Iconoclasts then and now image

Iconoclasts then and now

Robin M. Jensen’s The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (Harvard, 2017) is an exceptionally interesting and insightful review of the way in which the symbol of the cross has been perceived over the past 2000 years.

One of the many fascinating insights Jensen offers (especially to an evangelical protestant) is how relatively late in the history of the church the cross, and even more so the crucifix, began to appear in visual art. Visiting the Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseille recently I only noticed that images of the cross were missing from the wonderful fourth century sarcophagi in the crypt (the most satisfying 2 euros I’ve spent in a long time - go if you get the opportunity) because I had been reading Jensen. That was a deliberate omission by the artist, not an oversight. Jensen has this to say:

The image of Christ crucified is so ubiquitous in Christian art that it seems impossible that it was not there from the first. Yet, art historians have been unable to identify an unambiguously Christian crucifix before the fourth or early fifth century, and only a few examples before the sixth century.

The reason for this seems to have been that the focus of the early Christians was more on Christ’s victory than his sufferings. Jensen again:

Given its centrality in ritual and its attributed power and cosmic significance, the cross’s appearance in the Christian material culture seems surprisingly late. However, when it does eventually appear, it continues to refer more to Christ’s conquest of death than to his mode of death. The cross will remain empty, devoid of the body of the Savior, for many more years. The cross as a reference to Jesus’s victimization, physical suffering, or humiliation will not emerge until much later.

Since the Reformation, Protestant churches have been devoid of crucifixes, featuring at most a plain and empty cross. At times though, including in more sentimental expressions of evangelicalism, there has been an almost Catholic-flavoured focus on ‘Jesus’s victimization, physical suffering, or humiliation’ with insufficient focus on His victory. This has been particularly the case when taking communion – something that has typically become morbidly introspective. This should not be. We are celebrating a victory, not a defeat.

This Sunday I’m preaching on “Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). The message of the cross is that the cross is empty! That is good news, always and everywhere.

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