The Crucified God: A Death in Pictures – by Ed Simon

Ed Simon asks, What’s so Good about Friday?

“That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood –
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets (1940)

“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1967)

I have, perhaps due to an innate inclination towards the macabre, always appreciated the crucifix more than the cross. The crucifix and the cross are certainly not contradictory, and obviously the later is the ultimate narrative conclusion of the former. But in its sanitized abstraction, the cross seems to me to be eliminating the most crucial part of the story, and in the modern era of the Death of God I don’t think the story Sunday tells is as important as the one that Friday does. While Christians of all denominations wear crosses, for the most part only Catholics embrace the crucifix. Interpreting a crucifix as an important part of religious material culture conceptualizes the object as a symbol of group allegiance, one advertising its wearer not as a member of the United States’ traditional Protestant ruling classes. In popular culture it is the shriveled Irish nun, the Italian boxer, the Hispanic laborer, who wears the crucifix, while the cross is worn by the WASPy suburban couple, the campus Christian, or the cheerful door-to-door missionary. As a matter of semiotics, a crucifix has different connotations than a cross does. But this perspective has more to do with sociology than theology, and for me the fact remains that my attraction to the crucifix has a noumenal element about it as well. Perhaps it is simply because I grew up Roman Catholic, but the crucifix—whether a cruciform Christ punctuating the ring of rosary beads, a termite-feasted medieval church artifact, or a neon kitsch relic—seems to state a truth more real than the cross. Independent of the vagaries of orthodoxy, filtered through the interpretive lens of my own belief (or disbelief), I still accept the story the crucifix tells; but when the tomb is empty, I’m not so sure I buy that story anymore. Friday tells the truth, the jury is still out on Sunday

There are other Christian symbols of course, the cross and the crucifix being only two. There is the Ichthys, a simple hieroglyph of a fish: the word is an acrostic in Greek meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” and the symbol evokes Christ as the “fisherman of men.” It once adorned dark Roman catacombs, understood only by the elect. Now it is affixed proudly to car bumpers, spreading the good news at stoplights. There are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the Staurogram, the Chi Rho and so on. There are the allegorical symbols of Christianity: Christ as shepherd, or sheep, or even pelican (for men once believed that creature nourished its young with her own blood). But in the popular imagination, the cross reigns as triumphant as it did when, according to the Church father Eusebius, on the eve of battle the Emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sun and heard a voice proclaiming “with this sign, you will conquer.” The cross is as universally recognized as a symbol of Christianity as the Crescent is of Islam, or the Star of David, of Judaism. While the cross is frequently understood as the general symbol of the faith, the crucifix is perhaps a more exotic version of its less disturbing relative. There is something stranger, odder, and kinkier about the crucifix when compared to the cross, which can easily look like a lower-case t (or as the famously eccentric mathematician Paul Erdos once mistook it, a plus sign).  That is to say that a cross can easily make one forget what it is you’re actually looking at – a representation of a purposefully disgraceful instrument of state-sanctioned murder.  A crucifix never lets you forget that fact.

Reformation-era critics of Catholicism took “Scripture Alone!” as one of their rallying cries, but the specifics of Christ’s crucifixion are fairly minimal in the biblical account, to the point where there is uncertainty as to what the actual instrument of his death even looked like, or how he was affixed to it. One needs few details to understand what was at stake in a process that Cicero described as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” The common medieval depiction of the stigmata indicates that two of the spikes used to crucify Christ were hammered through his palms, though this is based upon a mistranslation of John. Nailing through the palms is an anatomical impossibility (at least without additional support) and it is now commonly thought that stakes were most likely driven between the radius and ulna of the wrist. Medically speaking, what finally killed the punished wasn’t blood loss so much as suffocation: the condemned’s lungs compressed as he hung from the cross. While details of the crucifixion are sometimes amended in contemporary depictions of Christ’s crucifixion, what is less commented on is that the traditional shape of the cross is also a bit of extra-biblical elaboration, one based in tradition, not scripture. Crucifixion as employed by Roman authorities encompassed a wide variety of practices, including impalement, nailing the victim to two cross-beams attached as if an uppercase T, nailing the victim to a simple upright pole (appropriately known as crux simplex), or to a tree. The later possibility, when applied to Christ, has a nice typological symmetry, evoking as it does the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the transgression of that mythic tree that necessitated Christ’s sacrifice in the first place. That is the tradition John Donne was working in when he wrote in 1613: We think that Paradise and Calvary,/Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.” Whether tree, pole, or the more traditional cross, the Bible is spare on details as to what the actual apparatus looked like, but that has not stopped supposedly sola Scriptura Protestants from relying on tradition to embrace the cross as symbol of their denominations

Artistically speaking, a cross is no more difficult to draw than a pole. Only two intersecting lines are required to depict the set for the central drama of the Christian faith. But a crucifix requires a much higher degree of artistic aptitude. It’s probably more for this reason than any other that the cross (along with similarly minimalist images like the Icthys) was common in the early centuries of Christianity, and that the crucifix first began to appear half a millennium after Jesus lived. The cross is simply geometrical, whereas the crucifix’s vocabulary is not rectilinear, but positively biological. The manufacture of a crucifix is not a question of right angles, but a question of flesh, bone, and wound. When Christians came out of the catacombs the more complex symbol could flourish, but in the West the crucifix didn’t become common until the end of the first millennium.

The Alexamenos graffito, The Palatine Hill Museum, Rome, c. 200
The Alexamenos graffito, The Palatine Hill Museum, Rome, c. 200

Possibly the earliest surviving example of a representation of the crucified Christ was made not to glorify him, but rather to mock. Near the Palatine Hill in Rome during the early third century some wise-ass drew a crude representation of a supplicant praying to a donkey-headed man strung up on a cross with the Greek header “Alexamenos worships his God.” Resembling a mixture of Christ and Bottom the weaver from A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, the ass-headed Jesus dimly and dumbly would have looked out from marble at Romans going about their day, Romans who paused perhaps to chuckle at the expense of poor Alexamenos (whoever he was).

No amount of creative explication can claim this image is meant to be anything but demeaning. Do not look for ways to interpret the bestial donkey-man dying upon his cross as a reference to Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; this picture has one simple meaning: that Christianity is absurd. No less than Paul said that Christ crucified was “foolishness to the Greeks.” And indeed this was true: inheritors of classical paganism saw Christianity as just one more exotic, oriental cult and they believed any number of slanders against the religion. Around the same time that some ancient tagger chiseled his little joke on that wall, the respected philosopher Porphyry of Tyre offered a more academic critique of the Nazarene’s religion, commenting that “the Christians are a confused and vicious sect.” Roman authors accused early Christians of orgiastic night rituals, of human sacrifice, and of the use of human blood in the performance of the Eucharist. That Christians worshiped a blood sacrifice as supreme God, and that they claimed to ingest his flesh and blood no doubt contributed to a misunderstanding that this was a literal act of cannibalism (the vagaries of transubstantiation – which had yet to be explicated – not withstanding). No doubt there is an irony in the Roman slander against the Christians that claimed they murdered pagan children and used their blood in the production of communion: it is an exact parallel to the medieval Christian blood libel against the Jews. The latter reflects the profound internalization and projection that can result when the persecuted become those that persecute. But in the third century, Christians were still the Other, and the Alexamenos graffito reflects that status, that Christians lacked social capital and as a faith they were associated with women and slaves who venerated an executed criminal born to an ethnically marginalized people. There is something sobering and fully appropriate in remembering that the first crucifix was crafted to demean Christ, as if the humiliation of his passion continued centuries after his death. One of the innate powers of Christianity is that it is, in a sense, impossible to mock in any effective way. The fundamentalists’ anger over so-called blasphemous art evidences not the possibility of blasphemy, but only the fundamentalists’ anxious faith. It would do them well to remember that centuries before Piss Christ the very first depiction of their crucified Lord was meant to offend (although the former was not meant to), and that those images only serve to confirm faith, not deny it. One of the lessons of the crucifix is that God died not just a human death, but also a particularly painful and shameful one. The Alexemanos graffito, contrary to the wishes of its sarcastic author, confirms that central Christian teaching more than any jewel-encrusted artifact ever could.

Crucifixes became predictably more elaborate as they became central to Christian devotions. It was the Roman Rite of the fourteenth-century that required that “either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people.” Byzantine Christians, with their different ordering of the Decalogue, had a stricter prohibition on sculpture, and despite their own iconoclastic convulsions over flat images, they ultimately embraced icons. The sculpted or carved crucifix is therefore a Western tradition, and technically the term can only apply to a representation of the crucifixion that is three-dimensional; in Orthodox churches the representation normally takes the form of a flat painting. Orthodox conceptions of Christ tend to emphasize the divine aspect of his hypostatic union, and as such depictions of his crucifixion can be otherworldly or alien. During the Western Carolingian renaissance of the Middle Ages, European artists embraced what became a tradition of depicting Jesus in all of his humanity as man of sorrows, a trend that only accelerated over the centuries into the early modern period. A particularly stunning example is the celebrated Gero Cross of the Cologne Cathedral, a large colorful carving of the crucifixion from tenth-century Germany, commissioned by the Archbishop who gives it his name. The Gero Cross is the largest and oldest of its kind, chiseled from a massive oak that once grew in those cold lands north of the Alps. Carved by anonymous and forgotten hands, this oak calls to mind that tree from which sin first emanated, or perhaps the defeated Yggdrasil the Germans had exchanged for a crucified Jew. Standing over six feet tall, Christ is depicted for the first time as no longer in the process of dying, but as now unequivocally dead. The Gero Christ’s paint has been retouched over the years; his skin remains the rich coffee nut-brown of the oak, and the blond Teutons who carved him made his hair dark, a surprising instance of historical accuracy. He reminds me of the black Madonnas which proliferated in medieval Europe from Iberia to Poland, and which must have served as uncomfortable reminders about the specific corporeality of the Lord to the descendants of those who had carved them, those later Germans who had embraced the fallacy of idolatrizing phenotypical difference.

In the late seventeenth century the Gero Cross was placed at the center of a triumphant golden sun, one that with its curved rays almost recalls Guadalupe. Baroque aesthetics were a direct rebuke to Protestant iconoclasm, and here in the birthplace of the Reformation the Gero Cross stands as a testament to the Catholic embrace of the image (though Luther was himself fine with artistic depictions of biblical subjects). Not for nothing have Americans tended to understand Puritan minimalism to define good taste, while the busy, crowded, or colorful is dismissed as too tacky, too kitschy, too ethnic, too Catholic. Archbishop Gero’s crucifix gets a pass because it’s old, but let there be no mistake, it is tacky. Of course it’s also beautiful. The road from the Alexemanos graffito with its scatological, obscene donkey god to the triumphant sun-emblazoned God of the Gero Cross was a long one, but one still marked by the humiliating nature of Christ’s execution. And in its willingness finally to depict something that seems so paradoxical – the dead God – the Gero Cross, for all of its technical magnificence, still gestures to the fundamentally radical message of Christianity. Echoing Adorno, the poet W. H. Auden once remarked, “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible, it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.” If there is scandal in a dying God, how much more so in one who is now dead?

Gero Cross, Cologne Cathedral, c. 965-970
Gero Cross, Cologne Cathedral, c. 965-970

The Germans have always been grand masters in depicting the deadness of the savior, for the Gero Cross’ representation of a deceased Lord is only the first in a long line of crucifixes that meditate, sometimes gruesomely, with agonizing, if not sadistic, precision. Any cradle Catholic knows that there are only catholicisms, and that they often have a national character. At the risk of essentializing, I’ll claim that German Catholicism is not Italian Catholicism, or Mexican or Irish. And if a certain melancholic disposition has been inculcated in the morbid ruminations of German Catholicism, this is not a new phenomenon. Some of the most stunning examples of this obsession with death are the paintings of the crucifixion by the great Matthias Grünewald, who though possibly a Protestant himself was the inheritor of the German Catholic artistic tradition.

Grünewald’s Christ is not just dead, but in the process of decomposing. Tortured, twisted, ripped, and torn, he bears a multitude of purple scars that almost evoke Kaposi’s Sarcoma; they spread across his emaciated body. His fingers are curved towards the stigmata wound, as if he has failed to close his hand, and his head hangs in an exhausted, aching defeat. The undeniably paradoxical message of Christianity is that this defeat is an ultimate victory, as expressed in John 19:30 when Christ (ambiguously?) says, “It is finished.” Do not mistake what I’m saying; calling Christ’s sacrifice a paradox is not meant to caste aspersions on the sacrifice; it’s rather to sanctify the idea of paradox. Look at Grünewald’s painting, which in its violence to the body recalls a horror story or an etiological account of disease, and realize the terrifying, fundamental truth it tells about death – that death is rarely glorious. Beautiful deaths are for pagan gods and Romantic poets; real deaths for you, me, and everyone else are almost always a different ordeal. If Christ is to share in the pain of being a human then the depiction of a beautiful death only lessens that sharing.

Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-1516
Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-1516

For the most radical of reformers the crucifix served not just as a reminder of death, but also indeed as an occasion to violate the commandment against graven images. The cross of Sunday was a reminder of the resurrection, while the intricate crucifix of Friday displayed a fundamentally morbid obsession with death. As aesthetic critique it arguably has its justification in a variant of orthodoxy, but it’s ironically not dissimilar to the smug pagans who mocked Christians worshiping their dead ass-god. Rather than necessarily reflecting the glory of the resurrection (which we’re all still awaiting) the cross demonstrates a fundamental fear of death (which we’re all guaranteed to experience). Such a position demonstrates an unwillingness to see in the crucifix our image, our fate. But the evangelicals obviously didn’t adopt that perspective, seeing instead crucifixes as idolatrous examples of rank Romish superstition. Indeed they made great hay of monastic chicanery when it came to supposedly miraculous crucifixes, such as the famous Rood of Grace kept at the Cistercian Abby located in Boxley, England. Throughout the Middle Ages pilgrims journeyed to witness the Rood of Grace, whose figure of Christ was known to open and close his eyes, and to move his jaw as if talking. In 1538, an official who was taking part in Thomas Cromwell’s project to dissolve the monasteries discovered that the monks, through a complex set of wires and levers, mechanically operated the Rood of Grace. And thus the Rood of Grace was demonstrated to be robotic, a terrifyingly macabre Puppet of Horror (even though scholars have convincingly argued that the Rood of Grace’s mechanism was always fully known by its audience). The crucifix was exhibited in the local marketplace as part of the Protestant policy of disenchantment, and Geoffrey Chamber, the bureaucrat responsible for its confiscation, claimed that the populace reacted with “wondrous detestation and hatred so that if the monastery had to be defaced again they would pluck it down or burn it.” Ultimately the Rood of Grace was sent to London where it was burned in effigy, a type of second crucifixion, which forever stalled its gears and levers (and which also unfortunately means I have no photo of what must have been an undeniably weird object).

What all of those previous examples demonstrate are the ways in which crucifixes enact Thanatos, what Sigmund Freud described as our innate “pressure towards death.” But as Freud (more than all others) reminds us, human desires aren’t just pushed by the death impulse, but of course by Eros as well. Sex and death are twinned, the first is the reason why we’re all here and the later is the place that we’re all going. If the spiritual power of the crucifix is that it depicts God fully as man at his most vulnerable, then it can also depict him at his most intimate. Death is only the most obvious subject of the crucifixion, but some of the most beautiful and moving depictions of that event have an undeniably charged and latent erotic energy as well, one that fully reconciles the twin poles of what it means to be human. Consider the seventeenth-century Spanish Baroque master Diego Velázquez’s masterful Christ Crucified, painted in 1632 after the artist’s return from Italy.

Christ Crucified, Diego Velázquez, c. 1632
Christ Crucified, Diego Velázquez, c. 1632

While he was in Italy, Velázquez clearly imbibed the techniques of the brilliant queer painter Caravaggio, dramatically using the latter’s method of chiaroscuro to frame the beautiful body of Christ in the center of a striking field of black – Christ as a spark of charged erotic electricity lighting up the infinite abyss. The Spaniard’s Christ is feminine, beautiful with his thin waist and hips, arched back, and flawless skin. A feminized God is not foreign or incidental to biblical language; the Hebrew word for God’s indwelling presence, Shekhina, is grammatically feminine, and even dour Puritans like Peter Sterry in the seventeenth-century could write, “Lay the mouth of your soul by faith to the breasts of the Godhead … spouting forth their milky streams into your face and bosom.” Or even more radically, consider the eighteenth-century Moravian leader Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf, who expanded on the relatively conventional tradition which saw Christ’s side-wounds in explicitly vaginal terms, developing a wound-mysticism which surpassed that of German Catholicism, and certainly that of his fellow Protestants in both Europe and Pennsylvania. Zinzendorf’s idiosyncratic teaching went beyond writing hymns to a specifically androgynous savior. As Aaron Spencer Fogelman argued in his 2008 Jesus is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America, Zinzendorf and his coreligionists had developed a devotional theology of “sensual and for some even sexual spiritual relations” with Christ.  That eroticization of Christ surprisingly cuts across denominational affiliation, with Velázquez’s painting being of a time and place whose greatest works, such as Teresa of Avila’s mystical writings, were able to fuse Eros and Thanatos into an approach towards the transcendent. It was Teresa who, after all, described her mystical union with God by saying that He “appeared to me to be thrusting [a spear] at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

Since the thirteenth-century it has been a Franciscan principle “nudus nudum Christum sequi,” that is, we must all “follow naked the naked Christ.” The art historian Leo Steinberg argued in 1983 that the Franciscan creed encouraged not just taking an oath of poverty, but that it also refocused the religious imagination upon nakedness as a conduit for understanding what is human about God (and perhaps what is godly about humans). This renewed attention manifested itself in a focus on not just the naked Christ, but indeed on the penis of the naked Christ. In his The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, Steinberg painstakingly demonstrates how common Christ’s nudity, and indeed sexualization (including depictions of the divine erection), were in medieval art, and the way in which prudish moderns subsequently censored the godly priapus. Steinberg admits that these images made a “disturbing connection of godhead with sexuality,” but he also brilliantly demonstrates how our squeamishness over sexualized images of Christ reflects not a latent anti-eroticism in Christianity, but rather a post-Victorian priggishness, which still manifests itself in our supremely un-erotic but consummately pornographic culture. We should not be surprised that the penis was important in classical Christian art, whether through artistically exploring the themes of circumcision or as an additional “humanation” (as Steinberg calls it) of the godhead – I’ll refrain from punning on the latter. Renaissance Italians, however, had no problem employing the word “resurrection” as a double entendre for erection (as Boccaccio does). The tradition of depicting both the crucified and resurrected Christ with an erection, known as ostentatio genitalium, only sounds shocking to moderns thoroughly disenchanted by the Reformation and modernity, but for the German Hans Schäufelein painting two years before the 95 Theses, there was neither titillation nor obscenity in presenting a well-hung Christ upon the cross with a bulging erection. Victorians supposedly suppressed sexuality in the subconscious; we’ve not totally excavated such repression, but we’ve also pushed the religious impulse down there, too, making it doubly impossible for some to interpret these images as anything but upsetting. We need not be squeamish about the phallic Christ, however; just as we shouldn’t be about Velázquez’s feminine Christ.

Eros and Thanatos are connected throughout the two broader themes found in representations of the crucifixion: the duel intermingling of both immanence and transcendence. Critic Regina Schwartz has referred to a type of “sacramental poetics” which permeates English Renaissance poetry, whose authors were reacting to the traumas of disenchantment that signaled the arrival of modernity. She writes in 2008’s Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World: “A sacramental poetry is a poetry that signifies more than it says, that creates more than its signs, yet does so, like liturgy, through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements.” If Christianity has a particular genius it’s in that mixture of the sacred and profane, of spirit and matter, which marks God as neither completely Other, nor the human as completely material. No doubt Christianity through its Platonism and its dualism has often had a fundamental anxiety about physicality, but the crucifixion as subject explores this central creative tension about God’s corporeality. Examine the previously mentioned photograph of Andres Serrano, one of the so-called “NEA Four,” whose Piss Christ (1987) came in for special censure by conservatives in Congress for its apparently sacrilegious meaning.

If viewed for the first time, free of the knowledge of its medium (a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine), many viewers might see the image as strikingly, almost ethereally, beautiful. Christ seems to pulse with an inner orangish-red luminescence. Critic Lucy R. Lippard described Piss Christ as “a darkly beautiful photographic image … the small wood and plastic crucifix becomes virtually monumental as it floats, photographically enlarged, in a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious.” New York Senator Al D’Amato disagreed, calling Serrano’s piece a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” Fellow Republican legislators like Jesse Helms were outraged that the artist received federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Incidentally, Serrano, who was predictably raised as a strict Catholic and who still considers himself a Christian, defended his piece as a critique on the commercialization of Christ, an interpretation shared by none other than amateur art critic and Roman Catholic nun Sister Wendy Beckett. While admitting that the title is obviously intended to generate a rise in people, I think that Piss Christ can be defended as Christian art, which consummately presents the immanence of Christ, a visual explication of incarnational poetics. What Serrano provocatively reminds us of is that Christ was not just God, but equally man, and just as humans piss so must Christ. It’s an uncomfortable thought perhaps, but a supremely orthodox one. Piss Christ is in the same tradition as Schäufelein – if Christ sometimes had to piss then he also sometimes had erections, just as surely as sometimes he had to shit, or sleep, or eat, or cry or do any of the other things that make humans human. To be horrified by Christ pissing is to be horrified by Christ; to be horrified by piss is to deny all that makes us human. Christ crucified is Christ human, and as surely as the former was a stumbling block to Gentiles in Paul’s day, then by the transitive property so must have been the later – and not just in Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, but in 1987 as well, when Christ human was a stumbling block to ostensible Christians like Helms and D’Amato. Not unsurprisingly, Piss Christ came in for an ending not dissimilar to the poor puppet of Boxely Abby, when in 2011 an enraged museumgoer attacked a print of the photograph in a pique of iconoclastic fervor at an exhibit in Avignon, France.

The personal, physical, intimate, corporeal immanence of Christ isn’t the only attribute of the hypostatic union that can offend, however. Indeed somewhat counterintuitively transcendence can as well. In 1961, a stone-throwing museum visitor to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow attacked the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Reflecting the artist’s ever-mercurial politics and conservative Catholicism, Dali claimed that the heightened perspective of a levitating Christ, looking down upon presumably the Sea of Galilee, came to him in a dream. But a stranger and more beautiful crucifixion of Dali’s is his Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and which the painter claimed was an example of his “nuclear mysticism.”

Dali presents a hairless, perfected Christ as held by unseen nails not to a cruciform, but rather on an unfolded tesseract; that is, a polyhedron network of hypercubes, the four-dimensional analog of the cube. Composed in light of both Hiroshima and Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Dali’s crucifixion may be kitsch, but it is also a sublime evocation of Christ’s transcendence, removing the event of his death from the realm of normal space and time and into that of infinity and eternity.

That Piss Christ and Corpus Hypercubus are both legitimate expressions of Christian theology, strung as it is between the extremes of cosmology and anthropology, speaks to the profundity of said Christology (regardless of whether it is an accurate description of reality or not). The crucifix is the great aesthetic representation of the central tension of Christian metaphysics, a creative tension that is also its central message. The body of the tortured Christ is not just displayed between two thieves, but indeed hangs between the poles of Eros and Thanatos; the body of the murdered Christ is not just hung on a cross, but indeed hangs between immanence and transcendence. Do not take any of this as a work of apologetics as much as an extended critical appreciation of a theme explored through art and culture. The profundity of Christianity is its scandal, and that is expressed through the enigma of the death of God.

No doubt you may have a skeptical friend who can go through a litany of dead and resurrected near eastern gods, lumping Christ into a tradition that includes Osiris, Dionysius, Orpheus, Mithras, and so on. Such archetypal criticism (provided that it’s not there to supply a mythic “Gotcha!”) has more utility than depth. Categorizing deities in this way might be satisfying to our inner stamp collector, but it brings us no closer to the paradoxical novelty of Christianity. I do not mean to suggest that Christianity is “a true myth,” as C. S. Lewis claimed (a formulation that I find singularly unsatisfying). Whether true or not, the dead God of Christianity is categorically different than an Osiris. The great French theorist of violence, René Girard wrote in 2007 that in contrast to the superficially similar resurrected pagan deities, “The God of Christianity isn’t the violent God of archaic religion, but the non-violent God who willingly becomes a victim in order to free us from our violence.” Where the polytheistic gods are like us, only bigger; Christianity posits the death of that which is the fundamental Ground of all Being. Christianity implicates reality in a fundamental way, for it claims that that which is the most radically different, foreign, alien, and Other can actually become us and die, subsequently altering existence as a result. With that perspective, the crucifix is actually enchanted, for it lets us look upon God even if he is a dead God, for in his physicality there is still a presence. The cross, by comparison, with its absence, may find itself less a promise than an empty one. A crucifix, with its strained muscles, its bloody wounds, its punctured brow and tortured face, forces you to consider having a body in all of its horror and glory. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “The reality of death is excluded from daily life to the highest possible degree. The dead are not allowed to show that they are dead; they are transformed into a mask of the living.” In our culture where awareness of death is as repressed as sex was to the Victorian, the crucifix has an important role—not to act as Tillich’s mask but rather to function as a mirror. A crucifix is holy because it does not look holy. A crucifix is holy because it tells a truth. A crucifix is holy because it does not sanitize, clean, erase, obscure, or deny the trauma – or the majesty – of being a human, even if that human happens to be God. Or not.

Ed Simon is an Associate Editor at the Marginalia Review of Books and a scholar and freelance writer who covers literature, culture, and religion. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Atlas Obscura, Nautilus, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, and The Revealer, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon and at his website