- The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy by Robin M. Jensen
Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2017
Pp. x + 270, 63 color illustrations. $35.00.
In this new monograph, distinguished historian of early Christian spirituality and visual tradition Robin M. Jensen offers a biography of the cross as a symbol from antiquity to the present day. The preface describes the book’s objective as “a modest attempt to cover some ground and to lead the readers more or less chronologically through some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the history of this epic symbol” (ix). To appreciate the daring of such a task, one needs to contemplate the centrality of the cross to the European imagination and the deep and often treacherous scholarly debates surrounding its varied uses as relic and symbol. Jensen has engaged with centuries of history, scholarly controversy, and visual tradition with poise and verve. The result is an elegantly written account of the most enduring symbol of Christianity.
While controversy is not the author’s objective, this is a thesis-driven book and will surely stir debate. The argument unfolds over nine chapters (each titled in Latin) that organize the vast material into tidy smaller units that trace the changing meanings of the same symbol. Some of these meanings endured for centuries, while others were more fleeting. In brief, the cross symbol was born in shame (Scandalum Crucis). For different reasons Romans and Jews deemed a death on a cross deeply ignoble. Jensen traces how early Christian apologists turned the instrument of disgrace and humiliation into a symbol of glory, salvation, and eternal life, one that proved essential to Christian ritual and artifacts (Signum Crucis). Her analysis demonstrates that the cross was not simply an object but “a kind of living being” (28). Despite the positive associations (in part through Paul’s typological linking between Adam and Christ) that enabled the cross to be transformed from a “tree of death” to a “tree of life” in both mainstream and noncanonical writings, images of Christ on the cross were very slow to gain popularity (Crux Abscondita). In Jensen’s reading, the gradual acceptance of scenes of Christ’s crucifixion is more readily attributable to pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the dissemination of cross relics than to Christian teaching (76). Among the first extant images of the crucifixion, the Maskell ivories in the British Museum and the wooden doors of Santa Sabina in Rome—both dated to the 400s—depict the crucified Christ very much alive. As is well known, emphasis on the dead Christ is a later phenomenon. It became more popular in public monuments only in the tenth and eleventh centuries, a process Jensen examines in Crux Patiens, and one she attributes to medieval eucharistic piety [End Page 684] (166). Her discussion of eucharistic piety, however, focuses on the western middle ages; regrettably she omits the Byzantine image of the Man of Sorrows (Christ depicted dead on the cross with arms by his body), and with it its connections to the ritual lamentations of Holy Week (Hans Belting, “An Image and Its Function in the Liturgy: The Man of Sorrows in Byzantium,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34/35 : 1–16).
The chapter on the discovery of the true cross relic (Inventio Crucis) launches the argument that frames the study. Jensen dismisses the notion that Constantine’s vision and the purported discovery of the true cross relic by Constantine’s mother contributed to the wide acceptance and dissemination of the cross as a symbol. Instead, the author credits the cross’s earlier significance (as underscored in the writings of Paul, Hippolytus of Rome, Tertullian, the Gospel of Peter, and the Acts of John, among others) for its popularization. The imperial uses of the cross as symbol and relic were, by her reading, short-lived phenomena. This conclusion partly relies on a particular reconstruction of the Augusta Helena’s association with the cross. The author doubts that the relic had to do much with Helena, Constantine, or Helena’s residence in Rome, the Sessorian Palace. (For a different reading of the relationship between the...