The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy by Robin Jensen, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass./London, 2017.
The scope of Robin Jensen’s undertaking in The Cross is remarkable. In nine thematic, roughly diachronic chapters, Jensen highlights historical examples that show “how the Christian cross has been simultaneously a historical artifact, a symbol of a religion, an agent of miracles, a recipient of devotion, an infinitely reproducible image, and a narrator of its unique legend” (p. vii). While she primarily draws on evidence from the first through the sixteenth century, Jensen also touches upon modern examples. The resulting picture, perhaps like the cross itself, goes in multiple directions at once, far and wide, in image and in word, to places unexpected and familiar.
In the early chapters, Jensen names the puzzle she aims to address: “art historians have been unable to identify an unambiguously Christian crucifix before the fourth or early fifth centuries” even though “the image of Christ crucified is so ubiquitous in Christian art that it seems impossible that it was not there from the first” (p. 74). The problem of a crucified messiah, conversely, quite clearly emerged at the beginning of the Christ-cult. In Chapters 1 and 2, “Scandalum Crucis” and “Signum Crucis,” Jensen surveys data as diverse as Pauline letters, ancient evidence for crucifixion, Manichean and gnostic engagements with Jesus’s death, cosmic and mystical interpretations of the cross, and its role in baptism rituals as well as martyrdom narratives and theology. She argues that early Christians transformed the instrument by which their proclaimed savior died into “a providential symbol to be embraced and celebrated” (p. 25). The cross, Jensen notes, does not appear on extant material artifacts before the fourth century. When it does appear, Christians “regarded it as a triumphant and potent cosmic symbol” since it “continues to refer more to Christ’s conquest of death than to his mode of death” (p. 48). In Chapter 3, “Inventio Crucis,” Jensen proposes that the divergent accounts of Constantine’s famous vision in 312 and his mother Hellena’s supposed discovery of the True Cross relics were rooted in the “earlier construction of the cross as a cosmic sign rather than an instrument of death” (p. 52). Although both events were “associated with the imperial house,” Jensen concludes that the cross soon “began to distinguish itself from those imperial associations to become a devotional object in itself, without bearing any necessary or direct political or military meaning” (p. 73). Chapter 4, “Crux Abscondita,” advances this claim, suggesting that pilgrimage and cross-relic dispersal best explain why depictions of the crucifixion no longer seemed so problematic. The rest of this chapter examines portrayals of the cross in a variety of media, sketching iconographical developments from an open-eyed Christ, alert during his crucifixion, in the fifth and sixth centuries to representations of a suffering and bloodied Jesus which began to appear by the eighth century.
By Chapter 5, “Adoratio Crucis,” Jensen narrows her focus on the cross as a devotional object, turning to commemorations, festivals, rituals, and adornments by which it “became the sign or symbol of the Lord’s triumphant return at the end of the age” (p. 120). Because the cross was the instrument of Christ’s passion, she argues, it had a place in the salvation story, particularly in special liturgical celebrations. Thus, “over the centuries, the cross changed from being a mere prop in the Passion story to a symbolic manifestation of Christ’s power and glory” (p. 122). While one might contest whether the cross was ever a “mere prop,” Jensen analyzes a selection of captivating poems, legends, and liturgical dramas in Chapter 6, “Carmina Crucis,” in which the cross was “lauded as an autonomous character in the story of Christ’s passion” (p. 125). She highlights how these literary accounts worked affectively—even to the extent that they “often aroused anti-Jewish prejudice” (p. 147). She returns to affective themes in chapter 7, “Crux Patiens,” describing how a new emphasis on the suffering Savior prompted western medieval Christians to view Jesus’s afflictions as evidence of divine love. Despite this shift, in Jensen’s view, medieval Christians still viewed this suffering Christ as one who “conquers death in the way that the early Christians understood it” (p. 178). This chapter also includes a brief foray into the crusades and cross-bedecked soldiers, highlighting how the cross became a symbol simultaneously of “conquests abroad and persecution of Jews and other non-Christians at home” (p. 178).
The final two chapters, “Crux Invicta” and “Crux Perdurans,” further situate the cross in contexts of conflict, first the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the sixteenth century and then in the periods of European colonialization of the Maya and Aztec in central America, as well as of the Bakongo in central Africa. Chapter 9 also briefly discusses how Christian crosses have been regarded in Islamic literatures and in contemporary cultures (e.g. roadside shrines, KKK acts of intimidation, Jewish-led requests to remove crosses from Auschwitz memorials, and controversial works of art such as Andrews Serrano’s Piss Christ ). Jensen concludes by averring, “So long as Christians continue to ponder the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and to sing about it, wear images of it, or install it in their worship environments, the cross will never become irrelevant or trivial. Rather the cross will continue to project significant valence, both positive and negative depending on where or when it turns up, how it is used, what it looks like, and who sees it” (p. 216).
As I said, this book extends in many directions. The benefit of such a project derives from its scope, and readers should consider it an entrée to deeper study. Indeed, this seems to be Jensen’s aim as well, since she moves quickly from topic to topic, listing recommended readings for further study in the final pages (pp. 255-60). More than half the book examines material from Late Antiquity, Jensen’s primary field, but the extended narrative helps draw attention to the long history of interpretation of the cross and Jesus’s death upon it. As a result of this breadth, however, readers (including myself) may lament the exclusion of a favorite object, topic, or locale, and specialists may dispute the characterization of certain moments, texts, and artifacts. Moreover, Jensen at times draws parallels from disparate time periods and geographical contexts that raise critical questions about the grounds for comparison. While the selection of diverse examples is welcome, it is also not always clear how they fit within a narrative trajectory still ultimately rooted in western Christanities. Nevertheless, The Cross can serve as a valuable resource. By focusing on the trajectory of one object, Jensen succeeds at introducing readers to manifold manifestations of Christian thought, practice, artifact, and conflict.
Such an interdisciplinary pursuit is welcome. Humans agents embedded in particular contexts have used the cross as a symbol with which to navigate their political worlds and advance their own interests in myriad ways and The Cross illustrates that fact. Because this accomplishment is worth praising, I wonder whether attention to something like Pauline “synecdochical hermeneutics,” could have enriched the project. For Paul, “one event, most often the cross, can be used to evoke the whole” gospel narrative.The cross is never just about the physical cross or Jesus’s death or triumph, but potentially every episode in an expandable, providential narrative. The extent to which Christian authors and artists of later periods enact a similar poetics is difficult to answer, but had Jensen examined more consistently how and to what end particular authors or artists invoked the cross to refer to multiple events, past or future, Jensen’s aims could have been more evenly achieved. This is a lot to ask, but, because she has pulled together so much interesting material, I want more. In The Cross, Robin Jensen has challenged us to think across discipline and beyond simple periodization, throwing down a cross-shaped gauntlet. I suggest that we pick it up.
 The final two chapters leave Late Antiquity behind for good, so for reasons of space in this review and because of the chronological focus of AJR, I will not go into further detail. I encourage engagement with the “further reading” lists for these chapters, however, especially for “Crux Invicta,”where Jensen’s analysis needs more careful engagement with how the cross, the mass, sacraments, and religious images were distinct albeit overlapping issues.
 Margaret M. Mitchell, “Epiphanic Evolutions in Earliest Christianity” now in Paul and the Emergence of Christian Textuality: Early Christian Literary Culture in Context. Collected essays, Volume I, WUNT 393 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017),246. (The essay was originally published in 2004.) The “synecdochical logic” is explained more fully in “Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Functions of “The Gospel” in the Corinthian Correspondence” in the same volume, pp. 111-132 (originally published 1994).
Nathan J. Hardy is a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His current research examines how Christian authors in Late Antiquity and Byzantium selectively received the biblical and classical traditions on “living images,” especially how narratives thrust persons and images into the frontier between life and death. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @HardyNjhardy