The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art
In this important and wide-ranging book, Christopher Irvine explores the two-way relationship between worship and art. More specifically, he examines the use of imagery related to the cross with reference to its liturgical environment and associated rituals.
The opening chapter encourages us to ‘see liturgically’ and compares the meanings of works of art as exhibited in galleries with those located and used in places of worship. Thus our understanding of religious art is related to the distinctive activity of the worship space wherein the artwork is or was located. A discussion of the Isenheim altarpiece in its entirety, rather than solely at the figure of Christ crucified, as well as to consider the impact and effect of the altarpiece in its original liturgical setting. The panel beneath the central crucifixion scene (the predella) which depicts the lamentation, or burial, of Christ was originally positioned along the back edge of the stone mensa. It would, then, have brought a visual correspondence between the physical body of Christ and the sacramental body of Christ in the lowering of the bread by the celebrant after the dominical words. This is but one example. In the second chapter, Irvine goes on to discuss in more detail a range of altarpieces in relation to the lines of sight existing between the congregation and the liturgical action at the altar, in order to demonstrate that these pieces were integral to the rite and its meaning.
In subsequent chapters different aspects of cross imagery are discussed. ‘The Cross in Blood’ is concerned primarily with images in which the blood from the crucified Christ is depicted as being collected in chalices and so forth, and associated with the Eucharist. Following an interesting investigation of the complexity of the symbolism of blood, from anthropological, historical and scriptural standpoints, this evolves toward consideration of a broader sense of a ‘living cross drenched in blood’ (70), and of a regenerative life-force expressed as ‘The Cross in Bloom’ (62).
Further chapters entitled ‘The Noble Tress’, ‘The Living Cross’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ explore in more detail such broader imagery of the cross: as an emblem of victory, a source of the renewal of creation and a sign of the whole mystery of God’s saving work. In so doing, the narrative takes us with Egeria to experience the Holy Week liturgies of fourth-century Jerusalem, to the papal liturgies of seventh- or eighth-century Rome, and via Syrian and Ethiopian rites to the modern day paintings of Norman Adams, the life and work of St Francis (whose experience with the cross at San Damiano was integral to his calling), the architecture and art of Assisi, and Franciscan spirituality and writing. These chapters are perhaps the heart of the book, as they bring to life our Christian heritage as seen through the lens of the cross. The book about the living liturgy of the church in ages past and present, and about the very real role that art plays in the liturgy as well as in our understanding of it.
The final chapter brings the reader full circle, and looks at the design, structure and decoration of baptismal fonts and baptisteries, focusing on the three interwoven themes of entering into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, re-birth through water and the spirit and the flourishing of a new creation.
The book uses a wide range of examples, including illustrated liturgical books, church architecture, mosaics, paintings, stone and painted crosses, poetry, sermons, hymns, daily offices and other liturgical texts, ranging across the centuries, and from diverse origins including Syrians, Armenian, Ethiopian, Anglo-Saxon, Franciscan sources. These are interwoven throughout with scriptural references and reflections. All of this makes for an interesting read and the imagery is well developed. Pricing and readership considerations may have prevented the inclusion of more illustrations, and while the pictorial examples are described in detail by the author, more illustrations would make the book more accessible. As it is, one is led to read the book alongside Google Images. That aside, this is an engrossing book for anyone interested in our worshipping heritage, and will likely encourage the reader to think more creatively and broadly about the cross, both liturgically and in personal devotion.
In surmising this book, I can’t do better than to quote from the Foreword by Rowan Williams: ‘The ancient symbolism of the cross as the tree of life in the garden of God’s presence is shown to be of cardinal importance to our fuller understanding of what is done once and for all on Calvary.’ Further ‘This study challenges any view of Christ’s crucifixion that reduces it either to a human tragedy or to a transaction that saves souls.’
In terms of a discussion of Christian art per se and physical presentation, this book cannot compete with the one by Richard Harries which was featured in a recent issue of this magazine. However, the value of Irvine’s book is in its theological treatment of the themes depicted in Christian art, and as Williams makes clear in his Foreword, the author has provided us with a readable and rich account of how Christian art and liturgy have interpreted the events of Good Friday over the centuries. Seeing the cross as the tree of life helps us realise the full extent of Christ’s redeeming act – the cross and resurrection are about the recreation of all that is, and the restoration of our intended place before God – which is so much more than a ‘paying back’ of the debt that is due to our sin, which is all too frequently the emphasis of our hymnody and preaching. That the cross is the tree of life in the garden of God’s presence and as such is a re-ordering of creation is surely the real good news that we have to proclaim.