We have done exactly as I said we would – we have looked up, beyond the cross even, to the inscription attached to the top. If I think back over all of the years talking about art, the question I have been asked most often is, in all probability, ‘What does that say?’. Which surprises me. Well, it is the direct result of something mentioned in all four gospels, but which is described most thoroughly in John 19:19-22
And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was Jesus Of Nazareth The King Of The Jews. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.
So this is ‘a title’, or in Latin, titulus – which is the word for any label, caption, or inscription, especially those naming figures or subjects in art. To clarify, then, this is the titulus crucis. It tells you who is on the cross – Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews, or, in Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, abbreviated here to I.N.R.I. – the dashes above each letter tell you that they are abbreviations.
Now, John says that ‘it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin,’ although most artists only include the Latin abbreviation. However, there were some, with learned connections – i.e. their patrons were either scholars or priests, or had advisors who were – who included all three languages. However, relatively few artists would have had Latin, even, so they must have had the texts written out for them to be copied onto the paintings. One example is in Fra Angelico’s Descent from the Cross painted between 1432 and 1434 for the church of Santa Trinità in Florence. It was initially commissioned from Lorenzo Monaco – ‘Lawrence the Monk’ – who had completed the pinnacles before his death (c. 1425), and so it was fitting that Fra Angelico – ‘Brother Angelic’ – should take over. Both were Dominican friars, and so had access to some of the most learned scholars in Florence – i.e. their fellow Dominicans. The painting has made its way to the Museo di San Marco, effectively the Fra Angelico museum, housed in the monastery in which he and his workshop decorated all of the cells – including illustrations taken from De Modo Orandi which I mentioned yesterday. I’m afraid the detail isn’t clear, but it’s proved very hard to track it down!
The Jews objected to this wording because, for them, he wasn’t ‘King of the Jews’. They accused him of saying that he was, and this was his ‘crime’, according to them – even though Jesus didn’t claim the title for himself. In Mark 15:2,
Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto them, Thou sayest it.
It’s hardly an admission. When, in John 18:33, Pilate asks him the same question, his response, in verse 36, is ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ In a similar way in which Pilate washes his hands of the responsibility for Christ’s death, he ends up refusing to confront the possible implications of the choice of words, resorting to ‘I have written what I have written.’ Whatever the historical Pilate was like, the character of the biblical version is both rich and complex.
You may remember that it was/is believed that St Helena had brought the steps of the Praetorium (Pilate’s palace) back to Rome (Lent 16), and that they are now known as the Scala Santa. Well, another of the relics that came with them was the titulus crucis, which she gave to the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, founded by the Empress herself around 325 CE. Apparently, it’s still there! Although it went missing for a long, long time, its rediscovery in 1492, by a Spanish priest, on the very day that news arrived from Spain about its delivery from the Moor, was in itself seen as miraculous.
It has been analysed by any number of experts in palaeography (the study of writing systems) who have all dated it to some time in the 1st to 3rd or 4th Centuries, with most of them preferring the 1st Century. Although it’s very hard to read, the first line is mostly destroyed, and the Greek and Latin are written backwards (maybe the ‘scribe’ was Jewish and used to writing right to left – would a forger think of that?), many people are convinced it is the real thing. OK, so radio-carbon dating suggests it was made some time between 980 and 1146. As the Cardinal Bishop of the church between 1124 and 1144 had sealed it in a box – the one in which it was found in 1492 – then you could argue that he was responsible for its production. It could, of course, be a copy of the original… For now, I shall leave you to ponder on it, knowing, at least, that it is there.