Crucifixion (In Art)

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The representation of Christ's redemptive death on Golgotha does not occur in the symbolic art of the first Christian centuries. The early Christians, influenced by the Old Testament prohibition of graven images, were reluctant to depict even the instrument of the Lord's Passion. When the cross comes to be represented in the time of Constantine, it is seen both as the trophy of the victorious Christ of Easter and as the sign in the sky preceding the Second Coming of the Son of Man. The scene of the crucifixion, however, is still absent from the early Passion cycles; even in the 6th-century mosaic sequence of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the Golgotha scene is left out. This article treats the historical development of literal and symbolic representation of the crucifixion.

Early Examples. The only two crucifixion scenes that antedate the 6th century show the artist's hesitation in front of this new theme. On the ivory casket of the British Museum as on the doors of S. Sabina in Rome, both of the early 5th century, Christ appears covered only with the narrow subligaculum, his eyes open and his hands nailed to the cross. While the beardless Christ of the ivory seems to hover on the cross, the bearded Christ of the wooden panel seems to stand on the ground, his arms extended in the manner of the orans. In the ivory scene, on Christ's left Longinus is about to stab the Lord's side; on Christ's right Mary and John stand in silent grief; in the left corner, Judas is hanged on a tree.

Eastern Art. Dogmatic reasons alone, that is, the reduced fear of Arian and Apollinarist misinterpretation or the apologetic efforts against Monophysitism, cannot explain the sudden popularity of crucifixion scenes in the later 6th century. At this time, the faithful increasingly demanded images of Christ and the saints for their private devotion.

Syrian and Palestinian. Piety was nowhere directed so strongly toward Christ's Passion as in Syria from the time of St. Ephrem. The first datable image of the crucifixion of this new age is found in the Syriac Gospel Book, written by Rabbula in 586 (Laurentian Library, Florence). A bearded Christ in a sleeveless tunic, the colobium, is crucified between the thieves, with Mary and John framing the scene on Christ's right and the three women on his left. Three soldiers gamble for the cloak below, the lance-bearer and the sponge-bearer fill out the center of the scene, and the sun and moon above show the event in its cosmic dimension. The open eyes of Christ indicate that the Logos, divine nature, remains in the dead body. His wound is on the side of honor as is that of the good thief, and thus it is indicative of the life-giving source from which the Church is born.

The crucifixions on the late 6th-century Monza and Bobbio ampullae from Palestine show a mixture of historical reference and symbol. Christ's head appears nearly always above, or in the middle of, the empty central cross. When Christ is represented in the colobium, extending his arms like an orans, the cross is missing (Monza 12, 13). The presence of Longinus and Stephaton next to an empty cross (Bobbio 6) shows the continuance of the mingling of the historical and the symbolic. The two pilgrims kneeling at the foot of the holy cross symbolize its liturgical veneration (Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.). On a contemporary Palestinian reliquary box from the Sancta Sanctorum (Vatican Museum) Mary and John stand on opposite sides, and both thieves look to their left as on the pilgrim's flasks. John holds the Gospel Book and raises his right hand in testimony. Here, however, the scene is not framed by Mary and John, but by the thieves. Christ stands erect on the footrest in hieratic solemnity. The next step, that of eliminating the marginal figures of the thieves, is accomplished in the mid- 8th-century fresco in S. Maria Antiqua in Rome. More than in any previous example, the symbolic gradation of size gives Christ in the colobium a supra-human majesty, while his inclined head suggests a deep spiritual communication between the figures of this timeless, sacramental mystery. Here the devotional image is achieved.

Unlike the Rabbula type with its synchronic representation of John 19.24, 29, 39, some reliquaries and pectoral crosses depict the moment when Christ entrusted Mary and John to each other (Jn 19.2627; Rhode Island School of Design). Another type, not yet sufficiently studied, presents Christ on a Maltese cross ending in medallions dallions with saints' busts. On the oldest of these (c. 600, Dumbarton Oaks), the Lord appears without a cross, but with the titulus and with his hands lowered as though to show his wounds. A parousia seems superimposed on the sign of Christ's Passion. A transformation of this type leads to the first crucifixes proper, a group of 7th-century pectoral crosses found in Hungary.

Transitional Types. The use of a lamb as symbol for Christ, as seen in a crucifixion on a column in St. Marks, Venice, was forbidden by the Quinisext Council of Constantinople (692); He was to be represented thereafter "in human form." This decision not only reflects the extent to which realistic images came to be acceptable but also indicates that resistance against such representations continued. Consequently, the iconoclasts attacked the crucifixion scene with particular vehemence and employed the simple cross of glory as a symbol of their faith.

Their opponents, the monastic party, multiplied crucifixion scenes in their psalters; these reveal a number of iconographic innovations. Christ is seen dead, with closed eyes, in the mid-9th century Chludoff Psalter in Moscow, as on an 8th-or 9th-century icon of Mount Sinai. The same psalter from Moscow shows the centurion and the crowd of Jews; the latter appear as early as the 8th century in the ruined fresco in the main apse of S. Maria Antiqua, where for the first time angels typical of Byzantine crucifixions appear. The freedom of monastic art in arranging the main figures, the grouping of women, soldiers, and Jews, and the dead rising from their tombs (11th century, BN gr. 74; Bibl. Nat., Paris) contrasts markedly with the strict symmetry and restrained attitude of the few figures contained in crucifixions of the aristocratic school. In the most famous work of the latter group, the Gregory of Nazianzus of Paris (c. 880, Bibliothèque Nationale manuscript gr. 510), a colobium painted over the original loincloth provides the earliest Eastern example of the perizonium.

The frescoes of the Cappadocian rock churches (9th to 13th centuries) follow in their early phase the archaic Syrian iconography, showing the three crosses several times. They reflect popular piety in the importance given to the Passion (11 scenes in Tokali Kilisse, late 10th century) and in the use of the apocryphal sources (Jesus crowned with thorns, carrying the cross, in Elmali Kilisse, late 11th century). The old restraint gives way to a dramatic expression of grief in the symmetrical gestures of Mary and John raising one hand to the cheek.

Byzantine. In the 11th century, the representation of the event on Golgotha, which hitherto had been remarkably free, was reduced to a few types. As one of the 12 festival images of the liturgical cycle in the church nave, it received a prominent place in the transept or narthex.

Just as in Byzantine liturgy the death of Christ remains always a phase in the work of Redemption, so the crucifixion, though it has an important position, remains within the framework of the liturgical cycle without assuming the preeminent place that it attained in the late Middle Ages in the West.

The classical form of Byzantine representation of the crucifixion was established in the mosaic cycles of the 11th century in Greece. Christ stands between Mary and John on the suppedaneum, clothed only in the loincloth; two angels above and Adam's skull below the cross complete the scene. At Hosios Lukas in Phocis (early 11th century), the dead Christ with closed eyes is given a place for the first time in monumental art. The violent linear design of the curving body speaks the language of monastic art, while the delicate organic movement of the slender Christ of Daphni (late 11th century) incorporates the best of both traditions. Here Christ's eyes are open and they look toward Mary in sad tenderness, while the Disciple's eyes seek the viewer's in order to draw him into the mystery to which he gives witness with his raised hand. The iconic dignity and liturgical significance of this crucifixion make it an image of prayer rather than a historical representation. This spirit is to prevail throughout Byzantine art.

The addition of one holy woman and the centurion to the three main figures is peculiar to Eastern iconography. The composition appears mostly in the minor arts (11th-century enamel of Queen Gisela, Munich) and is often found on Russian icons. More common is the iconography showing groups of women behind Mary and soldiers and Jews behind John (11th-century ivory triptych, Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin; 12th-century mosaic in St. Mark's, Venice, where the gambling soldiers and eight half-figures of angels add to the crowding of the scene). To heighten the dramatic effect of the crucifixion, the artists of the Paleologan renaissance in the 14th century turned to the latter type, sometimes even representing the two thiefs. The later 15th-century icon of Cardinal Bessarion (Academy, Florence) illustrates the qualities of this art: the use as scenic background of the walls of Jerusalem, the compact grouping of the figures, and above all the depth of grief expressed by the heavy curve of John contrasted with the restraint of the Lord's Mother.

Western Art. The first representations of the crucifixion in Western art were made in Ireland. In the 8th-century Irish Gospel Book of St. Gall (Manuscript 51) a beardless, open-eyed Christ is clothed in a colobium stylized into strange bindings coiled about His body. Two half-figures of angels above and Longinus and Stephaton below fill the remaining space. On Christ's left, Longinus is healed of his blindness by the blood flowing into his eyes, in accordance with apocryphal legend (cf. bronze plaque of Athlone). The crucifixion carvings on the Irish high crosses (9th to 11th centuries) usually show the St. Gall and Athlone type. The presence of related Old and New Testament scenes may be attributed to Eastern models of the minor arts, e.g., the Holy Land ampullae (Monza 2v, New Testament cycle; Monza 13v, Apostles' busts).

The most complex crucifixion scenes are to be found on Carolingian ivories, such as the book cover in the state library of Munich (c. 870, clm 4452). At the top the hand of God appears between the figures of the sun and moon in chariots. Christ in the loincloth is flanked on the right by Mary and the holy women, Longinus, and the Church with a fanion receiving Christ's blood into a chalice. On the left appear Stephaton, John, and a seated figure of the Church taking the shield from the Synagogue. Three angels hover above the cross, and the serpent is crushed below. The lower half represents the holy women at the sepulcher, the resurrection of the dead, and enlarged personifications of Earth, Sea, and Rome. The cosmic dimension of Redemption, the victory over the Prince of this World, the transition from the age of the Law to that of Grace, the unity of redemptive death and resurrection, and the sacramental oneness of Golgotha and the Mass have been organized by the Carolingian artist into an image for meditation in which the regal and triumphant character prevails according to contemporary theology. In later Carolingian art the tendency is toward clearer, more rigid structure. The four Evangelists are introduced, and sometimes Adam and Eve are shown rising from their tombs.

The crucifixions in book illuminations are close to the traditional types. The colobium, which is rarely seen in ivories, occurs frequently, especially in Ottonian manuscripts where the three crosses are sometimes shown. The most important innovation in Anglo-Saxon and Ottonian miniatures was the representation of the dead Christ, his eyes closed, his head falling to his shoulder, and his body beginning to arch (c. 980, Harley 2094; British Museum). This development heralds a trend that was to become general only two centuries later.

At this time also, the crucifix with separate body appears, as in Bernward's cross (c. 1000, Hildesheim). In the later 10th century, a fillet or crown is to be seen in God's hand above the cross. In the early 11th century it appears on Christ's head, where it signifies the crown of thorns as a token of glory. In the 12th century, Christ is frequently depicted with a royal crown (Spanish crucifix; The Cloisters, New York). The Volto Santo of Lucca (11th century) and a group of 12th-to 13th-century Catalan crucifixes showing a bearded Christ with inclined head and dressed in a long tunic with sleeves, translate into monumental sculpture an iconographic type going back to the 7th and 8th centuries (7th-century golden pectoral cross, British Museum, London; Hungarian pectoral crosses). Christ in the loincloth remains, however, the normal type in medieval crucifixions.

The dead Christ appears more often in the later 12th century, but it is not until the mid-13th century that he replaces the triumphant Christ. The crown of thorns remains infrequent until the late 13th and the 14th century. The two nails holding Christ's feet are replaced by one (1149, baptismal font from Thienen, Brussels). In the 13th century, when this type begins to prevail, the suppedaneum disappears and Christ's legs are crossed. Mary is represented as being overpowered by her suffering. The first representations of the faltering strength of Mary are Byzantine (late 12th century, Monreale); there she does not swoon, but is supported by holy women, or John, who reappears at her side. The fainting of Our Lady is combined during the 13th century with the piercing of her heart by a sword. While in Romanesque art the scene was reduced to the three-figure image of prayer with two angels or with the sun and moon above, in the 13th century the composition again had numerous figures, a type that predominated throughout the late Middle Ages.

In Italy the transition from the triumphant Christ of the earlier centuries to the suffering Christ of the later Middle Ages was made through the medium of painting on cruciform panels. The earliest extant examples come from Tuscany (1138, Sarzana) and Umbria (1187, Spoleto). The works of the Umbrian school show only Mary and John on either side of Christ, while Passion scenes accompany the mourning figures in Lucca and appear alone on the central panel in Pisa. On all early crosses, the wide-eyed Christ stands upright, with two nails in his feet, a hieratic image of the victor on the cross. This type is replaced by the dead Christ in the work of Giunta Pisano in 1236 and after; by 1260, the living Christ has disappeared completely. On Giunta's crosses, the agony just ended remains engraved on Christ's face in the deep-cut lines of mouth, eyes, and eyebrows (c. 1250; S. Domenico, Bologna). In giotto the panel cross transcends itself; the traditional frame created to enshrine a sacred idea cannot hold in its plane the spatial life of the heavily hanging body with its forward thrust of the angular knees (end of 13th century; S. Maria Novella, Florence).

The historical crucifixion scene found its way from Byzantine into Italian art in the sculpture of Niccolò Pisano, who showed the violent motion of Mary's fainting and first represented Christ crucified with three nails in the northern manner. By unifying the groups on either side of the cross through a common emotion, grief or fear, he initiated a tradition of the utmost importance (1266 to 1269, pulpit, Siena Cathedral). His son Giovanni introduced the vertical dynamism of Gothic art into the scene, raising the three crosses high above the spectators (after 1300, pulpit, Pisa Cathedral). In Duccio's Maestà the two groups of people move apart, leaving the center open for the vertical axis of Christ's cross (1308 to 1311; Cathedral Museum, Siena). Giotto shows fewer figures and no thieves; the spectators below the cross are bathed in the solemn stillness of death (c. 1305; Scrovegni Chapel, Padua). Pietro Lorenzetti deepens the setting, filling it with numerous horses and people (c. 1355; S. Frances-co, Assisi). In Andrea da Firenze's crucifixion, the mass of people watching the drama enhances the solitude of Christ and of his mother (c. 1355; Spanish Chapel, S. Maria Novella, Florence). Through Simone Martini, Italian elements such as Mary lying unconscious on the ground, the grieving angels flying around the cross, and Mary Magdalen embracing it or throwing up her arms in the gesture of distress, penetrated into northern art.

Late Medieval. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Italian art moved toward the devotional image showing saints or donors. The meditative quality draws the onlooker into the emotions of the figures under the cross, as in the great crucifixion scene picturing many saints by Fra Angelico (c. 1440 to 1445; S. Marco, Florence) or in Sano di Pietro's small canvas (National Gallery, Washington), where Mary and John sit on the ground, meditating in an ancient attitude of mourning, a true "image for worship by empathy" (E. Panofsky).

During the transition period of the 13th century, the North depicted Christ in a Gothic manner, on a slender cross without a footrest, and hanging low between straining arms with knees bent at a sharp angle. A group of 14th-century Rhenish crucifixes presents this type in its extreme form. On the forked, treelike cross in St. Maria im Kapitol in Cologne (1304), Christ's suffering is strikingly told in his emaciated body covered with wounds and his face distorted by pain. In the iconography toward the end of the century, a less agitated body of Christ reflects the calm of death; but the crown of thorns, now become general, begins to lie as a heavy weight on Christ's head. The 14th-century crucifixions with numerous figures rarely have more than eight or ten persons on each side of the cross. But in the 15th century, the artists began to exploit all the narrative details of the Gospel. They depict the thieves tied to T-shaped crosses; Christ's cross generally bears the abbreviated titulus INRI. They multiply Scribes and Pharisees, soldiers and Jews, bringing in also a number of horses, and delighting in genre elements. Yet in the strong individual expression of prominent figures or in the unified attitude of the astonished or the mourning, the doubtful or the mocking, there is meaning upon which to meditate (1533, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder; Art Institute of Chicago).

The composition becomes even more complex in the later 15th century, expecially in northern Germany, by the addition of scenes not simultaneous with the crucifixion, such as the carrying of the cross, the descent from the cross, and the entombment. These are shown either as small background scenes or an integrated part of the spectacle of Golgotha. But the tendency was soon checked in southern Germany by the influence of the Flemish, who, like the Italians, preferred the devotional image and represented only the holy figures of the Biblical text in a wide landscape. In Roger van der Weyden, the historical event is transformed into a suprahistorical mystery, a completely interior drama transpiring in the dreamlike space of an open landscape (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), in the liturgical space of a Gothic church (Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), or in an ideal space enclosed by a high wall (Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts).

In the late Middle Ages, the thoughts of the faithful were absorbed increasingly by the humanity of Christ. The unbridled realism found in the figures of the thieves and the executioners generally stopped short of Christ on the cross. grÜnewald offers a remarkable exception. The emotions of the holy women, all interior in the Washington crucifixion (National Gallery; see grÜnewald, matthias), have overpowered them on the Isenheim altarpiece (c. 1515; Unterlinden Museum, Colmar); the body of Christ hanging above them is filled with the abysmal horrors of a violent death. Still, John the Baptist and the lamb whose blood flows into a chalice reveal in this unspeakable suffering the immeasurable redemptive love of Christ.

Renaissance to Modern. The paintings of the crucifixion in the Italian High Renaissance continued in the direction indicated by the early 15th century, presenting but few figures of a statuesque freedom in a wide landscape. The solemn stillness of Christ, whose body betrays no suffering, and of Mary and John, Jerome and Mary Magdalen meditating upon the mystery, is enhanced by the harmony of the landscape (1502 to 1503, Raphael; National Gallery, London). The symmetry of the Renaissance crucifixion was abandoned in Germany by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1503; Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Though the thieves' crosses had been represented diagonally since the early 15th century, Christ's cross appears here for the first time on the right, so that Christ is seen almost in profile and the two thieves face each other on the left. Thus a strong diagonal relationship is established between Christ and His Mother in the center of the scene. Through Tintoretto the diagonal or lateral position of Christ's cross becomes a frequent feature in baroque art (1508; S. Cassiano, Venice). Tintoretto also gives a new impetus to the historical crucifixion (c. 1565; Scuola di San Rocco, Venice). The dramatic agitation of the many groups under the dark, storm-swept sky enhances the isolation of Christ and the group of his friends at the foot of the cross. Rembrandt far surpasses the Venetian in his etching of 1660 (or 1661), where a cosmic struggle between light and darkness reflects the agony of Christ.

Baroque art, which was remarkably free in the choice of iconographic elements, represented both the dead Christ and the living Christ on the cross. In 17th-century Spain and France, Christ was more frequently shown alone, usually in front of a dark, storm-filled sky. Nothing was allowed to distract from the solitude of the victim on the cross. The stillness of the accomplished sacrifice speaks from Velázquez's famous crucifix (c. 1630; Prado, Madrid). The most striking type of baroque crucifixion, first found in a painting in Dresden formerly attributed to Dürer, became common after El greco. It shows the suffering Christ with His head cast back, His eyes turned upward to heaven, and His mouth open in agony (Cleveland Museum). This search for the most dramatic moment to represent the fullness of Christ's Passion is evident in Rubens's crucifixion (1612; Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp) depicting the piercing of Christ's side. It explains the importance assigned to the raising of the cross in both Rubens's and Rembrandt's work. A second crucifixion by Rubens (The Johnson Collection, Philadelphia) helped to establish the type of the living Christ with steeply raised arms, a type frequently found in ivory crucifixes.

The 18th century produced dramatic images of the crucifixion, but it did not add to the developed iconography. The 19th-century representations, when not drawing on the popular traditions of the 18th century, were rarely more than academic exercises in the effects of light and in the anatomy of the nude. Gaugin sought to translate the spiritual message of Golgotha in his "Yellow Crucifixion." In the prayerful night of his "Guerre et Miserere," Rouault has created the 20th century's profoundest image of Christ's great suffering and love. In Chagall's "White Crucifixion" (1938, The Art Institute of Chicago), man's, that is Jewry's, unending suffering becomes one with Christ's timeless Passion. Germaine Richier leaves the figurative behind in her crucifix in Assy to speak of the shapeless victim of the cross. Manessier, the spiritual heir of Rouault, lyrically expresses the mystery of Christ's death and Resurrection in abstract compositions.

See Also: jesus christ, iconography of

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[a. a. schacher]