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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Atonement (5)

The idea of the Crucifixion as the culmination of a glorious and
victorious battle by God against the Devil is found in the Old English
poem "The Dream of the Rood". Fragments of an early version of this, in
the Northumbrian dialect, are carved in runic characters on the
Ruthwell Cross, dated about 750 AD. A later and fuller version in the
West Saxon dialect is found in the Vercelli Book, dating from about
1000 AD. The poem emphasises the Divinity of Christ, his triumph rather
than his suffering. I quote it in Hamer's translation, which does not
attempt to reproduce the distinctive Old English metre and
alliteration:

And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God's word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremeble all
The srface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.
Then the young hero (who was God Almighty)
God ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When he intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
A rood I was raised up, and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.

In may be that some of you will wish to point out that this passage
doesn't actually mention Atonement, or Ransom. Point taken in advance.
But it does envisage the crucifixion in very different terms from what
became common in the later middle ages. These terms have their own
distinctive iconography. Representations of the crucifixion from the
period show the triumph of God over the Devil. It is the Divinity of
Christ, rather than his humanity, which is depicted. The figure is
shown clothed, not naked. He wears royal robes, or often those of a
priest, indicating his rôle as the Great High Priest as set forth in
the Letter to the Hebrews (a way of looking at what Christ effected
which we have not yet explored). He wears a royal crown, not a crown of
thorns. He is shown alive, his eyes wide open, staring somewhat
fiercely, indicating his triumph over death. His body is not bowed, but
is upright and rigid. His arms are straight and horizontal, not dragged
down by the weight of the body; he is not subject to the law of
gravity. He is alone: there are no mourners beneath the cross. This is
a straight fight between God and the Devil, and mankind is out of the
picture.

Bill.



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