Symbols are tricky things. They can represent the most vital aspects of a person’s identity and culture, or just look like a flower to others. Nowhere are symbols more important than in matters of faith. Spaghetti, fish, a lotus, a cross: all these and more contain concepts, beliefs, and histories of humanity and its relationship with the cosmos. Whether or not you believe in God (or Allah), religious symbols are a treasure trove for understanding society and culture. And just like matters of faith can spiral into unending conflicts, seemingly minor differences in appearance between symbols can have vast implications. Forget one line, for instance, and the kanji for “mountain” becomes “river”. Just imagine what could happen if you change something about the cross.
Which is why the lack of crucifixes in the Netflix Castlevania series is so intriguing.
(Please, take note: I’m not here to call the show Satanic or whatever crap these religious nut-jobs have called video games and card games. This is not an attempt to sell anyone on a particular religion, or impose whatever values you may or may not think I have. This is one nerd who was brought up in a Catholic household who noticed an interesting detail, arguing why, from a Catholic perspective, said detail is interesting. Think of this as something akin to Gaijin Goombah’s “Culture Shock” or MatPat’s “Game Theory” videos.)
Warning: Spoilers will follow. Ye have been warned.
Being as I’ve never played a Castlevania game, I was supremely excited to see the new Netflix show. I liked it so much, I binge-watched it again, especially keen to see the Game of Thrones reference on the screen.
But something else caught my eye. I re-watched the series, paying keen attention to every frame, but my initial observation was confirmed.
There are no crucifixes in any of the scenes. And that has potentially enormous implications for the show and its characters.
To be sure, there are a lot of crosses—unsurprising, given the show’s setting—but a crucifix isn’t just a cross. It’s a cross that’s found Jesus.
Seriously. A crucifix is a cross with a figure of Jesus nailed to it, i.e. a cross upon which Jesus has been crucified.
You may be familiar with the Orthodox cross (aka the Suppedaneum cross), which has two “extra” bars formed from the IMRI inscription & where Jesus’ feet are nailed.
It’s the cross you see in Qwaser of Stigmata. That’s just one of a bunch of different cross designs.
The “traditional” Christian cross is called the Latin cross. There’s also the Greek cross, the St. George’s Cross (the one on England’s flag), the Cross of Saint James, the Cross of Lazarus, the Papal cross—I could go on. And that’s just the cross symbols in Christianity. The cross is one of humanity’s oldest symbols. There’s a whole family of cross symbols, which includes the manji, aka the holy Buddhist symbol corrupted and tainted by the Nazi Party into the swastika.
And although the Latin cross symbol appears in many guises throughout the show, not a single one of them has an image of Jesus or a representation of His body.
Nope. The priests at Lisa Tepes’ execution have crosses, there’s a heraldic cross on Trevor Belmont’s family crest, and there’s a sick-looking gothic cross hanging in Gresit’s cathedral, but no crucifix.
The Bishop’s thugs—and no, I won’t call them priests, for reasons I’ll get to shortly—have crosses on their blades, spears, and staffs, the Bishop himself has both a cross and a rosary, and the show spends several lingering moments on images of Jesus Christ represented in stained glass as the Bishop is, ahem, “kissed” by the goblin leader (who I’ve since learned is called Blue Fangs) in the cathedral in Episode 4, but not one still shot of a crucified Christ.
At first, I thought it might be an artistic oversight, to save time (the show is based on hand-drawn 2D animation) or maybe the team didn’t think it was important enough. After all, although Powerhouse Studios is based in Austin, Texas, the anime industry in Japan from which this show takes a lot of inspiration isn’t noted for its accurate depictions of the Catholic Church (lookin’ at you, High School DxD). While religious symbols have been used in anime before, it’s usually more for aesthetic reasons, such as in Eva.
But the design team just drew inspiration from various anime. They’re very much culturally aware of the imagery’s significance, and I doubt Adi Shankar would deem it insignificant. I also very much doubt the team who put Longclaw in a background shot would cringe at putting a tiny Jesus somewhere.
Then I thought, maybe it’s something to do with the time period the show’s set in. The main action starts in 1476, which is right at the tail end of the Medieval Period, when the Renaissance begins. It’s also right around the start of the Reformation, kick-started by Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. The Protestant Church, which was established following this period in history, forebode the use of Christ’s image on a cross, considering it to be a form of idol worship. But, the Theses weren’t stapled until 1517, over 30 years after the show takes place.
Furthermore, during my research, I found out that the crucifix had been fully developed in the form we see today as early as the late 10th century. In addition, the 11th century saw the institution of the processional cross—the cross carried before the priest and other Mass celebrants (altar servers, Scripture readers, etc.) during the start of the Mass—become commonplace.
I find it hard to believe someone as passionate as Adi Shankar is about his projects, like the super gritty Power/Rangers, would fail to take all this historical info into account.
So, if it isn’t an artistic oversight, lack of research, or cultural divide, why aren’t there crucifixes in Castlevania?
Initially, I thought it was a commentary about the Bishop and his beliefs; a critique of the kind of religious fervor prevalent at the time (and which still springs up today on occasion). But, after I talked with a priest at my local church, I think it’s more than that. I have
A GAME THEORY A FILM THEORY a theory that it’s Castlevania’s way of saying the Bishop isn’t a true servant of God.
No kiddin’. He told me that although the processional cross doesn’t have to be a crucifix, in the Roman Catholic tradition, there must always be a crucifix on the altar, or close to it, during Mass.
Admittedly, we never see the Bishop celebrate Mass, nor is it explicitly stated that the spiky, gothic cross which resembles something used in torture porn that is in the cathedral is actually a processional cross.
But he’s standing at the pulpit, and no crucifix. Even if there’s no visible crucifix, there should be somewhere for the crucifix to be stored. No storage space in sight.
Also, in Episode 1, the Archbishop of Targoviste celebrates the anniversary of Lisa Tepes’ immolation, resplendent in his Renaissance finery...and no crucifix.
I’m sorry, but if you’re a Medieval priest , and you don’t bring out the Big J to celebrate a good, old-fashion’ witch-burnin’, when do you?!
Also, let’s look at the Bishop’s rosary. He drops it during his demonic make-out session.
I have a rosary or two, and I’ve seen a fair few in churches over the years, and while they have that same overall design, there’s one key difference (besides the blood): a crucifix.
While the rosary doesn’t explicitly require a crucifix, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website explaination of the Rosary prayers clearly states that literally the second action involves holding the crucifix and reciting the Apostles’ Creed. While the rosary wasn’t an official devotion of the Catholic Church until 1569, the rosary itself was created in 1214, and was reinstated by the renowned Blessed Alanus de Rupe in 1475. So, although the rosary wasn’t “official doctrine”, as such, its design would have been known to high-level clergy, especially given the Church has traditionally held the rosary to come from the Virgin Mary herself. And yet, the seemingly ultra-pious Bishop, who you would expect to have some kind of deep religious knowledge, doesn’t have a crucifix on his rosary.
The man is against Church laws and traditions. But it doesn’t stop there.
For anyone who’s seen the show, you’ll probably have realized that, while Dracula is the main antagonist, it’s only because the Catholic Church made him that way by accusing his doctor wife of witchcraft and burning her to ash.
And then this a**hole of a bishop basically told the king of vampires to f**k off back to fairy-tale land.
Historically, the Church as the bad guy isn’t too far off. The show is based off Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, taking place in 1476. At this point in time, the Church was powerful on the scale of nations, having influence in basically all of Europe’s royal courts. Luther’s problems stemmed from what he saw as gross misuse of that power and the corruption of the religious leaders, especially through the sale of indulgences. Hell, with what happened to Gallileo, I’d be pissed at the Church, too.
The Bishop has, just as it was in Luther’s day, let that power go to his head. He’s devoted not just to his supposedly holy mission, but to maintain his grip on the people of Gresit.
Kinda weird for a priest to be saying something like this, right?
Speaking of weird things for a priest to do, we have to go back to the Bishop’s goons.
As you can see in the still above, in Episode 2, the Gresit weapon-seller clearly calls the guys ’the Bishop’s men’. He doesn’t use the word “priest”.
The holy water scene in Episode 4 further reinforces this.
During the defense of the town, Trevor asks for a priest to make holy water, and one steps up. Upon flinging said water at the demons, and watching them sizzle, Trevor remarks with surprise that the priest “really could make holy water.” He needed a real priest, one who was properly ordained in a church, to perform the ceremony. True, all the other men of the cloth were dead, but considering holy water’s importance, you’d think Trevor would’ve kept at least one of the Bishop’s goons alive to make the stuff.
Finally, the weapons.
From the loud-mouth staff-wielder to the one-eyed knife guy, what Medieval priest would be that good with a weapon? I get needing to defend yourself, and the whole “sulfur and brimstone” mindset, but there’s no way a theological scholar would want to learn how to kill or hurt people.
So, the Bishop’s thugs aren’t really priests, and the Bishop is on a power trip & not following the Church’s rules. Anything else?
In the end, I return to the difference between a crucifix and a cross. In the Catholic tradition, a crucifix depicts Jesus’ suffering during the Crucifixion, and a cross doesn’t. To Catholics, while the empty cross is the same symbol of the Resurrection as it is to every other Christian, the use of the crucifix is meant to invoke the depth of God’s love for mankind. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, suffered until death upon the cross; the crucifix is supposed to remind Catholics of that. At this time in history, remember, the Christian faith had not yet been divided. By the Catholic Church’s bylaws, Jesus Christ should be on a cross somewhere in the cathedral. In a way, the Bishop not showing His likeness removes the presence of God’s human aspects, the most obvious connection He has to humanity.
In using the imagery of the cross, and not the crucifix, the Bishop lords (no pun intended) the power of the Church, of “God’s chosen servants”, over the common folk. There’s no longer any sense of God as the Son, nothing that would allow every-day people to feel connected to God, which is after all one of the primary reasons God sent His Son to Earth in the first place, according to Catholic faith. There’s just the empty cross, the glory of God, wielded by the clergy. In placing the cross on his servants’ arms, the Bishop uses the cross imagery as a weapon, as a tool of oppression and enforcing his will.
Interestingly, the Belmont family crest features a cross, but no crucifix. In the real world, the crucifix never appears in any coat of arms, not even the Catholic Church’s. But the cross was used in heraldry after the Third Crusade, presumably to signify the bearer’s devotion to the Church’s tenants. You’d think that, after the excommunication, Trevor would’ve discarded the crest. But he hasn’t. When he drops his cloak towards the end of Episode 4, he has once more internalized what his family has always stood for. Trevor evokes the cross as a symbol of allegiance to what it symbolizes to his family: goodness, redemption, standing against evil. Note, although he uses a short-sword (which, in a pinch, can be used as a cross), and has a consecrated whip, Trevor never directly uses a weapon with cross imagery on it. He isn’t trying to literally beat the Christ into his enemies, like the Bishop does. He simply uses the holy nature of his weaponry the same way a video game player would: as a status modifier, a “super effective!” tool against the demonic forces invading Wallachia.
The Bishop doesn’t have a crucifix because he isn’t trying to empathize with the good people of Gresit. He wants to control them, he wants power over them. A cross to him is a symbol of perfection, yes, but the lack of the suffering Christ on its arms means he, as a Catholic, forgets what the cross is supposed to symbolize: that God so loved the world He gave His only Son.
No wonder I don’t think of him as a priest. No wonder the Bishop’s work makes God puke.