In the history of art, representations of the crucifixion have allowed Christians to appropriate theological reflections and their evolution. Today, the crucifixion remains an insurmountable symbol of human injustice. Interview with François Boespflug and Emanuela Fogliadini, art specialists.
François Boespflug, former professor of the history of religions, specialist in the history of Christian art; and Emanuela Fogliadini professor of Orthodox Byzantine history and theology. Both are the authors of the book Crucifixion.
How has the cross, which is the symbol of salvation but also the worst of torments, come to occupy so much space in the history of art?
François Boespflug: The Christians excluded the crucifixion from their representations for four centuries. The first representations date from 420-430. Nothing earlier is found, except for a mocking and insulting graffito, which accuses Christians of worshiping a donkey, a mockery that had already been used against the Jews. The representation of the crucifixion became possible when the horror of this torture, reserved for runaway slaves, traitors and thieves, ceased to be a painful memory. In the early fourth century, Constantine converted to Christianity. Under Theodosius, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion, and the punishment of crucifixion was finally abolished. Around 420-430, the last people who had witnessed the torture, with the trauma that this entails, had already died. It must be remembered that the crucifixion caused unbearable agony, which could last from an hour to three days. In 430 the page is turned and a Christ on the cross can be represented, not in pain, but with his head held high and his eyes open, which means: “I have been through this torture, but I have overcome it and I have achieved victory over death.” This victory is a promise that you will have before your eyes every day.
There are many representations of this type in which Christ on the cross already embodies the resurrection, but there are also some whose vision is unbearable.
Facebook: In fact, during the second Gothic period, from the 13th century, the representations became bloody, painful, showing the crucifixion as a torture. This tendency faded somewhat during the Enlightenment and eventually died out, but it returned in the second half of the 19th century through the medical approach to crucifixion, which was cruel and even ruthless. In the 20th century, the horror unfolds again. Finally, in the 1980s a new stage began, with the reaffirmation of the cross as a symbol of passage to eternal life. This is perfectly legitimate from the theological point of view, since the last word of Christianity is not suffering, but life.
Is there a contradiction between the resurrected crucified and the cross as an object of torture?
Facebook: The cross as a sign of victory appeared very early, before any representation of Christ on the cross, on the sarcophagi of some Christians. It is often ornate, sometimes accompanied by a halo or chrism. Between this sign of victory, without the abstract body of Christ, and the painful crucifixion, the dialectic has collided from century to century. The victorious, upright, even peaceful Christ, which dominated the West until the Christ of San Damiano, the one who is said to have spoken to Saint Francis of Assisi, was gradually influenced and then supplanted by a Christ with his eyes closed and his head fallen on the ground. right shoulder, which the Byzantines exported, via Italy, to all of Western Europe. They were the first to represent the dead Christ, but they thought and lived as if he were peacefully asleep on the cross. He is not yet the Sorrowful Christ of the Gothic period.
As a dormition of Christ?
Emanuela Fogliadini: Yes, it is a way of saying that the cross does not have the last word. This dream is already an opening to the resurrection. Although he is dead, although he has his eyes closed, his head on his shoulder, although the Virgin is crying, everything is sober, another stage opens. These representations from the 9th and 10th centuries, shortly after the great dispute over iconoclasm, say that Christ has really become incarnate, and that at the same time he is still God. If he is true God and true man, he cannot be represented suffering and covered in blood: he remains God even in the most dramatic moments of his life and his death.
So, are these representations based on advances in theological reflection?
Facebook: Yes, in advances that have multiple and very important consequences in the history of devotion and piety, in the feeling of being “Christified” by faith and baptism, and of having to revive, incorporate what Christ lived. This is the spiritual challenge of the crucifixion story in art. The Christian people appropriated the aesthetic transformations and modeled their inner climate from what the crucified of art invited them to experience.
Was it the contemplation of these works of art throughout the centuries that allowed us to believe in Christ as true God and true man?
Facebook: Absolutely. We can see that spirituality evolves with the times. In the first five centuries, we were invited to believe that Christ went through death and overcame it, opening the door to eternal life. These rare images of the crucifixion are found in books or on devotional objects owned by few, and do not appear in churches for all to see until the eighth century. From the twelfth century, suffering is valued through mysticism and liturgy. The cult of the Holy Blood was introduced into the liturgy. Thus, the suffering Christ becomes a summit of spirituality. And many saints progressed in the spiritual life by associating themselves with Christ as a suffering person.
P.E.: Francis of Assisi also had an important influence, because he insisted so much on the humanity of Christ. Little by little, we ended up forgetting his divinity, which disappeared in the image of a very suffering Christ.
When did Christians start putting crucifixes in their houses?
Facebook: The appropriation of the crucifix in the private space of Christians began with the manufacture of jewelry, rings, earrings, etc. For centuries, very ingenious and elegant ivory objects and boxes were also carved. These objects, which were purchased, allowed people to show their Christian identity. Little by little, the Christ on the cross became the emblem of Christianity, not only in the countries of Christendom, but also outside of it.
Finally, the history of crucifixions in art is a history of the Church…
Facebook: It is even a story of the encounter between the Gospel and culture. It reveals the history of devotion and the feeling of transcendence.?
P.E.: And not only in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Protestants returned to the naked cross. Calvin did not want Christ on the cross.
Facebook: The Lutherans tolerated it for a long time. Luther himself had a picture of Christ on the cross painted by Cranach. Calvin, on the other hand, said that Christ had risen and was no longer on the cross. Unfortunately, Calvin concluded that most of the images are illegitimate, but on the first point he was right. The first crosses were, by the way, bare and ornate crosses.
Does working on the crucifixion have any implications for you as a believer?
Facebook: Gradually, the cross seemed to me to be a rather special instrument of torture. The tortured person, instead of curling up on himself, makes a gesture that speaks to the unconscious, witnessing both the pain of being nailed there inadvertently, as well as an offering, an opening, a desire for union, and even sexual union. Caravaggio’s painting helped me a lot in my reflection, The Conversion of Saint Paul. She pins Pablo to the ground and paints him in a crucified position, showing through his body that he is opening himself to the light, that he is discovering something. Christ on the Cross is an insurmountable treasure for the religious history of humanity.
P.E.: In Serbian cycles, we often see Christ himself climbing the cross very deliberately, using a ladder or stool. Hurt, mocked, he’s still in control. Suffering, he remains erect, hieratic. He accepts the destiny that the Father entrusts to him, but he does not stop there: then there is the anastasis, the liberation of humanity, which underlines the meaning of his death.
In our time, the crucifixion is used by many artists…
Facebook: With a different sense, but very popular. And if it is used, it is because it says something, better than any other symbol. To say that someone is being treated unfairly, there is nothing more eloquent than showing it on a cross. It ranges from Brazilian peasants robbed by landowners to homosexuals or battered women. It is a symbol of unjust suffering.
Can we say that today the cross belongs to everyone?
Facebook: The crucified is no longer a monopoly of Christianity. An offense against Christ on the cross is no longer punishable. When Félicien Rops painted a woman instead of Christ in 1878, there was only mild public disapproval. The cross is, once again, a common good that can be used as you wish.