The Cross

History, Art, and Controversy

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Robin M. Jensen
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The cross stands as one of the most central images in the Christian tradition. In The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, Robin Jensen offers a cursory overview of the cross in both art and primary texts throughout Christian history.

Jensen progresses the arguments and catalogues each theme through her nine different chapters. In chapter 1—“Scandalum Crucis: The Curse of the Cross”—Jensen mines New Testament and early Roman literature to expose how the Cross depicted positive and negative motifs. Chapter 2—“Signum Crucis: The Sign of the Son of Man”—highlights a different theme about the cross, and traverses through New Testament and Early Christian literature. In this chapter, Jensen shows the cosmic features of the cross, its relationship to Adam, and the expression of the sign of the cross.

Other themes appear in the following chapters: in chapter 3 Jensen explores how Constantine’s vision of the cross was perceived in antiquity; and chapter 4 observes how early Christian iconography portrayed the crucifix as traditions move into late antiquity.

Chapter 5, in particular, stood out—“Adoratio Crucis: Monumental Gemmed Crosses and Feasts of the Cross.” In this chapter, Jensen highlights how precious metals, gems, relics, and Roman sarcophagi begin to depict more elaborate cross décor. Moving beyond décor, in chapter 6—“Carmina Crucis: The Cross in Poetry, Legend, and Liturgical Drama”—Jensen surveys how early hymns and legends regarding Adam and Eve portray the cross.

The final three chapters of the book move rather rapidly through medieval, Reformation, and modern traditions. Respectively, Jensen observes how depictions of the cross shift from triumph to visual representations of a suffering man in the Medieval era; how the cross and the crucifix are portrayed in Catholic and Protestant Reformation traditions; and how the cross is used in Islam, the Crusades, and other modern traditions. Each chapter balances well the use of physical art and pictures with descriptions from primary texts.

Given the brevity of this review and the intended audience of Jensen’s volume, I will only offer a few highly valuable features of this book. Obviously, there are many helpful features to Jensen’s arguments.

The first commendable item in this volume is the captivating beauty that it imbues. Jensen, within 221 pages of prose, offers sixty-three paintings and portraits. On average—every third or fourth page—the beauty of art will captivate readers. I often found myself, on more than a few occasions, mesmerized by the images. Rather than reading Jensen’s argument, I could not help flipping ahead to see the beauty of other pictures and portraits. Moreover, Harvard University Press is also to be commended for the paper quality, font type, and providing rich color for all the images. As far as the aesthetics are concerned, this is among Jensen’s best.

A second feature of this book is Jensen’s ability to traverse through the primary literature. The first six chapters move rather fluidly between canonical material, New Testament Apocrypha, and Patristic literature. Jensen weaved, masterfully, the various contours of ideas and streams of thought on the cross in early Christianity. Moreover, Jensen was able to provide mosaics, frescos, or other artifacts that cohere with much of the primary literature. So, in this way, this book provides multiple images and many primary texts in antiquity that detail early Christian visions and theology of the cross.

A final element that makes this book stand out is the simplicity of Jensen’s prose. She writes with such ease. She paints images through her narrative. Moreover, given that her writing style is simple, it speaks to great clarity and may be easily read by scholars and non-scholars alike.

This book is to be commended and recommend to many in the field. Although it refrains from offering an exhaustive analysis of secondary scholarship, Jensen supplies a helpful analysis of primary texts. Personally, I will make use of this book in the near future when I teach on topics in early Christianity. I now have a focused repository of primary texts and art that reflect the cross in early Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shawn J. Wilhite is assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist Univeristy and editor for the Center for Ancient Christian Studies.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin M. Jensen is Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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