The torments and death of Jesus Christ is described in all four canonic Gospels. “Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him…” (John, 19: 16-18).

According to written accounts, the depictions of the Crucifixion appeared in the Christian art not earlier than 5th century. In the first centuries of Christianity, the redemption of the Savior was represented through the Old Testament episodes. One such episode - Abraham sacrificing his son – was referred to by the Apostle Paul as the evidence of faith in the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 11: 7-19). Other written accounts symbolically depicted the Crucifixion as the Prophet Daniel in the Lion’s den with his hands spread apart in a cross-like gesture, Jonah prying with uplifted hands in the belly of the fish or Moses praying with hands outstretched and defeating the Amalekites. In the early Christian centuries the Crucifixion was represented as a cross.

The depictions of the Crucifixion vary in details reported by the Evangelists. The depictions of the cross itself also varied depending on a shape of the foot-rest and the crossbeam. They don’t represent the real crosses since the first depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ appeared after the abolition of execution by crucifixion. A plaque with the inscription above Jesus’ head is mentioned in the Gospels: “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.” (John 19:19-20). The foot-rest has been mentioned in written accounts since, at least, the 9th century.

There are two types of the Crucifixion, a strict one, representing the Holy Virgin with John the Baptist standing on either side of the cross, and an extended multi-figured version with two thieves crucified together with Jesus Christ, St. Longinus, a group of women, youths, the Roman soldiers sharing Christ’s clothes, etc.

The Holy Virgin and John the Baptist are shown as described in the Gospel of John: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son, and to the disciple, “Here is your mother’.” (John 19:25-17). The depictions may also show other women who were present during the crucifixion – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Jacob, Mary Salome etc. – since they are mentioned in the Gospels (Matthew 27: 54; Mark 15: 39; Luke 23: 47, John 19: 25-27). The depictions of the Crucifixion often showed St. Longinus who is mentioned unnamed in the Gospels (Matthew 27: 55-56; Mark 15: 40; Luke 23: 49). However, in the Gospel of Nicodemus he is called Longinus. According to legend, Longinus was a Roman soldier who was ordered to be present at the Crucifixion of Christ and guard His tomb; after having witnessed the Resurrection of Christ, he believed in Him, left the army, was persecuted and executed.

Byzantine and Russian crosses show angels hovering around Jesus’ head; sometimes they are hiding the faces, sometimes are flying away in fear. These depictions are in accord with the words of the Liturgy of St. Basil: “For the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords cometh to be slain, and to give Himself to be the food of the faithful. And before Him also come the archangelic choirs… covering their faces. Master of all, Lord of heaven and earth, and of all creation both visible and invisible.”

Golgotha, the place where Christ was crucified, is shown as a stylized rock with a cross thereupon. According to legend, Golgotha was believed to be the center of the Earth. Tertullian says that Golgotha was the center of the Earth and the sign of victory. In the depictions dating from the 9th century onward, Golgotha is represented with a scull inside, sometimes with two bones. These depictions are derived from a legend saying that Golgotha was the place were Adam had been buried. Christian writings draw many and diverse parallels between Adam and Christ “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15: 21-22). Apocryphal accounts of Golgotha as the place of Adam’s burial, while divided over how Adam’s head had found itself in this place, do agree on the point that it was washed with Christ’s blood. By doing so, Adam’s first sin was forgiven through the atonement of Christ.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


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