'The Cross': A History of One of the World's Most Iconic Symbols

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.

The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $35.00
Author: Robin M. Jensen
Length: 280 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.