The Cross Yesterday and Today - Grete Refsum
One Symbol – Plural Forms. Historical Models when Making Cross and Crucifix Forms Today
by Grete Refsum
Familiarity with historical material culture is in certain cases vital for innovation in art and
design production. In this paper, the cross or crucifix symbol exemplifies the statement.
All crosses and crucifixes symbolise joy and salvation. But formally there are two different
types: the victorious crucifix that depicts Christ alive standing on the cross, and the suffering
crucifix that shows the tortured, dead man hanging on the cross.
The crucifix that is regarded traditional in our time stems from the 16th century and is of the
suffering type that presupposes onlookers who know the Gospel story. Visually it
communicates the opposite of its intended happy meaning. Today, when the Christian
narrative is no longer commonly shared and understood, theologians and contemporary cross
or crucifix makers are challenged.
The paper accounts for the present historical understanding of Roman crucifixion; gives a
brief review of the development of the cross and crucifix as symbols of Christian faith;
presents basic varieties within cross and crucifix iconography; and exemplifies by a work of
the author, how knowledge about the historical material heritage can induce innovation.
Familiarity with historical material culture is in certain cases vital for innovation in art and
design production. In this paper, the cross or crucifix symbol exemplifies the statement.
When dealing with ecclesial art or design tasks, reference to the Christian material heritage is
expected. Any period may be formally just as relevant as another. Still, the Roman Catholic
Church normatively asks for genuine Christian art from our own times, which means
contemporary interpretations of the Christian message that have significance for people today
(Refsum 2000), and Pope John Paul II frequently encourages artists and designers to work for
the Church (John Paul II 1999). The outcome of ecclesial art and design production in our
time, however, often falls into one of two categories: being either too traditional or too
inventive, neither of which represent the ecclesial wish. By knowing the ecclesial tradition
better, these pitfalls could be avoided.
Crosses and crucifixes in Christian contexts refer to the historical event that the Jew Jesus
from Galilee was crucified around the year 30 AD. Both symbolise the same meaning of
Christ’s redeeming offer of being killed and his triumphant resurrection from death that
became regarded as the salvation for humankind. Formally, crucifixes fall into two principal
categories: the victorious type that depicts Christ alive, and the suffering type that shows the
dead man hanging on the cross. The crucifix that we regard as the prototype today, with an
athletic man hanging dead on a Latin cross, is an interpretation of the suffering type that stems
from the 16th century. This crucifix type visually communicates the opposite of its intended
happy meaning; it presupposes that the Gospel story is known. Today, this may not be the
case. Here lies a challenge for contemporary cross or crucifix makers.
First, the paper accounts for the present historical understanding of Roman crucifixion.
Second, it gives a brief review of the development of the cross and the crucifix as symbols of
Christian faith. Third, it presents basic varieties within cross and crucifix iconography. And
forth, the author’s personal work exemplifies how historical models can induce innovation.
Historical realities concerning crucifixion
Crucifixion was used as a death penalty for enemies of the Roman state; its practice is
documented by contemporary Roman historians. Variations of methods were the rule;
probably the T-form was the most commonly used cross type (EB mic. vol. III: 266). The
crucifixion of Jesus is accounted for in the gospels only. These narratives offer little
information about formal aspects like cross form, crucifixion details and bodily posture.
Besides, the gospel stories are catechetical in ambition. According to the Irish American
biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan the detailed passion accounts are “not history
remembered, but prophesy historicized” (Crossan 1994: 145).
Although thousands of victims have been crucified, archaeological material of crucifixion is
almost non-existing because part of the crucifixion punishment was to obliterate the victim.
The corpses either were left on the crosses to be consumed by birds, or thrown into open
ditches to be prayed upon by animals (Crossan 1994: 127; Zias 1998: last page). The first and
only known remains of a crucified person were found in 1968, in a funeral chest in Jerusalem
at Giv’at ha-Mivtar. From this material evidence several positions of the crucified have been
reconstructed (Kuhn 1979: 315). Combining the favoured suggestion of crucifixion with the
cross in the historical park of Jerusalem, a crucifixion scene can be reconstructed, figure 1.
Figure 1 Reconstruction of crucifixion (drawing: Jørgen Jensenius 2000) (Refsum 2000: 218).
Crucifixion was a method of torture intended to torment the victim slowly, it could be days. In
order to hasten death, the calf bones might be broken so that the victim fell down unable to
move upwards and breathe. It is supposed that Jesus died quickly because of his haemorrhage
caused by extensive whipping. The death cause may have been a combination of shock and
suffocation (Edwards et al. 1986: 1461).
Development of the Cross as Symbol of Christian Faith
The cross is found in both pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures where it has largely a
cosmic or natural signification. Two crossed lines of equal length signify the four directions of
the universe, and the swastika cross symbolizes the whirling sun, the source of light and
power (NCE vol. 4: 378). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew letter tau shaped like a T or an X,
is used as a sign that saves; the citizens of Jerusalem who marked their foreheads with this
sign, Yahweh would not exterminate (Ezekiel 9.4-6; JB, OT: 1369).
The significance of Christ’s death on the cross, according to Christian understanding, can be
learned from many references throughout the New Testament. All of them can be reduced to
one single idea: God’s great love for men. For Jews a man hanging on a tree was cursed.
When Jesus chose to be crucified, this act was understood as an offer that would redeem man
from the malediction of the Jewish Law, which posed obligations on people, but was unable
to save them from Yahweh’s punishment and hell. The crucifixion is seen as a mystical event
representing the redemptive work of Christ, and the fulfilment of the Old Testament. Through
Jesus the cross became a means of reconciling the sinful mankind and God. The cross,
therefore, represent the instrument of man’s liberation; it is the symbol of the redeemed
mankind (NCE vol. 4: 378).
The earliest Christians hardly used the cross, or worse the crucifix, to symbolize their faith.
The reasons may be many. First, the historical realities concerning crucifixion are gruesome.
Second, they were Jews accustomed to the prohibition of images in the Old Testament. Third,
the faith in a crucified male being God, was intellectually difficult to defend. Fourth,
Christianity was not legally accepted within the Roman Empire and Christians had to be
careful not to expose their belief. In consequence, few traces are left of a particular Christian
material culture before the 3rd century. However, Christianity was established in opposition to
contemporary religions that worshipped material things, the Roman emperor included.
The early Christians regarded their God as spiritual and superior to other deities, and they
had little need of religious objects and art (Finney 1994).
According to the late German scholar Erich Dinkler, the first known evidence of using the
cross – in this context T (tau) – to refer to Jesus, is from a fragment of a manuscript dated to
the second half of the 2nd century (Dinkler 1992: 341 and 345). Although the Jews had used
the tau as a sign of protection, this practice has no ideological connection to the later Christian
use of the cross. When the Christians adopted the cross as a symbol of their faith, it was an
invention based on different ideas (Dinkler 1967: 23-25). In the early 4th century, Constantine
the Great (280- 337) took Christianity as his religion, and abolished the execution method of
crucifixion. He marked his helmet and banner with the Greek letter X (Ch), which is the first
letter in Christ written in Greek. The subsequent development of the symbol of the cross
seems to stem from this Greek letter X, not a torture instrument (Thomas 1971). The Greek
letters XP became the Christ monogram, symbolizing that Christ had conquered death
through resurrection. Often the monogram was set in a circle of laurel, the contemporary
symbol of victory. Such iconography is seen on 4th century sarcophaguses, along with the
Latin cross form, with elongated vertical and shorter cross arms, the totality signifying
everlasting life. In 326 AD, mother of Constantine, Empress Helena, is said to have found
the true cross on Golgotha. This finding was at the time, regarded as empirical proof of
resurrection. Its relics were venerated and a new cross erected on the spot (Borgehammar
1991; Drijvers, 1992). From then on, the interest in the cross started to grow.
According to Dinkler, the story of the cross as a symbol of Christianity seems to begin after
350 AD in the times of Emperor Theodosius the Great (379-395) and in Byzantium (Dinkler
1967: 74). And only long after, when most memories of Roman torture were forgotten, did the
crucifix become a symbol of Christian faith. The earliest known representation of Christ
crucified is a blasphemous graffiti from the 2nd century showing Christ as a donkey
(NCE vol. 4: 81). Proper crucifixes – a cross on which there is an image of Christ crucified
– appear next in the 5th century, integrated in the narrative of the life of Christ. From the 6th
century and three centuries on, the crucifix gradually separated from its narrative context
and became a symbol in itself, and in the 10th century, its basic iconographic forms were
Cross and Crucifix Iconography
First comes the XP monogram, then the naked cross with variations and embellishments.
Then a symbol is included in the middle of the cross arms: the lamb, the bust of Christ,
and finally the complete figure of Christ, living with eyes open. On the first examples Christ
wears a loincloth, later he appears clothed in a sleeveless Roman tunic of honour.
In the 8-9th centuries, his eyes start to close, signalling death, and in the 10th century,
the robe is replaced by a loincloth. From then on, the representations of Christ on the
cross oscillate between the victorious type depicting Christ alive, standing on the cross
with eyes open, and the suffering type showing him hanging on the cross, tortured,
dying or dead. During late medieval times the latter type became European standard,
increasingly more blood-dripping until crucifix iconography culminated in the 16th century,
in the moderated expression that still is regarded the prototype of a crucifix: a handsome,
athletic man nicely draped with a loincloth, hanging more or less dead on a Latin cross
(Lexicon der christlichen Iconographie 1970; Schiller 1968).1
The naked cross, the victorious and the suffering crucifix symbolise the same Christian
message, but with different theological accents (figures 2-5).
Figure 2 Early Irish cross, Kilmalkedar, county Kerry
Figure 3 Cross from Gloppen, height 2,13 m, 10-11th century (Birkeli 1973: 201)
(photo: Nordfjordeid museum)
Figure 4 Crucifix from Leikanger, figure 75,5 cm, 12th century (Blindheim 1980: 45)
(photo: Bergen Museum)
Figure 5 Crucifix from Holmedal Church, corpus 1,25 m, 1475 (Nordhagen 1981: 410)
The naked cross shows that Christ is risen; the victorious crucifix communicates the same,
stressing that Christ is God; while the suffering crucifix highlights the redeeming offer given
by the Son of God who was truly human (Hellemo 1996).
A Contemporary Crucifix Interpretation
Cross and crucifix makers have through the centuries added to the given iconography and
themselves become part of the tradition. Since the late 19th and throughout the 20th century,
countless artists have given their share to new interpretations (Landsberg 2001; Mennekes and
Røhrig 1994; Rombold and Schwebel 1983). Modernist crucifix interpretations basically
imply formal variations, changing materials and style, and most of them focus on the suffering
aspect. The artists often seem to identify their personal misery, the social situation or world
affairs with the crucifixion horror. Thus, the crucifix has become a metaphor of depicting
injustice and evil. Such interpretations may be artistically interesting, but from the ecclesial
perspective, they may not be satisfying in transmitting the joyful meaning of the crucifix.
In consequence, the neo-classicist varieties, often kitschy, have kept their position as
ecclesial models. Regardless of 500 years of theological thinking, Christianity today is
branded with a kitschy version of a late medieval symbol – no strange its adherents are
declining! Resuming ecclesial practice and raising my children within the Church, I felt
the need to provide an alternative crucifix solution for catechetical reasons.
To vitalize or even redesign a traditional object, calls for actions beyond changing formal
aspects. One has to explore the origins of the object, why it came into use and what functions
it was to serve. By understanding the roots of the cross and the crucifix, its symbolic meaning,
significance, use and iconography, as outlined in this article, I came to see that these symbols
are not holy in themselves as objects; they are contemporary expressions intended to point
towards the Christian mystery as understood in it’s own times. Federico Borromeo’s teaching
on ecclesial art from the 17th century, was particularly influential on my thinking. He wished
artists to consider present understanding of sacred history and archaeological information in
order to demonstrate a rational attitude and guarantee historical authenticity, which he thought
would assert the authority of faith (Refsum 2000: 66-67; Jones 1993: 210). According to the
new, official and conservative Catholic Catechism, tradition written with a small letter t,
relates to that which is customary and manmade, through which the great Tradition, or faith,
is expressed. The particular forms of tradition, adapted to different places and times, can be
retained, modified or even abandoned (CCC A. 83; 25). Combining the gathered information
with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council’s on art from 1963, Sacrosanctum
concilium, chapter VII, (Vatican II 1981: 34-36), I felt free to experiment with form in my art
process as long as I was respectful towards faith and the Church.
The logic in my working process on the cross and crucifix that after nearly ten years, ended in
Divided Crucifix went as follows. Since little is known for certain concerning Christ’s
crucifixion, I abandoned realism and figuration. The Norwegian medieval triumphant
crucifixes nurtured my interest in the victorious aspect. The Irish Christian material heritage
and the cross from Gloppen inspired abstractions and geometric solutions (Refsum 2003). I
decided to abstract the crucifix figure, or the Godly aspect of Christ, into a ball. These threads
mingled together in Risen Cross that I regard as an abstract victorious crucifix, figure 5.
Figure 6 Figure Risen Cross 1991, height 165 cm
But Risen Cross lacks the suffering aspect. I realised that to contemplate grief and to proclaim
the glad tidings, existential darkness is needed as a contrast. But how can the joyful and the
sorrowful aspect be communicated equally in one symbol? My conclusion became that this is
impossible to express in one object.
Starting in the symbolic meaning, taking theology as point of departure, I got the idea to split
the cross or crucifix into separate parts, and let each part represent one aspect of the gospel
story. With four cross arms and one middle part that represent the Christ figure, I got five
pieces. In Divided Crucifix each part represents one liturgical event in which Christ plays a
Palm Sunday – Christ is king
Maundy Thursday – the Eucharist is instituted
Gethsemane Garden – Christ suffers mentally
Good Friday – Christ suffers physically
Easter Morning – Christ is risen
The cross parts themselves are formed as abstractions of a male, height 180 cm. The gospel
narrative is visually communicated by the gradual twisting of the main form, and the changes
of the ball in the middle of the form, being present, moved, absent and returned, figure 7 and
Figure 7 Drawn overview of Divided Crucifix
Figure 8 Divided Crucifix, St. Nikolai Church, Norway
Divided Crucifix tells a story of transformation from strength and gifts, through extreme pain,
mental and physical. It formally associates female experience and psychological thinking, to
being born and giving birth. Divided Cross is a catechetical work, intended to be used
liturgically, puzzled together from Lent to Easter Morning when it will be completed.
My aim was to provide a crucifix that visualized the complete Gospel story and ended in a
convincing resurrection. Divided Crucifix is not a variety of the Stations of the Cross, since
the Stations deal with Good Friday only. It is a suffering and a victorious crucifix combined.
Without studying the historical material culture, I hardly would have had the courage to
deconstruct the crucifix and suggest an innovation, and I would certainly not have had the
arguments to defend the result.
A = article
CCC = Catechism of the Catholic Church
EB = The New Encyclopædia Britannica
JB = Jerusalem Bible
NCE = The New Catholic Encyclopedia
OT = Old Testament
1 One of the reasons for this iconographic standard is the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that lay down regulations on art. The Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), was the only writer who tried to work out the implications of them. In his Instruction, chapter VII, Sacred Images and Pictures, published in Milan 1577, is said: “First of all, no sacred image that contains any false teaching should be painted […] nor any that suggests an occasion of dangerous error to the uneducated; nor, again, any that is contradictory to Sacred Scripture and church tradition. Only such as conform to scriptural truth, traditions, ecclesiastical histories, custom and usage of our mother Church may be painted” (Voelker 1977: 228). Carlo Borromeo specifies further: “nothing false ought to be introduced […] anything that is uncertain, apocryphal, and superstitious; […] only that which is in agreement with custom” (Voelker 1977: 229). He continues: “whatever is profane, base or obscene, dishonest or provocative, whatever is merely curious and does not incite to piety, or that which can offend the minds and eyes of the faithful should be avoided” (Voelker 1977: 229).
In the early 17th century Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) founded the religious centre Ambrosiana with the purpose of reforming ecclesial scholarship and the figurative arts. In his book on sacred images, De Pictura Sacra, from 1624, Federico emphasized clarity and scriptural and iconographical accuracy in religious art. He recognized three interdependent roles of sacred art: the devotional, the didactic, and the documentary. Above all, ecclesial art should express the entire breadth of metaphysical reality, and appeal to all aspects of man: senses, emotions, intellect, and heart. Federico Borromeo wanted ecclesial art to make use of the research method and findings of sacred history in order to give images added potency. This indicated an adoption of certain approved portrait likenesses, iconographic details, and archaeological information, which should guarantee authenticity. He wished historical scenes to be recorded in an accurate manner in order to demonstrate a rational attitude, which he thought would assert the authority of faith see Jones 1993; Refsum 2000: 67).
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Grete Refsum has a broad academic and artistic background; 1977, MA Environmental Manager, University of Agriculture; 1978, Examen Philosophicum, University of Oslo; 1985, Diploma, Painting/stained glass; 1992 MA, Form, National College of Art and Design; 2000, Dr. ing., Oslo School of Architecture. Refsum is currently part time (50 %) employed in Oslo National Academy of the Arts as Senior Adviser of research and development and as Adjunct Professor. Refsum has during 20 years contributed to the development of research in art and design through her artistic development work and practice-led research, publishing and taking part in the international discourse on these issues through many conferences and publications. Artistically, Refsum has systematically explored the Western Christian heritage and tradition, interpreting central themes like: the cross/crucifix, sacraments, prayer and liturgy. For the last 10 years, she has focused on prayer/meditation. Refsum is a pioneer of using art experimentally in catechesis and ecclesial spaces. Her practice comprises: embellishments, art interventions, performances, workshops and shows of various kinds. Several of her art works are regularly being used liturgically. www.refsum.no