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Jesus is Everywhere in Europe’s Old Churches — But He’s Mostly Dead

Jesus is Everywhere in Europe’s Old Churches — But He’s Mostly Dead July 28, 2015

Just one of the many images of the dead and dying Jesus that I saw in Europe last month. Here, the crown of thorns and the mocking of Christ, a detail from the sixteenth-century Joerg Breu altar at Melk Abbey, Austria. Photo by Barbara Newhall
A detail from the sixteenth-century Joerg Breu altar at Melk Abbey, Austria, depicts the flogging of Jesus and the crown of thorns. Photo by Barbara Newhall

I ducked in and out of churches all over Europe last month — up the Danube and down the Rhine — hoping to get some nice photos of the biblical Jesus in action: Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Jesus preparing a breakfast of fish for his disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius. Jesus welcoming the little children to his side. Jesus calling Lazarus back to life.

Crucifixion of Jesus hangs over the entrance to the 15th-century, high gothic Regensburg Cathedral, Germany. Photo by Barbara Newhall
The 15th-century, high gothic Regensburg Cathedral, Germany. This crucifixion is at the entrance, where sightseers and passersby can’t miss it. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Stained glass windows, marble sculptures, paintings, murals, wood carvings — I knew that the churches of Europe would be replete with wonderful old art objects, and I planned to take in as many as I could in the three weeks my husband and I were to spend on a river trip across Europe.

I would take lots of pictures. Photos of Jesus in action would come in handy for future blog posts.

Looking for Jesus

 

And so, diligently I searched the insides and the outsides of churches from Budapest to Amsterdam. Romanesque, gothic, baroque, neo-classical. The strap of my trusty point-and-shoot slung over my shoulder.

And yes, I did see Jesus. I saw lots of him. Trouble is, the Jesus I saw in all those old European churches was almost always . . . dead. Or dying. Or staggering under the weight of a cross.

Of course, there were also lots of Baby Jesuses. Unblemished and adorable, but often (it seemed to me) no more than a stage prop highlighting the sanctity of his much-revered mother, Mary.

This stone Jesus crucified is embedded in the wall of the parish church in Melk, Austria. Photo by Barbara Newhall
This stone crucifixion is embedded in the wall of the parish church in Melk, at the heart of town. Photo by Barbara Newhall
God Suffers With Us

 

These were old churches, mind you, centuries old. And those two visions of Jesus — the suffering Jesus, the babe-in-arms Jesus — must have meant a lot to pre-modern Europeans who endured wars and plagues that went on for decades and took out large swaths of the population.

Those people suffered. Maybe the image of a suffering Son of God was a comfort somehow: We suffer. God suffers with us. That makes sense.

The crucifixion has a central place in the Christian story, of course. No doubt about that. But still, without images of Jesus the healer, the teacher, the loving son of God to fill out that story, the sight of all those bloody, dying figures is a downer.

It’s also guilt-provoking if you ever had a Sunday school teacher who wanted you to believe that Jesus died for our sins — and that it’s our very sinfulness that put Jesus up there on the cross.

Detail of a painting of the crucifixion of Jesus with the Trinity, Matthias Church, Budapest. Photos by Barbara Newhall
Detail of a painting at the Matthias Church, Budapest. Photo by Barbara Newhall
Dying Churches

 

European Christianity is in a slow decline. The proportion of Europeans who are Christian dropped from 95% in 1910 to 76% in 2010, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report. In 2010, the proportion of Europeans who checked the box “None” when asked to name their religious affiliation was 19%.

No doubt that number is growing fast if it’s following the trend in the U.S., where the proportion of Nones jumped from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014.

I wonder. Do some Europeans check that None box because the Jesus they see in churches everywhere is so often a dead man on a cross — and so rarely the loving Jesus bringing life and hope and good news to humanity?

If you enjoyed this story, you might like “The Ghost of 300 Million Drought-Killed Trees Hovers Over a Lake in Texas.” Also, “The Hagia Sophia, Face to Face with Islam in a Christian Church.” For more about my book, new from Patheos Press, go to WrestlingWithGodBook.com.

At the Abbey at Melk,  Austria, a statue of the risen Christ, rather than a crucifix, with a cross stands over the entrance to this s Benedictine monastery . The figure represents victory of life over death. Unlike its gothic and renaissance
At the  Benedictine Abbey at Melk, a statue of the risen Christ stands over the entrance to the monastery. The figure represents victory of life over death. The often extravagant baroque sensibility celebrates life and aspires to create heaven on earth. For me, a nice antidote to all those sorrowful crucifixions of earlier centuries. Photo by Barbara Newhall.
A statue of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus stands in Annunciation Altar of the Regensburg Cathedral.  photo by Barbara Newhall
The ubiquitous Infant Jesus with his mother, Mary. This one at the Annunciation Altar of the Regensburg Cathedral. Photo by Barbara Newhall

 

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