Sacred Objects

Introduction to Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly

October 30, 2007


The 1974 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (n. 270) stated, “There is also to be a cross, clearly visible to the congregation, either on the altar or near it.” The new General Instruction (n. 308) states that the cross is to have “the figure of Christ crucified upon it…”

Working as a liturgical consultant for over fifteen years, I have encountered three points of view with respect to the cross/crucifix. Some people want what they consider a “traditional” crucifix, one which shows Christ’s death on the cross, and in varying degrees, his suffering; others want a cross with a “risen” Jesus; others want a plain cross. Usually, a parish committee will have representatives of all three views.

The demand of the new General Instruction for an image of Christ crucified, does not in itself alter the views of those who want an image of the Risen Lord or a simple cross. The conflict over crucifix, risen Christ, or simple cross manifests an attempt to find an image that adequately expresses the paschal mystery in its totality. We proclaim in the liturgy that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.”

To come to terms with this issue, and to be of practical service to the people with whom I work, I have undertaken a study of the iconography of the cross and crucifix over the course of time. Worship does not occur in a timeless vacuum, isolated from the day-to-day life and concerns of people. As a result, two thousand years of Christian worship have produced a treasury of images and image types.

In a series of brief articles, I will focus on selected image types (iconography) from the early Christian, medieval and Renaissance periods along with their underlying theology. It is my hope that this exploration will help people find and create images that will enrich the experience of the liturgy and help people enter more deeply into the paschal mystery. My primary reference is the four volumes of the Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst (Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1966-1980) by Gertrud Schiller.

Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, IL.


Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly:

Part I: The Early Christian Period: Crux Invicta, Crux Gemmata
Part II: The Early Christian Period: Christus Victor
Part III: The Medieval Period: Christus Mortuus
+ Part IV: The Medieval Period: Painted Crosses and Altarpieces
+ Part V: The Renaissance and Baroque Periods: Drama and Emotion
+ Part VI: The Resurrection in Christian Art

The Labyrinth and the Paschal Mystery

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