Glossary: Our culture without crosses

Click to follow
I DON'T know whether Enoch Powell is right in his contention that Jesus was stoned to death rather than crucified, but it can't be denied that it opens up a dizzying prospect - a vertiginous panorama of a world altered pervasively, in ways great and small. Perhaps Mr Powell has been led to 'an exceeding high mountain' by his intellect and has succumbed to temptation (he is a classic instance of the way in which very intelligent men can be lured into folly by their own logic). Understandable if so, because this would be the scholarly footnote to beat them all, the greatest erratum slip in human history.

Even if you doubt his claim (I do myself, though it is the act of faith of an unbeliever, if that's not too paradoxical), his argument exerts an odd fascination, forcing us into speculation and thought-experiments. What would we do if he was proved right? More interesting still, what might our world have looked like if everybody had acted as though he was right all along? Science-fiction writers are keen on this game - in The Alteration, for example, Kingsley Amis imagined a world in which the Reformation had never taken place (Martin Luther becomes Pope Germanicus). But Mr Powell's premise is more intriguing in its subtlety.

Art and literature would obviously have been utterly different, though not necessarily impoverished. Instead of the great visual tradition of the crucified Christ, which allows painters to incorporate the Classical fascination with the male nude directly into religious art, we would have had thousands of Lapidation scenes. The technical mastery of the human form might have lain in abeyance1 for centuries as painters worked on a different problem, that of depicting violent ac tion in still paint. Where the crucifixion is a scene of terrible stasis, the principal actor literally nailed to an armature, a stoning scene would involve flight and movement.

Those that do exist suggest that the subject is less amenable than the divine contraposto of the crucified Christ. There is a Renaissance painting of the stoning of St Stephen in which the object of his martyrdom is stuck to the side of his head like a granitic tumour, a faintly ridiculous image. Carpaccio's painting of the same scene rather unconvincingly depicts a stone in mid-air and has some trouble with the thrower's arm. But what might Caravaggio or Titian have done with this challenge to depiction?

Christian architecture, too, would have been fundamentally different. Sir Christopher Wren's first design for St Paul's, a radical circular design that was rejected on theological grounds, would probably be standing now, preserved by the impeccable orthodoxy of its rounded floorplan.

Cruciform floorplans nudge architects towards the technical solutions of the Gothic - slender aisles buttressed from the side and inspiring space sought upwards, above the worshippers' heads. Build your church upon a rock, on the other hand, and circular basilicas become more likely. The English landscape would be a timeless composition of fields and trees and village domes.

Even the gestures within that church would be different. What would replace the sign of the cross, for instance, a movement peculiarly suited to the human body - one which seems to unite brain, heart and body in devotion? (All of this begs the much larger question of whether a religion based on an act of collective murder would ever have been as successful.)

Language, oddly, would offer far more subtle changes, a shifting of weight from one leg to another. True, hymns and the liturgy would be completely different, but images of stone and rock are already embedded in the devotional literature and offer rich possibilities for metaphorical exploitation, and for religious wordplay. In the Christian world at least, the vocabulary of stone would have acquired an extra weight and salience2 - a more sublime version of the sort of thing you can see in any review of The Flintstones. 'Lapidary' wouldn't be quite so narrow in its purpose and 'stone me' would have blasphemous overtones.

At the same time, words associated with the cross would have lost something of their power. The word 'crucial', for instance, isn't specifically Christian in origin. It derives from Bacon's phrase instantia crucis, and is explained by him as the image of a signpost (or crux) at a parting in the road, thus the evidence that decides between two opposing hypotheses. But without the buried pun would it ever have had such force in the language?

Similarly, 'excruciating' (from the Latin intensifier, ex, and cruciare, the word for torture) would have existed even if our altars were now surmounted by small cairns3 , but it surely wouldn't have that subterranean charge, amplified, if Mr Powell is right, by almost two thousand years of mistaken identity.

1 From the Old French abaher, to gape after (baer, bader, to gape).

2 From the Latin salire, to leap. Thus anything prominent, raised above the surface.

3 From the Gaelic carn, a heap of stones.