Jesus Christ: the ‘Vitruvian Man’ on the Cross

Pablo Irizar

Consider the two Renaissance images below. To the left  is the ‘Vitruvian Man’ by the Italian Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). To the right is a depiction of the crucifixion of Christ by the German Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472–1553). What do they have in common? What differentiates them?

Upon cursory inspection, one immediately notes the inescapable similarities between the outstretched figures of the body. What does the figure of the body represent, and what is distinctly significant about the crucifixion of Jesus?

As I argued in the first part of this article, the ‘Vitruvian Man’ exemplifies the view that that the human body is a mirror of the complex mystery of the universe. The Roman engineer Vitruvius (c. 75–15 BC) believed that the body embodies the architecture of reality in its firmness, functionality and use. This followed a tradition dating back to the fifth-century philosopher Protagoras, for whom human beings are the measure of all things.

These insights of architecture and philosophy were later introduced into Christianity. By the 4th century AD – i.e. anno Domini, or the year of the Lord, taking the birth of Jesus as the point of historical reference – the outstretched form of the cross and the figure of the body of Jesus on it came to typify the locus of his divine manifestation to humanity.

For this reason, the cross became the general symbol of Christianity, much like the Star of David symbolized Judaism. Yet it was not for some centuries after the death of Jesus that Christians adopted the cross. After all, the cross was a tool of torture, and symbolized the brutal death suffered by criminals whom the Romans exposed along the roads of their empire to dissuade others from crime. Furthermore, since Christianity was persecuted for centuries, early followers of Jesus preferred a symbol more subtle than the cross.

Stained glass window (c. 1875) from the porch of St Peter’s, Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford, Ireland.

Instead, from their early days, Christians adopted the sign of a fish – after all Jesus called upon his disciples, many of them fishermen, to make “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). This symbol was called the ichthus – not just because that is the Greek word for “fish” (ἰχθύς) but because it stood as condensed acronym IChThUS to represent the Christian creed: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” or in the Greek, Ἰησοῦς (Iesus) Χριστὸς (Christos) Θεοῦ (Theou) Υἱὸς (HUios) Σωτήρ (Soter). Jesus was recognized as “Christ”, which means “the anointed one” (ὁ χριστός), and as the Son of God who, dying on the cross, saved humanity from sin.

Below are two Byzantine representations of Christ (that on the left being from the sixth century, and thus one of the earliest surviving). The unity of the humanity and divinity of Jesus are represented by the uneven duality of the face, the halo over the head, and the hand gestures.

Through the cross, Jesus Christ would deliver humanity from sin, just as prefigured by the deliverance of the Jews from the grip of Egyptian captivity at the hand of Ramses by Moses.

But how did the cross become the prominent symbol of Christianity, thus replacing the ichthus?

We must turn to a letter by the Apostle Paul (AD c. 5–67) – who, although he never met Jesus and initially persecuted Christians, eventually converted following a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. Writing to a Christian community in the Ionian city of Ephesus (modern Efez in Western Turkey), he offers a prayer of invocation for the understanding of the breadth, length, depth and height of the divine mysteries and power of Christ. Early Christians, who quickly recognized Paul’s apostolic zeal for spreading the Gospel (or “good news”) of Jesus Christ throughout and beyond the empire, saw in this authoritative invocation an evocation of the figure of the cross. It was taken to be the crux of divine manifestation and salvific action in the midst of human brokenness.

Initially an underground and persecuted religion, everything changed for Christians literally overnight when, on 28 October 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine (the Great, who ruled 306–37) reported a vision of the cross in the sky in the midst of a decisive confrontation in Rome, the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine is reported to have heard, and also later to have dreamed, in hoc signo vinces: “in this sign you will conquer.” With little odds for a successful defense against the might of Maxentius, his rival co-emperor, the triumphant Constantine attributed his surprise decisive victory to the cross of the Christian God.

Because of this, Constantine signed the famous Edict of Milan in February 313, securing religious tolerance for the long-persecuted and ever-growing Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire. With Constantine, the sign of the cross became a mainstream symbol of Christianity – his mother, Empress Helena, would venture a quest to find the true cross of Christ in Jerusalem.

The central section of Giulio Romano’s Battle of Milvian Bridge, 1520–4 (Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

That the cross of Christ represented military victory for Emperor Constantine was understood as a divinely ordered, providential manifestation of the spiritual victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death. Even before Christianity the cross was believed to conjure special powers, hence the Christian fascination with it in the first place. Variations of the simple perpendicular lines rendering the figure of the cross have been found in places related to cult practices already in the Iron Age, i.e. sometime between 500 and 332 BC, and thus long before Christ.

Although there is plenty of speculation about the meaning of the figure of the cross before Christianity, it is often recognized that its dimensions evoked something metaphysical, divine, and even magical. For some it represented the infinite dimensions of God. Others believed that the cross represented the cardinal points of the material universe and therefore the key to overcoming the finite confines of reality.  And others thought that the ends of the cross represented the four elements of reality. To signify the constitution of reality by means of the cross was for pre-Christians a way to conjure, predict, tame and even manipulate the order of the universe.

Early Christians saw in the figure of the cross a natural position of prayer and divine invocation, in line with Jewish prayerful postures. This was thus a natural way to invoke God through the cross, as Jesus did before dying.

The Alexamenos Graffito (AD c. 200?) is thought to be the earliest depiction of the Christian cross, although in this case as blasphemous mockery of Christ by Romans on the Palatine Hill. 

This anonymous early Christian painting depicts the prayer position (orans) of Noah in the Ark upon receiving signs of life from the dove after 40 days of deluge:

Detail from a fresco in the Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, late 3rd / early 4th century, Rome, Italy.

Within Greek and Roman culture, as was the case for Vitruvius, dimensions evoked spatial measurements and provided the key to harmonizing architecture by rational proportion.

The most innovative and systematic interpretation of the figure of the cross, following Paul’s invocation, comes from the North African Bishop of Hippo St Augustine (354–430). His historical and philosophical perspectives, combined with a brilliant acuity for insight, gave Augustine an unparalleled opportunity to synthesize ideas.

The circumstances leading to Augustine’s interpretation revolved around the acknowledgement of the human and divine aspects of Jesus and the consequent meaning of the crucifixion. First, Augustine lived in the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea, convened in 325, which formalized the view that Jesus, as Christ, was simultaneously and perfectly undivided God and man.

Furthermore, at the age of 27 in 380, Emperor Theodosius (ruled 379–95) proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the empire, thereby legitimizing its Nicaean creed.

Thirdly, Augustine’s thorough knowledge and lived experience of Greco-Roman culture – philosophical, religious and historical – was only paralleled by his eventual embracing of the North African Catholic tradition and Pauline Christianity. Upon becoming a priest in 391, Augustine set out to study the letters of Paul, where he probably first began to ponder on the enigmatic invocation of the breadth, length, depth and height of God’s mystery of Jesus crucified on the cross.

Finally, the immediate event that instigated Augustine’s interpretation arose from a dispute with Pelagius and his followers (411–31), whom Augustine called “the enemies of grace”. As a corrective to the Pelagians who, according to Augustine, excessively emphasized free will and the human ability to be good at the expense of grace, he stressed the importance of complete resignation to divine mercy in the grace of Christ. Without negating free will, this position complicated the role of isolated human initiative in the workings of divine providence.

Different fortunes: ‘St Augustine’ and ‘Pelagius the Heretic’ as depicted by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff in the Nuremberg Chronicle, Hartmann Schedel’s illustrated encyclopedia of 1493.

Against the Pelagians, Augustine found in the figure of the cross a pedagogical tool to elucidate the meaning of Christ’s death and its role in effectuating the salvation of an otherwise helpless humanity left to the mercy of sin. This Augustine captured by figuring the mechanics of grace – the gift of God to humanity – as inherent to the dimensions of the cross.

Augustine eloquently explains how the cross, as a former symbol of torture and death, also offers Christians a method to comprehend the redemption of the world:

It’s broad, of course, in the crossbeam, on which the hands of the one hanging there are extended, and it signifies good works in the breadth of charity. It’s long from the crossbeam all the way to the ground, where the back and feet are fastened, and this signifies perseverance in length of time all the way to the end. It’s high at its topmost point, which rises above the crossbeam, which signifies the supernal end to which all our works are referred, because all the things that are done well and perseveringly in terms of breadth and length are to be done for the sake of the height of the divine rewards. It’s deep in the part where it’s fixed into the ground, and there in fact it’s hidden and can’t be seen, but everything that is visible and lofty rises up from there, just as everything that is good in us comes forth from the depths of God’s grace, which can’t be comprehended or adjudged…

Finally, what is the sign of Christ that everyone knows, if not the cross of Christ? Unless this sign is applied to the foreheads of believers, or to the very water from which they are regenerated, or to the oil by which they are anointed with chrism, or to the sacrifices with which they are fed, none of these [rites] is properly performed. How, then, is nothing good signified by what bad people do, when everything that is good for us in the celebration of his sacraments is marked by the cross of Christ, which bad people constructed?[1]

The crucifixion of Christ, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1565 (Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy).

On this reading, the metaphor of the cross is pre-eminently powerful. The invisible work of divine providence roots all that pours forth in the visible world, just as the depth of the cross, via a continuum from unseen depths up into the vertical post of the cross, grounds the mechanics of salvation.

Thus, Augustine explains, by invoking the sign of the cross in anointing the forehead, believers can find the way to a good life: the height of the cross is the transcendent goal of life and its divine rewards; the breadth and length exemplify the perseverance in good works across time, and, when done for their own sake, these actions are the manifestation of God’s hidden graces in the depth of providence.

Importantly, all of this is made possible by Christ indwelling and guiding the journey of human life from within. In leaving room for free will while insisting on the utmost dependence on God, Augustine employs the cross as a guide to navigate life and to understand the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Whereas the Vitruvian Man exemplifies the optimistic view of Protagoras for whom “Man is the measure of all things”, for Augustine only a mediating God-man on the cross can truly serve as the divine mirror of humanity for humanity. In other words, God on the cross reveals to humanity its true constitution and purpose. God, not man, is the measure of all things in Christ, the true Vitruvian Man on the cross. Augustine acknowledges human frailty, and the inevitable limitations of the very constitution of human existence, otherwise called sin. But, unlike the Greeks, Augustine believed that humans are incapable on their own to overcome their limitations. Only with the grace of Christ on the cross is it possible to exemplify human nature anew.

Pablo Irizar is Adjunct Professor of Catholic Studies at McGill University and Director of the Newman Centre, also at McGill. He specializes in the thought of Augustine and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. The first part of this article can be read here.


1 St Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium tractatus 118.5 (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 36: 657–8), translation from Works of St Augustine III/13: 497-8 (adapted).