The Christus Rex
Perhaps the most prominent artistic feature at St. Anne’s is the stunning Christus Rex–Latin for Christ the King–that hangs in the chancel. Unlike traditional crucifixes that display Christ crucified, the Christus Rex at St. Anne’s portrays Christ in his triumph, conveying the majesty, splendor, and power of the resurrected King of glory.
Given its size and beauty, many are surprised to learn that it was carved by a St. Anne’s parishioner who had never carved anything before in his life. Read the moving story of how God led Dr. Travis Smith on a journey of spiritual and artistic discovery.
The Creation & Carving of St. Anne’s Christus Rex
L. Travis Smith, DMD
It was 1983 when something incredible began to come to fruition. It was something that now seems to have been pre-destined in my life. A series of synchronous events that could not have taken place without divine and spiritual intervention began to play out in an astonishing and often mind numbing way. Looking back on it today, as I write these words twenty six years later, I am still humbled for the part I played in the creation and carving of the Christus Rex at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.
There isn’t really a starting point because everything that took place before in all my life culminated in an event outside the “Old” St. Anne’s Church. After the third service one Sunday, Fr. Jacoba Hurst and I were walking back to his office across the newly staked out foundation markings for the new St. Anne’s Church building yet to be built. He stopped and turned toward the future building site and said, “Can you just imagine what it will look like? A tall ‘A’ frame with its bell tower reaching to Heaven, a cross high on top. As you go through the narthex you will see beautiful chandeliers hanging from the arched ceiling leading to a raised stand alone altar with its brass candles. Above the altar as you look up, hanging in all its majesty, a Christus Rex.”
I felt as if I had been struck! I actually saw this figure of Christ and knew in my heart and soul that I was to carve it!
It wasn’t a dream, there were no voices in my head, it was more like a sudden “knowing” that I was supposed to do something. I could even envision every detail of what it was supposed to look like when finished. So I turned to Fr. Hurst and asked, “What’s a Christus Rex?” and he proceeded to tell me exactly what I had seen. This image persisted in my head for months as I wrestled with all the reasons why I shouldn’t be the one to do this carving. I didn’t have the time, I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the tools, I had never carved anything bigger than a Boy Scout neckerchief slide and I didn’t have a place to do it. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to go away, so I went to Fr. Hurst with the idea of carving this Christus Rex for the new church. Looking back on that day, I honestly don’t know how Fr. Hurst kept from bursting out in laughter at the proposal that one of his parishioners was going to carve the central figure of the church. Surely he shuddered in disbelief. Instead, he consented to the idea and said we should offer it up in prayer. He also arranged for me to go to a silent retreat at the church retreat camp at Honey Creek.
Honey Creek is a beautiful campground nestled amongst majestic sprawling oak trees draped with Spanish moss right up against the Marshes of Glynn. While there, I prayed, fasted and asked for a sign that I was to be the one to do this carving. The questions of “Why me?” and “Who am I to carve Jesus?” plagued me. This beautiful Sanctuary that had a Christus Rex of its own is where I meditated and while meditating I felt I had received that sign. I still harbored the feeling that this just can’t be real. With still nagging doubts, I committed myself that Sunday to at least trying. If it was truly to be, then God would have to solve all the problems that appeared to be obstructing me.
When I returned to my dental office the following Monday, there in the middle of my desk was a brochure for a course to be held in Tifton for the first time; a duck decoy carving course. I signed up immediately. This was a synchronous event the likes of which was unmistakable. The course taught technique and introduced me to tools I had never before seen. This event also reinforced me enough to go and buy the wood in which I was eventually going to carve the figure. An old friend I grew up with, Eddie Willis who refinished antiques and made some beautiful pieces of furniture, helped me determine the board footage, and we ordered the linden wood, commonly called basswood. My father had retired in 1982 and I was in the middle of renovating the shared dental office. I traded one of my father’s old dental cabinets for some of the wood and the use of his wood planer to join the boards that would make up the center portion of the figure.
Learning to Carve
The carving course was taught by Ernie Mills, who carves limited edition waterfowl settings. Ernie taught excellent technique and how to use tools I had never seen before. In one weekend we were to carve a Mallard Drake and paint it. I completed two. Ernie asked why each of us had attended the course and I told him what I was about to start doing. Upon telling him, he asked if I needed any carving tools. I told him I didn’t even know what tools I needed yet. He said he had a complete set that his father left him and loaned them to me. He did this after knowing me for a total of six hours. I was now 100% committed. There was no turning back now. I began assembling the central portion of the carving at Eddie’s shop.
I had sketched a combined figure of what I had envisioned and the Christus Rex at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Savannah and the figure at Honey Creek. This sketch can be seen hanging on the shelves in the background of some of the pictures you see, and while I waited for the wood to arrive I carved two small Christus Rex figures to scale with the cross size according to what the architect had recommended. They were simple figures without much detail, but they gave me a general size relationship between the figure and the cross. It also let me know that I didn’t want to use the measurements of the architect.
One of the very special circumstances surrounding the carving of the Christus Rex was where I was living at the time. Lake Wisteria was completely surrounded by Episcopalians; Roy and Debra Rankin, Jim and Charlotte Clayton, Daryl and Teresa Sumner, Homer and Weetie Rankin, Princess Rankin and Buz and Barbara Hall and all their children. We were cooking out together on weekends, playing volley ball and enjoying the lake and our lives together. Other church family would join us on these occasions; Mark and June Vanbrackle, Morris Wade and Karen Smith, Tom and Judy Wise, Jeff and Lisa Gibbs and many others I fail to mention. It was at one of these weekend get-togethers that I mentioned what I was doing in my upstairs bedroom. I related that progress was very slow in the wasting of the bulk of the wood and had tried to use my gas powered chain saw to speed things up. I abandoned that idea when the room filled with oily smoke. Debra Rankin’s mother, Mrs. Connor, offered the loan of her electric chain saw until I could get one myself. I began to cut the center piece out in profile and carve the face of the Christus Rex on one end. This center block was 77 inches in length and as wide as the face. Jim Clayton said it looked like a “giant bar of soap” at this time. When I was comfortable with the dimensions and appearance of the face I able to proceed with the rest of the figure.
Morris Wade and Karen Smith purchased a new electric chainsaw for me after I returned the loaner, and they would come out every month to take pictures as the figure developed. Interestingly, none of these pictures developed until the face was completed and I was adding the shoulders. This entire process was surrounded by a mystical quality I fail to be able to describe. The experience of problems being solved through prayer and circumstances changing to the best even when you think you make a mistake is still an incredible adventure to walk in. To illustrate this: I was out driving around the lake one Saturday while the center piece was still being assembled at Eddie’s shop. I knew I was going to be bringing it home soon and had set plastic on the carpet and two hobby horses up to set it on to work. While driving I saw a new neighbor, Buz Hall, whom I had recently met at St. Anne’s, struggling to get some shingles up onto an outbuilding he was constructing. Seeing his dilemma I stopped and introduced myself and asked if he needed some help. He definitely did, so I spent several days helping him put the roof on.
Buz was a real handyman; he could do almost anything he wanted to. The building we worked on was going to be his workshop and upon its completion his first project was to build some benches and install cabinets and shelves. I gave him some of the cabinets and drawers from my office renovation, even an old door for the front of the shop. They were perfect. I told him about the project I was about to work on and showed him one of the small carvings I had done in preparation. He then offered to build me a work bench in exchange for one of these smaller Christus Rex figures I had carved. The bench was another affirmation to continue with the work.
Carving the Face
The face was the biggest hurdle to overcome. Hours were spent in prayer over what it should look like. Power combined with compassion and above all love was not something that just jumps out of wood. The face determined all the other proportions of the sculpture; too large or too small and the rest of the figure would be wrong for the size of the cross. Gradually a very clear image came to mind as to what it should look like and the rest was easy. I turned it over to His care and began to carve away anything that didn’t look like Jesus. Even when I made what I thought were mistakes, they seemed guided. The results, after correcting them, were better than before. With wood, if you remove more than you should, you can’t put it back. The thought of slipping and cutting off its nose gradually dissipated as I realized that my mistakes were His corrections. What an odd feeling the creative process is. Recognizing from where it comes makes it very simple to surrender to. His presence was with me as I prayed while I worked and it was beyond explanation how fulfilling and peaceful the experience was.
When I had finished the face, Buz came to look at the progress. It was obvious that it was having the desired effect as he admired it. He asked if I would bring it over to his shop and I agreed, much to Cheryl’s relief. It took a lot of effort to get the sawdust out of the upstairs bedroom carpet. Though it had been covered with plastic a lot had gotten into it. She was still thankful to have the bedroom back.
Buz and I became close friends and this amazing adventure continued with excitement in the air as I moved into the new workspace. My weekends and many evenings were spent there in Buz’s shop on the banks of Lake Wisteria. We dedicated a separate room just to the carving of the figure and the mystery continued. I have never experienced such wonderful abandonment in my life. The feeling of being creative is as close as we humans can come to being in God’s image. Lowly as we may be, that is where all fulfillment is; in creation. Destruction may make some of us feel better, but we can only be satisfied with our life when it contains some form of creating.
It was Christmas 1984 when Buz’s son Steve gave him some fire extinguishers for his house and shop as a present. It was perfect timing. I helped Buz install them in the shop so I knew exactly where they were when two weeks later a hose ruptured on a gas heater next to where I was working. The whole shop erupted in flames with me and the Christus Rex in the middle of it. I immediately knew that if I ran to get out of the fire everything was lost. Instead of retreating from the flames I advanced toward where I knew the extinguisher was. It was like slow motion as I moved through the flames, unable to see anything; I crossed the room and reached to where I had hung the fire extinguisher. I pulled the pin, pointed at the area of the gas line and pressed the trigger. The flames went out immediately leaving only the hiss of the gas leak, which I turned off at the source. All I could smell burned flesh and hair. Miraculously, I had only lost hair. All the hair on my arms and face and some on top of my head were singed off. Otherwise, nothing but my feelings was hurt when people asked what had happened. The Christus Rex was unaffected. Thinking back on this event, it was as if this fire was going to happen no matter what. The fire extinguishers seem to have been divinely sent to prevent one possible outcome.
The spring of ‘85 was absolutely beautiful! The myriad of colors of Azaleas, the blend of Dogwoods and Redbuds, Camellias, Jasmine, Wisteria and all the other flowers combined to create a menagerie of wonderful smells and sights that capture us in fantasy. The bees swarmed softly over the petals gathering their nectar and the birds were joyfully singing their lyrical songs. It was in God’s entire splendor that I began working on the hands of the Christus Rex. In Thanksgiving I returned to Honey Creek for another silent retreat. I spent the entire weekend in prayer, fasting and reading the New Testament, from Mathew to Revelation in that weekend. That same retreat I successfully gave up to God a seventeen year addiction to cigarettes. That was a spring that will never be forgotten as I shed my old self and put on the new.
It is a most difficult task to turn off the continuous noise in our life. There is constant input from every direction: people, radios, television, traffic, and mostly the sounds and voices in ourselves. Everywhere around us we see people on cell phones and with iPods in their ears. It’s as if we are trying to block the very thing we desire the most, to communicate with the other side of silence. To turn all these things off is a requirement to be able to focus on this spiritual communication. Even when we have done so it is not easy to “hear.” The attempt is what I believe God wants from us. The lack of success is our own. But when we see changes taking place around us and in our life is proof that He is hearing us.
The Body & the Bishop’s Visit
As spring faded the gum from some of the trees began to attract a swarm of insects. These critters developed an affinity to the light colored bass wood of the carving. They would stain the wood with their juices and getting it off was very difficult. I brought out a blanket that we would cover the sculpture with to keep the bugs from staining the wood. The effect of this human figure covered with a blanket was incredible! It looked like someone was sleeping on the table and would get up and walk away any minute. Everyone who came to the shop whispered as if they were going to wake him up. It was a very ominous vision that conjured dreams in those who saw it. Buz and his wife Barbara swore that they saw it walk by their bedroom window on more than one occasion. They said He was protecting them.
The central portion was complete and the shoulders had been added. The vestments were undercut and the folds added. I drew the arms on the boards and cut them to shape and Debra Rankin helped me laminate them together. Roy Rankin and Buz then helped dowel the arms onto the main figure. They were then shaped to fit the rest of the figure. I was confident that the process would be completed if I could just keep at it.
The hands became a problem to me. I kept having dreams of seeing the right hand in a different position than the other Christus Rex figures I had seen. Plus in these dreams the wounds were in the wrist not the hands. I again went on a silent retreat at Honey Creek for spiritual guidance. While there, I discovered the source of my dilemma. The right hand with two extended fingers was the position of blessing. The wounds I felt compelled to do were anatomically correct. It was explained that the weight of the human body could not be supported by nails in the hands. They had to be in the wrists.
While working on the hands I approached Roy Rankin about the cross on which the figure was to be suspended. He ordered and purchased the massive piece of Honduras mahogany. It was a beautiful piece of wood that I almost hated to cut it to size. Roy cut the cross arm and joined the cross perfectly, and we spent many hours sanding and polishing the cross.
When the hands were complete but not attached, Bishop Harry Shipps of the Diocese of Georgia came to visit. At the shop where the figure was now almost completely carved but unpainted, standing upright with arms outstretched, the Bishop was visibly moved as his first reaction upon seeing it was to walk over and hug the figures neck. His next comment was that the right hand was in the position of blessing. After this, he began to refer to me as Fr. Hurst’s mystic.
The cross was completed soon after this, and Bishop Paul Reeves, the retired Bishop of Georgia, came to see the figure. Bishop Reeves had given Cheryl, my wife, and me our vows of affirmation many years prior. The figure was not attached to the cross at the time so I assumed the Bishop would have to view the whole thing while it was prone. To surprise him and without my knowledge, Roy Rankin had attached the figure to the cross and stood the whole thing up next to his own shop. There were severe weather warnings out that day and the wind was blowing like crazy when we arrived. To see the figure upright and on the cross for the first time was remarkable. Though I was in fear that the whole thing would come crashing down, I was seeing the completion of my step into faith. Once again, I learned not to fear. After his visit Bishop Reeves related that upon viewing the Christus Rex, he had the same experience that he had when he viewed an Icon of Christ in Jerusalem. The window to Heaven is through our Religious Icons, objects that have no power in themselves, but serve as focal points. Like pictures of our spouse or children, upon gazing at them, memories awaken.
Painting the Body
On many occasions while carving the Christus Rex, people I did not know would apparently hear about what I was doing and show up at the shop and just stand as if in prayer. Some would not speak, some would begin to cry and at least one sang a hymn. We unfortunately had to close and lock the doors to the shop to keep people from entering unexpectedly and injuring themselves on our sharp and dangerous tools.
After attaching the hands, there were now seven major parts of the figure. This number seven came out in the figure repeatedly and often un-intended. In biblical numerology it is the number of spiritual perfection. There are seven tassels on the ends of the maniple and stole. There are seven extended fingers and seven points on the crown. The figure even ended up seventy seven inches tall. Only the crown was planned to have seven points representing the seven churches. The Lamb of God wears seven crowns in the Book of Revelation. These seven points represent the churches; Laodicea, Sardis, Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Ephesus and Smyrna. On the front of the crown is a seven scalloped shell, the symbol for the “seven gifts of the Spirit”, which only Christ is worthy of: power, wealth or thanksgiving, wisdom, might, honor, glory and blessing. This shell also represents the baptism that only Christ can give us. On each side of the shell are the alpha and omega, Greek symbols representing the infinity of God from the beginning and end. Answers to prayers were abundant; as I asked, so I also received.
The construction of the church was proceeding, and the roof was being put on as I moved back to my house to put the finish on. I put it in my living room and stood it up to be painted. Standing upright, arms outstretched, looking to any visitor to be a member of my family wanting a hug. My wife needed as many hugs as she could get as I painted in the living room over white carpet.
My children were delighted to have me working at home again and jumped at every chance to help. You could see some of their work on the back of the figure if you turned it around. I had planned on staining the figure, but Fr. Hurst recommended painting it. Nothing came to me one way or the other so I figured that it didn’t matter. I told a paint “expert” at a local store that I needed to paint a figure with both acrylics and oils and needed a sealer compatible with both. The product he sold me, he assured me would work. After sealing the wood and painting the entire stole, I watched in horror as the paint I had just put on began to crack and peel. I envisioned the ruin of months of hard work. The paint had to be removed quickly, but I couldn’t do it in my living room. The figure was too heavy to move outdoors alone and just as panic began to set in Roy Rankin drove up in the yard. He helped me move the figure outside of the house and another neighbor came over to see what was going on. Roy just happened to have some brushes, and Bill Shaw had plenty of paint remover. We were able to remove the incompatible paint and wash it off with a garden hose in about an hour. The sealer remained intact so no water damage occurred. Once again disaster was avoided.
The crown is gold leafed as are the tassels on the maniple and stole. The face, hands and feet are left natural. The hair is painted in oils and the rest is done in acrylics. The original colors of the stole were wrong so I had to paint over that. The outcome of all this is what you now see each Sunday at St. Anne’s. The symbols found in this creation are what truly touch us spiritually. The vestments are described in the book of Exodus while many symbols are from the Book of Revelation.
The Christus Rex is representative of the return of Christ at the “second coming.” He returns not only as the High Priest but as the King of Kings to rule for all eternity. This figure is “unattached” from the cross, differing from the Corpus Christi or Crucifix which represents the fact that Christ died for all of us and is nailed to the cross. The Christus Rex’s hands and arms are in the open position slightly forward to receive all who come unto Him. The right hand is in the position of Blessing. The figure has a representation of the “Breastplate of Judgment” around the neck. The breastplate has twelve stones on it representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The High Priest Aaron wore this as described in the Book of Exodus to go before the Holy-of-Holys and the Arc of the Covenant. Inside this breastplate the priest would put special prayers of the people.
The cincture around the waist of the figure ends with three knots on each end. These knots represent the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. On the maniple and stole are seven intertwining equilateral triangles representing the interface between man and God at the time of His second coming. The triangle pointing up represents God (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) and the other triangle pointing down represents mankind (body, mind and soul). These are also representative of the Star of David from Christ’s Jewish heritage. These seven stars have a further representation for the Angels of the seven churches.
The wounds are in his hands and feet to help all of us who are like “doubting” Thomas. Last to be noticed on the very front of the white vestment, near the fringe are some mathematical symbols for infinity. All of this combined is what touches us on a different level of consciousness.
Installation & Dedication
After the figure was painted and completed at my house, we loaded the figure into the back of my pickup truck, the cross on a lowboy trailer and delivered it to the nearly finished church. Once inside the sanctuary seven holes were drilled through the cross into the back of the figure and wooden dowels were put through to hold the figure in place. Roy placed a metal template on the back of the cross and marked holes onto the wall to put seven long lag screws through the wall and into the back of the cross. This aligned the cross and figure on the wall and the results are what you experience today.
All of this together represents fourteen months and about 800 hours of work consisting mainly of nights, weekends and holidays. Every hour was probably the most amazing hour of my life. Once the work was begun there was not a single moment that I did not look forward to working on it. There were times when I thought I had made irreversible mistakes, and I would feel total devastation. Whenever I thought I had ruined it and would have to start over, someone from St Anne’s would show up and bolster my spirits or show me a possible solution. The results of my mistakes actually made the results better. God never let me down, only my own doubts were my enemy and many at St Anne’s played a major role in destroying my doubts.
When I returned home and the figure was not standing in my living room any more, I felt like I had lost my best friend. I should have been proud of this accomplishment, yet all I felt was emptiness. I realized it wasn’t right to feel attachment to a wooden statue, but I had put so much effort and energy into completing it. I prayed about it, and gradually I came to realize that the Christus Rex didn’t really have anything to do with me as a person. I didn’t own it, the church did. I really didn’t create it, God did. All I did was allow myself to become His instrument. Like a chisel in my hand, neither worked well without guidance. After this realization I no longer had any internal ownership of the figure and, though I have fond memories, I feel about the figure the same as anyone else who sees it. If someone says they don’t like it, or someone else tells me how it played a part in changing their life, or even how wonderful it is, it’s as if they are talking about something completely foreign to me, probably because I experience the same feelings they do when I look upon it. I can only wonder in amazement why I was chosen, but I thank God for the opportunity.
The cross, with its Christus Rex, was dedicated on July 21, 1985 in the still unfinished church. There were no pews, so we borrowed folding chairs for the service. A separate dedication of the church was done to keep things in their place of importance. The church’s dedication was on October 12 1985. Both were gala affairs. St Anne’s had finally reached its goal of meeting and celebrating Communion under one roof. What a spectacular sight to see! Every communicant could worship at once! It was just like what Fr. Hurst had described that day, and exactly like what I had “seen.”
I dedicated the Christus Rex to the love I had discovered there at St Anne’s. A love I had searched for without knowing. A love that surpassed my understanding. A love only God can give. It was this love that created the Christus Rex that now belongs to the people of Saint Anne’s.
Please understand that this is not “My” carving. This is not Travis Smith’s Christus Rex. This is an expression, I feel, that was inspired by God and directed through my hands to the people He loves so dearly, you, the people in the family of St Anne’s. Don’t think of me when you see this figure. Just think of all the love poured into it. Love that I was inspired through prayer to give. I gave this figure unconditionally, irrevocably with enough love to help sustain you in your walk with Christ, with enough Love to restore you when you are down, with enough Love to find you when you are lost, with all the love one man can give. May it always be an inspiration to your heart and to your soul and bring you closer to Christ and His everlasting Love.
In Christ’s Love,
Obviously, this is not the end of the story. It’s more like an excerpt from life. Fortunately, it is an excerpt that tells about God’s intervention to bring us closer to Him. It is an experience that brings us unto ourselves. God seems to shake us and say, “Wake up! I need you. I love you.” Yet people’s lives continue in the foray, seldom stopping to worship and pray and listen to their Creator. This was simply a response to hearing that “wake-up” call. It remains my intention to be alert to God’s call as my life continues. I will listen for His guidance and direction. It is not easy to discern God’s plan or which way He wants us to go. I still get confused and miss the mark, but I will always strive to maintain the faith that led me to step off the beaten path and follow Jesus.