Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. In the crucifixion scene Jesus’ head is surrounded by a Crucifixion.casketpanel.5th century.British Museum Londonnimbus of glory and despite the soldier piercing his side, he appears alive and triumphant. Realism wasn’t the aim of the representation; rather it communicated a basic theological message: though crucified Jesus is triumphant.

Likely around the mid-ninth century, Byzantine fresco and mosaic art began portraying Christ dead or dying on the cross. It Bazantine Icon.The Crucifixion.13th centurywas a theological refutation of the real or supposed errors of Docetism and Monophysitism which competed against the Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. But still, while Christ was portrayed suffering in a very real human body he appeared ‘resplendent with inner life: Life in death’. Jesus’ body sags but is not disfigured or seen in extreme suffering (see left).

Additionally, a fundamental shift was underway toward “humanistic” concepts of art designed to affect and invite the viewer into the scene, such that the viewer would have a spiritual, affective, meditative experience that would ‘augment the declaration of faith’. Skip ahead a few centuries to the 16th century, and the effects of Anselm’s satisfaction theory are seen in full effect and one can’t help but ask the question: Where is the victorious Christ?

Anselm’s theory taught that Christ’s death satisfied God’s just requirements for the punishment of sin, and this led in turn to visual representations of the cross focusing more on Christ’s physical suffering. Anselm also taught that prayer is genuine dialogue with Christ: not merely contemplation or the thankful reflection of God’s salvific deeds. Artistic representations, then, sought to invite the viewer into the scene and to contemplate one’s responsibility for Christ’s sufferings.

Christ after the Flagellation.Velazquez.1620Velazquez’s 17th century “After the Flagellation” in which a child contemplates the scourging of Christ is a good example (see left).  Notice how the image invites you into the scene: Christ’s face is toward the viewer and not toward the contemplating child or angel. Also, the instruments of torture are laid out in front of Christ, in the visual space between the viewer and Christ, inviting the one to consider him or herself as the one who actually tortured the savior.

Crucifixion.St Maria im Kapitol.Germany.1304.croppedOr consider an example from the period of the Black Plague. This 14th century wooden cross from Germany (at right) depicts Christ’s broken body emaciated and sickly not unlike many who would have been victims of the plague at the time. Could one imagine a more drastic difference from the earliest depictions of Christ as “suffering” but “victorious”? So where is the victorious Christ?

Viladesau’s two volumes marvelously walk the reader through many more examples, tracing how theological themes such as Christ’s death as victory and vicarious suffering play out both conceptually and visually. The only addition that would have made the books doubly helpful is the addition of more images. Besides the fact that the pictures included are in black and white, they are surprisingly sparse (although he lists in the notes websites and other sources where they can be found – some links being no longer active).


One thought on “Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

  1. The emphasis in Christianity and its iconography changed significantly, they say, as the years rolled by, and there was no second coming, for instance. You can see this in ritual and art. At first they say, Christians buried their dead in ostuaries (SP?) and sarcophagi above ground – in the expectation that the dead needed to have easy access to the air. Since they would be resurrected bodily in the Resurrection. Christians though, shifted to burying their dead in the dirt, when a hundred years or so passed, and no such resurrection had occurred. They say.

    Possibly the images of Christ change significantly over the centuries. And perhaps for similar reasons. The earliest images they say, picture Jesus as a happy shepherd, saving one of his sheep, over his shoulder (borrowed from images of Bacchus). But when many Christians did not find the promised prosperity, but instead pain and suffering, and “martydom,” death, the positive promise of earthly rewards was de-emphasized. Along with the positive image of Jesus. Eventually, Jesus was thought to stand for the opposite of earthly prosperity; he became the suffering servant; painfully crucified. To reflect his followers, getting pain and death in exchange for following him.

    Here, the prosperity gospel of Judaism, was supplanted by the Christian image of a godly suffering. God now encouraging us, not with material rewards. But they say, helping us get through privation and suffering. (Partially though, by promises of future prosperity?).

    While in the meantime, though, even glamorizing privation?

    Here though, some might find ethical issues, in the glamorization of pain and suffering.

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