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Crucifixion

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The Crucifixion of Jesus is one of the most frequently represented subjects in medieval art; the image developed in the early Christian period and appears in a variety of formats through the Middle Ages. The event is described, with some variation in details, in all four Gospels as well as in apocryphal works such as the Acts of Pilate .


Although a central episode for Christianity, the image of the Crucifixion is not consistently found before the fifth century, after many other events from the life of Jesus had been developed in art. The Crucifixion had previously been symbolized (e.g., on third- and fourth-century sarcophagi) by the image of a lamb ) with a *cross, or by a cross bearing the * Chi-rho monogram and a triumphal wreath. The figure of Jesus himself was generally excluded from these early symbolic formulae. The apparent reticence in picturing the body of Jesus upon the cross in the early Christian period has been explained by the negative associations of the punishment of crucifixion, reserved under Roman law (but outlawed by *Constantine in the fourth century) as the most extreme form of punishment for slaves or noncitizens. It was perhaps also to combat early heretical claims that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross that his body began necessarily to be included in the image.


The earliest images, following the previously developed symbolism of the triumphal cross, show Jesus in an *orant pose, with open eyes. Although nails are represented in his hands and feet, the cross itself is downplayed, and the image emphasizes life and victory rather than *death and suffering. An ivory plaque of c.420–430 shows a youthful, beardless Jesus and includes the figures of the Virgin *Mary, *John the Evangelist, and *Longinus (the spear bearer). The wooden doors of Santa Sabina in Rome (c.432) include two smaller orant figures of the thieves crucified with Jesus Jesus is here represented with long hair and a beard. These early western images depict Jesus naked, apart from a loincloth. The titulus (sign or plaque) erected by *Pontius Pilate is shown in the early ivory, bearing the abbreviated Latin inscription INRI, identifying the crucified as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the *Jews” (John 19:19-22).


Jesus appears wearing a long robe (or colobium ) in late sixth-century Byzantine examples; he is bearded, fastened to the cross with four nails, surrounded Page 59  by the two thieves, plus Longinus and Stephaton (the sponge bearer), Mary and John, and three holy women. Soldiers casting dice for his garments are seated at the base of the cross.


The patterns set by these early western and Byzantine examples are fundamentally maintained through the subsequent centuries with some alterations in attitude, personnel, and overall ambiance. The positioning and inclusion of figures changes from time to time; additional details may be added, such as *angels and the skull of *Adam buried beneath the cross. The site of the Crucifixion was also known as Golgotha —the place of the skull; the presence of Adam’s skull makes a typological connection between the sin of Adam and the redemption of Christ. A serpent winding around the base of the cross also serves to make this connection. The figures of * Ecclesia (holding a chalice into which Jesus bleeds) and *Synagogue (or other symbols of Christianity and Judaism) may be found in Crucifixion images from the Carolingian period onward. Sometimes roundels containing personifications of the sun and the moon are included. The hand of *God may also appear, or angels, bearing a crown.


The image of the victorious Jesus with open eyes is, by the ninth century in Byzantine art, gradually replaced by a closed-eyed Jesus with bowed head. This type was firmly established in western art of the Ottonian period and, especially after c.1000, became the most standard image. Theological discussions of the physical death and human nature of Jesus as well as increasing interest in the redemptive suffering and wounds of Jesus may explain this shift in attitude. The suffering of Jesus is also reflected in the increasingly mournful attitudes of the accompanying figures and angels. Mary (normally on the left of the composition) may wring her hands, weep, or bury her face in her veil in an increasingly dramatic display. By the later Gothic period, she may be shown quite overcome with grief, fainting into the arms of her companions. Saint John (normally on the right of the composition) may similarly weep and wring his hands. The body of Jesus also pulls and slumps more dramatically in Romanesque and Gothic examples. By c.1200, artists frequently show a three-nail crucifixion (one of the feet nailed on top of the other), further creating and emphasizing the slumping, swaying angle of Jesus’ body.


Some examples from the twelfth century onward include the figure of God the Father seated or standing behind the cross and helping to support it. The dove of the *Holy Spirit often hovers over Jesus’ head. This image, known as the “Throne of Grace,” combines the Crucifixion with a representation of the *Trinity. Other pictorial types, which develop in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, include the representation of the cross as a flowering or leafy treeand the inclusion of personified figures of the *Virtues nailing Jesus to the cross and embracing him. Like the image of the Y-shaped cross (which appears in twelfth-century German art and even further emphasizes the suffering of Jesus with painfully upraised arms) many of these dramatic images may be explained by devotional and mystical writings meditating upon all the details and the significance of the Crucifixion. Images of the Crucifixion Page 60  may also include donor or patron figures arrayed in *prayer, as well as various Old Testament figures and *prophets holding books or scrolls.


Illustrations of the crucifixions of persons apart from Jesus are distinguished by different forms of crosses and different positions of figures

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