The Crucifixion of Jesus in Medieval Art

The central part of the Easter story is the crucifixion of Christ.  How he has been depicted has changed as Christianity became established and church doctrine was formalized, along with regional variations. Take a look at these fifteen examples of how the Crucifixion of Jesus was depicted by medieval artists between the 3rd and 15th centuries.

Alexamenos graffito, circa 3rd century

The earliest probably depiction of Jesus on the Cross is the Alexamenos graffito, which was discovered on Rome’s Palatine Hill in 1857. It is believed that this inscription, which was carved into a wall, was meant to mock Christians, as the head of the person on the cross has been replaced by a donkey’s. The person added the words, Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον, which roughly means in Greek “Alexamenos worshipping God”.

Ivory Casket Crucifixion of Christ (420-430)

This late Roman ivory panel, which can be seen in the British Museum, is the earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion. It is combined with another scene of death, the hanging of Judas. The stiff, clothed body of Judas pulls down the branch of a tree and a spilled sack of coins lies at his feet. In contrast the exposed limbs of Christ appear still vigorous, and He gazes at the viewer, triumphant in death. A plaque over Christ’s head is inscribed REX IUD[AEORUM] (‘King of the Jews’). Mary, John and Longinus are in the scene as well, as is a bird feeding her chicks in the branches above.

Doors of Santa Sabina in Rome (422-433)

During the early centuries of Christianity, the depiction of Jesus on the cross was rarely done – the idea of showing someone being crucified was disliked by Christians, and they preferred to show him as having ‘risen’. With the purported discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, Helena, and the growing interest in the cross as a relic, the depiction of the crucifixion became more common.

Syriac Rabbula Gospels (586)

The earliest crucifixion in an illuminated manuscript, from the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, which was completed in northern Syria in the late 6th century. In early medieval art Jesus was often depicted along with the two thieves on either side of him.

Muiredach’s High Cross (9th-10th century)

Muiredach’s High Cross, which can be found in the ruins of Monasterboice in Ireland, is considered one of the finest depictions of Celtic Christian art. Here, Jesus is depicted fully cloth, with his arms stretched straight out. The lance-bearer and sponge-bearer appear on either side of him, while smaller of figures of what is like the Virgin Mary and John are also shown.

Gero Crucifix (Late 10th century)

The Gero Cross, which can be found in Cologne Cathedral in Germany, was likely made between 965 and 970, and is one the earliest examples of a life-size wood sculpted crucifixion. It’s depiction of Jesus, with his slumped head and twisted body, offers a more ‘human’ view of Christ than what was common for Carolingian and Ottoman art.

Ramsey Psalter (Late 10th century)

The Ramsey Psalter, created in England at the end of the 10th century, includes a drawing of the Crucifixion with Mary and John flanking the cross. John’s scroll reads: ‘This is the disciple who giveth testimony’ (John 21:24).

Bronze Corpus of Christ (1150-1175)

Created in the Rhine Valley of Germany in the second half of the twelfth-century, these bronze works are now kept at the Cloisters Museum in New York. They show the suffering figure of Christ in a natural way, offering anatomical details.

The Map Psalter (c.1265)

This manuscript from 13th century England shows Jesus on a green cross with Mary and John.

Crucifix by Cimabue (1287-88)

Cimabue was one of the great Italian artists of the 13th century. He created this painting for the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

The Queen Mary Psalter (1310-1320)

Created in England in the early 14th century, this psalter has a miniature of the Crucifixion, with a grieving Virgin Mary falling into the arms of a woman on the left, Longinus (without his spear) kneeling in the foreground, with two men throwing dice at the foot of the crucifix, and eight niches, four on each side, occupied by male figures.

Icon of the Crucifixion (c.1360)

This Russian icon, which can now be seen at the Musée du Louvre, was created in the 14th century and shows Byzantine influences.

The Crucifixion, by Fra Angelico (1420–23)

The Dominican friar known as Fra Angelico was referred to as ‘the Angelic Painter’. He created several versions of the crucifixion, including this one from about 1420. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is home to this artwork, notes that it “magnifies the emotional responses of the figures around Christ’s solitary cross: the Virgin Mary falls to the ground, Saint John clasps his hands intensely, Mary Magdalene reaches out in a sharply foreshortened view, angels lament against the gold ground of the sky, and the semicircle of onlookers assume carefully varied attitudes of indifference, pity, or wonder.”

Hours of Jacques de Brégilles (c.1460)

Dutch artist Willem Vrelant created this image for a Book of Hours in the mid-fifteenth century.

The Holy Trinity by Botticelli (1491-93)

Sandro Botticelli created this work for the church of Santa Elisabetta delle Convertite in Florence. It shows the Trinity – Jesus Crucified, God and the Holy Spirit’s Dove. Along the sides are Mary Magdalene, who is praying, and St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, who is pointing to the centre of the composition.

Here are more medieval images of the Crucifixion:

Triptych: The Crucifixion, The Flagellation and The Entombment, c.1500 @artinstitutechi #limogesenamel #GoodFriday pic.twitter.com/NFRsFNsTI2

— Camille GD (@cgranddewyse) April 3, 2015

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