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The history of the crucifix

Crucifixion was a form of execution by hanging a person on a from the sixth century BC to about the fourth century AD by Persians, Jews, Carthaginians, Seleucids, and Romans. The condemned dragged the cross beam to the upright pole while being whipped and was then nailed to it and was attached to it upright. Death was usually by asphyxiation or heart failure. Only the lowly were killed this way including political or religious agitators and people without any civil rights. In 337 AD, after Constantine I converted to Christianity, he abolished the practice.  A cross, with the image of a body fixed to it, is a crucifix. The most famous history of a crucifix is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.


Different types of crucifixes represent different parts of Christianity. There is a history of a crucifix in Europe which has many names because it is folk lore in several countries, but powerful none the less. A princess did not want to marry the person her father arranged, so she prayed for the marriage not to take place and, the story says, she grew a beard. The marriage was cancelled and her father was so angry he had her crucified. It is thought that because, at that time, crucifixes were of Jesus completely clothed in a long gown that, over time, some thought it was a woman with a beard.


The Eastern Christians have a history of a crucifix slightly different from the Latin cross. They add another arm above the cross where the nameplate INRI was supposed to be put. INRI stands for Jesus, king of the Jews. This arm is angled slightly to point down to the viewer’s right, so the crucifix has eight points. These usually show Jesus as dead and are often two dimensional, where the Roman and other crucifixes show Jesus still suffering.


The Alexamenos graffito is the oldest history of a crucifix. It dates somewhere between the second and third centuries. It is a drawing with writing that has been scratched into plaster on a wall close to the Palatine Hill in Rome. It is considered by most to be the earliest known drawing of the crucifixion of Jesus. The writing is Greek and several translations have been suggested, but most agree it basically says, “Alexamenos worships God”. It is a crude drawing of a figure on a cross with a donkey’s head with someone standing near, possibly in a position of worship. There are many interpretations as to why there is the head of a donkey or a horse. Most scholars believe it is a mocking depiction of a Christian because, at that time, they were accused of donkey worship.


The history of a crucifix depends on the meaning the symbol is supposed to convey. The Arms of Christ crucifixes were very popular in the 16th century and they include everything used during the crucifixion placed on the cross with Jesus. The ladder, crown of thorns, hammer, nails, spear, dice, scourge, rod and sponge, robe, cock for Peter’s denial, and pincers for removing the nails, are all crowded around the figure of Jesus to show the instruments he used to defeat evil.




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This article was published on Thursday 19 November, 2009.

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