughout the work of Chillida.  The individual parts stretch their arms not only into each other but also beyond themselves.  In this way the sculpture gives the visitors a preliminary sense of how they should perceive the space.  The altar dominates the spatial volume and makes the whole church interior seem to be a spatial cross.  The space is firmly anchored in the central intersection, and has its first echo in the side elements.


Eduard Chillida's Mass vestment, Casulla (1994), also unfolds a dynamic relationship to the cross form.  It is made of a white beige wool and has over it a shawl somewhat like a shortened scapular.  Cutout rectangles and black appliqués - ‘T'-forms asymmetrically overlapping towards the left or the right, attract attention.  On the breast and back of the priest they disclose different surfaces on the bright background or open up empty spaces.  In the interplay between fullness and emptiness, their overall form suggests a Greek Cross.  This is realized in the black beam in front and in back, but with only half on each:  on the lower part of the breast, and on the upper half of the back.  Only when the priest is in motion - when he walks around the altar or celebrates the liturgy - do the two halves of the cross reveal their unity.  This shows that it is only the priest as liturgical minister who brings the two elements together on his body.  The cross thus also becomes present to the community in the animated forms of the liturgy.


In its architectural form, St.  Peter's is a late Gothic hall church with side balconies.  These end before the last groin of the vault of the central nave, so one can easily imagine a kind of crossing nave within the space.  Because the church stands on the foundations of several preceding buildings, including 2000-year old Roman baths, it has very fragile foundations.  It grew out of the ground, so to speak, and has no respect for any exact geometrical requirements.  In accord with the work of Chillida, no exact right angles are to be found, but there is still an overlaid longitudinal and transverse axis.  The altar, with the sensed middle of its inner space, is positioned where they meet.  This positioning is dramatically felt by the visitor in the church.  The possibility of such a communication between sculpture and space is due to the thoroughgoing and strict restoration of the church by the Cologne architect Ulrich Wiegmann. (11)  He cleaned up many irregularities, especially the many instances of uncontrolled stylistic accretions that came in after the Second World War, and brought the space back to a new simplicity.  In its present condition, the church now appears extremely simple, almost bare.  In a discretely reserved way, the material used in the reconstruction emphasized space, ground plan, and proportion.  Thus the sacred space is self-contained.  It is not dependent on Chillida's altar, any more than it is dependent on the church.  Both are independent of each other and share the tendency to relate to each other in a fascinating manner.  The cross-structure of space and sculpture is the connecting point, for in this church, Gurutz Aldare is perceivable as a cross altar, according to its inner form as well as in its location at the cross of the space.  The mid points of both crosses come together and overlay each other in the center of the church. 


The altar stands without a base, directly on the bare floor.  After the restoration this floor consists of a gray polished cement.  The renovated church is also covered inside with a rough, beige-gray plaster, and in the windows there is now a gray protective glass with an etched surface.  The church has neither benches nor chairs, except during Mass.  Thus the visitor enters into a very severe, bare space.  Only on Sunday are chairs with kneelers set up for the celebration of Mass, but immediately after the blessing these are moved to the sides again in a communal action of the congregation.


In its form, Chillida's work does not at first look like an ordinary altar.  In its three parts it is neither table nor sacrificial block.  In the Christian tradition, these two conceptions have historically determined the shape of the altar.  Theological commentaries always pointed out that the two were connected with each other:  "At the altar the sacrifice of the cross is made present under sacramental signs.  It is also the table of the Lord and the people of God are called together to share in it.  The altar is, as well, the center of the thanksgiving that the eucharist accomplishes." (12)  The altar draws its elevated significance and central dignity from the fact that it points to Christ, the Lord.  It makes clear what happened on the cross.  Here Christ entrusted his life to God and freely gave himself into the hands of his Father.  "He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him .  .  .", we read in Philippians (2:7-9).  On the cross, Christ interceded for human beings and reconciled them with God; but it was also on the cross that God - as became visible at Easter - acknowledged him as his Son.  Therefore the traditional sacrifices on the old altars are replaced by the obedient self-giving of Christ (Hebrews 10:7) unto his death on the cross.  The New Testament itself interpreted this event as a sacrificial action or thysia (e.g., in Hebrews 9:14; 10:10 and elsewhere).  Hence, every altar is a cross altar; it is the symbol for Christ; it is actually, in a sacramental way, Christ himself:  crucified, died, risen.  That is why the altar is reverenced in the liturgy, anointed, kissed, like Christ himself.  Chillida also evokes the three cross forms in their symbolic elevation as the three crosses on Golgotha. (13)  He thus transforms both the table form and that of the sacrificial block into the form of the cross.


A recurrent question is whether only the middle part is the altar or whether it is the sculpture as a whole.  The answer is easy, for its deepest meaning is ultimately found not in this or that form, but in the liturgical action of the celebration of the Mass.  Here the community, in faith, "partakes of the table of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 10:21), i.e., in Christ himself and his sacrifice.  Happy and liberated, it recalls the event of the cross and also gives thanks for that new life whose middle point is Christ.  The three-part altar with its dynamic center and its physical location points to him; it makes Christ himself, as in the celebration of the Mass, present for the faithful.  Looking more closely, Christ is interpreted by the three separately standing elements as living space.  Hence, in their unity of mass and emptiness, they must be seen as one single part.  In addition, the altar is not only explained as a symbol of Christ, but sacramentally realized.  Its exterior form is consonant with its interior signification.  For this altar has in its empty middle its vital center, its holiest space.  From here is derived the deeper meaning of the altar and, beyond that, of the whole house of God.  From here are developed all lines of the proclamation in word and sacrament.  "Of such points, philosophy tells us" - thus Heinrich Heil explained in developing the same theme at the exhibition of James Lee Byars in the Kunst-Station in 1996 - "that they are necessary for thinking and it is their acceptance and their being held as true that first stimulates the process of thinking.  The circle, widening out from a point of deepest density, which then, circling back, remains connected with its center, is commonly proposed as a representation of what cannot be depicted, of the empty mid-point, the seat of the divine." (14)


During the celebration of the Mass, the inner space of the altar is one of the three positions that the priest takes up during his liturgical activity.  At the greeting of the altar he stands before it, to pray and give thanks behind it, and at the central memorial of the Last Supper in it.  Here he accepts the gifts of the faithful, here he speaks the instituting words of Christ at the Last Supper, and here he breaks the eucharistic bread for Communion for the congregation.  When he has spoken the words of Christ at the Supper, he steps (back) so to speak out of the persona Christi and out of the middle and into the persona sacerdotis.  The stepping back at this altar has a practical reason in the first place.  Since, at the prayer of praise and thanksgiving of the canon prayer, he must spread out his hands, the left part of the sculpture would prevent the unfolding of the vestment.  On a deeper level, by his step backwards, he frees up the inner space of the altar.  It can now, as mystical emptiness, point to the presence of the absent, to Christ himself.  In his prayer of thanks to God the Father the priest in his prayer of praise calls the community to remember Christ:  in his suffering, dying, and rising, and bears witness to the expectation of his coming again at the end of time. 


After the restoration is complete, the old altar painting of Peter Paul Rubens will once again hang over the altar.  In its own way it makes resonance with the cross variations of Chillida, but represents the transference of the cross event into the imitation of the cross.  On the upside-down cross, Peter looks into the open heaven where an angel holds the martyrs' crown ready for him.  In the apse of Saint Peter's this picture has its foundation in the broken-out forms of the altar of Chillida.  Into them the cross is, so to speak, jammed - and at the same time it turns out to be the tree of the cross that bears its fruit:  the transformation of the meaning of the cross from a sign of death into that of the overcoming of death.


Eduardo Chillida understands his art as a creating, indeed as an embodying, of places.  To depict them and to make it possible to experience them is his goal.  In permanent movements he is making the space ever anew, loading it up with all possible intimations and sensations.  In the interior of these spaces he places their centers in their respective empty middle.  All sculptural activity circles about this.  It acts like a spiritual center and activates more than the optical powers of the beholder.  When asked how he understands this spiritual-living space, he answered a few years ago:  "Space? . . .  I could compare it with breath that makes the form swell up and then contract, that opens up in the form the space of vision - inaccessible and hidden from the world outside. .. .  This space must be able to be perceived as well as the form in which it is manifested.  It has expressive qualities.  It sets the material that encompasses it in motion, determines its proportions, scans and orders its rhythms.  It must find in us its correspondences, its echoes; it must possess a kind of spiritual dimension." (15)


As Chillida tries to bring the spatial forms to life in his work, he places into them polar infinities:  the inner as well as the outer, the subjective as well as the objective, the concrete as well as the abstract.  Consequently his works communicate not only with their immanent experiences of space, but always also with their correspondences in the consciousness of the artist as well as the beholder.  This means that he makes the unity of altar and church space in St.  Peter's into something that can be bodily experienced.  He shapes the faith in the way that it is lived, presented, and celebrated here in its whole complexity.  


The Cross Altar of Eduardo Chillida takes in the whole church space into itself and with it every individual believer.  He takes the world of forms of the Gothic church as an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and makes present the suffering on the cross and the passion story.  What Hans Sedlmayr says about the location of the Gothic cross altar under the intersection of the naves applies also to the Gurutz Aldare:  "Its sculpture form (is) itself the graphic equivalent for the representation of the greatness and misery of the Son of Man." (16)  From inside out in this cross altar, there is opened up to us the experience of this faith-space of St. Peter's that leads in cosmic extension to the very vision of God.  "That is what mysticism is all about:  that we get control over the contradictory forces that pull us up and down, that we bring them into a form - and that we thus transcend the limits, the limits of space and time, the limits of the moment than no one can measure." (17)

(trans.  Robert J.  Daly, S.J., Boston)



1) Cf. Jungmann 2.464f.

2) In this context, three different works came about:  the book arrangement for the Spanish jubilee volume 500 Years Ignatius of Loyola; the triptych Homenaje a Juan de la Cruz (1993), a felt gravitation [Filz-Gravitation], 240 x 202; 224 x 196; 228 x 202 cm., that now belongs to the Diocesan Museum of Cologne; and a three-piece Casulla (1993) for Saint Peter's in Cologne. 

3) The words of Sabine Maria Schmidt in her dissertation, Eduardo Chillida 110.

4) For further details, ibid. 129-33.

5) For further details, ibid. 77-82.

6) I am grateful for these details from a conversation with the chronicler of the monastery, P. Cándido Zubizarreta, O.F.M.

7) See Martin de Ugalde, Hablando con Chillida 172, quoted here from Schmidt 135.

8) Eduardo Chillida in conversation with the author; see Mennekes and Röhrig,  Crucifixus 128-34, 131.

9) They were the stone mason masters Ewald Heuft and Alois Wingender from the construction firm Schorn in Cologne.

10) Eduardo Chillida in an unpublished conversation with the author in 1996.

11) From the Cologne architectural firm of Wiegman & Trübenbach.

12) General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 4th Edition, 27 March 1975, in The Roman Missal No.  259.

13) See Schmidt 129-33.

14) In the catalogue James Lee Byars 1-4, 3.

15) Quoted in Peter Frey, Eduardo Chillida 9-16,  13f.

16) Hans Sedlmayr 488.

17) Eduardo Chillida, quoted in Mennekes and Röhrig, Crucifixus 131.



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