The Gospel in Sand

Or, What I did on my summer vacation … and a look back at sand crucifixes of past years

I’ve enjoyed sculpting in sand since I was a kid, and for the past 14 years my favorite subject, by far, has been the crucifixion of Jesus. (I blogged about this once before, in 2014.)

I love sculpting the crucifixion for many reasons. Just aesthetically, it’s a great theme: a dramatic, symmetrical anatomical subject. It’s also highly practical, well adapted to the horizontal plane best suited to the medium of sand. (I’m aware that sand sculptures can be startlingly vertical, but I’m a summer vacation amateur working with no tools except a shovel.)

More substantially, everyone passing by knows what it is, and many comment or strike up conversations. It’s edifying to many passers-by, and there are plenty of opportunities to chat with people about Jesus. 

People want to talk about Jesus, if you give them a chance. Catholics, Protestants, people who are nothing in particular. In 14 years I’ve only ever gotten positive comments.

Sometimes people want to use the occasion to talk to their children about Jesus. Sometimes they want to talk about their church, or ask about mine. 

I like my own kids to see me working on something that overtly, explicitly gives glory to God, even on vacation. It’s a meditative, prayerful experience for me, like praying the Sorrowful Mysteries. 

I believe my first effort, in the summer of 2005, consisted of some incomplete studies, and that my first completed crucifixion was in 2006. That first effort was rather a rush job, 75 minutes in all, after learning that a sand sculpture contest was underway. Here’s that first effort:

I happened to win that contest (it was an amateur contest and competition wasn’t fierce), although my effort looks weak to me today. For what its worth, conditions weren’t great: I was working while the tide was coming in, which is the worst time to be sculpting. Ideally you want to start working a couple of hours after high tide — which is what I did this year.

I’m happy to say I think this year’s crucifixion is my best effort to date. For the first time I captured something of the dynamic pose of many crucifixes, with the legs and torso making a kind of S shape.

Compare the much more static pose of this effort from 2014. (This angle makes the 2014 sculpture look more impressive than it really was. For more revealing angles, see my 2014 blog post.)

This effort also achieves more three-dimensionality than previous efforts. For the first time you can see the cross under Jesus’ legs (as well as under his head and neck). 

The anatomy overall is better than previous years.

For scale, here’s one with me in it. Truth in Photoshopping: There were a couple of bucket in the sand behind my head that have been digitally removed. No digital enhancement has been applied to Jesus!)

Looking back at past years, below is my effort from last year (2018). I wasn’t happy with this one after about an hour and almost abandoned it, but I kept at it and wound up not dissatisfied with the outcome. (Later in the summer I tried to do another one, but was driven off the beach by horseflies!)

The 2017 version below was by far the buffest Jesus I’ve done. This was the first year I tried to add at least a little asymmetry, leaning the head to one side. The gesture’s not entirely successful, in part because the head is too big, but it’s a start.

A key innovation in 2017: For the first time I didn’t use the beard as a crutch to hide the neck, as I did in the 2014 and 2006 images above. As a result, my more recent versions look more like Jesus and less like Zeus.

Looking critically at this year’s effort, there’s still room for improvement. In past years I’ve gone back and forth on putting the nails in the hands and the wrists, and this year I positioned the arms on the cross as if the nails would go in the wrists, but wound up putting them in the hands. I’m not entirely happy with any approach to the hands (balled-up fists or unnaturally flat fingers?). And while I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not the elbows should be slightly bent, now I’ve belatedly decided that they should. 

Your feedback would be welcome. 

For earlier efforts, see my 2014 blog post.

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