Crosses & Crucifixes
The Empty Cross
The cross shown is the plain or “EMPTY”CROSS, a cross without the figure of Jesus hanging on it. The empty cross is an instrument of torture that has been defeated, from which the victim has walked away. In Christian teaching, Jesus died on the cross but he rose again, defying the cross’s power – ‘O death, where is thy sting!’ the empty cross is therefore an image of God’s power, and of hope. It is hope that shines through the story of THE CRUCIFIXION – the utter helplessness of Jesus on the cross, with the promise of his teachings and vision seeming to end in agonizing death, but in the end giving way to new life and glory.
The Cross – Anchor
The message of hope is also symbolized by the CROSS-ANCHOR – an anchor in which the upper beam forms the shape of a cross. Like the cross, the anchor was a symbol before the Christian period. Since they held ships safely in place, anchors were ancient symbols of safety, and so of hope. It may have been adopted by the early Christians as a covert symbol. In Christian terms, anchors are specifically a symbol of the hope of salvation and of eternal life, which explains why they are found on many early Christian graves.
Crucifixes of Jesus’s Triumph
CRUCIFIXES are crosses to which the body of Jesus is fixed, or superimposed. On some, Jesus is shown with his arms outstretched, dressed in a long, seamless tunic (a colobium or alb) and wearing a HALO and gold crown in kingly, or priestly dress. His hands may show him in the art of blessing the onlookers (with two fingers extended), or the palms may be open, in an attitude of openness and embrace (in the words of the Eucharistic prayer, used during THE EUCHARIST, ‘he opened wide his arms for us upon the cross’). This is Jesus triumphant, defeating the cross but also glorifying it. Historically, the image was most popular between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, when artists preferred not to strip Jesus of his clothes.
Crucifixes of Jesus’s Suffering
From around the thirteenth century, CRUCIFIXES increasingly memorialized Jesus’s suffering and death. Jesus is shown with his head to one side (the convention is for the head to hang to the ‘good’right), and he is shown as having just died. He is wearing the crown of thorns, and is nailed through the palms of his hands, with a single nail piercing his crossed feet, to give a devotional pose. A cut just below the ribs shows where Jesus was speared as he hung on the cross.
The reality of crucifixion is appalling. Scourging always preceded it, following which the condemned man had to carry his won, tremendously heavy, CROSS (or at least the cross-beam) to the place of execution. The victim was stripped naked. Long nails were then driven, not through the palms of the hands, but through the wrist bones, without this arrangement, the victim’s weight would have caused the nails to simply rip through his flesh. For the same reason, nails may have been driven just below and behind each ankle, one on each side of the central beam of the cross, rather than through the middle of the feet. Many crucifixes include a small footrest with this in mind, although in reality a small central prop, shaped like a rhino horn, often acted as a seat to give the victim support. The downward pull of the body would have caused a slow suffocation, the lungs would gradually fill with fluid and victims could hang in agony for days. It was against Jewish law for a person to remain crucified over the Sabbath, and so on Friday afternoon if a victim was still alive his legs would be broken, finally killing his with the shock, before he was taken down.
Taylor, R. (2007). How to read a church. Singpore: Tien Wah Press.
Photos taken by the blog’s author