The Crucifixion in Art: Historical Development
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:
From the Rabbula Gospels, 586 A.D. See the description page for details and commentary.
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, this monument from the 10th, and this candlestick 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:
From a room in St. Paul Outside the Walls now used as an anteroom to their small museum. Follow this link for a larger format and a commentary on the image.
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:
The Crucifixion, from the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Aquileia, Italy. Follow this link for a larger format and further comments on the image.
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.

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ABOVE: Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, The Crucifixion, 1416. See the description page.

MORE IMAGES

  • Early 9th century: A Byzantine reliquary lid with Christ in the collobium and very much alive.
  • 12th century: This icon from 12th-century Georgia typifies Eastern icons from this period forward.
  • 12th or 13th century: Apse mosaic in Rome.
  • Circa 1200: This Crucifixion mosaic in St. Mark's, Venice, has Adam's skull and most of the persons mentioned in the gospel accounts.
  • Early 13th century: A carved Crucifixion group in South Tyrol, Italy.
  • 13th century: This 13th century fresco from Istria (Croatia) closely follows the pattern seen first in the sarcophagi and then in the Eastern icons. Western images continue to use this pattern into the present day. See the description page.
  • Mid-13th century: In this Croatian tympanum relief has features of the older style emphasizing Christ's divinity and the newer style that emphasizes his (suffering) humanity.
  • 1265-68: The Crucifixion panel on Nicola Pisano's pulpit for Siena Cathedral is an example of including Ecclesia and Synagoga in the scene.
  • 1280-85: The Crucifixion is the central image in The central tympanum on the west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral.
  • 1285: In Jacopino da Reggio's Crucifixion with St. Francis it is St. Francis, not Mary Magdalene, who hugs the cross.
  • 1300: This stained glass is an early example of the growing pathos in Crucifixions.
  • Early 14th century (Ethiopia): The presence of Christ expressed only symbolically by a jeweled cross in a Crucifixion scene from an Ethiopian gospel book.
  • Circa 1310-31: Detail from the reliefs on the façade of Orvieto Cathedral.
  • 1320-25: The Crucifixion is figured on the right leaf of Jacopo del Casentino's Madonna and Child Enthroned triptych.
  • 1350: This panel has an early example of Mary's faint.
  • Circa 1400: Detail from a Spanish altarpiece.
  • 15th century: Fra Angelico with Mary's faint. Longinus and Stephaton are mere onlookers on the left.
  • 1416: The Salimbens' enormous fresco of the Crucifixion, with Mary's faint and a multitude of other details.
  • 1440s: Fra Angelico's fresco of St. Peter Martyr adoring the Cross, in a friar's cell in San Marco, Florence.
  • First half of the 16th century: Adriaen Isenbrant's Crucifixion with Saints is, among other things, a meditation on the persistence of war in all of history.
  • 16th century: Fainting in Corona's Crucifixion, Mary seems to fall toward the viewer.
  • 1512-31: Sculpture group in the main retable of Oviedo Cathedral.
  • 1515-25: Van Orley's Crucifixion with the souls awaiting redemption.
  • 1565: Tintoretto's painting strongly emphasize Mary's faint.
  • 1683: Villalpando's grand canvas, Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus, relates the Crucifixion to the bronze serpent episode in Numbers 21 – and both of those to the Transfiguration.
  • 1690-1720: A carving with Mary's faint derided by a grimacing soldier.
  • 18th or 19th century: Sculpture group with cannons at Meersburg Castle, Germany.
  • 19th century: Relief, Mary and John gaze in awe at the crucified Christ.
  • 1875: An altarpiece in Montreal surrounds the usual Crucifixion scene with Old Testament episodes believed to prefigure it.
  • Undated: Mary holds a scapular in this image in a Venice church.
  • Undated: The Precious Blood of Christ symbolically relates the Crucifixion to the Eucharist, to Purgatory, and to the doctrine of the Trinity – not to mention the welcoming of the Good Thief into Heaven.

ALSO SEE

TEXTS

NOTES

1 For Jesus' priesthood see practically any chapter in Hebrews, and especially 5:10, which says he was "called by God a high priest according to the order of Melchisedech." For the continuity between the events on Calvary and the liturgy, see for example Justin Martyr's assertion of circa 155: "In like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh" (First Apology, lxvi). This understanding of the liturgy arises from the institution narratives in Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, and Luke 22:19-20 and from "Bread of Life" discourse in John 6:22-59. In I Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul writes of having "received of the Lord" the same institution narrative and "delivered" it to the faithful in Corinth. He concludes that "as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come."

2 Schiller (II: 5, 109) argues that the sun and moon in such images "refer to the cosmic sovereignty of Christ and his eternal reign," citing the way the symbols had been used in Roman art. Other scholars have suggested that they refer to the darkness that fell when Christ died or to Ecclesia and Synagoga: See Mark 15:33, Luke 23:34, and Savage, "Iconography of Darkness."

3 Exposition Permanente d'Art Sacré à Zadar, 39-50. The processional crosses are all from parish churches near Zadar and all from a Zadar workshop. Verious media, all gilded.

4 Bridget, Prophecies and Revelations, I, 10 and IV, 70. Molanus, Historia SS. Imaginum, 444-46. Molanus cites Bridget's vision respectfully but then goes on to cite the clear testimony of John's gospel that Mary "stood by the cross of Jesus" (19:25, my italics) and the unanimous praise of the commentators for her "virile" refusal to beat her breast, cast herself to the ground, or betray any sign of a weakness of spirit.

5 Deimling, II, 303-304 (Play XVI, 545-80); Beadle, 214-15 (Crucifixion, 73-100).

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