Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 7: The Nails of the Crucifixion

Most of us western Christians grew up looking at images of the crucifixion that show Jesus being pierced with one nail over both feet, as in the picture at right. Sometimes we see images which have both feet nailed separately (making a total of four nails), but the three nails version is, for most of the time, definitive. There are people who would even say that this portrayal is "traditional", sometimes almost giving the impression that the four-nails version were somehow a novel variation. We must note, however, that depicting only three nails is purely a medieval (this iconographic convention only started around the end of the 1st millenium), Western thing; Eastern icons, with a few Western-influenced exceptions, uniformly portray four nails being used to pin Jesus down to His cross. And here they are following a more ancient iconographic tradition which could have some basis in historical reality.

The oldest depiction of a crucifixion we have, the Alexamenos Graffito (dating from the late 1st-3rd century AD), clearly shows the crucified figure's feet as being separate. Other early images, such as a late 2nd-3rd century carved jasper either from Syria or Gaza (part of the Pereire Collection), a graffito found in Puzzuoli, another gem, and a relief from Santa Sabina in Rome (ca. 430-435 AD), follow suit in not showing the feet as being placed above the other. This convention has passed on to later Christian iconography, and for a time people, both in the East and the West, portrayed Jesus Christ being crucified with His feet separate.

'Alexamenos, worship God'
It was around the early part of the 13th century that most of Western art (with a few exceptions) began to represent the feet of Jesus as placed one over the other and pierced with a single nail. This convention had already existed for a century or two, but it was around that time when the three-nails version took hold in Western art. Not all greeted this 'novelty' with open arms; in fact, this depiction showing three nails had actually caused some controversy when it was first introduced. For example, in the latter part of the 13th century, Lucas the bishop of Tuy in Iberia wrote in horror about the Cathars who carve "ill-shapen" images of the crucified Jesus "with one foot laid over the other, so that both are pierced by a single nail, thus striving to annul or render doubtful men's faith in the Holy Cross and the traditions of the sainted Fathers." The Cathars, based on Lucas' report, apparently manufactured a cross composed only of the vertical post, the inscription, and the footrest without the horizontal beam - while showing Jesus pierced with three nails, one of which went on both feet. To all this, Lucas retorted that a proper cross must take the shape of overlapping arms and represent the four regions of the earth. Not only this, there were also complaints about the rather 'new' convention of showing Jesus as showing indications of suffering and death, in contrast to the serene and triumphant Christ many people back then were used to. For example, Byzantine art started to show a Jesus with bowed head and eyes closed in the 9th-11th century AD: Cardinal Humbert, infamous for placing the bull of excommunication in the Hagia Sophia, cried heresy upon seeing a cross with an 'image of a dying man' (hominis morituri imago) in Constantinople in 1054.

It is still unclear why the three-nails version became predominant. It has been suggested that it was because of the symbolic/religious connotations of the number three that it became a popular choice for medieval artists in Europe. By contrast, Eastern iconography was unaffected by all of this and continued to show four nails in most cases, even to this day (there are a few icons which show three nails, but these were probably done under Western influence). The four-nails version also lasted a bit longer in medieval Italian art because of the strong Byzantine influence in it (Byzantine artisans were used in important projects throughout Italy, and Byzantine styles of painting can be found up through the 14th century), and also in Spanish art well into the Renaissance.

Now, let's check archeology. The only artifact we have of an ancient Roman crucifixion, found in 1968 in Giv'at ha-Mivtar, is that of the right heel bone of a man called Yehohanan (aka Jehohanan), who was executed in his twenties, pierced by an iron nail 11.5 centimeters in length. The nail penetrated the lateral surface of the heel bone emerging on the medial surface in which the distal end of the nail had become bent. The bending of the distal end of the nail upon itself suggests that after the nail penetrated the tree or the upright it may have struck a knot in the wood which made it difficult to remove from the heel when the victim was taken from the cross. Remains of olive wood found between the head of the nail and the heel bone suggest that prior to penetrating the heel bone the nail was driven through a wooden plaque (serving as a washer) so as to increase the head of the nail thus making it difficult for the victim to free his legs from the vertical post.
Anthropologist Professor Nicu Haas of the Hebrew University Medical School in Jerusalem examined the bones in 1970 and originally came into the conclusion that both heels were affixed by one nail to the front of the cross, as in the reconstructions at right. (As an aside, I personally know of a few films such as The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal and The Miracle Maker which follow Prof. Haas' initial reconstruction here, showing Jesus' feet, or rather, ankles, nailed very much in the same position as the reconstruction at the right of the picture below). This osteological analysis, however, was done rather rapidly due to the demands of the religious community for reburial of the bones. Hence, many of the conclusions upon which Haas' attempted reconstruction were made were later found to be flawed.
In 1985, Joe Zias, then-curator of Archaeology/Anthropology for the Israel Antiquities Authority and Eliezer Sekeles reexamined the bones and found that the nail which Haas reported to be 17-18 centimeters long was but 11.5 centimeters, thus making it anatomically impossible to pierce two heels with one nail. The two heels would have not been nailed together, but nailed separately to either side of the upright post of the cross, so that he straddled it (the Visual Bible's The Gospel of John follows this reconstruction).

Also later challenged was Haas' assertion that a nail had pierced the distal ends of the radius and ulna of the forearm. The scratches in the wrist area were determined to be non-traumatic and, therefore, not evidence of crucifixion). Haas had also claimed that there was evidence that the legs of the victim had been broken, but this was apparently based on what is described as "inconclusive evidence". Hence, Jehohanan's arms were probably just tied, rather than nailed, to the cross.

The way Jehohanan's heels were affixed to the cross may thus, in my humble personal opinion, lead credence to the ancient idea that Jesus' feet were separate instead of being pinned one feet over the other. Of course, at the end, we may never know which was correct, but it's fun to speculate, ain't it?


Kath said...

Any idea why Christians were ridiculed as worshiping a donkey-headed god? I realize it's a massive put down, but why a donkey/ass?

Patrick said...

Thank you for the comment!

One reason why Christians were accused of onolatry is because it was (originally) a Jewish sect, and there were persistent rumors since Hellenistic times - parroted by some Roman writers such as Tacitus - that Jews worship this idol of a donkey(-head) in the Temple. Tacitus' take on Exodus reads thus:

"They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random. Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock to a rock shaded by trees.

Moyses followed them, and, guided by the appearance of a grassy spot, discovered an abundant spring of water. This furnished relief. After a continuous journey for six days, on the seventh they possessed themselves of a country, from which they expelled the inhabitants, and in which they founded a city and a temple.

Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practiced by other men. Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden. In their holy place they have consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings. They slay the ram, seemingly in derision of Hammon, and they sacrifice the ox, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis.

Of course, Christianity - which had its roots from Judaism - inherited these canards even after it became a religion in its own right.

Ed-M said...

The Puzzuoli Graffito you linked showed an extremely obscene depiction of Roman crucifixion! Yet I regret to say, it is probably completely accurate: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian all affirmed that the cross (Roman crux, as opposed to tropaeum, which was a flat plane cross - see Minucius felix Octavian 29) had five points. The fifth point was a "horn" or "thorn" upon which the nailed persons were... er... um... "stuck." And I am convinced the Romans would have done this everywhere unless the locals demanded something different. (In Egypt they used ropes; in Judea they could have used long horizontal planks.)

All in all, an informative article. Thanks!