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The Pleasures of Heresy

Unusual Crucifixes, Catholic Heretics and lost ideas


Occasionally when trawling antique markets in France you see the same things again and again. Ricard jugs? I would be amazed if we went somewhere and we didn't see them. Old farm tools. Vintage enamelware. Second hand baby clothes. These have value (economic and otherwise) but they aren't things we really go for or hunt out for our store. One of our favorite catches and something we occasionally see in northern France is one of these: a Jansenist Crucifix.




Its odd- you'll notice the position of the arms, the gaunt Jesus. The crucifix is simple, undecorated black wood. The body itself is usually bone, discolored to a creamy yellow. below Christ is a crude skull and crossbones:






Here's another- you can really sense the pain in Christ's face. This is also a clue that although the crucifix looks crude, it was clearly carved by someone who knew what they were doing.






This one is unusual as there is an additional figure on the crucifix. This is Mary Magdalene, who during the Counter Reformation became identified in France and Germany with penitence- a concept which would have been deeply meaningful to the Jansenists.




We have other examples of Jansenist crucifixes in our store. Jansenism was a theological movement, primarily in France, that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace and predestination. The theology derives from the teaching of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), bishop of Ypres. Jansen's belief system stated that humanity had been completely corrupted as a result of the sin of Adam and instinctively chooses to perform evil rather than good actions. Being depraved by nature, humanity can do nothing to merit its own salvation. It has a medieval grimness to it which is shocking to modern eyes. Jansenism believed the mass of humanity was condemned to perdition, no matter what they did in life. It was opposed to the Jesuits who, Jansenist said, behaved as if the world could be saved. Jansenists crucifixes were hence appropriately brutal. The arms of Christ were not outstretched- this church was not welcoming. Instead Christs arms are folded in pain.


Jansenism was a complex movement based more on a certain mentality and spirituality than on specific doctrines. It was an attempt, in line with that of the Reformation theologians, to reform the church in the spirit of early Christianity. It opposed what, in its view, was a compromising approach to true Christian theology and practice but was rejected by the church as an exaggerated and unorthodox position. In an era of dangerous ideas Jansenism had influential protagonists, such as Blaise Pascal, Jean Racine and Antoine Lemaistre de Sacy (to whom we owe a translation of the Bible into French). Unsurprisingly Jansenism was regarded as heresy by many Catholics. They were expelled form France in 1709 and established a church in Utrecht. The belief system eventually evolved into the very science-fiction sounding Ultrajectine tradition.


Nevertheless certain Jansenist beliefs continued- in particular, the Jansenist idea that Holy Communion should be received very infrequently, and that reception required much more than freedom from mortal sin. The belief was popular in rural areas where Rome seemed distant and shadowy and un-French. The last groups probably vaporized in the 19th century. All we have left to remember them are these odd crucifixes. We see them occasionally around Northern France. They are no longer bargains as most sellers are aware they are unusual and have value as highly collectable objects, remnants of once influential thought system. This is what I love about this job- this sense of vertigo where you handle objects which embody beliefs which, although they may seem ridiculous or abstract now, dictated ordinary people's lives for decades.


Pictures by Carole


Lots of sources such as here, here and here.

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