Picture by David Beatson

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Provocative Icon

A Provocative Icon
The silent Christ statue speaks to employees in ways that cut across religion, nationality, class and culture

The Story of a Statue
The famed sculpture under the dome is actually a replica of a piece done in 1820 by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. The original stands as the central figure grouped with the twelve apostles in Copenhagen’s main cathedral. Presented to the Hospital by donor William W. Spence, the Hopkins replica was made for $5,360 in 1896 by a Professor Stein of the Danish Royal Academy of Arts.
The finished work—cut from a single block of Carrara marble—arrived by ship at the foot of Broadway in Fells Point, where it was placed on rollers and hauled up to the hospital’s main entrance at 601 N. Broadway. The doors to what is now called the Billings Administration Building were taken off their hinges so the statue could fit through. Three brick columns were installed under Billings’ marble floor to support the statue’s weight.
Here in a hospital famed for modern medicine, a 10-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus rises beneath its historic dome. Elsewhere, such a prominently featured religious symbol might be cause for controversy. But at Hopkins Hospital, "Christus Consolator" has managed to defy its traditional symbolism and garner respect from nearly all who pass.

Long a source of solace and hope for patients and families, the Christ statue also has meaning for hundreds of employees. For many it signifies healing, hope and compassion; for others, it means faith and tradition and even freedom. To a few, it is simply a work of art, or even a throw-back to a less tolerant time. Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists-all interpret the statue in ways that feel right for them.

Claudia Costabile, an administrative assistant for Johns Hopkins International, moved here from Brazil last year. The statue doesn't seem out of place to her, she admits, perhaps because she was raised in a Catholic country. "I cannot separate the sculpture from my upbringing. When I look at it, I immediately think of my family." In Islam, says International client coordinator Omar Zidi, while Jesus has a very special place as a messenger, a key principal is to keep God in the abstract and eschew images of God or the prophets. But, he says, "It's hard to satisfy everybody. So for me, the statue serves as a reminder of my own faith."

Some like Adrian Dobs, professor of medicine and a practicing Jew, are less accepting of the statue. "I see how the statue means a great deal to our patients and their families. It engenders a sense of hope and comfort to many-something extremely important in the field of medicine," Dobs says. "But if it weren't already there, I wouldn't be in favor of erecting it again. It has an obvious religious significance, and in today's world, we need to be careful about imposing religious beliefs on others."

That's not an issue for Mikyong Hong, a patient services coordinator and interpreter for international services. Hong, who came to Hopkins a month ago from Korea, is an atheist but says the statue doesn't bother her. She points out that many religious Asians-many of whom are Buddhist-could be uncomfortable with the size and meaning of the statue and would avoid passing it. When Hong arrived at Hopkins, someone told her it was good luck to rub the statue's toe. "Now it's a habit," she says. "Every time I pass, I rub it."

Stop for a while and watch the people hurrying past the Christ statue. Not one five-minute period goes by without someone acknowledging it. Like Hong, they might rub the toe. Or, they might say a brief prayer. Some kneel in front of it. A few even high-five it. "Every time I walk by I have to touch it," says Norma Green, a transplant finance coordinator who has been at Hopkins for 37 years. "I leave all my problems there so I don't bring them to the patients.."

Founder Johns Hopkins was an ardent Quaker devoted to the establishment of a non-sectarian university, hospital and medical school. To Hopkins, "non-sectarian" meant acknowledging the power of personal faith without aligning his institutions with one particular religion. In 19th century parochial Baltimore, such a philosophy was considered heretical.

So when the University was dedicated in 1876 without so much as a benediction, many Baltimoreans considered it blasphemous. For years the rich and religious hounded the University's first president Daniel Gilman about the oversight. Finally, on Oct. 14, 1896, Gilman quelled the controversy with the stunning statue that stands at what was then the physical epicenter of the hospital, its ornate rotunda. He downplayed Jesus' religious implications; to him the statue represented the ultimate physician, the "Great Healer," who "wrought," he said, "more wonderful cures than any physician or surgeon that had ever lived."

Today, many share Gilman's take on the statue as a symbol of healing. Kate Hicks, raised Catholic, now not religious, says that when she joined Hopkins as a research data assistant in the Department of Psychiatry she heard the statue was a Greek medical figure. "I still think it's a beautiful work of art even though now I know it's Jesus, but I'd get more out of it if it were something different-maybe a human assisting another human. Something more about helping or healing than a religious figure."

For people like Nadia Sawaya, the statue represents much more. Sawaya lived through civil war in her native Lebanon, witnessing burning churches and other acts of violence fueled by religious differences. Today she is a project manager for external communications for Johns Hopkins International. "When I see the statue standing there without being torn down, it feels like freedom to me," she says. "It reminds me that in this country you can be proud of your faith, that you will be respected as a human being and a citizen no matter what you believe."

Cardiac surgeon Levi Watkins, a longtime civil rights activist, has brought everyone from Rosa Parks to Maya Angelou to see the statue. For him, it's not just a symbol of compassion and healing, but activism. "Jesus talked about feeding the poor, like some sort of ancient welfare system," he says. "The statue should remind us of our charitable mission here."

Situated in the historic Billings Administration Building, the iconic landmark is a stopping-off point for sight-seers, a starting point for Christmas carolers, and a gathering place for employees meeting for lunch. Although people from so many cultures pass through daily, very few official complaints about the statue have been recorded. No one would know better than Sandy Johnson, the employee orientation program coordinator for the Hospital and Health System who conducts weekly tours that always end at the statue. "I've been doing this seven years and I've never had a negative response from anyone. I've had everyone from Muslim to Baha'i in my tour groups. I think people just respect it as a symbol of faith, period."

For more than a century, the statue has left an indelible first impression on both patients and staff. "Every once in a while, I'll just stop and watch what's going on," says neurologist Michael A. Williams. "When you see how many people come to that statue, it tells you the value of faith and spirituality that people hold and maybe speaks louder than any spreadsheet could for enhancing our ability to give, not only through a beautiful silent statue, but through the services we provide here."

- Lindsay Roylance
A Not-So-Silent Night
Every Dec. 24 at 7 p.m., the Memorial Baptist Church choir gathers in front of the Christ statue to fill the historic halls with song. After several carols under the dome, the choristers embark on a two-hour tour to different units, often leading a procession of patients and families through the hospital. “We get so much enjoyment ministering to those who can’t be with their families during the holiday season,” says Rev. Calvin Keene, pastor of the 86-year-old church on Caroline Street.
It was the gratitude of such a family that began the tradition decades ago. On July 27, 1926, Abraham Lincoln Johnson was filling the gas tank of a truck when gas spilled onto his clothes. The driver struck a match and Johnson was engulfed in flames. He was admitted to Hopkins in the early evening with second degree burns on his body, neck and face and was a patient for months. When he finally recovered, his mother persuaded the choir of her church to sing carols at the statue’s feet on Christmas Eve as an offering of thanks.

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