The Case of the Crucifix

I’ve recently seen a story floating around of a C of E vicar who took down a large crucifix from the front of his church and replaced it with a shiny modern thing; I rolled my eyes and assumed the worst.

However—over at bls’s place I’ve now seen a photo of the removed crucifix. and I’ll reproduce it here:

creepy_crucifix

Ok, I’d probably take it down too. What bls’s analysis captures though is entirely absent in the Telegraph article that she includes and needs to be said more loudly:

  1. It should be removed not because it’s a crucifix but because it’s bad art.
  2. The reason that it’s bad art is because it’s bad theology.
  3. The reason it’s bad theology is best captured by bls herself:

The problem with this piece is that it’s merely horror-movie scary; the figure on the cross does not look human, but is a monster. You forget the crucifixion entirely because you’re too focused on the hideous monster creature up there.

It doesn’t look human – and that’s the worst thing you could do to Christ on the cross, I think.

Bingo!

Crucifixion is indeed a horrific act and a terrible way to die and, no, we shouldn’t diminish that. However, this crucifix does not look like the suffering of a human and precisely the point is that the God-incarnated-human died a human death.

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13 Responses to The Case of the Crucifix

  1. John-Julian, OJN says:

    Well, it all depends on your point of view. Here’s a brief history of the crucifix from my new Julian book:

    In 692 AD, the Council of Constantinople ordered the use of crucifixes (i.e., the showing of Jesus as a human being on the cross), rather than only ornamental crosses.

    After that, the earliest representation we have shows Jesus as a fully robed priest or king, wearing the “colobium” (a long, flowing, sleeveless tunic extending nearly to the ankles) and standing in front of the cross, not fastened to it in any way, with eyes open, head erect, and showing no agony.

    In the ninth century, the “colobium” is replaced by a “perizoma” (a short “skirt” reaching from waist to knees) and the Christ figure sometimes has his eyes closed, but was still obviously not in pain.

    It is not until the Ottonian period (c.1000 AD) that a significant change begins to take place in the representations of the crucifix: the actual nearly-nude figure of Jesus appears. But the figure is stiff and formal and more iconic than natural. And the figure seems merely to be resting against the cross, although it was a “four-nail” crucifix, with the feet next to each other and a nail in each. (It is interesting that Pope Innocent III formally declared that “There were four nails in our Lord’s passion, through his hands and feet.”) This is the classic Romanesque crucifix.

    By the twelfth century, the representations of the body of Jesus begin to be somewhat more naturalistic. By 1160 AD the face begins to appear to be alive and looking straight forward, and the body remains formally tranquil against the cross. In the early 13th century, St. Bonaventure even speaks of “Christ sleeping on the Cross”.

    By the late thirteenth century, many crucifixes then held a body that was quite apparently dead and quite apparently wounded – a “three-nail” crucifix in which the feet were placed on top of each other and secured by a single nail. The eyes were closed for the first time, and by the end of that century, the head was dropped to the chest and the crucifix showed a clearly dead body, usually slightly twisted in an inverted “S” shape. A crown of thorns appeared for the first time.

    By 1260 there are also representations in which the Corpus is fully naked (as was certainly true in the original crucifixion).

    By the fourteenth century there were representations of the crucifix which became, in some cases, almost vulgar in their depictions of suffering, with the body grossly twisted and wounds overtly bleeding and dripping blood, with the crown of thorns very painfully present, and in such representations as that of the Kappelkreuz at the Cathedral of Köln (Cologne) the body on the cross had become little more than a ghastly, agonized scarecrow, or as in the drawing of a crucifix in the Schnütgen Museum (also in Köln) on which (as Carolyn Bynam puts it) “Christ has become [nothing but] a bloody smear”.

    Just because it is not naturalistic does not make this pictured crucifix bad art! Indeed, the worst crucifix art I’ve ever seen is incredibly nauralistic (think of the bloody Spanish ones). And, if you are looking for humanity in the crucifix, are you ready for a nude one — since that is certainly what was the historical (and very human) fact?

    I think this skeletal representation is very good art: it makes a statement about our Lord’s death rather than just “photographing” it – and it speaks something very unique about the horrendous de-humanization of the crucifixion. It looks almost exactly like the concentration camp survivors — and that is precisely the point.

    I do agree that while it would be a great piece for Holy Week when that is the Church’s orientation, I would probably hesitate to have it displayed permanently and to the public.

    On the other hand the bare and empty cross (which the vicar replaced it with) makes no artistic statement at all, and even a dubious theological one. (Christ didn’t rise from the cross, but from the tomb.)

    You say “the point is that the God-incarnated-human died a human death” — no, I think the point the sculptor is making is that he died a horrendously degraded, disgusting, disgraceful, sub-human death: not the way God ever intended humans to die.

    If one is looking for naturalism, check out the artistic representations of Christ laid in the tomb, or the many pietas.

  2. Thanks for the push-back, Father.

    And, if you are looking for humanity in the crucifix, are you ready for a nude one — since that is certainly what was the historical (and very human) fact?

    I’m not looking for historicism but humanity—two different things. That having been said, I wouldn’t be offended by a naked Jesus.

    I think this skeletal representation is very good art: it makes a statement about our Lord’s death rather than just “photographing” it – and it speaks something very unique about the horrendous de-humanization of the crucifixion. It looks almost exactly like the concentration camp survivors — and that is precisely the point.

    I would find your position about the statement that this art is making more compelling it this were part of a series of sculptures on the life of Jesus—or even a full stations of the cross. Without a sense of the sculptor’s “baseline Jesus” the statement that you find in it is not the first one that finds me. Again on the concentration camp point I’d find the message both clearer and more profound if we had explicit concentration camp inhabitants at the foot of the cross. Again, we’d be able to see a shared humanity in the depictions and therefore the suffering.

    I don’t think all good art has to be naturalistic. (I do *prefer* more naturalistic art but I wouldn’t restrict “good art” to just what I prefer.) Perhaps I am being harder on it because it is outside my preferences.

    I do agree that while it would be a great piece for Holy Week when that is the Church’s orientation, I would probably hesitate to have it displayed permanently and to the public.

    This is an interesting point and leads me in some other directions. That is, I wonder if it would be worth positing a difference/definition here: the difference between art (whether good or bad) and religious art is whether the art is edifying to the worshiping community and brings them closer to apprehending the God revealed in the Scriptures, Creeds, and liturgy. Furthermore, the issue of appropriateness may connects into the larger pedagogical aim of the church year.

    You say “the point is that the God-incarnated-human died a human death” — no, I think the point the sculptor is making is that he died a horrendously degraded, disgusting, disgraceful, sub-human death: not the way God ever intended humans to die.

    I disagree with something here but am not quite able to articulate it. It’s a “yes, but…” relating to the fact that many if not most human deaths are not tidy. But like I said it’s not coherent yet…

  3. bls says:

    To me, it’s quite interesting that everybody agrees that it doesn’t belong where it is, in the place it was (apparently) commissioned for.

    And BTW I think these people all look quite human – and they make far more of a statement than this cold horror-movie monstrosity. (I don’t think Fr. John-Julian really understands the point we’re making in this regard, actually.)

  4. In my blog I noted both sides’ points. People made the same complaint about John Paul II’s staff, which I didn’t particularly like. I think this works in a modern Western Catholic church.

  5. Christopher says:

    I have to be honest that I find this crucifix quite disturbing because it looks like the monster from the film “Jeepers Creepers”–just give it some wings. The way the fingers hook over the cross, the beaky shape of the face, the way it looks ready to leap out at you…

    I’m not inspired to devotion or moved to compassion or lifted to adoration, and I think this marks off a difference for me between art properly speaking and something else at least in the Christian sense. My icon of the Crucifix is quite bloody in its own way, and yet, I can identify and I’m moved to compassion, and am not with this piece.

    I have to admit that Jesus on the Cross, as for many men like me, has a special devotion. At times growing up, the crucified image of Jesus was consolation and affirmation of fleshly existence and heavily connected to the Sacrament. Our own Doug does some amazing images of Jesus naked, for example, and yet, I’m not sure I would put these front and center either, but they certainly move me more than this. The stylized form of the icon is still my preference for liturgical use.

  6. Christopher says:

    Some of Doug’s art here.

  7. bls says:

    This is nothing like John Paul’s staff, which I find beautiful; the frailty of Christ’s human body is one of its very central features.

    And that is exactly what this thing is lacking. It’s more like the sphinx – unmoved and unmoving. Or like the Colossus of Rhodes, maybe – gigantic, impassive, inhuman. It’s not Christ, whatever it is.

    Perhaps it’s the Holocaust itself – but at that point it’s just bad art, as we’ve been saying. Art has to tell the truth, and this doesn’t – or perhaps it tells a different truth. In either case, it fails.

  8. Oriscus says:

    here’s a thing-

    This piece of sculpture makes perfect sense, is indeed beautiful, within the conventions of the sculpture of its time. This is a problem that comes to the surface when people today are criticizing, say, Victorian Church music/architecture/what-have-you…

    I see this sculpture as being very much of its time, and rather brilliant for that. Perhaps it ought to be put into storage until such time as people can see it for what it is again. In the meantime, it is not “bad art” because it doesn’t speak to us right now. We’re all of us far to close to its time to be remotely able to say whether it speaks beyond it. I’ve learned in the study of music history, at least, to pay close attention to the conventions of each time and movement. An awareness of the complexity of context has changed my approach to almost everything.

    It is clearly human, btw, though highly stylized. It is, I must say, more clearly human than any number of pretty plaster Jesuses I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    The (Evangelical) Vicar’s decision to remove the sculpture in favor of a plain cross is not one I’d express an opinion on. Perhaps for the time being the sculpture needs a different context.

  9. Oriscus,

    This piece of sculpture makes perfect sense, is indeed beautiful, within the conventions of the sculpture of its time.

    Ok–maybe it makes “perfect sense”. I could see it being “evocative”, “moving”, “powerful” but I really can’t see it justly called “beautiful”. It may exemplify a certain style but even that wouldn’t qualify it to be called “beautiful”. At least, I certainly hope this wasn’t the artist’s understanding of beauty…

    The point that bls and Christopher have made more strongly than my orginal post and I should have accentuated more is that to our eyes it looks not human but like a monster. That is, it looks like a stylized human, yes, but it looks like a literal monster more–especially those from recent horror films.

    I look at those arms and they don’t say “Auschwitz” as much as they say “Grendel”.

    YF,
    in a modern Western Catholic church

    I think I know just the kind of place you mean…
    I’d much rather a crucifix like the large one on the wall of the side chapel in StM,W. (Do say hi to Fr. P for us next time you see him…)

  10. Again I like this crucifix as art and in some churches while acknowledging it won’t work in others. More so than JPII’s staff.

    I’d much rather a crucifix like the large one on the wall of the side chapel in StM,W. (Do say hi to Fr. P for us next time you see him…)

    I’d much rather that crucifix in many places. Alas I don’t work in W any more but several towns to the east.

  11. bls says:

    If it makes any difference, oriscus – I think most pretty plaster Jesuses are worse art.

    But I’m still interested in why even those who like it acknowledge that it’s not appropriate for its setting?

  12. Oriscus says:

    How much modern (i.e. self-consciously post 1950) sculpture do y’all see regularly?

    I look at this crucifix and see a stylized human form. I’m not dead, so I also see any number of Hollywood cgi monsters, but I’m also awake, so I see a stylized human form.

    I don’t see a pretty crucifixion, neither do I see a bit of jewelry, whether to adorn a collarbone or a Church gable.

    If “beautiful” seems a stretch for you, then try “striking.” This, to me, represents the aesthetic response minus the necessity of any sort of reassurance that we “get it.” A crucifixion ought not to be reassuring, after all, it is the resurrection which saves.

  13. Not much—by choice.
    “Striking” works for me–I’ll agree to that. I just don’t find it edifying for continual public display.

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