'The Cross'

A History of One of the World's Most Iconic Symbols

by Matthew Snider

12 May 2017

The Cross manages to re-tell an old story comfortably and enjoyably, without getting dragged down into pedantry or the dry distractions of academic writing.
 
cover art

The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy

Robin M. Jensen

(Harvard University Press)
US: Apr 2017

From its very first page, The Cross demonstrates how its titular symbol still provokes simultaneously ardent devotion and rejection. Jensen demonstrates how 2,000 have imbued the symbol with such powerful meanings that any given community can find it either consoling or oppressive.

In the first chapter, Jensen retells the most familiar story in modern history, demonstrating first the considerable task early Christians faced: spinning victory out of humiliating defeat. Jensen takes the reader along as the early Christian community sought to comprehend the unfathomable (i.e., how the “Son of God could truly suffer physical torment and bodily death”) and to begin etching into history a rationale for what must have seemed at the time to be a nearly insurmountable obstacle to transforming one man’s message into the worldwide phenomenon it became.

In those early days, the cross was a burden weighing down upon efforts to find a way through the stunning debris of one man’s death. For many, it was a symbol of unmitigated defeat, a noose or guillotine, destined to become the most recognizable symbol in human history—and to be divorced of the shame his followers were meant to feel from this shameful form of execution. Given the power it holds for its devotees today, Jensen’s account of this early act of wrestling with the symbol’s meaning seems the most critical part of the book. Jensen makes the incomprehensibility that the early Christians were faced with seem genuine and sympathetic. The Cross manages to re-tell an old story comfortably and enjoyably, without getting dragged down into pedantry or the dry distractions of academic writing.

An exhaustive history of the cross would have been, frankly, exhausting. In place of a sedate, lumbering academic brick, Jensen gives readers a succinct, vivid account of the cross’s history—complete with dozens of necessary full-color illustrations to help her show the symbol’s ornamentation and development over the past two millennia. We witness as the iconic symbol accumulates its nearly unparalleled power over the centuries, as it moves from a problematic obstacle for its followers to the Constantinian icon of military success to the powerful totemic sign whose mere recreation over the forehead of its believers can “ward off demons” and “bring one face to face with God”.

The book’s organization is arguably its best feature. Rather than a strictly dry chronological recounting of the symbol’s history, Jensen organizes the book by theme or stage in the cross’s life, so to speak, while still largely proceeding chronologically. The history of the early church contained within The Cross tragically demonstrates the historical illiteracy of some today—as when Jensen recounts how an agitated political leader scapegoated a nascent religious minority for a national disaster and rounded them up for crucifixion (Nero, that is). The cross moves from icon and symbol to full-fledged art and ritual in the course of two millennia but never loses its power to inspire or provoke. Religious or not, Jensen makes a solid argument for the importance of understanding the indispensable Western symbol and appreciating its history (even if its meaning isn’t the same for everyone).

By “Crux Abscondita”, Jensen moves from purely history to more careful analysis of the art of the crucifixion that gradually fills in the details of the sparser early sketches. Her writing is accessible to the learned and the newcomer—to anyone who wants to better understand the Western world’s most enduring symbol. She peels away its layers with chapters that examine the Cross-as-cursed execution form, the Cross-as-military standard, even the Cross-as-legend and fable.

While some of the images included in the book are far too small to fully appreciate the details Jensen is trying to highlight, they do at least provide some visual frame of reference with which to connect her detailed descriptions. One chapter in particular that stands out is “Carmina Crucis: The Cross in Poetry, Legend, and Liturgical Drama”, which winds together the various myths that came to surround the life of the Cross itself—rewritten through history from a mere implement of Jesus’ death to being its own central character of mythology. Later chapters circulate around medieval debates about the cross versus the crucifix (i.e., also depicting the body upon it). While both have had enduring places in Catholic art and ritual, the crucifix has never played as central a role in the Protestant tradition and Jensen unpacks the various threads that fed into this.

The last chapter is full of the more contemporary history of the Cross—as a tool of conquistadors, but also as a symbol so universal it was easily translated between cultures. She doesn’t get bogged down in the history many of her readers have already heard (the Cross as a tool of colonization and subjugation) and she deserves applause for continuing to hew faithfully to the narrative direction of the book, especially in a chapter on such a fraught time.

However, the last chapter’s epilogue, “The Cross in Contemporary Culture”, is a regrettably aimless end to an otherwise tight, thoughtful book. It wanders through a handful of weak paragraphs, explaining otherwise entirely forgettable modern takes on the symbol, swamped down in a dozen interpretations far less informed than Jensen’s before finally, quietly ending with no other satisfying conclusion. It’s regrettable that a book with such formidable subject matter, managed incredibly well throughout by Jensen, ends with a string of allusions to three third rate works of art from the late 20th century. But perhaps it is the times themselves that allow Jensen no alternative ending for a symbol whose history remains to be written and remains the subject of so many strong emotions from both its devotees and its fierce detractors.

The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy

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