Context is all. The monumental interior of St Paul’s Cathedral is a plinth that can destroy any sculpture. Bizarrely, for so decorated an ensemble, it drowns most images in iconoclastic noise.

Gerry Judah has placed two vast white crosses (modelled on those used for World War I graves, which he thus commemorates) on either side of the nave of St Paul’s, just before the crossing (fig.1). Insofar as they survive and even thrive in this context, the same white crosses that Stanley Spencer’s resurrected soldiers in the Sandham Memorial Chapel are patiently queuing to hand back, here hold their own against the vastness of the great interior. There is a folk story in which a brave young hero manages to trick a dragon that is terrorising his kingdom into biting on an iron stake, thus clamping its jaws together. Judah’s pair of crosses similarly dampens the almost overwhelming resonance of St Paul’s: they stick in the craw.

The crosses which on closer examination turn out to have two cross pieces rather than one, rather like a ship’s anchor or a tank-trap are encrusted with tiny mouldings of half-destroyed cities which add to the scale and the monumentality of the work. The terrible forces of history, the work suggests, destroy the mightiest achievements of human civilisation, sloughing off even the skyscrapers that ride on its back. This is clearly an appropriate theme for Lent, the Christian season of penitence and reflection upon the transitory nature of life, and for the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

And yet if its Cathedral context gives this work the resonance it needs to sing effectively, it also reveals its heartlessness. Many works of art have used the great tides of history as backdrop to give a sense of stature; one thinks of the cave of swimmers in Minghella’s film The English Patient, where the walls of the desert cave in which the heroine has been abandoned are covered with ancient paintings of apparently swimming figures. Here the symbolism of the image is unconsciously one of hope: one person sustained in their lonely and crippled abandon by the images of so many mobile figures, of water in the desert. Judah’s crosses – to this writer at least – have, apart from their strength, an absence of redemptive qualities, a soul-lessness. The tiny scale of the ruined cityscapes make these crosses monstrous; whereas surely the single most important function of the cross, as used in Christian iconography with or without a corpus, is to be a cipher for the human form (fig.2). The Christian cross places the human image firmly into the forces of history, inserting the human into the context of the inhuman magnitude of time and space.

Thus the absence of any human scale to this relentless work, and its unwillingness to negotiate with its surroundings, from which it might have drawn some sense of potentially redemptive hope, makes a Christian cathedral precisely the wrong context. It works to exaggerate St Paul’s already evident tendency to monumental inhumanity rather than to enter into dialogue with its equally powerful human aspects. In the end, Spencer’s picture of soldiers with their white crosses queuing for their new life is the more Christian image. This is not to say that Judah’s work is a bad one: simply and finally, it is irrelevant to its Christian context.

It is not every day that a Jewish artist is given free rein to make his mark on the walls of St Paul’s Cathedral.

But then, Gerry Judah is not one to follow convention — as can be seen by the six-metre-high cruciform sculptures he has constructed, now hanging either side of the famous church’s Nave Pier walls.

The sculptor — who was born into a Sephardi community in Calcutta, India and came to the UK with his family at the age of 10 — was approached by St Paul’s officials last year with the unique opportunity to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.

The result is two lofty, three-dimensional crosses — painted white to represent the war graves of northern France and Belgium and bearing in model form the ruins of war-torn buildings.

“As an immigrant Jew, to be able to commemorate the most important event of the 20th century in the highest church in the nation and be able to give it my take and my own polemic was a phenomenal platform,” Mr Judah said.

“The challenge was to interpret my take on the war — and war in general — but also to appreciate the sensibilities of a cathedral like this.”

Mr Judah, 62, said he focused his designs on the symbol of the cross as it stood both as an “appropriate image of remembrance” — but also one of violence.

“You have to remember that the cross is a very violent symbol, as it was originally designed to kill people. I thought I would maintain that violence as a polemical reminder that wars have been forever fought over religion.”

As for the irony of a Jewish artist producing crucifix-shaped designs, Mr Judah explained: “I discovered the Renaissance when I went to art school. For me, the crucifixion was not an act of religion but a discovery of art and of amazing artists like Della Francesca and Raphael.”

The sculptor, whose work often comments on the waste and futility of war, said it would have been hypocritical to focus his pieces purely on remembrance.

“It’s all very well looking at a war that happened 100 years ago,” he said. “But we have catastrophic wars still happening today in which cities are being decimated.

“That is why I took the pure shape of the cross and festooned it with contemporary, destroyed buildings. It’s a way of contemporising memory.”

The London-based sculptor has produced sculptures for several religious institutions in the past — including a display at his own shul, Finchley Reform Synagogue, in commemoration of the Czech Memorial Scrolls. He said he was inspired by “the theatricality of religion.

“I grew up in India, where there were hundreds of temples, mosques and synagogues. We had the most amazing synagogues there, so it was a very spiritual place to live.

“It’s actually still my ambition to do something big in a synagogue. I’d love to design a beautiful altar piece, where the challenge is harnessing the expression of that particular community.”

Describing his faith as “constantly feeding” his art, Mr Judah said the poignancy of being the first Jewish artist to display work at St Paul’s was far from lost on him.

“I am very much a Londoner, but you can still sometimes feel like an outsider at the same time. So to be able to come into such a place and be fully embraced and appreciated was fantastic.

“The first minute I met the Chancellor of St Paul’s, we had an instant rapport. I told him a Jewish joke and he started laughing. We got each other,” he said.

As Easter approaches, artist Gerry Judah has unveiled two white crosses in the knave of St Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate a century since the start of the First World War.

The cruciform sculptures, scarred by the bombed-out shells of buildings, were commissioned by Canon Mark Oatley, Chancellor of St Paul’s, and draw a link between the historic conflict and wars being waged today.

Judah, who lives in Highgate and has a studio in Gospel Oak, says: “I have worked on these themes before, but I wanted to do something bespoke for the space, something that embodied the cathedral, which itself is quite an emotional symbol of resistance for Londoners – of Britain standing up against the enemy during the Blitz in Herbert Mason’s famous photograph of the dome through the smoke.

“The white cross symbolises the war graves and remembrance but I wanted to contemporise it by bringing in the connection with current conflicts in places like Syria and Baghdad which are direct products of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.”

He adds that the cross is both a potent religious and artistic symbol.

“Some of the greatest paintings are of the crucifixion. It is a focus for Christianity, for peace and hope but it is also a violent symbol, a structure that had a guy nailed on to it and who died on it.

“I wanted to draw those threads into the pieces. They are strongly geo-political sculptures.”

Canon Oatley said the First World War is embedded in the national consciousness but added “you cannot be indulgent with memory”.

“A hundred years sounds a long time but I don’t think societies get over a trauma like that as quickly as they might like to think.

“There is a kind of nostalgic remembering but also a remembering that is about loyalty to the future, putting yourself back together and learning from the past. This is a work that sets out to do that explicitly by recalling the crosses of the war graves, and contemporary landscapes we see on the news every day, lives being ended and scarred forever by the same rupture.”

He believes Easter is a good time to draw these connections, and St Paul’s, which is littered with monuments to Generals and Admirals from historic British wars, a good place.

“Both religions and art work best when they set out not to answer questions but to question answers. After a hundred years, mythology and complacency set in and here’s a work that provokes us into interrogating the present world, throws it all up in the air, and asks what are the true effects of this war?

“I wanted the sculptures here for Holy Week. The Christian faith is such that human faith is carried on the cross. God bears the weight of human failure and there is no bigger failure than war.”

Judah, who was born in Calcutta and came to the UK aged 10, describes his sculptures as “theatrical, pieces of performance, interventions in this cathedral that is so designed in its architecture”.

“All my work is huge, I like the big expression, but these aren’t works about my personal journey, I like my work to be about something else and as an artist I serve the thing I want to say.”

Having lived in Highgate for 32 years, he considers himself a Londoner and views the capital as a place of opportunity.

“Here I am, an immigrant and artist given the freedom to commemorate an event so enormous in the most important building in the country and to make my own geo-political slant on it – that’s what I call an opportunity.”

St Paul’s Cathedral has unveiled a new First World War memorial by Gerry Judah. The installation consists of two large cruciform sculptures, embellished with miniature reliefs of contemporary and historical architectural ruins.

The artist’s intention was to ‘engage with conflict, destruction and the environment’, both during and beyond 1914.

‘We remember this Great War 100 years later’, he said, ‘but since then, conflict has been ongoing throughout the world… I thought this would be a better testament to those who lost their lives’.

The overall effect is plaintive and abrupt. These jagged and conspicuous structures, ironically rendered in a brilliant white, effectively call to mind the violence of war.

Judah’s work is also suitably iconoclastic, both recalling the mass graves of Flanders and subverting the symmetry of Christopher Wren’s majestic Nave walls.

The artist and Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, wanted this ‘poignant disruption in a beautiful space’ to bridge the collective suffering of those affected by war throughout the last century.

The twin white cruciform shapes trigger thoughts of the rows of white crosses in war cemeteries in northern France, designed to wake us from any immunity to images of war and make viewers question the wastefulness and wanton destruction that continues 100 years after one of the most destructive conflicts in European history.

The link to today’s conflicts in the Middle East is more profound considering that the First World War preceded the dividing of the Ottoman Empire, leading to more conflict.

Shells adorn the crosses, symbolising the way bombs tear away the skin of a building to expose the private lives of those who lived there.

St Paul’s Cathedral has been drawn into conflicts in a previous incarnation when it was destroyed by Vikings and was the centre of an iconic piece of war imagery during World War Two as it stood over burning London, barely scathed by Nazi incendiary bombs in Herbert Mason’s stunning photograph.

“Judah’s work ruptures the symmetry of the Cathedral just as war breaks down human harmony,” says Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor of the Cathedral.

“Placed where they are, we are invited to walk through them, and the failure and pain they represent, into a sacred space of hope where people in all our diversity are invited to come together to worship, to respect and to learn from each other.

“These striking sculptures confront us with the reality of a war that saw thousands and thousands of young people from around the world buried with white crosses over their remains.

“They also provoke us into interrogating the present world and the landscapes we casually view on the news every day, scarred and agonised by military hate in the hearts and minds of those who survive.

“It is a work that starkly asks of us what it must now mean for us to be loyal to our shared future.”

This August marks 100 years since the beginning of World War One, an event St. Paul’s Cathedral has asked Calcutta-born artist Gerry Judah to commemorate.

Plastic poppies, renditions of Siegfried Sassoon and the sound of bugles followed by deathly silence serve as annual symbols of the war.

But what about now? The current conflict in the Middle East is a living testament to World War One, mostly from the diplomatic omnishambles that followed in its wake. In 1920, British and French victors carved up the Ottoman Empire, keeping much and apportioning some to selected Arab allies.

Ba’athism was originally conceived as a reactionary movement against the apportionment of Arab land in Syria and Lebanon to the French.

Nobody could have foreseen the leadership at the Ba’ath Party’s helm in Syria today, yet the continuity of this war is a theme that Gerry Judah cannot help but draw upon in his latest work.

The sculptures feature two crosses, each over six metres high, suspended on either side of the Nave Pier Walls inside the cathedral. Peacefully white and immediately evocative of the chalky tombstones of France and Belgium, they alone would have been a powerful testimony to the lives lost. However, St. Pauls had something else in mind.

Admirers of Judah’s striking three-dimensional war canvasses at The Parish Church of Saint Mary Brookfield and the Imperial War Museum, they wanted the sculptures to be infused with contemporary meaning too. Judah, whose work has often remarked upon the enduring and wanton suffering of current wars, certainly does more than commemorate here.

The vast structures are studded with the destroyed housing blocks of Homs, Aleppo, Baghdad and other post-Ottoman cities. They have become an instantly recognised horror on television screens the world over. Judah does not spare much detail in his illustration of the neighbourhoods pummelled by the Syrian Army, featuring a mesh of rubble, concrete and collapsing walls. This eery wasteland is veiled in one homogenising tone, echoing the human loss of years of bloody civil war.

The conclusion one is left to draw is not especially subtle, yet nor is it any less important. The wound of World War One is as open as ever in the Middle East.

Judah remarks upon the ‘ludicrousness’ of war and knows it cannot be ignored by the clergymen and public passing his commemorative sculptures when they are opened this month. This installation is polemic, playing our historical memory of the Great War against similarly brutal conflicts today. Their interaction in the piece is a profoundly tragic irony.

The Church of England had an uncomfortable relationship with World War One. Its Peace League was established in 1911, though by 1914 the notion of a ‘Christian duty to fight’ prevailed amongst British clergymen. Their stance is unified now. On Remembrance Day, we must recognise the universal tragedy of war and the destruction left in its shadows.

Judah urges his audience to acknowledge that the spectre of war still looms large for millions today. Power struggles are replicated in Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan and several other geopolitical flashpoints. Canon Chancellor Mark Oakley of St. Paul’s Cathedral himself explains the ‘scarred and agonised hearts and minds of those who survive’ are often watched upon by the public far too casually.

If these ongoing conflicts are overlooked, the lessons we learn at Cenotaph will become as parochial as the interests of the few who rendered the world an imperial chessboard one hundred years ago.