Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Creation of Christian Art: The Scandal of the Cross

This series of posts on the origins of Christian art concludes with a brief look at the origins of the Crucifix as a central Christian image.

For us, the Crucifix is so central to our identity as Christians, and to how we conceive of the Christian faith that it is very surprising to discover how late it appears in art.

Almost all of the art that we have looked at in the previous posts in this series is very triumphalist, even the first art from the 3rd century Roman catacombs. It is all about victory, the final victory of life over death, of good over evil, of Christ over the world. We've seen emperors, kings, and princes trying to hitch their wagons to that divine glory to burnish their own glory, and to strengthen their claims to legitimacy. If we knew nothing of Christian texts, then we might never imagine that so catastrophic a defeat as Christ's untimely and shameful death ever happened. There is almost nothing about it in the earliest Christian art.

The only clue to Christ's death in the earliest art is the ubiquity of the Cross after Constantine's reign. But the Cross is never that grim instrument of execution. It is a celestial symbol that appears in majestic triumph.

Here is the magnificent mosaic of the Cross in the semi-dome of the apse of Sant' Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, made around 549 probably by many of the same artists who made the mosaics at San Vitale in the same city. The Cross appears as a giant emblem of gold and jewels floating in a blue nimbus filled with stars. Below it is the figure of Saint Apollinaris, a sainted local bishop buried below the altar. On either side is a procession of sheep, symbols of the faithful. The Cross is the center of an unusual version of the Transfiguration, told entirely in symbols. Flanking the Cross at the top are figures of Moses and Elijah. The hand of God comes down out of the very top indicating the voice that spoke out of the cloud. Three sheep appear just below the Cross, one on the left and two on the right. They stand for Peter, James, and John who witnessed the event. This mosaic is an example of the variety of Byzantine art before the Iconoclastic Controversy. Compare it with the almost contemporary version of the same subject in the apse of the monastery church of Saint Catherine in the Sinai.

The Cross as a sign of Christ's divine sacrifice and triumph is a magnificent symbol of victory. The cross used in the execution of Jesus of Nazareth was a shame and a scandal. Crucifixion was a routine form of execution in the ancient world that probably began in ancient Persia. The condemned were either tied or nailed to a post, or to a post with a cross beam, and left to die of shock and exposure. Like most executions in ancient times, the remains were usually left in place to be publicly devoured by vultures as a shame and a warning. It was a routine form of execution, but a very cruel and shameful one. It was reserved for runaway and rebellious slaves, for political incendiaries, and for common criminals. Crucifixions took place usually beside the main roads leading into a city. Free born Roman citizens were never crucified. Capital offenses among Roman citizens were usually dealt with by a swift beheading. Crucifixion is not among the approved methods of putting people to death in Jewish law. The penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning, not crucifixion. The Romans crucified Jesus for being a political trouble-maker, for publicly challenging Roman authority. The leader of the great slave rebellion, Spartacus, probably died by crucifixion, if he wasn't killed in battle. After their defeat, thousands of his followers were crucified along the Appian Way. Crosses lined the road for miles. Unlike Jesus, Spartacus was never betrayed, and his remains were never identified. Jesus was certainly not the only Jew to die on a cross. After the first great Jewish rebellion in 70, the hills surrounding Jerusalem were forested with crosses of executed rebels. Crucifixion was identified with slavery, treason, and criminality.

The earliest surviving depiction of a crucifixion, maybe Christ's, is not a work of art by any measure, but a school boy's scrawl.

It dates anywhere from the 1st to 3rd centuries. It was discovered in 1857 on the Palatine hill in Rome in the remains of a boarding school for imperial page boys built by the Emperor Caligula. It reads in crude misspelled Latin, "Alexamenos worships his god," and shows a figure on the left looking at a crucified figure with a donkey's head seen from behind. It could well be that Alexamenos was a Christian and this other anonymous boy was mocking him for his beliefs. It could be that Alexamenos may not have been Christian at all, and that showing him praying to a crucified donkey headed god was just another way of insulting him. Alexamenos worships something so low as a crucified donkey man, associating him with foreigners, slaves, criminals, and work animals; the timeless stuff of adolescent insults. I think this bit of vandalism sometimes gets over-interpreted (some scholars go so far as to try to identify it with certain mystery or gnostic sects). What I think it usefully reveals for our purposes is the powerful sense of shame attached to crucifixion in ancient times.

That sense of shame and scandal pervades the earliest surviving Christian depictions of the Crucifixion, both of them from about the year 420.

The first is a set of magnificent carved wooden doors from the church of Santa Sabina in Rome, probably made on order of Pope Celestine I. It is a series of scenes from the Old and New Testaments that were probably intended as parallel narratives. The original order has been lost as the panels have been re-arranged on the doors a number of times.

The Crucifixion appears way high up in the left hand corner. Where ever it was originally on the doors, it could not have been much more than one episode among many. It almost certainly never played a central role. It is but one more event in the main subject of the doors which is Salvation History.

The Crucifixion scene is as inexpressive as it is inaccurate. Perhaps more exactly, the scene has been bowdlerized. Instead of the horror and shame of crucifixion, the artist, probably with Pope Celestine looking over his shoulder, transforms condemned men hanging on crosses to figures in loin cloths standing in the old prayer position before three building faces. Christ's agonizing death is reduced to one incident among many.

This ivory panel in the British Museum dates from about the same time. It's one of two surviving ivory panels from a small casket. It does show something of the drama and ordeal of the Crucifixion. The Crucified Christ, though more accurately depicted, remains inexpressive; especially in contrast to the hanged figure of Judas on the left. The figure on the right seems to be mocking Him. The figures have those stocky proportions of figures we see in late Roman art, especially from around the time of the Emperor Constantine. The inexpressiveness of Christ may be deliberate. Showing Him in pain was probably thought to somehow compromise His divinity. We must remember that both of these early crucifixes were made at a time when people were still very reluctant to accept the idea of Christ being fully human as well as divine.

The Rabbula Gospels is a Syrian Gospel book from about 586. There are a number of full page illustrations like this one. These illustrations may be less about illustrating the text than showing major feasts. This page shows the Crucifixion at the top, and the events of Easter at the bottom. The Crucifixion here is much more violent than what we've seen before. However, Christ's suffering is mitigated by the imperial purple drape that He wears, hiding His suffering body. Most of the episodes illustrated in the Rabbula Gospels are triumphant and miraculous in nature; the visit of the Magi, the Ascension, Pentecost, etc. The central location of the crucified Christ in the composition as well as the imperial purple may be an attempt to give Christ's death a triumphant aspect.

The situation was not much different in the West of the great invasions and migrations.

This is an 8th century bronze plaque found near Athlone in Ireland. It was probably part of a Gospel book cover. It is very odd showing a large impassive Christ on a stumpy cross. This may be a Celtic reinterpretation of Roman panel paintings of the Crucifixion (probably looking something like what we see in the Rabbula Gospels) brought to the British Isles in the effort to reconcile Celtic Christianity with Roman usages. The artist stubbornly clings to those pre-Christian patterns, coming to figurative art with the greatest reluctance. The large head remains mask-like and inexpressive as figures below (and perhaps above, unless those strange figures are angels) torment Him as he stands tied to the cross. Christ appears, not naked, but richly dressed like a chieftain. The nomadic warrior people in the wilderness of northern Europe probably saw Christ as an epic hero in battle with the devil and his legions. The Crucifixion could be seen both as a battlefield self-sacrifice and as a clever feint to trick the enemy.

This is one of the Jelling Rune Stones put up in the 10th century by Harald Bluetooth, the second king of all of Denmark, in memory of his parents, and to commemorate his conversion (and the conversion of his realm) to Christianity. Embedded in a seething mass of serpentine interlace is a figure of the crucified Christ complete with cruciform halo. It is only a little less impassive than the mask on the Athlone plaque.

The Crucifixion in the form that we would recognize, the suffering Christ hanging upon the cross, appears suddenly at the very same time Harald Bluetooth put up his rune-stone. It appears fully formed in Ottonian Germany in the 10th century.

This is the Cross of Lothar from about the year 1000 in the treasury of the Cathedral of Aachen. It was made for a great-grandson of Charlemagne, King Lothar II of Lorraine. For centuries, this was used as a processional cross during the coronations of the Holy Roman emperors. Above is the side that faced the emperor. In the center is an ancient Roman cameo of Augustus. The rest of the gems are examples of those mentioned in the Book of Revelations as adorning the heavenly Jerusalem. It is the direct descendant of all the jeweled gold crosses that we saw in apse mosaics going back to the 4th century. This is a magnificent emblem of sacred monarchy like so many others from that time.

This is the other side of the Lothar cross, the side that faced the bishop during the coronation ceremony. It is a flat piece of gold, but engraved on it is an image of the Crucified Christ of great sensitivity in dramatic contrast to the other side of the cross. Here is the suffering figure we are familiar with; a naked man slumped in exhaustion and pain, back bent, legs bent, abdomen protruding. The head is fallen in death or in pain. The whole body hangs with a palpable weight from the cross. Christ dies in agony and humiliation. It is an image intended to stir our sympathy. We are expected to identify our own sorrows, our own sufferings, with those suffered by Christ in this image.

The suffering Christ upon the cross appears suddenly in the 10th century with few, if any precedents. The shame and caution of earlier centuries appears to have been thrown out in an instant.

The earliest, and still one of the most splendid, of all suffering Christ figures is from a crucifix that predates both King Harald Bluetooth's rune-stone and the Lothar cross.

This is a wooden crucifix made around 969-976 for Archbishop Gero of Cologne, and still hangs in Cologne cathedral in an 18th century tabernacle.

The body hangs and collapses under its own weight on the cross. The chest is caved, the stomach protrudes with collapsed organs. The eyes are sunken into their sockets and half closed. The mouth falls open. The physical pain and humiliation of this image are almost palpable.

Here is a closer look at the head and upper body of the crucifix.

Here are the feet of the crucified Christ with the toes curling with pain.

It took a long time for that central virtue of compassion ("suffering with") to find its way into Christian art. Perhaps it was the historical experience of the West after the collapse of the Roman Empire that created the need for such imagery. The human need for an expression of God in solidarity with us in our suffering and humiliation won out over the need to proclaim The Church always Militant and Triumphant. Somehow triumphalist imagery began to ring hollow with populations that knew so much suffering over almost 5 centuries. Western Latin Christianity will be almost fixated on the suffering and death of Christ from here on, sometimes going to excess and extreme in things like flagellant societies.

The Crucifixion will become the central image of Western Christianity with its focus on matters of salvation. Christ on the Cross is the image of God in solidarity with suffering humankind, and of God's sacrifice for the salvation of sinful humanity. It is the supreme image of compassion, God taking upon Himself all the sorrows and sufferings of the world.

The Crucifixion will have a long varied history in Western art. Here is a magnificent painted cross by Cimabue from the 13th century. The very physical and human suffering of Christ is transformed into a kind of spiritual hieroglyph. The body is abstracted into a series of slowly collapsing rhythms. Suffering is made gloriously and movingly spiritual.

Then there is the opposite in this 17th century painting by Zurbaran. The dying Christ appears very physically real and immediate. Nothing is abstracted or reduced to pattern. The light passing across the dying flesh and the hard wood is rendered exactly as our eyes would see them. The spiritual is subsumed into our experience of the world and its pains and sufferings. The spirit becomes informed by the very physical experience of pain and death.


Hans said...

Thank you for that brilliant post !

Davis said...

Doug, this is one of the best series I have ever read - anywhere - on Christian art.