Earliest Depictions of the Crucified Jesus
A recent article helpfully discusses what historians of Christian art recognize as earliest depictions of the crucified Jesus, particularly a few gem-stones, a couple of them dated to the early-mid-4th century, and another that likely pre-dates them: Felicity Harley-McGowan, “The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity,” in Gems of Heaven: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, edited by Chris Entwhistle and Noël Adams (London: British Museum, 2011), 214-20.
One of these gem-stones, the “Constanza gem” (held in the British Museum) depicts Jesus on the cross flanked by the 12 apostles, reflecting the emergence of specifically Christian gem-stones likely sometime in the late 3rd or early 4th century. In addition, there is the plaster cast of another gem-stone (the current location of the gem itself not known) with a somewhat similar (though slightly cruder) depiction, and likely from the same rough period as the Constanza gem.
A third gem that Harley-McGowan sees as pre-dating these two is a large Bloodstone intaglio (30 x 25 x 8 mm; British Museum) that she places in the “late 2nd-3rd century.” It depicts and names Jesus on a cross and is “covered with a densely carved and largely incomprehensible inscription.” On the front side, however, a 9-line inscription commences with an invocation of “Son, Father, Jesus Christ,” followed by what appear to be indecipherable magical names and vowels, with an similarly strange 9-line inscription on the reverse side. The best guess is that this is a magical gem, the likely purpose being to invoke the power of Jesus, making it unclear “whether the owner would have been a Christian or not.”
She draws attention to a certain similarity between the image on this gem stone and the well-known “Alexamenos” graffito, found scratched on the plastered wall in part of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and commonly dated to the 2nd century. This appears to mock Christian devotion to the crucified Jesus. This graffito (and likely the Bloodstone intaglio as well) suggests “a ‘pagan’, or non-Christian’s awareness of two things: firstly, the significance of Jesus Crucifixion (at least in terms of it being a powerful and efficacious symbol); and secondly, a consciousness of the existence of Christian representations of the Crucifixion by the early 3rd century AD” (p. 218).
The larger point is that these items comprise “one step in directly challenging that persistent belief that persecuted Christians were too scared or too ashamed to name and depict the subject [the crucified Jesus] explicitly” (220).
She seems unaware of confirming evidence in the form of the “staurogram,” the monogram-like device comprising a combination of the Greek majuscule letters tau and rho, which appears in several Christian manuscripts commonly dated to the third century (Gregory-Aland P45, P66, P75). I’ve written about this device in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (135-54) and in an essay (the pre-publication version available here, and in an earlier blog-post here), contending (with some earlier scholars) that in these early uses it is a simple pictographic depiction of the crucified Jesus. This would confirm Harley-McGowan’s judgements about implications of the items she discusses.
It’s too bad, but not at all exceptional, that she seems unaware of the “staurogram.” It’s indicative of the unhelpful walls sometimes created by the unavoidable necessity of scholarly specialization. Art historians don’t think of manuscripts as offering useful data, and textual scholars don’t take account of iconographic data or questions. I guess it helps to be somewhat eclectic (or so I like to think)!
P.S. Subsequently to the above posting, email exchanges with Dr. Harley corrected my inference that she was unaware of the staurogram. I should merely have indicated that she made no reference to the matter. She is writing a book on the subject of pre-Constantinian Christian references to the crucified Jesus, to which I’ll look forward.