Ugly: Part 4, The ugly cross

Sorry for the long time between posts. I've been away taking some very brilliant students to a psychological conference in Kansas City, MO to present our research into the PostSecret phenomenon. Now that the conference is over I feel free to present some of that research here. After this series on Ugly look for some posts on PostSecret.

Now, back to Ugly.

On Wednesday night in my bible class on Ugly I had Dan, one of my good friends, come talk to us about the aesthetics of the crucifixion. Dan is an amazing artist and a wonderful colleague at the University. But what I love most about Dan is his curiosity. You'd think that university profs and academicians are an intellectually curious lot. Not so. Many are specialists, almost technicians, in their narrow area of scholarship. Consequently, few show any interest or desire to read, explore, or dip into areas outside of their speciality. Dan's not like that. His interests, intellectual and spiritual, are polymathic.

In his aesthetics of the crucifixion class Dan initially handed us two artistic portrayals of the crucifixion. The first is an oil on wood done by Raphael in 1505:

The second picture is an oil on canvas done by Lovis Corinth in 1907:

After viewing these two pictures at our tables, Dan asked us to discuss these questions:

Consider the two artworks and answer any of these questions:

Which of these paintings appeals to you most? Why?

Which of these painting would you rather hang in your house? Why?

Which of these paintings do you find to be more reverent or respectful? Why?

Which of these painting is more beautiful? Why?

Which of these paintings is truer? Why?

At my table, as we discussed these questions, we made what are the obvious contrasts. The Raphael painting is a beautiful, peaceful, blue-skied scene. It is suffused with divinity and spirituality.

By contrast, in the Corinth painting there is no trace of the divine. The scene is ugly, grotesque. The nudity is harsh. Jesus' whole body is embarrassing and shameful. Twisted. Consequently, the Corinth painting shakes our faith. Where is God in that scene? Where is God?

Although I appreciate the painting of Raphael I admire the Corinth painting for its ability to recover for us the utter scandal and God-forsakenness of the cross. It helps us understand why the Crucified God of the early Christians was so incomprehensible to its first cultural audience.

How could the cross, this ugly cross, be the foundation of this faith?

And why?

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7 thoughts on “Ugly: Part 4, The ugly cross”

  1. A few rambling thoughts here, Dr. Beck--

    First off, as a person who has immersed himself in Orthodox theology for the past three years, I would be partial to the traditional Orthodox icon of the crucifixion, rather than either of these late works. (How's that for not answering the question?) It seems to me that the truth of the crucifixion is somewhere in between these two examples.

    Secondly, when Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ was released several years ago, I went to see it at the theater. The movie affected me greatly. The Passion confronts Christians with the ugliness of the Cross, the brutality of the floggings, the guilt of humankind in the rejection of God the Savior. To fully appreciate the resurrection, first you have to come to terms with the death of our Lord.

    So I bought the movie on DVD, and each year I would watch the movie around Easter to remind me of the reason behind Easter.

    This year, I have not watched the movie, however. The more I study Orthodox theology, the more I come to believe that the purpose of His coming was not the suffering and death, as if those were ends in themselves. It is, rather, the resurrection; the trampling down death by death. Of course you have to die physically to achieve the resurrection, and we should not ignore the brutality of it all, by any means.

    However, Gibson's film has become distasteful to me for all of the unnecessary violence and gore. The movie is, like the Corinth painting, almost pornographic in its violence. The term that comes to mind is "Torture Porn," a genre identified not by sexuality, per se, but by graphic violence to the extent that the viewers receive from it some sort of sadistic satisfaction.

    Of course, The Passion has at its roots a certain Catholic obsession with suffering and guilt that is foreign in Orthodox teaching. (Hence, when you visit a Catholic Church, you are likely to see a Crucifix hanging on the wall; that is, a cross with Jesus' dead body attached. In an Orthodox Church, the icons show Christ alive, both as an adult and sitting on His mother's lap.)

    Whether the ugliness of The Passion and of Corinth is necessary to break Mainstream Christianity's spell of indifference, I could not say.

  2. It seems to me that you cannot have one without the other. The story--the reality--is incomplete without both.

    I may go so far as to say that without the ugly of the Cross, the beauty is a lie... or vice versa.

  3. Kirk,
    I appreciate your thoughts. A few reflections.

    I appreciated the Gibson film for its Mariology.

    The difference for me between the Corinth painting and Gibson's film is that the film, as I saw it, was built around penal substitutionary atonement. All that violence was God-inflicted and intended for me.

    The Corinth painting, again as I see it, is less about penal substitution than about the God-forsakenness of the cross. The Gibson cross can be seen as "heroic" but Corinth's cross is just full of shame. Nothing heroic about it. It’s an Isaiah 53 cross. There is nothing about it that attracts us to it. Because of this I think the painting is useful as a critique of a Christian culture that uses the cross as decoration, jewelry, and as a bumper sticker.

    I think that is right. But my sense is (see my comment about decoration, jewelry and bumper stickers to Kirk) that our view of the cross has grown lopsided. Thus, the Corinth painting is useful as it allows us to confront some realities about the cross we tend to avoid because they are, well, too ugly. But it seems to me that ugliness is a part of the heart of this religion.

  4. Richard,

    Just an encouragement for you to look at the aesthetic notion of the "sublime." Burke thought that a fearful magnitude in terms of space was involved, but I think a fearful magnitude of substance might be involved as well. Nietzsche's line is pertinent here: "We have art in order not to perish from truth."


    George C.

  5. I think each of the two artists is trying to convey something different, and succeeds: Raphael, the beauty of Christ's self-sacrifice; Corinth, the repulsiveness of sin.

  6. Our desire to sand off the rough edges of the cross has existed as far back as the writing of the gospels. As I learn more about the writing of these accounts, I believe a good deal of what we read is there to comfort us that there was a design, a plan behind it all - it was not nearly as ugly or embarrassing as it seems.

    The Corinth painting is physically difficult to see - I confess I cannot stare at it for more than a few seconds without getting uncomfortable. Why is this? If I'm honest, it disgusts me to see Jesus so helpless and frail.

    That's why I think this line of discussion is fascinating - it is difficult for us to appreciate and admit the degree to which our inclinations determine our reactions or conclusions, even when we insist we are being pragmatic or objective. Thanks, Richard for bringing this to the forefront for me.

  7. Dr. Beck:

    After reading and thinking about this blog you have posted, I posted a blog sharing my reflections there upon. Should you be interested to read it, here is the link:

    Thank you, by the way for posting your blog about the "Ugly Cross."

    SWBTS, Fort Worth

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