On the Nature of the Crucifix


The crucifixion is the central image in Christian art and the focus of Christian devotion.

Spain (Galicia),
Corpus c. 1300 [fig. 1]

The death of Christ on the cross is the bedrock, actual and metaphorical, of the Christian faith. Not only is the crucifix often the main image above the altar, the form of the cross has historically served as the ground plan for churches and cathedrals. The union of opposites – above and below, vertical and horizontal, God and man – the crucifix is as much about the tension and conflict between those opposites, as it is about the spiritual portal created through their intersection.

To understand the true significance of the crucifix, and of the cross as a symbol, it is important to know why the cross, as opposed to another form such as the circle or the square (both of which have symbolic Christian meanings), was chosen to represent the interaction on earth between man and god. Certainly, death by crucifixion was one of the most common forms of execution in ancient Rome; but the iconography of the crucifix is much more complex than a mere account of Christ's death.

The cross, one of the oldest known symbols, has almost always represented the interaction, union, or binding together of opposites, energies, or realms – especially that of life and death and, later, that of heaven and earth. The horizontal (evoking both the horizon and the posture of death) began to symbolize the realm of earth and of mortality; as well as our linear movement from cradle to grave. The vertical, in turn, stood for man's verticality; for man's triumph over death and gravity; for his ascension and for his life, desire, striving. The vertical energy then became primary; and that of the horizontal, secondary. When man discovered god (especially the concept of an afterlife above), vertical began to represent that connection between above and below; between this life and the next. Man, who could contemplate not only god and the afterlife but who could also imagine that he himself possessed a part of god within him, believed that being alive was equal to that of giving god life on earth. Man's life – his verticality – stood for god's life in man.

The square and the circle, though intimately related to one another and to the cross, each took on unique symbolic meanings of its own. The closed form of the square developed into a symbol for earth. A combination of vertical and horizontal energies (of man and horizon), the right-angled square is earthbound. The four-sided square is also representative of the earth's four seasons, directions, and elements, as well as the four temperaments and ages of man. The circle – a form that is all-encompassing and a single point; a form that has no beginning or end – evolved into a symbol for the infinite and for god.

Mosan, Corpus c. 1425 [fig. 2]

The cross was recognized as a form that bridges square to circle. Although the cross, like the square, is made up of vertical and horizontal energies, the connection of its endpoints produces the form of a diamond made up of four diagonals. The cross, unlike the square, is inclined to rotate. And it is through rotation that fixed forms have mobility – that they can move from one spatial realm to another. In the cross the individual forces of vertical and horizontal matter; but it is their union that matters most of all. It is through the intersection of vertical and horizontal in the cross that birth is given to the diagonal, which transports us from the realm of the earthly toward that of the heavenly. It is through the diagonal that we are able to move into the circular, infinite movement of god.

Christ, an embodiment of both God and man, is, literally, symbolically, and geometrically speaking, the diagonal bridge, or conduit, between heaven and earth. After Christ's death and resurrection, the cross was no longer merely symbolic of the union of opposites. The crucifix is the point at which the Creator and all that He created come full circle, merge, die, and are born again in both form and spirit. It is through Christ's crucifixion that man and God, separated from one another since the expulsion, are finally reunited.

For an artist, the story and metaphors of the crucifixion must be made abundantly clear in the crucifix. It must be demonstrated that Christ, a man nailed to the cross and held to the earth, is also God; that Christ suffers out of compassion; and that he stays the course even though he could break free. The artist must establish that Christ is torn between his love of life and his sense of duty; that he longs to be with his Father and also with his mother; that he is torn, and in tension with, two worlds that hold him equally. The artist must demonstrate that Christ's death is not an end but a new beginning; that Christ, though dying, is everlasting; and that, although Christ suffers as one, he is actually suffering for all. The artist must establish that although there is reason to be angry and to grieve, there is more reason to rejoice – that Christ's death is our life, our redemption.

Baccio Da Montelupo, Crucified Christ
c. 1500-1505 [fig. 3]

This is a lot for an artist to juggle. He can emphasize Christ's suffering on the cross or his childlike innocence; he can stress that Christ is the Redeemer, the Judge, the Son of God, the Father of man, the Holy Spirit, the forgiver, or a dying son watching his mother grieve. He can make us aware that Christ, free from this world, is already in flight; or he can stress the immensely heavy fall of the death of God. The artist can emphasize Christ's majesty or his human frailty; his wounds and his sacrifice or the magical release and upward motion of his ascension.

In the best crucifixes, we experience at least a little, and often a lot, of each of these essential attributes. We certainly experience in them the tension between opposing forces. Salander-O'Reilly Galleries has brought together a stunning mix of carved and sculpted crucifixes from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Most of them were made by anonymous artists; and many of them have come to us missing heads, limbs, crowns of thorns, supports, or polychrome; and almost all of the Corpora are without the cross itself. Sometimes their dilapidation adds to the experience of Christ's death and suffering, or it gives the crucifixes the quality of worn relics.

Even in such extreme states of wear, brokenness, and decay, the greatest of these crucifixes fully explore the essential conflicts and tensions inherent in the story of Christ's death on the cross. In almost all of the Corpora, Christ, somewhere about him, has the quality of falling or of flight. Sometimes, flight – or falling or suffering or dislocation or a sense of having been forsaken – experienced in one part of his body, is contrasted against another part, in which Christ looks as relaxed as if he were waiting for a bus. In some of the Corpora, Christ is a bird of prey, seemingly swooping or hovering above us, as if he is anxious to assume his role at the Last Judgement. At other times he looks as if he is about to be snatched from the cross by a predator much larger and more powerful than he is.

In many of the crucifixes, you sense that Christ is aware of his many roles; that he is conscious of the variousness of his impact on us. You sense that Christ, on the cross, knows (just as he knew when he was seated on his mother's lap, and he took on the simultaneous roles of infant, Son, man, teacher, King, and God) that he performs many functions. It is as if Christ, even in death, is in a constant state of presentation and pageantry. Sometimes you can sense that Christ, advancing triumphantly toward us, occupies a space slightly in front of the cross – that he brings the cross to us. In some of the crucifixes, such as a Mosan polychromed wood Corpus [fig. 2], Christ, as if he hoped to pass through unnoticed, appears to be tiptoeing gently forward. By contrast, in others, such as a Spanish polychromed wood Corpus (14th century) [fig. 1] – which has the proportions of a child – the Christ figure leaps forward, as if, greeting his worshipers, he were expecting a curtain call and a standing ovation.

Anonymous, Corpus Christi c. 1750
[fig. 4]

Christ's multiplicity of roles is evident in the expressions on his face, in the shifts of weight, and in the tensions between so many simultaneously active forces present in a single figure. Often, Christ turns and twists against the verticality of the cross, as if he were a tornado-strength force that was drilling the cross simultaneously downward and upward. Within the same figure, Christ's thighs will roll impossibly inward, as his ribcage splays impossibly outward; his coiling arms will twist upward, as his knees and shins will twist inward and then outward; and all of this competing energy will release through the fingertips and the pointed toes – which gives Christ the poise of an Olympic diver.

Sometimes, as in a bronze Corpus, Christ is flattened against the velvet plane and feels liquid and malleable; his body flops like a fish out of water; or his body hangs, as in Baccio da Montelupo's polychrome wood Corpus (c.1550-55) [fig. 3], like a strange amalgamation of drapery, flayed animal, and shed skin. At other times, Christ's body feels as if it is melting, drifting, soaring, or as if it is in an endless freefall [fig. 4]. In one polychromed wood Corpus, the figure lists to one side like a doomed, waterlogged vessel. In the polychromed walnut French Corpus (17th century), Christ's crown of thorns, lively as sprouts, radiates outward with enough pull to lift Christ from the cross; it is the weight of his loincloth that gives him ballast.

Christ's arms, feet, chests, and hands are often splayed like wings. Groups of long toes, crossed over each other, become the feathers of birds that appear to be flying upside down. Arms are unusually stretched and elongated. We sense that Christ, like some inverted spiritual acrobat, is unbelievably falling back and upward. In one of the most beautiful Corpora in the show, a small boxwood figure (c. 1750), Christ's oversized head is thrown to his right; his loincloth hangs low; his cocked hips are in a classic contrapposto pose; and his knees are raised slightly. The tension between downward and upward momentum (both of which are clearly felt) keeps him in a state of endless suspension.

At other times, as in Fernando Tacca's bronze Corpus Christ's upper body has fallen, but his groin, and especially his loincloth, advance toward us and dance in a flurry of activity. It's as if in death, Christ's immortal, generative powers are now more powerful and alive than ever.

Christ, like everyone, was born human and with temptation. Yet, although he had the ability to act on his temptations, he was without sin to the very end. Christ's purity delivered us from Original Sin. Christ's humanity returned us to our innocence. Through Christ, we were returned to the state before our transgression; we were restored to a state of sinlessness, a state in which we can embrace God within ourselves in the full, true nature of man. Our sexual nature then becomes paramount in art, for it is only through physical procreation that we have proof of the eternal. It is only through human lineage – from Adam and Eve to Mary to Christ – that we have proof of God in man.

Calabrian, Corpus c. 1380 [fig. 5]

The tension between body and spirit is at the heart of the crucifix. That is why their forms often have so many different analogous or metaphorical possibilities going on in them simultaneously. The ribcage of a Calabrian wood Corpus (c. 1380) [fig. 5] opens wide like the jaws of a shark. The mouth is continued down into the abdomen and loincloth, whose wrinkles drop like a hungry lower lip. Here, Christ's head is averted, but his body opens up to devour us all.

Sculpture, because of its corporeality, can sometimes give us the sense that we are in the presence of the actual "thing," or "Corpus," itself. And this astounding grouping offers us a variety of ways to contemplate not only the death and body of Christ but also death and spirituality. In the small Corpus made of yew wood, Christ, missing his arms and his legs just below the knees, twists off of centerline in a manner that is as erotic as it is disconcerting. The body, as if it were dislocating itself from the cross, feels as if it is giving birth to the spirit.

In one particularly beautiful and poignant wood Corpus, just over a foot high, Christ's upper body is twice as long as his lower body, and an extreme sense of calm emanates from the sorrowful figure, which floats as calmly as a cloud. The arms are as straight as dowels. The face is tender. Christ's chin drops and turns to his right; and his mouth and nose shift to his left, as if his face were beginning to open. Christ's legs, dramatically foreshortened, make him look as if he had been cut off at the knees. His whole body, as if shedding his skin, legs, and feet, is going through a metamorphosis; it is as if he is transforming into a bird. [fig. 6]

Another spectacular Corpus, a gorgeous, dark-wood, pockmarked figure (one of the very few instances in the show in which Christ is nude), drifts quietly downward. His arms, like stretched taffy, are thin spindles. His head drops softly, and his open mouth releases a last breath or sigh, a surrender that suggests both agapeic bliss and death rattle. His torso shifts sensuously from side to side, as if he is displaying his body to us as he slips into death. Between his knees and chin lies eternity.

Anonymous, Corpus [fig. 6]





Lance Esplund. "On the Nature of the Crucifix." Corpora (2006).

This article was first published in a catalogue which accompanied an art exhibition at the Salander-O'Reilly gallery in New York from October 10 to November 4, 2006.

The catalogue and permission to use this article was kindly provided by the author, Lance Esplund.


Lance Esplund is senior art critic for CityArts Magazine and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, where he writes the biweekly "Fine Art" column. From 2004-2008 he was chief art critic of The New York Sun. He has written numerous museum and gallery exhibition catalog essays and has contributed essays and reviews (some of which have been anthologized) to many journals. He is an adjunct associate professor at Rider University and has taught at, among other schools, the Kansas City Art Institute, Queens College CUNY, and the Parsons School of Design, where he served on the faculty from 1989-2004. In September 2011, he will join the faculty of the New York Studio School.

Copyright © 2011 Lance Esplund

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