The Crucifixion

The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is told in all four of the Gospels.  It is at the center of the Christian faith and images of it appear on many of the Irish High Crosses.  This page offers The Text from the Gospel of Mark, numerous Images of the crucifixion found on the Irish High Crosses, An Interpretation of the meaning of the crucifixion (then and now) and some Comparisons with other crucifixion images of the time, both Irish and non-Irish.   

The Text:  Mark 15:22-32

Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

The Images

Peter Harbison divides the crucifixion scenes on the Irish High Crosses into two main groups:  earlier crucifixions and later crucifixtions.  The earlier crosses (dating mostly to the 8th and 9th centuries) he divides into three sub-groups.  (Harbison, 1992, 273)  As we'll see below, he divides the later crucifixions into two sub-groups.

The earlier crucifixions

Depictions of the crucifixion on the Irish High Crosses have several characteristics in common.  Jesus has no beard and Stephaton the sponge-bearer, and Longinus the lance-bearer are present, (Harbison, 1992, 273).  In addition, Jesus is alive:  his eyes are open, his head is up and he looks straight ahead.    

   Castledermot, North Cross, Co. Kildare, Ireland     Castledermot, South Cross, Co. Kildare, Ireland     Graiguenamanagh, North Cross, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland     Moone base, Co. Kildare, Ireland

South-eastern group, early crosses:  The crosses pictured above come from a grouping that Peter Harbison refers to as "The earlier Crucifixions:  South-eastern Group."  (Harbison 1992, 273)  They are (left to right) Castledermot, North Cross, East face, Head (County Kildare); Castledermot, South Cross, West face, Centre of head; Graiguenamanagh, North Cross, East face, Head (County Kilkenny) and Moone, West face, Base 2, (County Kildare).  

In the images above Jesus wears a long robe, similar in length to the colobium or long sleeveless tunic worn in Roman times.  In these cases, however, the robe seems to have arms.  In three of the four cases (Castledermot South being the exception) Jesus' body is short and wide.  In both examples from Castledermot, only Christ's forearms extend outward.  This gives the appearance of an orant or prayer posture.  In the other two examples, Jesus' arms are fully extended horizontally.  Where Stephaton and Longinus are present (see paragraph above photos) Stephaton appears on the right in the majority of cases.   Another typical feature that is present on all but the Graiguenamanagh cross above is the presence of angels above Jesus' arms.

Arboe cross, Co. Tyrone, Ireland

Kells, Unfinished Cross, Co. Meath, Ireland

The Northern Group early crosses:  The image to the left is the Arboe cross, west face, head (County Tyrone).  That to the right is the Unfinished cross at Kells, east face, centre of head. (County Meath).

As in the South-eastern group, Jesus wears a colobium, in this case, in contrast to the South-eastern group, the length comes to about the knees.  It is unclear in most cases in this group whether the robe has arms or not.  Jesus is depicted, especially in the two examples here, as tall and slender.  In virtually all the crosses of this group his arms are extended horizontally.  Where Stephaton and Longinus are present, Stephaton appears on the left on almost all the crosses of this group, except the Arboe cross to the left.  As in the South-eastern grouping, angels typically are found above Jesus' arms, facing his head.  (Harbison 1992, 274)

A distinguishing feature of most of the Northern grouping of crosses is the presence of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus.  They appear on the arms of the cross.  In the case of the Arboe cross, the three figures on each of the arms have been interpreted as the thieves in the middle on each side being held or beaten by soldiers.  (Harbison, 1992, 17)  The Unfinished cross at Kells is an exception to this rule.  On the north arm there are four figures that Harbison interprets as the angel (left) addressing the three women who came to the tomb on Sunday morning.  (Mark 16:1-8)  The south arm is unfinished.  (Harbison 1992, 112)

The Central Group, early crosses:  The images below are (left to right):  The Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois, west face, centre of head (County Offaly); Duleek north cross, west face, head (County Louth); Termonfeckin, east face, centre of head (County Louth); Patrick and Columba cross, Kells, west side 2 (County Meath) and Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice, west face, centre of head (County Louth).

Clonmacnois, Cross of the Scriptures, Co. Offaly, Ireland     Duleek, north cross, Co. Louth, Ireland     Termonfeckin cross, Co. Louth, Ireland      Kells, Patrick and Columba cross, Co. Meath, Ireland     Monasterboice, Muiredach's Cross, Co. Louth, Ireland

Most of the images of the crucifixion in the central grouping are in stark contrast to those of the other two groups in that Jesus is typically depicted wearing what appears to be a tight fitting garment.  His body tends to be narrower than the examples in the South-eastern group and a bit wider than those in the Northern group.  Jesus' arms are extended out but tend to slope downward from his shoulders rather than be perfectly horizontal. In many of the depictions in the Central group, his feet are tied.  Where Stephaton and Longinus are present, Stephaton is always, with only one exception, on the left-hand side.  While most crosses in the other two groupings tend to have angels above Jesus' arms, the crosses of the Central group vary widely.  Crosses like the Patrick and Columba cross at Kells and the Termonfeckin cross show a bird above his head.  On the Cross of the Scriptures above, there is an angel above Jesus' head.  On Muiredach's cross as shown above, there are angels above his arms and a bird beneath his feet.  (Harbison 1992, 275)  Other crosses of this group, like the Duleek north cross above have no birds or angels.

The North Cross at Duleek is one of the only Irish High Cross that shows Jesus with his head down toward his chest.  The meaning of this is unknown.  It is not likely that the intention was to present Christ as dead.

The Later Crucifixions:  This grouping of crosses is mainly 12th century.  Harbison divides them into two sub-groups.  In one sub-group Jesus wears a long robe.  In the other, he wears a loincloth.

Cashel high cross, Co. Tipperary, Ireland     Dysert O'Dea cross, Co. Clare, Ireland     Kilfenora, West Cross, Co. Clare, Ireland      

The examples above are (left to right) Cashel, west face, County Tipperary; Dysert O'Dea, east face, upper fragment, County Clare; and Kilfenora, west cross, east face, County Clare.  

Long Robe sub-group:  this group is represented by the three of the photos above.  Jesus' body tends to be long and of moderate width.  In each case above, the long robe comes well below the knees.  On the Dysert O'Dea cross above his garment clearly has sleeves.  On most other representations of this sub-group the presence or absence of sleeves is unclear.  Jesus' hands are stretched out horizontally.  Stephaton and Longinus are missing on most examples from the 12th century.  Above Jesus' head on the Kilfenora west cross is the figure of what appears to be a lion eating its tail.  (Harbison, 1992, 116)  A similar figure may be present above his head on the Dysert O'Dea cross.  Or it could be a crown.  (Harbison, 1992, 84)  

Glendalough, Market Cross, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

With Loin-cloth:  There are only a few examples of this sub-group.  The figures to the left and right are: (left) Glendalough, Market Cross, east face, head, County Wicklow and (right) Tuam Market Cross, south face, head, County Galway.  

The loin-cloth was known as the perizonium.  In the example from Glendalough Jesus' head is tilted to his right and he may wear a crown.  His arms are straight but his right arm seems to project out at a lower point from his body than his left.  "He wears a perizonium, and his legs change angles at the knees."  There is no detail of the loin-cloth remaining.  (Harbison, 1992, 285)  In the example from Tuam (photo from Harbison, 1992, volume 2, fig. 612)  Jesus also seems to wear a crown.  His arms are straight out.  "He is clothed in a perizonium with decoration in the form of a downward-pointing triangular pleating on the front."  (Harbison 1992, 176) 

An Interpretation

General background:  Images of the crucifixion were not part of the artistic expression of Christians for some centuries following the death and resurrection of Christ.  This may be explained in part by the nature of crucifixion as used by the Romans.  "Crucifixion was used against the underclasses and slaves and was regarded as so shameful that even victims' families would not speak of it.  It functioned to fragment communities, tearing the fabric of even the strongest bonds of connection and commitment."  (Brock and Parker, 50)  It can be described as imperial terrorism.  It was reserved for a special class of victims, those who subverted Roman law and order.  It was always as public as possible to serve as a public warning.  Beyond the suffering and humiliation of crucifixion was the likelihood that nothing would remain of the body for burial.  "…victims were often crucified low enough to the ground that not only carrion birds but scavenging dogs could reach them.  And they were often left on the cross after death until little was left of their bodies even for a possible burial."  (Borg and Crossan, 146)  

In the four Gospels, however, this silence is broken.  Each of the Gospels describes the crucifixion, though none in great detail.  The writers used images from the Psalms and prophets to describe Jesus' suffering.  For example, in Matthew 27:46 we read, "And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'"  This is a quote from Psalm 22:1.  Breaking the silence indicated a victory over the forces of Rome that sought to erase Jesus from memory.  This effort extended beyond the words from the cross.  "In their descriptions of Jesus's corpse, they said he had no broken bones, was removed intact, and was properly buried by members of his community."  (Brock and Parker, 51)

In early Christian art the crucifixion was a theme.  However, artists used images other than Jesus on the cross to carry the meaning.  .  One of these was the crux invicta or unvanquished cross as illustrated below.  This is described as follows:  "Stone relief, second half of the fourth century.  Gallo-Roman.  Star and wreath sarcophagus.  Sarcophagus of Archbishop Pietro Tagliavia.  Crypt, Palermo, Cathedral."  (Shiller, 231 and fig. 9)  In this image a cross with a victory wreath on the top represents both Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.   

Another image used was the Christus victor or victorious Christ.  The example below is described as follows:  "Stone relief, c.400.  Theodosian.  Column sarcophagus of five niches, fragment, Italian marble, 66 cm. x 145 cm. Rome, formerly Musco Lateranense, No. 106.  An apostle is led away, Christ on the Mountain of Paradise with Cross of Victory, Seizure of Christ."  (Schiller 231 and fig. 5)  In this type of image the Risen Christ is depicted holding the cross as a symbol of his victory.

A third image is the nova legis or traditio legis, an image of Christ giving the Gospel as the New Law to the Apostle Paul, and typically, as to the left, giving the keys of the kingdom to the Apostle Peter.  (Source of photo below.)  This is the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, completed in 395 CE.  "The center scenes are of Christ in triumph… The image of Christ enthroned between Peter and Paul is a common image…One should note that Jesus is enthroned with a man beneath him. The man under the arch is a personification of Coelus.  (Shiller, 4)

During the years Theodosius was Roman emperor ( 379-395) images from the Passion story reflected Jesus' death and resurrection.  These included Christ's agony in the Garden, Christ before Pilate and the Death of Judas."  (Schiller, 6)

Photo above:  http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/post_constant_conc_christ.html  July, 2012

"During the centuries of the christological controversies (the late 4th through the mid 6th centuries) it was important to stress the divinity of the Son of God, so that Christ is portrayed not as a suffering man but as the vanquisher of death."  (Schiller, 6)  This helps to explain the absence of crucifixion scenes for so long in the history of the church.  It also offers an explanation of the style of crucifixion scenes once they were introduced.  As we shall see, early crucifixion scenes depicted Jesus alive on the cross, alert, strong, victorious.

The Irish Crosses and the Crucifixion:  As stated above, depictions of the crucifixion on the Irish High Crosses have several characteristics in common.  A little background on these.  

1)  Jesus' Appearance:  Jesus has no beard.  In our time, it would be unusual to picture Jesus without a beard.  Indeed in the Eastern church a beard was quite typical by the 6th century.  In the west there was variety in the depiction of Jesus, but, as on the Irish High Crosses, he was often depicted as clean shaven.  The two photos above clearly show this characteristic of Western depiction.  

Clonmacnois, Cross of the Scriptures, Co. Offaly, IrelandJesus' eyes are open, his head is up and he looks straight ahead.  This posture reflects a theological emphasis on Christ's victory over death that was part of the focus of the early church related to the crucifixion.  The image to the left on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois illustrates this quite well.

Christ wears either a robe, often referred to as a colobium; or a close fitting garment.  While the doctors of the church believed that Christ was crucified naked, such a depiction was not generally acceptable in the West.  As we've noted above by the 12th century a few images on the high crosses showed Jesus in a loin cloth but the typical depiction on the high crosses shows Christ appropriately clothed in some way.  (Shiller, 91)


2)  Stephaton and Longinus:  Stephaton the sponge-bearer, and Longinus the lance-bearer are frequently present, (Harbison, 1992, 273).  The image above on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois offers one example.  Theologically the presence of Stephaton emphasizes the human nature of Christ as Stephaton offers to assuage Jesus' thirst.  Longinus, on the other hand, emphasizes the divine nature of Christ.  "The lance thrust is a reference to the Messiah, according to Zechariah 12:10 and a symbol of the future exalted Christ, according to Revelation 1:7.  The wound in Jesus' side, from which, John 19:34 says, 'came there out blood and water' was seen as a source of the divine power of life, in which the baptized shared."  (Schiller, 95)  Following this line of thought, the blood became a symbol for eucharist and the water for baptism.  Through these sacraments the believer could share in Christs death and resurrection.

This is a fine place to note that images that contain more than the presence of Christ on the cross are presenting a composite picture of the event across time.  For example, while Stephaton and Longinus appear together, their roles in the crucifixion did not take place at the same time.  Stephaton offers wine and myrrh while Jesus is still alive.  Longinus pierces his side after his death, instead of breaking his legs as is done to the two thieves.    

Kells, Patrick and Columba cross, Co. Meath, Ireland

3)  Angels:  As mentioned above, angels are frequently part of the crucifixion scenes on Irish High Crosses.  In most cases they appear above Jesus' arms, facing his head.  Angels are of course messengers from God.  Their presence in the scenes of the crucifixion suggest God's presence with Jesus, even as he is feeling abandoned and is dying as a human being.  It is possible that where birds are present as on the Patrick and Columba cross at Kells (right) they may also represent angels.  Alternately, they may represent the Holy Spirit. 




4)  Thieves:Arboe high cross, Co. Tyrone, Ireland  On a few of the High Crosses the two thieves crucified with Jesus appear.  The Arboe cross to the left has the thieves on the arms.  Each is between two guards.  Where they appear, their inclusion seems to indicate an attempt on the part of the artist to illustrate those parts of the Gospel texts that describe both the presence and role of the two thieves.  The Gospel of Mark does not mention the thieves.  The Gospel of Matthew tells us that both taunted Jesus.  (Mt. 27:44)  The Gospel of Luke has one bandit taunting Jesus and the other asking to be remembered by Jesus "when you come into your kingdom."  (Luke 23:39-42)  The Gospel of John acknowledges the presence of the two thieves but they play no further role.  (John 19:18)  Their minor role and the inconsistency of the Gospels in their treatment of the thieves may help explain the infrequency of their appearance. 


Comparisons

There were, of course, many images of the crucifixion in the fifth century and following.  Below we take a quick look, for purposes of comparison, at some other early Christian images of the Crucifixion, both Irish and non-Irish.  We'll look at several non-Irish examples first.  Below is an Ivory relief, c. 420-30 from North Italy.  It is a side panel of a casket and shows both the crucifixion of Christ and the death of Judas.  (Schiller p.248, fig. 323)  The figures to the left of the cross represent John and Mary (Jesus' mother) as described in John 19:25-27.  Christ's eyes are open and his head is up.  His arms are stretched horizontally and he wears a loin-cloth. This image speaks clearly of Christ's victory over death.

The second example is from the 6th century.  It is a manuscript illumination from the Rabula Gospels dated to 586.  (Schiller p. 248, fig. 327)  The upper portion illustrates Jesus crucified between the two thieves.  John and Mary (Jesus' mother) are on the left with the other three women of the Gospel of John on the right (John 19:25).  Stephaton and Longinus are present and at the foot of the cross are solders who are casting lots for Jesus' clothing.  He wears a long colobium and has a halo around his head as does his mother Mary.  In this depiction the two circles at the top of the scene and above Jesus' hands represent the Sun and Moon.  (Sun and Moon, along with Earth and Ocean may be seen as "figural cosmic symbols representing creation, and subject to the Lord of the cosmos, who will usher in a new, redeemed world." Harbison 1992, 280)  In the lower section of this page we see the tomb, the guards, the angel announcing Christ's resurrection and the Risen Christ speaking to the two women.

A third non-Irish example is described as "Chased metal, seventh century.  Perhaps early Teutonic.  Pectoral cross.  7.1 cm. X 5.3 cm.  Augsburg, Stidtische Kunstsammlagen, Christ on the Cross."  (Schiller p. 248 and fig. 334)

We turn now to a couple of examples of the crucifixion from the Irish tradition.  The image on the left is described as "St. Gall Gospel Book:  Crucifixtion."  It dates to about 750 and is located in the Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The source for the photo and description is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Crucifixion_Sankt_Gallen_gospelbook.jpg.  (July 2012)  The image shows Jesus in a very stylistic fashion with a garment made of interlace.  His legs emerge at the bottom in a very unnatural way.  Stephaton and Longinus are present below his arms and an angel is present above each arm.  

The image to the right below is an 8th century copper-alloy plaque.  It is housed in the National Museum in Dublin and is described as "Crucifixion Plaque, St. John's, Rinnagan, Co. Roscommon."  (Wallace and O'Floinn, p. 187, fig. 5:33)  Here also we have Christ in the center with Stephaton and Longinus below and angels above.  In this image Christ wears a breastplate decorated with interlocking scrolls and spirals typical of Irish art of this period. 

                   

The images above suggest that the depiction of the crucifixion on the Irish High Crosses is very consistent with other expressions of Irish art of the period and with continental images as well.  All demonstrate Christ victorious over death.  All capture together a relatively uniform grouping of moments in the story of the crucifixion as told in the Gospels.  Yet there are a variety of artistic styles represented, even within the Irish tradition. 

References cited:

Borg, Marcus J. and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, Harper San Francisco, 2006.

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Parker, Rebecca Ann, Saving Paradise:  How Christianityh Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire, Beacon Press, Boston, 2008.

Harbison, Peter, The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH, Bonn, 1992.  Volumn 1:  Text, Volume 2:  Photographic Survey; Volume 3:  Illustrations of Comparative Iconography.

Sapikowski, Lauren J., The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, Abstract, Department of Art, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, 2008.  Located in 2008 @  http://juro.uga.edu/2006/sapikowski.pdf 

Schiller, Gertrud translated by Seligman, Janet, Iconography of Christian Art, Volume 2, The Passion of Jesus Christ, New York Graphic Societyu LTD, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1972.

Wallace, Patrick F. and O'Floinn, Raghnall, editors, Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland:  Irish Antiquities, Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, 2002.

Photo and Description of Christ Crucified from Saint Gall Gospels, found July 2012 @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Crucifixion_Sankt_Gallen_gospelbook.jpg.


 Barney McLaughlin 2012