Christ Crucified

Southern France (?), c. 1200
Gilt bronze, height 16.5 cm

The discovery

A journey to the Holy Land

The secret of the Venus temple

The alleged discovery of the cross by Empress Helena was first recorded in the 4th century. According to this legend Helena (248/50–329), the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, travelled to the Holy Land around 325AD and ordered excavations to be made on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus. Remains of the cross upon which Christ was crucified as well as the tomb in which Christ was buried were found. Helena had the cross divided into three and consigned these remnants to Jerusalem, Constantiople and Rome. Helena and her son, Emperor Constantine, commissioned a basilica – the so-called Church of the Holy Sepulchre (consecrated in 335) – to be built over the tomb and the site where the cross was found. It constitutes one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

The cross

Evolution of a symbol

Its meaning today

In early Christianity, the original symbol was not the cross but the Christogram XP. It was not until the 5th century that this became less well used and the cross emerged as the most important symbol in Christianity. Evidence of the wooden cross commonly found today being used as a symbol can be found in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine (between 270 and 288–337).

The image of Christ

Powerful King

A crown instead of thorns

In the Romanesque period, the crucified figure of Christ appears as a sovereign and judge. Instead of a Crown of Thorns he wears a royal crown or is depicted with a halo. The Son of God, as the victor over death, is shown with his feet parallel to one another (the so-called ‘four-nail’ style) and not crossed. The loincloth is greatly stylised and falls in artistically draped folds.
The subject of suffering gained greater significance in the Gothic era. Christ embodied the suffering of the world, and the martyrdom of the Son of God was of cental importance. This found its artistic heyday in the Baroque period.