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The Cross of Jesus in Sacred Art – A Reflection by Dr. Jem Sullivan

Trinity Dome
The Trinity portrayed in the Trinity Dome

Throughout history, the cross has always been the central symbol of Christianity. In the Roman Empire, it wasn’t until the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in the fourth century that Christians gradually began to express their faith with depictions of the cross, even as it was known across the Roman world as the most cruel and violent form of execution. But how did this symbol of shame and suffering become the most recognizable image of the Christian faith?

In Jesus’ cross, Christians see the redemptive meaning of the divine suffering that He willingly embraced out of love to remove the consequences of sin on humanity. In Jesus’ cross, Christians see the meaning of their own daily sufferings, transformed by God into hope and the new life of grace.

Great Dome of the Basilica
The Great Dome of the Basilica

The Cross in the Basilica

The cross appears in many beautiful forms around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There are gleaming exterior gold crosses that crown the Great Dome and Knights Tower that may be seen for miles around the nation’s capital. In the central Trinity Dome mosaic, Jesus holds a large cross that seems to project onto the pilgrim’s space below. Then on the Incarnation Dome, the crucifixion of Jesus invites our contemplation of this central mystery of Christian faith. In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, high above the altar and baldacchino, Jesus on the cross pours out his blood in the act of loving divine self-giving that reconciled us to friendship with God. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our spiritual mother, holds a cup into which the blood of Jesus pours forth.

Letting the Cross Guide Our Vision

In this sacred place dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are reminded that the mother of Jesus delights in leading us closer to her divine Son Jesus through our Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As we continue our Lenten journeys to Holy Week and the Easter season, we join the Mother of God and the Church in praying, “we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world,” (“Stations of the Cross for Vocations”).

Jem SullivanAbout Jem Sullivan

Dr. Jem Sullivan is associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. She is an appointed member of the International Council for Catechesis in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization. Over three decades, she has served at the national and diocesan levels and taught undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Sullivan is the author of several books on sacred art: The Beauty of Faith: Christian Art and the Good News; Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Retreat with the Catechism. Her most recent books are Way of Beauty: Rekindling Eucharistic Amazement with Visio Divina and Sacred Art Every Catholic Should Know.

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