Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.21

Robin M. Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2017.  Pp. x, 270.  ISBN 9780674088801.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Mary Joan Leith and Allyson E. Sheckler, Stonehill College (;


Robin Jensen brings her expertise as a leading scholar of early Christianity to a history of the pre-eminent Christian symbol. Following a trajectory from the first to the twenty-first century, The Cross fits into the category of surveys written with both the public and academics in mind. Jensen does not shy from the implications of the word “controversy” in her title, from ancient scorn for the very idea of crucifixion to the cross’s association with anti-Judaism and modern lynchings. On a more meta-level, controversy figures in the surprising lack of sound historical evidence for many traditions about the cross. Jensen is careful throughout to qualify as necessary the topics she discusses.

Jensen dedicates the volume to her students who provided feedback on early drafts of the book. Each chapter is headed by a Latin title, but an English subtitle either translates the Latin or relates to it. Endnotes and suggestions for further reading follow an abbreviations list of ancient authors and works, and there is a useful, if not exhaustive, subject index. Readers will particularly appreciate the inclusion of between five and eight full-color illustrations per chapter. Jensen’s prose is clear and the occasional undefined term (i.e., apocryphal, colobium, imitatio Christi) should not deter undergraduates who, along with graduate students and academics, will find much of value in its nine chapters. This review is written in the awareness that individual chapters will work well as assigned readings in courses across the disciplines.

Chapter One, “Curse of the Cross,” begins chronologically with Paul’s letters and the gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion. The practical side of crucifixion is illuminated by archaeological and artistic evidence; illustrations include the famous heel bone of the first-century Jew, Johannan, and two graffiti, one the well-known Alexamenos from the Palatine Hill in Rome and the other, much more grisly, from a tavern at Puteoli in southern Italy. Pagan and Jewish attitudes to crucifixion, along with the heterodox views of the Gnostics and Manicheans round out the chapter.

Chapter Two moves on to the early church fathers and apocryphal texts (i.e., the Acts of John, the Gospel of Peter, the gnostic Gospel of Philip). A quotation from Ephrem of Syria introduces the link between Jesus’s cross and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, a recurrent theme in Christian theology and art. Jensen explains that the cross figured in early Christian ritual not as a physical symbol but as an embodied action, the sign of the cross. Actual images of the cross come up in John Chrysostom’s recommendation in the late fourth century that Christians “inscribe [the cross] on the walls and windows of their houses” (p. 37). This period also sees some rare references to martyr crucifixions in the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Andrew. The chapter concludes with a consideration of early cross marks whose meaning is often ambiguous: a tau-rho on a lamp, an Ichthus with anchor on a gem, and the controversial ROTA-SATOR square.

The Constantinian cross and its evolution are treated in Chapter Three, beginning with Constantine’s famous vision of the cross in 312 (no mention of the Milvian Bridge). Jensen works through the gnarly question of what Constantine actually saw given the conflicting accounts of Eusebius and Lactantius. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is traditionally linked to the supposed discovery in 324/5 of the true cross by Helena, mother of Constantine although Jensen reports that the earliest clear reference to a relic of Jesus’s cross in Jerusalem and its miraculous healings dates to the mid-fourth century. How and in what form the cross was venerated in Jerusalem we learn from pilgrim accounts of Holy Week rituals. The dispersal of cross relics, often as diplomatic gifts, seems to begin in the sixth century. Among early Christians the cross primarily signified victory over death rather than Jesus’s sacrificial suffering; for example, fourth-century Christian sarcophagi display the Emperor’s triumphal chi rho cross but never the crucified Jesus.

In Chapter Four, Jensen takes up this apparent reluctance to represent the crucifixion in visual media. A few gems of the third or fourth century depict a crucifixion, and Jensen treats at some length a crucifixion scene on a small early fifth-century ivory panel. However, the first public image of Christ on the cross appears around 425 on a wooden door panel of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome. Nevertheless, images of the crucifixion remained rare for several more centuries. Sixth-century Jerusalem pilgrim ampullae (flasks), for example, show a cross beneath Christ’s hovering head, not a crucifix. Jensen cites the sixth-century Rabulla Gospel crucifixion scene, a seventh-century gold Byzantine pectoral crucifix, and an eighth-century Mt. Sinai crucifixion icon which together demonstrate the lack of any artistic convention for the scene until the early Middle Ages. Jensen might have noted that the aforementioned ivory panel shows Christ’s wound on his left side contrary to later tradition. The chapter ends with a section about disputes over the display of crosses versus crucifixes in eighth-century Byzantine iconoclasm.

Chapter Five describes how the cross “evolves from being a mere prop in the Passion Story to a symbolic manifestation of Christ’s power and glory” (p. 122). This is exemplified by the appearance of monumental gemmed crosses (but not crucifixes) in mosaics and in new feasts dedicated to the cross itself. In 614 the Sassanian Persians sacked Jerusalem and brought the relic of the true cross to Persia; Jensen recounts the story of its recovery by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius who restored it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an event commemorated thereafter on the third Sunday of Lent. The ultimate fate of this most illustrious of relics is a mystery; supposedly, it was taken to the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople where one of its last witnesses was the Crusader King Louis VII of France in 1147.

Chapter Six, subtitled “The Cross in Poetry, Legend and Liturgical Drama,” brings us to the Middle Ages. It considers hymns to the cross from as early as the third century and quotes the work of the sixth-century father of Orthodox hymnography, Romanos the Melodist. Jensen discusses the sixth-century Frankish poet Venantius Fortunatus, famous for such hymns as Vexilla Regis Prodeunt(“The Royal Banners Go Forth”) written to celebrate the arrival in Poitiers of relics of the cross. Venantius also composed Pange Lingua Gloriosi (“Sing My Tongue of the Glorious Battle”) celebrating the “tree of all trees, glorious, having no peer” (p. 128). To illustrate the linkage of cross and tree Jensen provides a generous selection of images from across the western Christian world. As she explains, “…Christians sought ways to connect the origin and fall of humanity with the salvation they believed came through the passion of Christ” (p. 147). Most famously, the fourteenth-century Golden Legend explains how wood from a tree planted on Adam’s grave eventually becomes the cross of Christ. In the same period, however, the cross brought only terror to Jews imperiled by Christian anti-Judaism aroused by Medieval Passion plays.

Chapter Seven is possibly the densest. After a summary of the iconoclastic controversy in the west, the chapter follows the evolving Christus patiens (suffering Christ) type between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, with eight well-chosen illustrations; strangely, no illustration accompanies an extended passage on the Gero Crucifix (965-970), arguably the first example of the crucified Christ with closed eyes. This new type of suffering Christ on the cross parallels the emerging textual focus on Christ’s sacrificial agony and new images such as the Man of Sorrows, the Deposition, and the Pietá. The doctrine of Transubstantiation increasingly informed the faithful’s meditation on Christ’s passion, an example of which is the Showings of Julian of Norwich (late fourteenth century). As Jensen points out, imitatio Christi becomes part of the larger theatrical panorama of Christ’s passion exemplified by the narrative fresco cycles that appear in the early fourteenth century (i.e., Giotto’s Arena Chapel). She concludes the chapter with a discussion of the cross as a symbol for crusaders, a different kind of imitatio Christi, where Crusaders hoped for a victory over evil by taking up their crosses.

With Chapter 8 we move to the Protestant and Catholic Reformation and debates over the display of a cross versus a crucifix. (Jensen assumes her readers know the difference.) The leading Reformers—Luther, Zwingli, Karlstadt, Calvin—were hardly consistent in their views on the subject, although on balance, the Protestant movement left many churches stripped of ornament. The fate of the Cheapside cross, an English free-standing stone monument, illustrates the issues at play in England. For its part, the Catholic Church with the Council of Trent (1563) mounted a spirited defense of crucifixes and relics, affirmed ritual signing of the cross, and formally instituted greater liturgical veneration of the cross. Baroque depictions of the crucifixion evolved toward a sublimely beautiful Christ. St. Ignatius’s example of affective contemplation of Christ’s passion and the cross has affinities with the mystical encounters of St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. Yet another intense devotional practice, the Stations of the Cross, gained in popularity in this period. On the Protestant side, affective contemplation of the cross manifested itself in singing, most famously in the still popular hymns of Charles Wesley. In an elegant ecumenical turn Jensen ends this chapter about doctrinal conflict discussing an artistic metaphor embraced by Protestants and Catholics alike, the now largely forgotten artistic motif of Christ the Winepress.

In light of the final chapter’s global and contemporary perspective, Jensen acknowledges modern objections to the cross which has historically been “identified with colonizing nations or supremacist groups” (p. 205). Missionaries delivered deadly microbes along with the message of the cross to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but native cultural elements, such as Mexican stone atrial crosses or the Mayan world tree, colored New World Christianity in the ensuing centuries. In 1491, Portuguese success in converting the Congo was followed by a series of miraculous cross apparitions, whereas in the Muslim world, the concept that Jesus died on the cross has always been problematic. Jensen chooses to end her book with the multiple, often controversial, ways the cross appears in the contemporary world. She reports on the resurgence of the cross in formerly Communist countries but its suppression in China, the disputes over raising a cross at Auschwitz, and the association of the fiery cross with the Ku Klux Klan. She is sensitive to critiques by feminists and others that theologies of the cross have often justified unnecessary suffering. In the end, Jensen turns to the cross in the work of contemporary artists from Chagall to Sandys’ Christa.

Thankfully, Harvard University Press still seems to care about copy editing, so typographical errors are rare (the name of one of the reviewers is misspelled). We have just a few criticisms besides the occasional undefined term. Figure numbers are not provided in the text, even when the discussion of a work occurs several pages apart from the illustration, and many illustrations lack dates. There are also some inaccuracies regarding the figures: for example, figures 3.3 and 3.4 should be reversed, and Jensen discusses Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938) while illustrating the Yellow Crucifixion (1942). These, however, are problems that can easily be addressed in a future printing of this fascinating and useful book.

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