Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Earliest Known Crucifixion Scenes in Christian Art

March 13th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously and Related

As we are in the holy season of Lent I thought maybe we could look at images of the cross, and scenes of the crucifixion, as shown by artists from different periods or working in a variety of styles.

Below are the earliest known representations of the crucifixion of Christ.  Note that it is not until the fifth century that scenes of the crucifixion began to appear in Christian art. The cross, itself, only began to be used as a symbol of Christianity about the same time. Prior to the fourth and fifth centuries the plain cross usually was disguised in some way or obliquely referenced.  I have written elsewhere of the possible reasons for the delayed use of the cross in Christian art.


This first image of the crucifixion of Christ appears on a single relief panel on the early 5th c. wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome. Santa Sabina is the church at which the pope celebrates Ash Wednesday each year. Construction commenced during the pontificate of Pope Celestine I (422-433) and was consecrated in 440. There are two fascinating aspects of this work. First, it is the only representation of the crucifixion taking this design. You will note that crosses are not clearly represented, only three pediment shapes, a horizontal beam, and two vertical posts in the background seemingly dividing the composition into sections. (A vertical post might be suggested just above the head of the left figure.) If the background represents tau crosses surmounted by pitched roof shapes for emphasis, it is puzzling that the crucified figures are not attached to the crosses. The arrangement may represent a building (note the window in the left ‘pediment.’) The carved figures stand (?) in the orans position of prayer although there are nails visible in the hands. Second, the crucifixion panel is at the very top of the left hand door, in the left corner –a rather ‘out-of-the-way’ location. Needless to say, much debate and conjecture surrounds this particular image.


This second image may have been made earlier than the Santa Sabina one (which makes the Sabina one even more puzzling if a ‘canon’ for representing the crucifixion had already been established). It was carved as a relief panel for a small ivory box, probably in Rome but perhaps in Gaul, around 420-30. It is 3 x 4 inches in size. This, of course, is a more traditional representation of the event. We can see that the suicide of Judas is depicted on the left. This carving has artistic and stylistic characteristics of much interest to art historians but I would like to point out a more theological aspect.

The erect posture of Christ on the cross and his alertness and robust body (unlike the limp body of Judas) might strike us, who are used to seeing the suffering Christ on the cross, as strange and unreal. In fact, this crucified and yet ‘live’ Christ appears indestructible and triumphant. This crucifixion scene may reflect the Christological debates that raged across Christianity from the 2nd through 6th centuries. The non-suffering Christ may be expressive of an aspect of one of the theories that influenced the doctrine adopted at the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Council declared that in Christ there are two natures, human and divine; each retaining its own properties, and together united in one subsistence and in one single person. The triumphant Christ is meant to remind people that the person Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human. This early representation of the non-suffering but crucified Christ is the first in the oldest and longest running tradition of representations of the crucified Christ. It is an especially strong tradition in the icons of ‘Eastern’ Christianity.

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