A reviled image or an embodiment of hope?
Review: The Cross: History, Art and Controversy
Author: Robin Jensen
For the first decades of the church symbols such as fish, anchors, ships and doves were far more prominent in associating Christianity than the cross. And frescoes were more likely to feature episodes from Jesus’ ministry and life such as his baptism, rather than his crucifixion. A surprising note that Robin Jensen makes in this elegantly produced book.
For the earliest Christians the cross was a reviled image, which is why St Paul has to persuade his readers not to be ashamed of it but to see its significance. For Paul, paradoxically, the means by which Jesus is humiliated becomes for us a celebration. For pagans and Jews, the adoption of the cross as a symbol simply proved how strange these Christians were.
Once it became a well-used symbol, it was malleable. It could be associated with ships and builders’ tools, and it represented the four points of the compass. It would also be closely associated with Eden’s Tree of Life, a symbolism refined and embellished over the centuries. In the Middle Ages a legend developed that the cross was actually made from wood from the Tree of Life, because it was thought the wood itself must have been in some way special.
Origen wrote that the cross shouldn’t be thought of as magical, but after Constantine’s conversion and his mother’s implausible discovery of the relic of the True Cross, this is exactly what happened. It seems the hunger for talismans is almost inextinguishable. Pieces of the True Cross, which could magically duplicate, were used for healing, taken into battle and housed in elaborately jewelled containers.
Jensen writes that is odd it is odd that crucifixes as opposed to empty crosses, only appeared after the ninth century and then they featured a defiantly living rather than dying Jesus. As the importance of focussing on Jesus’ suffering developed, crucifixes became more realistically gruesome. In the East, they thought this was a problem as theses crucifixes took away from the importance of the resurrection.
Luther thought contemplating Christ’s suffering as our liberation was appropriate. But for Zwingli and Calvin crucifixes were part of all that Catholic superstition and their followers burned and smashed them along with the statues of Mary and the saints.
Jensen’s book covers mainly the ancient and medieval worlds with modernity glossed over in a mere few pages. But the cross remains a controversial symbol. In China the government recently removed external crosses from churches only to have lawyers challenge the practice. As has been well-publicised wearing a cross on the job can get you fired in Europe. And in our mainstream media the image of a cross silhouetted against the sky inevitably refers to dark scandalous behaviour within the church, turning the cross once again into a symbol of pain and shame.