Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Jesus, our sister? Part 4

July 9th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Part 3

In parts 1 through 3 we explained the reasons for the appearance of feminine images of Christ in the fourth and fifth centuries. But, by the end of the fifth century the production of such images had ceased.


First off, let’s be clear that the number of images of Jesus Christ unavoidably male in appearance far outweighed feminine examples.  Also, there are no examples of feminine Christs as part of churches used for public Liturgy. So, we’re talking exceptions here, not the rule.

Secondly, we have no examples of feminine depictions of Christ from the first 200 years of Christianity. Feminine imagery coincided with the advent of the legalization of Christianity and subsequent expedient conversions which resulted in a “tracking into the Church” of pagan practices and images.

Thirdly, the doctrine of the Incarnation was clarified at the council of Nicaea in 325 (and Constantinople -381, Ephesus -431, and Chalcedon -451). Jesus Christ was God “incarnated” in human flesh –fully God and fully man.

Fig. 1 "First Council of Nicaea" (325), Renaissance fresco painting in the Vatican

Most importantly for our purposes, this Jesus Christ was a real historical person who lived at a particular time in history (he “suffered [under Pontius Pilate]”). Moreover the Gospel reported that he walked among people and cured them out of compassion, and not for any profit. No god before had done that. They certainly were not depicted in art doing it. Christ was. Images from the catacombs and on sarcophagi show him in the actual act of healing (Fig. 2). This was something completely new.

Fig. 2 "Christ Healing the Blind Man", 4th c. sacophagus (detail)

Jesus was the comforting, compassionate human face of divinity.

Fourthly, Judea, in the fourth century, became a center of pilgrimage as Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, initiated the construction of beautiful basilicas over the major sites of the earthly events of Christ’s life; places such as the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  It was in the Holy Land that stational Liturgy began. Holy week consisted of a series of processions from one site of Christ’s passion to another with pertinent readings from the passion at each. Writers of the Antiochene -in contrast to the Alexandrean- “school” of mystagogies (explanations of  the meaning of the Liturgy and sacraments) focused on the history of salvation and the humanity of Christ and so often interpreted the Liturgy as representing Christ’s earhly ministry. Interest in historicity, then, played a role in focusing attention on the literal, rather than a myhological, Jesus and in the incorporation of scenes from the life of Christ in church decoration.

With the official clarification and formulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation -although controversy would continue to rage for several centuries- the production of figures of ambiguous sexual identity faded as they would only cloud the literal fact that Jesus, unlike the pagan gods, was a real historical person as well as God. By the end of the fifth century, the production of transgendered or feminine images of Christ had faded to near extinction, popping up in later centuries as mere oddities. A stunning variety of possibilities (Fig. 4) continued to speculate on Christ’s likeness but the transgendered interpretation was no longer among them; youthful, yes; bearded or clean shaven, yes; long hair or short hair, yes; but not female.

Fig. 4 (left) detail "Christ Enthroned Among His Apostles" (c. 400), apse mosaic in St. Prudenziana, Rome; (right) detail "Christ on Globe Amid Angels and Saints" (547), apse mosaic in Saint Vitalis, Ravenna

The feminine images of Christ we have looked at were apparently not an expression of some feminine aspect of early Christianity later repressed by a male hierarchy. Rather they appear to have been an aberration caused by the infiltration of certain pagan images into Christian art during an unstable period. Creation of those types of images gradually ceased as the orthodox understanding of Christ was clarified. What was repressed was not feminism but an unorthodox image that threatened a true understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. Most Christian art from the first several centuries derived from and even borrowed from pagan prototypes; the Good Shepherd is an excellent example. In most instances, however, Christians added a fuller, deeper meaning to the basic  pagan sentiment. The feminine Christs worked the other way, altering the Christian message.

Fig. 5 "Processional Cross", St. Mary's Church in downtown Rochester

We return, then, to the transgendered processional cross (Fig. 5) I mentioned at the start of this short series. Such a cross is used in the Liturgy during the entrance rite and, perhaps, at the procession of the gifts to the altar. It might also be used at the Liturgy of the Hours and at other times with a congregation outside the Liturgy. Without invoking an authoritative Church statement or “instruction” (I’ll let you folks cite any such documents in the comment box), we can say with confidence that it is not an appropriate image for use in the Liturgy of the Church. The Liturgy must always be orthodox for -as a Church and not just as individuals-  “we pray as we believe.” What images we might privately use as an aid to prayer is one thing; what is used in the communal, public worship of the Church is another.

The dogma of the Incarnation as revealed in the Gospel and formulated by the Council of Nicaea make it clear that there is no confusion as to what the doctrine means. Nothing in the Liturgy –certainly not anything as concrete as an image of the Lord— should suggest otherwise.

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