Christian Petersen (Danish-American, 1885-1961)
Christ with Bound Hands, 1945
Gift of Reverend William Robert Merrill. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University. UM99.299
Christian Petersen rarely discussed his work in any detail and almost never discussed his intentions for his works of art. Christ with Bound Hands is an
exception. Just a few days after the Japanese surrender that ended World War II in August of 1945, Petersen talked to a reporter for the Iowa State Daily Student about a sculpture for which he had already made a model. It was to be a new concept of Christ that would portray Him as a masculine, powerful figure with a stern expression who stood with his hands tied by a rope. The idea of the sculpture was a new representation of Christ “as he would appear on the earth surveying our present-day humanity [viewing] the war-torn world.” Petersen further explained to the student reporter about the overlarge hands of the figure: “It is as if he holds an atomic bomb in each fist.”
Like everyone else, Petersen was shaken by the appearance of atomic power and by its destruction, as shown by the atom bombs that the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). As a member of the campus community, he was further surprised when he learned that important research for the production of the bomb had been carried on secretly at Iowa State College. The professor in charge of the research, Dr. Frank H. Spedding (1902-1984), of the Department of Chemistry acknowledged the danger of atomic weapons, but also emphasized that they could prevent future world-wide conflict. “If each nation has some knowledge of the bomb, this knowledge should convince these nations of the utter impossibility of any profits in future wars,” he explained.
The war seemed to provoke in Petersen a consideration of religion, an issue that had very seldom appeared in his art. After World War II, spiritual matters took on a higher profile in his work and, in 1949, he converted to Roman Catholicism.
His use of Christ in this 1945 sculpture was a way of expressing the idea of the inherent injustice and inhumanity of warfare. As a widely recognized religious symbol, Christ could represent the concept of a divinity who had to watch with distress the cruel misdeeds of a willful and heedless human race. We know Petersen related his figure to the war, and we also know he intended it to be a major monument to caution us against our destructive inclinations: he proposed to carve Christ with Bound Hands as a ten-foot-tall stone sculpture to be installed on campus. This final project was never realized.
Petersen’s Christ with Bound Hands was not the only example of the figure of Christ used to symbolize the assault of barbarism on civilization during World War II. One famous example is from the ten-panel series The Year of Peril (1941) by the American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), specifically his painting, Again. Benton depicted a crucified Christ hanging on the cross as a Nazi Luftwaffe plane machine guns his body from the air, and a ghastly trio thrusts a long spear into His side. The three figures who join hands on the spear are caricatures of a German Nazi, a Japanese militarist, and an Italian Fascist. The two crosses beside Christ have already been blasted and, in the background, soldiers march against a fire-filled sky.