Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The artistic depiction of Christ’s crucifixion: history meets biomechanics

Mark Ransom
Johnson City, Tennessee, United States


Crucifixion (1430), Hans Von Tubingen, Punkstall Medieval Collection,
Vienna, Austria. In Von Tubingen’s work, Crucifixion, Jesus is seen
nailed through the hands on a 20+ foot Tau cross, while the thieves
to His side are bound by ropes to their patibulums.

The artistic depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, particularly from the first known images through the seventeenth century, are inconsistent in their portrayal of His cross and body position. There is little doubt that some of the evolution in the scene is in keeping with the artists’ deliberate intention to provide a reflective message for the faithful. It is also possible, however, that the changes may be a result of a growing understanding of biomechanics by the artists to add realism to their works. What is lacking to provide a singular representation of Christ’s crucifixion is a contemporaneous account of the event. Jesus’ crucifixion is described in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The other twenty-three books of the New Testament, however, do not embellish the accounts provided in the Gospels. The Gospels are believed to have been written between AD 66–70 for Mark, AD 85–90 for Matthew and Luke, and AD 90–110 for John. Although credited to those apostles, each were written anonymously and not by eyewitnesses.1 Since six decades or more passed before recording the story, the details become subject to anachronistic recall. As the original oral stories were replaced by more formal written accounts to satisfy the evangelical needs of the Church, the discrepancies in the description of the story are understandable.2

With insufficient evidence to suggest exactly how Christ was crucified, it is reasonable to assume that the method would have been identical to that used for any other criminal or radical at the time.3 Yet even the first century historian Josephus recorded that the Roman guards would individually experiment in different modes of crucifixion to satisfy their boredom and sadistic humors.4 Furthermore, pictorial inconsistencies could also reflect simple individual artist creativity, demands by patrons, and the changing attitude of the Church. Nonetheless, over time the cross and Jesus’ body position in the works of art assume an unmistakably greater biomechanical accuracy in their subject.

Contemporaries of Jesus were reluctant to describe and depict His crucifixion due to the very nature of the punishment. It was intended not only as a harsh sentence but to invoke disgrace and humiliation.5 The absence of His figure’s representation is in keeping with the notion that early Christians were too ashamed to portray their savior in this regard. In fact, the earliest known depiction of the crucifixion, the Alexamenos graffito, is a Roman graffito from the second century CE and shows a man worshipping a crucified donkey. The graffito was intended as an insult to early Christians and is accompanied by an inscription reading, “Alexamenos worships God.”6

The lack of uniformity in the artwork of the crucifixion begins with the cross itself. The device took many different forms including a simple upright stake or tree (crux simplex) on which the victims were directly impaled, to the more recognizable T-shaped cross with an upright portion (stipes) and crossbeam (patibulum). This so-called Tau cross was the most common structure used by the Romans at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. As depicted in the seventeenth century work of Frans Franken II Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves, the cross is Tau-shaped and lacks the upright extension from the patibulum commonly shown in other works of art [Musee des Beaux Art, Pau, France].

The weight of the entire cross would have exceeded three hundred pounds, making Christ’s carriage of the cross through the half mile long Via Dolorosa implausible. It is more likely that he would have carried only the cross beam which weighed approximately one hundred pounds.7 This patibulum was customarily placed across the nape of the neck and balanced along the shoulders. The outstretched arms were then tied to the beam. The artist’s accurate conception of the Passion would have relied upon their understanding of the process of crucifixion and the gibbets most commonly used for that time.

Even the height of the cross is artistically varied. During the time of Christ, the Romans favored the low Tau cross measuring approximately seven feet high, which insured the victim’s feet dangled off the ground. This height would also be consistent with the length of the centurion’s lance used to pierce Jesus’ side, typically two meters long. After fixing the victim to the patibulum on the ground by nails, the beam would be hoisted by ropes to an already standing stipes.8 A taller upright post as depicted in some paintings would have simply been more difficult to lift. The Crucifixion Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Gunewald (1512-16) depicts the cross as about eight feet high [on view at the Musee Unterlinden in France]. In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting Crucifixion (1532) [Indianapolis Museum of Art], Christ appears to be nailed to a cross more than twenty feet high.

Apart from height, modifications to the cross would also be the inclusion of a sedicula, which was a small seat to support the victim’s buttocks, or a suppedaneum, which acted as a footrest. The footrest is included in the Gero Cross (965-70) [Cologne Cathedral in Germany], and yet there is an absence of the footrest in El Greco’s Crucifixion (1610-14) [Museo Nacional del Prado en Madrid, Spain]. While not specifically mentioned in any of the descriptions of Christ’s crucifixion, it is commonly portrayed in paintings of the event. These two modest supports were intended to prolong the suffering of the condemned, as they provided a means for the victim to lift themselves up and take a breath. It is understood that the pathophysiologic mechanism to which the victim would succumb was by asphyxiation due to impairment of exhalation. Because of the positions of the outstretched shoulders and arms, the victim would assume a position of maximal inspiration. Ordinarily a passive maneuver, exhalation was then severely limited. This then resulted in reliance on diaphragmatic breathing, a breathing which would be insufficient to sustain the persecuted for any length of time. Accordingly, it was necessary for the condemned to lift their body up by pushing on the feet or the buttocks to take a satisfactory inhalation.9

Aside from the structure of the cross itself, the position Christ assumes also evolves in art. Some depict His figure in an almost vertical position as in the Rabbula Gospels Crucifixion (586) [Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana], while others capture an S-shaped position with a slumped posture developed in the eleventh century and exemplified in Cimabue’s Crucifix (1268-1271) [Basilico of San Domenico, Arrezzo, Tuscany].10 Conspicuous in the earliest of portrayals is a remarkable absence of trauma shown on the body or pain on the face. This was due in part because images before the Middle Ages tended to focus on the triumphant Christ rather than a dying one, since it was the overcoming of death that was central to belief.11 Later portrayals included trauma to the body following scourging and agony on the face as He suffered a slow death. The detail of the horror of death is captured in the Crucifixion by Titian from 1558 [located in the sanctuary of the church of San Domenico, Ancona, Italy].

The fastening of the body to the cross has been recorded as using five- to seven-inch long nails through the hands, or more likely through the carpals.12 The wrists would likely not have provided the amount of support necessary to affix the body, and because the Greek word for hand can be translated as the entire portion of the arm below the elbow, a site above the wrists may have been the more suitable.13 In fact, in Hans Von Tubingen’s Crucifixion (1430), Christ is nailed while the thieves to his sides are draped across the patibulum and tied [Punkstall Medieval Collection, Vienna, Austria] [Figure 1]. Driving the nail through the distal radioulnar joint would hit the median nerve and add to the pain, while avoidance of the radial and ulnar arteries would prevent exsanguination. The feet would be fixed by driving a nail through the second and third metatarsals of the crossed feet. An archeological finding from a first century AD tomb in Palestine suggests a different method, revealing an iron nail driven through the right calcaneus, lateral to medial. Most pictorial representations, however, favor the nailing through the front to back of the feet. In fact, the Shroud of Turin shows the feet fastened from the front, left foot over right.

The legs were flexed at about forty-five degree angles to permit a twelve-inch rise and fall to enable breathing. It is believed that this support would have been satisfactory to carry the weight of the body in the lower extremities and not rely upon the hands to provide any elevation. It is this attention to detail, the development of technical proficiency, that allows the artist to explore the agony suffered by Christ on the cross. More blood was shown from the eighth, ninth, and tenth century works, whereas the more upright figure depicted in the fourth and fifth centuries are replaced by the slumping position.14

The inconsistencies in the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion in art are no doubt multifactorial. The artist would have relied upon historical references and an understanding of the method of crucifixion to provide a scene for contemplative reflection. The evolution from very crude icons to detailed later works bring an element of biomechanics to reconcile the story with the depiction. Artists were often students of anatomy and this allowed them to accurately illustrate the forces placed upon the body. It is that development in understanding that permitted Jesus’ portrayal to assume a greater realism and solemnity.



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MARK X. RANSOM, MD, MBA, HCLD, is an assistant professor at Quillen College of Medicine, Division of Reproductive Endocrinology, Department of OB/GYN. Dr. Ransom received his undergraduate degree from Seton Hall University and his medical degree from Rutgers Medical School. He completed his OB/GYN residency in 1991 and his fellowship in REI in 1993, both from Robert Wood Johnson University. Postgraduate, Dr. Ransom was in private practice in New Jersey until joining the Quillen College of Medicine in 2015. He received his MBA from East Tennessee State University in 2016 and resides in Johnson City with his wife Claudia and twins, Tatiana and Nicholas.


Spring 2019   |  Sections  |  Art Essays

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