One of the best quotes I’ve heard in a long time is one from Professor Eamon Duffy this week, ‘Let’s look for a fabulous crucifixion… Oh, that’ll do.’ I did comment on how ‘wonderful’ it was (in an ironic way) that he/we might be able to say such a thing. In reality, the context in which the comment was made is important: it was within the context of a Lecture to do with imagining [imaging] the crucifixion of Jesus.
During the Lecture we were taken on a whistle-stop journey through almost two thousand years of art (note, I don’t say Christian Art). We learned that, whilst the cross may have been imagined, images of the crucifixion (ie Jesus on the cross) did not appear for a good few hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (And yes, the apocryphal story of the person in the shop who asked, “Well the thing is, do you want one those crosses with the little man on it or not?”) We also learned that are were many ways in which images (paintings, icons, statuary) through the ages have often included/reflected/‘absorbed’ secular/pagan imagery – somehow re-labelling that which could otherwise not be countenanced. Through art-work designed to reflect the pathetic nature of the dead and dying Christ which sought to evoke guilt in the onlooker, on to art that sought to provoke sympathy and devotion for the suffering one, moving towards art that imaged Christ as one who suffered in similar ways to the onlooker (eg the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grunwald in which the Jesus who hangs on the cross suffers, in the same way at which those who prayed before it suffered). Art that seeks to assist the people of God in their devotions, as well explain to non-believers something of the mystery and magnificence of what has taken place, has a hard task to fulfil.
The way in which the imaging of the cross has changed across the centuries and how the art work used for devotion within communities found in different places and with different theologies of the cross, was fascinating. Reflecting on any of these things causes (hopefully) the individual to explore what they ‘see’, what they ‘understand’, what ‘story’ of the cross they tell, and why. Many of the people present for Professor Duffy’s Lecture found their eyes opened to new visions, simply by having things explained. An item, the use of which had seemed unconscionable within worship, suddenly began to be filled with new possibility as an aid to devotion or, at least, and understanding to why it was created to assist devotion was developed.
One such item was a jewelled cross (an example of which is given below). It is easy to understand why, when one has been brought up within a non-Conformist tradition, the use of a be-jewelled cross might be something 'beyond the pail'. My church experience and practice is pretty broad, but even I wonder what crosses that have little jewels hanging from them are all about. Rather like understanding Professor Duffy’s comment about finding a ‘fabulous crucifixion’, context is important. When you understand that the blood of Christ on the cross is precious to believers, and that those who created these jewelled crosses were seeking to reflect in ‘manufactured form’ the amazing truth of the preciousness of the blood that flooded down the wood of the cross, then it is possible for the jewels to be given meaning. No longer, for some, are these 'funny little crosses with their dangly jewels' objects of derision (which, for many non-Christians, the cross itself was/is), rather, meaning can be given to these crosses and the precious metals and jewels that form and adorn them – meaning that understands them signs and symbols of the precious form and blood of Jesus himself.
How wonderful it was to be addressed by someone whose books I have read (The Stripping of the Altars being one such book, the reading aloud of which reduced me to tears when someone sniggered at the fact I didn’t know how to pronounce one of the phrases given in Latin). And how wonderful to be with someone who was able to explore with us the journey that art, both Christian and otherwise, had taken in terms of seeking to reflect eternal truths. It was lovely to be able to listen to a man of faith sharing his understanding of what he knew with us who were seeking understanding and knowledge too. It was a very good way to start a Course on Preaching and Praying the Passion… more anon!