The Knowledge Deficit of the Crucifixion impacts on artists just as it does the rest of us

Artistic portrayals of the Crucifixion have varied considerably down the ages. Some works have been stylised depictions, whilst others have attempted to be realistic with varying degrees of success. It is not uncommon to see artists of the Italian Renaissance painting the city walls and skyline of Jerusalem as if were Florence, Verona, or Mantua with First Century Roman soldiers in Judaea in Milanese armour of the Sixteenth century. In almost every aspect of the Crucifixion narrative there is scope for interpretation, innovation, and indeed poetic licence, take the way in which Pontius Pilate has been depicted, in some works of art he resembles an oriental potentate, in others a Sultan or Grand Vizier, or a Doge-like figure filled with lofty disdain, malevolence, and utterly devoid of pity. The supposed bad guys in the Crucifixion narrative often happen to mirror those of the place and time in which artwork were created, thus it should not surprise us that Greek ikons written during the period when Greece was seeking to liberate itself from the clutches of the Ottoman Empire would feature Jesus’s enemies whether these be Roman soldiers or the Jewish high priests in Turkish garb. Hence it pays to be alive to the potential that things might not be quite as they would have been.

When it comes to the Crucifixion itself, many of the greatest artists had precious little knowledge of what such a form of execution would have involved, in addition there was the complication of the need to conform with expectations or cultural norms. One aspect that warrants attention is the degree to which the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals show evidence of having been scourged prior to crucifixion, as well as the way in which they are fixed to the cross. We would do well to reflect upon the events leading up to such a form of execution. We know from the New Testament that Jesus would have gone without sleep for a considerable amount of time before his execution, having had the Last Supper and then gone to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, then been arrested and taken away to be interrogated several times prior to being brought before the Roman Governor. We can surmise that those known as the two thieves, Dismas (the Good Thief) and Gestas (the Bad Thief) must have been incarcerated in a prison or dungeon, we have no knowledge of their crime, some have speculated that they were highwaymen, or possibly Zealots, hence the gravity of their sentence. There is every likelihood that Jesus and the two thieves were suffering from sleep deprivation. It was customary that those condemned to death were publicly scourged; a brutal torture, that involved the condemned being stripped naked and tied to a scourging post, where they were whipped alternatively by two Roman Legionaries, one on the right, one on the left. Thirty-nine lashes with given with a whip made up of a series of leather straps at the end of which was lead shot containing pieces of animal bone. The skin and muscle were lacerated and torn to sheds.  How curious it is then that so many works of art portray to be put to death without a visible mark on their bodies. Cultural and religious sensitivities around the subject of nudity has ensured that most artistic creations opt to depict Jesus and the two thieves partially clothed.

Carrying of the Cross. Wood Engraving (1926) by Eric Gill (1882-1940) – Christchurch Gallery, New Zealand

Next those to be put to death were forced to carry their rough-hewn cross to the place of execution. Like the public scourging, this was designed to further humiliate and degrade the victim. The Canonical Gospels tell us that Jesus collapsed under the weight of the cross, and that a passer by, Simon of Cyrene, was ordered by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross. In Roman times it was typical that a city has a place of execution a short distance beyond the city walls, and this was indeed the case with Jerusalem, with Golgotha (a word derived from the Aramaic for ‘skull’, hence the place of the skull) being the local name for this dreadful place. The condemned were thrown to the ground and then lifted roughly onto their individual cross and nails driven through each wrist and their feet nailed separately. The Romans knew precisely where to nail each victim to cause the maximum amount of pain and the minimum amount of loss of blood. Then the cross was hoisted up to an upright position causing the body to sag and breathing to be difficult. Whilst all this was going on, we would do well to remember that this was intended to be a gruesome spectacle, with many of those present taking great delight in denigrating those on the cross. The cross itself often varied in design, one of the most common constructions was a T-shaped cross, often known as a Tau Cross, so called because it is shaped liked the Greek letter tau when in its upper case. In artistic portrayals of the Crucifixion the two criminals are invariably shown tied to a T-shaped cross, whilst Jesus is nailed to a crux immissa or crux capitata, later known as the Latin Cross. Tradition has it that Jesus was on the central cross and had had a Crown of Thorns forced onto his head, this possibly made from a woody shrub called Euphorbia milii. For those being executed the pain was excruciating, with breathing difficult and dehydration commonplace. Should those on the cross wish to speak they would need to pull up with their arms and push up with their legs, thus enduring further agony. This fact is often overlooked when biblical scholars and others reflect on what was said on the Cross, whether this be by Jesus, or by either of the two thieves.

Death could be in a matter of hours or take several days. Sometimes soldiers were ordered to finish off the victims by carrying out crurifragium (the breaking of legs), sometimes known as crurifracture. Crurifragium involved soldiers endeavouring to break the tibula, fibula and possibly the shin bones as then the person on the cross could no longer push up to breathe and would die of asphyxia within a matter of minutes. We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus died within a matter of hours, whilst the two malefactors eitherside of him had their legs broken. Works of art frequently depict a soldier piercing Jesus’s right side with a lance/spear as a way of checking that he was dead.

Aesthetics and personal preferences are just two of the reasons why art often deviates from the reality. In art it is rarely a case of right and wrong, more a case of that deemed acceptable to patrons, the public and society at large.  Then there are those who are determined to defy conventions. When it comes to depicting the events of the Passion many artists have scant knowledge of the actual details and prefer instead to draw upon an extensive and diverse body of work, some of which has accepted elements that make up the iconography of the Crucifixion. That said, some curiosity and research on our own part soon reveals inconsistencies and inaccuracies that can easily be addressed. Art and its appreciation are invariably a matter of interpretation and subjectivity, but when we endeavour to avail ourselves of the facts, such as they are, around a momentous event like the Crucifixion we find ourselves desirous of learning something of the truth of a series of events that have profoundly impacted upon the history of mankind.  

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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