Skippy at the Kimbell: Where's the Cross?02/20/2008
By Skippy R
The first Christian "art" must have been the fish symbol that believers could trace in the sand to covertly identify themselves and then immediately erase. (This reminds me of the intricate sand drawings by Tibetan monks, which are also eventually erased. Both show the transitory nature of this world).
Over the centuries Christian art evolved into mysterious icons, then magnificent cathedrals, and currently has exploded into a variety of media including Contemporary Christian Rock, Veggie Tales, fish bumper stickers and Thomas Kinkade.
One question grew as I walked through the Kimbell Art Museum's excellent exhibit Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art . Where was the cross?
You have to navigate through several rooms filled with early Christian art before you find what has become the dominant symbol of Christianity. The earliest Christians apparently were still freaked out by crucifixion. After all, it was a death that could happen to any of them, and it was horrible, excruciatingly painful and usually reserved only for political rebels and the basest criminals. The cross evoked shame. Using the cross as a public symbol would have been a public relations disaster for the earliest believers.
Still, the cross was used by early Christians occasionally in seals and certain manuscripts. Tertullian mentions marking the cross on the forehead as a talisman against evil, but this also could have been taken from Ezekiel Chapter 9, in which a "mark" (the Hebrew letter tau or a cross) is written on believers' foreheads as protection against God's wrath.
Constantine had seen a "cross of light" in his vision before the battle of the Milvian Bridge—the chi-rho symbol of a cross with the top bent round. He put the sign on all his soldiers' shields. After he became emperor, he ordered construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where his mother Helena "discovered" the true cross under some rubble. In 341 A.D Constantine outlawed crucifixion as a means of execution. The horror of the cross began to fade in the popular imagination. Soon, it was off to the races. Only a few years later, manuscripts begin to record the veneration of the cross.
By the end of the fourth century the paradoxical "jeweled cross" became popular among those who could afford it. This contradiction would have boggled the mind of a first-century follower of Jesus.
Christ hanging on the cross was not depicted until the end of the fifth century, but even then he was triumphant, with eyes open and no sign of suffering. It wasn't until the ninth century that Byzantine art began to show Christ with eyes closed, possibly reflecting a theological focus on the mystery of his death.
One of the last pieces displayed in the Kimbell's exhibit is the Reliquary Cross of Justin II dating from about 570 A.D. Made with gilded silver over a bronze core, with inlaid gems, this is veritable amusement park of religious symbolism. Precious gems dangle from the arms of the cross. On the back are engraved images of the Emperor Justin and his wife Sophia with arms raised in praise.
Why all the razzle-dazzle? According to the accompanying notes on the piece, "Under threat from barbarian invaders, the emperor was sending a message that he would provide protection with Christ's own authority."
Thus a new art form was born that in future centuries would be honed to perfection—rulers using Christian symbols to send political messages.
All I could think of when I saw this jeweled cross in the center of the room was the Trinity Broadcasting set of Paul and Jan Crouch and the phrase "over the top."
This piece is described as "reliquary" because inside is a compartment meant to contain a piece of the true cross. The compartment is now empty.
Could the Kimbell exhibit's centerpiece be a comment on the state of modern Christianity—all razzle-dazzle and no cross?
Let's hope not.
Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art runs through the end of March.
Editor’s note: Skippy R discusses the exhibit further in a previous blog entry.