Of the many images that have found artistic expression in Christianity, the Crucifixion of Jesus is perhaps the most powerful. Representations of the Annunciation, the Nativity, or the Madonna and Child have the capacity to inspire awe-filled contemplation of the Incarnation; however, few images in these categories can utterly arrest the gaze of the viewer in the same manner as the image of Jesus on the Cross. The image of the Crucifixion in all its awful glory invites and even demands the viewer to pause for a moment to consider the weight of human sin and the depths of divine love that fastened the God-man to the Cross.
It is the paradox of the Cross—the mystery that the Son of God dies so that we might have life and remains glorious as God even in his horrific death as man—that has inspired artists for centuries, and each artist in his or her own way must grapple with how they will portray this pivotal moment in human history: does one emphasize the unimaginable physical sufferings of Jesus, or the tenderness and mercy he offers even to his last breath, or the awesome power of divine self-giving love by which the Incarnate Word tramples down death by death? While many paintings of the Crucifixion throughout history have emphasized either the gruesome suffering or the glorious sacrifice, many artists today are seeking to create works that endeavor to convey the both-and of the Crucifixion rather than an either-or. By considering some of history’s most famous paintings of the Crucifixion alongside some more recent examples, the modern viewer comes to a deeper appreciation of who Jesus Christ is in his self-emptying gift on the Cross—his kenotic love that encompasses both his human and divine natures. More importantly, one encounters a vivid reminder that, in the end, the truest form of beauty is cruciform, and that we are called to become beautiful after the pattern of Christ on the Cross, where we witness the complete gift of self poured forth in love, transfiguring humiliation into exaltation, sin into salvation, death into life.
The Self-Giving Love of the God-man
Before contemplating specific images of the Crucifixion, it is important to consider briefly the nature of Christ’s gift of self in his death on the Cross, particularly as it relates to the two natures of the hypostatic union: who empties himself, the human nature of Jesus or the divine Logos? How does this self-emptying occur, and how much of the self is emptied? According to Bruce McCormick, in the early centuries of Christianity,
the orthodox solution was to understand ‘kenosis’ as taking place through addition rather than subtraction; that is, through an assumption of human ‘nature’ (the ‘form of a slave’) which preserved the simplicity and impassibility of the divine Person performing this act. What is ‘surrendered,’ on this view, is the ‘glory’ or recognizability of God. . . . ‘Exaltation’ is emergence from concealment; the public declaration by God of an already existing state of affairs.
In the Reformation era, sixteenth century theologian Martin Chemnitz speaks of kenosis as originating in the divine Logos and consisting of “willed non-use of divine attributes [of the Word] in and through the human nature [of Jesus]. It does not envision the divestment of anything proper to the deity.” However, in the mid-nineteenth century, German Lutheran theologian Gottfried Thomasius would take Chemnitz’s thought a step further. Once again, kenosis begins with the Logos, but for Thomasius, this “[consists] in a surrender … of precisely those attributes by means of which the ‘glory’ of God is manifested outwardly to the world God created, namely, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. This was a kenosis by divestment.” Thomasius’ kenotic Christology proves deeply problematic, for it entails a diminution of the divine nature—a kenosis by subtraction (to contrast with the early Church Fathers’ definition). However, in the decades following Thomasius, Russian Orthodox theologians Vladimir Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov were also developing a kenotic Christology which preserved the divine nature in its entirety in the Incarnation. For the Russian Orthodox theologians, the Logos doesn’t empty itself of the divine nature, but of the exalted state, concealing itself in the humiliated state; therefore, the divine consciousness isn’t surrendered but restrained in order that Jesus’ human will is not overpowered by his divine will, and that his human freedom and agency is preserved. Moreover, the act of kenosis is not exclusive to the second Person of the Trinity; rather, kenosis is implicit in the very nature of the Trinity itself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each give of themselves in relationship to the other Persons; thus, the kenosis of the Incarnation and the kenosis of the Cross become manifestations and extensions of God’s eternally kenotic nature as a Trinity of Persons. This understanding allows for the possibility a kenosis that includes both humiliation and exaltation.
It is this both-and approach that Bruce McCormack gestures toward in his assertion that a new kenotic theory is needed for the twenty-first century. For McCormack, the act of self-emptying is an act of receiving, rather than of giving up. His theory is worth quoting at length, for it has great potential to influence how one views modern images of the Crucifixion in particular:
To put it this way is to reverse the traditional pattern of ‘orthodox’ thinking in accordance with which the Logos gives and the man Jesus receives; the Logos acts and the man Jesus is the instrument of that action. Here, the man Jesus acts and the logos receives those acts as his own. The man Jesus experiences suffering and the Logos takes that suffering up into his own being. . . . The receptivity of the Logos simply is his ‘self-emptying.’ . . . Seen in this light, not exploiting the ‘form of God’ refers to the willed non-use of the powers shared with the Father and the Spirit. It is not that the Triune God does not continue to ‘possess’ these powers; he deprives himself of nothing proper to the deity in that he wills to act ‘humanly’ (in the power of the Spirit who indwells the man Jesus). . . . The triune God is ‘already,’ in himself, what he will do in the temporal execution of election. No change takes place in God—no change can take place.
While this is certainly a step in a new direction, McCormack’s insistence on kenosis as reception to the seeming exclusion of kenosis as oblation—self-emptying—seems as incomplete as a kenotic Christology that would insist on humiliation to the exclusion of exaltation. The seeds of exaltation are present in McCormack, for to state that “the triune God is ‘already,’ in himself, what he will do” in the fullness of time through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection Jesus Christ is to imply that, even in itself, the Trinity is kenotic. Nevertheless, a complete understanding of kenotic Christology must explicitly specify both actions: self-gift and receiving the self-gift of another. Within the Trinity, this is the mutual giving and receiving among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the Hypostatic Union, this is the mysterious mutual giving and receiving that takes place between the human and divine natures of Jesus.
The Cruciform Beauty of Self-Giving Love
Having outlined a brief history of kenotic Christological thought, we may now turn to paintings of the Crucifixion of Jesus, beginning briefly with Western art of the late Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic periods, and focusing primarily on art of the twentieth century. Some of these paintings concentrate on the humiliation of Christ by highlighting his intense sufferings; others attempt to portray the triumph and exaltation of Christ by allowing his divinity to ‘shine through’ his agony; still others combine humiliation and exaltation in new and beautiful ways. Ultimately, all of these paintings invite viewers to contemplate the mystery of divine self-giving love as it finds its height of expression in Christ’s offering on the Cross, and to see in the beauty of the crucified One the icon of the love which every person is called to imitate.
The Renaissance and Baroque Eras
With the introduction of perspective, innovation of artistic techniques, and insistence on a greater degree of naturalism, the Renaissance ushered in an era in which the harsh reality of Christ’s sufferings came to the forefront of Crucifixion paintings. Nowhere is this more readily observed than Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece (fig. 1). Painted in 1512–1516, the altarpiece was created for a hospital where patients suffered from the plague and other skin diseases; thus, the figure of the crucified Christ is covered with the same sores as the patients who would have been praying in front of the altarpiece. In the ghastly details, the contorted limbs, and the garish use of color, Grünewald conveys the divine humiliation of the Logos, depicting Christ as the Suffering Servant who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Is 53:5, NRSV), as well as the high priest who, precisely through his sufferings, learned to sympathize with us in our weakness (cf. Heb 4:15).
This emphasis on the humiliated state of the suffering Christ continues throughout the Baroque era, albeit in a less visually graphic way, with examples like the Peter Paul Rubens’ The Crucified Christ (1610–11, fig.2), Anthony Van Dyck’s Christ on the Cross, (1627, fig. 3), and Diego Velasquez’s Christ Crucified (1632, fig. 4), which, Lawrence Cunningham points out, “has had a long-standing influence on subsequent popular art.” Rubens’ Christ turns heavenward toward the Father yet receives no consolation; Van Dyck’s Christ—clearly inspired by Rubens’—cries aloud in agony. Velasquez, on the other hand, shows Jesus in the moments after his death: the bowed head and limp fingers indicate that there is nothing more he can give; here, we see what it means to say that “he emptied himself.”
The Romantic Era: Post-Enlightenment Changes
Following the Enlightenment came what modern artist David Jones refers to as “The Break.” The identity of Europe as a Christian culture had been permanently severed in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the arts began to be seen more as a means of expressing and evoking personal emotions rather than conveying theological truths. This is not to say that the production of art with religious subject matter vanished altogether, but that its emphasis changed, and with its emphasis, its style. The shift from a didactic art—one that promoted theological truths—to a devotional art—one that aroused sentiments of religious fervor—signified a shift from the public to the private. Religious belief and practice were no longer the things of the public sphere; they had been relegated to the privacy of one’s home. Hence, Cunningham affirms, the religious art produced during this time “shifted from the Church to the wealthy aristocratic clientele who could afford such art,” and since most people did not want to have the image of a bloodied corpse hanging in their drawing rooms, the images of the Crucifixion painted during this time became softer and more subdued, as in Pompeo Batoni’s Crucifixion (1762, fig. 5).
With the rise of Romanticism, an interest in sacred subject matter returned; however, the emphasis of this art was not necessarily to demonstrate the kenotic self-emptying of the subject; rather, it was focused on the emotional reaction of the viewer. This was devotional art, intended to enkindle great pathos for the crucified Christ, as seen in William Blake’s The Crucifixion: Behold Thy Mother (1805, fig. 6), where the viewer is invited to place herself among the mourning crowd. French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau proved a master of this style: his Crucifixion scene is entitled Compassion! (fig. 7) and shows a man standing beneath Jesus’ Cross, holding a cross of his own and embracing the body of Christ. The humiliation of Christ is still present in this art to a certain extent; however, its emphasis is far less doctrinal than its forebears from the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, and far more devotional in nature.
It is worth noting that, around the same time that the aforementioned Russian Orthodox theologians were developing their kenotic Christological thought, a Russian painter named Nikolai Ge was producing images of Christ’s Crucifixion that focused squarely on the suffering and humiliation endured on behalf of the world. Ge’s Crucifixion (1892, fig. 8) and Head of Crucified Jesus (1893, fig. 9) juxtapose realism with post-Impressionism, resulting in visceral and haunting yet beautiful images.
The Twentieth Century and the Emergence of Modern Art
In the early part of the twentieth century, European artists in particular began to turn to the Crucifixion as a way of expressing ‘prophetic themes’ as well as crying out against the horrors of World War I and World War II, particularly the atrocities of the Holocaust. Produced amid the political turbulence that ultimately resulting in the outbreak of World War I, Emil Nolde’s Crucifixion (1911–12, fig. 10) denotes a sharp turn away from the compassionate tenderness of the Romantic era. Lawrence Cunningham points out the painting’s roots in Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece: “Nolde’s Christ writhes in agony with the onlookers distorted in either grief or hate made all the more vivid by his broad strokes and garish palette.” The suffering of the world is reflected in the suffering of Christ. Art scholar Richard Harries, commenting on Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938, fig. 11), notes the artist’s unusual decision to associate a Christian symbol with the suffering of the Jewish people:
This is startling, indeed shocking, when we remember that for many Jews the Cross has been a symbol of Christian oppression. It is also difficult to understand how, in the light of the Holocaust and our greater awareness of how traditional Christian anti-Judaism prepared the way for it, any Jew could use this symbol. But Chagall did and he was not alone amongst the Jews of his time. . . . From a Christian point of view that figure on the Cross is God himself sharing in the agony of his people during the terrible events of the Nazi period. From Chagall’s point of view, in this bold use of Christian imagery for a Jewish theme, we have a symbol of Jewish faithfulness to the Torah even in the midst of utter destruction . . . Chagall seemed to identify the crucified Christ with humanity as a whole.
Alongside Nolde and Chagall, Harries and Cunningham place Georges Rouault, who painted a number of crucifixions throughout his life. Rouault was drawn to subjects for whom life was burdened with suffering—prostitutes, criminals, even circus performers. In Rouault’s many crucifixions (fig. 12), he painted Christ in the same style as the seedy characters of his other paintings, indicating that he, like Chagall, identified Christ as the one who “shares in the suffering of humanity as a whole.” This belief is reflected in the quotation from Pascal that Rouault chose to include in his crucifixion from the woodcut series Miserere et Guerre: “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” By painting Christ in the same style he used for his prostitutes and criminal paintings, Rouault focuses on the kenotic humiliation of Jesus, of whom St. Paul wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21, NRSV). Divine humiliation for the sake of human exaltation.
Another artist who deserves mention here is German Jesuit Sieger Köder (1925–2015). Köder experienced the horrors of World War II on the front lines of France and as a prisoner of war, which deeply shaped his artistic vision. Like Rouault, Köder’s paintings frequently feature a clown or harlequin. This motif, coupled with his Stations of the Cross entitled The Folly of God, places Köder within the realm of kenotic Christology, for it recalls that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25, NRSV), and reminds viewers that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27, NRSV). Köder’s image of the twelfth station, Jesus Dies on the Cross, is entitled Holocaust (fig. 13). The very title, coupled with the Hebrew writing and the huddled figures in the background, establish this painting’s connection with the atrocities of the Second World War, and suggest that, like Chagall, Köder also views the sufferings of Christ as united to the sufferings of all humanity, but in a particular way to those of the Jewish people. For the artists of the first half of the twentieth century, painting the Crucifixion became the way in which they could express their anger and outrage at the evils perpetrated by society; it allowed them to stand as prophets and shout their indictments at the world by holding up the sufferings of the Son of God and relentlessly insisting that his sufferings were and are in solidarity with all who suffer throughout the world.
Post-War and Contemporary Depictions of the Crucifixion
Richard Harries describes the decades following World War II in Western European art as a “post-war recovery of confidence.” As nations moved forward from the devastating loss, many artists were commissioned to contribute to the rebuilding process by creating new works of religious art. Harries describes a new air of “religious seriousness” that pervaded the decades following the war, a seriousness that showed itself in the ‘mystical sobriety’ of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Although some artists still depicted the sufferings of Christ with vivid gory detail, many artists chose to turn from the graphic and startling depictions of the suffering Christ toward a hopeful, even triumphant Christ. In terms of kenotic Christology, this could be described as a shift from humiliation toward exaltation.
Two paintings by Salvador Dalí—The Crucifixion of Saint John of the Cross (1951, fig. 14) and Crucifixion (1954, fig. 15)—provide examples of this. As Lawrence Cunningham notes, “In both crucifixions Dalí himself insisted that he would not paint Christ as tortured or twisted in pain but as one who was beautiful after the manner of the beauty of God reflected in the humanity of Jesus.” The focus of the beauty of Jesus’ humanity means that kenosis is still present; however, this is a kenosis in which humiliation anticipates exaltation, even from the Cross.
Austrian painter Anton Lehmden’s Crucifixion (1965, fig. 16) shows a stark landscape with a bleak color palette, and yet the top of the Cross has blossomed forth into a tree, suggesting that out of this death will come new life. American painter Malcah Zeldis’ Crucifixion (1974, fig. 17) provides another example of a kind of exultant kenosis. Painted in the folk art tradition, Zeldis’ bright color palette recalls the paintings of Emil Nolde, and while both the figures of Jesus and Mary are seen shedding tears, the skeleton at the base of the Cross is flattened, suggesting that Jesus is “trampling down death by death” in offering his life, thus anticipating the Resurrection.
While the twentieth-century Western paintings of the Crucifixion discussed thus far seem to convey either the humiliation or the exaltation of Christ, it is the images of John Reilly, Norman Adams, and Donald Jackson that seem to encapsulate the “new kenotic theory” of receiving as kenosis advanced in part by Bruce McCormack, and which I have attempted to complete with the retention of self-gift as kenosis, establishing giving and receiving in a reciprocal, symbiotic, both-and approach.
John Reilly’s Crucifixion (1962, fig. 18) actually represents two images of Christ and lends itself to two different interpretations. On the one hand, one could interpret the two figures as the crucified and risen Christ side by side, viewing the painting as an anticipation of the Resurrection and an example of exaltation in the midst of humiliation. On the other hand, one could interpret this painting as an attempt to show both the human and divine natures of Jesus: the human nature offering itself on the Cross and the divine nature receiving that offering as described in McCormack’s kenotic Christology. Either way, there is a fullness of this image that arrests the imagination and invites the viewer to contemplate the mystery of Christ in a new way.
Similarly, Norman Adams’ Golden Crucifixion (1993, fig. 19) presents an image in which humiliation and exultation exist alongside one another: the dark colors present in the wings of the butterfly behind the Cross suggest the ominous presence of death, and yet the gold color seems almost to swallow up the darkness. Moreover, the butterfly is a symbol of death and resurrection since the caterpillar must in a sense ‘die’ in order to be ‘reborn’ as a butterfly. The outstretched wings of this symbol of new life, mirrored by the outstretched arms of Christ on the Cross, could be interpreted as a symbol of the eternally begotten, ever-living Logos receiving the offering of Jesus’ life on the Cross in order that new life might be bestowed in the Resurrection. Once again, the kenotic Christology present here is one of giving and receiving, humiliation and exaltation.
Finally, Donald Jackson’s illumination of the Crucifixion from The Saint John’s Bible (2002, fig. 20) portrays an abstract Christ on the Cross, not in paint, but in radiant 24-karat gold leaf. The brilliance of Jesus’ body is difficult to perceive in a reproduction; however, the layering and texturing of the gold leaf on the original manuscript not only give hints of Jesus’ physical features, but more importantly, make the image as a whole a shining testimony to the brilliant radiance of divine love that gives unto the end in order to conquer the darkness of sin and death. The sufferings of Christ are not glossed over by the shining gold; the darkness of the background refuses to let the viewer forget what Jesus endured on the Cross. Yet, as Susan Sisk explains, this image is a reminder that “the crucifixion with all its pain does not diminish the glory of God.” Jesus’ human nature gives itself over in death to be received by the divine nature; the Son hands over his spirit to the Father in love (cf. Lk 23:46). The Cross in all its horror portrayed in luminous gold somehow captures this simultaneous gift and reception of gift, the humiliation of death that will give way to the glory of resurrection. It is Jackson’s Crucifixion image that allows us to perceive more concretely than in any other painting the mystery that we ourselves are called to imitate the love of Christ poured out on the Cross. Because real gold was used in the creation of the manuscript, this image can actually be polished, and when a viewer gazes upon the Body of the crucified Christ, she sees her own face reflected back to her, offering a stunning reminder that the self-giving love portrayed in the image is the same love to which she herself is called—that she is also to become an image and icon of Christ in the world, who himself is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15, NRSV). In every image of the Crucifixion, this reminder is present. As we gaze upon the crucified Christ, the icon of divine self-gift, we see the love that leads from humiliation to exaltation, from death to life, and the pattern of cruciform beauty that we are called to imitate in every facet of our lives.
Featured Image: Crucifixion (detail), Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Bruce McCormack, “Kenoticism in Modern Christology” in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), via Oxford Handbooks Online (www.oxfordhandbooks.com). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199641901.013.26, p. 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 14–15.
 While the focus of this essay is Western art (particularly of the twentieth century), a thorough discussion of kenotic Christology and images of Christ ought to include icons. Although such a discussion lies outside the scope of this essay, I refer the reader to Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, trans. Fr. Steven Bigham (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1972). In chapter 29, the author provides a theological background and artistic analysis of The Crucifixion Icon, giving a kenotic account of its Christological imagery: “On the Cross, Christ assumed mortality itself. The power of death is in its autonomy, but Christ gave his death to the Father [kenosis], and so, in Christ, death dies . . . From that moment on, no one dies alone; Christ dies with him in order to raise him up with him” (313).
 Lawrence Cunningham, “Christ in Art from the Baroque to the Present” in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), via Oxford Handbooks Online (www.oxfordhandbooks.com). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199641901.013.47, p. 3.
 See Richard Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), chapter 1. Harries attributes the term “The Break” to Jones, who believed that the break between religion and art took place in the nineteenth century; however, Harries agrees with Anthony Blunt, who places the rift in the Enlightenment period.
 Cunningham, “Christ in Art from the Baroque to the Present,” 4.
 Ibid., 6.
 Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art, 36–37.
 Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art, 25.
 Ibid.; see also Cunningham, “Christ in Art from the Baroque to the Present,” 7.
 See Rina Risitano, FSP, “Introduction” in The Folly of God: The Journey of the Cross, A Path to Light: The Art and Inspiration of Sieger Köder, ed. Kieran McKeown (Slough: Pauline Books, 2007), 4.
 Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art, chapter five.
 See, for example, Francis Bacon’s disturbing Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962), and Rico Lebrun’s less graphic but still striking lithograph Crucifixion from Grünewald (1961).
 Cunningham, “Christ in Art from the Baroque to the Present,” 8–9.
 Susan Sisk, The Art of The Saint John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide (Collegeville: The Saint John’s Bible, 2013), 257.