In this post I will discuss the ironic absence of the cross image in early Christianity—-not being found in their artwork (in reference to the passion event) prior to Constantine’s reign—-and then will explain the various reasons for this absence; not only because early Christianity had a rather small membership population, and also were at times forced to worship inconspicuously (these would certainly be factors for the absence), but there are two other reasons in particular that seem significant and intriguing to me. I will then show, using Christian literature, how some Christians got around those reasons, so that they could still embrace and revere the symbol of the cross.
A Universal Symbol?
The image of the cross has been used throughout antiquity. From Quetzalcoatl’s four cardinal points of the winds, to the Hammer of Thor, the cross shows up in nearly every culture. The universality of the symbol “makes more poignant the striking lack of crosses in early Christian remains.”(1) In fact, most scholars now concur that a Christian artistic use of the symbol, in reference to the passion event, cannot be found prior to the time of Constantine. (2)
The absence of the cross is quite ironic, as the symbol was used throughout Christian literature, and (by evidence of their literature) we know that it appealed particularly to their increasing regard for ideals of asceticism and martyrdom. The symbol, in fact, took on such a sacred nature, that traditions like Peter refusing to be crucified in the same way as Jesus, developed: “for I am not worthy to be crucified like my Lord,” declares Peter. (3)
Dispite the favorable interpretation of the cross that developed, Christians had significant reservations for depicting the symbol artistically. These reasons include:
1) A desire to worship inconspicuously, in order to avoid persecution.
2) It was a symbol of capital punishment to Jews and Gentiles, and therefore was not an effective tool for evangelizing.
3) Some Christians believed that it was a sin to materially depict an image.
Many Christians worshiped inconspicuously, in hopes that they would avoid drawing the attention of their enemies. Tertullian speaks to these Christians who are afraid to assemble “in large numbers to the Church. You are afraid that we may awaken their anxieties.” (4) Tertullian remarks further elsewhere,
But you [Christians] say, ‘How will we assemble together [if we do not pay tribute to avoid persecution]?’ To be sure, just as the apostles also did—-who were protected by faith, not by money…. Finally, if you cannot assemble by day, you have the night—-the light of Christ luminous against its darkness…. Be content with a church of threes. It is better that you sometimes should not see the crowds [of other Christians], than to subject yourselves. (5)
This inconspicuous and sometimes “nocturnal” worship, though, did not always ease persecutions, but instead (at times) bred further suspicion in the minds of their critics. The pagan Caecilius, for example, levels charges against Christians for “the very obscurity which shrouds this perverted religion.” He asks, “Why else should they go to such pains to hide and conceal whatever it is they worship? One is always happy for honorable actions to be made public; crimes are kept secret.” Caecilius continues to ask accusatory questions, “Why do they have no altars, no temples, no publicly-known images? Why do they always assemble in stealth?” (6) Caecilius apparently failed to understand that Christians worshiped inconspicuously in order to avoid persecution. Again, there were “no publicly-known images” (like the cross) because Christians did not wish to be identified.
Another factor (which is related to the first above) explains the absence of the cross: To quote Paul, “Christ crucified [is a] stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (7) The scholar Jack Tressider explains that the symbol was too controversial, being an image of capital punishment: “In the Roman, Persian and Jewish world, the crucifixion cross was a brutal and humiliating instrument of execution for non-citizens such as slaves, pirates and foreign political agitators or other criminals. Thus, at the time of Christ’s death, it hardly seemed an emblem likely to make many converts.” (8)
Even the mere idea that Jesus was crucified for the salvation of mankind was an embarrassment, being an issue that attracted mockery from critics. (9) Writing to “Those [Christians] who are ashamed of the cross of Christ,” Bishop Methodius of Olympus proclaims that “God Himself esteems [the cross] to be beautiful, even though it be contemned and despised by all else…. [b}y this figure He hath willed to deliver the soul from corrupt affections….” Therefore, he says, “we ought to receive it, and not to speak evil of it.” (10) The oft repeated council and rebukes (as well as celebration and glorying about the cross) from religious leaders, to those Christians who are ashamed of the cross, underscores just how common this concern was.
There was also reservation in the Church about artwork in general. Like their Jewish contemporaries (11), Christians had varying ideas regarding the second commandment against engraved images. Origen remarks about God’s command to Israel against engraved images, saying,
Neither painter nor image-maker existed in the nation of Israel, for the Law expelled all such persons from it. In that way, there was no pretext for the construction of images. For image-making is an art that attracts the attention of foolish men. It drags the eyes of the soul down from God to earth. Accordingly, there was among them a Law to the following effect: ‘Do not transgress the Law and make to yourselves a carved image, or any likeness of male or female.' (12)
Elsewhere Origen proclaims, “[Pagans], in imagining that the hand of lowly artisans can frame representations of divinity, are uneducated, servile, and ignorant.” (13) Hippolytus of Rome (?-c. 326) also stresses the importance of God’s second commandment, by criticizing the gnostic-Christian disciples of Carpocrates for making “counterfeit images of Christ.” (14)
Not only pagans and heretical religious movements made such controversial images, but even Christians themselves did. This is evident by the artistic expressions in the Christian catacombs. Jerome of the 4th century, in fact, reports that he visited a Christian church, where he saw a veil that had a depiction of Jesus or a disciple on it, and that upon seeing it, he tore it down and replaced it with a plain veil. (15) This occasion shows that even after the Milvian Bridge, there remained disagreement among some Christians over God’s second commandment.
Clement of the second century, who was the most distinguished teacher of Alexandria, expresses his conservative view of the second commandment, insisting that works of art, by their nature, “cannot be sacred and divine.” (16) Clement explains that “The senseless earth is dishonored by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it.” According to Clement, “the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman's hand.” Christians, therefore, “have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone, — God, who alone is truly God.” (17)
Clement makes an exception to the second commandment, however, allowing for necessary images:
But there are circumstances in which this strictness may relaxed…. [I]f it is necessary for us, while engaged in public business, or discharging other avocations in the country, and often away from our wives, to seal anything for the sake of safety, He (the Word) allows us a signet [ring] for this purpose only. Other finger-rings are to be cast off…. [L]et our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre… or a ship's anchor….band if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them…. (18)
The fact that Clement does not list the image of the cross as being suitable for seals, perhaps reveals that he had reservations about Christians openly depicting this symbol. What is particularly significant in this quote, however, is that Clement speaks of seeing a fisherman, and “remembering” the apostle (Jesus?). Such remembering seems to shed light on what Clement may have meant in the previous quote, regarding the image of God being perceived “by the mind alone.” The Cross Made Manifest
Christians, rather than depicting sacred and spiritual realities materially, observed their natural occurrence. They looked for their natural manifestations around them. Such mystical observation was sought out for the cross, as noted by Minucius Felix. He states that although they do not outwardly use the physical image of the cross (“we [Christians] neither worship nor wish for [the cross]”), they brought it to mind when they saw its resemblance in other things:
We assuredly see the sign of a cross, naturally, in the ship when it is carried along with swelling sails, when it glides forward with expanded oars; and when the military yoke is lifted up, it is the sign of a cross; and when a man adores God with a pure mind, with hands outstretched. Thus the sign of the cross either is sustained by a natural reason, or your own religion is formed with respect to it. (19)
Consistent with the views of Clement, Minucius explains how Christians look for the manifestation of the cross, rather than (like pagans) create the outward image of it.
It is clear that many Christians refrained from using images that derived from an improper process of unnaturally manipulating dead matter, which would have (according to Clement and other Christians) dishonored nature and God, and broken the second commandment. Christians were not creating a religious symbol for the sake of its religious significance. Rather, the images they viewed were mere natural manifestations of spiritual realities, perceived by the mind.
This mystical viewing was a popular trend among early Christians. Jerome discovered the manifestation of the cross in a swimming man, flying bird, and a man praying with extended arms. (20) Justin Martyr proclaims that a ship’s sail, a plough, the banners and trophies of the government, and the human form (body posture, and profile of face head) each manifest “no other form than that of the cross.” (21) Tertullian speaks of the cross being manifested in the human posture, and by “Every piece of timber which is fixed in the ground in an erect position.” (22)
Christians similarly looked for hidden manifestation of the cross throughout the Old Testament. (23) Tertullian observes the way that Moses, “at the time when Joshua was battling against Amalek, pray[ed] sitting with hands expanded…,” and in the brazen serpent that Moses hung on a tree, in order to heal Israel. “[H]e was exhibiting the Lord's cross,” concludes Tertullian. (24)
The Epistle of Barnabas finds a manifestation of the crucifixion in the number of men that Abraham circumcised in his household:
For [the Scripture] saith, "And Abraham circumcised ten, and eight, and three hundred men of his household." What, then, was the knowledge given to him in this? Learn the eighteen first, and then the three hundred. The ten and the eight are thus denoted — Ten by I, and Eight by H. You have [the initials of the, name of] Jesus. And because the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter T, he says also, "Three Hundred." He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters, and the cross by one. He knows this, who has put within us the engrafted gift of His doctrine. No one has been admitted by me to a more excellent piece of knowledge than this, but I know that ye are worthy. (25)
The Tau (T or +)(26) is the last Letter of the Greek alphabet, and has the numeric value of 300. Christians believed that the tau was equivalent to the Hebrew letter omega (being the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and name of God), and manifested the image of the cross in its form. Such symbolism was also found manifest in the proportions of Noah’s ark: “Now there are some who say that three hundred cubits are the symbol of the Lord's sign,” reports Clement of Alexandria. (27)
The mystical search and observation of the cross, allowed Christians to embrace the symbol without depicting it materially (breaking the second commandment) or drawing the attention of their persecutors. Christians also got around these obstacles by tracing the “Lord’s sign,”(T or +, which revealed the cross) upon their foreheads. Tertullian records:
We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign. (28)
The Christian act of tracing the sign was in fact a reenactment of God’s command in Ezekiel 9:4. Tertullian explains this elsewhere:
He [Christ] signed them with that very seal of which Ezekiel spake: "The Lord said unto me, Go through the gate, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set the mark Tau upon the foreheads of the men." Now the Greek letter Tau and our own letter T is the very form of the cross, which He predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true Catholic Jerusalem… Now, inasmuch as all these things are also found amongst you, and the sign upon the forehead, and the sacraments of the church, and the offerings of the pure sacrifice, you ought now to burst forth, and declare that the Spirit of the Creator prophesied of your Christ. (29)
Tracing the cross (tau) upon their forehead was not in conflict with the second commandment, since doing so did not manipulate dead matter. Nor did the private action draw the attention of critics, since the symbol was traced invisibly. By tracing the sign, rather than drawing it visibly Christians were able to worship inconspicuously, and get their reservations for depicting the cross materially.
In conclusion, I repeat that the absence of the image of the cross in Christian artwork, was due to three significant reasons. 1) Christians desired to worship inconspicuously. 2) The image was a stumbling block to Jews and Gentiles, and therefore was not used as an emblem for attracting converts. 3) Christians had reservations about depicting the cross materially, bearing that they would commit the sin of Idolatry.
One should not conclude from this absence that the visual sign of the cross wasn’t therefore sacred to Christians. Though they had reservations about creating material depictions of the cross, many of them got around those reservations by looking for its mystical manifestation, and tracing it upon their foreheads.
1 Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem (Mercer University Press, 1991), 27.
2 Ibid. Those who reject today’s general agreement among scholars may cite the 1938 excavation discovery of a cross engraved on a wall from an unearthed house in Herculaneum, or the so-called Paletine cross drawing, found in 1856, that depicts a donkey being crucified, with graffiti that reads “Alexamenos, worship god.” But though these “evidences” may both date after the rise of Christianity and prior to the reign of Constantine, there is much to dispute about them. Since the discovery of the cross at Herculaneum, “Further consideration,” says Everett Ferguson, “has given a more utilitarian purpose: the imprint in the plaster was left by wooden brackets for a wall cabinet or perhaps a shelf or mantle with a supporting upright piece.”(Backgrounds of Early Christianity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003], 590.) Graydon Snyder agrees, “[T]his so-called cross could have been anything attached to the wall by two cross pieces.” (Snyder, 27.) But even if the new consideration is wrong, and that the engraving indeed marked where a Latin-style-cross was once displayed, there is no reason to believe that the cross was hung by a Christian, and not a Pagan. As already explained, the cross has been used throughout antiquity by nearly every known culture. Furthermore, outside this extremely questionable example, the underwhelming evidence that the Christians displayed the image of the cross during this period makes the idea “simply appear to us as a surd in the development of early Christian art: it came three hundred years too soon.” (Ibid.) The Paletine cross should also not count as “evidence” to debunk the conclusion that we cannot find the image of the cross (in reference to the passion) being used prior to the reign of Constantine. One problem is that “no fixed date can be given for this drawing.” (Snyder, 28.) Secondly, since the image is assumed to be drawn by an opponent of the faith, “it hardly proves that the cross was an early Christian symbol.” (Ibid.) Again, the opponent would have drawn it, not a Christian. Thirdly, though one today may be quick to assume that this derogatory cartoon mocked the Christian kerygma, there is a possibility that actually paganism is being mocked. Not only did pagans use the image cross, but also some even depicted an image of deity hanging on it. Minucius Felix, of the third century, denied, “Crosses, moreover, we [Christians] neither worship nor wish for,” and then criticized pagans, saying, “You, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as parts of your gods…. Your victorious trophies not only imitate the appearance of a simple cross, but also that of a man affixed to it.” (The Octavius of the Octavius of, ch 29.) Barbara G. Walker comments on Minucius Felix’s remarks, saying, “From very ancient times, an effigy of a man hanging on a cross was set up in fields to protect the crops. The modern scarecrow is a survival of this sacrificial magic, representing the sacred king whose blood was supposed to fertilize the earth.” (The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983], 188.) An example of such an image is the controversial second to third century amulet of Orpheus-Bakkikos Crucified. (Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? [Three Rivers Press, 2001], 52.)
3 Apocrypha of the New Testament: Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, ANF v. VIII. The Acts of Peter (ch 38), which predates this text by a century, also tells of Peter being crucified head down, but does not explain that this was because he felt unworthy. Rather, Peter does so to explain the “mystery of the cross,” and how (unlike Jesus) him being crucified upside down represents the birth of man in his fallen state. See Bart D. Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2003), 153.
4 Turtullian, ANF vol. 4, De Fuga In Persecutione, ch 3.
5 Ibid., ch 14.
6 Minucius Felix, Octavius, ch 10; as provided by Bart D. Ehrman, After The New Testament: A Reader In Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 1999), 56.
7 1 Corinthians 1:23.
8 Jack Tresidder, Dictionary of Symbols (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997), 56-57.
9 Paletine Cross graffiti mockingly displays a depiction of a person (presumably, a Christian) worshipping a man (with an ass head) handing on a cross.
10 Methodius, Three Fragments from the Homily on the Cross and Passion of the Christ.
11 See Carmel Konikoff, The Second Commandment and its Interpretation in the Art of Ancient Israel (Genève: Imprimerie du Journal de Genève, 1973).
12 Origen (c. 248, e), ANF 4.510; as quoted in David W. Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).
13 Ibid, 4.579
14 Hippolytus (c. 225, w), ANF 5.114; Amobius contends that depicting images is a fruitless endeavor. “It has been sufficiently shown,” says Amobius, “how vain it is to form images.” Amobius (c. 305) ANF 6.518, as quoted in Bercot, 352-54.
15 "Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort--opposed as they are to our religion--shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge." (Jerome's Letter, 51:9)
16 Stroma, 7:5.
17 Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen, ch 4.
18 Clement, The Instructor, vol 3, ch 11.
19 Minucius Felix, The Octavius of the Octavius of, ch 29; as found in software The Complete Christian Collection (Packard Technologies, 1999).
20 Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible (vol 5), The Gospel According to Matthew, 27:35.
21 First Apology of Justin, ch 55.
22 AD Nationes, book 1, ch 12.
23 Hippolytus and Clement see the image and message of the cross in the Greco-Roman Myth, when the Ulyssies is tied to the mast of the ship (Cross of Christ), that he may not give way to the voice of the sirens. The Refutation of all Heresies, book 7; Exhortation to the Heather, ch 12.
24 Tertullian, Answers to the Jews, ch 10.
25 Epistle of Barnabas, ch 9; see also Clement of Alexandria, The Stroma, book 6, ch 11.
26 “St. Jerome and many others have thought that the letter tau was that which was ordered to be placed on the foreheads of those mourners; and Jerome says, that this Hebrew letter t tau was formerly written like a cross. So then the people were to be signed with the sign of the cross! It is certain that on the ancient Samaritan coins, which are yet extant, the letter t tau is in the form +, which is what we term St. Andrew’s cross.” Clarke’s Commentary, volume 4, chapter 9, verse 4.
27 The Stroma, book 6, ch 11.
28 The Chaplet, or De Corona, ch 3.
29 The Five Books Against Macrion, book 3, ch 22; see also Tertullian, Answer to the Jews, ch 11.