The Cross and the Crucifix…
As we continue our discussion of crucufixes, we learn that there are many types and styles influenced by the art of the times as well as the prevailing theological discussions. Some of the principal varieties of crosses used in over the centuries in art and architecture are:
- The Latin cross, consisting of an upright post and a single crosspiece, sometimes with an INRI nameplate;
- The Greek cross, having the four limbs of equal length;
- The St. Andrew’s cross, in the form of the letter X, that St. Andrew is said to have been crucified on;
- The Maltese cross, having four equal limbs of spreading or triangular form;
- The Celtic cross, common in ancient Irish architecture, having the arms connected by a circle;
- The Tau cross, so called from the Greek name of the letter T, the symbol used by St. Francis of Assisi in his ministry;
- The Russian Orthodox crucifix (pictured above), which has an additional third crossbar, to which the feet are nailed, and which is angled upward toward the penitent thief Saint Dismas (to the viewer’s left) and downward toward the impenitent thief Gestas (to the viewer’s right).
During the fifth century the body of Christ was painted on the Latin cross, and
later became sculpture attached by four nails, one in each had and foot. Early depictions showed a living Christ, and tended to minimize the appearance of suffering, so as to draw attention to the positive message of resurrection and faith, rather than to the physical realities of execution.
In the Middle Ages, Jesus was more often seen as a human being, capable of suffering. The first depictions of crucifixion displaying suffering are believed to have arisen in Byzantine art, where the “S”-shaped slumped body type was developed. It’s in Italy that the emphasis was put on Jesus’ suffering and realistic details, during a process of general humanization of Christ favored by the Franciscan order.
During the fifteenth century, Renaissance painters and sculptors further refined the image of Christ on the cross, representing Jesus with his arms outstretched and his head bowed and eyes closed. Western crucifixes may show Christ dead or alive, the presence of the spear wound in his ribs traditionally indicating that he is dead. In either case his face very often shows his suffering.
The corpus of Eastern crucifixes is normally a two-dimensional or low relief icon that shows Jesus as already dead, his face peaceful and somber. Eastern crucifixes have Jesus’ two feet nailed side by side, rather than crossed one above the other, as Western crucifixes have showed them for many centuries.
The crown of thorns is also generally absent in Eastern crucifixes, since the emphasis is not on Christ’s suffering, but on his triumph over sin and death.
On some crucifixes a skull and crossbones are shown below the corpus, referring to Golgotha the site at which Jesus was crucified, which the Gospels say means in Hebrew “the place of the skull. Medieval tradition held that it was the burial-place of Adam and Eve, and that the cross of Christ was raised directly over Adam’s skull, so many crucifixes manufactured in Catholic countries still show the skull and crossbones below the corpus.