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Bill Thayer

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The Crucifixion

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This 5c carving is one of the earliest artistic representations of the Crucifixion. Jesus is shown more or less the way we are used to seeing him today, as an athletic young man, bearded and without a halo.

At first sight, the crucifixion is also represented in a manner familiar to us. The condemned men are shown wearing loincloths, and — in Jesus's case, clearly — nailed to the cross thru their palms. (No nails are shown, but notice the angle of his arms, neither tied to the cross with ropes, nor nailed at the wrists.)

There are several striking differences, however. The crosses seem to be tau-shaped, that is, with no riser, and thus Christ's has no tabella (the identifying sign recorded in the New Testament, often depicted in later centuries as reading INRI). The men's feet appear to be resting on the ground: since this completely undoes the mechanics of this type of execution, we have to attribute that to artistic license and the limited space available to the sculptor. On the other hand, their feet are bound, not nailed: and indeed, the nails in the feet are not essential to the method of execution.

Finally, the panel's background is most unusual. Each of the crucified men is framed by a sort of tempietto, and the pediment on our right even includes some kind of architectural ornament; at the same time, these structures are reduced to mere frameworks, thru which the walls of Jerusalem can be seen.

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Page updated: 23 Oct 00