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Beautiful when caught by the sun's rays – but why a cross?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 29, 2013

Morning sun lights Simon Thomas's Celtic cross sculpture on the edge of the River Tamar at Saltash  PICTURE: SEAN HERNON

Morning sun lights Simon Thomas's Celtic cross sculpture on the edge of the River Tamar at Saltash PICTURE: SEAN HERNON

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With its copper-coloured panels glinting in the morning sun, the new "Celtic" cross erected beside the Tamar bridges at Saltash creates a lovely spectacle for those crossing by road and rail into Cornwall. But does Cornwall really need another object of Christian worship?

Cornwall is, after all, not short of crosses. The wayside symbols of a once-devout land are dotted throughout the peninsula. They speak of a different age, a pre-scientific age when man, ever-hungry for answers to the reason for his existence, looked to a higher place for some clue to the meaning of life itself.

These lovingly hand-carved, lichen-encrusted stones are little works of art in themselves, their presence giving us pleasure as we pass them. Furthermore, they link us to our ancestors in a tangible way. Whether mute stones possess any spiritual function, or are as redundant as a printed encyclopaedia in the age of Wikipedia, is another matter.

The new cross, towering 60ft into the air – pointing to Heaven if you like – owes its design to those devout stonemasons of old Cornwall. When created and raised during the Age of Saints, they were as relevant as an Ordnance Survey map or sat-nav. Their purpose today, however, is largely decorative and historic.

It seems curious, therefore, in a secular age, when fewer than one in ten of the population regularly attends a Christian place of worship, the National Lottery and other public bodies see fit to spend £600,000 on promoting overtly religious imagery.

The issue is not over the level of funding, but rather the choice of subject. Surely there are far more potent symbols to epitomise the distinctiveness of Cornwall and her people in the 21st century... and we're not talking about engine houses.

The "gateway" cross was originally a millennium project, conceived as an opportunity to express Cornwall's place in the world in the year 2000. It was also an art project in a land awash with artists. Since the days of Stanhope Forbes, Harold Harvey and the rest of the Newlyn School of painters, through St Ives pioneers like Hepworth, Hilton and Heron, to modern giants like David Kemp, Cornwall oozes artistic innovation.

So it begs the question why that spirit of innovation was not employed on this occasion. Instead of creating something which truly speaks of Cornwall in the 21st century, its gateway at Saltash is lumbered with a Christian symbol of which we have many hundreds. From St Buryan to Bude, Cornwall bristles with crosses.

And it wasn't Anglicans, Catholics or Methodists driving the project, but Saltash Town Council. Liam Bradley, chairman of Saltash Waterfront Residents' Association, said: "It has taken three years to get the cross in place and it looks remarkable. It is a stunning piece of public art that will stand as a monument to Cornwall for years to come. We would like to thank everyone involved for their commitment and enthusiasm."

Such commitment and enthusiasm is not in dispute. But in the 13 years of planning, fundraising, grant applications, design, construction and erection, was there never a small voice at the back of room, asking: "Does Cornwall really need another cross? We've got thousands of 'em already."

Subject choice aside, the cross does represent a great feat of artistic and industrial expertise. Its main spars are made from aerospace and boat-building composite materials of glass and carbon fibre. It consists of more than 6,000 individual pieces, with no two blocks the same, and ten specialist engineers have worked on building the sculpture. Artist Simon Thomas himself said: "The sculpture not only represents a proud Cornish heritage, but also the Cornwall of today which is an exciting and vibrant place, open to new ideas and celebrating its uniqueness. The cross truly marks the gateway to Cornwall, inviting visitors and welcoming travellers home."

Designers and proponents of a structure unkindly and wrongly described by one online commentator as "ugly loutish tat" professed their ambition to create Cornwall's version of Antony Gormley's Angel Of The North.

They hoped that by raising a cross next to the Tamar Bridge, visitors to Cornwall would alter their travel plans for Eden, Newquay or St Ives and instead veer off into Saltash town centre for a spot of shopping.

It seems a highly unlikely scenario, but let's hope they're right.

Whatever the reasons for their choice, perhaps those west of the Tamar should not look too deeply into its significance or symbolism and simply embrace its presence and enjoy its beauty as the eastern rays catch those coppered panels as the sun rises over Cornwall.

What do you think of the Celtic Cross? Email sparker@westernmorningnews.co.uk or write to Simon Parker, Western Morning News, 17 Brest Road, Plymouth PL6 5AA.

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