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The Cross : History, Art, and Controversy - Robin M Jensen

The Cross

History, Art, and Controversy


Published: 17th April 2017
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The cross stirs intense feelings among Christians as well as non-Christians. Robin Jensen takes readers on an intellectual and spiritual journey through the two-thousand-year evolution of the cross as an idea and an artifact, illuminating the controversies - along with the forms of devotion - this central symbol of Christianity inspires.

Jesus’s death on the cross posed a dilemma for Saint Paul and the early Church fathers. Crucifixion was a humiliating form of execution reserved for slaves and criminals. How could their messiah and savior have been subjected to such an ignominious death? Wrestling with this paradox, they reimagined the cross as a triumphant expression of Christ’s sacrificial love and miraculous resurrection. Over time, the symbol’s transformation raised myriad doctrinal questions, particularly about the crucifix - the cross with the figure of Christ - and whether it should emphasize Jesus’s suffering or his glorification. How should Jesus’s body be depicted: alive or dead, naked or dressed? Should it be shown at all?

Jensen’s wide-ranging study focuses on the cross in painting and literature, the quest for the “true cross” in Jerusalem, and the symbol’s role in conflicts from the Crusades to wars of colonial conquest. The Cross also reveals how Jews and Muslims viewed the most sacred of all Christian emblems and explains its role in public life in the West today.

About the Author

Trained in both the history of art and the history of Christian doctrine and liturgy, Jensen’s teaching and research explores the intersections among Christian theology, liturgical practice, and material/visual culture. She is particularly attentive to the interpretation of Christian art and architecture in light of its ritual function and religious significance. Her numerous books, articles, and essays in collected works reflect these interests, including her most recent volume, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs (2014), which was co-written with her husband, J. Patout Burns and examines the lived practice of ancient Christianity as reflected in both material and documentary evidence. Currently, she is editing both The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Art and The Cambridge History of Late Antique Archaeology.

'In Robin Jensen’s powerful, wide-ranging presentation, the central image of Christianity turns out to be an image of almost unimaginable complexity: a cosmic abstraction, a grim portrait of cruel suffering, a gem-studded token of triumphant authority, an idol to be smashed, a relic to be kissed, a charm to emboss on a Crusader’s shield, a tree of life, a paradoxical mystery. Jensen has searched out a vast and beautifully chosen variety of crosses, from Golgotha to Ground Zero, along with songs, poems, and long-lost rituals, to bring us a moving study of faith, both Christian and non-Christian, in its infinite variety.' - Ingrid D. Rowland, author of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic and From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

'An impeccable work on a sign that is both central to Christianity and immediately recognizable, meaningful, and sometimes controversial across the world. Jensen’s historical narrative is learned and lucid.' - Robert Kiely, author of Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints

'Rich in artistic imagery and well researched in both Western as well as Eastern Christian traditions… This erudite history illuminates the social, cultural, as well as theological developments of the cross over time.' - Library Journal

'Robin Jensen explores in great detail, with academic rigor and a believer's vigor, the history of the Cross in Christian belief, worship, and art… This book is a splendid work of scholarship. Jensen has synthesized centuries of theological insights, artistic endeavors and personal devotion into an eminently readable text.' - Paul Senz, Catholic Herald

'An authoritative, clear and enjoyable guide, especially to the unfamiliar world of late antiquity. [Jensen’s] use of pictures is particularly informative.' - Christopher Howse, The Spectator

'Jensen gives readers a succinct, vivid account of the cross’s history - complete with dozens of necessary full-color illustrations to help her show the symbol’s ornamentation and development over the past two millennia… Religious or not, Jensen makes a solid argument for the importance of understanding the indispensable Western symbol and appreciating its history (even if its meaning isn’t the same for everyone)…Her writing is accessible to the learned and the newcomer—to anyone who wants to better understand the Western world’s most enduring symbol.' - Matthew Snider, PopMatters

Both ubiquitous and tenacious, the cross turns up in the most mundane contexts. Roadside crosses set up by private citizens compete with advertising billboards and mark the sites of traffic casualties—a sobering reminder of the death toll on highways. Shrines with crosses fill the landscape in some parts of the world. A hill in northern Lithuania, completely covered with votive crosses and crucifixes is a testimony to the persistence of Catholic Christianity in this former Soviet-occupied country. The subject of an extraordinarily popular cult, pilgrims flock to this place, climbing the hill on their knees and praying the stations of the cross. At the other end of the spectrum, gaudy rhinestone crosses turn up on denim jeans, handbags, or leather jackets—a fashion trend that may have little to do with religion.

Crosses in the public square can be perceived as communicating Christian triumphalism or religious intolerance. The fiery crosses of the Ku Klux Klan are an extreme example of the symbol being used to terrorize victims, incite racial hatred, and widely regarded as an emblem of hate-based terrorism, especially (although not exclusively) against African Americans. Klan spokespersons have argued, however, that the lighted cross (versus the “burning cross”) is not intended as an act of desecration but rather as a show of allegiance to Christ. This intimidating symbol may have been borrowed from the fiery crosses burned by Scottish clansmen, used to rouse their countrymen to repel the English armies during the Jacobite rising. Its sympathetic portrayal in D. W Griffith’s 1915 epic film, The Birth of a Nation, may have encouraged the Klan’s embrace of the figure. Despite the Klan’s justification of its use, recent Supreme Court decisions have judged the display of a burning cross to be a hate crime rather than an instance of freedom of expression when expressly used to intimidate or if motivated by racial, religious, or gender bias. James Cone’s important work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, looks at the conflicted connections between the two powerful images of the cross and the tree, noting that some African Americans may find the cross to be a symbol of God’s solidarity with their suffering against the terrifying history of racial violence, perpetrated upon the “lynching tree.”

Jews objected to the placement of crosses at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in the 1980s, as they evoked painful memories of both ancient and modern persecution. Although the large cross at Auschwitz was originally set up for a convent of Carmelite nuns, and the subsequent placement of smaller crosses may have been intended to commemorate the death of Christians—including many Christian Roma—at that camp, Jews perceived their installation as profoundly disrespectful and demanded their removal. Conversely, the Chinese government’s removal of crosses from the exteriors of Chinese Christian churches, ostensibly only enforcing zoning ordinances, arguably has a different motivation. Journalists have reported that the authorities are targeting Christian churches because they regard their display of religious affiliation too excessive or “overly popular.”

Feminist critique of the cross as a symbol has been a hallmark of modern theology, as writers have argued that the image of the crucifixion has been used as a justification for abuse and even violence against women and marginalized peoples. The argument focuses on the way that the traditional Christian emphasis on Christ’s suffering has been used to encourage meek and submissive self-sacrifice (especially of women) or simply to validate and even glorify suffering more generally. Some even take the position that the cross and the medieval atonement theory that lauded it are sadomasochistic. A more widespread view among feminist theologians is that Christian theology has been suffused with patriarchal values and often used to oppress women and that Jesus’s admonition to “take up your cross” could be understood as a justification for tolerating abuse. The idea that human guilt is absolved by a violent death, or that a loving God should require such propitiation, is abhorrent to many Christians. Others hold a different view and identify Jesus’s suffering with that of oppressed communities, a view that characterizes the work of certain liberation theologians and prompts a call to solidarity with those who suffer from poverty, injustice, or hate-based crimes. In addition, theologians have argued that to neglect the suffering of Christ is to deny his true humanity. Christ does not suffer because suffering is beneficial, justified, or even justifying, but because he fully participates in and has compassion for the inevitable suffering of human existence.

Perceiving Christ’s crucifixion as God’s identification with the suffering, abused, or oppressed has inspired artists to depict Christ as a martyred Russian Jew, a naked female, a battered African slave, a Nicaraguan peasant, or a freedom fighter. Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938) was painted shortly after Kristallnacht—the horrifying, widespread Nazi raid on German Jews. The painting shows a world swallowed up by violence, including the figure of Christ on the cross with a Jewish prayer shawl draped around his loins. Critics have condemned Edwina Sandys’s Christa (1975), an image that depicted Christ as a crucified female, for apparently denying that Jesus was a historic, human male. Her supporters commended the work for its implication that Christ, as God, transcends the particularity of gender, while as both divine and human, he truly experienced the totality of human experience, including physical, mental, and emotional torment. Some feminists have argued, however, that the image unintentionally reinforces violence against women and emphasizes the figure’s vulnerability and sexuality.

Other artists, eschewing traditional Eurocentric iconography, have incorporated distinctively ethnic symbols or figures into their representations of the crucifixion or cross. Showing Christ as African, Asian, or Central American underlines the universality of his humanity. The depiction of the Holy Spirit as a hummingbird rather than a dove on the Mexican cruz de ánimas is a modest but striking instance of using meaningful visual language for a particular culture. A more monumental example is the Totem Cross (1975), carved by First Nations artist Stanley Peters. Peters placed a thunderbird on the cross in place of a human male corpus. The artist chose the thunderbird to represent Christ because natives of the Northwest Coast believe the bird to be a messenger of the Great Spirit. In a letter to the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, Peters described his work:

God’s eyes watch from the four directions, from above and below, from both wings, saying that God is all around us at all times. All races, black and yellow, red and white, are represented in the four colours taken from nature and found in the earth-circle and all over Thunderbird. Christ-as-Thunderbird, in dying for us, restores happiness and understanding; he fills us with new dignity and great richness.

A number of contemporary artists have produced notably controversial depictions of the cross or crucifixion, and many of them have been accused of being intentionally insulting or blasphemous. Cosimo Cavallaro’s crucifix, My Sweet Lord (1985), sculpted entirely out of chocolate, was labeled as hate speech by the president of the Catholic League. Sarah Lucas’s Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003) was a crucifix made entirely from cigarettes. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), a large-format color photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, is a more famous (or infamous) example. Some viewers regarded Serrano’s work as a powerful—even sacramental—allusion to the life-giving and death-dealing aspects of human bodily fluids, especially at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. Others, including Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, called it abhorrent and sickening, and used the storm of indignation to challenge taxpayer support for artists. In many cases, the artists were not attempting to make religious statements, or even deliberately offensive ones. Rather, they chose a subject so deeply embedded in Western visual consciousness that it instantly communicated a powerful message, whether sacred or profane. To the extent that such a message might cause outrage actually confirms its continued power and relevance.

So long as Christians continue to ponder the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and to sing about it, wear images of it, or install it in their worship environments, the cross will never become irrelevant or trivial. Rather, the cross will continue to project significant valence, both positive and negative depending on where or when it turns up, how it is used, what it looks like, and who sees it.
The Curse of the Cross 1
The Sign of the Son of Man 25
Discovery Dispersion and Commemoration of the Cross 49
The Late Emerging Crucifix 74
Monumental Gemmed Crosses and Feasts of the Cross 97
The Cross in Poetry Legend and Liturgical Drama 123
Medieval Devotion to the Dying Christ 150
The Cross and Crucifix in the Reformation Period 179
The Cross in the New World Islam and the Modern Era 204

Notes 223
Further Reading 255
Credits 261
Index 267

ISBN: 9780674088801
ISBN-10: 0674088808
Audience: General
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 280
Published: 17th April 2017
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 23.8 x 16.5  x 2.6
Weight (kg): 0.63