The art essay

Christ Crucified with Arms Extended (c. 1170–1180) by

In a.d. 810, a young monk named Hrabanus Maurus in the Abbey of Fulda in present-day Germany wanted to lend his own voice to praise the glory of the crucified and Incarnate Word. The result was To the Honor of the Holy Cross, a multimedia masterpiece of a book that uses paintings, poems, and prose to simultaneously reveal different aspects of the wonder of the cross. 

Words and the Word

 In the image that comprises the first chapter of Hrabanus’ work, Christ stands, his hands outstretched, with a red cloth around his waist, gazing at the viewer with disconcerting directness. He holds himself in the shape of the cross, but no wood and no nails are to be seen. But above all, it’s the words that grab our attention: Jesus is awash in a sea of words, words that fill the background (or is it the foreground?), words that cover his body, words that form his body, words that he seems to arise from and sink into at the same time. The eye gets lost on the page, caught between its efforts to distinguish the text and make out the contours of the painting at the same time. What do we do with an image of the Word that is made out of words? 

The Living Word

The Word of God was not spoken into a vacuum: God prepared humanity for the Incarnation of the Word by speaking in human words, words that were not merely written in a book but that gave life to the People of God and set them free to see God more clearly and long for an ever more perfect union with him. Likewise, the Word did not vanish into the air after the Ascension of Christ: Jesus gave us the words of the sacraments, of the Church, of his disciples, of everything we came to know as the Old and the New Testaments. And at the center of all of these words is the crucified Word, from whom we learn what our own words mean and how we are able to speak about God, to make the cross known, to manifest its life.

Hrabanus’ work makes manifest the astonishing exchange of divine and human speaking by which we are saved. The welter of human words makes sense insofar as it comes from the cross and leads us to the cross; and the Word on the cross sets us free to hear human words speaking of God. Because the Word humbled himself to take our flesh and speak in our words, he has healed our wounds and given us a dignity that no one can take from us: that we can bear in our own body the marks of Jesus (cf. Gal 6:17) and that he gives us the grace in all things to speak of nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

Reading the Word of God 

The words that shape the image are an original Latin poetic composition by Hrabanus, making ample use of biblical references and liturgical language to praise the humility and the glory of Christ made known on the cross. The elegantly spaced letters are read from left to right descending down the page like a normal book, including when they cross Christ’s body. The line directly below his arms, for instance, says, “This God is the beginning, the Emmanuel, both the end and the source,” and the lines that follow continue speaking of the different ways the one Christ is made known in his humanity and his divinity. 

But there is another poetic structure at play here as well, one that literally takes its shape from the cruciform Christ. Hrabanus has arranged the letters that trace the inside of Christ’s form into a different series of poetic lines. Reading along the fingers of Christ’s right hand and up the arm, we find a line inspired by John 1:1-3: Jesus, the right hand of the Most High God, created all things; in his halo, King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rv 19:16); and in his hair, This is the King of Justice (cf. Heb 7:2).

The Glory of the Word

But perhaps most striking is the series of red letters on Christ’s face and chest, which read Ordo iustus Deo, which means either “A just order from God” or “A just order unto God.” The double meaning is significant: Jesus the Incarnate Word brings God’s just order into the chaotic world of our sin, and he also heals and elevates us from our sins so that we can present ourselves to God holy and acceptable (Rom 12:1). 

But this condensed three-word version of the Good News isn’t just a comment about Christ; it actually forms his body and reveals his divinity at the same time. The O’s in the word ordo (order) are the irises of Jesus’ eyes; iustus (just) surrounds his mouth (cf. Ps 37:30); and, most tellingly, the word Deo (God) marks Jesus’ breast and his navel. These humble body parts are also directly associated with human birth, so Hrabanus’ decision to dignify them with the name of God reveals something of the glory of the Incarnation: the very lowliness of Jesus’ humanity manifests his infinite divinity.

Hrabanus’ visual-poetic art allows us to understand more deeply what it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). The God who wrote the prophetic words of the Scriptures with human instruments desired to fulfill these words in the body of the Incarnate Word through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, so that through his Death and Resurrection we who die with him can rise with him. In response, we can only join Hrabanus in giving glory to the honor of the Holy Cross.

 

Fr. Gabriel Torretta, o.p.

Fr. Gabriel Torretta, o.p. is currently a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, where he studies the history of the theology of beauty in the Carolingian era.

 

 Christ Crucified with Arms Extended (c. 1170–1180), British Library, Harley Collection. © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images.