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

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Felicity Harley McGowan


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.

Article Details

The Death Scene (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

Felicity Harley McGowan, University of Melbourne

 Felicity Harley McGowan is an art historian with specific interest in the material culture of late antique Rome. She is currently the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Medieval Art History at the University of Melbourne.