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
(intersecting). In either case the pieces were secured by some form of mortise and tenon. Finally the feet were nailed to the upright.
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.
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.
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 art up to the 13th century the usual number of nails was four (including one for each foot),
but after this it was usually three, (one foot nailed over the other).
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
The medieval Church debated whether Christ
was naked on the cross; in ancient Rome this was standard
practice. Usually he is shown with a thin band of cloth extending round the waist and under the
crotch. The loincloth was an invention of artists in the early Middle Ages.
thieves were crucified with Christ, one on each side. Luke adds that one rebuked the other saying that their punishment was deserved whereas Christ was innocent, and was told by the Saviour, 'Today you shall be with me in Paradise.'
Art distinguished between the penitent and impenitent thief. The good is on Christ's right (the 'good' side); his expression is peaceful where the other's is anguished. The names by which they are
generally known, Dismas and Gestas (good and bad), are taken from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.
who crucified Christ divided his clothes into four parts, one for each soldier. Of the seamless tunic, woven in one piece, they said, 'We must not tear this; let us toss for it.' They are either at the foot of the cross or in a corner of the picture. One is in the act of throwing dice while the others look on.
The Virgin and St John
stand by the cross. This scene was originally intended to express
the scene from John's gospel (19:26-27) in which Christ, while he still lived, entrusted the Virgin to the care of the apostle
John. The Virgin stands on the right of Christ, St John on the left. Their heads are inclined. She may have raised her left hand to her cheek, supporting the elbow with the other hand, a traditional gesture of sorrow
dating back to Hellenistic times.
The Virgin swoons into the arms of the holy women. There is no
mention of this in the gospels - it is a creation of later medieval
preachers and writers. They assumed that she was overcome with anguish,
and suggested she swooned three times: on the Road to Calvary, at the crucifixion and after the descent from the cross.
paintings Mary Magdalene wears a red cloak. Later she
appears richly attired and with her usual copious hair, kneeling at the foot of the cross or embracing it in passionate grief. She may kiss the bleeding feet or wipe them with her
Bible text - the
death of Jesus
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of
they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted
it, he would not drink it.
35 And when
they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting
36 then they sat down and kept watch
over him there.
37 And over his head they
put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus the King of
38 Then two robbers were
crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.
And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads
and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three
days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the
41 So also the chief priests,
with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying,
"He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel;
let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.
He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he
said, 'I am the Son of God.'"
the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same
45 Now from the sixth hour there was
darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli,
la'ma sabach-tha'ni?" that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou
47 And some of the
bystanders hearing it said, "This man is calling Elijah."
And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar,
and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink.
But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to
50 And Jesus cried again
with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to
bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split;
the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen
asleep were raised,
53 and coming out of
the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and
appeared to many.
54 When the centurion
and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the
earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said,
"Truly this was the Son of God!"
There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed
Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him;
among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and
Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means the
place of a skull).
23 And they offered him wine mingled with myrrh; but he did not
And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting
lots for them, to decide what each should take.
And it was the third hour, when they crucified him.
And the inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of
27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and
one on his left.
28 * [No text]
29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads, and
saying, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in
save yourself, and come down from the cross!"
31 So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the
scribes, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself.
32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the
cross, that we may see and believe." Those who were crucified with
him also reviled him.
33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the
whole land until the ninth hour.
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "E'lo-i,
E'lo-i, la'ma sabach-tha'ni?" which means, "My God, my God,
why hast thou forsaken me?"
And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "Behold, he is calling
36 And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a
reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether
Eli'jah will come to take him down."
37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last.
38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to
39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus
breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was the Son of
40 There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were
Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses,
41 who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to
him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.
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
34 And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not
what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments.
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!"
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar,
37 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save
There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the
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."
And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your
And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me
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.
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands
I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his
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
And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from
Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place
called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol'gotha.
18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on
either side, and Jesus between them.
19 Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read,
"Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."
20 Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus
was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin,
and in Greek.
21 The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, "Do
not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the
22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments
and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic
was without seam, woven from top to bottom;
24 so they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but
cast lots for it to see whose it shall be." This was to fulfil the
scripture, "They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing
they cast lots."
25 So the soldiers did this. But standing by the cross of Jesus
were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and
26 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved
standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your
27 Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!"
And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
28 After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to
fulfil the scripture), "I thirst."
29 A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full
of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth.
30 When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, "It is
finished"; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the
bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was
a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and
that they might be taken away.
32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of
the other who had been crucified with him;
33 but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead,
they did not break his legs.
34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at
once there came out blood and water.
He who saw it has borne witness--his testimony is true, and he knows
that he tells the truth--that you also may believe.
36 For these things took place that the scripture might be
fulfilled, "Not a bone of him shall be broken."
37 And again another scripture says, "They shall look on him
whom they have pierced."