The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy.
Publisher: Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 280 pages
Reviewed by: Lawrence Qummou (*)
Robin Jensen's book, The Cross: History, Art and Controversy offers an engaging and broad examination into the development of the cross as the central symbol of the Christian faith. Through a dynamic historical tour--using thematic rather than chronological chapters--Jensen traces the transformation of the cross from a symbol of humiliation and degradation to the pinnacle of Christian devotion and a figure universally representative of Christ's ultimate glory. The path that this radical transformation takes requires Jensen to tell a story by bringing together a diverse mix of elements: theological controversy, historical circumstance, political influence, archaeological discovery, mythological conjecture, personal and communal devotion, art and literature. The accompaniment of numerous illustrations including images of reliquaries, iconography, artefacts, paintings, and sculptures, provides the reader with a visual sense of the complexity of the cross's evolution over the past two thousand years.
It is well known that crucifixion was considered a scandalous form of capital punishment in classical antiquity, an excruciating method of execution reserved for those deemed to be enemies of the state (insurrectionists, rebellious slaves, thieves etc). Due to this fact, the early church faced the conundrum of how to reconcile this degraded from of execution with the divine plan of the messiah Jesus. Both Jews and pagans alike scoffed at the notion of death by crucifixion as appropriate for royalty let alone claims to divinity. This is supported by the Palatine graffito, a second century scratching onto the walls of a room near the Circus Maximus in the Palatine Hill that appears to mock the belief of Christians in worshipping a crucified God. Jensen provides examples of how both the New Testament authors and several of the early church fathers (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen) instead point to the death of Jesus on the cross as the mysterious culmination of his act of salvation. To these early Christian writers, the crucifixion of Christ fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament. In wilfully taking on the "curse of hanging on a tree," Christ redeems humanity from the Adamic transgression--also involving a tree--and completes a cosmic victory over death.
Despite all of this, Jensen notes that it is not until the fourth century and pivotal events in the life of the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena that the cross becomes a common symbol in Christian iconography. The traditional belief in the discovery of the relic of the True Cross in 324/5 by Helena triggers widespread popularity in the veneration of this relic for its supposed healing properties and the ability to ward off supernatural enemies. This period also sees the emergence of festal celebrations of the cross in liturgies throughout Christendom. Interestingly, imagery of the crucified Christ suffering does not appear until the early fifth century and more commonly from sixth century onwards. Jensen touches upon the theological reasons that impacted upon the visual depictions of the suffering Christ in the third chapter titled Crux Abscondita. Although the precise relationship between Christ's divinity and humanity were resolved at Chalcedon in 451 and then reiterated at Constantinople II in 553, ambiguities remained including how the agony of the crucifixion affected each of Christ's natures. Following the eighth century Iconoclastic controversy in the Byzantine East, images of a sunken, suffering Christ became common. As an example, Jensen provides an image of the crucifixion panel from the monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai, believed to be one the earliest representations of the wounded Christ with eyes closed and blood and water pouring from his side.
Although the artistic representations of the cross in the Middle Ages continued to emphasise the suffering torment of Christ and his Passion, Jensen provides an account of how the cross as a symbol of divine protection and the "heroic saviour" came to prominence during the Crusades. The notion of the Christian warrior carrying the symbol of the cross into battle, tracing its beginning back to the Constantinian era finds its zenith in the figure of the Christian Knight, the medieval soldier recapturing the rightful belongings of Christendom back to their rightful custodians. Interestingly, during the theological battles of the Reformation, depictions of the cross oscillated between a bare minimalism that deemed any pictorial art including images of the crucified Christ to be idolatrous worship and the ostentatious artworks produced by the Catholic reformers after the Council of Trent as a call to arms against the Protestant iconoclasts. Jensen portrays a brief yet lucid account of this period and provides examples of the masterpieces created as a result. Following this section, the book moves quickly through the relatively uneventful history of the cross in the modern period.
In its attempt to show the complexity and development of the cross through an engaging historical narrative, Jensen's book is a success. It provides both an informative and engaging insight into a transcendent symbol often taken for granted in the cultural milieu of today.
(*) Lawrence Qummou is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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