Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (traditionally c.69 - c.155) was arrested during a public (pagan) festival and asked by his accusers: "What harm is there in saying ’Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense and saving your life?". Replied Polycarp, who was burned at the stake for his beliefs: "For eighty-six years I have been the servant [of Jesus Christ], and he never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?".

Martyrium Polycarpi

When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, he asked a question that has absorbed Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike since the first century. Is Christ a king? And if he is, what sort of kingdom does he rule? These questions had particular relevance and poignancy in the Roman Empire where the relationship between faith and power was constantly being renegotiated. After the decline of the Empire, a wide range of thinkers engaged the questions of Christ’s kingship and arrived at diverse - and often oppositional - philosophies concerning the political implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. Much debate has raged and m Read More
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (traditionally c.69 - c.155) was arrested during a public (pagan) festival and asked by his accusers: "What harm is there in saying ’Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense and saving your life?". Replied Polycarp, who was burned at the stake for his beliefs: "For eighty-six years I have been the servant [of Jesus Christ], and he never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?".

Martyrium Polycarpi

When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, he asked a question that has absorbed Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike since the first century. Is Christ a king? And if he is, what sort of kingdom does he rule? These questions had particular relevance and poignancy in the Roman Empire where the relationship between faith and power was constantly being renegotiated. After the decline of the Empire, a wide range of thinkers engaged the questions of Christ’s kingship and arrived at diverse - and often oppositional - philosophies concerning the political implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. Much debate has raged and much blood has been spilled over the issues which Jesus’ kingship pose, but no resolution seems forthcoming - or even possible. And so we must return - and continue to return - to the question posed by a Roman procurator to a Galilean peasant two millennia ago: So you are a king?

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Christ the King

This sculpture poignantly captures the ironies of Christian kingship: while Jesus retains the tragic visage of the man of sorrows, his crown of thorns has become a royal crown.

Jean Julien Bourgault (1897-1967)
c. 1968
Sculpture
PMA:J99.1516
© Musée de la civilisation


I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…

Galatians 2:20

To whom do Christians owe their allegiance in this world - to Christ or to Caesar? For members of the early church, the answer to this basic question could spell the difference between life and death. There was a river of blood running through the history of early Christianity, a river fed by the lives of martyrs who refused to reject Christ the King and submit to Caesar the emperor. The list is long. There was the noble Bishop Polycarp (d. c.155), incapable of cursing the Saviour who had redeemed him; Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (d. 7 March 203), exchanging a final chaste kiss before being savaged in the arena; and the bold slave-girl Blandina (d.177), wearing out her torturers with an almost superhuman endurance. For nearly three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians were forced to confront questions of faith of the most profound existential gravity, questions which determined not only how they lived, but, in many instances, how they died.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…

Galatians 2:20

To whom do Christians owe their allegiance in this world - to Christ or to Caesar? For members of the early church, the answer to this basic question could spell the difference between life and death. There was a river of blood running through the history of early Christianity, a river fed by the lives of martyrs who refused to reject Christ the King and submit to Caesar the emperor. The list is long. There was the noble Bishop Polycarp (d. c.155), incapable of cursing the Saviour who had redeemed him; Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (d. 7 March 203), exchanging a final chaste kiss before being savaged in the arena; and the bold slave-girl Blandina (d.177), wearing out her torturers with an almost superhuman endurance. For nearly three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians were forced to confront questions of faith of the most profound existential gravity, questions which determined not only how they lived, but, in many instances, how they died.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Man of Sorrows

The image of Jesus as the "King of Glory", the king above all earthly kings, inspired many early Christians to remain steadfast in their faith, despite political persecution and martyrdom.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta

Lithograph
PMA:J99.1933
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta.


Crowns

Christian martyrs bear witness to a life filled with grace and accent the martyr's crown rather than deny this grace. For the Romanian Orthodox Christians, who made these wedding crowns, holy matrimony is a type of martyrdom: a death of one's ego in order to be born anew into a life shared wholly with one's beloved.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta.

PMA.J99.1970.
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


Conquer by this!

Eusebius, Life of Constantine

On the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, the Roman emperor Constantine I claimed to have been overcome by a vision - a cross of light blazing above the sun and bearing the inscription "Conquer by this!" With Constantine’s profound spiritual epiphany - the sincerity of which many scholars have placed into question - the Roman Empire passed into the hands of Christ. One of the world’s great kingdoms was to be ruled by a crucified King crowned with thorns and enthroned on a tree. And yet, Constantine and the Roman world he ruled never became a strictly Christian empire. The old vices persisted, pagan senators still held considerable political power, and pagan symbols and rituals remained everywhere apparent - even in the great Christian city of Constantinople itself. Christian kingship was riddled with contradiction and irony, but none was more perplexing than this - the suffering servant had ascended the throne of royal power.
Conquer by this!

Eusebius, Life of Constantine

On the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, the Roman emperor Constantine I claimed to have been overcome by a vision - a cross of light blazing above the sun and bearing the inscription "Conquer by this!" With Constantine’s profound spiritual epiphany - the sincerity of which many scholars have placed into question - the Roman Empire passed into the hands of Christ. One of the world’s great kingdoms was to be ruled by a crucified King crowned with thorns and enthroned on a tree. And yet, Constantine and the Roman world he ruled never became a strictly Christian empire. The old vices persisted, pagan senators still held considerable political power, and pagan symbols and rituals remained everywhere apparent - even in the great Christian city of Constantinople itself. Christian kingship was riddled with contradiction and irony, but none was more perplexing than this - the suffering servant had ascended the throne of royal power.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Constantine's Vision of the Cross

Raphael's grandeur expresses the political and philosophical strivings of the papacy in his time, as well as the story of Constantine's vision of the cross before the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

Raphael and Giulio Romano (1483-1520 and c.1499-1546)
c. 1509-1510
Fresco, Vatican.
PMA:J99.1694
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


Sire, no orphan affects me in that way.
We must placate the cub and do it without delay
Or efface him as a cause of fear
Before his teeth and claws have grown,
For in time he would naturally overcome us here.

Jean de La Fontaine , The Lion

Longed for by an entire kingdom, the birth of Louis Dieu-Donné (God-Given), future king of France, on September 15, 1638, fulfilled all the devotees’ prayers. That birth, more than twenty years after Louis XIII had married Anne of Austria, was predicted by Sister Marguerite du Saint-Sacrament, a Beaune Carmelite. In the convents, the cult of the infant Jesus, represented as a small, crowned king, sceptre in his hand, resting in the arms of his Holy Mother, truly took wing. Thus the future king, orphaned early, consecrated to a glorious reign, was recognized as representing divine Read More
Sire, no orphan affects me in that way.
We must placate the cub and do it without delay
Or efface him as a cause of fear
Before his teeth and claws have grown,
For in time he would naturally overcome us here.

Jean de La Fontaine , The Lion

Longed for by an entire kingdom, the birth of Louis Dieu-Donné (God-Given), future king of France, on September 15, 1638, fulfilled all the devotees’ prayers. That birth, more than twenty years after Louis XIII had married Anne of Austria, was predicted by Sister Marguerite du Saint-Sacrament, a Beaune Carmelite. In the convents, the cult of the infant Jesus, represented as a small, crowned king, sceptre in his hand, resting in the arms of his Holy Mother, truly took wing. Thus the future king, orphaned early, consecrated to a glorious reign, was recognized as representing divine power, as representing God on earth.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Virgin and Child

Like many images of Louis XIV, the Sun King, François-Noël Levasseur's representation of the Virgin and Christ Child radiates with a brilliant luminosity.

François-Noël Levasseur (1703-1794)
Musée du Quebec
c. 1775
Sculpture
PMA:J99.1521
© Musée du Quebec


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Using examples, describe the difficulties of Christians in the first centuries after Christ’s crucifixion
  • Discuss the concept of Christ as a king

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