“Christa” – The Female Christ on the Cross – is Back!

As The New York Times reports, “An ‘Evolving’ Episcopal Church Invites Back a Controversial Sculpture.” Ah, the famous Christa! Christ on the Cross as a female figure.

I happened to be at St. John Divine long ago as an undergrad, a year or two after the sculpture was removed. I didn’t know about the removal, and asked at the information desk where I could see it. The woman – clearly trained in the official response – knew nothing about a female Christ, had never heard of it, and perhaps I wanted to see St. Margaret (I think it was Margaret) in the side chapel? I persisted – wasn’t there a female Christ here before, hadn’t I read that in Time? She had no idea what on earth I could be talking about.

christaThat was then, this is now. Bishop Dietsche now explains:

In an evolving, growing, learning church, we may be ready to see ‘Christa’ not only as a work of art but as an object of devotion, over our altar, with all of the challenges that may come with that for many visitors to the cathedral, or indeed, perhaps for all of us.

I have mixed feelings about this. There is a particularity about the incarnation, about the Christian faith, that should not be lost. The facts of history matter, for they are the story of how God has dealt with humanity.

But on the other hand – it’s important to look at all sides before letting loose with critique, not to say outrage – the paradox of Christianity is that its particular message is universal. Through the incarnation, Christ is, in a sense, a member of every race and culture, precisely by becoming a man at one point in time. And so it is theologically appropriate to have images of Jesus appearing Chinese or African or European.

And Paul’s words to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” remind us that the historical Jewish male Jesus is the Lord of all peoples of all time and places.

Personally I’m uncomfortable with the Christa image in a church space. It’s so controversial, so open to misunderstanding, that it’s unlikely to foster a deeper understanding of the mystery of the particular and the universal. The place of worship is not the place for such distractions.

Maybe the place for such an image is in a church museum or a space where Christian education takes place. Maybe it would be possible there to explain why such a provocation is meant to expand our theological imagination, while acknowledging the facts of history.

At the same time, I want to hear as much as possible about the intentions of the artists and the exhibitors before jumping to conclusions. I’m not going to assume “Gnosticism!” or any other heresy that surely is not intended.

“Christa” is part “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies,” an exhibition including 21 other pieces at St. John’ the Divine.





  1. I’m curious as to what the ladies think about this image, indeed about feminist theology in general.

    I remember mentioning feminist theology to a young lady, who had told me that she was a theology student, in Latin class in Rome. She was utterly distraught with me, to say the least, and told me in no uncertain terms that feminist theology was a complete fantasy.

  2. You bring up a key point, Fr. Anthony, about the portrayal of Christ in different races and ethnicities as utterly legitimate.

    Which, of course, raises the question: Is there something distinct between racial/ethnic differences and sex/gender differences that makes one legitimate inculturation (is that the right word in this case?) and the other not? I tend to think not. Paul’s famous line quoted here would lead us to say no.

    We should also remind ourselves that what “we” consider to be the “standard” crucifixion portrayal–referred to as the “European” in the post–is of course not shocking or distracting to “us” because of our cultural place and because of Western Christendom.

    Thus, it seems that much is owed to a kind of cultural capital in terms of shock/distraction value. Herein lies the importance of the kind of educational setting that Fr. Anthony recommends. In certain communities, it would be acceptable and indeed fruitful, rather than distracting, to have such a piece of art in a liturgical space. In others, more work needs to be done first.

  3. A few people from neighboring St. Eulalia (early 4th c. Spanish martyr) parish have told me that early images of her depicted her body on the cross, though crucifixion was not the means by which she was martyred. She, like other martyrs, fully bore the image of Christ crucified. I think “Christa” needs a complementary piece in which she is depicted as risen from the dead.

    1. Jesus Christ was male. He was the son of God, not the daughter of God He was circumsized.

      The sculpture is sacrilegious because it demeans Jesus Christ his human nature.

  4. “It’s so controversial, so open to misunderstanding, that it’s unlikely to foster a deeper understanding of the mystery of the particular and the universal. The place of worship is not the place for such distractions.”

    I can think of a few worship environments where it wouldn’t be a distraction at all, but simply a proclamation of the gospel – notably in the chapel of a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. Liturgy is contextual.

    After that, it’s probably unnecessary to add that I am friendly to feminist critiques, even though in any particular feminist theology, as in any other particular theology, I’m likely to find some points I don’t agree with.

  5. One standard I use for comparison is this: Would I want to see a male image of the Madonna? Well, no, not really. It seems to me that some efforts at re-particularizing the images of Christ in terms of gender do violence to the historicity of Jesus’s earthly existence, which the cross is certainly a part of. I have no problem with female images of the Second Person of the Trinity on the other hand.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      Interesting point, Rita, as there are many different inculturated renditions of the Blessed Mother. I wonder if there is an important distinction though in the order of salvation that makes the Jesus question more significant.

      Gregory of Nazianzus’s famous critique of Apollinaris, “that which is not assumed is not saved” seems relevant in that it does not apply, strictly speaking, to Mary. For a piece of art to emphasize that, soteriologically speaking, Christ assumed the female as well as the male is a helpful corrective–though it might not always function that way. Kim’s point about liturgy as contextual is right on here, I think.

      Lastly, I cannot figure out what you mean by “female images of the Second Person of the Trinity.” Aside from Rublev, it strikes me that most images of the 2nd person are of Jesus or are non-human.

      1. @Tim Gabrielli:
        I was thinking of a modern theater production of the Spanish 17C auto-sacramental by Calderon, “Life Is a Dream,” directed by George Drance, in which the three persons of the Trinity are first portrayed as giant images from the Rublev Trinity, but then a woman steps out of the Second Person, dressed in pilgrim’s costume, to declaim the salvation narrative. I was also thinking of the Wisdom literature in scripture — verbal images of divine wisdom to be sure, but female. And as you know, divine Wisdom was associated with the Second Person by the fathers.

        The problem with putting gender on the same level as race or culture is that every race and every culture has males and females, whereas not every race or culture has the same physical attributes or other qualities.

        Gregory of Nazianzus did not, to my knowledge, think that women were not saved, did he? Humanity is what was “assumed”; I think he would have conceived it that way, though I don’t have a text offhand. I suspect that the recent (since Pius XII) pronouncements of the hierarchy about what I would call the metaphysics of complementarity have actually muddied the waters when it comes to understanding the tradition on this point. “Sameness” is a real thing for Christian thinkers historically, despite their sexism etc. But that’s another discussion!

      2. @Rita Ferrone: “what was not assumed was not healed” (Letters 101.5)

        If memory serves, St Thomas Aquinas stepped up to the line in the ST about whether human beings were essentially sexed, and then stepped back from the line.

        That said, the sculpture’s polemical aspect probably gets in the way of possible message.

      3. @Rita Ferrone:
        Thanks, Rita. I’ll need to check out Drance’s “Life is a Dream”!

        Gregory did not–thank God!–think that women were not saved. It was about humanity. Though, as Karl points out Thomas, also Augustine in De Trinitate, and Gregory veer a little too close to that line for comfort.

        Sorry, I think my point was unclear. I meant that we don’t make the same soteriological claims about Mary that we do of Jesus. And that strikes me as an important difference with respect to your comparison

        My point about the relevance of that line from Gregory is simply that, charitably read, I can see the artwork reminding us of equality in terms of salvation, and beyond.

      4. @Tim Gabrielli:
        P.S. About “Life Is a Dream” —

        I saw it as a student production, first at Marquette, then at Fordham, some years ago (it also played subsequently at St John the Divine). You said you’d look out for it, but I was going to mention that sadly it’s not something “coming to a theater near you” any time soon.

        But then I found out that I am wrong! It has gone professional, and will play at the La Mama theater in New York this coming February 10-26, under the name “Calderon’s Two Dreams.” The company, under Drance’s direction, will alternate performances of the famous comedia of the same name, and the little-known autosacramental, “Life Is a Dream” — both by Calderon.


  6. The problem with the image is that the Incarnation means that the Eternal God came to live in a particular time and place and in a particular body. I do understand that people in other times and places overlay their particular culture on what they imagine Jesus to have looked like. But I think this particular image goes to far. For me it undermines rather than supports the Incarnation.

  7. There was an episode of “All in the Family” that actually took on the topic of Black Santa and Black Jesus. Drawn very broadly, of course – and to nobody’s surprise, Archie Bunker was at the forefront of all the people nowadays who are 100% certain that both Jesus and Santa are white.
    In terms of particularities, I find it interesting that there’s been acceptance (not complete or uniform, of course) of Jesus being trans-ethnic or trans-racial. But gender – as a means of expressing how Jesus, in his sacrifice and resurrection, transcends human particularities – seems to be off the table.
    If, in addition to his fully human nature, Jesus also had/has a fully divine nature, is not the feminine made in that divine image?

  8. Just about what one would expect from “An ‘Evolving’ Episcopal Church”, is what I think.

    About the logic of incarnation though, I do wonder often about it: why man, why then and why there, like I wonder about why Peter and the all-male apostles, and then, Mary Magdalene, and then, going further back, why Israel, why Jews, etc. etc. etc.

    Why, why, why. Sometimes I just hate that I’m a believer.

  9. This thread is reminding me of a classmate in a Christology class. We were on the topic of the failure of Jesus of Nazareth’s contemporaries to recognize who he truly was. My classmate (who loved to get the prof apoplectic) asked, “If the fourth person of the godhead came into the world today, would we do any better at recognizing who She truly is?”

  10. At the church of St Augustine in Manchester, there is an enormous crucifix behind the altar. In my memory (20 years ago now) it was about twenty feet tall. The nail marks were not in his hands but in his wrists, reflecting contemporary thought about the anatomy of crucifixion. Even though I understood why the figure if Christ had been sculpted that way, I still found the image challenging: I had become accustomed to, comfortable with the usual image. This crucifix challenged me, each week, to see Christ’s sacrifice anew/to look at it with unjaded eyes.

    I mention this because that Christa does the same thing. It challenges us to view God as transcending our limited understanding. Jesus body may well have been male but we crucified God on that tree, God who is beyond male and female. We crucified Christ’s femininity alongside his masculinity. Personally, I would welcome such a challenge at Mass, and I would welcome a church brave enough to issue such a challenge.

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