The difference between a cross and a crucifix is that the latter bears a "corpus" or sculpted image of Christ's body. Sometimes a museum will display the corpus only, the cross having been lost
(example). Another genre is the Crucifixion image, which pictures Christ on the cross in the context of details from the gospel accounts.
The cross will sometimes represent the person of Christ in his role as savior of mankind. See the apse mosaic at St. John Lateran and the apsidal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore. A mosaic similar to the Lateran's but with a crucifixion scene instead of a cross is in the apse of San Clemente, also in Rome. The need to look to Christ as Savior is expressed in many early sarcophagi by a design in which the cross is approached by a pair of lambs or peacocks. (The flesh of the latter was reputed to stay fresh indefinitely.1) The design is also seen in church art of the same period (example). These examples come from early times, but the device of substituting a cross for an image of Christ can be found even as late as the 14th century, as in this Coptic Crucifixion image.
In the paleo-Christian era another trope referencing salvation through Christ was the cross placed on a hill from which four rivers flow, as in this sarcophagus and this diptych leaf. The rivers represent the four rivers in Genesis 2:10-14 that rise from the single source in Eden.2
Later, in the Baroque, Christ's glorification by the Father is pictured as angels lifting the Cross into Heaven (example). In the same period this engraving represents the "fountain of living water" (Jeremiah 2:31) that the commentators interpret as Christ (Glossa Ordinaria, IV, 595).
THE CHI-RHO SYMBOL
The chi-rho combines the first two letters of Greek XPΙΣΤOς, "Christ." In paleo-Christian art it usually represents the resurrected Christ and is often pictured within a wreath, as in the first picture at right. In paleo-Christian images, it may be flanked by birds (as in the picture) or by lambs (example). Birds, symbolic of immortality from classical times, can represent Christians' hope for their own resurrection. Lambs may have the same meaning but can also represent the apostles, as in these sarcophagus fragments, where twelve lambs are labeled with the apostles' names. Or a lamb representing Christ may have a chi-rho inscribed on its halo (example).
By the end of the last century the chi-rho had become simply a symbol of Christ or of Christianity in general.
To represent Christ specifically as crucified on the cross without actually picturing him, paleo-Christian artists used the staurogram, the figure shown at left. The staurogram originated as a scribal abbreviation for the words "cross" and "crucify." For its subsequent development, see my page on this early symbol.
In the first centuries A.D., the anchor symbol sometimes served as an alternative to the cross as an identifier of Christianity (Sill, 128). This was partly because of its cross-like shape and partly because Hebrews 6:19 speaks of hope in God's promise as "an anchor of the soul." In medieval times hope was the more common meaning of the anchor symbol, but even then it could be associated iconographically with Christ in the Eucharist, as in this altar frontal from the 12th century and this manuscript illustration from the 15th.
(The anchor is also an attribute of St. Clement.)
THE CRUCIFIX IN HISTORY
In the 5th century the Church promulgated the definition of Christ as "true man and true God," a single person with two distinct natures. Consequently, the crucifixes of the next five centuries expressed his divine nature by portraying him as priest and king – crowned and wearing liturgical vestments, as in the second picture at right.3 In these images his eyes are usually open and he is clearly alive. The arms do not bend with the weight of his body but stretch out vertically, suggesting the exuberance of victory or even welcome to the viewer. The same iconography applied to Crucifixion scenes, as discussed in our page, "The Crucifixion in Art." It also inspired the Anglo-Saxon "Dream of the Rood," a poem where the Cross appears to the speaker as both a bejeweled treasure and a symbol of anguish.4
In the Romanesque period, roughly the 10th through the 12th centuries, the colobium is gradually replaced by a finely decorated skirt and most of the body is left naked, as in the third picture at right. A slight bend in the arms makes the figure more realistic but does not imply that they are bending in response to the weight of a dead body. Indeed, the Jesus on most Romanesque crucifixes continues to be very much alive, with head erect and eyes open. Generally we do not see a wound in his side.
An interesting example, reputed to be the oldest cruceiro in Galicia, has the old colobium version on one side of the cross and the new skirted version on the other.
In the Gothic period (13th through 15th centuries) crucifixes emphasize the torments Jesus suffered, with very literal detailing of his wounds and bruises, as in the third picture at right. The man is clearly dead, his head slumped to the side and blood flowing from the wound in his side. Instead of a skirt, an unadorned cloth is tied around his waist. Whereas the older works emphasized his status as king and priest, the Gothic points to his role as redeemer. In the fourth picture at right, this is suggested by John's gesture of contemplation and the portrait at the top of St. Michael, the victor over Satan, whose shield bears a cross in the shape of this very crucifix. In another example the redemption is symbolized by a pelican, believed at the time to bring its young back to life with its own blood. (See my page on the pelican symbol.)
The emphasis on Jesus' suffering continued into Counter-Reformation art in the 16th and 17th centuries (example) and thence into the folk art of Latin countries, where it is still in evidence (example). Some examples go back to using a decorated skirt rather than a tied cloth (example).
Later crucifixes retain the Gothic elements – the five wounds, the tied cloth, and the slumping head and sagging arms. But most examples from the 19th and 20th centuries, like the fifth picture at right, are considerably less bloody, and even in New Mexico this unsorrowful crucifix has Christ open-eyed and raising his arms in acclamation. Modern crucifixes are usually less oriented to theological statement, although a few examples have Jesus reaching one hand down from the cross as if to assist the person standing below (example).
THE PARTS OF THE CRUCIFIX
The INRI Scroll
At the top of the vertical crosspiece one often sees a scroll or plaque bearing the letters INRI, which stand for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." The Roman practice was to use such a scroll to identify the criminal and his crime (see John 19:19-22). On larger crucifixes the scrolls will sometimes have the entire inscription (example).
Christian writers of the period of the persecutions mention a sedilus excessus in Christ's cross, a projection functioning as a small seat to keep the weight of the body from pulling the hands off the nails. To my knowledge this feature was never represented in the art, but many crucifixes have a suppedaneum, a sloping ledge to support Christ's feet. (See the fourth picture at right.) This is mentioned in Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Martyrs (6th century).
Debunkers will sometimes declare that nails could not have been driven through Christ's palms as shown in crucifixes, because of the pull of the body. But the usual Roman practice, well attested in the literature, was to tie the limbs to the cross and then drive nails through the hands and feet. The earliest known Christian image of the crucifixion, from a time not long after the era of public crucifixions, clearly shows nails driven through the palms.
TYPES OF CRUCIFIXES
A crucifix made for a liturgical procession is called a "processional cross." There may be secondary images of saints on the ends of the crosspieces and/or flanking the corpus (example). Holy Week processions in Latin countries feature life-size crucifixes; some churches will keep such a crucifix in a display case during the rest of the year (example) or place the corpus in a glass-sided coffin (example).
Before the modern age it was common in Catholic countries to maintain crucifixes at public crossroads for the edification of travelers, and some of these are still extant today. They are known in Spain as cruceiros (example). and in France as Calvaires (example). Some of these manage to express profound theological insights. The iconography of the calvaire in Espalion, France, for example, merges imagery of the Crucifixion with both the Eucharist and the Resurrection / Ascension. In parts of southern Europe a simpler form is preferred, with the Virgin Mary standing alone before the Cross and facing the viewer (example). In Munich we observed a similar arrangement in which a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is placed below and in front of a painting of the crucified Christ. In Armenia, the cross is inscribed on stone tablets called khatchkars, which serve as memorials and as historical markers (example).
Finally, there is a type of crucifix or crucifixion image in which the souls in Purgatory are pictured beneath the base of the cross. See this section of our study of the "Descent into Hell."
Some crucifixes are the object of special veneration, such as the Señor de Esquipulas in Guatemala and Nuestro Señor de los Milagros in Peru.
For a more extensive scholarly treatment of this subject, see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2016-10-15,20, 2016-12-09, 2017-11-26.
MIRACLES OF THE CROSS