Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 3)

January 23rd, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously: Part 1, Part 2

The Undisguised, Unambiguous or Plain Cross

Two events that took place toward the middle of the 4th century may have created an atmosphere in which the unambiguous cross and even the crucifixion could become the preeminent symbol(s) of Christianity. The first event was the discovery, in Jerusalem, of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified and, second, the banning of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and location of Golgotha.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and location of Golgotha).

In 326 the bishop of Jerusalem had the site of Calvary (Golgotha) excavated in preparation for the construction of a large church over the place of Christ’s crucifixion. Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem in 327 and devoted her efforts and prayers to finding –at the excavation site– the actual cross of Christ’s sacrifice. The sign that Pilate had placed on the cross “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was found but unattached to any post or beam. How the rest of the cross came to be identified is the subject of speculation. At any rate, the “true” cross had been found. Soon that cross became the foremost object of veneration in Jerusalem. Small fragments (relics) of the cross spread across the Christian world.

Some scholars are of the opinion that by the 4th century execution by crucifixion was already falling out of favor across the known world.  Some argue that Constantine banned crucifixion –he probably did– out of respect for the way Christ died. Others claim that crucifixion was eventually banned as a simple trend towards more humane behavior and that piety had nothing to do with it. Whatever the cause, crucifixion gradually fell from public consciousness after a generation or so.

The eclipse of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment and the development of Golgotha as a site of pilgrimage –as well as the subsequent dispersal of fragments of the true cross across the Christian world– led to a change of attitude regarding the avoidance of the image of the plain cross in Christian art.

Apse Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, ca. 400

Apse Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, ca. 400

In 420 a large gold, gem encrusted cross (crux gemmata) was erected on the rock of Golgotha. That cross may have been one of the very first appearances of the unambiguous Christian cross. The Golgotha cross no longer exits but an image of it appears in the apse mosaic at the church of Santa Pudenziana, in Rome. In the mosaic, the rock of Golgotha has steps cut into it and the cross is depicted as made of gold and precious gemstones, an image that corresponds to the written accounts of early Christian pilgrims who visited the site.


Bobbio flask (ampullae) 6th c. By an unknown handicraft worker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Picture Source.

Solidus (Coin) of Tiberius II, A.D. 57882. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold; 4.44 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.15.

Solidus (Coin) of Tiberius II, A.D. 572-582. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.15. Picture Source.

Many of the earliest depictions of the cross are on small flasks (ampullae) for holy oil that were pilgrim’s souvenirs from the Holy Land. These ampullae crosses may be depictions of the gem cross.

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Apse Mosaic. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Ravenna (Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region) ITALY. Picture Source.



Enthroned Gem Cross.


Santi Cosma e Damiano chancel mosaic, 6th c. Picture Source.

Depictions in the art of the period sometimes indicate the use of the cross as a stand-in for Christ himself. This can best be seen in the 6th century apse mosaic in the church of Sant’ Appollinare of Classe, Italy. The mosaic depicts the transfiguration of the Jesus: Moses and Elijah flank a disk containing an image of a gold, jeweled cross with a small medallion of the bust of Christ at the crossing. It’s the same type of cross as the one shown in the Santa Pudenziana mosaic. A star-filled sky surrounds the cross. Peter, James and John are represented by lambs in a paradise-like garden. Finally, the Hand of God hovers over the scene. The cross in this program represents Jesus and not the crucifixion. The cross in the Santa Pudenziana, however, is meant to identify the cityscape as that of Jerusalem and so it represents the site of the crucifixion.

The Crucifix or Crucifixion Crosses
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Drawing of an intaglio in the British Museum. Picture Source .

A very small intaglio found in Romania may be one of the earliest representations of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is dated to the 3rd or 4th century. If it is from the 200s then we really have a very early representation of not just the cross but of a crucifix (or a possible narrative of the crucifixion). However, the inscription is J(esus) Ch(rist)] S(on) [of G(od)] S(aviour) and the 12 apostles are shown, 6 to each side of the cross. Saint John was the only apostle at the crucifixion; the others had fled in fear just after Jesus was taken prisoner. They were not standing at the foot of the cross. The presence of all the apostles suggest that perhaps the image has a dogmatic or symbolic meaning that is in addition to the Gospel narrative. In addition Christ’s body is not actually attached to the wooden cross and his arms are posed in the orans position of prayer.

RomStaSabinaDoorCrucifix 222_edited-1

Crucifixion Panel from the wooden doors of Santa Sabina church in Rome. Picture Source.

Another one of the early appearances of the crucifixion in Christian art is from a set of wooden church doors from the early 5th century (422-433). The doors consist of panels showing scenes from both Testaments. The panel thought to represent the crucifixion occupies the very upper left corner of the left door. The scene is somewhat ambiguous. Three standing nude male figures in loin cloths are arranged next to each other horizontally, as we imagine the crucifixion might have looked like. The center figure is larger suggesting the figure of Jesus. The other two are thought to be the “good” and “bad” thieves. But, all three figures are in the orans position of prayer. They do not seem to be suffering crucifixion –the arms are not pulled straight from the tug of body weight as they would be from crucifixion. Adding to the ambiguity is the absence of any vertical posts or horizontal beams that would form crosses. Rather, three pitched roofs or pediments are supported by vertical posts, located between the figures, suggesting architecture. A window can be seen in the left pediment. If we compare this image with the much smaller intaglio we just looked at we can see that the figures are in the same orans pose but the intaglio is much more descriptive; we can see the cross. Why did the door carver leave out the crosses? On the other hand, why did the intaglio artist include the 12 apostles? It would seem that these first appearances of the crucifix or crucifixion scenes suggest a period of searching for the proper reason for depicting the crucifixion. Should it be depicted in order to identify/symbolize Jesus or to relate the Gospel narrative.

passion scenes 222 B

Carved Ivory Casket (box). ca. 420-30

A carving on an ivory casket (small box) may be even earlier (420-430). This is obviously a narrative crucifixion and not just a more descriptive symbol. True to the Gospel narrative Mary and Saint John as well as Longinus, the Roman soldier, are included in the scene. Adjacent to the scene on the left is a depiction of Judas hanging himself. Other scenes from the passion occupy other sides of the casket. This casket obviously narrates a story.

What is interesting in the casket carving, however, is something that can be seen in many of the early depictions of the crucifixion; Jesus does not appear to be dead or even suffering. The common explanation is that the savior’s divinity was being suggested by a figure that does not appear to be suffering. It’s a difficult problem for an artist to show: humanity and divinity united –but still separate– in one person. Artists solved the problem by depicting a crucified human figure with an emotion suggestive of divine peace.

The crucified Christ with the presence of Mary, John, and Longinus became the basic icon of narrative crucifixion scenes.

We have gone a bit beyond the evolution of the cross as the symbol of Christianity; we have gone from the Gospel narrative to a visual symbol (the plain cross) and then to pictorial narrative (crucifix/crucifixion scene).

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