Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Stations of the Cross: The Eleventh Station, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross

Gerhard Remisch, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
German (stained glass), c.1538
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Of all the Stations of the Cross, this one is probably the one that makes most people queasy.  It forces us to face the reality of what this pilgrimage of the Stations of the Cross is really about.  It is about a form of death, that is well-nigh unimaginable for most of us, in which a living human being is nailed to a cross by the hands and feet and then suspended in the air to die of blood loss and suffocation. 

When I was a child there were doubts about the veracity of the Christian tradition that Jesus was crucified by being nailed to the cross through His hands and feet.  The Gospels say that He was crucified, without giving the details of how this was done, although in the apparitions to his disciples after the Resurrection Jesus invites them to probe the wounds in His hands, feet and side.

In their own time there was no need for the Evangelists to describe crucifixion in detail, for it was still a current form of execution and many Christians and others endured it.  In my childhood it was believed by scientists and even by theologians that the tradition must be wrong and that the Romans had simply bound people to the cross with ropes.

However, in 1968 a bombshell burst this assumption when archaeologists working in Israel discovered actual proof of the practice of nailing.  Images of the heel bones of a young man crucified during the Jewish Revolt appeared in newspapers and magazines.

I still remember the moment when I saw the picture for the first time.  One look was enough to make me a bit sick.  The huge nail had pierced both heel bones and had gone clear through them.  It had been driven in so far that it hit a hard knot in the wood of his cross, where it had become hooked.  This hooking had preserved it, because it could not be withdrawn after death and removal from the cross.  So, young Yehohanan, son of Hagakol, had to be buried with the nail still in his ankles, eventually to be found by the archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis.2   Now we know.
Ankle bones of man crucified in 70AD
Jerusalem, Israel Museum

However, following the elimination of crucifixion as a punishment by Constantine in 337 AD our Christian ancestors did not know. 3   For several centuries no images of the Crucified Christ were made.  It was not until more than 100 years after the abolition of crucifixion that the very first images appeared and they were primarily symbolic.  The Christ on these crosses was alive and victorious with open eyes.  Images of the Crucified Christ remained symbolic until well into the middle ages.
Earliest image of the Crucifixion, Wooden Doors
Late Roman, 430-432
Rome, Church of Santa Sabina

From the Rabbula Gospels
Syrian *Beth Zagba), c. 586
Florence, Bibliotheca Medicea-Laurenziana
MS. Plut. I.  56_12v-13r
From the Gospels of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Clm 4453, fol. 250v
From the Uta Codex
German (Reichenau), 11th Century
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Clm 13601, fol. 3v
In this image Jesus is presented as victorious king and priest.  He wears a crown and the stole of a priest.
From the Book of Pericopes of Emperor Henry II
German (Reichenau), c. 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Clm 4452, fol. 107v

Crucified Christ
Spanish (Palencia), c.1150-1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection
This image reflects the crossroads moment in the representation of the crucified Christ.  He wears a crown and is victorious, but he is also nearly naked and his body slumps slightly.  These latter attributes edge this image toward the manner in which future images would develope.

Thus, when the first images of the nailing of Jesus (as opposed to His being shown already nailed and suspended) to the cross appeared artists had a difficult time imagining how this had been done.

Some show Jesus suspended by ropes on the cross while workers on ladders nail Him to it.

Jesus Nailed to the Cross
From Psalter
French (Paris), 1200-1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisiton latine 1392, fol. 11

Others appear to show the cross positioned at an awkward angle, partially raised and partially flat, as the workers hammer.

Jesus is Nailed to the Cross
From Vies de la Vierge et du Christ
Italy (Naples), c. 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9561, fol. 176

Pseudo-Jacequemart, Jesus Nailed to the Cross
From Petites heurs de Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), c.1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 162

Anonymous Alabaster Carver, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross
English, 15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

It seems to have taken about 100 years to arrive at the logical solution, which is to show Jesus being nailed to the cross while the cross is lying flat on the ground.  Once this realistic posture was arrived at it was universally adhered to and the images multiplied.

Master of Marguerite d'Orleans 
Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
From Hours of Marguerite d'Orleans
French (Rennes), c.1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1156, fol. 139
Guillaume Hugueniot. Jesus Nailed to the Cross
From Hours of Pierre de Bosredont
French (Langres), 1560-1570
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 55, fol. 24r

Master of Jouvenel des Ursins, Scenes from the Crucifixion
From Book of Hours
French (Angers), 1465-1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
 MS M 263, fol. 27r

Gerard David, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
Belgian, ca. 1481
London, National Gallery

However, since no one had seen a crucifixion in centuries, no artist knew that to depict the actual method of crucifixion the nails would have to be driven into the wrists and the ankles, not into the center of the palms and the center of the feet.  They had no idea that they were doing it wrong.  So, the image of Jesus Crucified has always shown the nail marks in the centers of the hands and feet.

 Circle Jan Gossart, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
Belgian, 1500-1549
Private Collection
Albrecht Durer, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
Part of the Seven Sorrows of Mary Altar
German, c.1500
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Some of these images have an air of unreality.  It is hard to imagine that real pain is being caused.  But some display a cruelty that is stomach churning.

Peeter de Kempeneer, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
Flemish, c.1550
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Workshop of Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem,
Dutch, 1600-1638
Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen

Nicolas de Poilly the Younger, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
French, 1697
Abbeville, Musée Boucher de Perthes

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
From The Stations of the Cross
Italian, 1749
London, British Museum

And this dichotomy continued from the middle ages till the modern era.

Gustave Moreau, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
French, 1862
Degazeville, Church

James Tissot, The First Nail
From The Life of Christ
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
With his strictly archeological reconstructions and his clinical appoach to events Tissot offers us two particularly chilling views of the nailing of Jesus.  In this image he shows what it might have been like when driving the first nail into the hand of Jesus.

James Tissot, The Nail for the Feet
From The Life of Christ
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
And here Tissot continues his clinical approach by imagining the soldiers nailing the feet of Jesus to the cross.

Eric Gill, Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
English, 1913-1918
London, Westminster Cathedral
Here Eric Gill took a more restrained, quieter approach.

© M. Duffy, 2016
1.      Luke 24:39 and John 20:19;  Luke 20:20 and John 20:24-29 (Doubting Thomas).

2.   Biblical Archeology Society Staff, “A Tomb in Jerusalem Reveals the History of Crucifixion and Roman Crucifixion Methods”, July 22, 2011, Biblicalarchaeology.org.  Includes the complete text of Vassilios Tzaferis, “Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence”,  Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1985, pp 44-53.  Both can be found at  http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/a-tomb-in-jerusalem-reveals-the-history-of-crucifixion-and-roman-crucifixion-methods/

3.       Marucchi, Orazio. "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix." The Catholic Encyclopedia.
       Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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