Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly - Part II (The Early Christian Period: Christus Victor)
October 30, 2007
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The first images of the crucified Christ on the cross appeared in the early fifth century. The first of these images appears on a carved wood panel from the doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina. Jesus is shown with the two thieves. The three figures are standing on the ground with their arms outstretched, the elbows slightly bent. Nails are visible in the hands, but there is only the suggestion of crosses.
The second image is found on a small ivory box, which served, perhaps, as a reliquary for a fragment of the true cross or as a pyx. Here the crucifixion is shown in conjunction with the suicide of Judas. Jesus is on the cross, raised off the ground, but his arms are straight and his head erect. The nails through his hands and feet are clearly visible. The cross is clearly defined.
The same type of image appears in a sixth-century gospel book from Mesopotamia. The scene is a narrative of the crucifixion combined with a view of the women at the tomb below (not shown in the illustration). Jesus’ pose is similar to that of the ivory, but he looks to his right, to where Mary is standing with John. He wears a colobium, a sleeveless tunic common in the Mideast. His eyes are obviously open.
The same iconography appears in a fresco from the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, dating from the mid eighth century.
What is common to all these images is that they are not realistic depictions of the crucifixion; that is, the pose of Jesus is not that of someone hanging on a cross. There is no apparent suffering. Indeed, it appears as if Jesus is standing with his body posed in the shape of the cross. The images obviously have a common symbolic or theological meaning.
On reflection, it seems to me as if the artists are giving us an illustration of the passion story from the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of his passion and death as his being lifted up, as his exaltation. The passion, death and resurrection are aspects of this single mystery, the exaltation of Jesus by God.
This image type is called Christus victor, Christ the victor. His passion and death are real, but viewed through the lens of the resurrection. Even in death, Christ is the victor over death. Being shown alive on the cross, whether at the moment of addressing his mother, or looking straight ahead, he is the one who died, rose from the dead and will come again. Although there is no direct evidence to support it, it makes perfect sense to interpret these images in light of the paschal liturgy, which began as a single liturgy on the vigil of Easter and only later evolved into the three-day commemoration we know today.
The Christus victor iconography endured through the middle ages in a variety of forms. A few examples will suffice. The first is from a ninth-century sacramentary. In this image the blue cross with Christ on it is the “T” of the first word of the canon of the Mass: “Te igitur, clementissime Pater…”
The image was also commonly used on processional crosses. Here the victorious Christ is mounted on a jeweled cross, thus combining the ancient Crux gemmata with the image of the Crucified Lord.
The image also appears on Gospel Book covers, as this thirteenth-century example shows. What is distinctive about this example is that Christ wears a royal crown. This image type was especially popular in medieval Spain, Germany and Poland.
It seems to me that the Christus victor iconography is particularly appropriate for use in the liturgical setting, because it was created from an understanding of the paschal liturgy. The one image proclaims the death and resurrection. Moreover it is an image to which most people relate immediately. In my experience, showing committee members a series of such images resolves the conflict between those who want a “traditional” crucifix and those who want an image of the risen Christ. The Christus victor imagery speaks to the totality of the paschal mystery celebrated in the liturgy.
Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, IL.
READ OTHER ARTICLES BY RONALD ZAWILLA:
Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly
+ Part I: The Early Christian Period: Crux Invicta, Crux Gemmata
+ Part III: The Medieval Period: Christus Mortuus
+ Part IV: The Medieval Period: Crosses and Altarpieces
+ Part V: The Renaissance and Baroque Periods: Drama and Emotions
+ Part VI: The Resurrection in Christian Art