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Updated on November 27, 2016

Crucifixion is a method of execution widely used in the ancient world and most famous as the manner in which Christ died on Calvary. The word comes from the Latin words crux and figere, meaning to "affix to a cross". Crucifixion was a practice of most of the peoples of the Near East and of the Carthaginians in North Africa, and it was adopted by the Romans as the means of executing slaves and non-Roman citizens. Being crucified was a shameful death for a convicted person, who was either nailed or tied to an upright wooden cross. Most Roman crucifixions took place on the Latin cross, a straight pole with a crossarm near the top. The X-shaped cross of St. Andrew and the T-shaped cross of St. Anthony were also used, as well as the crux simplex, a simple stake. The practice of crucifixion lasted until the 4th century A.D. The Christian emperor Constantine outlawed it.

The details of Christ's passion and death, which are related in the Four Gospels (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19), dramatically portray the Roman method of crucifixion. After an accused person had been tried and found guilty by the authorities, he was scourged with rods and whips. Then he was forced to carry a cross to the place of execution. The journey was usually a public procession, with soldiers guarding the man about to die. Jeering people lined the way to the execution place, usually a hill or mound outside the city walls. There the victim was stripped of his garments and was fastened with nails or leather thongs to the cross, which lay flat on the ground. An inscription with the name of the condemned man was often placed over his head. The cross was then lifted up and set into a hole so that it would stand erect.

The victim was left in this position to die a slow death, although the Roman soldiers would sometimes break his legs to hasten the end. Quite often barbaric innovations were introduced. St. Peter was crucified head downward, and in the arenas of Rome, Christians on crosses were burned alive or eaten by wild beasts.

The Crucifixion of Christ has long been a dominant theme in religious art. The first representations appeared in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. The early examples, which were usually done in the Byzantine style, showed Christ alive and wearing a royal crown. The religious art of the Middle Ages showed Him either dead or in agony and wearing a crown of thorns. Renaissance artists, such as Tintoretto, painted the Crucifixion with a panorama of detail. Their paintings depict the two thieves who died with Christ, the Roman soldiers, and the citizens of Jerusalem, and Mary, St. John, and others at the foot of the cross. Mathias Griinewald's painting the Isenheim Altarpiece portrays the agony and horror of the Crucifixion. Artists of later centuries, including such modern painters as Salvador Dali, have continued to depict the Crucifixion.


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