Richard Harries

Victory over death

Richard Harries reflects on how Christ’s crucifixion has been depicted over the ages

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Richard Harries reflects on how Christ’s crucifixion has been depicted over the ages

The first depiction of Jesus on the cross, on a small ivory panel in the British Museum dating from 420, shows him upright, arms outstretched, eyes open and very much alive. This is Jesus victorious on the cross. The Western Church never entirely lost sight of this theme. There are a good number of small metal crucifixes which survive from the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly from Scandinavia and Britain, which show Christ hanging, half-naked, his body sagging forward and his head on one side; but this battered figure has a crown on his head. From 1930 to the 1950s, somewhat against the odds, Jesus was once again sometimes depicted as Christus Victor, reigning from the tree.

In the early centuries of the Church’s history, artists were reluctant to depict Jesus dead on the cross, no doubt because they found it difficult to do this while at the same time doing justice to his divinity. However, by about the 8th century the theological controversies connected with this had been resolved, and Jesus began to be depicted dead on the cross, blood coming from his side and also from his feet, dripping down on to the skull of Adam, which legend said was buried in the hill where Jesus was crucified. The portrayal of Jesus dead on the cross emerged about this time in both the East and in Germany. There is a particularly moving Ottonian crucifix from the 10th century in Cologne Cathedral.

Strangely, this did not stop Cardinal Humbert being shocked by this scene when he visited Constantinople. In 1054 his anathema of the Eastern Church stated among other charges the question: ‘How do you come to fasten to Christ’s cross the picture of a dying man?’ Despite this, it was in the West that the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross intensified. The canonical icons of the Orthodox Church of this scene are restrained in their emphasis. In the West, on the contrary, there was, during the mediaeval period, an ever more pronounced emphasis on the agony, physical and mental, of Jesus. This was significantly due to the influence of the religious orders, particularly the Franciscans, who encouraged devotees to imagine themselves before the cross, with all its horror, and to realise that this agony had been undergone for them.

One of the most powerful images of this period was Christ as the man of sorrows. Originally a Byzantine image, it came to the West and was much publicised by the Carthusians in Rome. The advent of print-making resulted in religious art ceasing to be a purely public matter. Images were present in people’s homes and went with them on their travels, especially through the print by Israhel van Meckenem of about 1490, which shows Jesus from the waist up, hands crossed over one another, with the wounds prominent and his head on one side experiencing great sorrow. This type of devotional image has been described as the most precise visual expression of late mediaeval piety, bringing together image and viewer with a religious intensity which has rarely been surpassed. A prayer in the Franciscan prayer book to be said before this image goes:

Oh how intensely thou embraced me, good Jesu, when the blood went forth from thy heart, the water from thy side, the soul from thy body. Most sweet youth what hast though done that thou shouldest suffer so? Surely, I, too, am the cause of thy sorrow.

The most famous image of Christ in agony, however, is the one painted for the altar at Isenheim by Gr