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.
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, as for example in the third picture at right, from 430-35, which 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, and less focused on the Resurrection. This Syriac manuscript illustration, for example, places the Resurrection in a separate panel at the bottom of the page. Following the gospel narratives it pictures almost everyone mentioned in the gospels. It also includes a small sun and moon, which represent the hours of darkness mentioned in the gospels.3 The sun and moon will continue to be pictured above the cross in many subsequent Crucifixion images. (See Savage, "The Iconography of Darkness at the Crucifixion.")
In the Syriac illustration the cross is flanked by a man on the right proffering the vinegar sponge and a soldier on the left piercing Jesus' side. The soldier is labeled ΛΟΓΙΝΟC, "Longinus." Other images in the first millenium will label the sponge-bearer "Stephaton" (example). Mâle explains that these and other pairs of figures flanking the cross represent Ecclesia and Synagoga, the Old and New Testaments (Religious Art, 188-90). In one 13th-century window Ecclesia herself stands left of the cross in a crown and receives the blood of Christ while a dejected Synagoga on the right side turns away blindfolded. Surprisingly, but not without copious reference to the medieval commentators, Mâle argues that Mary and John, the figures most often seen flanking the cross, also represent Ecclesia and Synagoga. (According to a homily read in the Easter liturgy, John and Peter represent the two testaments when John as Synagoga runs to the empty tomb but lets Peter as Ecclesia enter it first.) Savage notes that even the sun and moon in Crucifixions can be associated with the Old and New Testaments (op. cit.).
Longinus and Stephaton continue to flank the cross well into the Middle Ages, but from at least the 8th century Mary and John gradually displace them (example).
Starting in the 10th century, Adam may be pictured 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.4 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
Writing of French Crucifixions, Mâle claimed that "thirteenth-century artists thought less of stirring the emotions than of recalling the dogma of the Fall and Redemption" (Religious Art, 188). This is true of the images generally, but in literary works on the Crucifixion from late antiquity into the Middle Ages pathos was clearly the intention (Dronke, 190), and as early as the 12th century we start to see it in the art. This fresco in Rome is an example: The image is much like the old Crucifixions. Jesus' head is erect, his arms extend easily in a gesture of welcome, and there is no wound in his side. But the colobium has been replaced by a skirt, and most importantly John and Mary's gestures invite the viewer to contemplate what they are seeing. Both John and Jesus gaze straight back at the viewer. This fresco in Aquileia (circa 1180) adds a strong element of pathos: Jesus' body slumps under his weight, his head falls to his chest, and blood spurts from his side. Mary no longer simply stands beside of the cross but weeps while the women try to console her. They also shed copious tears. Behind them, only the weeping Mary Magdalene is able to look up toward the cross. Before the 12th century these women rarely figured in Crucifixions, but hereafter they will be very common.
As we move into the 13th century the emphasis on pathos begins to take hold. More and more images will present Jesus' body as in the Aquileia fresco or in this image from about 1200, where the head sags onto the chest and there is no collobium.
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).
By the 14th century Crucifixion images tend to pull out all the emotional stops. In Martini's 1333 Crucifixion Mary Magdalene clings in anguish to the foot of the cross, the angels weep, and Mary faints into the arms of her companions. The faint was woven into Bridget of Sweden's influential account in the latter part of the century and, like these other details, persisted for a very long time in images such as the 15th-century fresco pictured at the top of this page. In 1570 Molanus disparaged the faint because John 19:25 says she "stood" by the cross and commentaries on that verse had always taken "stood" to affirm Mary's admirable "constancy of spirit."5 After Molanus she is almost always pictured standing, though the faint can be seen even in this altarpiece at the end of the 17th century. Another exception, if indeed it is contemporary with the other works in the church, is this relief in which one of the soldiers mocks Mary for fainting.
The 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 treating 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.
Other details from Bridget's account 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." Bridget's 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.6 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, 2018-12-13.
Salimbeni, The Crucifixion, 1416. See the description page.