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,
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).
"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
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
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
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.
"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"
—Hymn "Were You There?,"
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
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
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
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 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
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.