(Book reviews are typically the most useful if they’re published the month the book comes out. Unfortunately, I’m thirty-three years late on this one, and the book has since moved out of print. However, if you’re interested in buying a copy, there are several that are being sold used on Amazon for a very low price.)
On a Friday Noon: Meditations under the Cross by Hans-Ruedi Weber (published jointly by Eerdmans and the World Council of Churches) is a survey of the crucifixion in world art, from its earliest known appearance in the fourth century until 1979, when the book was published. Part One consists of thirty-three full-color images from around the globe, paired with devotional text—prayers, Bible verses, poems, and such. The second part is a seventeen-page essay titled “Across frontiers of centuries and cultures,” which traces the development of crucifixion iconography by region: the West, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The essay draws all the artworks from Part One into the discussion and thus includes plate references.
As far as I know, this is the only book of its kind. Phaidon Press published a book on crucifixion art in 2007, but it included only Western art. There are a few Christian art books I’m aware of that focus on the global art scene (Christ for All People; The Bible through Asian Eyes; The Christian Story), but they do not limit themselves to the singular subject of the crucifixion.
The selection of artworks in this book is admirably varied in medium, style, time period, and country of origin. However, I do wonder at some of the choices, given the small page count; several of the Western works are insignificant in the schemes of art history and Christological development, so I’m not quite sure what led Weber to choose these at the expense of others (maybe just a personal affinity? or for permissions reasons?). I also wish that all the specific works Weber mentions in the essay would have been pictured, as that would have enhanced my understanding and made my reflections more meaningful.
The selection of devotional texts is, in my opinion, lacking—they’re not particularly profound or beautifully phrased or inspiring, just very general statements about the saving power of the cross. I appreciate the wide net that was cast for sources—a snippet from an Armenian liturgy, a poem from a political prisoner in Chile—but they just didn’t move my heart to worship or to a deeper understanding of the cross. Different readers, though, will no doubt be impacted differently at the heart level.
The essay in Part Two is the book’s strongest suit. A fascinating overview of crucifixion art throughout the world and across time, it discusses pictorial developments and trends, first in the West: the Chi-Rho in the fourth century; the cross as a symbol of cosmic transfiguration in Byzantine art; portraiture versus a narrative format—that is, the crucified Christ depicted as a standalone figure, or as part of a larger scene with multiple characters; and the evolution of a more realistic Christ, shown in pain rather than at peace, starting in the thirteenth century and continuing into the modern era, with a now-current emphasis on Christ’s identification with human suffering (think Rouault and Chagall).
Indigenous Christian art started appearing in Latin America in the sixteenth century, following the Spanish conquest. The Latin Americans found the Spanish Christ—whom the essayist Miguel de Unamuno described as “purple, livid, blood-stained and blood-drained”—easily adaptable to their own belief system, which already emphasized blood and death. In present-day Latin America, Weber writes, this emphasis on Christ’s suffering still persists. But now, that suffering has been given a more explicit political meaning: Jesus is shown on the cross as a victim of unjust violence and oppression, a tortured soul screaming out for relief, for deliverance—not just for himself, but for all those who are in like situations, for all the poor and the marginalized and the persecuted whom he had pronounced blessed in his sermons. Jesus’s crucifixion is what motivated (and continues to motivate) the liberation theology that was born in Latin America in the 1950s. This movement, led by indigenous churches, promotes social justice, using the gospel as its base. For its adherents, the cross provides the promise of fruition through struggle. Weber writes, “Liberation has its price. The exodus does not lead directly into the promised land, but into the testing of the desert. The cost of liberation is nothing less than the cross, and the way to resurrection leads through Golgotha. There is no more realistic sign of hope than the cross” (79). The crucifixion is a symbol of suffering, yes, but also of transformation and freedom.
In Asia, the crucifixion is much more seldom depicted. That’s because there is no artistic precedent in classical Asian art for depicting pain or agony. The cross began appearing as a Christian symbol in eighth-century China, on tombstones and other monuments. The monument in Sian-fu, for example, depicts a cross rising out of a lotus blossom. (For more on this monument, see an earlier post from my “Jesus Sutras” series.) In the ninth and tenth centuries, Armenian Christians also decorated their tombstones with the symbol of the cross; these tombstones, called khatchkars (“cross-stones”), were ornately carved works of art that, besides the central cross, featured rosettes, interlacing, leaves, and other decorative motifs. As with the Nestorian crosses, though, Jesus is almost entirely absent from these khatchkars, save for a few that have been found dating to the thirteenth century—one of which is pictured in this book.
During the Mughal period in North India, from about 1526 to 1761, the crucifixion became a somewhat more common theme in art. Under the reigns of Akbar the Great (1555-1605) and his son Jahangir (1605-1627), Muslims were encouraged to copy and adapt Western paintings, and that they did. Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, and although they believe that he did not actually die on the cross, but that God raised him to heaven (Surah 4:156-158), many Muslims have meditated on Jesus’s suffering and readiness to die.
One thing I learned from the book is that in seventeenth-century Japan, a time of severe persecution, people suspected of being Christian believers could escape execution only by stepping on an image of the crucified Christ—a symbolic statement of their renunciation of their faith. These fumi-e (“stepping-images”) were usually relief carvings that were thrown away or recycled, and thus very few remain in existence today. I’d love to look more into this and write on it in the future.
Fast-forward to twentieth-century Japan. Weber mentions a few modern artists who have used the traditional art forms of their country to depict the crucifixion in figurative terms: Mirei Shigemori, who created a stone garden which she calls the Garden of the Cross, and Gako Ota, an ikebana artist whose Three Crosses is not quite a flower arrangement, but an arrangement of thorns, iron wire, and withered leaves. (Neither of these works is pictured in the book; what a shame!)
Weber also comments on two works from Java, Indonesia: a batik painting by Bagong Kussudiardja, and a living room relief painting by a Javanese artist who invites in curious visitors and explains to them how “true belief in God can be found only at Golgotha” (81). I very much enjoyed seeing this latter image and exploring its symbolism. While the majority of the images in the book I have seen before, this one was completely new to me. Its artist wishes to remain anonymous, Weber said. Both artists associate Jesus with a figure from wayang puppet theater.
Christianity has existed in Africa since the first century AD—in Ethiopia, and soon after in Egypt. The earliest surviving African depictions of Christ’s crucifixion come from these two countries. In 1484, Christianity arrived in West Africa via the Portuguese, who landed in the Congo. The kingdom’s ruler never fully accepted this new religion, but his son, Don Affonso, did; when he ascended to the throne in 1492, he tried to create a Christian state. His vision, though, died with him—or so it was thought. It turns out that when missionaries arrived again in the nineteenth century, they discovered crucifixes which Congolese Christians had made and had been passing down for generations since the sixteenth century. These crucifixes, much like those in modern-day Africa, tended to represent Christ with dignity, smiling—a patient sufferer, a sacrifice for mankind.
Weber acknowledges that, due to limited space, he was not able to address many trends and regions in the book. He mentions specifically the unfortunate exclusion of crucifixion art in the modern Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. I would love to see a second volume of this book issued, to make room for what was previously omitted and include more recent artworks from the last three decades, of which there are many. Even though it’s a bit outdated and slimmer than I would have liked, On a Friday Noon was a worthwhile read—a broad sweep through the topic of the crucifixion in world art, informative, thoughtful, and enjoyable.