The Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14) on the one hand celebrates the profound reality that “by the cross we have been saved” and on the other hand it speaks to our evolving understanding of the meaning of this statement as reflected in the diverse depictions of the cross throughout Christian history.
Early Christians refrained from depicting the cross as they wrestled with the reality of Jesus’ horrific and humiliating death. Rather, they focused on Jesus’ resurrection and our salvation. Thus the earliest artistic references to Christianity are not crosses, but sacred initials such as IC being the first letters of the name of Jesus Christ in Greek; or sacred symbols such as a fish. The latter was adopted as a Christian symbols because the Greek word for fish, Ichthys also happens to be the acronym for: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
The first crosses do not appear until the mid third and early fourth century, although there is at least one earlier depiction of the crucifixion which was however satirical in nature, making a mockery of Christianity. After the discovery of the True Cross by Empress Helena during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 326 and 328 the depiction of the cross quickly gained in popularity. Often a victory wreath or other Christian symbol decorated these early crosses. The depiction of the crucified Jesus remained extremely rare.
In the late fourth century the portrayal of Jesus on the cross became more widely accepted. However, in these early rendition of the crucifix Jesus is depicted as completely in charge, standing on the cross using a wooden footstool that is attached to the cross. Both hands and both feet are nailed to the cross. His eyes are wide open and he looks directly at the beholder. The emphasis of these depictions was on the resurrection and salvation gained for us, rather than on the suffering Jesus endured.
After the fall of the Roman and then the Carolingian empire, Europe sank into the so-called dark ages which were characterized by political anarchy; war and violence; famine; and diseases such as the plague which decimated more than half of the population of many cities. Suffering was an overwhelming reality for most people in the Middle Ages. It is during these times that a shift took place in the depiction of the crucifixion and the underlying theology as the feelings of despair and suffering on the part of the people were clearly reflected in the way they depicted Jesus. Rather than standing on the cross, Jesus hangs from the cross. His feet are placed on one another and one nail is used for both feet. His body shows signs of torture and he often wears the crown of thorns as described in the Gospels.
The Renaissance with its interest in realism keeps depicting the suffering Jesus but with less of the exaggerated gore so typical for many of the medieval depictions. Although Christ still is shown as dying on the cross there is a quality of stillness surrounding the cross. And although there is realism in the depiction there is also rational restraint.
The Baroque renditions which were part of the counter-reformation efforts of the Catholic Church are all about the drama of the moment as they show Longinus, one of the Roman soldiers, piercing the side of Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus faints into the arms of John, the beloved and Mary of Magdala embraces the foot of the cross. The sacrifice of the cross is emphasized in these depictions to support the theology of the sacrifice of the Mass.
The late 18th and 19th century which are characterized by a return to earlier artistic styles embrace the medieval depiction in the Romanesque and Gothic style but the neo-versions lack the over-emphasis on the suffering of the images they are inspired by. Rather there is a romantic softness and a form of idealized spiritualization in the crucifixes that are typical for this period
The 20th and 21st centuries have all of the above and much more, for better or for worse. Though there was a clear trend in the Catholic Church to move away from the crucifix in favor of a simple wooden cross which may or may not have had a risen Christ it, new directives indicate that a crucifix needs to be placed in each sanctuary and processional crosses need to actually be processional crucifixes.
As we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross let us remember the words we sing every Good Friday: “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” That is the essence of the theology of salvation and should be the inspiration for our depictions of this profound reality.