Professor Dominic Crossan is creating a new subject, Art Theology. We've all heard of Art History, so what is Art Theology? It is theology which takes artistic images seriously. And why shouldn't it? Theology for most people throughout most of history was mediated through art. Even the Biblical traditions, which forbid idol worship, still were generally practiced by people who did not own books, and could not read them even if they had owned them. Yes, there was reading from sacred texts, but much of day-to-day religion was ritual, architecture, and image. To ignore all of that, as though texts were the sole sources of religious knowledge, is to cut scholarship off from a major source of knowledge.
Crossan's book (written by both Dominic and Sarah Crossan) Resurrecting Easter begins to rectify the situation. The book is the fruit of twenty trips abroad spanning fifteen years of research, which began when Crossan noticed that the Eastern Orthodox depictions of the resurrection differed from their Western counterparts in a significant way: The Western iconography tended to show Jesus resurrecting only as an individual, whereas the Eastern iconography tended to show Jesus including others in His resurrection.
In the Western depictions, Jesus begins to, is in the midst of, or has emerged from, a sepulcher, generally in the presence of by-standers, such as the women seeking the body of Jesus or the guards who were ordered to stand watch over it.
Anastasis on Resurrection Gate (inside Red Square), RESSURECTION GATE
But the typical Eastern depiction has a communal element to it. Jesus often is shown holding a limp-wristed (because he is emerging from death) Adam to lead him from death. He generally does not touch Eve. Frequently Biblical patriarchs such as David and Solomon look on from the sidelines. Fascinatingly, the broken pieces of a lock are strewn around the scene, and two doors depicting the gates of Hell are piled together in cruciform arrangement. Death is not just endured and then departed from – it is shattered. Beneath or near the doors is the prone form of Hades, guardian of the underworld. He is often portrayed as engorged, because he has eaten so much of the human race. In fact, in one literary dialogue from the Eastern tradition, the defeated Hades complains about a stomach ache because his abdomen is now empty after Jesus liberated the human race from his corporeal captivity. The dialogue clearly has a satirical edge to it and the iconography likely does as well. Looking back, in the light of the resurrection, death seems less like a demon and more like the butt of a joke.
Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venetian Lagoon, SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA
In short, to use the Crossans' language, the Art Theology of the Resurrection in the West is "individualistic," whereas the Eastern Art Theology is "universal." The book is pulling for the East: the subtitle is, "How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision." Artistically, I prefer the communal iconography of the East. I find it fascinating, and appealing. But I'm not willing to give up my Western individualism. The West has its problems, and social atomization is one of the biggies, but the East has its problems, too, and communalism metastasized into authoritarian regimes is a biggie there.
Crossan argues, perceptively in my view, that perhaps the tradition of the Harrowing of Hell was one way that the West could keep the old icons and yet dissociate them from the resurrection itself. As I write this, it is Holy Saturday, which tradition holds is the day that Jesus raided Hell. But some of the icons which depict Christ liberating Hell’s prisoners are actually labeled, He Anastais, ‘The Resurrection’. Perhaps the resurrection and the harrowing are one and the same thing, or at least accomplished at one and the same time.
Outside, Church of Saint George. Voronet Monastery, Romania, CHURCH OF SAINT GEORGE. VORONET MONASTERY
Perhaps both traditions have kept, and both traditions have lost, part of the original vision of Easter - each losing what the other kept. Perhaps they lost each other.
In a post-interview email, Crossan suggested to me a possible resolution: Perhaps (with apologies to Kipling) East and West can meet, not just at 'Gods great judgement seat', but in Art Theology. Crossan reminded me of a quote from the prologue of the book:
“A final thought, but still about peace and
reconciliation. In the first Christian millennium,
both the individual and the universal tradition
were prevalent; either could have become the
Easter vision for all of Christianity. Not so in
its inimical second millennium; the West chose
individual imagery and the East retained universal
iconography. What, then, might we hope for
in Christianity’s just-starting third millennium?
Look at the opening image of Chapter 12 (Fig.
12.1, p. 168). It belongs to a Russian tradition—
from as early as the 1500s—that created a
combined universal and individual vision in
a single icon. Even if that never becomes the
official Easter iconography for the breadth
of the Christian church, should it not be the
dominant Easter theology for the depth of the
Perhaps the issue isn't communal vs. individual social theory, but, instead, individual vs. comprehensive resurrection. In other words, when Christ harrows hell and releases its inhabitants, He liberates every aspect of human life which Hell holds captive, individual life as well as political life. After all, if Hades is defeated, well, who on earth has been a better servant of Hades than the state? No entity has sent so many people through those gates. And who was it that sent Jesus there so He could break those locks and unhinge those doors? The Roman state.
I sat down across a Skype line recently with Professor Crossan to discuss this visually beautiful and intellectually stimulating book. You can listen to the recording of that wide-ranging conversation here (with editing for clarity).