Panel from an ivory casket: the Crucifixion of Christ
Late Roman, AD 420-30
Probably made in Rome
The earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion
This plaque is one of four, which though now separated, must originally have been mounted on the four sides of a small square casket. Each is carved with scenes from Christ's Passion. The other panels depict the Christ carrying the Cross, the empty Sepulchre and Doubting Thomas.
This is the earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion. It is combined with another scene of death, the hanging of Judas. The stiff, clothed body of Judas pulls down the branch of a tree and a spilled sack of coins lies at his feet. In contrast the exposed limbs of Christ appear still vigorous, and He gazes at the viewer, triumphant in death. A plaque over Christ's head is inscribed REX IUD[AEORUM] ('King of the Jews'). Mary and John stand in similar poses to the left of the cross, while on the right Longinus steps from beneath the arm of the cross across the frame into the viewer's space. In the branch of the tree which bends towards Christ, a bird feeds her chicks - a symbol of the life-giving power of His death.
The depth of the carving - almost three-dimensional - and sense of movement in this particular plaque are typical of the continuation of the classical tradition of ivory carving in Rome.
K. Weitzmann (ed.), Age of spirituality: Late Anti (New York, 1979)