In the first four centuries there appear to be no Crucifixion images in Christian art (that is, images picturing Jesus on the cross in a context of details drawn from the gospel narratives). Then from the 430s we have Crucifixion images on
an ivory box and
a door panel. These depict Jesus on the cross nearly naked, with nails visible in his hands and feet. Very likely there were other images similar to these but now lost. In the remainder of the millennium the few extant Crucifixion images follow the iconography exemplified in this manuscript illustration:
Ladner (33-34) suggests that this iconography reflects the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) that Christ is at one and the same time fully human and fully divine, a single person with two natures. In the Syriac illustration we see Christ as a human nailed to the cross but with a halo and a colobium, a liturgical vestment signifying his role as priest in this sacrifice.1 Christ also wears a colobium in
this similar image
from the 5th century,
from the 10th, and
from the 12th.
In these and most other Crucifixions before the 13th century, Christ's body does not sag on the cross. Unambiguously alive, he faces forward and extends his arms straight out as if in exultation. This seems consonant with the emphasis on his divinity. Above him images of the sun and moon signify his "cosmic sovereignty."2
The same iconography can be seen in crucifixes of this period. See this section of our study of crosses and crucifixes.
SECONDARY FIGURES IN THE IMAGES
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 Christ's 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.
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). Four of the 14th- and 15th-century processional crosses studied in Petricioli have Adam sitting up in his sarcophagus and extending his arms pleadingly toward Christ. In a fifth he is standing up in the sarcophagus and has lifted its lid.3 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." In the Strasbourg Passion Tympanum an entire skeleton is pictured in a sarcophagus at the base of the cross.
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.)
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. Christ's 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 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 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."4 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 Baroque 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 continued to be 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.
CRUCIFIXION WITH SAINTS
In the 15th and 16th centuries the Crucifixion scene was sometimes attended by saints from later historical eras. The effect is to take Christ's sacrifice out of sequential history into God's timeless presence. Perhaps the most significant example is Fra Angelico's great Crucifixion at the convent of San Marco, Florence, where the usual Crucifixion figures are joined by scores of saints, prophets, and patriarchs. There is less interest in evoking pathos in images of this type (example), perhaps just because of the interest in bringing the event out of historical time.
AFTER THE MIDDLE AGES
In the 16th century and later 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 preferred stylized 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, 2020-04-19, 2020-09-08.
ABOVE: Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, The Crucifixion, 1416. See the description page.