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The Crucifixion Gorge: Why It Took Hundreds of Years for Art to Depict Jesus’ Death on the Cross


The cross, or crucifix, is perhaps the central image of Christianity.

What’s the difference between the two? A cross is just that – an empty cross. It stands as a statement that Jesus is no longer hanging on the cross and thus symbolizes his resurrection.

A crucifix, on the other hand, contains the body of Jesus, to more vividly remind viewers of his death.

Many contemporary Christians, from bishops to commoners, wear some kind of cross or crucifix around their necks and it would be rare to find a church that did not have at least one prominently displayed in its building.

Although it is a symbol of faith, it is not only the pious who carry crosses. Madonna constantly wore earrings and necklaces with crucifixes in the 80s and 90s. She is quoted as being provocative”thought Jesus was sexy”.

Madonna has long used images of the cross.
Rich Fury/Invision/AP

The recent ubiquity of the cross as a fashion item means it’s sold everywhere from cheap tween fashion stores to that jeweler known for its little turquoise boxes, where a diamond cross necklace can run in excess of $10,000.

The theme of the 2018 Met Gala, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination, further elevated religious imagery to fashion icon status by placing it at the center of one of the fashion industry’s most important events.

JLo with a big cross on her dress.
Jennifer Lopez at the 2018 Met Gala, themed Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Yet the cross was not always the dominant symbol of Christianity it is today, and certainly would not have been worn as a fashion accessory by the early Christians.

In fact, it took centuries for Christians to begin depicting the cross in their art.

Read more: Jesus wasn’t white: He was a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters

An unworthy death

While some want to credit Emperor Constantine for the use of the cross becoming more widespread after the 4th century, it is not so simple. Part of the answer lies in the nature of the crucifixion itself.

While crucifixion contained some variation in ancient times, it was typically a form of execution reserved for non-elite, non-citizens in the Roman Empire of the 1st century.

Slaves, the poor, criminals, and political protesters were crucified by the thousands for “crimes” that we today consider minor offenses. The types of crucifixion may differ, but as a form of execution, crucifixion was brutal and violent, intended to publicly disgrace the victim by showing him or her naked on a scaffold, affirming Rome’s power over the bodies of the masses .

That Jesus suffered such an unworthy death embarrassed some early Christians. The apostle Paul describes the crucifixion of Jesus as a “stumbling block” or “scandal” for other Jews. Others would give it a sacrificial meaning to understand how the one who claimed to be God’s Son would suffer in this way. But the shame that comes with this kind of death remained.

Coarse Crabs: A young man worshiping a crucified figure with a donkey's head.
The graffito of Alexamenos in Rome.
Wikimedia Commons

A now-infamous piece of graffito, dating from early 3rd-century Rome, probably pokes fun at Jesus’ way of dying. Sketched on a wall in Rome, the Alexamenos graffito depicts a male figure with a donkey’s head on a cross under which is written “Alexamenos, god of worship”. The suggestion is that the parody was aimed at Christians precisely because they worshiped a man who had died by crucifixion.

Christian images

Felicity Harley-McGowan, an expert on crucifixion and early Christian art, argues Christians began experimenting with creating their own specifically Christian images around 200 AD, about 100-150 years after they began writing about Jesus.

Carved wood panel: Jesus appears to be nailed into a door frame.
Early works depicting the death of Jesus did not always show an open cross, as in this 440 AD depiction of the Church of Santa Sabina.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The slowness to depict Jesus on a cross was not about a general sensitivity to the visual arts, although they seem to have been very selective in what they did depict. Artwork typically depicted biblical stories and used rural imagery to show others being saved from death or to tell the stories of biblical heroes such as Daniel or Abraham.

In the 4th century, Christians began to depict other death scenes from the Bible, such as the education of the daughter of Jairus, but still not the death of Jesus. Harley-McGowan writes:

it is clear that the earliest depictions of death in early Christian art focused on post-event actions.

Such images emphasized healing, new life and resurrection from the dead. This emphasis is one of the reasons why Christians were so slow to portray the actual death of Jesus.

One of the earliest extant depictions of Jesus can be found in the Maskell Passion Ivory dating from the early 5th century AD, more than 400 years after his death. This ivory formed a coffin panel with one death scene in the middle of a series of scenes telling the Jesus story.

Judas hangs from tree;  under him the purse from which pieces of silver fall;  on the right, Christ is nailed to the cross with hands alone
Maskell Passion Ivories, one of the earliest extant depictions of Jesus.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Like much previous Christian art, the emphasis remained on Jesus’ victory over death rather than the desire to depict the reality or violence of his crucifixion. One way to show this was to depict Jesus on a cross, but with his eyes open, alive and undefeated by the cross; in the Maskell Ivory, the alertness of Jesus contrasts with the obviously dead Judas.

While one Magic amulet from the 3rd century that includes crucifixion images (and there may have been other gems and amulets lost to history that associated his resurrection from the dead in magical terms), images of the cross did not begin to emerge until the 5th century and would remain rare until the 6th.

green-brown jasper;  oval with a crucified figure on a high cross with a short foot.
This magical amulet, carved on jasper, dates back to the 3rd century.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

As churches were built, crucifixes appeared on engraved church doors and would remain the more standard image until the Reformation emphasized the empty cross.

The cross still has a complex history, being used as both a symbol of Christian ecclesiastical power and of white supremacy by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

There can be beauty, intrigue, magic and terror in these cross traditions.

gold with loop and extendable arms terminating in oval medallions;  Christ crucified in the middle
This early Byzantine pendant dates from the 6th or 7th century.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

On the one hand, it stands as a symbol of Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. On the other hand, it is a reminder of the violence of the state and the death penalty.

Maybe, 2000 years later, it’s always both – even if it’s diamond-encrusted.

Read more: Baby Jesus in art and the long tradition of depicting Christ as a male child

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