History and tradition in movie depictions of the Cross.

Western Easter came and went last week, but the Eastern churches are currently only half-way through the Lenten season, so yesterday was, for us, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious Cross.

Thinking about this, I inevitably started thinking about Jesus movies, and I began to think about the fact that the recent mini-series The Bible has joined Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in taking a step back from recent “historically accurate” depictions of the Crucifixion towards a more traditional sort of iconography.

For years, filmmakers followed centuries of artistic tradition by distinguishing Jesus from 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, 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.

And now The Bible has continued this trend back towards traditional imagery.

To document these developments, I have gone through some of the higher-profile Jesus films and captured some relevant images.

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.

In any case, to chart his presence and absence across these films, I have made a point of capturing images of Simon of Cyrene where applicable, too.

And now, without further ado, here are the screen captures:

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

Jesus carries a full cross, and Simon of Cyrene carries the back end of it. The thieves are not shown carrying their crosses, apparently because they have already been crucified; we see their crosses in the distance.

Jesus is nailed to his cross through the palms of his hand. The thieves are bound to their crosses with rope.

From the Manger to the Cross (dir. Sidney Olcott, 1912)

Jesus carries a T-shaped cross, and once again, Simon of Cyrene carries the back end of it.

Jesus is nailed to his cross through the palms of his hand. The thieves are bound to their crosses with rope.

The King of Kings (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1927)

Jesus carries a full cross …

… while the thieves carry only their crossbeams.

Simon of Cyrene is introduced in the company of his young son. This is presumably a nod to the fact that Mark 15 identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” — a detail that is missing from the other two gospels that mention Simon. (Who were these men? Why did Mark mention them? Paul, in Romans 16, sends greetings to a man named Rufus and his mother, “who has been a mother to me, too.” Same guy? Was Paul a good friend of Simon of Cyrene’s wife? ’Twould be cool, if so.)

Simon of Cyrene carries the cross by himself.

Jesus is nailed to his cross through the palms of his hand. The thieves are bound to their crosses with rope …

… except for this guy, who seems to have one hand bound to the cross with rope and the other hand nailed to the cross. (Note the crow, incidentally. We’ll be seeing another one of those eventually.)

The Robe (dir. Henry Koster, 1953)

Jesus carries a full cross.

Jesus is nailed to his cross, while the thieves are bound to their crosses with rope.

Ben-Hur (dir. William Wyler, 1959)

Jesus is about to carry a T-shaped cross, while the thieves are about to carry only their crossbeams.

Simon of Cyrene carries the cross by himself. The thieves, carrying their crossbeams, can be seen in the background.

Jesus is nailed to his cross through the palms of his hand. The thieves are bound to their crosses with rope.

King of Kings (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1961)

Simon of Cyrene carries a full cross by himself, while the thieves carry only their crossbeams.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through the palms of their hands.

The Gospel according to St. Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Simon of Cyrene carries a full cross by himself.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through the palms of their hands.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir. George Stevens, 1965)

Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry a full cross.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses, presumably through the palms of their hands.

Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973)

Jesus carries a full cross.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses, presumably through the palms of their hands.

Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)

Jesus carries only a crossbeam.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through the palms of their hands.

Jesus (dir. John Krish & Peter Sykes, 1979)

Jesus carries only a crossbeam.

Simon of Cyrene carries the crossbeam by himself, ahead of the thieves, who carry their own crossbeams. This is the only Jesus-carries-a-crossbeam film I can think of right now that shows Simon of Cyrene carrying the crossbeam for him.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through their wrists.

The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988)

Jesus carries only a crossbeam, in a shot that was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross (c. 1516).

Jesus is nailed to the cross through his wrists, in a shot that was inspired by an illustration that accompanied this 1985 article in Biblical Archaeology Review. He is also naked — a detail ignored by most other Jesus films. (Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal shows an actor in a passion play doing the crucifixion scene in the nude, but that’s a play within the movie, and not a life-of-Jesus movie in and of itself, per se.)

Curiously, despite the fact that Martin Scorsese made a point of following recent archaeological research in his depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, he followed Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion (c. 1455) in showing the thieves as being merely tied to their crosses — which aren’t even real crosses, but seem more like trees. However, Scorsese did make the thieves naked, which da Messina did not.

This is one of the thieves …

… and this is the other one.

Matthew (dir. Regardt van den Bergh, 1993)

This may be the only significant film in this period that does not show Jesus carrying only a crossbeam. Curiously, the narrator recites the verse about Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus, but we never get a good look at Simon himself, and there actually seem to be several people carrying the cross in this shot.

This is about as good a look as we get at the thieves, but it seems likely that they have been nailed to their crosses just as Jesus was nailed to his.

This film doesn’t give us a good look at Jesus’ hands during the Crucifixion — and after the Resurrection, he doesn’t seem to have any holes or marks on his arms at all — so it’s almost agnostic on the question of whether the nails went through Jesus’ palms or through his wrists. But if you freeze-frame the very beginning of this one shot, you can see that one nail, at least, is actually in the palm of his hand.

Jesus (dir. Roger Young, 1999)

Jesus carries only a crossbeam.

The thieves have already been nailed to their crosses when Jesus arrives. They are all nailed to their crosses through their wrists.

The Miracle Maker (dir. Derek W. Hayes & Stanislav Sokolov, 2000)

Jesus carries only a crossbeam.

Curiously, although this film has Jesus carry a crossbeam, and although it has the nails go through his wrists, it also shows the thieves as being bound to their crosses with rope.

The Gospel of John (dir. Philip Saville, 2003)

Jesus carries only a crossbeam.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through their wrists.

The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004)

Jesus carries a full cross in the background, while the thieves carry only crossbeams in the foreground.

Simon of Cyrene is introduced in the company of his young son again! This is one of a few overlaps between Gibson’s film and The King of Kings that make me wonder if Gibson was paying homage to the earlier film, or if both films were drawing on a common tradition.

Simon of Cyrene carries the cross with Jesus.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through the palms of their hands …

… and one of them is visited by a crow, again.

The Bible (dir. Christopher Spencer, 2013)

Jesus carries a full cross in the foreground, while the thieves carry only crossbeams in the background.

Simon of Cyrene carries the cross with Jesus.

Jesus and the thieves are nailed to their crosses through the palms of their hands.

And that brings us up to the present day, more or less. There have been many, many other Jesus films besides these ones, of course, so this isn’t anywhere near as exhaustive a list as it could be — but these are pretty representative. It will be interesting to see how the next few Jesus films handle these story elements.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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