1 John 3 builds its exhortations on the perfect obedience of Christ: ‘he is pure’ (v.3), ‘in him there is no sin’ (v.4), and ‘he is righteous’ (v.7). His obedience, 1 John 3 relates, culminated in the cross where ‘he laid down his life for us’ (v.16).
While artisans, both ancient and modern, have often struggled to depict the other-worldly glory of the triumphant Christ, we can see such tension supremely represented here in the Pierpont Morgan Library’s chief prize. The gilded and bejewelled cover of the Lindau Gospels conveys both the brutality of the cross and the resurrection power that overcame it.
On a cover that employs 327 precious gems, the central figure of Christ on the cross emerges along with ten mourning witnesses. These include the figures of the sun and moon (Joel 2:10), inscribed within the cross above the figure of Christ, along with two pairs of angels each flanking the top of the cross. Mirroring the poses of the angels above are four human figures below. In their postures, Christ’s mother, St John, and the two female mourners below them, suggest their agony as witnesses. Upon close examination, we observe etched drops of blood from the nails in Christ’s hands and feet.
The repoussé technique of the goldsmiths (whereby a relief is created by hammering the shape from the inside) makes for a smooth, naturalistic presentation. Such a technique can be read as an analogy of the resurrection power that brought the crucified Messiah back from the grave—working life from the inside out to a glorious appearance. Indeed, the sufferer appears as a celebrated victor (a Christus Triumphans), wounded but now restored and standing with great poise and self-assurance. The jewelled decorations placed centrally in the four gold rectangles surrounding the cross are raised slightly on lion’s feet, like tiny pedestals. They protect the central figure and ensure his impeccable appearance.
‘When he appears … we shall see him as he is’ (v.2). With these words, the Epistle looks to the parousia (the second coming) as a moment of apocalypse, or ‘unveiling’. There is, likewise, something apocalyptic about the Lindau Gospels’ cover. Indeed, in its ornate gems and gold-work, some admirers see an evocation of the beauty of the heavenly New Jerusalem in the final chapters of Saint John’s Revelation (21:9–21).
Lindau Gospels: The Morgan Library & Museum website https://www.themorgan.org/collection/lindau-gospels [accessed 6 October 2021]
3See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
4 Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as he is righteous. 8He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God. 10By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother.
11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, 12and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.