The Crucifixion is a well known and pervasive subject in European art dating from the early 5th century in Rome. During the Middle Ages the Crucifixion was a relatively small size and appears in illuminated manuscripts, ornate gospel covers, ornamental pages of New Testament text, Byzantine mosaics and later in Gothic stained glass windows. The first monumental Crucifixion, the famous Gero Crucifix (965-970), Cologne Cathedral, Germany, is the oldest Western depiction of a dead Christ on the cross and also the first life sized image. By the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods the Crucifixion is a frequent subject in European art. However, modern and recent depictions of the Crucifixion are less known and often surprising in their variety and meaning.
The Art of the Cross, currently at Saint Mary's College Art Museum, Moraga, California, October 6-December 16, 2012, is a unique exhibition of crosses and Crucifixions dating from the 6th century through the present. Traveling throughout the United States since 2006, the exhibition consists of paintings, prints and sculpture from the Edward and Diane Knippers Collection, Arlington, Virginia and organized by Christians in the Visual Arts. The exhibition travels next to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Belton, Texas, January 7-February 1, 2013.
Edward Knippers is one of the founders of Christians in the Visual Arts, a contemporary effort to explore the Christian faith and biblical narrative in the visual arts. He has been collecting religious art for 35 years. Knippers is a painter and printmaker whose religious nudes have created controversy. Knippers has participated in over one hundred one-man national and international exhibitions. His stark, black, abstract lithograph, Crucifixion, n.d., shows the influence of the German Expressionist artists.
The cross as a symbol dates from prehistory. One of the oldest cross symbols is a simple circle containing a cross, a union of opposite polarities. Its meaning is as mysterious as its maker. However, the oldest artifact in this exhibition is a small coin containing a cross dating from the Byzantine Empire, circa 512-17 A.D.
The early Christians used symbols such as the pagan trident, the crux ansata inherited from the Egyptians, the X cross and Tau cross to deter identification and possible persecution by the Romans. Since there were virtually no skilled artists among the early Christians, they borrowed ideas from Roman imagery, but it was often crudely executed.
Crucifixion was used extensively by the ancient Persians, but perfected by the Romans in that it was a slow, cruel, public death with maximum pain. The condemned was crucified naked to enhance the shame and often left on the cross for days. Roman citizens were never crucified. Thus, it is not surprising that the first public image of the Crucifixion did not appear in Western art until 432 A.D. when it was carved in the cypress door of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome.
There are several reasons for the early Christians not creating public images of the Crucifixion. There was a Jewish tradition against images and the early Christians were Jews who continued practicing Judaism. Also, the memory of the Crucifixion was too painful and shameful. Crucifixion was not banned until 337 A.D. by Constantine. The early Christians were a minority sect and using crucifixion as a symbol left them open to ridicule. A graffito was found scratched in the wall of a third century house on the Palatine Hill, Rome. It shows a crudely drawn image of a Roman soldier raising his hand in worship of a donkey on a cross. An inscription reads, "Alexamenos worships God."
The earliest image of the Crucifixion in this exhibition is a small 15th century anonymous black and white woodcut, a momento mori or reminder of death, showing that even the king must die.
There are also two black and white Baroque engravings by …