The difference between a cross and a crucifix is that the latter bears a "corpus" or sculpted image of Christ's body. On this website I will also use the term "crucifix" for any cross painted with an image of the corpus. Sometimes a museum will display the corpus only, the cross having been lost
The cross will sometimes represent the person of Christ in his role as savior of mankind. See the apse mosaic at St. John Lateran and the apsidal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore. A mosaic similar to the Lateran's but with a crucifixion scene instead of a cross is in the apse of San Clemente, also in Rome. The need to look to Christ as Savior is expressed in many early sarcophagi by a design in which the cross is approached by a pair of lambs or peacocks. The reason for peacocks was that "the haunting wail of the peacock in the night was likened to the Christians' crying out to God for help" (Sill, 24). The design is also seen in church mosaics of the same period (example). These examples come from early times, but the device of substituting a cross for an image of Christ can be found even in this Coptic Crucifixion image from the 14th century.
Similarly, the Cross represents the person of Christ exalted on high in domes (example) and most notably in the vault frescoes of the churches of Gesù and San Ignazio in Rome.
THE CHI-RHO SYMBOL
The chi-rho combines the first two letters of Greek XPΙΣΤOς, "Christ." In paleo-Christian art it usually represents the resurrected Christ and is often pictured within a wreath, as in the Sarcophagus of Domatilla:
In paleo-Christian images, the chi-rho may be flanked by birds (as above) or by lambs example). Birds, symbolic of immortality from classical times, can represent Christians' hope for their own resurrection. Lambs may have the same meaning but can also represent the apostles, as in these sarcophagus fragments, where twelve lambs are labeled with the apostles' names. Or a lamb representing Christ may have a chi-rho inscribed on its halo (example).
By the end of the last century the chi-rho had become simply a symbol of Christ or of Christianity in general.
To represent Christ specifically as crucified on the cross without actually picturing him, paleo-Christian artists used the staurogram, the figure shown at left. The staurogram originated as a scribal abbreviation for the words "cross" and "crucify." For its subsequent development, see my page on this early symbol.
In the first centuries A.D., the anchor symbol sometimes served as an alternative to the cross as an identifier of Christianity (Sill, 128). This was partly because of its cross-like shape and partly because Hebrews 6:19 speaks of hope in God's promise as "an anchor of the soul." In medieval times hope was the more common meaning of the anchor symbol, but even then it could be associated iconographically with Christ in the Eucharist, as in this altar frontal from the 12th century and this manuscript illustration from the 15th.
(The anchor is also an attribute of St. Clement.)
THE CRUCIFIX IN HISTORY
In the earliest crucifixes the corpus wears a colobium, an ecclesiastical vestment, and the outstretched arms do not bend with the weight of the body, as in the first picture at right. Straight and firm as they are, the arms can suggest welcome or acclaim by a victorious leader. The eyes are usually open, and the figure is clearly alive.
In the Romanesque period, roughly the 10th through the 12th centuries, the colobium is gradually replaced by a finely decorated skirt, most of the body now left naked, as in the second picture at right. A slight bend in the arms makes the figure more realistic but does not imply that they are bending in response to the weight of a dead body. Indeed, the Jesus on Romanesque crucifixes continues to be very much alive, with head erect and eyes open. Generally we do not see a wound in his side, and in this example even the feet are intact.
An interesting example, reputed to be the oldest cruceiro in Galicia, has the old colobium version on one side of the cross and the new skirted version on the other.
In the Gothic period (13th through 15th centuries) crucifixes emphasize the torments Jesus suffered, with very literal detailing of his wounds and bruises, as in the third picture at right. The man is clearly dead, his head slumped to the side and blood flowing from the wound in his side. Instead of a skirt, an unadorned cloth is tied around his waist. Whereas the older works emphasized his status as king and priest, the Gothic points to his role as redeemer. In the picture at right, this is suggested by John's gesture of contemplation and the portrait at the top of St. Michael, the victor over Satan, whose shield bears a cross in the shape of this very crucifix. In another example the redemption is symbolized by a pelican, believed at the time to bring its young back to life with its own blood. (See my page on the pelican symbol.)
The emphasis on Jesus' suffering continued into Counter-Reformation art in the 16th and 17th centuries (example) and thence into the folk art of Latin countries, where it is still in evidence (example). Some examples go back to using a decorated skirt rather than a tied cloth (example).
Later crucifixes retain the Gothic elements – the five wounds, the tied cloth, and the slumping head and sagging arms. But most examples from the 19th and 20th centuries, like the fourth picture at right, are considerably less bloody, and even in New Mexico this unsorrowful crucifix has Christ open-eyed and raising his arms in acclamation. They are also usually less oriented to theological statement, although a few modern examples have Jesus reaching one hand down from the cross as if to assist the person standing below (example).
THE PARTS OF THE CRUCIFIX
The INRI Scroll
At the top of the vertical crosspiece one often sees a scroll or plaque bearing the letters INRI, which stand for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." The Roman practice was to use such a scroll to identify the criminal and his crime (see John 19:19-22). On larger crucifixes the scrolls will sometimes have the entire inscription (example).
Christian writers of the period of the persecutions mention a sedilus excessus in Christ's cross, a projection functioning as a small seat to keep the weight of the body from pulling the hands off the nails. To my knowledge this feature was never represented in the art, but many crucifixes have a suppedaneum, a sloping ledge to support Christ's feet. (See the fourth picture at right.) This is mentioned in Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Martyrs (6th century).
Debunkers will sometimes declare that nails could not have been driven through Christ's palms as shown in crucifixes, because of the pull of the body. But the usual Roman practice, well attested in the literature, was to tie the limbs to the cross and then drive nails through the hands and feet. The earliest known Christian image of the crucifixion, from a time not long after the era of public crucifixions, clearly shows nails driven through the palms.
TYPES OF CRUCIFIXES
A crucifix made for a liturgical procession is called a "processional cross." There may be secondary images of saints on the ends of the crosspieces and/or flanking the corpus (example). Holy Week processions in Latin countries feature life-size crucifixes; some churches will keep such a crucifix in a display case during the rest of the year (example) or place the corpus in a glass-sided coffin (example).
Before the modern age it was common in Catholic countries to maintain crucifixes at public crossroads for the edification of travelers, and some of these are still extant today. They are known in Spain as cruceiros (example). and in France as Calvaires (example). Some of these manage to express profound theological insights. The iconography of the calvaire in Espalion, France, for example, merges imagery of the Crucifixion with both the Eucharist and the Resurrection/Ascension. In parts of southern Europe a simpler form is preferred, with the Virgin Mary standing alone before the Cross and facing the viewer (example). In Munich we observed a similar arrangement in which a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is placed below and in front of a painting of the crucified Christ. In Armenia, the cross is inscribed on stone tablets called khatchkars, which serve as memorials and as historical markers (example).
Some crucifixes are the object of special veneration, such as the Seņor de Esquipulas in Guatemala and Nuestro Seņor de los Milagros in Peru.
For a more extensive scholarly treatment of this subject, see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2016-10-15,20, 2016-12-09, 2017-11-26.
MIRACLES OF THE CROSS