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Seeing the Cross Anew

By Barbara Beckwith

Artists have always reinterpreted Jesus' crucifixion in light of their cultures. But the love behind it has never changed.

Q U I C K S C A N

Theological Explanations
Early Christian Art
Trends in Western Art
Modern Interpretations
The Cross Demands a Response
The Prayer Before the Crucifix

Seeing the Cross Anew

Photo by Gene Plaisted


"Lift high the cross,
the love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world
adore His sacred Name."

  —Hymn "Lift High the Cross," words by
George W. Kitchin/Michael R. Newbolt,
1916

The cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity, but that wasn't always so. Early Christians preferred to use the sign of the fish to describe their fellowship, and the lamb for their founder. For three centuries they professed their faith in the crucified and risen Lord but could not bring themselves to portray artistically Jesus' execution like a common criminal.

Jesus' crucifixion was a stumbling block to Jews and gentiles. How could such a man be God as well? What kind of God let himself be killed in such an excruciating manner, in disgrace, causing such pain for his mother and friends?

We no longer find Jesus' crucifixion such a stumbling block because we stress the other part of the story: his resurrection, triumph, vindication, exaltation, so "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11).

Theological Explanations

"When I behold the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride."

—Hymn "When I Behold the Wondrous Cross,"
words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

We have developed theological "reasons" for Jesus' death. The apostles and disciples struggled to comprehend the "why" of what they had witnessed, as their conversation on the road to Emmaus shows (Luke 24:13-35).

St. Paul offered the first daring explanation: "For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Later theologians suggested other ways to describe the mystery: redemption, reparation, ransom for the many, offering for sin, sacrifice, expiation, atonement, satisfaction, justification, liberation.

All these theological reasons boil down to love. Love is what Christians see when they look upon a cross or crucifix (a cross with an image of Jesus on it). We realize anew God's outpouring of love, in full measure and overflowing. The Gospel of John calls it love "to the end" (13:1).

Early Christian Art

"Sweet the nails and sweet the wood
Laden with so sweet a load."

—Hymn "Crux Fidelis" ("Faithful Cross"),
words by Venantius Fortunatus, circa 609

Actually, the cross appears frequently in pre-Christian and non-Christian art, as a symbol of the sun or the elements or the four dimensions of the universe or the power of generation.

For Christians, however, the cross has unique meaning, referring only to Jesus' death. Surviving early artistic uses of the cross are few. Using a cross (usually bare) as a secret recognition symbol among the new faithful was in fact an acknowledgment of the persecution and death they might face.

Only with the fourth-century legalization of Christianity and the end of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment among the Romans did Christians begin to feel free to use the cross in their art.

It was the finding of the true cross by Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, in 335, and the subsequent division of this relic, that really spurred development of the use of the cross in Christian art. Many early crosses were actually reliquaries, containing fragments of the true cross. By the fifth and sixth century, gold and jewels covered crosses, compromising the original  meaning, but hinting at Jesus' glorification.

Christians slowly overcame the Jewish proscription against making graven images of God. In general, the Western Church emphasized Jesus' suffering and the Eastern Church his majesty.

Trends in Western Art

"At the cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last."

—Hymn "At the Cross Her Station Keeping,"
words "Stabat mater dolorosa"
by Jacapone di Todi (1230-1306)

The terse prose and sparse detail used by the Gospel writers ("Then they crucified him..."—Mark 15:24) have given Western artists ample room to create their own interpretations. Time, culture and individual talent have shaped very different, emotionally moving and "true" renderings of the event.

Artists in the ninth century began showing Christ alone on the cross, with no rebels beside him or figures at the foot of the cross supporting him.

Medieval crosses, sometimes life-sized, gave great emphasis to Christ's sacrificial death. Referring to the large cross now preserved in the Cathedral of Cologne, Hans Ruedi-Weber says in On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross (Eerdmans, 1979), "The heavy body of Jesus hangs distorted on his outstretched arms and his eyes are closed. Nevertheless, it is not the outward pain of Christ which makes him so deeply moving, but rather the inner suffering which shows on his face."

Thirteenth-century artists started enthroning Jesus on the cross, but also portraying his suffering, agony and death realistically. Often the crown of thorns is shown brutally forced on his head.

Painters in Italy depicted the response of onlookers at the crucifixion and included in the scene more and more figures, including kings and queens from the late Middle Ages, saints and Doctors of the Church.

In the Renaissance the crucifixion was moved to the streets those artists knew. Anatomy had just been scientifically studied, and Jesus' anatomy was realistically rendered, which shocked many.

Because the Protestants gave short shrift to the visual arts in their churches, the Catholic Counter-Reformation emphasized them.

Modern Interpretations

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"
—Hymn "Were You There?,"
African-American spiritual

Since 1900, two world wars and countless military actions, the Holocaust, the selfishness and superficiality of modern Western civilization, the inequities of wealth and the realization that we are now a global Church have prompted deep reflection on the cross.

After the Second Vatican Council's request that the Church reflect on its roots, there came an appreciation for the simple cross. Artist Henri Matisse, for example, created a cross of utmost simplicity for a chapel in France.

In 20 paintings, Marc Chagall, a Jew, tried to come to grips with how the cross has been hijacked to justify anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Georges Rouault saw in the persecuted Jews and all suffering and humiliated men and women—like clowns, prostitutes, exploited factory workers and dying soldiers—the presence of Christ, the Christ in agony. For Rouault, God cannot be found except in suffering, and there is no resurrection without the crucifixion.

Current Latin American crosses emphasize a political Christ, who is tortured for the sake of justice, and whose death leads to true liberation.

Oriental and African crucifixes make the Christ figure one of their own. A Filipino cross, for instance, may be made of bamboo to recall that "Bamboo is a symbol of the Filipino people—we bend but do not break," as a very brave Filipino woman told me before the oppressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos ended in 1989.

In our country a new trend is resurrection crosses, which try to depict the risen Christ, on the cross but already rising from the dead.

The Cross Demands a Response

"On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff'ring and shame....
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it one day for a crown."

—Hymn "The Old Rugged Cross,"
words by George Bennard (1873-1960)

No cross should be merely a work of art, understood perhaps but not felt or motivating. Thomas Merton once accused himself and others of being "guilty bystanders."

"Sometimes people will stand before a crucifix of fine craftsmanship and exclaim about its beauty," complains Bertrand Weaver, C.P., in His Cross in Your Life (Catholic Answers, a 2000 reprint). "They do this in a detached way, as though they were viewing some work of art toward which they felt no individual relationship. They are like those who passed along the road that ran near Calvary on that first Good Friday afternoon [seeing only] three more wretched human beings...dying as criminals."

A well-made cross should touch our hearts and motivate us to do something, change our lives and reach out to help others. Many of the newer crosses, like ones at the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico or the Sant'Egidio community based in Rome, are specifically crafted to elicit a response from us.

Into Your Hands: Meditations and Prayers on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Liguori Publications, 2001), edited by Father Norman Muckerman, C.Ss.R., retells an old story. St. Thomas Aquinas once asked his good friend St. Bonaventure where the books were that he had consulted for his beautiful lessons in spirituality. Bonaventure showed Thomas his crucifix, its image worn smooth from kissing and caressing. Bonaventure said, "This is my book. Everything I write comes from it. It has taught me whatever little I know."

This lesson St. Bonaventure learned from the founder of his Order, St. Francis of Assisi. Francis' is the classic story of how a cross changed a life. He prayed before the cross in the crumbling Church of San Damiano and was never the same again. Francis recognized the love he saw outstretched on that cross and turned his entire life around. (His prayer before the crucifix is reproduced in the box below.)

How can we look upon a cross and be unmoved? For it is love that calls out to us from the cross. It demands our response.

    

Barbara Beckwith is managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine and a graduate of Marquette University's College of Journalism.

 

The Prayer Before the Crucifix

Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me true faith,
certain hope,
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
Lord,
that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.

—St. Francis of Assisi, 1205 or 1206
"The Prayer Before the Crucifix" from
Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents,
Volume 1, © 2000
Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University,
used by permission of New City Press

 

 


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