THE first Christian art consisted of symbols such as an anchor or a fish. Scenes from Christ’s life started to be depicted in the catacombs from the third century, but the first image of Christ on the cross dates only from 420.
In this wide-ranging and detailed study, Jensen traces the depiction of cross and crucifix in both East and West, through the Middle Ages, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and colonialism, to the modern period. She ends with a cross made of girders from one of the New York buildings destroyed in the attack on 9/11.
Christians were long reluctant to depict Christ dying on the cross. They preferred to show him alive, or just the cross itself, heavily bejewelled to emphasise the victory he has achieved over evil and death. But gradually, from the eighth and ninth centuries, Christ began to be shown dying or dead; and then, in the Middle Ages, as a result of the influence of the devotional literature of the mendicant orders, there was an increasing emphasis on his suffering, and the need of the believer to be affected by this.
Jerusalem was, of course, the centre from which the cross as a symbol spread to the rest of the world. Partly as a result of Constantine’s vision of the cross (in two somewhat different versions), and partly as a result of the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the story of St Helena’s finding pieces of the cross on the site where it was built, the cross became the defining image of Christianity. Pilgrims to Jerusalem took home ampullae with a picture of Christ on the cross on them. The majority of such ampullae at Monzo and Bobbio in Italy display a crucifixion scene.
Pilgrims also, seeing a great jewelled cross outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, took back this image in their mind to erect crosses in other parts of the world.
Jensen seems unnecessarily cautious about the existence of such a cross, but the 11th- and 12th-century high crosses in Ireland show clear signs of a link both with the rotunda erected over the site of the burial and resurrection of Christ, and the large wooden cross clad in metal and jewels which stood outside it.
This is a book that can be highly recommended for both the general reader and the scholar. Drawing on a wide range of specialist studies, it offers a comprehensive and readable study, with good illustrations. The author does not confine herself to visual images, but considers also the apocryphal gospels, legends, poetry, and hymns; and she looks outside Europe and the Mediterranean to discuss the visual impact of the cross on Aztec, Mayan, and African cultures.
I think she might have made more of the fact that Constantine abolished crucifixion as a form of capital punishment in 337, making it possible then for Christians to show Christ on the cross.
I think, also, that there is a much stronger link between the cross and the resurrection than she brings out. In the sixth-century Rabbula Gospels scene, and in many ninth-century ivories, as well as on ampullae, the empty tomb is shown immediately below the cross.
I would also argue that, on the fourth-century sarcophagus in which the chi-rho sign in a wreath is shown on a cross, the cross is seen against the background of the tomb.
Finally, there is one significant image that is omitted, in which Christ is shown as a high priest on the cross, as in the Volto Santo at Lucca. This is an image that is taken up in 12th-century stone carvings, manuscripts, and bronzes, sometimes with a crown on Christ’s head as well.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).
The Cross: History, art, and controversy
Robin M. Jensen
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