A Sign of Contradiction

The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy

by Robin M. Jensen
2017 Harvard University, 280 pages, $35
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Apse mosaic at Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna. Photo: wikimedia.org/Incola

The cross is the most widespread and universal emblem of Christian faith, an image of suffering transformed into a symbol of salvation and hope. “Sometime in the first or second century,” Robin M. Jensen writes, “this dreadful device paradoxically became the identifying badge of an emerging religious movement.”

In The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, Jensen traces why and how the cross has appeared in Christian culture and practice over 2,000 years, and how its meaning has varied not just across time and cultures but within them. A professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, she specializes in early Christian art and archaeology.

While not meant to be a comprehensive history, it serves as an excellent introduction to the topic, centered primarily on the early Christian, medieval, and Reformation eras in the West. Jensen uses a wide variety of sources, including Scripture, noncanonical texts, historical accounts, devotional literature, music, and, of course, visual and material representations. The book is thematic and roughly chronological.

Jensen writes about practices such as crossing oneself or praying the Stations of the Cross, a devotion standardized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She describes liturgical feasts celebrating the cross.

She also investigates the origins and development of elaborate legends. One such legend links Adam to Jesus via a twig from Eden’s Tree of Life, planted at Adam’s gravesite (by legend Golgotha), which grows into the tree of the cross; all redemptive history was thus embodied in the cross of Christ.

Another fragmented but important legend was of the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, Helena, ca. 324-25. This cross was removed by Persian invaders in 614, recovered about fifteen years later, and eventually disappeared for good from Constantinople (ca. 1204), but not before pieces were scattered as relics throughout Christendom.

Much of the book centers on material and visual culture, with dozens of examples illustrated in color. Despite the early Christian practice of making the sign of the cross, the image itself does not regularly show up on objects until the fourth century, when it emerges as a symbol of identity and triumph venerated in its own right, correlating with Constantine I’s vision of the cross in the heavens before battle and the subsequent spread of Christianity. From the mid-fourth century, lavish, gemmed crosses (including reliquary crosses), mosaics, and tapestries displayed the cross as a symbol of divine glory and victory over death.

How Jesus came to be displayed on the cross is one of the central problems of the book. Only a few known images of a crucifix predate the sixth century, and up to the eighth century most images of Christ on the cross show him fully clothed in a long purple robe, typically alive with eyes open.

The image of the suffering Christ, wearing only a loincloth and broken in his body, is a relative latecomer, marking a change in theology and piety in the West, albeit one that is hard to pinpoint precisely. Images of a suffering Christ became far more common in the Latin church throughout the medieval era, as sustained meditation on Christ’s physical agony, particularly within monastic orders, increased. Such piety resulted in images of profound affliction, for example the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (1512-16).

During the Reformation era Protestant iconoclasts banned much ecclesiastical imagery from churches, although the cross proved a remarkably persistent visual symbol, even among non-Lutheran Protestants. Jensen includes a section on the notably graphic depictions of the suffering Jesus in Protestant hymns—it was the image, not the idea that was taboo. Paintings and sculpture from the Catholic Reformation, with its emphasis on renewed, affective piety, featured a beautiful Christ, often less bruised in body than medieval examples.

Throughout the book, Jensen reminds us that humans have used the image of the cross for both good and ill, as Christian peoples have acted not just as pious believers but as soldiers and conquerors. The volume is bookended with accounts of contemporary crosses: the contested Ground Zero Cross in New York City and contemporary controversial representations such as Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph Piss Christ from 1987. After reading Jensen’s book, the reader will more thoroughly understand why the cross remains a deeply meaningful, dynamic, and controversial symbol.