Most people don’t think twice if they see a crucifix hanging around someone’s neck, or affixed to a wall. Yet early Christians shied away from depicting the crucifixion. If you visit the second century catacomb of San Callisto in Rome, you won’t see Jesus crucified, or even any crosses. You will see humble drawings reminiscent of popular Greek and Roman figures, for example, an image that looks like the Greek character Orpheus, or a shepherd that represents the Greco-Roman virtue of philanthropy (1).
Writings about the crucifixion were abundant in the early Christian period; Paul wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”(2). Yet images of Jesus crucified were scarce.
Only a handful of images vie for the earliest depiction of the crucifixion. An Eastern Mediterranean jasper amulet, dated from the second or third century, includes a scratchy carving of a man on a cross surrounded by Greek text that includes the name Emmanuel (3). Archaeologists believe this artifact is one of many popular amulets believed to be magical. A carnelian gem from the mid 4th century, possibly from Syria, depicts Christ on the cross surrounded by 12 figures. Text on the gem reads, ΙΧΘΥΣ, a Greek acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” (4).
Christ crucified also appears in an ivory carving, dated between 420 and 430 in Rome. This carving is one of four panels depicting Christ’s passion, death and resurrection (5). The panel with the crucifixion juxtaposes the fates of Jesus and Judas: Jesus is on the cross, unemotional and very much alive, while Judas hangs dead from a tree. The doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, constructed in the 430s, also depict Jesus crucified. He appears with the thieves on his right and left; the door depicts all three men in the traditional posture of prayer (6).
Perhaps the earliest image of the crucifixion, however, is a work of vandalism known as the Alexamenos Graffito. The image was scratched into the wall of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome around 200 AD. A naked man with the head of a donkey, a wounded side, and a defined buttocks hangs from the cross, while a man stands below, gesturing with one hand toward the cross. The text reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
The Alexamenos Graffito is dear to me. I use it in class when I try to convey how utterly absurd was the worship of a crucified God during the budding years of the Christian movement. Long before the cross was an object of beauty, it was an object of mockery. It reminds me that Christian belief, at its crux, is not quite at home in the world.
For many of the details of the devotional images, I am indebted to Felicity Harley’s article on early images of the crucifixion, which can be accessed via her academia.edu page. For the description of the Alexamenos Graffito, I am indebted to a University of Chicago web page, http://penelope.uchicago.edu.
(1) For an excellent and accessible description of early Christian art, as well as many other aspects of early Christian life and teaching, see Robert Wilken’s The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. Yale University Press, 2012.
(2) Galatians 6:14