Viladesau, Richard. The Beauty of the Cross; The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts, from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 214 pp. $39.95.
The Beauty of the Cross is primarily a work in systematic theology rather than one of art history. Richard Viladesau’s purpose is to explore the specific problem of the Christian perception of the cross by focusing on thoughts surrounding Christ’s suffering and death as a salvific event. From its inception, Christianity has always been distinguished as the religio cruces — the religion of the cross (7). He explores theological paradigms involving interpretation of the cross as key aspects of Christian soteriology as illustrated within artistic styles during theological periods of Christian history. It is an examination of the cross as the dominant symbol of the Christian faith from the first century to the end of the medieval period. Art produced during these times can be linked to the influence of the theology of each period. This exploration of the important connection between theology and the arts shows how theology can influence culture. Evangelical Christians gain insight into how the first centuries of the church grappled with and expressed their connection to the events of Christ’s passion. Christianity is a present faith for today’s people and culture. Those who strive to model Christ after patristic fathers of the church should find this volume refreshing. Not only is theological attitudes of the period thoroughly presented, the expression of faith through the arts shows a glimpse of how the culture of the day lived out the consequences of Christ’s passion.
Richard Viladesau has produced a study of the concept and symbolism of Christ’s cross in both theology and imagination. Visual imagery from the mind is a natural accompaniment to the written word. The theology of Christ’s passion involves both concept and aesthetic meditations and has changed throughout various historical contexts. Viladesau looks at church history and art history by means of systematic theology. His method involves examining the connection between aesthetic and conceptual theologies through the crucifix as seen in the New Testament period, Romanesque period, Medieval and Gothic periods in order to deepen the understanding of soteriology.
Viladesau’s thesis is that the church’s understanding of faith was reflected in artistic methods of thinking and communication along with the written text (4). Christianity has always held an aesthetic theology alongside Scripture in that the theology in each period of church history existed, “in both conceptual/theoretical and aesthetic mediations.” (6). The grotesque nature of the cross is the very center of the tension this symbol brings to the faith. On one hand, crucifixion is an ugly act, yet in Christ’s death on the cross, comes a new life that is beautiful. Portraying life and death at the same time is a theological dilemma. In Christ’s death, there begins a new life. Death and life are different, yet the same (52-53).
The cross has not lost its offensive nature to those outside the Christian tradition today. The broken body of Christ to many represents the opposite of salvation. Indian saints, Sunni Muslims, and Jews, see God’s peace coming to those who do not suffer. For Jews especially, the cross is an offensive symbol of a history of persecution (8). Many in the emerging church today promote the idea that the idea of the bloody sacrifice on the Cross is nothing more than “cosmic child abuse.” Steve Chalke writes, “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.” Viladesau shows how many post-Christians in today’s culture see the cross as a symbol of the burden of guilt-feelings and masochism that Christianity imposes on others. His example is the 1996 crucifixion collage of contemporary artist Tammy Anderson. It is just as important to today as in any period of Church history for Christians to reflect on how the theology the cross is salvific and how it represents the wisdom and power of God (8).
Agreement with Viladesau’s study
Viladesau begins his exploration by showing how offensive the crucifixion has always been with an early crucifixion image of The Graffito of Alexamenos. In this primitive wall drawing, Christ is portrayed with the head of a donkey. The degradation of Christ is obvious as the inscription with the piece reads, “Alexamenos worships God.” (18-19). Yet Christianity embraces the mockery and glorifies Christ through the oppression. During the earliest years of the church, the patriarchal fathers founded the theology that Christ’s death paid a debt he did not owe so that the death all sinners owed God would do them no harm (32). The ridicule of the crucifixion was portrayed in music, art, and liturgy as a triumph over death something those who were not believers could never understand and thus ridiculed. Augustine’s writings on the crucifixion set the foundation for a patristic theology recognizing Christ’s sacrifice as “the great price with which Christ bought us” (32).
As the portrayal of the crucifixion became more commonplace, the depiction of Christ took on the role of victory. From the beautiful Christ of the fifth century to the Syrian style Jesus, depictions of Jesus took on theological as well as cultural meanings of triumph (44-45). During the Byzantine era frescos and mosaic art began to portray Christ as dead, or dying, on the cross. The doctrinal influence on these images indicated that to see Christ as dead on the cross was to affirm the reality of the incarnation. This was a direct contradiction against Docetism and Monophysitism. To represent the death of Christ was a theological stand against the errors of the Docetistic heresies of the day 48-49).
To the medieval mindset, the notion of betrayal was too horrendous to comprehend. In Dante’s Inferno the very mouth of Satan, the deepest center of Hell, was reserved for those who would betray Jesus. This was the punishment waiting for Judas. The natural horror and shame at the betrayal of a friend was reinforced by social structure. The feudal system of the medieval period was entirely based on personal loyalty. Bonaventure understood sin precisely in this context. His theology states that sin is not merely disobedience, it is personal betrayal of a friend and benefactor (107).
Viladesau presents well the meaning behind the images of art history giving greater insight into the art itself. Art historians are now presented with clear evidence that art does have purpose other than a contemporary viewer’s interpretation. The artists and craftsmen throughout Christian history saw their art and their every day living as integrated as glorifying Christ. Viladesau effectively shows transitions of theology from one period to the next in a way that shows how theology of the church changed, yet strengthened, in deeper conviction. The art, music and liturgy that came out of these convictions stand as testaments to the sincerity of these beliefs as Christians lived out their lives and faced daily challenges. From the mockery faced during the first centuries, to the black death of the medieval period, Viladesau shows that depictions of Christ’s passion coincided with the struggles faced by Christians. They turned to Christ for solace and expressed Christ’s solidarity with them through their art.
Disagreement with Viladesau’s study
The historical timeline of this book covers Christianity from the earliest days of the New Testament through the theological decline of the late medieval period. Viladesau never acknowledges the over dependence on images that in large part led to the iconoclasm of Protestant Reformation. His failure to acknowledge the spiritual decline of the late medieval church is a failure in the study of the shift of focus of many medieval church leaders culminating with Martin Luther’s 95 theses in 1517. The corruption of indulgences during this period was fueled by the desire for richer church architecture and art. Relics housed in ornate reliquaries supported an economic culture centered on dangerous Christian theology.
Viladesau also never returns to the concept introduced in the first chapter about those who find the cross offensive. There are no concluding thoughts as to how those offended, from other religions to post-Christians in contemporary western culture, can benefit from this aesthetic study of the cross. Surely a few opinions could be changed by this thorough investigation into the theology behind much of the images of Christ’s crucifixion. There is potential for evangelism to an image rich culture and this type of study would be an invaluable tool. Although he admittedly proclaims that this study is intended for artists and scholars contemplating theology, what is lacking are his connecting thoughts on how his study will influence post-Christians and other world religions who are opposed to the ideas they feel the cross represents. Instead readers are left to apply the information in forms unintended by the author.
The Beauty of the Cross is intended for serious art scholars, artists wondering about theology, and theologians who are curious about but have little background in the arts. This is the beginning of a long study on the creative expression of Christ’s suffering on the cross through the arts. This volume ends with the limited introduction to the early years of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The author admits to this stopping point and confesses to the need of a new volume rather than just another chapter in order to do justice to the wealth of advancement in the arts during the Renaissance (Preface viii, 173).
The Triumph of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation is Viladesau’s continuation of his study of theology and the arts as it is related to the cross. Readers of The Beauty of the Cross will be inspired to continue the journey with The Triumph of the Cross just released April 22, 2008 (the same day as the delivery of this review).