The Cross and the Camino: the Crucifix of Santo Domingo de la Calzada

Crucifix in the cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada (La Rioja). Image by Anxo Regueira López, La Vanguardia (Logroño edition) (17/01/2020)

Apologies to the sculptor and commissioners, but the newly installed crucifix of the cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in La Rioja (a town I really like and featured previously) – it looks like it was made of Playmobil (a Lego-like product, manufactured in Spain).  It did get me thinking about what a crucifix should look like though, and of course you’ll see many styles from many eras along the Camino.

The earliest Christians did not possess crucifixes, partly because they came from a Jewish tradition of non-anthropomorphic art and partly because crucifixion was still a common method of capital punishment; it might have seemed somewhat shameful or at least distasteful (just as a hypothetical modern religion might not adopt as its symbol the electric chair in which its founder was executed).  It took time.

Early representations of Jesus on the cross depict Him wearing a long robe and leaning out toward the viewer, with bulging eyes.  The emphasis is clearly on His triumph over death.  As time went on, more ‘natural’ representations were developed, with the five wounds more visible and His head tilted to one side.  Of course none of these representations are strictly natural, and all have a message and tell us something of the world of the creators.  Certain liberties are taken, most specifically Jesus’ face is still visible.  Upon death, His head would most likely have flopped down and so the face would not have been visible in the upright manner we are used to seeing.  While dying, or immediately after death, His bowels and bladder would have voided, and a realistic representation would probably show a corpse soiled with faecal matter and urine.  Lastly, the loin cloth probably wasn’t present either.  It’s near-universal presence on crucifixes speaks to our (and not just Christianity’s) complex views on nudity, sexuality and the human body, while simultaneously obscuring the most obvious sign of Jesus’ Jewishness – His circumcised penis.[1]

Gothic crucifix in Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puenta la Reine (Navarra). Image author’s own.

Interesting crucifixes along the Camino Francés include the fourteenth-century Y-shaped cross brought by pilgrims from Germany to Puente la Reine (Navarra).  Crucifixes in the Gothic style from this period are characterised by an emphasis on human agony.  No obvious triumph over death here.  Instead a bruised, bloodied and tortured man.  But it would be a mistake to see this as solely an attempt at Gospel-based realism.  These are expressions of a bruised, bloodied and tortured world — the world of the Black Death/Bubonic Plague.

So where does that leave ‘Playmobil’ Jesus in Santo Domingo de la Calzada?  If art partly reflects the culture that produces it, what does it tell us about the world we live in?  And if its interpretation reflects the worldview of the viewer, what does that tell you about me?

[1] One of the great treatments of early Christianity’s developing views on the body and their social contexts is found in Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988; new edition 2008).  It is a work of immense learning, beautifully written.

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