April 8, 2012

Wildest thing I've ever built...

Since today is Easter, it is an appropriate moment to post about this recently installed project. It is a reliquary, holding a tiny fragment of the True Cross. (And to forestall the obvious question, I don't know if it is a true relic. But I don't see any historical reason to think such a thing implausible. I've posted some historical thoughts below the fold.) The actual fragment is too small to see here—it's a minute splinter at the center of the crystal cross you see.

Reliquary with True Cross

The design specifications were like nothing I'd ever even considered. I wanted piece of traditional-looking woodwork, that would also be secure from thieves, yet accessible so the relic could be removed for veneration on Good Friday. And lighted.

The projecting part you see below hides two steel cages (thanks to one of my sons, who can weld a bit). Sandwiched between them are windows of polycarbonate plastic (Lexan). The steel is sheathed in two layers of oak. An ugly tough layer with lots of steel screws holding it all in shape. And that layer was then covered in some thin veneers of very handsome White Oak. And all this was just invented as I want along. There are no how-to books to consult!

Detail of the Oak used to sheath the reliquary

White Oak is prized by people like me for its "ray flakes." Those are those pale lines that stripe the wood. (If you have heard the term "quarter-sawn oak," that is the sawing angle that shows the flakes best.) The flakes on the shield-shaped back of the piece are typical—fairly big and irregular. NOW, look at the oak wood in the projecting part of the reliquary. See the ranks of slender close-drawn flakes, which are an appropriate size for such slim components. Almost thread-like. You are seeing something rare. I've only seen them like that once. I starting building a piece of oak furniture for Charlene at least 15 years ago. But the project stalled, and I put some parts away to maybe maybe work on later. They cluttered my shop for years. And dozens of times I considered turning them into fire-wood. And each time I said, "Naw. Too pretty. Just can't do it!"

So, there they were, when their moment came!

Here's a bit of the construction process. I'm gluing and clamping strips of veneer onto the rough oak. Lordy, what contortions I went through. I often wished I'd chosen a different job.

Reliquary, glueing and clamping the veneers onto the substrate

Historical note... I'm a history buff, and have been thinking a bit about relics of the Cross. Here's something I wrote...

People in our culture tend to scoff at the very idea, but actually there's nothing historically implausible about fragments of the Cross surviving into our time.

The Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, is said to have obtained the Cross and brought it to Constantinople. That she or some other worthy might have obtained the actual cross is not far-fetched. The Romans were exceedingly organized and meticulous in everything they did. It is likely that they had their crosses made to high standards under government contract, and then took very good care of them. I'd guess they painted numbers on them, and had inventory lists. Probably the Roman soldiers had to sign them out of a warehouse, and some fussbudget bureaucrat told them that any damage would be deducted from their pay!

And the Christians of the first couple of centuries would have been angling all the time to get their hands on that cross, and hide it. There were wealthy and influential people among them, and they were highly motivated. Bribery could accomplish a lot. If Joseph of Arimathea could obtain the body of Jesus, if Nicodemus could buy a hundred pounds of spices to bury him with... it would be more surprising if they didn't get the Cross!

Erasmus of Rotterdam famously stated that if all the pieces of the True Cross were gathered together, it would take a ship to carry them. But that was hyperbole used for literary effect in trying to combat supposed superstition. He didn't study the matter. Charles Rohault de Fleury published a study in 1870, analyzing all known Cross fragments. They added up to much less than any reasonable estimate for a cross.
Posted by John Weidner at April 8, 2012 9:14 PM
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