Wednesday, September 10, 2014

First depiction of Jesus on cross - the Bloodstone amulet

Eastern Mediterranean (Syria?)
Late 2nd  - 3rd century
The Trustees of the British Museum,
Department of Prehistory and Europe, London
From the collection of Roger Pereire, Paris

The 3 x 2.5 x 0.58 cm size gem is made of Bloodstone (mottled green and red jasper) .

Felicity Harvey and Jeffrey Spier write about this rare object (formatting and subtitles added by me)
The large bloodstone intaglio preserves the earliest extant depiction of Jesus crucified.

The style of carving, material, and inscription are all typical of the large group of Greco-Roman magical amulets originating in Egypt and Syria that were used widely in the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries. The appearance of the Crucifixion on such an amulet, however, is unique.

Portrayal of the crucified
Jesus is portrayed as a nude, bearded man with long hair, his arms stretched out beneath the horizontal bar (patibulum) of the T-shaped cross and attached to it by two short strips around his wrists. His elbows and hands fall loosely as a result. Jesus’s upper body is upright against the vertical shaft of the cross, his head turned sharply to the left.

The flat, strictly frontal presentation, with the erect carriage of the head and torso, is comparable to the crucified figure in the Palatine graffito, which must be roughly contemporary  with this amulet.

Jesus’s legs are shown in profile, bent at the knee and hanging open loosely, as though he is seated on a bar or peg. The starkness of this position, emphasizing Jesus’s nudity, is wholly antithetical to the triumphal symbolism of the crucified Christ seen in subsequent representation sin Christian art.

The nudity is not used in accordance with the Greco-Roman concept of nakedness as a means to denote divinity nor is it a strictly narrative device, referring to the historical process of crucifixion. Here it may be regarded as affirming Jesus’s spiritual power, witnessed in the fact that he overcame the brutality of the cross and thereby defeated evil powers.

Like other magical amulets of this date, the gem is covered with a Greek inscription composed mainly of magical names, not all of which are intelligible.

On the obverse side, written around the image of the Crucifixion, is a nine-line inscription:

which may be interpreted as Son, Father, Jesus Christ, followed by uncertain magical names (soam noam oa. . . ), vowels, and possibly the word “hung up”(?).

The back of the gem displays another nine-line inscription, perhaps written by a different hand:

The string of words contains two names familiar from other magical texts, Badetophoth and Satraperkmeph, the latter of Egyptian derivation, meaning Great satrap Kmeph.

Also present, however, is the name Emmanuel (Hebrew for God is with us), taken by Christians to be a reference to Jesus prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matthew 1:23).

Function of the gem
Although the Church strongly disapproved of magical amulets, which were pervasive in the Greco-Roman world, some Christians did continue to use them.

The image of the crucified Christ may, however, have been employed by a pagan magician, who borrowed what he perceived as a symbol of great power.

Even in Jesus’s lifetime, pagans and Jews were said to use his name for magical purposes (Mark 9:38 – 41; Luke 9:49 – 50; and especially Acts 19:13 – 17, for the seven sons of the Jewish priest Sceva). The Christian theologian Origen wrote,“The name of Jesus is so powerful against the demons that sometimes it is effective even when pronounced by bad men” (Contra celsum 1.6).

The Crucifixion, Jesus’s triumph over death itself, was regarded as a powerful symbol, and at an early date the formulaic phrase, “Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” was used to control demonic forces. Peter, for example, heals a cripple in Christ’s name and states (Acts 4:10): “Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.”

The appearance of the Crucifixion on a gem of such an early date suggests that pictures of the subject (now lost) may have been widespread even in the late second or early third century, most likely in conventional Christian contexts.

 Harvey and Spier suggest in this text that the Bloodstone carving is probably contemporary with the Alexamenos graffito.

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