Love and cross in the art of the church

Commenting on the words of the Gospel about the greatest commandment of love for God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40), art critic Viktor Bychkov notes that the main contribution of Christianity to human culture is "the ideal of all-encompassing love as the basis of human existence" [1]. Indeed, the category of love is the basis of Christian aesthetics. “For love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). Apparently, therefore, the first sign of the decline of our entire culture and the approach of apocalyptic times is that our "love grows cold" (see Matthew 24:12).

God reveals Himself to man as Love. He shows this by the example of His preaching and sacrifice in the person of Christ, the incarnate Word. All Christian art is called upon to bear the imprint of this Love. It is revealed in the peaceful, consoling spirit of the Church. It can be seen in the strength and guidance of the blessing right hand and faces on icon images. This Love fills the heavenly spheres of the temple vaults, covered with painted Gospel scenes. It is revealed in poetry, preaching, and liturgical art. Finally, it should be seen in the very piety of Christian artists, architects, and their customers. Without it, all creativity is deprived of something most important.

Thus, any creativity of the spirit or of prayer, any pure spiritual experience and act are impossible without love. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, the greatest thinker of the 4th century, expressed the very essence of this experience: “Knowledge is carried out by love” [2]. Saint Maximus the Confessor says: "As the light of the sun attracts the sound eye, so the knowledge of God naturally attracts the pure mind through love” [3].

In fact, the very act of Incarnation, which is a prerequisite for any Christian art expressing the spirit in material visual-spatial images, is the result of Divine Love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Head of the Prohram Studio, Master of Theology
Carved stone cross by S. Antonov
The very internal Love of the Holy Trinity, as the original and immutable life of the Triune God, has no beginning. It is not the essence of the Divine, but it expresses this essence like nothing else [4]. The Divine essence is unknowable because it is transcendental, but man is still called to know it. This knowledge of God is nothing other than eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God” (John 17:3). The Divine Love expresses the essence of the Divine and is the meaning of all existence [5]. Therefore, the knowledge of this Love is comparable to the eternal life that the New Testament speaks of.

We can never know God completely. But in His Love we can come into communion with Him, leading to an ascent in the knowledge of God, which has no limit. Love itself includes all the divine categories revealed in church art, which we will discuss below. In Love, wisdom, greatness, humility, beauty, and peace are ontologically combined [6]. These are the categories in which the knowledge of the Divine is revealed, but it is Love that gives this knowledge most of all [7].

It is customary to talk about the canonicity of church art. But without the Love that the images of this art express and that a person experiencing it can feel, it loses its meaning and therefore is not truly canonical.
How is this highest Love expressed in church art? In fact, Christ Himself is its direct embodiment and, therefore, its expression. His Incarnation in our temporal-spatial world made church art possible in general. It also served as the beginning of that figurative visual-spatial symbolic language that the Church uses to reveal the spiritual world.

Church art is therefore Christocentric. It was Christ Himself who, by His life and death and by His Divine Economy, showed the highest manifestation of the Love in question.

We can testify that the Church expresses the highest Love to the greatest extent in the image of Christ and, above all, in His Cross. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Golgotha has become one of the most paradoxical expressions of Divine Love in our world (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). True love is sacrificial, it forgets itself. In Christ, both love for God and love for man were fulfilled to the end [8]. This explains the bloody sweat in Gethsemane [9] and the Cross itself.

Therefore, any image of the Cross of Christ in a church, or in Christian art in general, is the first visual evidence of Divine Love. Thus, we can say that this art is not only Christocentric but also staurocentric (from 'stauros', 'cross').

In this sense, the Crucifix and those standing before it are the icons of the Church. To be a true bearer of Divine Love inevitably means to be crucified. The category of love, being the closest to the knowledge of God, is directly connected with the Cross in this world. Perhaps that is why, in Christian art, the Cross is the central symbol and an immutable attribute. Christian art has a huge variety of images of the Cross. It is both an expression of Christ's Love and an adornment of the Church.

It may seem that Love, as the internal life of the Triune God, has no connection with the Cross. However, the knowledge of this highest Love and its revelation in our world occurs precisely through the Cross. Where there is no cross-bearing, sacrifice, and humility, there is no true Love. After all, the very incarnation of the Word of God, which led to Golgotha for the sacrificial salvation of man, became an act of this Love.

Out of love, God creates the world; out of love, He gives man freedom. It is also out of love, at the cost of His own humiliation and death on the Cross, that He opens to fallen man the way of salvation from death. And through communion with His death and His Cross, God raises man to resurrection into Divine existence, blissful contemplation, and communion with His uncreated Light in the Kingdom of His Love. But the beginning of this journey is not beyond the threshold of death. It begins in the life of every person who follows the path of salvation, carrying the blessed Cross of crucified Love.

The symbolism of the Cross is the visible evidence of communion with God and His Kingdom already in this temporary life. The Cross clearly shows two vectors connecting at the central point. There is our linear time, expressed horizontally. There is also the vertical, free from linear extension. It reveals the spiritual vector, connecting the Divine timeless being with the current time in the “present”.
Carved cross in Saint John Chrysostom Church in the village of Godenovo, Yaroslavl region

“My love has been crucified” [10]. This is the love of such self-denial that it has become the love of the Cross. Therefore, the Christian Cross is a visible symbol of this Divine self-diminishing Love.

But crucified Love is also triumphant Love. Therefore, in any depiction of the Crucifixion or simply of the Christian cross, there should always be a certain transcendent silence of the Resurrection, albeit speculative or very subtle. If there is only death and suffering, only dead flesh, then it is difficult to call such an image canonical.

The Cross of Christ, the visible death of Love, led to the Resurrection, for the incredible Power of God's Love is stronger than death itself because this Power is Being itself. “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8). It is in love that the true meaning of the Cross of Christ is revealed: it is the self-giving love of the Son of God, passing through death. But, being the Love of a supra-ontological order, even in death, it remains the same Divine Power. This Power is not subject to death and, being crucified, does not die. It leads Christ to the Resurrection and, with Him, all creation that is involved in Him.

The Son Himself is He Who Is, and He cannot die. This Resurrection, this light of eternity, should certainly be visible in the image of the Cross. As we wrote above, the vertical crossbar depicts this timeless vector of eternity, even in the most primitive graphic crosses. As for the depiction of the Crucifixion, the artist should strive to express the light of eternal resurrected Love in his work. Here, there is both death and the inevitable Resurrection, already present. It is a peaceful and quiet grain of undying Love hidden in the crucified Christ.
Embroidered cross from the “Descent into Hell” omophorion by the Stroganova workshop, 17th century.
There are some even more expressive things that reflect this idea. For example, there are images of the Descent into Hell (Resurrection) in the shape of a cross. The very idea of ​​a flourishing decorated cross is also a vivid illustration of the theme of Life hidden in the Cross. In Christianity, the cross turns from an instrument of death into the Tree of Life and a visible symbol of God's Love for man. As if to confirm this, on some crucifixes, Christ even bends to embrace those standing before him.

Thus, the Cross carries in itself this greatest power of Love. It delivers us from death and the evil infinity of the samsara of various worlds, otherwise called the circles of hell. Everyone dying with Christ and His Cross will also rise with Him.

Thus, death becomes a door, a narrow gate of true being, leading to the kingdom of Love, which every soul certainly encounters. As we have seen, it is only through the Cross and a correct understanding of what happened on it that the Love of God can be truly and deeply known in this world. In fact, the very work of the Word of God on earth is not only the Teaching, which many reduce to moral norms. Rather, it is the death on the cross and resurrection, revealing the Love of God for His creation.
This is probably why Christians love the image of the Cross so much. It has become the symbol of salvation and the banner under which the life of any Christian passes. It is well said: “He who is not crucified is not of Christ.” And if one is crucified, one is among those resurrected with Him. The hardest of all is when it is love that is crucified. But, probably, only through this are its true power and meaning known.

There are many crosses, as well as many destinies of persons or peoples. It is through the bearing of one’s cross of the circumstances of life, the human cross, in which created humanity is united with the Cross of Christ, that true knowledge of God often occurs. Many flee from their cross, but it is through this blessing of the cross that a person approaches Christ. Only in Him can one find the easy yoke and light burden (cf. Matthew 11:30) of communion with God.

In church art, there are many images and variations of the Cross, which can be described in detail. However, the Calvary Cross is a symbol of Christ Himself [11]. Therefore, the active force of any cross, whatever it may be, is this sign of the crucified Savior. It can be expressed even in two crossed lines if they are inscribed with this meaning embedded in them. The variability comes from the ambiguity of this symbol, where each meaning has its own justification. Without aiming to analyze this polysemy, let us point out some generally accepted graphic images of the cross. There is the eight-pointed cross, the six-pointed cross, the four-sided cross, the Celtic cross, the solar cross, the Byzantine cross, the Armenian cross, the gammadion, the tau cross, the cross of Saint Nino, the Coptic cross, and many others. Each of these symbols can have a lot of variations in execution.

The Resurrection is already embedded in the Cross of Christ, which is a visible expression of Divine Love. We can probably even say that the Cross is a symbol of the presence of this Love in the earthly world. Let us point to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew (16:24 - 28): “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Immediately after the words about the Cross come the words about the glory of the Son of God and about His Kingdom. And, as we know, what follows is a story about the Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor, which is the very Divine energy seen and felt by the apostles. The sequence of the Gospel narrative is not accidental: Cross – self-denial – glory and Kingdom.

Thus, through the Cross, in which, “as in the chalice of the Lord, my created being joins the Divine uncreated Being” [12], Divine Love is revealed to man and infused into man. In turn, it reveals to man the love for God, his neighbor, and the whole world. If this mutual act of the sacrament of Love is genuine, then it encourages self-sacrifice. Therefore, once again, it brings man to the Cross, but this time it is his own cross-bearing of self-giving of love, which, in turn, has its source in the Cross of Christ and His Love. According to Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, such Love “encourages those who love to belong not to themselves but to the beloved […]. That is why the great Paul, being possessed by Divine Love and having partaken of its outward-striving power, said with divine lips, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). He said this as a truly loving one, going out of himself, as he himself says, to God and living not his own life but the life of the Beloved as very desirable" [13]. This is how mutual communication in Love between God and man occurs. As we can see, such Love cannot be self-enclosed; it is directed outward. “And He Himself, who is the Cause of everything thanks to the love of beauty and goodness in everything, due to the excess of loving goodness, finds himself outside Himself. He is being attracted to everything that exists by Providence, as if by goodness, attraction and by love, and from a state that transcends everything, he is brought down by a super-essential force inseparable from Him that leads outward” [14].

Returning to the theme of the Cross, let’s say that it was the attraction of the Divine Love towards all things that became the motivating reason for Christ’s self-giving for the salvation of man on the Cross. Actually, God Himself is this Power of Love, “moving and leading to Himself” [15]. And the difficult task of church art is to convey this Love in an artistic image and construct a space that conveys the feeling of this Love and the peace that it brings.
1.Bychkov V. Drevnerusskaya estetika. [Old Russian Aesthetics]. Moscow, Patriarchal Metochion of the Saint Tatiana Church at Moscow State University, 2012. p. 19. (In Russian)

2. Ibid., p. 29

3.Saint Maximus the Confessor. Glavy o lubvi, pervaya sotnitsa. [Four Hundred Texts on Love]. Moscow, Palomnik Publ., 2004. p. 33 (In Russian)

4.Sophrony (Sakharov), Archimandrite. Videt’ Boga kak On est. [We Shall See Him As He Is]. Third edition. Saint John the Baptist Monastery Publ., Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius Publ., 2006, pp. 241-244 (In Russian)

5.Ibid., p. 191

6.Ibid., p. 61

7.Ibid., p. 246

8.Ibid., p. 85

9.Ibid., p. 62

10.Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Poslanie k Rimlyanam. [Letter to the Romans]. Moscow, Saint Cosmas and Damian Church Publ., 2005, p. 184 (In Russian)

11.Saint John of Damascus. Tochnoe izlozhenie pravoslavnoy very. [An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith]. Chapter XI. Moscow, Indrik Publ., 2002. p. 298 (In Russian)

12.Sophrony (Sakharov), Archimandrite. Videt’ Boga kak On est. [We Shall See Him As He Is]. p. 301 (In Russian)

13.Saint Dionysius the Areopagite. O Bozhestvennych imenach [On the Divine Names]. Saint Petersburg, Oleg Abyshko Publ., 2010, p. 189 (In Russian)

14. Ibid., p.

15. Ibid., p. 190