18 April 2014

Triumph and Disaster: The Crucifixion in Christian Art

Ever since Lenny Bruce quipped that had Jesus been killed in the middle of the last century, Catholic school children would wear little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses, it’s been a staple of lazy comedians to sneer and ask what kind of a religion chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol. The answer, writes Francis Spufford in 2012’s Unapologetic, is “one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.”

The Cross, says John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes, is a unique axis in time, where time and timelessness intersect. All past, present, and future pain was physically carried up the hill of Calvary in the Cross, so that it could be transfigured in the new dawn of the Resurrection. This, he says, is the mystery of the Eucharist, which embraces Calvary and the Resurrection in the one circle:
“In Christian terms there is no way to light or glory except through the sore ground under the dark weight of the Cross.”
Detail of a fifth-century ivory miniature of the Crucifixion, held by the British Museum.

O’Donohue describes the Cross as a lonely, forsaken symbol, the most terrifying image in Christian theology being a state of absolute abandonment, immortalised in the Passion narratives when Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

This, according to the second volume of Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth, was no ordinary cry of abandonment. Misheard and misunderstood by some nearby, the faithful recognised this as a truly Messianic cry, the opening verse of the twenty-second psalm.
“Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all those who suffer under ‘God’s darkness’; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself – and in so doing he transforms it.”

Given the suffering that’s ever-present in our world, and how at times we seem awash in a sea of tragedies, it’s remarkable how rarely this precise moment of divine agony and isolation is ever expressed in art.  Theology isn’t just a matter of technical jargon in obscure journals, but is ever present in the preaching, the liturgy, and the iconography of the Church; art matters, as it reflects how we think about things, and shows us how we might do so.

The sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece
For the last thousand years or so, most renderings of the Crucifixion have been variations on the theme of a dead Christ, his head resting on his right shoulder, his body sagging, his side bleeding from the spear driven into it by the Roman soldier to make sure he was dead.  These pictures and sculptures serve to express a truth – that God became Man and gave his life for us – that though all-important nonetheless omits something that was central to earlier Christian thought.

Kenneth Clark, in BBC’s 1969 Civilisation, went too far when he said it was the tenth century that “made the Crucifixion into a moving symbol of the Christian faith,” but it is true that before then it was relatively rare to see crucifixes on which Christ was not depicted alive and looking ahead, his eyes wide open.

Such iconography expressed an understanding of the Cross prominent in all sermons on salvation in Acts and reflected the early Church’s dominant understanding of the Crucifixion: that the Cross was less a defeat than the path to resurrection and God’s supreme triumph over sin, death, and the Devil.

Fifth-century crucifixion from the door of Santa Sabina, Rome
Although he oversimplified the range of early medieval iconography, the Swedish Lutheran bishop Gustav Aulén hit on something very important when he wrote in his 1931 Christus Victor of how things changed during the Middle Ages.
“What was lost was the note of triumph, which is as much absent in the contemplation of the Sacred Wounds as in the theory of the satisfaction of God’s justice. This is reflected very significantly in later medieval art. The triumph-crucifix of an earlier period is now ousted by the crucifix which depicts the human Sufferer.”
Of course, the sacrifice of the Cross is a mystery, and one that cannot be dismissed with a single neat theory. Tom Wright, the former Anglican bishop of Durham, has rightly observed that “when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.”

It is through the mystery of the Eucharist that we actively participate in the memory of God; this was brought home to me with great force when I attended Mass in the chapel of Leeds Trinity University in late 2011.

Too rarely in my life have I had more than the driest and most academic understanding of what the Mass meant, but when the Eucharist was held up before the most remarkable crucifix I have ever seen on that November Saturday, I understood.

Made from bronze and fibreglass and modelled upon the sculptor himself, Charles I’Anson’s crucifix was completed in October 1971, after eighteen months of work. It depicts neither a Christ looking forward in confidence nor one in gentle repose after having given up his spirit.

Act of Will
Instead, I’Anson’s crucifix depicts Our Lord pushing himself away from the Cross, driving himself upward and forward and crying out. It portrays a dying man’s supreme act of will, showing Jesus forcing his limbs to support him so he can gather the air to cry out, whether to ask why his Father had forsaken him, or to commend his spirit into his Father’s hands.

People often don’t grasp just how agonising crucifixion was, or how it killed. It was a slow and degrading punishment which killed – in most cases – by suffocation. The crucified needed to stay as erect as possible in order to breathe, and as legs and arms gave out, pressure gradually built on the chest, forcing victims of the cross to inhale constant shallow breaths simply to stay alive, until eventually even the shallowest of breaths proved too much.

The contorted spine, strained limbs, and taut muscles of I’Anson’s crucifix make explicit Christ’s pain in a way I have never seen, but although it is a representation of agony, it is no mere representation of defeat.

On the contrary, it is a magnificent, gritty, idealised rendering of the greatest triumph there has ever been, that moment when history and eternity were as one, when God overturned our human understandings of triumph and disaster and reclaimed us for himself.

-- The Irish Catholic, 28 March 2013.

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