The 4th-century sarcophagus panel at right is typical of the earliest Christian images of the Crucifixion. Below the crossbar Jesus' crucifixion and entombment are signified by the cross and the soldiers guarding the tomb. Above, his resurrection and glorification are signified by the birds, the wreath, and the "chi-rho" monogram for the Greek Christos.1
A slightly later example uses a "staurogram" instead of a chi-rho and has the Greek letters Alpha and Omega instead of birds. But the meanings continue the same. The Greek letters relate the cross to Christ's glorification in Heaven, where he will say, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" (Revelation 21:6, c.f. 1:8, 22:13). The staurogram began as an abbreviation for the words "cross" and "crucifix" and developed into "a visual reference to the crucified Jesus" (Hurtado, 223).
These images focus primarily on the intrinsic connection between Christ's death on the cross and his consequent glorification, which is set forth in the letters of Paul and in Jesus' own statements in the gospels.2 Unlike later images, they do not deal with the salvific effects of the Crucifixion directly. They do make an indirect statement about the person in the sarcophagus, however, given the belief that the Christian is "buried with [Christ] in baptism, in whom also you are risen again by the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him up from the dead" (Colossians 2:12).
THE FIFTH CENTURY
Fifth-century art is more explicit about the salvation that Christ has gained for the faithful. In the sarcophagus of Valentinian III, the lamb and staurogram representing the crucified Christ stand on a hill from which flow the four rivers of Paradise, which Isidore of Seville interpreted as "the eternal flow of joy" (Glossa Ordinaria, I, 71). Another sarcophagus, most likely from the 6th century, also uses the rivers to link the Cross to salvation. At St. John Lateran, the 5th-century part of the apse mosaic does the same and adds a wealth of similar details to express the abundance that flows from Christ.
As these examples show, the sarcophagi continued to represent the crucified body through symbols long after other media had begun to show Jesus as a real person on a cross. This may be due to simple conservatism, or perhaps the funerary context made it desirable to emphasize the death/resurrection nexus, with symbolism seemingly the most elegant way to do so.
In any case, the crucified body does appear in other media by the 5th century. This door panel from 430-35 presents Jesus and the two thieves quite realistically. All have nails in their palms as if they were fixed to crosses, though the crosses are not represented. Jesus is like the thieves in being naked except for a skimpy "perizoma." (In actual crucifixions the victim had been entirely despoiled of his clothing.) Even more literal is this panel from an ivory box of 420-30. Despite a few symbolic elements the image is truly narrative in conception, including as it does a number of details from the gospels. Judas hangs from a tree, his money bag beneath his dangling feet. John and Mary stand on one side of the cross, a member of the howling mob on the other. As in the door panel, Jesus wears only a perizoma and has nails in his palms.
EARLY MEDIEVAL ELABORATION
As we move into the 6th century and beyond, narrative images of the Crucifixion become still more elaborate and detailed. In this Syriac manuscript illustration, for example, we see Mary and John, the women of Jerusalem, the two thieves, the soldiers casting dice for Jesus' garment, and a small sun and moon to signify the darkness that fell. Beneath the crossbar the man on the right proffers the vinegar sponge while the soldier on the left pierces Jesus' side. The soldier is labeled ΛΟΓΙΝΟC, "Longinus." Other images in the first millenium will also give a name to the sponge-bearer, "Stephaton" (example). Rather than making the Resurrection an integral part of the Crucifixion image, the Syriac manuscript gives it a separate panel at the bottom of the page.
Mâle (188-89) suggests that Longinus and Stephaton represent Ecclesia and Synagoga, citing the Glossa Ordinaria on Luke 23:47: "The faith of the Church is signified by the centurion, who confirmed as soon as the Lord's death had drawn aside the veil from the heavenly mysteries that this was a just man and the Son of God – while the Synagogue remained silent" (V, 993, my translation). Mâle notes some 13th-century images where Ecclesia herself collects the blood from Christ's side in a chalice while blind Synagoga turns aside. He also argues that Mary and John represent Ecclesia and Synagoga in images where they flank the cross. However, they are at the foot of the cross in person in John 19:26 and in works dating back at least as far as this 8th century icon from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai.
Surprisingly, another figure sometimes seen in these images is Adam, who rises from the ground at the foot of the cross. This 13th-century illumination is an example. The Golden Legend refers, although dismissively, to a tradition that Adam was buried on Calvary (Ryan, II, 209). Even as late as (this sculpture group from 21st-century New Mexico, Adam and Eve stand together at the foot of the cross, representing the salvation of humanity itself.
When Adam is absent, there may be one or more skulls at the base of the cross, as in the Salimbeni fresco at the top of this page or this example. The skulls refer to the name of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, which Matthew 27:33 interprets as "place of the skull."
Or, in earlier iconography, the foot of the cross may pierce a reclining figure representing Hell. This refers to a 6th-century hymn in which a personified Hell laments that the Cross has pierced his belly and "Adam's race" is pouring out of him. (This link will take you to the hymn and an example of the images it inspired.)
In the Syriac illustration and the St. Catherine's icon the thieves are in short skirts but Jesus wears a "colobium." This is a liturgical vestment signifying his role as priest in this sacrifice. It also refers to the Christian liturgy that is a mystical participation in the sacrifice.3 Jesus also wears a colobium in this similar image from the 5th century, this monument from the 10th, and this candlestick from the 12th. In Denmark in the 10th century little crucifix pendants were made of gold filigree and tiny gold balls. In these the vestment on the figure's torso bears a cross-shaped design; below, the figure has "pants" made of horizontal threads. (See pictures and descriptions of these objects in this news article and this museum note.)
In these and most other Crucifixions before the 13th century, Jesus does not sag on the cross but faces forward and extends his arms straight out. I have seen suggestions that this is a gesture of welcome or of victory over death, and it may be so. But when the two thieves are included in these images they also have the same posture, which in their case could hardly be one of welcome or victory.
HIGH MEDIEVAL PATHOS
As we move into the 13th century there is a growing emphasis on the pathos of the Crucifixion. More and more Crucifixions will be like this image from about 1200. The confident posture is abandoned. Jesus' head sags onto his chest, the arms lose tension, and the colobium is replaced by a short skirt. With the colobium gone, medieval images will reference the liturgical import of the Crucifixion by having angels collect Jesus' blood in chalices, as in Pacino da Bonaguida's Crucifixion of 1310-20.
The theology behind the chalice metaphor is expressed in the Glossa Ordinaria on John 19:34 ("one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water"): "It does not say he pierced or he wounded but he opened, for in this way he threw open the gates of life, from which flow out the sacraments of the church, without which there is no entering into life" (V, 1316, my translation).
In the 13th century it is usually Mary and John who stand beneath the cross. In this example they calmly direct the viewer's attention to the crucified Jesus, but in the next century the images emphasize their grief and that of Mary Magdalene. Thus in the Pacino painting Mary presses her hands together and gazes in pain at her son while the Magdalene tearfully holds her arms up to him. A few years later, in Martini's 1333 Crucifixion she is clinging in anguish to the foot of the cross, the angels weep, and Mary faints into the arms of her companions. These details will continue for a very long time in images such as the Salimbeni fresco pictured at the top of this page.
This emphasis on pathos reaches its peak in Flemish and German paintings of the 15th century (example). These will add the grossly contorted bodies of the thieves. Instead of picturing the wound in Jesus' side as sacramental, they will show the moment when it is pierced by the lance. Many will fill the canvas with thick crowds that press in on the cross; few will include the centurion who points to Jesus and says, "indeed this man was the son of God."
BRIDGET OF SWEDEN'S INFLUENCE
Later in the 14th century Mary's faint is woven into Bridget of Sweden's visions of the Crucifixion. Mary tells Bridget, "When his heart was near to breaking, his whole body shook and his beard fell toward his chest. Right then, I collapsed lifeless to the ground." Bridget's account is highly emotional and had an enormous impact on Crucifixion iconography. The faint was a frequent detail in Crucifixions into the 15th century (example), the Renaissance, (example), and to a lesser extent the Baroque (example). Its popularity declined after Molanus challenged it in 1570, but continued in works as late as this altarpiece of the 1690s.4
Other details from Bridget's vision also entered the tradition. It was she who specified, in the same chapter, that what Jesus wore on the cross was a tied-up cloth: "He took off his clothes when ordered but covered his private parts with a small cloth. He proceeded to tie it on as though it gave him some consolation to do so." Her witness drove the traditional skirt almost entirely out of the iconography, although it is still seen in Hispanic santos (example).
In telling of the soldiers who affixed Jesus to the cross, Bridget goes on to say, "since his left hand could not reach the other corner of the cross, it had to be stretched out at full length. His feet were similarly stretched out to reach the starter holes for the nails.…" This gruesome detail finds it way into the mystery plays at Chester and York, where the soldiers make a grand fuss of tugging and pulling till the limbs reach the holes.5 We do not often see this detail in paintings, but in Corona's large canvas a soldier is stretching the right arm of the thief on the left in preparation for the nail, and in El Greco's Disrobing of Christ a workman prepares one of the starter holes with an awl.
Even the disposition of the feet follows Bridget. In images before her visions, they were often shown side-by-side and nailed separately to the suppedeneum (example). But in the vision Mary says they were arranged "crosswise," and that is how they were portrayed in most subsequent images.
AFTER THE MIDDLE AGES
After the end of the Middle Ages some Crucifixions became very literal about the violence suffered by Christ's body (example), but for most of the century and beyond artists sought dramatic effect in vivid landscapes, evocative lighting, and other painterly devices. In our own age, with the notable exception of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, violence is eschewed and many artists have returned to stylized and/or symbolic portrayals of the crucifixion (example). Some late images also have Mary and John together on one side of the cross rather than flanking it (example). This appears to be a reference to John 19:26-27 – "When Jesus…had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own."
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-09, 2018-02-13, 2018-08-21.
Salimbeni, The Crucifixion, 1416. See the description page.OTHER IMAGES