Cleansing Fire

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Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 1)

December 12th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

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The Early Absence of the Cross

It is a curious fact that there is an absence of the cross in the pictorial repertoire of the Christian faith between the first century and the early years of the fifth century. Even when it finally did appear it did not represent the cross of Christ’s passion and death but was a symbol of his transfiguration, his victory over death, and his pledge of the second coming. The crucifix —the cross with the image of the body (corpus) of Christ affixed appeared even later.

The absence of images of the plain cross from the earliest period of Christian art has been a difficult puzzle for art historians and theologians to solve because the redemptive power of Christ’s passion and death on the cross was a theme explored by early Christian writers. In addition, the sign-of-the-cross was a common part of the liturgical life of the earliest Christians. In fact, it was in the liturgy where the first association of the passion and death of Christ with salvation was made (Hippolytus ca. 200)(1).  Early in the third century Clement of Alexandria speaks of the Cross as tou Kyriakou semeiou typon, i.e. signum Christi, “the symbol of the Lord”(2) and in the first half of the third century Tertullian referred to the body of Christians as “crucis religiosi” –“devotees of the cross” (3).  St. Augustine said that by the sign of the cross and the invocation of the name of Jesus all things are sanctified and consecrated to God. In addition to the tracing of the sign on the forehead of candidates for Baptism, individuals daily made the gesture when beginning various activities (although more likely to ward off evil than to recall the passion) (4). But, while the cross was a primary subject of interest to the writers and theologians of the early church, the earliest artists and those responsible for commissioning images, ignored it. They chose, instead, to present the itinerant, miracle-working ministry of the rabbi, Jesus. It was the very human Jesus of the gospels that captured the imagination of those responsible for early Christian art. The saving power of a crucified transcendent deity popular in the early texts does not get any play in the earliest visual arts of the faith (5).

Some assign the discrepancy in emphasis to a lack of popular interest on the part of the ordinary faithful in Christ’s passion and death (6). Atonement theology, they believe, was a construct of the professional theologians and not really the gospel message received by the common, ordinary person Jesus was interested in. This interpretation does not ring true, however, as the visual exegesis of the Christian faith used in the catacombs and on sarcophagi would have at least been approved by the leaders of the church in Rome and in other metropolitan centers. It seems the cross should have appeared.

Additional evidence of the unity of belief between the professionals and the faithful is the consistency of visual expression found among the thirty-two Roman catacombs dug under the donated private property of different families. The symbols and stories as well as their artistic presentation are consistent from catacomb to catacomb. In fact, artisans probably had a hand in decorating several different sites utilizing catalogs of images and scenes available to all the professional workshops. Also, the fossores (excavators), the professional diggers of the catacombs, were also charged with the preparation and internment of the dead. In the third century they were considered among the clergy in the lowest rank (6). This is evidence of the active involvement of the local church leaders in the administration of the catacombs and so it is difficult to see how a difference in faith between the clerical leaders and the common ordinary Christian could have crept in.

We have to search out other reasons for the discrepancy between the emphasis laid on the passion and death of Christ in early Christian texts and worship, and its absence in the art of the catacombs.

ass crossChristians may have feared that their pagan neighbors would not have understood. Crucifixion was a particularly horrible and humiliating form of execution reserved for the worst criminals, law breakers who occupied the lowest strata of society, peasants and slaves. As a result of misunderstanding, scorn and mockery would have been heaped upon Christians had they brandished the cross as a symbol of their faith. This would be a particularly difficult problem for Christians during periods of persecution. In fact, there seems to have been real reason for Christian fear as graffito was discovered in 1857 in a building on the Palatine Hill of Rome used as a paedagogium or boarding-school for the imperial page boys (7). It depicts a figure with a human body but the head of an ass hanging on a cross. To the left stands a male figure —probably meant to be the Alexamenos referred to in the inscription— pointing or worshiping. The complete inscription translates something like, “Alexamenous, worship(s) (his) God!” There is no certainty as to the date this was made but sometime before the end of the third century is likely. No doubt Alexamenos was a Christian and he was being mocked for his worship of a crucified man/animal god. It was a common accusation that Christians practiced onolatry (worship of donkey) (8).

Fear of mockery, persecution, class hatred, or sarcasm may seem initially to be a good reason for the absence of passion images in the catacombs but it fails to satisfy for the simple reason that the catacombs were, for the most part, not open to the general public. They were extensive, true, but they were private, Christian for the most part, and visited only by relatives and friends of the faithful buried there. In addition, the fossares were Christian and so there is no reason to suppose the painters were not as well. The opportunity for pagans in any numbers to visit the catacombs was probably quite limited and so the cross could have been displayed without much fear of misunderstanding.

There may be a reason, however, that is somewhat related to a fear of sarcasm. Passing by a crucified criminal must certainly have been within the experience of many citizens. The gruesome nature of the torturous death of a man was no doubt overwhelming to nearly all who witnessed it, even given the taste for blood sport favored by the ancient Romans. As a deterrent to crime, it was the intention of the Roman authorities that the execution be gruesome and very public. Might the graphic display of the crucifixion —even of a simple cross— be too much for the earliest Christians themselves to handle? How do you depict this humiliating and horrible event truthfully and yet respectfully communicate a sacred mystery (9)? It seems likely that the cross, and even more, the crucifix, could not be used as symbols of the redemptive suffering of Christ until people began to forget just exactly what that torturous death entailed. That would not happen until Constantine outlawed crucifixion out of respect for the way Christ died (10).

While the passion and death of Christ redeemed mankind and offered eternal life with God, the overwhelmingly traumatic lived experience of crucifixion to Christians may have mentally blocked any thought of its graphic use as a symbol of hope appropriate in the funerary context of the catacombs. Most scholars see in the Christian catacomb imagery scenes and themes of deliverance from danger. Given that line of interpretation you would think that scenes of the resurrection of Christ would be numbered among the more popular scenes on display. Surprisingly, the resurrection of Christ is not depicted in the catacombs. On the other hand, there is no description of the actual event in the gospels, either.

In the next post we will look at the tentative introduction of the cross as an icon of Christianity.
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1 Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, (New York, Routledge
2006) p.136
2 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, in P. G., IX (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913) Jan. 7 2009 10:57 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0210.htm
3 Tertullian, Apology, c. xvi, P. G., I, (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913) Jan. 7 2009 10:57<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm>
4 Jensen 136
5 Jensen 135
6 Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, (Lowrie Press, 2007), p.44
7 Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Walks in Rome, Volume 1, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2005)
p. 201 <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito>
8 Tertullian, mentioned ca. 200 that Christians along with Jews, were accused of worshiping a deity with the head of an ass. In the Histories, Tacitus tells how the Jews, exhausted and dying of thirst in the desert followed a herd of wild asses that led them to water. In appreciation they consecrated an image of the animal.(V.3) in the Jerusalem temple. This story, Tertullian claimed, probably is the source of the rumor that Christians worshiped an ass. (Apology, XVI).
9 Jensen 134
10 Elizabeth A. Dreyer, The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, (Paulist Press, 2001) p. 21-22

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