From Triumphant to Suffering Jesus: Visual and Literary Depictions of the Crucifixion, 300-1200




When I visited the Musee de Moyen Age in Paris in 2001 I was drawn to images of the crucifixion. from the middle Ages. At the time I was taking a seminar on the Middle Ages with Mathew Kuefler on the twelfth-century renaissance. So when I returned to San Diego I wrote an earlier version of the essay that follows. It was picked up by net for those interested in seeing all the images.

The twelfth century was a period of significant development and change in the religious and secular world of Western Europe. One area of transition occurred in depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. In both writing and art, the triumphant living Christ of the early Middle ages, was transformed into the dying, suffering, and yet majestic savior of the twelfth century.[1] This essay examines images and written sources from the fourth to the twelfth centuries, and seeks to determine how the twelfth century renaissance and reformation—based on the discovery of the individual— influenced this evolution. Furthermore, the essay will explore how the increased concern with Christ’s anguish and humanity heightened intolerance and contributed to the persecution of twelfth-century Western European Jews.

An analysis of this shift in the depiction of Christ has many of the same advantages and disadvantages of Penny Schine Gold’s analysis, in The Lady and the Virgin, of twelfth and thirteenth-century artistic representations of the Virgin Mary. As Gold asserts, many obstacles stand in the way of the modern historian when they attempt to interpret medieval imagery. Art, being non-verbal, is seldom accompanied by any literary interpretation, complicating one’s ability to comprehend the deeper meaning, attitudes, and values contained in the image. It is difficult, indeed, to determine how quickly shifts in theological attitudes were transmitted in these art forms.[2]

These difficulties aside, I would agree with Gold that art provides a powerful representation of medieval values and beliefs. Religious art relied heavily upon a repetition of themes; thus major changes in art forms can reflect important developments in religious ideology.[3] Therefore literary sources may be utilized to provide supplemental support for the analysis of visual art.

One more caveat before proceeding. Tracing the change from the triumphant Christ of the early Middle Ages to the suffering Christ of the twelfth century does not suggest some sort of linear progression.  All periods of historical transition, whether in literature, politics, or in art, are obscure in their origins, and new movements are seldom a sudden occurrence, but reach back to an earlier time.[4] Even when a new form overtakes the old, in many areas, the earlier style continues to be presented as a powerful form.

By the twelfth century, in both literature and art, the form of the suffering Christ was supplanting the form of the conquering Christ. Colin Morris suggests that this change occurred, in part, because the role of the individual had gradually increased in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This development was a direct result of this era’s intellectual revival and the creation of a more “complex” society in Western Europe.[5] The triumphant form of Christ had prevailed in the less complicated societies of seventh to tenth-century Western Europe. By the seventh century, political disunity and a reduction of trade made Western Europe largely devoid of cities. Literacy remained the preserve of the clergy, and the bonds of society were personal and tribal.[6]

Because of the reasons given above, in these warrior cultures the image of Christ victorious dominated. Morris explains:

The stress during the first thousand years fell upon the victory which God had won on the cross, a victory which overcame the devil’s hold upon men, opened all mankind to the action of God’s grace and established Christ’s lordship over the world.[7]


In the first thousand years of the Church’s history, the figure of the dead Christ was almost never shown. Christian tradition seemed reluctant to portray Christ as a suffering man, preferring to emphasize his divine power. One may provide another reason for this hesitance. The Roman Empire had long admired martial virtues as the primary components of an ideal Roman male’s identity, which helps explain the lack of interest in Christ’s suffering for a religion that was focusing on converting a population that venerated the deeds of military men.[8]

(plate 3 )


Although the earliest surviving examples of the crucifix, comes from the late sixth century (e.g., plate 4), the cross itself, without a representation of Christ, had become a significant Christian symbol early as the second century.

(plate 4)

After the emperor Constantine’s (ruled, 306-337) conversion to Christianity in 312 the Roman army began to use Christian symbols and offered prayers to the Christian god before battle. Further use of military metaphors can be observed in plate 5. In this sixth-century mosaic from Ravenna Italy, Christ is dressed in the typical military garb of a Late Roman general or emperor.


(plate 5)


Certainly sordid details of Christ’s crucifixion were not a topic that generated much description or discussion in Late Antiquity. Christian writers such as the fourth-century “father” of ecclesiastical history, Eusebius, tended to ignore the details of the crucifixion, concentrating instead on His rebirth, and focusing on the “treachery” committed by the Jews in Christ’s condemnation. The same is largely true as well for the fourth and fifth century Church Fathers from both halves of the Roman Empire.[9]

We have evidence that non-Christians criticized the religion for the unmanly death of its savior. The seventh-century Armenian historian, Sebeos, for example, has a Muslim commander accepting the surrender of parts of the Eastern Roman Empire scoff at the protective power of Christ and the cross. The historian wrote:

I shall provide you with as many soldiers as you wish, and take tribute from you as much as you are able to give. But if you do not, that Jesus whom you call Christ, since he was unable to save himself from the Jews, how can he save you?[10]

Such derision helps to explain why Christian missionaries made a point of emphasizing Christ’s triumph to potential converts among the warlike foreign peoples who would have had a difficult time accepting the pacifist Christ of the New Testament. Indeed, the God of the Early Medieval Christian missionaries was not the gentle savior of the New Testament, but often the vengeful powerful God of the Old Testament.[11] These realities, along with early Christians’ reluctance to depict Christ’s image, may have promoted the popularity of imageless crosses in early Christian period. However, by the sixth century the hesitancy to depict Christ’s image declined significantly and despite the paucity of surviving examples images of Christ triumphant upon the cross became more popular.

The gradual conversion of Western Europe also eroded the early Church’s emphasis on the individualistic nature of Christianity. One no longer made a deliberate choice to become a Christian by interior change (repentance) and an exterior change (baptism an acceptance of Christ as Lord. By the tenth century neither of these experiences was necessary. It required no personal choice to become a Christian, nor did one find himself or herself to be a member of a community distinct from society as a whole.[12]

Western Europe also experienced an increased emphasis to the Old Testament. The rural societies of the early middle ages found it difficult to relate to the early Church Fathers who mostly lived in the cities of the Late Antique Roman Empire. The kingdom of Israel—not the Roman Empire—became the model society by which the rural Western European communities compared themselves. The Frankish Kings created a “Davidic Kingship,” a doctrine by which warrior monarchs served as God’s representatives on earth— rewarding the pious and punishing the impious. The Carolingian Kings promoted order through obedience, and the belief in symbols and rites, giving little concern for reason or reflection. Within this world, the individual was limited to accepting his or her role within the hierarchy. Christ and king were promoters of stability and victory, providing little need to contemplate the individuality of Christ or his suffering.[13]

By the tenth century, however, we begin to see the first examples of a new type of crucifix which emphasized Christ’s anguish.[14] This movement gathered momentum in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Giles Constable suggests that the transition from the triumphant Christ to the suffering Christ was linked to eleventh and twelfth century Church reforms and social developments. This period of consolidation and change, created the need for reformers to protect themselves against both clerical and lay opponents. Jesus presented a focal point around which the reformers could rally, in doing; the reformers emphasized Christ’s humanity which increasingly became an object of devotion and imitation.[15]

In Historia calamitatum, the twelfth-century philosopher and teacher Peter Abelard revealed how an intimate relationship with Christ could provide comfort when one was threatened by the outside world:

While I was continuously harassed by these anxieties and as a last resort had thought of taking refuge with Christ among Christ’s enemies, an opportunity was offered me by which I believed would bring me some respite from the plots against me; but in taking it I fell among Christians and monks who were far more savage and wicked than the heathen.[16]


Constable argues that the notion that one had a personal connection with God through their relationship with Christ created a feeling of self-awareness and inwardness. Reformers attempted to model their lives on the Gospel, fleeing to the isolated regions of Europe. In this escape from the secular world, the reformers focused on their love of Christ, which increasingly became an internal rather than an external relationship.[17]This sense of a direct relationship with God had been less prevalent in the early middle ages, when many monks and nuns were given to monasteries as children and religion was more of a communal experience.

During this period, individuals tended to view God as a powerful King who commanded conformity and obedience from his subjects. This is not to say that for most twelfth-century Christians’ religion represented a purely internal event—the reform movement itself promoted a profound spirit of mutual cooperation and support. The group ideal reflected the strong bonds of external friendship and love among “brothers” who recognized the greater good of the abbey over the individual. Thus it is important to note the reverence of both an internal and external relationship with Christ for these reformers, just as we see the coexistence of both triumphant and suffering portraits of Christ.

Medieval devotion to Christ was often based on intense emotion and sensuality. The twelfth-century Christian felt no need to separate religion and piety from sensuality and sexuality. Medieval monks felt the embrace of Christ and smelled his scent. Nuns, and even monks, metaphorically became “brides of Christ” and their relationship could appear to the modern to be that of two lovers. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a twelfth-century abbess and writer, aptly illustrated this “sensual” relationship in O dulcissime amator:

Now we call on you, our husband and comforter,

Who redeemed us on the Cross.

We are bound to you through your blood

as the pledge of betrothal.

We have renounced earthly men

And chosen you the Son of God

O most beautiful form.

O sweetest fragrance of desirable delights

We sigh for you always in our sorrowful banishment!

When may we see you and remain with you?

But we dwell in the world,

And you dwell in our mind;

We embrace you in our heart as if we had you here with us.[18]


Hildegard creates lines of poetry that make one almost smell and taste Christ, such intimate language, in the contemporary world, is usually reserved for lovers. Caroline Walker Bynum suggests that twelfth-century women used extreme fasting as a means to identify with Christ’s suffering on the cross: “Filled with Christ the recipient was simultaneously crucified with his agony.”[19]

This is not to say that all of these “brides of Christ” thought only of Jesus and abandoned love in the secular world. Abelard’s former lover, and secret wife, the abbess Heloise, lamented in a letter of self-revelation to Abelard that he was her only true love:

But if I lose you (Abelard) what is left for me to hope for? What reason continuing on life’s pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you denied even the joy of your presence, which from time to time could restore to myself.[20]


Abelard admonished Heloise that “It was he (Christ) who truly loved you, not I. My love, which brought us both to sin, should be called lust not love.”[21] He attempted to convince Heloise that her suffering should be compared to Christ’s:

Are you not moved to tears or remorse by the only begotten Son of God who, for you and all of mankind, in his innocence was seized by the hands of impious men, dragged along scourged, blindfolded, mocked at, buffeted, spat upon,. Crowned with thorns, finally hanged between to thieves on the Cross, at the time so shameful a gibbet, to die a horrible and accursed form of death? Think of him always, sister, as your true spouse, and the spouse of all the Church.[22]


For Abelard, the love of Christ, being non-sexual, made the ideal relationship. By comparing their misfortune to Christ’s torment on the Cross, he discounted the relevance of their own pain and, finally, their relationship.

It was not only the religious reformation that created this increased emphasis on the Christ’s individuality and humanity. The twelfth-century intellectual renaissance launched a revival in classical learning that helped stimulate of new areas in various intellectual study, including philosophy. These developments created the need for rational thinkers to use their mastery of logic to understand Christ and their faith. Anselm of Canterbury seemed particularly interested in Christ’s sacrifice:

But he speaks of the will of the Father, not because the Father preferred the death of his son to his life; but because the father was not willing to rescue the human race, unless man were to do even as great a thing as was signified in the death of Christ. Since reason did not demand of another what he could not do, therefore, the Son say s he desires his own death. For he preferred to suffer rather than the human race be lost; as if to say to the Father: Since thou dost not desire reconciliation of the world to take place n any other way in this respect I see that thou desires my death; let thy will, therefore, be done, that is, let my death take place, so that the world may be reconciled to thee.[23]


Anselm presented Christ in an internal conversation with himself logically thinking out his decision. Anselm’s Christ appears very human, and the philosopher’s construction seems patterned on his own personality. Christ’s rational choice makes his death all the more terrible for both the twelfth-century and the modern reader.

Empathy with Christ’s suffering, however, had a more sinister side, and might, in part, be used to understand twelfth-century Western Europe’s growing religious intolerance. The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the first widespread attacks on Jews on the continent; and it seems clear that an increased emphasis on the Jew’s role in the “murder” of Christ played a role in these pogroms.[24] The twelfth-century writer, Thomas of Monmouth portrayed this feeling of contempt for the Jews in his description of a supposed ritual crucifixion of a twelve year old Christian boy:

Thus while some of these enemies of the Christian name were reveling in the spirit of malice around the boy, some of those present decided that he should be fixed to the Cross in mockery of the Lord’s passion. And they did it as if to say, just as we condemned the Christ to suffer a shameful death, so let us condemn the Christian, so that, uniting the Lord and His servant in like punishment, we may turn our back upon them in the pain of His reproach that they attribute to us.[25]


The desire to understand Christ’s suffering created a young martyr who was able to experience Christ’s pain. Compassion for the suffering Christ, internalized, mutated into a more intense hatred of the Jews.

Some Church leaders attempted to control this murderous passion, which ironically, they had helped unleash by preaching the Second crusade. The following letter, addressed to the people of England by Bernard of Clairvaux shows him attempting to control these attacks on the Jewish peoples:

I have heard with the great joy of the zeal for God’s glory which burns in your midst, but your zeal needs the restraint of knowledge. The Jews are not to be persecuted or killed or even put to flight. Ask anyone who knows the Sacred Scriptures what he finds foretold of the Jews in the psalm: ‘Not for their destruction do I pray,’ it says. The Jews are the living word of Scripture, for they remind us always of what the Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere living witness to our redemption.[26]


Bernard attempted to protect Jewish lives throughout Western Europe, yet, the increased emphasis on the “crime” committed in Christ’s death made attacks on them inevitable. In addition the Crusades had allowed many Europeans to visit the lands depicted in the New Testament, making these long past events seem somewhat more contemporary and real. The twelfth-century emphasis on the suffering of Jesus reflected changes that were the result of reformation and renaissance. Medieval Christians’ compassion for Christ’s suffering, however, evoked both love and murderous passion.




[1] Some beautiful representations of these images are found in Oleg Zastrow, Crosses and Crucifixes: Treasures from the 8th to 19th Centuries (2009). For some recent studies on the theology behind these images, see Celia Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2001); Richard Viladesau, The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2]Penny Schine Gold, The Lady and the Virgin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 44-45.

[3]Gold, 44.

[4]Charles Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century 15th edition (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1970), 29.

[5]Colin Morris, the Discovery of the Individual (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 140.

[6]Morris, 20-21. Though an early medieval collapse of literacy has been disputed, see Rosamond Mckitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[7]Morris, 139.

[8]For the links between military virtues in the Roman Empire, see, Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); M.E. Stewart, The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the early Byzantine Empire (PhD Diss. Queensland University, 2012).  For early Christians attempts to portray the crucifixion as a noble and manly death, Coleen Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), esp. 70-78.

[9] See e.g., Andrew Bain, Four Interpretations of Biblical Crucifixion Narratives in the Latin West, c. 350-430. (PhD Diss., Queensland University, 2007).


[10]Sebeos, History 50.169 (trans. Thomson).

[11]For example in the Life of St. Nino the Georgian peoples are convinced of the Christian God’s superiority after God answer St. Nino’s prayers by sending a hurricane to terrify the locals by smashing their city walls as well as their local pagan idols.Anonymous, The Life of St. Nina Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia with the Service, (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1988).

[12]Morris, 23-4.

[13]Morris, 24-5.

[14] Morris, 23.

[15]Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 261-3.

[16]Abelard, Historia calamitatum in The letters of Abelard and Heloise trans Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 94.

[17]Constable, 261.

[18]Hildegard of Bingen, “Causae et curae, and other excerpts of Hildegard’s writing,” in The Writings of Medieval Women, ed. And trans. Marcelle Thiebaux (New York: Garland, 1987), 341.

[19]Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast Holy Fast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 188-19.

[20] Abelard and Heloise, 129.

[21] Abelard and Heloise, 153.

[22] Abelard and Heloise, 151.

[23]Anselm, “Curs Deus Homo,” in Basic Writings trans. S.N. Deane, 13th ed. (La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1988), 210.

[24] For a lucid analysis of Western Europeans’ growing intolerance towards those considered as dangerous others from the tenth century, see R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).


[25]Thomas of Monmouth, “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” in Medieval Hagiography: an Anthology, ed. Thomas heads (New York: Garland, 2000), 52.

[26]Bernard of Clairvaux,  “Letter to England to Summon the Second Crusade, 1146,” in The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. Bruno Scott (London: Burns Oates, 1953), 6.


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