Njust like the circle, this is the geometrically simplest and at the same time the most symbolically significant figure: a vertical line crossed by a horizontal line. Toddlers can draw this, but it takes considerable effort to grasp the worlds of sense and nonsense that lie hidden in the cross. The Berlin art historian Kathrin Müller has now attempted to tell a “object history” of the cross in a book that is as concise as it is beautiful. In it she combines art, church and political history with virtuosity. She could easily have drowned in the immeasurable substance. But with a sure grip she has selected essential aspects in order to present them using extremely impressive artifacts.
The author begins by tracing the long road that young Christianity had to travel in order to see a sign of hope in the instrument of execution of their Messiah and to exhibit it publicly as such. Today, when the cross is taken for granted as the Christian mark of identification, one has no idea how complicated this must have been. But in ancient times people still knew that the cross means first and foremost shame, despair and death. Accordingly, hesitantly, the early Christians began to confess their faith in the cross with simple gestures. This is how Tertullian described it in the second century: “With every step we take, washing, eating, lighting a candle, going to bed and whatever activity we do, we press the little mark on our forehead.” Soon these became the first artifacts of piety, especially magical ones Seals and amulets meant to protect against hardship, danger, and demons. But it is not until the early fifth century that executed depictions of the cross have been preserved, forging the tool of execution into a symbol of triumph.