Christian iconography may be considered one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history: few businesses would be able to compete with the reach its corporate identity has achieved. The Church has shown masterful creativity (mater et magistra) when it comes to making use of nearly universal symbols that pre-date Christianity itself and are deeply rooted in earlier cultures. The cross, for example, is a symbol that can be found in every culture in the world:
“Pour vivre le symbole de la croix, par exemple, de la croix non pas instrument de supplice mais image du monde, il faut peut-être s’appliquer à l’expression corporelle, étirer sa tête vers le haut, ses pieds vers le bas, ses bras vers l’infini de droite et de gauche, toute cela sans limites, sans souffrance vaine, naturellement. C’est la magie ignoré des gestes liturgiques qui se perpétuent comme une trame nécessaire, car les rites sont une mise en action des symboles qui s’exprime autant par la récitation incantatoire que par la gestuelle qui leur sert de suport et élargit les sens des mots employés” .
And yet, it was not initially used by early Christians on account of the shame of a torture that also brought on the ridicule of the Romans. Its use did not become widespread until the year 313 (from the Edict of Milan) … as did use of the labarum, XP, one of the most admirable and successful monograms in history, along with IHS (In Hoc Signo), both symbols of Christ.
Symbols evolve incessantly. From their original meaning, symbolic discourse is made up of a long string of concatenations woven into a complex network of meanings, where, as we pointed out, the symbols do not remain intact throughout history. Rather, they are subject to re-readings that are obligatory (due to the impositions of the Church or the political powers that be) or suggested and/or required for them to be adapted to the cultural changes taking place in the heart of society.
As Mircea Eliade has remarked, the revelation provided by faith does not undo the pre-Christian meanings of symbols; it merely adds a new value.
The traffic of importing and exporting divinities and cultural symbols from one populace to another, and the contamination, intermixing and the different degrees of synthesis they involve (the assigning of names, attributes and characteristics from one set to the other) are common and recurring phenomena in the history of cultures: the interpretatio graeca of the religions of an agricultural nature of the Eastern Mediterranean was followed by the interpretatio romana of those same rites, and subsequently followed by interpretatio christiana.
It is here, amidst these processes of importing and acclimatizing that we must look to understand the appearance (and persistence and popular appeal) of the rituals of the Passion in the Mediterranean under Christian cultural and religious influence.
Starting with the cults of Mother Earth, we see that the goddesses– mother of the agrarian cultures (most of them black, such as the statue of the Virgin of Monserrat) are characterized by their parallelisms between the fertility of the Earth and the fertility of women. Vestiges of rites and customs that endure because of mankind’s dependency on the Earth. As when the proletariat meant hands to work the land, which justified polygamy and the repudiation of sterile women, there is still an identification between demography and prosperity (that underscores the depressive tone analysts take on when contemplating the low birthrate of a society).
Passion plays fall within the tradition of ritual ceremonies typical of agrarian societies, which develop religions around the mysterious cyclical processes of birth, growth, reproduction, harvest and fruit, death and resurrection of the vegetable universe. Mother Earth, furrowed by the plough (a symbol of the male virile member – and also of creation and the cross : the wood and the iron of the plough symbolize the union of the dual nature of Christ: human and divine). The plough as a male principle operating on the (supposedly) passive (or, at least, insufficiently active) nature of the Earth. The seeded furrow, the tilled Earth, are recurrent metaphors for sexual penetration, as farm work is for the act of producing. Death and burial as a fertilization process both serve the same purpose as submersion (i.e., baptism, where one drowns only to be born anew): there are symbolic burials (as a seed is buried, semen) to be regenerated by contact with the forces of the Earth: it is in the bosom of Mother Earth (by means of a return to ones beginnings) where death turns into life: to die (in one life form) to be reborn again (in another).
The conception of woman as messenger (angelos) from the other (or another?) world (from Mother Earth to the myriad witches, including the Virgin Mary herself, who acts as a point of support for the human nature of Christ, a necessary complement for his divine nature, and at the same time as a permanent intermediary between God and mankind) is a common feature to agrarian civilizations. The same holds true of allusions to the sacrificing of the son (the fruit of her womb): the symbol of the immolated son (or daughter) is found in every tradition. A sacred exchange takes place: the greater the value (expensive or beloved) of the sacrificed thing, the more the energy received in return. This sacrifice is a process of atonement, of purification, in which the victim’s blood must soak the altar for fertilization to take place (a sexual metaphor: blood is like semen, but also like rain). Blood as a vehicle for life: mixed with earth it gives birth to the plants, it gives life (one might do well to look here for the origin of the irrational defence of capital punishment). Bloodshed would contribute to fertilization, but although the sacrifice must always be bloody, pain may suffice: tears may be enough to draw rain. The Virgin’s tears bear witness both to her own pain as well as to her intercession. The portrayals of mater dolorosa, of the Virgin suffering during the Passion of Christ popularly illustrate that rooted belief in Mary’s role as co-Redeemer, a truth undefined by the Church but nevertheless traditionally and popularly accepted. Tears are thus an element pertaining to the catalogue of female elixirs of life that are made up of the bodily fluids, the primordial waters of life (let us remember that men do not cry), among which rain, the divine sperm in the agrarian religions, is an indispensable element of life.
In the Golden Branch Frazer writes:
“With pure clean water they washed an effigy of the dead god, they anointed him with oil and clothed him in a red tunic, while clouds of incense wafted in the air (…) The trunk of the tree was shrouded in strips of wool. Later they tied the figure of a young man to the middle of the trunk (for a bloody sacrifice), excited by the barbarian music of the clang of the cymbals, the roll of the drums, the blaring of the horns”.
This pagan celebration has the myth of Atis, the core of which is made up of the narration of his death and resurrection (affinities of agrarian origin that he shares with Osiris ). The Atis legend pointedly includes castration in its bloody sacrifice (as an indispensable step toward salvation). That would be true death. But in death is life.
Out of this myth comes that of Adonis, a very beautiful youth, sought after at the same time by Persephone and Aphrodite, and because of that, he is condemned, by a Solomon-like judgement of Zeus, to spend half of the year with one, in the sun, and other half in the shadowy kingdom of the other. This clearly involves a construction by an agrarian mindset, anxiously pending the fact that nature goes through a period of calm and apparent death to later regain its fertility.
It is surprising to see the persistence of these rituals whose origins and functions are related to societies based on agriculture, even after attention to the Earth and the vegetable world and its life cycles has vanished from the foreground of the concerns of late capitalist consumer societies. What do advertisements mean by proclaiming that “Spring is Here” if not that it is time for you change your wardrobe? And what is this change of wardrobe but an initiation ceremony that accompanies the rebirth of nature?
The contemporary iconosphere brims with images, logotypes, brand names and advertising ploys full of facial masks for eternal youth, vivifying baths, half-naked bodies, hearts, criss-crossing arms, ascending flights, pietàs, crowns, roosters, tied hands, chalices and goblets… A symbol becomes anchored in a civilization due to its ability to run through history.
Not only in our thirst for consumption of spectacular images void of any explicit meaning, we must also look for the reasons for this fascinating continuation in the deep sexual charge of these rites: the promise of an au-delà at hand, another world without leaving this one; a trip similar to the one offered by aesthetic experience.
 Georges Nataf, Symboles, signes et marques.
The cross is such a deeply rooted and universal symbol that never fails, artists and designers adore it: by this sign you shall sell.
James George Frazer, The Golden Branch.
Rogelio López Cuenca
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