The crucifixion of Jesus was a central event in the gospels. Some painters glossed over the horrifying details, presenting a glorified Christ; others showed the agony of crucifixion. They showed Jesus alone in his final moments or surrounded by anguished disciples.
33 And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.
34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
35 And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar,
37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
41 And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,
45 while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!”
48 And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.
49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.
Hidden meanings in paintings of the Crucifixion
In Roman times crucifixion was a widely used form of capital punishment, reserved for baser criminals and slaves. It was probably carried out differently from the way it is presented in art. At the site of the execution the upright post was already set into the ground; it could be used many times.
The condemned man was led to the place of execution carrying only the horizontal piece to which his hands were already tied to prevent resistance. On arrival his hands (or wrists) were nailed to the ends of the cross-bar which was then lifted on to the upright. It either rested across the top, to form a ‘T’ or was set somewhat lower down, forming the familiar crux immissa (intersecting). In either case the pieces were secured by some form of mortise and tenon. Finally the feet were nailed to the upright.
The early Church avoided images of the Crucifixion, because they showed that Jesus had died as a criminal.
At the time when Christianity was forbidden by the Romans, the crucifixion was represented symbolically by the lamb of Christ juxtaposed with a cross. Even after the age of Constantine the Great, when Christians were allowed to practise their religion without interference, the cross itself was still represented without the figure of Christ.
Later paintings show Jesus on the cross, but no-one else nearby; they were aids to devotion, a focus for prayer, not pictures of the scene.
Other paintings tell the story of the Crucifixion; they are crowded with people, as in the work of Italian Renaissance artists. There were figures from the gospels who became a permanent feature of the crucifixion: the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, the centurion and the sponge-bearer, the two thieves, the soldiers casting lots.
For many centuries Christ was shown alive and open-eyed, a triumphant Saviour wearing a royal crown. In the 11th century however there appeared a new type, the emaciated figure with its head fallen on one shoulder and wearing a crown of thorns.
In antiquity an inscription stating the nature of the condemned man’s offence was hung round his neck as he was led to execution, and was afterwards fixed to the head of the cross. John (19:19-20) tells how Pilate ‘wrote an inscription to be fastened to the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” . . . in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.’ In Renaissance art it is usually given in Latin only, ‘Iesus Nazarenes Rex Iudaeorum’, abbreviated to `INRI’.