The Suspended Beauty of the Cross

David Jones’s ‘Crucifixion’
David Jones, Crucifixion, c.1922 (pencil and watercolor) (Bridgeman Images)

In her collection of aphorisms titled “Attention and Will,” Simone Weil writes of the “method for understanding images, symbols, etc. Not to try to interpret them, but to look at them until the light suddenly dawns.” David Jones’s Crucifixion seems to give the viewer no other choice. Beauty and brutality are so interwoven here that they stun us into silence. The magnetic eyes of the dying figure transfix the viewer’s gaze while simultaneously deflecting any facile projection. Cheap words and conventional responses find no purchase here. One simply sits still and looks. “With time,” Weil went on, “we are altered, and, if as we change we keep our gaze directed towards the same thing, in the end illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible.”

By resolutely fixing her gaze on a wooden crucifix during her near-death illness, the anchoress Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love perceived that enclosure in the Incarnation of the Word meant not only shelter and protection but also, paradoxically, exposure. In becoming one of our kind, sharing our flesh and blood through Mary, the humanity of Christ shares not only in our form of life and bonds of love, but also in our suffering and death. As bodily creatures, we are, together with the ox, the ass, and the birds of the air, vulnerable to contagion and disease; but we are also vulnerable to the insidious spiritual contagions peculiar to our species—perversion of justice, willful infliction of pain for spite, mockery of the good—all on display during the Crucifixion.

COVID-19 has exposed a great many things that have been at least partly hidden, including economic uncertainty, ethnic and racial inequality, and political instability. Indeed, the contours of our current crisis have both expanded and blurred. As lockdowns give way to partial reopenings, the charming pictures of goats trotting through empty streets have been replaced by scenes of people packed into stores, urged to save the economy by opening their wallets. Meanwhile, the abandoned streets of urban centers have flooded with passionate pleas for justice after the video of a Black man dying under a uniformed knee of “the law” went viral. In more hidden corners of society—the elderly in nursing homes, children without school meals—the most vulnerable risk being overlooked and remain overexposed. Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.” This motto of the Carthusian order carries particular weight amid so much tumultuous change.

 

Beauty is not a matter of mere appearances; it is synonymous with life.

Jones’s Crucifixion in pencil and watercolor on paper is remarkably beautiful even at a first glance. This work was rediscovered during the sale of David Bowie’s art collection at Sotheby’s in 2016. Its simplicity is arresting. Most of the conventional narrative cues are absent—no Mary and John in mourning; no hills, soldiers, or criminals to set the stage; no angels to herald a new day. Instead, the paper itself lends the flesh of this crucified body its tone, while blue and red alone color the elegant lines and delicate shading of graphite lead. The ruler-straight cross beams stabilize the image as stacked strings of letters dangle like beads alongside the suspended torso and legs. Arms raised in priestly benediction frame the haloed head. From brow and limbs, rivers of red gently pour; three thick drops of blood leap like rays from the diagonal lance wound. Below the oceanic calm of the blue loincloth, from battered knees and fastened feet the flow of red descends in four final streams from flesh to wood and beyond the edge of the image.

 “Non est species / neque decor”—these words are taken from the Latin Vulgate version of Isaiah 53:2: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Species and decor translate the Hebrew toar and hadar, which everywhere else in the Old Testament are used to characterize the virtuous, the good, and the holy. Rachel, the emblem of contemplatives (Genesis 29:17), King David and Queen Esther, symbols of just rulers (1 Samuel 24:3 and Esther 2:7), Joseph with his multicolored coat (Genesis 39.6)—all these are said to be beautiful and handsome in form, toar. And everything from trees (Leviticus 23:40) to cities, saints, and even Yahweh himself (Psalm 149:9, Psalm 145:5–12, and Isaiah 35:2) bears the majesty and splendor denoted by hadar.

Yet, in stamping this image of “IESVS XTVS” with the prophet Isaiah’s contentious claim, Jones’s Crucifixion reminds us that appearances are not always so straightforward. Just as species and decor hang suspended from their negations, non est and neque, so the reader is hung between her experience of the beautiful whole of this composition and words that seem to deny its beauty. This paradox entangles the viewer in the paradox of “IESVS XTVS” himself: “the fairness of heaven,” here in his mortal frame “so far from fair.”

Beauty for Jones, and for the biblical and patristic tradition from which he draws, is not a matter of mere appearances; it is synonymous with life, the very miracle of the appearing of things at all, of creaturely existence. Insofar as a thing is, it partakes in the beauty of God, its very form or species brought into existence through the eternal Logos. As Word made flesh, “IESVS XTVS” embraces not only our lovely “appearances” but our most hideous ones too. Here suffering is not itself enshrined, but caught up and healed in this circulation of divine Love which, overcoming death, effects this wonderful exchange. In St. Augustine’s words: “He had neither splendor nor comeliness so that he might give you splendor and comeliness. Which splendor? Which comeliness? The love of charity.... Look to him by whom you have been made beautiful. ‘Let us love, because he first loved us.’”

When viewed as a whole, the composite of word and image in Jones’s Crucifixion suggests the form of a beam balance or “equal-arm” scale, which is used to measure weight. The emphatic, upright “v” of “IESVS XTVS” doubles as an arrow or pointer at the center of the scales, as though to indicate the achievement of perfect balance. The lettering suspended from the gently curved arms finds symmetry and alignment in the final, equally weighted words, species and decor. Surprisingly, we find hidden in this image of the passion of Christ the much-coveted symbol of Lady Justice.

In his essay “Art in Relation to War and our Current Situation,” written during and after World War II, Jones reflects, “Man as a moral being hungers and thirsts after justice and man as artist hungers and thirsts after form, and although these are ultimately one, because of the truth of that best of sayings that ‘the Beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is,’ nevertheless for us they are not one, not yet, not by any means.” Now more than ever, we need images, words, gestures, and deeds in which we may perceive this eventual unity. Such glimpses help us on our way toward embodying the love that, in the end, is the only just measure.

           

“The experience of the beautiful, and particularly the beautiful in art, is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things, wherever it may be found,” writes the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. “We learn that however unexpected our encounter with beauty may be, it gives us an assurance that the truth does not lie far off and inaccessible to us, but can be encountered in the disorder of reality with all its imperfections, evils, errors, extremes, and fateful confusions.”

In this mixed-up world of suspended beauty, our first task may not be, in Weil’s words, “to try to interpret” the pain and suffering endured by ourselves or by others. We must first learn, like the artist who sits at length before his subject, what it means to bear witness without the blindness of false consolations—those imaginings produced by a deep instinct to make things immediately better. We must learn not to look away from all that we cannot immediately make better. The people, things, or places that most need to be seen, whether for their own sake or ours, may not be the ones that attract our gaze; they may even repel it. Such looking may require undergoing a kind of death to one’s own instincts and preferences, so as to see what is there rather than just what one wants to see. But as the twelfth-century contemplative, Richard of St. Victor, perceived, “ubi caritas, ibi oculis”: “where there is love, there is seeing.” The eye of love becomes the source of words and actions that may more adequately respond to the reality before us.

Published in the October 2020 issue: 

E. R. Powell is the La Retraite Fellow in Theology and Spirituality at the Centre for Catholic Studies, University of Durham.

Also by this author
The Paradoxes of Enclosure

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Collections