The death of Christ on the cross is the central image in Christian art. The Crucifixion is often visually and symbolically linked to original sin and the Fall of Man. Some people thought that Jesus' cross was made of wood taken from the tree that bore the forbidden fruit eaten by
Adam and Eve. There is a skull at the foot of the cross. This not only identifies the hill as Golgotha, the 'place of the skull', but also represents Adam, since the site of the Crucifixion was believed to be Adam's burial
On either side of the cross are the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Christ asked John to care for his mother after his death. She is traditionally shown in a blue robe. The inscription on Mary's gown is from the Latin prayer 'Stabat Mater', that was sung in the Middle Ages as
a popular hymn. It reads in an abbreviated form QUIS (E)ST HOM VI NON FLE MATREM CRISTI S(I) VI(D) IN TANTO SU(P), which translates as 'What man is not moved seeing the mother of Christ in such distress?'
The other crucified men are the good thief and the bad thief. They are tied rather than nailed to their crosses in order to distinguish them from Jesus. On Christ's right side is the good thief. He condemned the other thief, saying that their punishment was deserved but Christ was
innocent, and was told by Jesus, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise."
Also to Christ's right is Longinus, the lance-bearer. On the order of Pilate, this blind soldier pierced Christ's side so as to quicken his death and end his suffering. The blood from the wound ran down the lance of Longinus and covered his hands. When he raised them to his face,
this blood cured him of his blindness. He later became a missionary for the early Christian Church.
Joseph of Arimathea caught some of the blood from Christ's side in a chalice. This act is the basis of Catholic Mass, or the Eucharist. Here, wine is drunk as if it were literally the blood of Christ. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea took the chalice with Christ's blood to
England and founded the first church there at Glastonbury. The chalice is also known as the Holy Grail.
Bulging varicose veins on soldier's leg
At the front of the scene, soldiers throw dice to decide who will keep the tunic they have stripped from Jesus. Another soldier stands with his back to us. His varicose veins, bulging from his left leg, are just one of the sharply-focussed realistic details for which the artist was
Three holy women mourn to Christ's right. They are Mary, mother of the apostles James and Joseph; Salome, the wife of Zebedee; and Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' followers, who wears red to symbolise her human frailty.
These three women are often referred to as the 'Three Marys'.