Culture At Large

Early Christians and the Cross

Chris Salzman

Oftentimes, the Wittenburg Door is the satirical heckler in the back of the room spotlighting Christianity's foibles.

Personally, I think they do it out of a spirit of love. A love of being wickedly snarky, but also because of a need to say something about the sillier subsets of Christianity.

Every once in a while they'll publish an insightful piece that while maintaining a joking tone, still manages to illuminate part of our faith. This particular story is about Skippy R.'s visit to the Kimbell Art Museum and what he found and didn't find in that collection of early Christian art:

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.

Read more on Skippy R's blog.

Does this change your thinking about the image of the cross? What does the image of the cross mean to you? Do you identify more with another symbol of the faith?

Perhaps a bit more theological, why is the symbol of the cross accepted in most evangelical churches, but not other symbols? Other thoughts?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church