Christ crucified

Southern France (?), 12th century
Gilded bronze, height: 16.5 cm

Private collection, Spain.

This unusually expressively modelled figure of Christ crucified has, like the majority of similar works, survived without the cross. The corpus twists slightly to the left and emphasises the tension in the body created by the parallel knees angled to the left and the feet – that would originally have been resting on a suppedaneum – to the right.

The arms are stretched out like the wings of an eagle in flight, the palms of the hands tilted downwards. The head is inclined, the open eyes lowered, looking to the right. A thick, wavy beard frames the cheeks and chin. A wide crown with four points rests on a head of hair parted in the middle. Three thick strands of hair fall both sides of the face onto the shoulders. The torso is marked by a pronounced, rounded ribcage; the navel is traced as a circle on a trapeze-shaped stomach.

The folds of material are of exceptional plasticity. The loincloth, reaching from the bottom right to the left thigh, is tied at the top and fixed with a cingulum; the end hanging loosely over the right thigh. This results in a strongly animated pattern of folds that flows in bold, geometrically meandering, layers down the exposed left thigh. The right thigh is clearly modelled underneath the material.

This exceptional figure of Christ Crucified, of singular quality within the group of medieval bronze crucifixes, can only be ascribed with difficulty to any one particular sub-group. The execution of the face and the folds of the loincloth suggest a likely connection to monumental sculptural works created for churches in southern France around 1200. The provenance of this piece from a Spanish collection may also speak in favour of this.

Since the alleged discovery of the True Cross in 324 AD by Empress Helena, the Cross, or rather remnants of it, have been revered as cultic reliquaries. Depictions of Christ Crucified are to be found in narrative scenes in mosaics and as ivory reliefs since the 5th century. Initially crosses emerged as miniature sculptures, so-called
‘pectoral crosses’, worn on a chain around the neck.
Up until the end of the 11th century crosses were to be found next to or behind altars. Only a chalice, paten and the Book of the Gospels were placed on an altar itself. Most crosses contained reliquaries and were sometimes carried in processions. It is thought that it was not until around 1080 that it become customary to place crosses on altars. Intricately modelled older crosses or more modest bronze crosses were used for this purpose, forming a new genre in its own right from that time onwards.

Who found the True Cross?

Empress Helena in the Holy Land. The Mystery of the Temple of Venus

The legend of Empress Helena finding the True Cross has existed since the end of the 4th century. According to this legend Helena (248/50–329 CE), the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, travelled to the Holy Land around 325. She arranged for excavations to be carried out under a Roman Temple of Venus, during which remnants of the True Cross and the Holy Sepulchre itself were found. Helena divided the Cross into three and presented these pieces to Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome. Above the tomb and the site where the Cross was found, Helena and her son Emperor Constantine commissioned a basilica to be built, the so-called Church of the Holy Sepulchre (consecrated in 335). It is one of the largest shrines in Christianity.

The Cross

Its development; an important symbol today

DThe original symbol of early Christianity was not the cross, but the christogram Chi-Rho symbol XP. It was not until the 5th century that this lost significance and the cross became the most important symbol of Christianity. The Latin cross common today can be traced back to a symbol used in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine (between 270 and 288–337).

The changing image of Christ

A strong king; a proper crown instead of thorns

In the Romanesque period the crucified Christ appears exalted as a ruler and judge. He is depicted with a royal crown or a gloriole (halo) rather than a crown of thorns The Son of God is the victor over death. His feet are parallel to each other (the so-called ‘four-nail’ style) and not on top of one another. The loincloth is highly stylised and falls in artistically draped folds.

The aspect of suffering gains importance in the Gothic period. Christ embodies the suffering of the world, his martyrdom as the Son of God taking centre stage, finding its artistic climax in the Baroque.