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Crucifix, calvary, and cross: materiality and spirituality in Great War landscapes
By Nicholas J. Saunders
World Archaeology, Vol. 35:1 (2003)
Abstract: First World War landscapes are a complex layering of commemorative materialities and spirituality, in which the past is recycled and memory perpetuated in the present. Linking the prehistoric and medieval pasts with the First World War and the present are images of calvaries, crucifixes, and crosses, which appear as landscape monuments and miniature talismanic items of bodily adornment. As poignant icons of sacrifice and remembrance, cruciform imagery focuses attention on the ways in which material culture can transform the lives of those with whom it comes into contact. By drawing together the living and the dead, new commemorative gestures are created in the home as well as on the battlefield, illustrating the power of industrialized war to realign worlds of meaning, emotion, and memory.
Introduction: In the poignant, multi-vocal landscapes of the First World War exists a complex layering of materiality and spirituality. Along the old Western Front especially, there are numerous embodiments of memory, religious belief, ethnicity, cultural patrimony, and tourist attraction occupying the same physical space. Together, they provide a unique testimony to the power of industrialized war to destroy, create, and realign worlds of emotion and memory. Here I explore one aspect of this array of embodied experiences and meanings – the Christian cross – from past to present, monumental to miniature, and from battlefield memorial to the symbolic re-ordering of ‘personhood’ through bodily adornment and the ornamenting of the home.
The focus is on wayside calvaries that marked the landscapes of northern France and Belgium before, during, and after the war, and the nature of their relationship with miniature talismanic crucifixes and crosses. By comparing these two scales of representation I aim to show how meanings are created, and how, by moving backwards and forwards between landscape and object, embodied experiences brought into being new forms of commemorative activity.