For most Christians, the primary symbol of God’s love and care for humanity is a cross—a reminder of the crucifixion. Yet for approximately the first five centuries of the Christian movement the crucifixion was not depicted visually because it was too closely associated with a shameful criminal death to be useful as a symbol of love and redemption. What complex theological and social circumstances brought crucifixion scenes to prominence as visual statements about God’s love for humanity?
The New Testament assumes that humans are estranged from God and unable to overcome that estrangement. Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice for the purpose of removing the barrier between God and humans. Christ is pictured as a sacrificial lamb whose death ransomed humanity. But the New Testament offers no precise explanation of the dynamics of that sacrifice.
Margaret R. Miles taught historical theology at Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Her most recent book is Beyond the Centaur: Imagining the Intelligent Body (forthcoming from Wipf and Stock).