Roman crucifixion was gruesome. There was no rulebook, so full rein was given, as Martin Hengel has written, to “the caprice and sadism of the executioners.” Some Romans denounced its cruelty. “That plague” was Cicero’s description. Most were horrified, averted their eyes, and kept their tongues. We know Caesar crucified slaves, but he never refers to crosses or crucifixions in any of his writings, and Hengel tells us that “no ancient writer wanted to dwell too long on this cruel procedure.” The gospels provide the most detailed account we have of a Roman crucifixion.
The New Testament writers are fully aware of the shock value of preaching the crucified Jesus. “Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree,” Paul wrote, quoting Deuteronomy. Jesus went to the cross “despising the shame.” Paul knew that putting crucifixion at the center of the gospel scandalized Jews and sounded foolish to Greco-Romans.
Yet the apostles couldn’t stop talking about it. Paul boasted in the cross, and said that the blood of Jesus’ cross reconciled all things, removed enmity, forgave sins. John went further. The Word that created the world pitched a tent among men. In the old tent, the glory of God hid behind curtains, but the Word’s tent of flesh was transparent to glory: The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory. According to John, the glory of the Word was revealed supremely in a specific event and at a specific hour: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified . . . Now is the Son of Man glorified . . . The hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify you.” All these refer to Jesus’ death. In his cross, Jesus glorified God and the Father glorified him. In the hour of the cross, Father and Son displayed their mutual glory.
At the end of ages, when we at last receive permission to pull back the tent curtain to peer at the glory, the scene that will greet us will not be what we expect. Enthroned above the cherubim is a mangled man hanging from a Roman cross. That, John assures us, is the radiant beauty of God.
That is a remarkable thing to say about God. It is an equally remarkable thing to say about glory. What, if anything, can we learn about beauty from that Friday afternoon?
Perhaps the cross so subverts beauty that it leaves us all suspicious modernists and expressionists who regard beauty as a superficial source of cheap pleasure. Perhaps the cross encourages a prophetic aesthetic where art shocks us from our complacency and complicity in the dehumanizing processes of modern civilization. Perhaps Francis Bacon, with his loud paintings of meat, is the paradigmatic painter after Calvary. In my judgment, this particular modernist path is closed for Christian aesthetics. John does not say that the cross evacuates the world of glory and fills it with ugliness. He says that the cross reveals a previously unimagined depth of glory.
Perhaps the cross tells us nothing at all about beauty or art. Abraham Kuyper, a great hero of Reformed thought, says many wise and useful things about art in his Lectures on Calvinism, but goes far off track when he concludes that “art has the mystical task of reminding us in its production of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster.” Art, Kuyper says, does not imitate nature as it is, but points to the “still visible lines” of the original beauty of creation, and points ahead to “the splendid restoration” that is yet to come. Kuyper’s aesthetic theory seems wholly untouched by the cross, a horror within the sinful world that somehow reveals the glory of God.
Kuyper absorbs the cross into a preconceived theory of beauty, and in this he follows a long tradition where Christian writers who adopt and adapt the “Great Theory” that dominated Western aesthetics from the Greeks. In this tradition, beauty is defined as harmony, proportion, integrity, unity; beauty is peaceful, tame, orderly, charming. But Hengel was right: “The forms of Greek Beauty cannot be used to portray the flagellation of Christ, crowned with thorns, dragging the cross to the appointed place of torment, crucified and dying amid the torments of a long and martyred agony.” To make a cross beautiful according to the standards of the Great Theory, we would have to ignore its horror, smooth out its thorny edges and angles, pretty it up. This strategy of avoidance is the unfortunate impulse behind Christian kitsch.
Whatever theologians and philosophers have dreamt of in their theories, Christian artists have typically followed John’s lead in portraying a cruciform beauty. The beauty of God is not just the precarious original beauty of Eden or the fixed final beauty of the New Jerusalem. The beauty of God is also manifest in this world-on-the-way-to-completion. We expect glory to beam through the cracks of this broken world. If glory can be found at Golgotha on a pitch black Friday afternoon, then it can be found almost anywhere.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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