Naumburg Cathedral Choir Screen c. 1250. Source: Wikipedia/Anders Hoernigk

Crucifixus Dolorosus or the Forked Crucifix from c. 1300

In an unusually dramatic way, a Crucifixus Dolorosus depicts the suffering and dying Christ hung on a living tree. Such forked crucifixes became important features in late medieval churches, and were regarded as miraculous destinations of pilgrimages

Cathedral in Naumburg. The Crypt. Crucifix with Christ the Conqueror. Source: wikipedia
Cathedral in Naumburg. The Crypt. Crucifix with Christ the Conqueror. Source: wikipedia

The late Romanesque Cathedral in Naumburg is remarkable for numerous reasons. Not only the famous donor portraits, the stained glasses, and the modern bronze handrails by Heinrich Apel depicting St. Francis preaching to the animals are sure to appeal to visitors. Another evocative experience is a comparison of the two crucifixes: the one in the crypt and the Gothic rendering of Christ on the western choir-screen c 1250. Christ in the Crypt can be dated to the early 12th century. Here we see Christ as the triumphant Majesty conquering death. Above in the Cathedral, Christ is once more depicted. However, this time, he is rendered as the suffering Christ with crossed legs featuring a pained and meditative expression beneath the thorny crown. Here, Christ is not the conqueror of death but the suffering God, accompanying his fellow human being on his or her via Dolorosa.

The Gothic Crist in the Naumburger Dom is nevertheless not a full-blown specimen of the art form, which later became known as the Crucifixus Dolorosus.

These later sculptures show the dying Christ, naked except for a loincloth and hung on a forked or y-shaped cross, the last type probably representing the Three of Life. However, in the late Gothic sculptures, the emaciated body of Christ is weighed down by sheer gravity. The ribs are clearly distinguished, while the abdomen has fallen. The knees are angled; The feet, pierced by one nail, show painful rupturing, as do the hands. The upper body is covered with sores, while blood flows from the large wound on the side. The bloody crowned head has fallen to the right breast, the almost closed eyes and the cheeks are hollow, while the pain-distorted mouth is slightly open.

Christ the suffering. From the Choir Screen in the Cathedral in Naumburg. Source: Wikipedia
Christ the suffering. From the Choir Screen in the Cathedral in Naumburg. Source: Wikipedia

While the T-cross or the Tau was explicitly connected to the veneration of St. Francis, the adoption of the tree-life cross had its origin in a more widespread set of legends. One of these was the belief that the cross had been manufactured by the Tree of Life, as rendered by the very early Apocalypse of Moses from the 1st century Alexandria. Later, the complex narrative developed into the Legend of the Rood. According to this, the dying Adam sent his son Seth back to Paradise to acquire the Oil of Life that Adam might be immortalised. Although the angel guarding the port denies him access, Seth is presented with a seed from the tree of Paradise. When Seth returns, his father is dead, but Seth places the seed under the tongue of Adam and buries him at Golgotha. Later, the tree experiences multiple adventures. In the end, however, it delivers the wood from which the cross is manufactured.

One fabrication derived from this popular (pan-European) legend, was the idea, that Christ had been crucified on a real tree with three branches, one of Cedar, one of cypress, and one of pine. Other sources mention wood from palm trees, firs and oaks. When Jacobus de Voraigne included the story in his Legenda Aurea, it received a significant stamp of approval.

Crucifix from Perpignan - detail. Source: wikipediaCrucifix from Perpignan - detail. Source: wikipedia
Crucifix from Perpignan – detail. Source: Wikipedia

Such crosses became increasingly popular in 14th century Europe, where they were often associated with late medieval mysticism. They were especially prevalent among the Franciscans and Dominicans and were not especially liked by the established clergy. One explanation proffered was that these crucifixes did not exhibit the acknowledged form of the cross but were T- or Y-shaped.

Thus, in 1306, the Bishop of London had a similar Crucifix removed from London because it stirred feelings too much. Whether the cross was T- or V-shaped is not entirely clear. However, the artist – perhaps a German Goldsmith Tidemann – was obliged to repay the commissioner as well as cease crafting new such crucifixes, as he, according to the Bishop, obviously did not know the true form of the cross. Also, the crucifix was to be carried outside London during the night so that it might not disturb people. Safely outside the Bishop’s jurisdiction, the artist might get it back. Where it ended up is not known .[1]

Christ in St. Maria in Capitol in Cologne

Crucifix from St. Maria in Kapitol. Source: Wikipedia
Crucifix from St. Maria in Kapitol. Source: Wikipedia

One of the earliest known crucifixes fashioned in this evocative style stems from St. Maria in Capitol in Cologne (St. Maria in Kapitol in Köln). Until recently, this was dated to c. 1304. After careful restoration and numerous studies, though, doubts have been raised about identifying this particular crucifix with that described by Aegidius Gelenius in 1636. The number of parcels of relics placed in the head of the hollow crucifix numbers exceeds the expected 38; also, they have not been furnished with written labels designating the content. Finally, it also became apparent that the figure of Christ had been repainted in the 15th century. The sculpture would likely have appeared less harrowing when first designed.

Thus, there is a distinct affinity between the crucifix in Naumburg, the Crucifixus Dolorosus in Cologne and the later 15th century crucifixes from Poland; however, the sculptures – when lined up in a row – show a distinct development of the motive of pain. Surreptitiously indicated in Naumberg, it develops into a full flown horror as that rendered by the crucifix from Wrocław (Breslau) (now in the National Museum in Warsaw) from c. 1370-80.

The forked crucifixes seem to have been especially popular in the region around Köln and the wider region of the Middle Rhein and Westphalia. Early on, this led to the region being pinpointed as the place of origin. Contributing to this was the early recognition that there was a distinct link between the contemplative mysticism of Heinrich Suso, Meister Eckhardt, Johannes Tauler and others and the adoption of the motive of the suffering Christ in Cologne. The recent studies of the prototype from St. Maria in Capitol have nevertheless served to widen this perspective. These crucifixes may have been more prevalent there, but they were widespread throughout Europe – from Sweden to Spain. The forked cross was a pan-European motive.

Figures for Devotion

St. Severin In Cologne. Source: Wikipedia
St. Severin In Cologne. Source: Wikipedia/Howi

Let your thought always be upward toward God, and direct your prayers continually toward Christ. If you cannot, because of your frailty, always occupy your mind in contemplation of the Godhead, yet be occupied with a remembrance of his passion, and make for yourself a dwelling place in his blessed wounds. And if you flee devoutly to the wound in Christ’s side, and to the marks of his passion, you will feel great comfort in every trouble

From: Thomas A Kempis: De imitationen Christi. Crown Publishing Group 2009, p. 47


When first described by art historians, such crucifixes were considered devotional. This understanding led art historians to consider these crucifixes as primarily contemplative devices intended to lead the faithful towards an ”Unio Mystica”, such as this was outlined in the spiritual guides written by the mystics from Cologne. As life-sized, we find the crucifixes typically hung as triumphal crucifixes or (later) as part of rood screens, and not in the niches in the cloister or an odd corner in the sacristy. They may have been intended to lead the faithful on, but not in a personal, devotional context; rather, such crucifixes were intended to lead the congregation towards contemplation of the mystery as presented in sermons and infused by legends. As the crucifixes also functioned as reliquaries, they occasionally ended up as destinations for pilgrimages.

It appears these crucifixes were essential tools in the fostering of late medieval communal spirituality.




[1] Ein deutscher Bildhauer in London 1306. By F. Liebermann. In: Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft (1910) Vol 33.


Naumburg Cathedral Choir Screen c. 1250. Source: Wikipedia/Anders Hoernigk


Santa Maria im Kapitol

The Crucifixus Dolorosus in St. Maria in the Capitol of Cologne
By Godehard Hoffmann
In: Colonia Romanica, XV, 2001, pp. 9-82

Crucifixus Dolorosus Christus im Lebensbaum im Nationalmuseum Warschau
By Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki
In: Bulletin du Musée National de Varsovie 1994, Vol 35.

Crucifixus Dolorosus. Über Bedeutung und. Herkunft des gotischen Gabelkruzifixes
By F. Mühlberg
In: Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch (1960), vol 22.





















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