Friday, April 7, 2017

Movie Depictions of the Crucifiction.

Adapted from History and tradition in movie depictions of the Cross, by Peter T. Chattaway, Patheos Blog, April 8, 2013, updated through 2016, link. All the photos are from there. I’m going to leave off at 2013 and you can peruse the examples from beyond 2014 at the link.

Well this next Friday the 14th is Good Friday and the approach of this Christian dies sanguines caused me to think about revisiting the above article that I snagged off the internet last year. What is it about Hollywood depictions of the Crucifiction of Jesus Christ that seem, well… implausible? Well let me take you guys on a quick tour of the movies and show you!

But first, a few paragraphs from Mr. Chattaway:

For the first several decades after the invention of film, filmmakers followed centuries of artistic tradition by making the execution of Jesus look noticeably different from the execution of the thieves who were crucified on either side of him: where Jesus carried his entire cross, the thieves carried only crossbeams; and where Jesus was nailed to his cross, the thieves were usually tied to their crosses with ropes. 
Then, in the 1960s, filmmakers began to show the thieves being nailed to their crosses, just like Jesus. And then, in the 1970s, filmmakers began to show Jesus carrying only his crossbeam, just like the thieves. Around that same time, spurred by the recent work of archaeologists and other scholars, filmmakers also began to show the nails going through the wrists of Jesus and the thieves, rather than the palms of their hands. One or two films even showed Jesus and the thieves being crucified naked. 
These “historically accurate” depictions of the Crucifixion dominated films about Jesus for about a quarter-century — and then Gibson’s film [Ed-M: The Passion of the Christ], which was heavily influenced by Renaissance art, came along and reverted to the traditional imagery, at least in part. His Jesus carries a full cross, and the nails go through the palms of his hands, but the thieves are also nailed to their crosses, not tied with ropes.
Mr. Gibson’s film is not only based on Renaissance art but also the mystic visions of a certain nun, the Catholic mystic Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich. But the part where Jesus is flipped over on the Cross so they could hammer the nails sticking out the back flat against the surface--that came from someone else spinning her or his crucifix.

About the Simon of Cyrene bit, Mr. Chattaway has this to say:
Along the way, I noticed that virtually none of the “historically accurate” films — i.e. the films in which Jesus carries a crossbeam instead of a full cross — include the bit from the gospels where Simon of Cyrene carries the cross on Jesus’ behalf. It is as though filmmakers didn’t really know how to show Jesus stumbling under a mere crossbeam so badly that he needed help, or as though the sight of Simon of Cyrene carrying a mere crossbeam wouldn’t carry the same visual symbolic punch.

Perhaps it’s possible that it was the intent of the three Synoptic Gospels that Jesus was forced to carry an assembled two-beam cross—a tropaeum—instead of just the patibulum (transom) of typical Roman practice instead?

That’s a question for a future time but for now we’re off to the movies!

The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
Lucien Nonguet & Ferdinand Zecca, directors. 1902-1905.

Here Jesus is carrying the top end of his Cross while Simon of Cyrene gets to lug the base end of it.  There are two crosses already up in the distance on what appears to be a Mount Cragmore and no Place of the Skull.

Here Jesus is nailed to his Cross through his palms while the two thieves (the Romans never crucified common thieves, by the way) are tied to their crosses with ropes, with their arms behind the horizontal parts.  This is a very popular trope in Renaissance art and not based on any actual Roman practice that we know of—note that without the thieves’ arms behind them and over their transoms there is no way to keep them from falling off!  Also note that Jesus is standing on a footrest (suppedaneum).  This was never mentioned in the Roman literature until St Augustine put it to writing—it’s not even in the Maxwell Ivories (ca. 424 ce).

From the Manger to the Cross
Sidney Olcott, director. 1912.

In the actual Crucifiction in this film, Jesus is the only one who is nailed—the two thieves are bound—and Jesus’s Cross is now of the regular cross variety with a big sign over his head.

The King of Kings
Cecil B. DeMille, director. 1927.

Here Jesus carries a regular two-beam cross. Notice how the transom is inlaid into the lap-jointed post just like those Katrina crosses right here in New Orleans.

The two thieves on the other hand are only carrying their transoms, which are ludicrously large logs!  But at least DeMille has the first thief’s arms lashed to his in a manner similar to that shown on the Alexamenos graffito

Once again Jesus is nailed to his while the thieves are merely bound.  At least the thieves have no danger of falling off. Jesus on the other hand: if the nails were to let go….

Except with one thief in particular: his right hand is nailed! Note the patiently waiting crow. We won’t see crows take such roles in the movies again until Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. After that, it’ll be Gibson’s film.

The Robe 
Henry Koster, director. 1953.

Once again, a full cross.  Unless you look closely, you cannot discern the ropes tying the Cross together.  Even so it appears the two beams are glued together—otherwise there’s no way the post can be prevented from sliding up along on the transom or vice versa: this cross can easily come apart.  Also note that the outfits—the Roman outfits at least—are becoming more accurate.

Once again, one is nailed up and two are tied up.

William Wyler, director. 1959.

Now this was done in CinemaScope—and look at all that scarlet, it looks fabulous!

Anyway, Jesus is about to carry his full Cross—shaped like a T—whereas the thieves only get to wear their transoms on their backs.  At least here the transoms appear to be portable.

Once again, one nailed, two bound. The one bound shown here appears to be gripping his transom to keep from falling off. But look at shot of the crowd!

King of Kings
Nicholas Ray, director. 1961.

Here Simon of Cyrene is carrying the whole Cross—while a thief in front is only bearing a transom.  And Jesus is also up in front, wearing scarlet just like the Romans, and holding a spear!

Here, all three are nailed and bound with ropes.  At least the director seems to acknowledge that if one was nailed up without a sedile (crotch peg) between the legs (or worse), the person would have to be sustained with ropes.  Still no clue how the crossbeams are held up on their posts—I suppose a nail or two are hiding under the ropes.  Otherwise the ropes are holding the transoms up with friction—not with those cut-and-dressed beams that look like they came from a lumber yard.

The Gospel according to St. Matthew
Pier Paolo Pasolini, director. 1964.

Italian film is always excellent.  The cinematography always gives you something to think about.

Here Simon is carrying a full regular cross, already assembled, apparently held together with glue.  And what is remarkable in this scene, Jesus appears to be wearing short hair!

Jesus and one of the thieves are shown here nailed up with no ropes or other visible means of support.  Note the Roman helmets—they look curiously like US Marine drill sergeant hats.

The Greatest Story Ever Told
George Stevens, director. 1965.

Here a black Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carries his Cross: as if Cyrenaica was a sub-Saharan country and not a North African area in what is now present-day Libya. And the Cross is jointed like those Katrina Crosses.

All three are nailed up like in Renaissance art.  The ropes, supposedly the means of support, are way out at the wrists—apparently useless for their purpose.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Norman Jewison, director. 1973.

This rock opera is one of the most popular films ever.  Its most recent production was as a Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Once again, Jesus carries a whole cross with its base dragging behind him. The Roman soldiers though look like ersatz US Army National Guardsmen, with their helmets painted silver!

 The Crucifiction scene. All three are nailed up with no sedile or footrest and no ropes except out at the wrists.  So how are they kept from falling down?

Well it’s a rock opera, so it’s not supposed to be realistic.

Jesus of Nazareth
Franco Zeffirelli, director. 1977.

This appears to be the most realistic scene ever made for the movies or for television.  And it has this air of existential pathos about it.

Here Jesus is carrying only his transom—a big fat log like in Cecil DeMille’s production!  And he also looks like a hippie.

And here they are nailed up.  There are also ropes around the forearms or elbows of the tree—better situated to be able to keep the men suspended—and also a small platform (suppedaneum) for the three to stand on.  Also there is no cross in sight: these men are suspended from a scaffold, which would be much, much more likely from the view of Roman practice than an inlaid, lap-jointed, sawn-and-planed regular cross!

John Krish & Peter Sykes, directors. 1979.

Here, Jesus is being led out between two groups of soldiers.  He and the two thieves are bearing transoms.  And in this film the Roman soldiers appear to be wearing helmets made of… plastic!

Here, Jesus and both thieves are nailed through their wrists with railway spikes!  Note also they’re sustained from their transoms with hoops of rope.  One thing—how did the Romans get the transoms onto the poles without freeing the criminals from them first, and risking their escape?  On a regular cross like these, this appears to be very difficult or just plain impossible!  Also big railway spikes have been driven through the arches or even the ankles of their feet!  I find that to be totally bizarre. 

The Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese, director. 1988.

What is it about these films directed by Italians or Italian-Americans that make them the best?
Here Jesus is carrying his transom through the streets of Jerusalem.  The helmet on the soldier behind him appears realistic as well as the rough hewing and planning of the wood on the transom—no more Lowe’s Home Improvement Center lumber!  The transom appears to be a bit large for its purpose, though—it only needs to hold up one person, not a whole floor of a building.  And there’s a reason the Romans called the transom a patibulum—because originally the patibulum was a door-bar meant to keep doors closed, probably no bigger than a two-by-four.

The Crucifiction scene shows Jesus nailed up in a pose derived from the archaeological and medical-forensic analysis of Vassilios Tzaferis and Nico Haas, later revised by the later team of Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles (see BAR article here and CJOS article here).  The nails, again big railway spikes, are driven through his wrists and, apparently, his ankles (although both archaeological-medical teams in Israel found the nail driven through a heelbone).  The Cross in this film is a Tee, or St. Anthony's Cross.  Jesus is also depicted entirely naked!

There is also no visible means of support in case the nails were to let go, although the actor reported that during the shooting of this scene he was required to sit upon a block—a narrow ledge--of wood, which limited shooting cuts to fifteen minutes apiece.  There is also in one photo (not in this post but here) what appears to be a metal support for the crotch which makes it very painful in the perineum for the person to sit upon!

The two thieves, though, are tied to trees—as depicted in some Renaissance art but probably also indicative of Roman practices—the Romans knew that there was more than one way to suspend a criminal in a stress position so that he died of torture!  Here the one thief at the top is astride a branch or peg that is jutting out from the tree between his legs and the other appears to be sitting on a short limb set in place for a similar purpose.

Regardt van den Bergh, director. 1993.

Here six people are carrying a whole cross, with Jesus apparently following behind.  But where are the Romans?

Here is the Crucifiction scene, from across a valley and far away.  From this point, Jesus and the two thieves look exactly like crucifixes!

Roger Young, director. 1999.

Here Jesus is carrying only a transom.  Note the indentation for the lap joint at the place where the beam will be affixed to the post.  Now how are they going to do that without risking his escape?

Here the two thieves are depicted as already nailed up, with railroad spikes driven through their wrists.

The Miracle Maker
Derek W. Hayes & Stanislav Sokolov, directors. 2000.

Here Jesus is at the beginning of his journey with the titulus (sign of criminal charges) dangling around his neck.  Here he is only carrying a transom, just like in Roger Young’s film.

Here Jesus is nailed up with the railway spikes driven though his wrists, but the thieves are tied up with lots and lots of rope.  Now how does Jesus maintain a posture like that?  And how does a Roman soldier tie the lap-jointed transom onto the post without the attached person stabbing his hands with those thorns?  But worst of all, the lighting—it’s atrocious!  I know this is supposed to be the darkness portion of the Crucifiction, but the lighting makes the scene look like it was done in a diorama with models, or done on Photoshop!

The Gospel of John
Philip Saville, director. 2003.

Here Jesus carries just a transom, which apparently was used eleven times before.

Here both Jesus and the two thieves are attached with railway spikes driven through their wrists and ankles.  The Cross here, too, is a Tee.  Now why is Jesus standing out like that?!?

The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson, director. 2004.

Worst, film, ever.  Pornographically violent.  Fortunately, these photos don’t show the violence.

Leaving the city.  Here Jesus is carrying the whole cross—a ridiculous thing, based on a crucifix—while the two thieves are only carrying their transoms.  All three items appear to be impossibly heavy.

The Crucifiction.  Here all three are nailed through their palms and “attached” with ropes around their wrists.  No visible sign of support.  The thieves’ transoms are nailed to their posts in such a manner that risked bashing the thieves’ heads in.  Now Jesus is covered with blood and all, while the two thieves have nary a scratch on them—except from the nails, of course.

And a crow has just arrived on his flight from Bodega Bay (The Birds) as the bad thief is laughing his head off.  We know what comes next—yeeccch!  And what’s with the chalice hanging from the nail in this thief’s hand?  And the satchel dangling from the other thief’s neck, above?  Such things are unheard-of in all the ancient writings about the Roman practice of torture-execution by suspension, or “crucifixion.”

The Bible
Christopher Spencer, director. 2013.

Here Jesus is carrying the whole thing while the other two are only bearing their transoms.  And what’s peculiar about the Roman soldiers’ helmets is that some of them appear modeled after baseball helmets!  If it weren’t for actual brass helmets found in the UK they’d be considered totally unrealistic.  Well we know where this is going.

The Lumo Project: The Gospel of John
David Batty, director. 2014.

All three are carrying transoms, all far too heavy and far too smoothly dressed and planed.  Jesus is wearing his properly in accordance with Roman practice, while the other two are lugging theirs around, swinging them about as they turn. Look out for that end!

Jesus is shown with nails through his palms and leather straps around his wrists.  So how do the Romans keep him from falling down?

Now as for the thieves, they both appear to be merely tied to their crosses with the leather straps—although in the second there appears to be a trickle of blood down the forearm that would indicate a nailing somewhere.

But the crosses of all three, they all look like dressed, planed and chamfered crucifixes!  Would the Romans go through all that work just to suspend a criminal?  Probably not.

Well this sampling of pictures from movies about the Crucifiction shows that the reasons why the scenes depicted therein are almost always, nearly to the last film, implausible, is because usually the instruments of suspension and torture-execution resemble the regular cross, or Roman tropaeum, the transoms and especially the assembled crosses are too heavy, the members usually are smoothly dressed and planed, and when the persons are finally suspended there is no visible means of support, and one more thing: usually the actors are all whites of European descent!

Any questions?

It’s a wrap!


  1. Of course no one really knows what happened when "Jesus" was crucified, if indeed he was.
    Did anyone who supposedly "witnessed" this event take a Polaroid photograph of it. Or even make a sketch of it.

    Even so, who actually "recorded" the event? And how was it truthfully transmitted over the centuries, especially as most people were illiterate.

    You know the party game when a story is told to someone, who then retells it to the next person, and so on and on. So that even after a few "retellings" the story becomes completely different to the original.

    Yes Gibson's The Passion was an unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter movie. In which the "hero" representing every single living-breathing-feeling human being, and humankind altogether was systematically beaten to death.
    At the time it was promoted as an excellent vehicle for
    evangelizing the entire world.
    My advice would be to run away from a such a religion.

    But what was the political and cultural context of this unspeakably vile movie?
    It seems to me that this essay gives a superb understanding of the political and cultural meanings of this movie.

    1. Frederick,

      Thanks for the information you've passed on, very good points! As for the origin of the Crucifiction, it seems to me that Paul proclaimed it as an event to be believed, which to me means it never happened; then Mark invented it using as his sources the tale of Jesus Ben Ananias (Josephus Jewish War 6.300-309 [6.5.3]), the death and funeral of Julius Caesar, the triumph of Vespasian Caesar, the 22nd and 69th Psalms, and some other Hebrew Bible references.