The Message of the Cross
By Ralph Douglas West
Friday, September 02, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Hanging inside the Manchester City Art Gallery is the painting by Holman Hunt titled The Shadow of Death. The painting depicts the inside of the carpenter's shop in Nazareth. Stripped to the waist, Jesus stands by a wooden trestle on which He has put down His saw. He lifts His eyes toward heaven, and the look on His face is one of pain, ecstasy or both. He stretches, raising both arms above His head. As He does so, the evening sunlight streaming through the open door casts a dark shadow in the form of a cross on the wall behind Him, where His tool rack looks like a horizontal bar on which His hands have been crucified. The tools remind us of the fateful hammer and nails.
In the left background, a woman kneels among the wood chippings, her hands resting on the chest in which the rich gifts of the Magi are kept. We cannot see her face because she has averted it, but we know it is Mary. She looks startled at her son's cross-like shadow on the wall.Holman Hunt was the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a19th-century artistic movement that had a reputation for sentimentality, surrealism. Yet there were some serious and sincere artists, and Hunt was one of them. He determined to "battle with the frivolous art of the day," to do battle with the superficial treatment of trite themes. So he spent 1870-1873 in the Holy Land and painted The Shadow of Death in Jerusalem from the roof of his house.Though the idea is historically fictitious, it is theologically true. From Jesus' birth and youth, the cross cast its shadow ahead of Him. The cross is inextricably tied to the Person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here an artist is so sensitive to the theme of Christianity he spent three years surveying the landscape of Jerusalem to paint the picture of the Christ succinctly, seriously, sincerely. If the artist can painstakingly take the brush seriously to paint the cross, how much more should we take the time to recognize the power of the cross?Every religion and ideology has its visible symbol, which illustrates a significant feature of its history or beliefs.The secular ideologies of the centuries have their universally recognizable symbols. The Marxist hammer and sickle represents industry and agriculture, and they are crossed to signify the union of workers and peasants, of factory and field.The swastika has been traced back 6,000 years. The bent arms meant the four seasons or the process of prosperity. However, it was adopted by the Germans as a symbol of the Aryan race. Then Hitler took it over, and it became the sinister sign of Nazi racial bigotry.The lotus flower is particularly associated with Buddhism. Because of its wheel shape, it is thought to depict the cycle of birth and death or the emergence of beauty and harmony out of the muddy waters of chaos.Ancient Judaism avoided visual signs and symbols for fear of infringing the second commandment, which prohibits the manufacturing of images. However, modern Judaism has adopted the Star of David.