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Cross culture: crucifixes a symbol of faith and fashion

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    An outdoor crucifix on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Francis in Sylvania.

    THE BLADE/LORI KING
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    An outdoor crucifix on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Francis in Sylvania.

    THE BLADE/LORI KING
    Buy This Image

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There’s no shortage of sparkle and glitz to catch a customer’s eye at Paul Antypas Jeweler, a small shop in West Toledo that Mr. Antypas has been running since 2013.

But there’s one display in particular that Mr. Antypas said tends to draw heightened interest: A collection of crosses, crucifixes, and religious medals hanging behind the counter, their delicate details representing a wide variety of spiritual and cultural traditions within Christianity. The jeweler said they are among the most requested items in his shop.

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An outdoor crucifix on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Francis in Sylvania.

THE BLADE/LORI KING
Enlarge | Buy This Image

“In diamonds, in any shape,” Mr. Antypas said. “It’s very popular.”

The cross has long been a widely embraced symbol of both faith and fashion, one that’s as easily spotted on the visibly devout as it is on the seemingly secular. A crucifix often seems as commonplace around the neck of a rapper, for example, as adorning a priest or a nun.

It’s difficult to read into a person’s reasons for accessorizing with a cross, said Kathryn Helleman, an instructor and director of institutional assessment and planning at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay who herself is in the daily practice of wearing a prominent cross pendant.

To some wearers like herself, a cross remains a visible expression of faith that’s backed by a rich history and theology. To others, it’s no more or less than a fashion statement. And, for many others, it’s somewhere in between.

“A symbol,” Ms. Helleman said, “has the power that you give it in your own life.”

While a cross today stands as universal shorthand for Christianity — a symbol that Sister Sharon Havelak of the Order of St. Francis described as representative of the salvation that adherents believe Jesus wrought with his death on the cross — such hasn’t always been the case.

“Actually the cross was not used right away in Christianity,” the artist and art instructor in Sylvania said. “Because [Jesus] died on the cross as a criminal, the cross was a little bit of a testy situation.”

Early Christians instead identified themselves through an anchor or a fish; the word “fish,” she explained, in Greek becomes an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

The earliest used cross would have been the tau cross, with bars positioned like an uppercase T, drawn from an Old Testament passage in which God calls for his people to be marked with the sign of the tau, a Greek letter.

The crucifix, or a cross over which a crucified Jesus is shown, began to appear in art in the Middle Ages, Sister Sharon said. Its earliest manifestations showed a regal-looking Christ more or less standing in front of the upright bars of the cross, but later portrayals began to emphasize to a greater extent the humanity and suffering of a living Jesus.

Viewers of the crucifix could relate to that interpretation, she said, pointing to a particularly grisly example, the Isenheim Altarpiece, that was displayed in a monastery that treated victims of leprosy, plague, and other gruesome diseases.

“The people who were there who were suffering could look at the cross and feel a connection to the suffering,” she said. “It was not only the spiritual salvation but the physical sense that he understood what they were going through.”

And, to some extent, viewers are still relating to this human depiction of Christ — even if the pendants sold in today’s jewelry stores are far more attractive than they are frightening.

“Part of me wants to say that the cross has become visible in so many places, that it’s almost become something on the wall that you don’t really think about too much,” Sister Sharon said. “But I think for people who have a very deep faith, and I think for people who are going through crises, often that figure of Christ on the cross or the cross itself really can give them a lot of comfort.”

Today the crucifix is often, but not exclusively, associated with Catholicism. It’s one of several styles of crosses that an individual might wear to make a specific statement about their faith or their heritage as much as their sense of what is or isn’t fashionable.

Many religious women, for example, wear a style of cross that is specifically associated with their order. For Sister Sharon, as a Franciscan, that’s a tau cross.

At Paul Antypas Jeweler, a customer can find crosses whose beams end in a trefoil pattern, as is typical of Orthodox Christianity, and crosses with three cross beams, as is typical of the Russian Orthodox Church.

And Ms. Helleman, for her part, favors a Celtic cross as a way to identify herself.

“It’s a physical touchstone. It’s a reminder of my identity as a Christian,” Ms. Helleman said of her pendant. “It also is a reminder of my cultural heritage. I’m Scotch Irish, and so it helps me remember my roots in the Christian faith, sort of where my ancestors came from and how important to them their faith was.

“I think it also serves as sort of a visual outward symbol that says to people that I am a person of faith.”

But a cross doesn’t always reflect organized religion, either.

Consider Kanye West and his “Jesus piece,” an often gold and jeweled pendant depicting that face of Christ. He’s neither the first nor the only person to wear one.

Or consider Tupac Shakur, splayed across a cross on the cover of his 1996 album, Makaveli, or such rappers as L Cool J, 50 Cent, and Eminem who have been photographed with crucifixes or crosses on their chests over the years.

“The usage of crucifixes ... is something that the hip hop community is very familiar with,” Daniel Hodge, associate professor of intercultural communications at North Park University in Chicago, said in an interview. He is one of several academics who has considered the intersection of religion and pop culture.

He and others suggest that this use of religious imagery draws on faith in a way that falls outside the confines of Sunday morning theology, contextualizing Christianity in a way that becomes more relatable to the communities that engage with it. A wearer of a crucifix or a Jesus piece might, for example, connect to the themes of perseverance, state violence, or wrongful incarceration that can be found in the story of the crucifixion.

Earle Fisher, a pastor and academic based in Memphis who has also taught and researched in the area, told The Blade that these interpretations of faith and religion can be more relevant to some than, for example, the sort of evangelical Christianity found within the walls of a church.

There are also cultural ties to consider. As Mr. Hodge pointed out, Christianity is typically a prominent force in the Latino and African-American communities that gave rise to hip hop. So the artists who draw on these symbols often have a relationship with religion, even if that relationship doesn’t manifest in the pews each weekend.

Ms. Helleman distinguishes between practiced Christianity and cultural Christianity, the latter referencing those who might have been raised in the church but do not regularly attend.

Both practicing and cultural Christians can find themselves drawn to religious symbols, the Winebrenner administrator said. She said it would be ill advised to assume that anyone wearing a cross, whether a rapper or gym-goer, is doing so to make a specific statement about his or her relationship to organized religion.

Where earlier generations might have safely made those assumptions, today Ms. Helleman sees too many reasons individuals might adorn themselves with the symbol for it to be taken as a formal expression of Christianity.

“In our current culture,” she said, “I don’t think those assumptions hold any longer.”

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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