The more I study this image, the more I find. The whole of creation is caught up in this presentation of the Cross as the cosmic renewal of life, love, and fellowship. I especially love the detail of chickens and flowers and little animals; these are charming but also a powerful image of incarnational life reaching into the very tiniest corners of the ordinary, intent to redeem. Thus, continued:
The image central to our first piece of art, the apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente in Rome, is that of the Cross as a living tree whose burgeoning life is a living vine encircling the world in total renewal. Though dating to a later period, this piece robustly embodies the vision of quickened life inherent in the spirit of the early church and its emphasis on Christ’s victory over death. Constructed in the twelfth century and dedicated to Pope St. Clement (supposed to be either first or third in the line of St. Peter’s successors), the mosaic sits over the high altar, drawing the eye to the central figure of a peaceful Christ on a living cross, with the apse filled by the tendrils of the vines that grow from the foot of the cross, each circled vine picturing an aspect of human culture, work, or creation, the whole of the picture crammed with human and animal life and activity.
It is fascinating to note that in early Christian portrayals of Christ in art, Jesus was not pictured on the Cross until the 5th century. The early church was intent upon the portrayal of Christ as risen, the victor over death and redeemer of creation. Even in the earliest extant images of the crucifixion (in a series of ivory panels dated c. 420, and a rougher image on a church door from Rome, dating c. 432) the Christ portrayed is alive, alert, and muscular, not defeated by the cross, but defeating it by his very presence on it. The vine cross in St. Clement reflects that life-affirming portrayal. Also worth noting is that though the image of the Cross as the tree of life isn’t frequent, there are other luminous examples, including the 14th c. painting by Pacino di Bonaguida, as well as the much later image created by Sir Edward Burne Jones in 1888 for St Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome, suggesting a recurring fascination with this symbolic image. Christopher Irvine describes it as ‘ubiquitous’ in Christian ‘liturgy and iconography’, alluding to a phrase of the Venerable Bede ‘about the cross being planted at the centre of the world’[i].
The cross, in this great work, reflects exactly that, sitting in the centre of the apse and the centre of what can be seen as a garden, the self-giving of Christ in Gethsemane making it a second and renewed garden of Eden. Furthering this reading are the four streams portrayed as flowing from the foot of the Cross, the four rivers of Eden renewed, with harts portrayed quenching their thirst, a clear allusion to Psalm 42, and also perhaps to the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman. These images of life rooted in and springing forth from Christ’s death communicate several theological ideas.
First is the incarnational emphasis on Christ’s given body as restorative of, not just the soul of mankind, or even of peace between God and mankind, but rather the whole of creation. As Torrance made clear in his magisterial work on the Incarnation, the work of Christ was to ‘assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it’[ii]. Christ was the second Adam, Gethsemane was the Garden of Eden renewed, and because of Christ’s already redemptive life, his death accomplishes the victory in which Paul exults in Romans 15:55.
‘Recapitulation’ is the reality pictured in the apse mosaic, a model of atonement drawn from the writings of Ireneaus ‘whose ‘central element is… the restoring and perfecting of creation’[iii]. Indeed, the whole world appears to be framed in the whorled leaves stretching round the apse. Within their circles are images of every aspect of human culture and endeavour; medicine, law, agriculture, religion, right down to the delightful addition of a housewife feeding her chickens in the left hand corner. The vines rooted in the cross directly suggest Jesus’ words at the Last Supper of ‘abide in me’. They present a profoundly Incarnational picture, portraying the whole of creation renewed by its rootedness, its ‘abiding’ in the given body of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven thus comes in the local, particular spaces of daily human life as they are rooted in the Incarnational life of Christ.
Second is the cross as a place of life renewed and death defeated, with the emphasis on what is created afresh, rather than what is lost. There is no hint here of God’s wrath or of Christ as punished, elements inherent in a penal view of the atonement (to be discussed below), but rather as God and Christ both participating in the total self-gift of Jesus to restore the lost creation and humanity. The underlying idea is one of victory as a symbol of excruciating torture and violent death has been transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial death into the enduring symbol of verdant life. The atonement emphasis in this work is upon Christ’s self-gift as restorative rather than punitive. His hands are opened upward as he gives his body as the seed from which the new life of humanity and creation grows. His eyes are closed, not in resistance or agony, but in what appears to be quiet acceptance. Irvine observes that though this is not the ‘open-eyed victorious Christ of earlier liturgical art’, his death is portrayed as ‘release…to the new and burgeoning life’ of ‘God’s redeeming work’.[iv]
Third is the presence of God the Father in this crucifixion and renewal. A strong theology of Incarnation makes God the Father active and present in the person of Christ, not separated from Jesus, but participatory in his redemptive life. God is both ‘the reconciler and the reconciled’[v], and in the mosaic he is represented by the great hand that reaches out of heaven (and the ceiling of the apse) to hold the top of the Cross. There is here, in the words of 20th century theologian Gustave Aulen, ‘no cleavage between Incarnation and atonement’[vi]. Rather, as Hebrews has it, Christ is the very image of God, and that image, as the contemporary theologian Hans Boersma poignantly argues, is that of a welcoming Father, a hospitable God imaged in the apse by the opened hands of Christ and the protective hand of the Father. The imagery of the apse mosaic is thus of an all-encompassing redemption accomplished in the very person of the incarnate God as his life, and willing death, renews every aspect of humanity and creation.
[i] Irvine, Christopher The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013) pg. 163
[ii] T.F. Torrance, The Incarnation, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) pg. 62
[iii] Aulen, Gustaf, Christus Victor (London: SPCK Publishing, 2010) pg. 21
[iv] Irvine, Christopher The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013) pg. 152
[v] Aulen, Gustaf, Christus Victor (London: SPCK Publishing, 2010)
[vi] Ibid, 21