BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






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The Crucifixion; Hans MEMLING; 1491; oil on oak; Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Web Gallery of Art






What you can see in this picture……

Against the background of a city, three men on their crosses dominate a crowd.

In the centre, Jesus is crucified; he is dead and a soldier pierces his side with a spear. The other two crucified men are “thieves”, the one on the left has repented and looks up at the heaven where he will be welcome; the other is dead.

At the foot of the crosses, the crowd is composed of several groups.

In the left foreground, a woman is overcome with grief; she is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is supported by her sisters and a young man, the apostle John. Another woman stretches out her arms towards the cross; she is Mary Magdalene.

Still in the foreground but on the right, some men play dice; they share Jesus’ clothes.

At the foot of Christ’s cross, and from left to right, one can see: the horseman who holds the spear that pierces Jesus, a man standing holding a pole at the tip of which there is a sponge he has proposed to Christ to quench his thirst, and an officer raising his hand, for he has just recognised that Jesus is God.

The sky is covering itself with clouds so black that darkness advances. In the background, the city of Jerusalem is seen from above for the scene takes place on a hill, Golgotha, which means “The place of a skull” (Mark 15:22) and, actually, one can see such a death’s head at the centre at the foot of the cross.

According to the legend, it is Adam’s skull that has been buried here. In the same way, it is told that the wood of the cross is that of a tree which grew on the tomb of the first man. All these elements are meant to underline that Jesus is the New Adam.


and in other pictures

The scene of the crucifixion multiplies signs and characters.

Jesus’ cross is central. A notice is nailed at the top of the cross on which is written INRI, the Latin initials for Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. A pelican is sometimes perched on the cross; it is a symbolic animal that wounds its breast to feed her young.


The two thieves have crosses that are smaller and very narrow. The good thief is always on the right of Christ; he is young and beardless; the bad one, on the left, grimaces.


Two actors: the sponge-carrier, generally on the left of Christ, wants to give him some vinegar to drink by holding out a sponge to him. The spear-holder is about to pierce his side from which some blood and water will come out. Sometimes, this man and the Roman soldier who recognises in Jesus the son of God at the moment of his death are one and the same character; hence his face that expresses remorse.

A few witnesses: a woman and a man standing on each side of the cross; they are the Virgin of the right of Christ and the apostle John on the left. If Mary Magdalene is added, she crouches and weeps.

But over the centuries, witnesses, men and women have become numerous as for the great show of public executions. Some have a specific role: soldiers play for Christ’s clothes, Veronica holds her veil. As for the Virgin, she takes various attitudes, at first standing (Stabat Mater), she holds her cheek with her left hand, an antique sign of pain; then she collapses or receives a stab from a sword.

The sun and the moon dominate the scene; some clouds pass over or an eclipse is suggested by the deep night, sometimes the earth cracks open.


Before and after the crucifixion



The Bearing of the Cross; c. 1460-80; miniature on vellum; manuscript KB 131 G 8; Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Te Hague




Jesus carries his cross; pushed by soldiers, he struggles on. He is helped at the back by Simon the Cyrenian.

The cross has evolved: at first a simple emblem, it becomes increasingly heavy. That is why Christ can be represented stumbling or fallen on the ground.

This scene has been gradually filled with many characters: the crowd, the two thieves, the holy women, among them the Virgin who faints and Veronica who holds the veil of the Holy Face. See the Holy Face.



Christ nailed on the Cross; Gerard DAVID; c. 1485; oil on wood; National Gallery, London.

 National Gallery London


Deposition; Anthony van DYCK; 1634; oil on panel; Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Web Gallery of Art


Jesus is laid on the cross

This position corresponds to the two extreme moments. Jesus is nailed alive on the cross before it is raised. Jesus, once dead, is removed from the cross that has been lowered.

These two representations suppose that, in spite of its weight, the cross is still manageable. The first representation of Jesus nailed on the cross is very frequent, the second is much rarer.


Christ nailed on the Cross; Fra ANGELICO; c. 1450; fresco; Museo di San Marco, Florence.

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



Jesus raised and nailed on the cross

A rare representation: it is as if the cross were too heavy to be raised with Christ on it.



The Deposition from the Cross; Pietro PERUGINO; 1500; tempera on panel; Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



The Deposition from the cross is a diagonal composition emphasizing the opposition between the corpse of Jesus and the vigour of the living actors. This scene is intermediate between the crucifixion and the entombment but, according to the position of Christ, it is closer to the former or to the latter. The same figures are again to be found: the Virgin, John, Mary Magdalene, Joseph and Nicodemus, each one playing a precise role.

See The Entombment.



It should not be confused with



The Martyrdom of St Peter; MICHELANGELO Buonarroti; last painted work; 1546-50; fresco; Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican




The crucifixion of Jesus is not the only one; according to the tradition, Peter was crucified but with his head downwards not to be like Christ; his brother Andrew is said to have been crucified on a diagonal cross to which he has given his name.



Moses and the Bronze Serpent; Sébastien BOURDON; 1653; oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Web Gallery of Art


Another scene from the Old Testament can also lead to confusion; this is the bronze serpent (or serpent of brass). When the Israelites were in the desert, they were bitten by snakes and many of them died. Moses raised a serpent of bronze or brass, so that the victims should turn towards it and be cured (The Second Book of Kings, chapter 18).


The link between this serpent and Christ’s Cross originates in the Gospel according to John (3:14): “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up”. Christian artists represent it as a crucifix.






The Crucifixion; Hans MEMLING; 1491; oil on oak; Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Web Gallery of Art



After his condemnation, Jesus is taken away to be crucified; he carries his cross.

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 23

And as they led him away, they laid hold of one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus.
And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, who also bewailed and lamented him…
And there were also two other malefactors, led with him to be put to death
. (Luke 23:26-32)

The Gospel according to Mark, chapter 15   

And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he did not take it…
And it was the third hour, and they crucified him.
And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right , and the other on his left.
(Mark 15:23-27)

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 23

And one of the malefactors who were hanged railed at him, saying, If you are Christ, save yourself and us.
But the other answering rebuked him, saying : "Do you not fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said to Jesus : "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus said to him : "Verily I say to you, Today you shall be with me in paradise."
 (Luke 23:39-43)


The Gospel according to Mark, chapter 15

 And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.
And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.
And when the centurion, who stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God !"
(Mark 15:33-39)



 The way of the Cross which goes from the Roman governor’s residence, Pontius Pilatus' praetorium down to Golgotha where Jesus was crucified, is the way of suffering (or the way of grief), the via dolorosa. It is a real way but also the allegorical way of human condition.

According to the manner in which the character is considered, one can say: the Jew Jesus dies on a Roman cross, the just man dies of a horrible and infamous death; Christ Messiah, the lamb of God, sacrifices himself voluntarily; the Son of God, the New Adam, is raised as a sign of salvation for all men. The cross remains a scandal and a mystery.










The Crucifixion; Hans MEMLING; 1491; oil on oak; Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Web Gallery of Art



Two fairly close crucifixions though four centuries have elapsed between them



The Crucifixion; Giulio CARPIONI; c. 1648; oil on canvas; Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice

Web Gallery of Art



The Crucifixion; Emil NOLDE; 1912; oil on canvas; Nolde Museen, Seebüll, Germany.

Mark Harden's Artchive



Two peculiar crucifixions: the Protestant Cranach calls to conversion the soldiers of his time. For Chagall, Jesus is a pious Jew once again put to death when innocent Jews are massacred in the pogroms.



White Crucifixion; Marc CHAGALL; 1938; oil on canvas; Art Institute, Chicago.

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum



The Crucifixion with the converted Centurion; Lucas CRANACH; 1536; oil on panel; National Gallery of Art, Washington.

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum



Triple crucifixions in which the thieves are not nailed but simply tied on pieces of trees; Christ’s cross is also made up of branches in Baldung.

In both works, the contrast between the characters present and the sky can be accounted by the fact that, in Baldung, Jesus is tortured to death whereas in Antonello da Messina he is already dead



The Crucifixion; ANTONELLO da Messina; 1475; oil on panel; Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum



The Crucifixion; Hans BALDUNG called Grien; 1512; oil on wood; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



Christ’s blood is a symbol of life and redemption. These works are made for meditation; that is why Fra Angelico adds St Dominic at the foot of the cross.



The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John; Hendrick ter BRUGGHEN; c. 1625; oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum



St. Dominic with the Crucifix - Piercing of the Christ's Side; Fra ANGELICO; 1450; fresco; cell 42, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



The bearing of the cross towards Calvary, the weight of the cross grows over the centuries.



The Carrying of the Cross; Eric GILL; 1926; print on paper, Tate Gallery, London.

Tate on line



The Ascent to Calvary; GIOTTO di Bondone; 1304-1306; fresco, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Web Gallery of Art



Jesus falls during the ascent to Calvary; these additions correspond to the stations of the way of the cross, a liturgical practice that has developed since the 15th century after the visions of St Brigit of Sweden.



The Ascent to Calvary; Jacopo TINTORETTO; 1566-67; oil on canvas; Scuola di San Rocco, Venice

Web Gallery of Art



Christ carrying the Cross; Giovanni Battista TIEPOLO; 1737-38; oil on canvas; Sant’Alvise, Venice.

Web Gallery of Art



A theological connection: the death of Christ, the New Adam, destroys Adam’s sin, but also a legendary closeness since the wood of the cross is said to have been cut from the tree grown on Adam’s tomb.



Adam and Eve eating the forbidden Fruit; Willem VRELANT; 1460; tempera, gold and ink on parchment; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust



Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree; Norman ADAMS, 1989; oil on canvas; Tate Collection, London

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The crucified Christ dominates the world he saves.


What our Saviour saw from the Top of his Cross; Jacques TISSOT; 1894; oil on canvas; Brooklyn Museum, New York

Art Renewal Center



Christ of St John of the Cross, Salvador DALI; 1951; oil on canvas; Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland







The Way of the Cross

This a religious practice that the Franciscan Friars have developed since the 15th century after the visions of St Brigit of Sweden.

On Good Friday afternoon, they lived again the scene by miming it; members of the clergy and lay people carried the cross in turns. Recently this practice has been renewed, in particular on the hill of Montmartre in Paris.

The Way of the Cross of Sacro Monte,
 17th century, Varese, Italy.




The procession stops 14 times, hence the term of stations, to live again the great moments of Christ’s Passion, from his condemnation to death to his entombment. The stages can be materialised by crosses, chapels… along a steep incline called the via dolorosa (The Way of Grief). These stations are also represented on the walls of every Catholic church, either by more or less realistic pictures or sculptures, or by simple numbered crosses.

“to bear one’s cross” has become a popular phrase to designate the trials that life imposes.


Good Friday, the day when Christ’s death is celebrated, is a bank holiday in many countries; it is a day of mourning and meditation.

In the old days, the bells were not rung, public entertainments were closed and one abstained from eating meat. The habit of eating fish on Friday has remained; on the contrary, the consumption of meat on Good Friday had taken an anti-religious meaning.


To cross oneself means to make the sign of the cross on one’s body while proclaiming God one and Three: God the Father, when touching one’s forehead, God the Son, one’s heart; and God the Spirit, both shoulders from left to right (Orthodox Christians make the same gesture, but from right to left).


The cross has become the symbol of Christians and, to some extent, has remained a sign of Western civilisation.

As Europe has been shaped by centuries of Christianity, the cross can be found everywhere: on flags and on money pieces; on medals; at street corners, in the plans of churches, in churchyards and particularly military cemeteries. Similarly, the International Red Cross is a non-religious institution that bears the name of Red Crescent in Islamic countries.

The cross is not a Christian creation and its form is quite varied. It can be found among Egyptians (ankh cross), among the Latin people (tau cross), among Indians (the svastika is a sign of eternity which the Nazis have turned into the gamma cross of evil memory)… but Christians have multiplied its forms; potent cross, cross Moline, cross tréflée… St Andrew’s cross, Maltese cross, cross of Lorraine… Greek cross, Russian Orthodox cross… and even Huguenot cross for French Protestants.

Different forms of crosses



The instruments of the Passion


In some villages, a certain number of crosses show the instruments of the Passion around their arms: the crown of thorns, the column, the whip, the sponge and the spear are always present but one can also find the ladder of the Deposition, Peter’s rooster… as if they were the heraldic arms of Christ.

The cross of the Passion at Pomayrols, France






The evolution of the crucifix


Lamb and cross, abbey of Fille-Dieu, Romont, Switzerland.


Crucifixion; gate, Saint Sabine basilica, Rome




Before the 5th century, the cross was symbolical and Jesus’ presence was evoked only by that of a lamb, the spotless victim. The infamous torture of the cross was still too fresh in memories for the object to become a religious sign.

The first representation of the crucifixion was that of the gate of Saint Sabine Basilica in Rome dating back to the end of the 5th century. Jesus has his arms open, with the thieves, but the wood of the cross is not represented.



Crucifix; between 1100 and 1500; gilded bronze; Metropolitan Museum, New York.

 In secula


Crucifix; between 1180 and 1200; tempera on wood; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 In secula




Between the 6th and the 11th century, Christ appeared on the wood of the cross but alive (with his eyes open) and triumphant, often bearded; he wears a tunic and a crown. If he is nailed, it is with 4 nails, one for each limb.



Crucifix attributed to Giovanni di BALDUCCIO; 1330 elm and cinnabar; Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

 In secula


Crucifix; 16th century; Cappella Castellani, Santa Croce, Florence

 In secula



From the middle of the 11th century or a little later in Italy, Christ was represented dead on the cross, with closed eyes, with his head leaning to the right and often wearing a crown of thorns, with some blood running down from his pierced side.


The presence of Mary and the apostle John on each side of Christ can take different forms including that of two separate statues.


The presence of the dove of the Holy Ghost above the cross recalls God’s manifestations at the Baptism of Christ; it is rarer.

See Baptism of Christ


The Allegory of the Cross; Taddeo GADDI; 1330s; fresco; Santa Croce, Florence

Web Gallery of Art




It is to be noted that the cross is most often in timber wood but it is sometimes verdant like a tree of life with its branches, and even alive with four arms. Jesus is nailed on it with 4 nails, two in the middle of his palms and one for each foot, but after the 13th century, both feet are put together with only one nail.



Christ; Germaine RICHIER; 1950; bronze; Church of Plateau d’Assy; Passy, Haute-Savoie, France




In the 16th century, the Protestant reformation refused to represent Christ on the Cross which became again bare and emblematic.

Catholics kept the nailed body (with 3 or 4 nails) but, according to the periods, death was either very explicit, or only suggested.

This Christ by Germaine Richier caused a scandal at the time









BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008