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alexamenos1

It is 1st century Rome, maybe 3rd century, Historians are unsure, when a young boy at a boarding school graffitis a wall. A horse headed figure is attached to a cross, a young boy points up at him, it is hard to tell if the witness figure is mocking or maudlin in his gesture. Beneath the image a broad scrawl of letters spell out Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. The broad translation from the Greek is ‘Alexmenos worships (his) God’.

This is the Alexmenos Graffito. It is widely thought to be (alongside a few engraved gamstones) the earliest depiction of Christ on the Cross. It is a piece of graffiti in which a Roman school boy mocks his Christian friend. The horse headed is presumed to be a nod to the prejudiced misconception of Romans that Christians and Jews were donkey worshippers.

At the time the Christian’s were considered a strange underground cult. Roman could not understand how a faith could be based on the belief that their God could suffer or be humiliated, it is this belief that they are mocking.

It is an amazing image. It feels unbelievably contemporary, as if it belongs as much to our post Christian society as it does to this pre Christian society. (by pre and post I mean in terms of Christianity not being the dominant system of belief now or then). It is like a crude Banksy, full of a childish energy, comic and cruel. It feels like a form of Iconoclasm, as if the iconography of the Christian culture is being attacked before it has even been formed. It is as strong, vibrant and relevant an image of the Crucifixion as any of the near infinite number of images that have followed.