Crucifixion was used from the 6th century BCE on, by Persians, Seleucids, Jews, Carthaginians and Romans as a punishment for pirates, slaves and political or religious dissenters. In 337 CE, Constantine I, the first Christian emperor, put an end to the practice of crucifixion within the Roman Empire, out of deference for Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion of Jesus took place the day before the Jewish Sabbath at the time of the Passover, at a place called Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. Jesus had refused to acquiesce to the demands of the High Priest, so was considered guilty of an offence punishable by death. Therefore He was delivered into the hands of the Roman authorities as a threat to the state. At the age of about 32 He was crucified by order of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
As recounted in the Gospels of the New Testament, the story of Christ’s crucifixion is as follows: first He was scourged, stripped by Roman soldiers and given a scarlet robe to wear. Then a crown of thorns was placed on His head and He was mocked as the King of the Jews. As He was led away to be crucified, a man called Simon from Cyrene was compelled to help Jesus carry His under whose weight He was about to collapse. He was stripped of His robe and given back His own garments, and, at the third hour, He was nailed to the cross by His hands and feet. Above His head was the inscription, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”. The soldiers at the foot of the cross divided His clothes among them and again derided Him saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save yourself”. There were two thieves on either side of Jesus, also being crucified. One of them addressed Jesus saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Christ answered, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. At the ninth hour, Jesus gave up the ghost. A centurion who stood watching said, “Truly, this man is the Son of God”. When one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, blood and water poured out from the wound. When Jesus was taken down from the cross His body was given to Joseph of Arimathea who buried it in a tomb recently hewn from the rock and a great stone was rolled across the entrance.
Christians believe that Christ’s is a reconciling or atoning death that it is a means of atonement, or “at-onement” with God. The early Christians did not depict the crucifixion realistically until the 5th century, but usually described the event using symbols. The picture of a lamb and a cross adorned with precious stones were the symbols of the crucifixion. The first paintings showed the crucified Christ alive, open-eyed, and triumphant over death, His face showing no sign of suffering. In the 9th century, Byzantine art for the first time depicts Christ dead, with eyes closed.
Two symbolic details systematically mentioned in the Bible are featured in the early illustrations of the crucifixion. One is Adam’s skull at the foot of the cross, the other the wound in Christ’s side, from which blood and water flow. These two items are, iconographically, the pictorial representations of Man’s Original Sin, and Christ’s sacrifice which paid its ransom. By sacrificing His life to atone for the sin of Adam, (Adam’s skull) Jesus becomes the new Adam. The crucifixion of Christ represents the founding of the new Church, the blood and water are used symbolically in the sacraments of Communion and Baptism. In the illustrations produced for the early Church, the two thieves and the two Roman soldiers represent the Church and the Synagogue. According to the teaching of the Christian Church at this time, the repentant thief and the centurion who recognised Christ’s divinity symbolise the Church, while the thief who denied Christ and the soldier who rejected His divinity symbolise the Synagogue. After the 13th century, figures, such as the Virgin Mary (the new Eve) featured on the right hand side of Jesus are identified as the new, while those on His left are the old.