Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.

William Shakespeare, MacBeth

Of all the images which engage and perplex the western imagination, there is none more powerful than that of the crucified Christ. The blunt, brutal, physical facts of his death still assault us with a staccato series of abominations: nails driven through the wrists and feet, a crown of thorns gouging his brow, side pierced and bleeding, naked, jeered by onlookers. This image - an image of inestimable inhumanity, an image of God suffering and dying in his love for humanity - captivated the medieval mind and provided it with a rich cache of symbolic significance. For medieval theologians and laymen alike, the cross was the symbol of God’s awesome power, of God’s victory over death and evil. It was also the image of God’s wisdom, charity, and patience even while suffering at the hands of those he had come to redeem. Above all, it was the emblem of God’s incomprehensible love for humanity.
Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.

William Shakespeare, MacBeth

Of all the images which engage and perplex the western imagination, there is none more powerful than that of the crucified Christ. The blunt, brutal, physical facts of his death still assault us with a staccato series of abominations: nails driven through the wrists and feet, a crown of thorns gouging his brow, side pierced and bleeding, naked, jeered by onlookers. This image - an image of inestimable inhumanity, an image of God suffering and dying in his love for humanity - captivated the medieval mind and provided it with a rich cache of symbolic significance. For medieval theologians and laymen alike, the cross was the symbol of God’s awesome power, of God’s victory over death and evil. It was also the image of God’s wisdom, charity, and patience even while suffering at the hands of those he had come to redeem. Above all, it was the emblem of God’s incomprehensible love for humanity.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Death of Christ on the Cross

The frenetic action in Coypel's painting expresses with a visceral immediacy the terrible traumas, the earth rattling hurricanes, which attend humanity's rejection and crucifixion of the Son of God.

Coypel

Painting
Acc. No. 96/139. PMA:J99.1634.
© Art Gallery of Ontario


Cross montage

The rich symbology of the Christian cross is manifested in, among other things, the incredible range of variation in cruciform images from church to church, region to region.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta

Photograph
J99.1969
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta.


Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the ending of the fray. Now above the cross, the trophy, Sound the loud triumphant lay; Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, As a victim won the day.

Venantius Fortunatus, "Pange, lingua"

Following the conversion of the Roman Empire to the Christian faith in 312 A.D., the theological symbolism of the cross was wed to the political and military grammar of Rome. In the newly Christianized empire, the sign of the cross took on the dimensions of a mystical talisman, radiating the awesome power of God, enabling its possessor to vanquish whole armies through its spiritual force. So forcibly did the symbol of the cross impress itself upon Constantine’s mother, Helena, that she sought and allegedly recovered the True Cross. Legend has it that nails from this cross were placed in Constantine’s helmet and on the bridle of his horse and pieces of the cross were set in the statue of Constantine I at Constantinople. More than just a symbol of the Empire’s religious affiliations, the cross exerted a palpable power in this world, a force capable of routing Read More
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the ending of the fray. Now above the cross, the trophy, Sound the loud triumphant lay; Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, As a victim won the day.

Venantius Fortunatus, "Pange, lingua"

Following the conversion of the Roman Empire to the Christian faith in 312 A.D., the theological symbolism of the cross was wed to the political and military grammar of Rome. In the newly Christianized empire, the sign of the cross took on the dimensions of a mystical talisman, radiating the awesome power of God, enabling its possessor to vanquish whole armies through its spiritual force. So forcibly did the symbol of the cross impress itself upon Constantine’s mother, Helena, that she sought and allegedly recovered the True Cross. Legend has it that nails from this cross were placed in Constantine’s helmet and on the bridle of his horse and pieces of the cross were set in the statue of Constantine I at Constantinople. More than just a symbol of the Empire’s religious affiliations, the cross exerted a palpable power in this world, a force capable of routing enemies and protecting cities.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Veneration of the Cross

The cross, received solemnly with a hymn of praise, was conveyed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
19th Century
Engraving
PMA:J99.1895
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


…Therefore, we have clearly come to Christ, whom we confess to be both God and man and to have died on our behalf.

Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man

The medieval sign of the cross was not only a symbol of God’s might. It was also an image of His wisdom. In particular, the cross was seen as a symbol of the solution to a divine dilemma: how could humans possibly atone for generations of willful disobedience against God? Many medieval theologians - most notably Anselm of Canterbury (d.1109) - engaged this problem. In Anselm’s formulation, God’s justice demanded retribution, but God’s mercy desired man’s redemption; the former would destroy man, while the latter would undercut the moral order of the cosmos. Only a being capable of paying for the sins of man as a man and making that payment of infinite worth as a God could satisfy God’s justice and his mercy. That being was Jesus Christ, the man, the God, whose suffering and death had atoned for humanity’s sins and restored cosmic order.
…Therefore, we have clearly come to Christ, whom we confess to be both God and man and to have died on our behalf.

Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man

The medieval sign of the cross was not only a symbol of God’s might. It was also an image of His wisdom. In particular, the cross was seen as a symbol of the solution to a divine dilemma: how could humans possibly atone for generations of willful disobedience against God? Many medieval theologians - most notably Anselm of Canterbury (d.1109) - engaged this problem. In Anselm’s formulation, God’s justice demanded retribution, but God’s mercy desired man’s redemption; the former would destroy man, while the latter would undercut the moral order of the cosmos. Only a being capable of paying for the sins of man as a man and making that payment of infinite worth as a God could satisfy God’s justice and his mercy. That being was Jesus Christ, the man, the God, whose suffering and death had atoned for humanity’s sins and restored cosmic order.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Crucifixion

The representation of Christ crucified between the two thieves reveals alternate human stances: the propensity to denial even in the grip of death, and, the openness to new life in the time of dying. The thief on the left and the thief on the right represent all human options.

Master Jativa

Oil on pannel
Acc. no. 95/146. PMA:J99.1715.
© Art Gallery of Ontario


Coronation of the Virgin with Saint Anselm and Other Saints

Fiercely committed to the church and possessed of a penetrating intellect, St. Anselm shares distinguished company in this painting: St. Augustine stands beside him on the left side of the painting opposite Kings David and Solomon.

Francesco Francia (c. 1450-1517/18)

PMA: J99.1793
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


One cause of this barren blooming
I attribute to a false system of education [of women], gathered
from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures have been more anxious
to make them alluring mistresses
than affectionate wives and rational mothers …

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In 1653 Marguerite Bourgeoys, a member of the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Troyes, sailed to New France to teach children. Several years earlier, at the age of twenty, Marguerite received a mystical revelation during a religious procession in Troyes. From that turning point, Marguerite knew that, like the Virgin Mary, she would pursue Jesus’ teaching mission. Earlier, Jean-Jacques Olier and St. Pierre Fourier had established that women did not receive eno Read More
One cause of this barren blooming
I attribute to a false system of education [of women], gathered
from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures have been more anxious
to make them alluring mistresses
than affectionate wives and rational mothers …

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In 1653 Marguerite Bourgeoys, a member of the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Troyes, sailed to New France to teach children. Several years earlier, at the age of twenty, Marguerite received a mystical revelation during a religious procession in Troyes. From that turning point, Marguerite knew that, like the Virgin Mary, she would pursue Jesus’ teaching mission. Earlier, Jean-Jacques Olier and St. Pierre Fourier had established that women did not receive enough education. Saint Marguerite devoted herself to the education of young women because she was convinced that not fulfilling each girl’s potential was like spilling Christ’s blood in vain and letting each drop disappear in the sand.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys

Bourgeoys (1620-1700), founder of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal, was publicly revered as a saint before her death. Her vision of the Christ in all children, particularly girls, helped change the image of the child and of women in France and Quebec.

Pierre Le Ber
c. 1700
Painting
© Musée Marguerite-Bourgeoys


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Describe the meaning of the cross throughout Western history, using examples

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