Charles Williams on the Scandal of the Cross

Modified re-post from a few years ago elsewhere.

Aelfwine's Office of the Holy Cross now upHere’s a little something from my breakfast reading, a reminder from Charles Williams (of Inklings fame, along with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis) of how comfortable we get with what we believe, a reminder that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks.

The passage is from The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is basically a delightful romp through church history dancing in the beauty and the glory of it all, full of fresh thoughts, well-crafted sentences, and startling observations. He writes:

When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man. There can hardly ever have been — it is a platitude — a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only — they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal — perhaps necessarily — the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both; depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase — “My Eros is crucified.” (75-76)

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3 thoughts on “Charles Williams on the Scandal of the Cross

  1. It is significant, I have been told by an iconographer and my spiritual father, that the icon of the crucifixion is mysteriously/paradoxically peaceful in its portrayal of the event unlike many of the Western artistic portrayals.

    Any wisdom regarding this??

    • Fr Thomas,

      I remember Fr Ioannis pointing this difference out as he led a group of us through the painted churches of the Troodos Mtns in Cyprus. The ‘Byzantine’/early Christian image is of Christ standing triumphant, calling to the mind the triumph of the cross and our Lord as the Victor. This motif was prominent in western Christian art until the later Romanesque and Gothic periods, when it was replaced by an image of the suffering Christ.

      Andrew Graham-Dixon says that this occurs in the late 13th century in Italy, after the Franciscan revolution where Christ as the suffering Servant is emphasised a bit more — thus Cimabue’s crucifix from c. 1265. In the Later Middle Ages, this accompanied a form of piety in the West where the devout would think upon the wounds and suffering of Christ, often aided by such images.

      I think this is a case where we often present a false East-West dichotomy, for there are Byzantine mosaics, as in Hosios Loukas (11th-12th-c), that show a limp, dead Christ on the Cross, as well as a continuing interest in Christus Victor crucifixes in the West alongside the more naturalistic interpretation of the High and Late Middle Ages. I believe we need both in Christian art. We need to see that Christ on the Cross is the King of Glory, that he is triumphant, that his death is God’s victory over sin. But we also need to be reminded of the scale of the cost of our salvation, that God, as the person of Jesus Christ, actually and truly suffered and died. Our art, as our theology, should have acquaintance with both sides of this tension.

      I hope these thoughts help.

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