Somewhere in the Verdugo Hills, between Downtown Los Angeles and Glendale, lies the largest religious painting ever painted: The Crucifixion. The painting is displayed in the Hall of the Crucifixion, a massive structure which is part of the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. At the top of the building is a huge cross that lights up at night, making it look like it’s hanging from the sky.
The Crucifixion – a Painting of Gigantic Proportions
The Crucifixion was the masterpiece of Polish painter Jan Styka. What will first strike you when you see this painting is its unusually big size, measuring 195′ in length and 45′ in hight. That is about the width of a four-lane highway!
Styka’s panoramic crucifixion depicts the distressing moment just before Christ’s martyrdom. It is a powerful image. Jesus is standing on the mount of Golgotha, facing the cross where he will die for the sins of humanity.
What makes The Crucifixion so impressive is not its size, but its detail. Jesus stays in the center of the canvas flooded in a supernatural light that seems to be coming from above. He is glancing towards Heaven in acceptance of his upcoming sacrifice. But he is portrayed as a victorious Christ who brings the hope of salvation, rather than the despair of death.
Next to him, are the two criminals who will also be crucified on Golgotha. But unlike him, they deserve the punishment they are about to receive. Also kneeled close to Jesus is Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped carry Jesus’ cross up the mountain.
A little farther away, Mary Magdalene sitting on her knees is crushed with grief: “My Lord, my Lord, why are the punishing you?”
Hundreds of Jerusalem’s citizens, leaders and Roman soldiers are around Jesus. Farther away, in the distance, is the city of Jerusalem where Jesus was judged and condemned.
The Inspiration Behind Styka’s Painting
A remarkable story surrounds this huge painting. Jan Styka was close friends with Ignace Paderewski, a noted musician, statesman, and Premier of Poland. One day Paderewski told him he had an interesting dream about Christ’s execution. Styka felt very inspired by Paderewski’s dream and offered to paint what is considered to be the largest religious painting in the world – The Crucifixion.
Styka was in his mid-30s in 1894 when he began painting The Crucifixion and it took him nearly six years to finish it. He travelled to Jerusalem to prepare the sketches and then to Rome to ask for Pope Leo XIII’s blessing on his palette. But unfortunately, there weren’t many places where he could display such a huge painting. He manages to show The Crucifixion only once, in 1902, in Russia.
The Sad Destiny of the Painting
In 1904 Styka had a new opportunity to display his work when he received an invitation at the St. Louis World’s Fair, in Missouri. Therefore, he loaded The Crucifixion and some of his other paintings on a boat and came to America.
Styka came full of hope, but he had never foreseen the tragic chain of events that would make him loose his major work.
The organizers assured him the exhibit halls were large enough to accommodate his big painting, but they miscalculated. The rooms weren’t big enough, so The Crucifixion was deposited into an warehouse in New York. And if this wasn’t bad enough, all his other paintings have been burned down by a fire that started on the last day of the exhibition.
Stika tried to take The Crucifixion back to Poland, but he couldn’t afford to pay the customs fees. In the end the American government seized his painting. Despite repeated attempts to retrieve his work, Styka had to go back home empty-handed and heartbroken.
The Pilgrimage of the Crucifixion
The Crucifixion remained lost for 40 years, until 1944 when Dr. Hubert Eaton – the founder of the Forest Lawn Cemetery – heard about its existence. Intrigued by the story, Eaton began a lengthy search in an attempt to recover it. But The Crucifixion wasn’t easy to find.
During its 40 years of pilgrimage, the painting changed hands many times. Eventually, he managed to locate it in the basement of the Chicago Civic Opera Company, where it laid abandoned for many years as an old decor.
Hubert Eaton purchased the painting and built a permanent display for it at the Hall of the Crucifixion Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Visiting the Beautiful Resting Place of the Crucifixion
Styka’s masterpiece is one of the hidden gems of Southern California and is now displayed in the The Hall of Crucifixion and the Resurrection, a 900 seat auditorium. The presentation of the painting is in the form of a documentary, with commentaries and specifically composed background music.
The presentation starts in complete darkness with the history of The Crucifixion. Before the curtains part to reveal the entire painting, the narration follows a certain trajectory that takes the viewers from the right corner of the painting – the road to Calvary – towards the final point – Golgotha.
Styka tried to portray the crucifixion as accurately as possible, using stunning details. Although the subject of his painting is a sad one, it conveys a message of hope for those who view it.
The presentation is concluded with another inspiring painting – The Resurrection – which was commissioned much later and executed by American artist Robert Clark. The Resurrection features Christ outside his tomb looking towards the heavens. In front of Him is the New Jerusalem where the faithful are gathered to live with Him for eternity.
The Crucifixion and The Resurrection may be seen in the Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to noon and 2 pm to 4 pm on the hour.
If you have more than 2-3 days in Los Angeles, I strongly recommend coming to see this magnificent painting.
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