Crucifixion has been employed as a death penalty, from Roman times to as recently as the 20th century, in many parts of the world. It was applied by the Romans mostly to slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners.
Its application was often criticised by some eminent Roman orators, among them Cicero, who described it as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” and suggested that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body but from his mind, his eyes, his ears” [Cicero, Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 5.16]
The cross and crucifixion were made and executed in different ways, as witnessed by Seneca the Younger, who wrote: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind… some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretched out their arms on the gibbet” [Dialogue ‘To Marcia on Consolation’, 6.20.3]. The body of the crucified was very often totally divested of any clothing.
It was eventually abolished by Emperor Constantine I in the fourth century AD.
Death by crucifixion
In Jesus’s times, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. The Jews were ruled by the Romans; that is why they wanted to have His death by crucifixion… a Roman, not a Jewish, death penalty.
The biblical narrative of the death of Jesus on a cross is found in the four Gospels: Matthew 27: 31-50; Mark 15: 24-37; Luke 23: 33-46; and John 19: 17-30. Although it is humanly impossible to imagine, the evangelic accounts state that Jesus carried the cross all the way to Golgotha.
In Jerusalem, in the basilica church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is a hole in high rocky ground [which I visited in May 2014] in which it is believed the cross with the nailed body of Christ was planted, until his death at around the ninth hour, when he “cried out again in a loud voice and gave up his spirit” [Matthew 27: 50].
Meanwhile, Christian tradition holds that Constantine’s mother, Helen, while on a religious tour of Syria, Palestine and Jerusalem, discovered the True Cross – the cross on which Jesus died.
The crucified Christ
The horrendous passing away of Christ has been a focal image for Christianity. It has been represented by many painters and sculptors along the centuries and a crucifix with the figure of a dead Christ on it adorns most high altars – symbolically representing Golgotha – in Catholic churches, as decreed by Roman canon law. It is intended to remind the celebrant and the faithful of the Eucharist as the actual body of Christ.
Many are the relics believed to be associated with Jesus
Besides paintings in which Christ is depicted robust [as by Peter Paul Rubens], normal or lean [as by El Greco], one finds so many artistically sculpted crucifixes of every imaginable make and size, in churches and even museums.
The cross with the rosary beads
When I received the sacrament of Holy Communion, among the few modest presents I was given there were a small A6 book of prayers and a ‘rosary’ with beads made of glass. I treasured the latter. It was most probably the first time I was feeling the small ‘sculpted’ [it was surely made out of a mould] corpse of Jesus on a small cross, at the end of the rosary beads.
The figure lacked details but it was a crucifix and I loved feeling it between my thumb and the second finger. However, nobody ever told me that I should hold it while praying “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” before starting the rosary.
A cross on a cushion
During Good Friday processions, behind men carrying the different life-sized effigies portraying episodes of the Passion of Our Lord, some children dress a brownish tunic and walk, holding a small cushion, some of which have a cross cut out of three-ply or made of wood. In my childhood, I used to participate with such a cross made by my father, attached to a red cushion made by my mother. Although the cross had no figure of the dead Christ on it, I used to hold it with great care, even if there was no comparison when compared with the Christ on the cross in one of the last effigies carried shoulder-high in the procession.
A relic of the True Cross
Throughout the history of Christianity, many are the relics believed to be associated with Jesus that enjoy special devotional places in Catholic churches. The quantity of and difference among most of these breed doubt in their authenticity. This applies to ‘pieces’ from the True Cross.
However, I was emotionally captivated in front of a golden monstrance which – as the label at its foot said – enclosed a small piece of the True Cross; it was in a small recess, behind glass, near the exit from the church dedicated to St Jerome, in Toulouse, France. While on a tour in the Holy Land some years ago, our leader, Fr Anthony Chircop, OFM, emphasised that some of the places we were visiting were not necessarily real places referred to in the Gospels but memorials associated with places in the life of Jesus.
Relics like the one in Toulouse could have been “touched” with real material and revered as true relics.
A ‘Black’ Christ in Santa Cruz
In Kerela, India, there is a cathedral basilica called Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), because it was built by the Portuguese, and the foundation stone of the structure was laid on May 3, 1505, the feast day of the ‘Invention of the Holy Cross’.
There are other churches associated with Santa Cruz, among them in Coimbra, Portugal, where there is another cathedral, also called Santa Cruz. It forms part of the Santa Cruz monastery, established by St Theotonius and the canons regular of St Augustine, in around 1131.
Among the art treasures housed in its museum there is a famous very old large crucified Christ sculpture hanging on a wall. After restorations in the past, the sculpture was left blackish in colour – that is why devotees fondly referred to it as the ‘Black’ Christ. Although restoration in the 1970s rendered it more faithful to its original colours, it is still labelled as such.
It is an extraordinary sculpture, one of the most beautiful and emotional sculptures of the 14th century. It portrays a very realistic crucified Christ, contorted with pain, with a heaving chest and a swollen tongue, within moments of imminent death – a scene terrifying to think about, an artistic expression so awe-inspiring to look at.