Friday, September 12, 2014

Suffering Christ - Maestro della Croce 434, Florence

Suffering Christ on the cross
Maestro della Croce 343, AD 1230
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
image wikimedia

Another masterpiece from early 13th century Italy depicting suffering Christ on the cross.

There are really no words to adequately praise this famous work of art that leads us to study, meditate and pray at the foot of the Crucified.

 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:16

Suffering Christ - Byzantine Master of the Crucifix of Pisa

Byzantine Crucifix of Pisa, AD 1230
image wikimedia

After centuries of Triumphant Christ the masterpiece from Pisa is among the earliest portrayals of Suffering Christ on the cross.

The work follows technically earlier depictions of the Crucified standing on his legs and arms stretched to the side without any stress on them. The difference is in the suffering expression on Christ's face. 

Wikipedia tells
The so-called Byzantine Master of the Crucifix of Pisa was an anonymous Italian painter active in Pisa in the first half of the thirteenth century. His most important painting is a Crucifixion painted on wood panel, dating to sometime around 1230 and currently in the Museo nazionale di San Matteo. The painting is significant in the history of Italian painting for its iconography of the patient, suffering Christ on the cross; although then new, it quickly replaced the older style, depicting Christ triumphant and free from pain, with open eyes and a regal bearing free from sorrow.

The painting contains all the canonical elements of this type of representation, already known from Byzantine art and miniatuer painting. Christ's head falls to the left; the eyes are closed, and a small trail of blood escapes from one wound. The four arms of the cross are decorated with smaller scenes, as is traditional:

  • a painting of Christ in triumph with angels at the head
  • depictions of spectators at the arms
  • the suppedaneo at the feet

Flanking the body of Christ are other representations of various scenes from the Passion. The body itself is rigid, with little suggestion of movement or life; this is in contrast to the slightly later depictions of the same scene by Giunta Pisano and Cimabue, both of which show the body bending under its own weight.
Read the entire article from wikipedia.

First crucifixion in illustrated manuscripts - the Rabbula Gospels

The earliest crucifixion in an illustrated manuscript
The Rabbula Gospels AD 586

The artist included into a single painting many themes from the Gospels descriptions of the events during the Good Friday.  In basic design and details of crucifixion he might well have been influenced by the wood carving in the door of Basilica Santa Sabina, Rome. 

Both Christ and Mary, Mother of Jesus, have the halo of saints. Christ has been dressed up very modestly into a long colored gown and He is shown larger than all the other persons in the painting. 

It has been suggested by a group of Florentine scholars that ultraviolet light reveals extensive later repainting over the original in order to standardize the presentation. 

The Rabbula Gospels
The Rabbula Gospels, or Rabula Gospels, (Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 56) is a 6th-century illuminated Syriac Gospel Book. One of the finest Byzantine works produced in Asia, and one of the earliest Christian manuscripts with large miniatures, it is distinguished by the miniaturist's predilection for bright colours, movement, drama, and expressionism. Coming from a period from which little art survives, and which saw great development in Christian iconography, the manuscript has a significant place in art history, and is very often referred to.

Timeline of earliest portrayals of crucified Christ

Portrayals of crucifixion
34 (?)
Jesus Christ crucified

1st 3rd  centuries
Written documents about cross and crucifixion

2nd 3rd century

Alexamenon graffito
Bloodstone amulet

Constantinian dynasty 305 - 363
Valentinian dynasty
364 - 379
Constantin the Great abolishes crucifixion
AD 337 (?)

Crucified and the Twelve Apostles
Theodosian dynasty
379 – 457
Leonid dynasty
457 - 518

Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
Maskell ivories, Rome
AD 420
Christ Triumphant
Justinian dynasty
518 - 602

Crosses and crucifixes become common symbols in Christianity
Crosses in mosaics and other works of art, icons portraying the Crucified as the victor.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

First narrative portrayal of crucifion - the Maskell ivories

Christ Triumphat and hanging Judas
Plaque from the Maskell ivories. AD 420-30, Rome 
image courtesy of British Museum Highlights

British Museum highlights site tells
Panel from an ivory casket: the Crucifixion of Christ

Late Roman, AD 420-30
Probably made in Rome

The earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion

This plaque is one of four, which though now separated, must originally have been mounted on the four sides of a small square casket. Each is carved with scenes from Christ’s Passion. The other panels depict Christ carrying the Cross, the empty Sepulchre and Doubting Thomas.

This is the earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion. It is combined with another scene of death, the hanging of Judas. The stiff, clothed body of Judas pulls down the branch of a tree and a spilled sack of coins lies at his feet. In contrast the exposed limbs of Christ appear still vigorous, and He gazes at the viewer, triumphant in death. A plaque over Christ’s head is inscribed REX IUD[AEORUM] (‘King of the Jews’). Mary and John stand in similar poses to the left of the cross, while on the right Longinus steps from beneath the arm of the cross across the frame into the viewer’s space. In the branch of the tree which bends towards Christ, a bird feeds her chicks – a symbol of the life-giving power of His death.
Read the entire text from British Museum highlights

Date of the ivories
Felicity Harvey-McGown writes that the ivory is commonly dated to the time of the Theodosian dynasty.
Although nothing specific is known about the provenance of the reliefs,various scholars have noted the classicizing style on which they draw, including the rendering of drapery, the gestures, and strong modelling of the human form in the depiction of Jesus’ crucified body.

Both this style and the technical standard have seen the panels firmly aligned with ivory diptychs commissioned in the late fourth and early fifth centuries by the wealthy Roman senatorial classes to commemorate both private events (such as marriages or deaths) and public events (primarily appointments to the position of consul).

These diptychs are often inscribed with the names of those who commissioned them, and can be assigned a specific centre of production on account of historical data in addition to stylistic evidence.
They thereby provide an important chronological framework within which to date Christian ivories, and suggest possible places of manufacture. Indeed, on account of such comparisons with datable ivories produced in Roman ateliers, the Maskell Ivories are customarily dated around AD 420–30 and attributed to a Western centre of production, possibly Rome, although the lack of certainty should be noted
Read Felicity Harvey-McGown's article

Details of crucifixion
The technical details in depicting the crucifixion resemble those in the doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina as Christ stands head up and rather comfortably on His legs. He is modestly dressed in a loincloth. However, the hands pierced by nails are extended straight to both sides unlike in the basilica door carving where the artist showed arms bent (perhaps wanting to save precious space for the art work). There is no indication of any stress on the hands of the crucified strengthening the view that the artist had no first hand knowledge of this form of torture and execution.

Few details of the cross are visible in the ivory but it seems to be an artistic one rather than depiction of a simple wooden cross.

It seems that on the ivory behind the head of Christ the artist has drawn a circle indicated the halo of holiness. Scholars call this earliest style of crucifix "Triumphant Christ". The victorious figure is in strong contrast to the looser, the hanged Judas to the left.

The basilica doors of Santa Sabina, Rome

Depiction of the crucifixion on the wooden door of Santa Sabina.
image Wikimedia

The crucifix in the wooden door of the Basilica of Santa Sabina is among the oldest known depictions of the Crucifix in a Christian church.

The artist apparently did not have actual knowledge about crucifixion as a method of execution. Note how Christ and the two robbers are depicted standing, how the nails pierce their hands and how their arms are comfortably bent without carrying the weight of the body and how the three have loin clothes for modesty.

Christ is shown physically larger to emphasize his importance. He has the long hair and bear familiar from so many images of Jesus done ever since.

It has been suggested that the structure behind the three crucified could depict the walls of Jerusalem. The symmetric roofs and a window up left make this interpretation unlikely.

This door carving is important evidence about the hiatus between the times when crucifixion was common and the Theodosian period when it's horrors and technical details had been forgotten.

Basilica of Santa Sabina

Basilica of Santa Sabine from the East
image Wikipedia Commons license CC-BY-SA 3.0

Wikipedia tells
The Basilica of Saint Sabina (Latin: Basilica Sanctae Sabinae, Italian: Basilica di Santa Sabina all'Aventino) is a historical church on the Aventine Hill in Rome, Italy. It is a titular minor basilica and mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans. Santa Sabina is perched high above the Tiber river to the north and the Circus Maximus to the east. It is a short distance to the headquarters of the Knights of Malta.

Santa Sabina is the oldest extant Roman basilica in Rome that preserves its original colonnaded rectangular plan and architectural style. Its decorations have been restored to their original restrained design. Other basilicas, such as Santa Maria Maggiore, are often heavily and gaudily decorated. Because of its simplicity, the Santa Sabina represents the crossover from a roofed Roman forum to the churches of Christendom.
Santa Sabina was built by Peter of Illyria, a Dalmatian priest, between 422 and 432 near a temple of Juno on the Aventine Hill in Rome. The church was built on the site of the 4th-century house of Sabina a Roman matron originally from Avezzano in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

Sabina was beheaded under the Emperor Vespasian, or perhaps Hadrian, because she had been converted to Christianity by her servant Seraphia, who was stoned to death. She was later declared a Christian Saint.
The wooden door of the basilica is generally agreed to be the original door from 430-32, although it was apparently not constructed for this doorway. Eighteen of its wooden panels survive — all but one depicting scenes from the Bible. Most famous among these is one of the earliest certain depictions of Christ's crucifixion, although other panels have also been the subjects of extensive analysis because of their importance for the study of Christian iconography.

Above the doorway, the interior preserves an original dedication in Latin hexameters.
Read the entire article from wikipedia

Crucified and the Twelve Apostles

Gem from Constanza, Romania
mid 4th century. Syria (?)
The Trustees of the British Museum,
Department of Prehistory and Europe, London
the collection of A. W. Franks

In these portrayals the carnelian carving has a combination of IKHTHYS with crucifix and the impression has image of a LAMB under the cross.

Carnelian 1.05 x3 x 1.35 cm. 

Felicity Harley-McGrown wrotes about this rare gem depicting the crucified and the Twelve Apostles
This small carnelian intaglio, which once served as a personal seal, is engraved with Jesus crucified on a T-shaped cross amidst the twelve apostles. He is nude and stands upright on the exergual line, his body facing frontally with his head and feet turned in profile to the left, his arms outstretched below the patibulum of the cross. 

The limp fall of his elbows and the faccidity of his hands indicate that his arms are understood to be tied to the cross at the wrists, in a manner similar to the previous gem (Bloodstone). Jesus is twice as large as the twelve diminutive apostles who stand in two lines of six each beneath him; they wear close-fitting mantles (pallia) summarily indicated by diagonal cuts across their bodies. 

Above Jesus’s head is engraved the acrostic ΙΧΘΥC,ichthys, meaning “fish” and signifying “Jesus Christ, Sonof God, Savior.” 

A similar composition appears on a second gem, which survives only as a plaster impression.

Plaster cast of an engraved gem, 4th century
German Archaeological Institute, Romecollection of G. F. Nott

There, the naked crucified Jesus is nimbate and his arms are outstretched rigidly (as on the Maskell ivory). There is little differentiation in scale between Jesus and the apostles; instead, Jesus stands on what appears to be a column and is raised high above them. The two apostles at the head of each group touch the cross, and at least two others within the procession extend their right arms in the ancient gesture of acclamation. A lamb stands below, and across the composition is written, in oddly spelled Greek, ehco xpectoc, “Jesus Christ.” 

The presence of the twelve apostles at the Crucifixion does not accord with the canonical Gospel accounts (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50; Luke 22:54, John 18:15), which state that all but Peter and one other disciple abandoned Jesus. Subsequent depictions of the Crucifixion in the fifth and sixth centuries follow the Gospel narratives more closely. 

The composition of the triumphant crucified Jesus as the focus of two apostolic processions does, however, appear to be related to images found on a series of Roman sarcophagi of the later fourth century in which the apostles in heaven ceremoniously approach the victorious cross (in lieu of Jesus), bearing wreaths or raising their hands in veneration (the so-called star-and-wreath group).

The symbolic intent is to emphasize the triumph of Christ over death and to recognize the role of the apostles as witnesses of the true words of Christ. A contemporary variant substitutes the cross motif at the center with a depiction of Christ presenting the law to the assembled apostles (the traditio legis). 

The survival of two gems with this unusual composition provides rare evidence for the existence of unconventional Christian images with complex theological significance at a relatively early date in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire (Syria?).
Read the entire article from

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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Interpretations of the Alexamenos graffito

The crucified man with donkey head has been seen as mockery of worship of Christ on the cross. From this the name graffito blasphemo given to the drawing by Harold Bailey (1920).

Wikipedia tells
The inscription is accepted by authoritative sources, such as the Catholic Encyclopedia, to be a mocking depiction of a Christian in the act of worship. The donkey's head and crucifixion would both have been considered insulting depictions by contemporary Roman society. Crucifixion continued to be used as an execution method for the worst criminals until its abolition by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and the impact of seeing a figure on a cross is comparable to the impact today of portraying a man with a hangman's noose around his neck or seated in an electric chair.
If this interpretation is true the Alexamenos graffito underlines the importance of crucified Jesus in early Christianity. Since the drawing - if dated to 2nd or 3rd century - is hardly inspired by an actual crucifix in a place of worship it may be inspired by frequent references to the Crucified by Christians.

Actual donkey worship has also been suggested as explanation although the picture depicts a man with donkey head on cross.
It seems to have been commonly believed at the time that Christians practiced onolatry (donkey-worship). That was based on the misconception that Jews worshipped a god in the form of a donkey, a prejudice of unclear origin.

Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, reports that Christians, along with Jews, were accused of worshipping such a deity. He also mentions an apostate Jew who carried around Carthage a caricature of a Christian with ass's ears and hooves, labeled Deus Christianorum Onocoetes ("the God of the Christians begotten of an ass").
IMHO this might provide additional background to the enigmatic crucified as a rather total mix of prejudices and misinformation about Christianity among the people of Rome during the period it was a forbidden religion.

Other suggestions
Others have suggested that
  • the graffito depicts worship of the Egyptian gods Anubis or Seth
  • or that the young man is actually engaged in a gnostic ceremony involving a horse-headed figure and that rather than a Greek upsilon it is a tau cross at the top right of the crucified figure.
  • It has also been suggested that both the graffito and the roughly contemporary gems with Crucifixion images are related to heretical groups outside the Church.
Anubis or Seth are indeed often depicted in art as human body with animal head in Egyptian art. At least in Egypt there seems to be nothing to link these ancient gods to cross.

Many things can be said under the shady concept of gnostisism.

Monday, September 8, 2014

First depiction of Jesus on cross - The Alexamenos graffito

The Alexamenos graffito
images wikimedia 

Wikipedia tells
The Alexamenos graffito (also known as the graffito blasfemo) is an inscription carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum. It is alleged to be among the earliest known pictorial representations of the Crucifixion of Jesus, together with some engraved gems.

The image depicts a human-like figure affixed to a cross and possessing the head of a donkey.

In the top right of the image is what has been interpreted as either the Greek letter upsilon or a tau cross.

To the left of the image is a young man, apparently intended to represent Alexamenos, a Roman soldier/guard, raising one hand in a gesture possibly suggesting worship.

Beneath the cross is a caption written in crude Greek: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. ϲεβετε can be understood as a variant spelling (possibly a phonetic misspelling) of Standard Greek ϲεβεται, which means "worships". The full inscription would then be translated as "Alexamenos worships [his] God". Several other sources suggest "Alexamenos worshipping God", or similar variants, as the intended translation.

No clear consensus has been reached on when the image was made. Dates ranging from the late 1st to the late 3rd century have been suggested, with the beginning of the 3rd century thought to be the most likely.

The graffito was discovered in 1857 when a building called the domus Gelotiana was unearthed on the Palatine Hill. The Emperor Caligula had acquired the house for the imperial palace, which, after Caligula died, became used as a Paedagogium (boarding school) for the imperial page boys. Later, the street on which the house sat was walled off to give support to extensions to the buildings above, and it thus remained sealed for centuries.
Read the entire article from wikipedia

In hoc signo vinces

Detail from The Vision of the Cross
Assistants of Raphael (1483-1520)
image wikimedia

It is only natural that Renaissance painters would draw the Cross when depicting the vision of Constantine the Great before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge October 28, 312.

Similarly we naturally think the Cross when we read about the sign of the Son of Man in heaven in the apocalyptic speech of Jesus according to Matthew
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.
Matthew 24:30 NIV
But Constantine did not see the cross.

Christ wins Constantine through the sun
The battle between the forces of Emperors Constantine I and Maxentius was critical. Both were pagan rulers and since young, Constantine had been fascinated by the cult of Sol Invictus, Invincible Sun, that had recently become popular in the Empire.

Now, before leading his army to the battle, Constantine looked at the divine sun. However, he saw upe there something strange the significance of which he did not know. He heard a voice saying en touto nika, in this thing conquer. Next night he saw a dream and in the morning Constantine dutifully let his soldiers paint that sign on their shields and helmets. That day competing Emperor Maxentius fell from the bridge and drowned in Tiber. Constantine thus became the sole Emperor of Rome.

The Labarum

Labarum of Constantine I
reconstruction. The circles had images in them

What Constantine I actually saw in the vision was not the sign of the common cross but the labarum, Chi-Rho sign with the two first letters of the word Xhristos.

Coin of Constantine I with labarum
image wikimedia

Historical sources
Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author (c. 240 – c. 320) who became an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, guiding his religious policy as it developed, and tutor to his son. His work De Mortibus Persecutorum has an apologetic character, but has been treated as a work of history by Christian writers. Here Lactantius preserves the story of Constantine's vision of the Chi Rho before his conversion to Christianity. The full text is found in only one manuscript, which bears the title, Lucii Caecilii liber ad Donatum Confessorem de Mortibus Persecutorum.

The historian bishop Eusebius of Caesaria states that Constantine was marching with his army (Eusebius does not specify the actual location of the event, but it is clearly not in the camp at Rome), when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words "(ἐν) τούτῳ νίκα" ("In this, conquer"), often rendered in Latin as In hoc signo vinces ("in this sign, you will conquer").

At first, Constantine did not know the meaning of the apparition, but on the following night, he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign of the cross against his enemies. Eusebius then continues to describe the Labarum, the military standard used by Constantine in his later wars against Licinius, showing the Chi-Rho sign.
read the entire article form wikipedia

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The cross

Staurogramm, Tau Rho
image wikipedia

Wikipedia tells
The cross, which is today one of the most widely recognised symbols in the world, was used as a symbol from the earliest times. This is indicated in the anti-Christian arguments cited in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, chapters IX and XXIX, written at the end of the 2. century (cited as AD 197) or the beginning of the next.

By the early 3rd century the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria, who died between 211 and 216, could without fear of ambiguity use the phrase τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον (the Lord's sign) to mean the cross, when he repeated the idea, current as early as the Epistle of Barnabas, that the number 318 (in Greek numerals, ΤΙΗ) in Genesis 14:14 was a foreshadowing (a "type") of the cross (T, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letters of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18).

His contemporary Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". In his book De Corona, written in 204, Tertullian tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross.

The Jewish Encyclopedia states:

The cross as a Christian symbol or "seal" came into use at least as early as the second century (see "Apost. Const." iii. 17; Epistle of Barnabas, xi.-xii.; Justin, "Apologia," i. 55-60; "Dial. cum Tryph." 85-97); and the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons (Tertullian, "De Corona," iii.; Cyprian, "Testimonies," xi. 21-22; Lactantius, "Divinæ Institutiones," iv. 27, and elsewhere). Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross, as may be learned from Tertullian, "Apologia," xii., xvii., and Minucius Felix, "Octavius," xxix. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross.
Read the entire wikipedia arcitle 
There are thus literal references to cross as a Christian sign in early 3d century literature. However, no 3rd century or earlier images of the cross have been found.
During the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross may have been rare in Christian iconography, as it depicts a purposely painful and gruesome method of public execution and Christians were reluctant to use it. A symbol similar to the cross, the staurogram, was used to abbreviate the Greek word for cross in very early New Testament manuscripts such as P66, P45 and P75, almost like a nomina sacra. The extensive adoption of the cross as Christian iconographic symbol arose from the 4th century.
We may suggest that as Emperor Constantine the Great forbid the use of crucifixion the horror and shame associated with this method of execution of rebels and slaves was forgotten during the 4th century and the use of the cross symbol began.

Early symbols of Christianity

Anchor, Fish, KhiRho
Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Rome

Well known early Christian symbols are

IKHTHYS letters in the Greek word for fish stand for Iesous Khristos Theo Hyios Soter - Jesus Christ Son of God Savior
ANCHOR of faith
ALPHA OMEGA Revelations 22:13
IX letters I Iesous and X Khristos superimposed. Palestinian ossuaries.
IH Greek letters from the name IEsous. Epistle of Barnabas. Clement of Alexandria.
KHI-RHO first two letters of the word Khristos. Constantine the Great (labarum)
Good Shepherd: Parable of the lost sheep
Dove: usually symbol of Holy Ghost. Ireneaus linked numerically to Christ.

Anchor and two fish. Epitaph for Antonia
Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome

About this blog

In this blog I try to illuminate crucial developments in the depiction of the Crucified using actual objects and pieces of art as the key.

As the artistic and historical evidence is so massive and complex I can here only scratch the surface of the subject. However, as the focus is in changes and developments in the depiction of the Crucified the study is classification of selected materials only rather than an attempt to comprehensive study.

Felicia Harley-McGown
Yale University, Divinity School
The numerous scholarly papers of Felicia Harley-McGown on the earliest portrayals of Christ crucified are essential building materials for this blog. She expertly discusses all the known evidence and also takes the Biblical texts carefully into account. In fact, reading the original articles will give an excellent understanding of the subject. Perhaps this blog can serve as a short introduction to those detailed publications. Online bibliography

I am alsograteful to the British Museum Highlights for their image service. This has enabled me to include in this blog a first class photo of the important portrayal of crucifixion in the Maskell ivories.

In this and all my blogs I have found wikipedia indispensable in two ways: many of the articles are excellent overviews of the subject and the writers are able to express complex matters compactly in clear and concise style. Often I find it wiser just to quote part of the wikipedia article than to try to paraphrase the information in my own words.

I am grateful of your contributions, comments, corrections and additions to improve and enrich the blog.

Soli Deo Gloria