Easter is a time to think about Jesus of Nazareth. He is arguably the most important human who has ever lived. That seems certainly true in western societies. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of The Christ has further brought the world’s focus back to the suffering of Christ, but is it the right focus?
Reposted from the April 10th issue of the New York Times.
A Most Virtuous Death
Christ Crucified by the Virtues.” To contemporary eyes, it is a strange and thought-provoking image, particularly at a moment of impassioned discussions about who was responsible for the death of Jesus.
This full-page frontispiece of a 13th-century volume of readings for saints’ days shows Jesus being crucified not by Roman soldiers or Jewish authorities or even the sins of humanity — but by virtues.
The figure of Jesus, peacefully, almost elegantly slumped on the cross, is familiar. So are the large figures standing on either side of the cross: his mother, Mary, and the apostle John. But who are those smaller female figures with halos?
Above the crossbeam, two of them labeled Misericordia (mercy) and Sapientia (wisdom) are hammering nails into Jesus’ hands. Below, a figure labeled Obedientia (obedience) is hammering a nail into his feet. Sponsa (bride, symbol of the soul, the church or both) is piercing Jesus’ side with a lance, while just beneath his right arm, wearing a crown and floating on a cloud, Fides (faith) holds a chalice to catch the sacred blood.
“At some level a very violent as well as lyrical image,” said Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor in Harvard University’s department of history of art and architecture, who will include this manuscript illustration in “Crown and Veil, the Art of Female Monasticism in the Middle Ages,” a major exhibition that will open in Germany next year.
Beneath Jesus’ left arm, an angel pushes away a figure labeled Synagoga (synagogue). The role of Jewish authorities in the death of Jesus, like the Roman role, may be missing from this picture, but Christianity’s claim to have superseded Judaism is not.
This image, produced for a convent of Dominican nuns in Regensburg, Germany, is not unique. The motif of the virtues crucifying Jesus had a wide enough currency in the 13th and 14th centuries that dozens of examples survive, in manuscripts, paintings and stained-of examples survive, in manuscripts, paintings and stained-glass windows.
The theology behind these images is complex. In giving himself over to death, Jesus was thought to have brought to perfection such virtues as obedience, humility, patience and perseverance.
Much of the imagery was rooted in a spiritual reading of the Song of Songs, said Bernard McGinn, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of many works on Christian mysticism.
That biblical love poem’s passages, in its old Latin translation, about the “wound of love,” or wounding the heart, inspired the images of bride, soul or church piercing Christ’s side and receiving Christ’s love in return.
Even the briefest of conversations with Professor Hamburger or Professor McGinn reveal how rich this iconography is. But at a much simpler level, these images are reminders of the extraordinary variety of ways in which Christianity has sought to portray and understand the Crucifixion.
It is a commonplace that between the 11th and the 15th centuries, Western Christian piety shifted its focus from the divinity of Jesus to his humanity. Of the earlier period, Giles Constable, a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, writes, “The cross signified Christ’s Second Coming rather than his suffering and death.” Christ’s body on the cross, he adds, “was always erect, alive, and indifferent to suffering.” This was Jesus resurrected and triumphant, king and victor over death rather than its victim.
But as the Middle Ages progressed, Jesus’ royal crown was replaced by a crown of thorns, Jesus’ head dropped to one side, his eyes fell closed, his arms curved under the weight of his dying body. The images are more and more calculated to elicit an emotional response. The pain-racked renditions of Jesus’ death on the cross are the counterparts to the glowing presentations of his birth in the manger.
Certainly, where once the emphasis was on the deification of humanity by sharing in Christ’s divine nature, increasingly the emphasis shifted to sharing in Christ’s sufferings and imitating his earthly way of life. But scholars warn against oversimplifying this transition. It never excluded a multiplicity of ways to portray and understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.
The Regensburg frontispiece is “right on the cusp” of one aspect of this transition, Professor Hamburger said. On the one hand, it is allegorical and didactic, directed toward intellectual reflection and theological meditation. On the other hand, not only does Jesus’ lifeless body elicit the viewer’s pity, but, as Professor Hamburger pointed out, the fact that the active protagonists in the scene have become female figures invited the nuns’ identification with the drama. Many representations of this theme were, in fact, created for nunneries.
The multiplicity of images of the Crucifixion should also recall that although Christians have always believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection somehow healed a world broken and enslaved by sin, they still differ over how exactly this process of atonement should be understood. Why was Jesus’ death necessary — or was it? What important ideas should govern thinking about it: expiatory sacrifice, ransom from slavery, feudal satisfaction, legal justification, exemplary action?
Envisaging Jesus’ crucifixion literally as the result of his faithfulness to virtues actually has some parallels with contemporary thinking about atonement that tries to connect closely his words, deeds, and death: because Jesus did not waver from proclaiming, in speech, acts of healing and fellowship with sinners, a new reign of God in which social hierarchies, violent practices and even death itself would be overturned, the inevitable outcome was his condemnation and execution — and affirmation by God on the third day.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company