The cross on which Jesus is crucified in the painting is slightly more sophisticated than those of the Good and Bad Thieves. It is made out of planks of wood, which have been sawn into a rectangular cross-section, whereas those of the thieves are made from the unworked trunks of young trees. But none of them are ‘cross’ shaped. They form the letter ‘T’, the Greek letter Tau, and indeed they are known as the Tau cross. There is no description of the appearance of the cross in the bible, as far as I am aware, but this image is the result of the word used for ‘cross’ in early Greek versions of the testaments – σταυρός (stauros). And no, I don’t speak Greek. As Casca says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me’ (the ‘all’, with which we are all so familiar, crept in later…). Anyway, the literal translation of ‘stauros’ is ‘stake’, and implies that the instrument of torture and execution was stuck into the ground. An early Christian symbol, the staurogram, is a combination of the letters ‘tau’ and ‘rho’, an abbreviation of the word ‘stauros’, and was probably seen by the faithful as an abstracted image of Christ on the cross, with the ‘tau’ as the cross, and ‘rho’ as Christ – the loop effectively represents his head. As such, it is close to the chi rho, a far more familiar early Christian symbol, which is also formed from two letters, the first two of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos). Again, the visual reference to the crucifixion is apparent, even though neither actually shows the cross, that most humiliating form of execution. Here are two coins which use the symbols, from c. 570 and c. 350 respectively.
With the addition of the titulus crucis the cross looks a bit more like the Latin cross, the form which I would assume is the one most familiar to most people. As well as having a more sophisticated cross than the two thieves, Jesus is also crucified in a different way. We noted yesterday that the nails go through the palms of his hands, but there is also a single nail driven through both of his feet. The three nails would later receive their own form of reverence, as would the five wounds of Christ – the wounds in the hands, feet and chest.
If you look back to Lent 30 and Lent 31, you will see that both thieves are presented to us at a slight angle. The Bad Thief turns his back on us, and on Jesus, with his right hand slightly further away than his left – his cross appears to slope down to the right as a result. The same is true of the Good Thief’s cross, although because he looks forward, like Jesus, it is his left hand which is further away. Jesus is presented frontally – the top of the cross is horizontal, and the arms reach out symmetrically. This means that he seems to be slightly less a part of the world of the picture. The two thieves are angled into the space, and subject to the laws of perspective, but by depicting Jesus parallel to the picture plane, he is as much a part of our world as theirs, and as much a part of eternity as any one moment, timeless, and other-worldly. You could even imagine that he has been nailed to the panel on which the image is painted.
He is also granted more respect. Rather than the thieves’ skimpy thongs, he wears a more dignified – even if only slightly – loin cloth, a single piece of cloth wrapped once around and tied as a simple knot, the two ends blowing in the same breeze that lifts the Magdalene’s headdress. We know that the artist thought about Jesus’s appearance on the cross – he had to, in order to paint him – but theologians did too. The nature of his loin cloth is even discussed in popular devotional literature. One of the most important, and influential, of such texts were the Meditations on the Life of Christ, written, possibly, by John of Caulibus, a Franciscan Friar, for one of the Poor Clares – a Franciscan Nun – some time around the year 1300. In it, the reader is asked to imagine being present at any number of biblical events, and even to imagine their own participation, the aim being to evoke an emotional response, an instinctive understanding of the bible stories which could be far more profound than an intellectual appreciation. Here is a description of what happened at the crucifixion, concentrating on one aspect of the Virgin Mary’s feelings at seeing her son crucified:
She is saddened beyond measure, and embarrassed, because she sees him completely naked. They did not allow him even a loin cloth. She rushes up and gets close to him; she embraces him and covers him with her head covering. O in how great a bitterness is her soul now!
A manuscript in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, dated c. 1350, even has an anonymous illustration of this episode.
It was Roman practice, apparently, to crucify people naked – this was part of the humiliation – but out of consideration not only for the dignity of Jesus, but also for the viewer, he is almost always clad in some way. But not always: Michelangelo, for example, when he was only 17, left Jesus naked when he carved a crucifix for the Prior of Santo Spirito in Florence.
It is not clear why Jesus is naked. It may be because the young sculptor had, reportedly, been carrying out dissections on the human body while he was staying at the monastery. Or possibly, it was because he was already formulating his ideas about the relationship between nudity and being in a state of grace, which I believe would inform his later work, notably in the Sistine Chapel.
Talking of Michelangelo, thank you so much to all of you who were able to join me yesterday for the first in the series of Michelangelo Matters. There are two more to go, over the next two Mondays, looking first at the Sistine Chapel as a whole (and the ignudi, or ‘nudes’ as one part of the decoration), and then at some of the master’s most exquisite drawings. You can find details of these talks on the diary page. Because I was busy yesterday with the lectures, I didn’t have time to write today’s post in advance, as I sometimes do, and then this morning I had to have my eyes seen to (i.e. I had an appointment with the optician). And I’ve just had a lengthy meeting with Art History Abroad… so apologies for today’s delayed posting! Let’s see what happens tomorrow. After all, we’ve arrived at the Crucifixion, what else can there be?