An Unusually Big Painting
If you ever travel on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and Glendale after dark, you may be seeing a beautifully lit cross that seems to be hanging from the sky, totally suspended in the air. The cross actually tops the Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection, an impressive building that is part of the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. The massive structure 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 gathered 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.
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.
A Strange Destiny
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 such a huge painting could be displayed. The Crucifixion was shown only once, in 1902, in Russia.
In 1904 a new opportunity arose when Styka was invited to display his work at the St. Louis World’s Fair, in Missouri. So he put 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, so the government seized his painting. After repeated, unsuccessful attempts to retrieve his work, Styka went back home empty-handed and heartbroken.
A Beautiful Resting Place
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 Memorial Cemetery in Glendale, California.
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. A music score that was composed specifically for this documentary is being played in the background. 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.