Film and Book Reviews

The Cross's fascinating variety of representation

BookThe Cross: History, Art and Controversy, by Robin M Jensen (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2017).

By Peter Adam

October 4 2018For nearly two millennia, the cross has been an instantly recognisable and defining symbol of the Christian faith.” [p. ix]. The cross as artistic symbol is the theme of this book: it is an art history of representations of the cross. It is a fascinating and well-presented survey, and attractively presented. The book is worth the illustrations and images alone! As Jensen shows, the cross has featured in devotional Christian art, and been used to evoke degrading punishment, self-giving love, human and divine suffering, and triumphant victory. We move from the cross as insulting graffito to high art: from personal devotion to public proclamation. We also see the cross used as a symbol of oppression.

The only mistake I found is in a quotation from Augustine of Hippo, which should read, “What else is the sign of the Christ but the cross of Christ” [cf. p. 38]. And it should be noted that though religious images were destroyed in Zurich at the Reformation [p. 180], the city’s Stadtmuseum also includes images which were preserved.

With this focus on the cross as the symbol of Christianity, it was helpful to see that early symbols also included the fish, the anchor, and the ChiRo, made popular by its association with Emperor Constantine. The [empty] cross began to be used in the 4th century, and the crucifix in the 5th century.

I found it fascinating to see the variety of representations, and especially the human figures associated with Christ in different versions. There are significant differences between a cross on its own [forsaken]; a cross with two crucified thieves [forgiveness]; a cross with Roman soldiers [oppression]; Christ with Mary and John [sympathy]; and Christ with people mocking him [rejection]. The most moving was a scene from the Maskell Casket [ca420-230, p. 80], which contrasts the suicide of Judas hanging himself on a tree with Christ hanging on the cross.

Jensen includes the claimed discovery of Christ’s cross in the 4th century, and the consequent distribution of its relics. At the time Paulinus propounded the useful theory that the cross had living power to multiply, and so, though constantly divided, it suffered no diminution! [p. 65].

The book could not include every representation of the cross. I am sorry that he did not include the three-barred cross of Eastern Churches [titulum, cross-bar, and foot rest], and icons are not well represented. The book focuses on the Western Church. I missed the famous ‘lamb and flag’ or ‘lamb and cross’. Two kinds of Medieval cross would have enriched the book. The famous Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois in Ireland provides a representation of “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” [1 Corinthians 15:3]. A Standing Cross at Bakewell in the UK includes scenes from the life of Christ, the crucifixion, and also a possible representation of Norse mythology. An ambiguous example!

The symbol of the Red Cross is an example of the humanitarian use of the cross in the 20th Century. Representations of the crucifixion in films such as The Passion of Christ are not included. Protestants have focussed on the cross in words and music, as he shows us. I would have added Handel’s Messiah with its haunting use of Isaiah 53 to his example of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A significant example of the cross used to oppress is the swastika, an ancient symbol used by the Church [e.g. Winchester Cathedral, and Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand], then used by the Nazis, and occasionally still used today!

From an Australian perspective, though Jensen does not mention this, when the navigator de Quiros named Australia, he hoisted an emblem of the Holy Cross “on which Jesus Christ’s person was crucified and whereon He gave his life as a ransom and remedy for the human race”. He does mention Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ [p. 221], which was famously or infamously exhibited here in Melbourne. His section on the Stations of the Cross reminded me of the inaptly named “Good thief” outside Scots Church in Collins Street. He was not a “Good thief”: on his own confession he was a bad thief who repented and who was welcomed by Christ!

Although Robin Jensen is a Professor of Theology at Notre Dame University, there is curiously little theology in the book, and that which is there is mainly theological controversy. While we often say that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, we need a thousand words of basic information and understanding, including biblical literacy, for images of the cross to have their full impact. Each image of the cross depends on its implicit or explicit biblical background. God’s revelation includes events and interpretations: God’s works, and God’s words. We need biblical history, symbols and interpretation. Otherwise we are in the situation of someone serving a customer in a jewellery store: “Do you want a cross with a little man on it or not?”

And the representation of Christ matters. As Dorothy Lee pointed out in her review of Joan Taylors’ What did Jesus look like? [TMA May, p. 29], the danger of artistic representations of Christ is that we Westerners have made Jesus in our own image. A Western white Christ is a domesticated Christ, unable to question our lives: and it is inaccurate, unhistorical, culturally arrogant, and racist, because it is a powerful statement of exclusion. So I prefer a cross to a crucifix, or a symbolic representation rather than a human figure. Zurburan’s Agnus Dei is my favourite. The empty cross symbolises both crucifixion and resurrection, which is theologically more satisfactory.

It is also difficult for an artistic representation to communicate that Christ’s suffering was “for us”, “in our place”. Images of the cross and crucifix which communicate weakness, suffering, pain, and identification with humanity usually fail to communicate the crucified Christ as “power of God and the wisdom of God” [1 Corinthians 1:24]. And images which communicate the glory and power of the cross usually look unhistorical or ahistorical. Without “the word of the cross” we can easily miss the gift and power of Christ crucified. So we need the Scriptures. Erasmus said of the Gospels:

These writings bring you the living image of his holy mind and the speaking, living, dying, rising Christ himself, and so they render him so fully present that you would see less if you gazed on him with your very eyes.

This book reminds us that it is the cross, not the manger or the empty tomb, which is the defining symbol of Christianity. As Leon Morris said, “the cross is crucial”.

It is altogether an engaging, attractive, and stimulating book.


The Revd Dr Peter Adam OAM is Vicar Emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton and Canon Emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral.