Death is Swallowed Up in Victory: Scenes of Death in Early Christian Art and the Emergence of Crucifixion Iconography

Felicity Harley McGowan


Abstract

Christianity, and the instrument of Jesus’ death, the cross, remains the pivotal, and universally recognised, symbol of the Christian Church. Yet pictorial representations of the death of Jesus are conspicuously rare in the earliest Christian art. Moreover, the earliest surviving images  of Jesus’ Crucifixion do not depict  him dead on the cross, but defiantly alive – a visual interpretation of the event that incorporates both the means of his execution and his subsequent victory over death in the Resurrection. This article examines the iconography of a small ivory plaque, carved in Rome in the early fifth century, whereon the Crucifixion is juxtaposed with the suicide of Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27 3:5) to effect a powerful visual interpretation of Jesus’ death. As the earliest surviving visual narration of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, the ivory will be shown to preserve critical information regarding the interpretation of Christ’s death in the early Christian church - incorporating symbols and visual motifs from pagan funerary sculpture, while illustrating the development of a specifically Christian visual language for the representation of Jesus’ death.

Keywords

Religious art; crucifixion; death; suicide; Maskell Ivories

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