If you ever traveled on Interstate 5 after dark, between Los Angeles and Glendale, you might have noticed a beautifully lit cross on the horizon. The cross seems suspended, as if it’s hanging from the sky. But in reality the cross lies atop of a huge building, up in the Verdugo Hills. The massive structure is part of the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale and is known as The Hall of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
The Crucifixion – an Unusually Big Painting
The Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection is home to the largest framed canvas painting in the world, bearing the same name –The Crucifixion– the masterpiece of Polish painter Jan Styka. The painting measures 195′ in length and 45′ in hight, which 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. Hundreds of Jerusalem’s citizens, leaders and Roman soldiers are around him. Farther away, in the distance, is the city of Jerusalem where Jesus was judged and condemned.
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.
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 said 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 Crucifixion”
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. So he loaded The Crucifixion and some of his other paintings on a boat and came to America. Styka was full of hope and could have 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 fee. In the end the American government seized his painting. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to retrieve his work, Styka went back home empty-handed and heartbroken.
A Beautiful Resting Place for “The Crucifixion”
The Crucifixion remained lost for 40 years, until 1944 when Dr. Hubert Eaton, the founder of Forest Lawn Cemetery, heard about its existence. Intrigued by the story of this painting, 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 Hall of Crucifixion and the Resurrection
Styka’s masterpiece is now displayed in a 900 seat auditorium where it is presented with a documentary about his work and the history of The Hall of Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The music played in the background was specifically composed for this documentary. 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.