Dying Jesus . . . Dying Churches?

The flogging of Jesus Christ, and crucifixion,  a painting at the Melk Abbey, Austria. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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


This stone imae of the crucifixion, of Jesus on the cross is on the outside of the University of Bamberg auditorium. Aula. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Stone image of the dying Jesus on the outside wall of the University of Bamberg auditorium. Even today, crucifixes are a common sight in public buildings in Austria and Bavaria. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Churches were at the top of my list of photo subjects as Jon and I set out last month for a three-week river trip across Europe. Stained glass windows, paintings, mosaics, murals — I knew those old buildings would be stuffed to their soaring arches with wonderful old art objects. And I planned to capture as much of that medieval and renaissance beauty as I could.

I saw a lot of Jesuses in those old European churches. But, sad to say, in church after church, Jesus was almost always . . . dying. Or dead. Or staggering under the weight of a cross.

True, there were plenty of images of the Baby Jesus: unblemished and adorable, but often (it seemed to me) no more than a stage prop to highlight the sanctity of Mary, his much-revered mother.

Jesus the Man

But Jesus the man? Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana? Jesus breaking bread with tax collectors and prostitutes? Jesus making the blind man see? Didn’t happen. Images of the living, breathing Jesus in action were a rarity.

Crucifixion of Jesus over the entrance to the Regensburg Cathedral in Germany. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Crucifixion of Jesus hangs over the entrance to the 15th-century, high gothic Regensburg Cathedral, Germany. Photo by Barbara Newhall

These were old churches, of course, 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. No doubt it helped to visualize a God who suffered with them.

Is Christianity Dying?

For the past century, Christianity has been doing a slow fade in Europe. The proportion of Europeans who are Christians dropped from 95% in 1910 to 76% in 2010, according to a Pew Research Center report. Today, nineteen percent of Europeans claim no religious affiliation at all.

I wonder. Might all those grisly medieval and renaissance visions of a dying Jesus have something to do with those shrinking numbers?

Bottom line, I have no upbeat photos of Jesus turning water into wine or dining with tax collectors and prostitutes. Just picture after picture of Jesus dying on the cross. And a couple of him as a babe in arms. It’s the best I could do.

More travel adventures at “Pentwater, Michigan — A Small Town on a Big Lake” and “Cheap Thrills at the Glasmuseum Passau.” Learn more about my new book at WrestlingWithGodBook.com.

On a related theme, see Bernard Starr’s essay on Renaissance Christian art.

On the bridge at Bamberg. Crucifixion of Jesus surrounded by martyrs and apostles. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Pedestrians crossing a bridge in old town Bamberg, Germany, can’t miss this crucified Jesus.

Painting of the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthias Church, Budapest. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Painting of the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthias Church, Budapest. Photos by Barbara Newhall

At the baroque Melk Abby, Austria.A white statue of the risen Christ with a cross over the entrance. Photo by Barbara Newhall.

Melk Abbey, Austria. The risen Christ atop this Benedictine monastery represents victory of life over death. Unlike its gothic and renaissance predecessors, the baroque sensibility celebrated life and aspired to create heaven on earth. Maybe that’s why I love baroque architecture, grandiose and extravagant though it is. Photo by Barbara Newhall.

This Madonna painting of Jesus and Mary is housed in the Lady Chapel of the Cologne Cathedral. It is by Stefan Lochner, a local painter of the early 15th century. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Baby Jesus in his mother’s arms — just one of many. This one is in the Cologne Cathedral and was painted by Stefan Lochner, a local artist of the early 15th century. Photo by Barbara Newhall



  1. You always garner an insight from whatever you come across.

    • Thanks, Sharie. Yes. I was noticing how frustrated (as a photographer) I was at not getting the “material” I wanted. So I thought about it and began to wonder what the artists of the old churches were so focussed on the crucifixion. I’ll bet if I did some further digging into art history, I’d get some interesting answers.

  2. virginia newhall says:

    Thank you so much, Barbara, for sharing those beautiful pieces of art. Though not terribly religious, I adore religious art, and those are stunning.


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