If you’ve seen one crucifix, you haven’t seen them all.
One can pretty much guarantee that none of the original disciples saw anything like the gold-plated cross you may be wearing around your neck. To them it would be extremely strange and downright insensitive. The cross did not come into popularity as a Christian symbol until 100 years or so had passed after Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Before then it was an ugly reminder of Roman rule and a reminder of an even uglier death. Add another 200 years or so until the crucifix sporadically appeared with its corpus, or body, of Jesus.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the crucifix took on a life of its own. Variations appeared. Paintings of the crucifixion influenced sculpted crucifixes so that two general forms appeared – the “Cristo vivo” and the “Cristo morto.” The former showed Christ in agony with His head lifted and slightly to the right, as if imploring His Father. Some have suggested that this pose signifies Jesus accepting His Father’s Will, but Scripture pretty much shows that He accepted His Father’s Will in the Garden of Gethsemane
The problem with the Cristo vivo pose is that it isn’t very confessional. Unless there is a tri-radiant nimbus behind the figure’s head, it could be any hapless victim of a Roman execution.
The Cristo morto crucifix is the more prevalent pose, showing a dead Christ. This variation has what its counterpart does not – the wound in the side of Jesus. Not only does it set the figure aside from other criminals in that the proof of death follows Scripture, but the issuance of blood and water – usually evident even in sculptures – also confesses Christ’s role in Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper.
But there is another crucifix variation – the “Christus Rex.” This version always symbolically replaces the crown of thorns with a regal crown, displaying Jesus as Christ the King. This does not, however, nod to Pilate’s inscription on the tabula and announce Jesus as mere King of the Jews, but instead proclaims Jesus as King of All.
Within the Christus Rex form are subtle variations. Most describe Jesus as wearing kingly robes, and some, indeed, show just that, but a far greater majority have Christ wearing a chasuble. This major detail might otherwise be construed as kingly apparel if it weren’t for the ends of a pastoral stole peeking from underneath.
There is also variation in the position of the arms. Many use the “Touch-down Jesus” pose, with His arms strangely spread upward. Perhaps we are to assume we are to jump into the Savior‘s open arms. At any rate, the depiction definitely shows a resurrected Christ.
While recently delivering a chancel piece to Trinity Lutheran Church, Cincinnati, I was privileged to closely view the old Christus Rex crucifix of the church. The beautiful piece was carved in Germany, and its confessional symbolism is razor sharp.
The Christus Rex crucifix at
Trinity Lutheran Church, Cincinnati
In this particular example, Jesus’ arms are not in the touch-down pose, but are straight out and nailed to the cross. So are His feet. He wears a stylized chasuble that could be mistaken for a kingly gown, but underneath the fringes of a stole are evident. And there is one additional touch – He is wearing a maniple on His arm
The maniple, while certainly common in the Roman Catholic tradition, is also still used by some in the Lutheran Church during the Lord's Supper. One might argue that it is too Roman, until recalling Luther’s immense anger when Karlstadt once preached in his street clothes. The fuming Martin Luther immediately went to his own church, donned every appropriate vestment for the Eucharist – including maniple – and proceeded to demonstrate that the Body and Blood of Christ demands utmost respect and reverence.
That little detail of the maniple adds much to the symbolism of this Christus Rex crucifix. The sculpture can visually be read thus: Our living King, once crucified for our sins, comes to us here, in this place, in Divine Service to us in the Lord's Supper, blessing us with His very Body and Blood.