One might find it surprising, but it is impossible to discover an image of the crucifix existing before the sixth century. Even then, the only one that can be found is carved on the massive bronze doors of the cathedral in Ravenna. It is a mere panel among a number of other panels. Tucked away in the upper left-hand corner, it is easily missed by the casual observer.
This seemingly strange circumstance is easily understood by putting ourselves in the mindset of the ancient Roman world, albeit drawing its last breath. Crucifixion was one of the most humiliating sentences devised by the Roman Imperium, imposed for the most shameful crimes, involving one of the most excruciating deaths. Understandably, crucifixion was not a matter of boasting. One would want it kept hidden, like a relative who suffered execution by a firing squad. Even though suffered by a loved one, it would never be spoken of except in embarrassed whispers.
Seen that way, it is no wonder the early Church kept Our Lord’s crucifixion locked away in the silence of red-faced shame. If a cross did appear, it was encrusted with jewels as a boisterous reminder of Our Lord’s glorious resurrection. After all, who would not want to forget the hours of that awful Friday when the world turned dark, the earth shook, and temple curtains were mysteriously torn from top to bottom? And those grisly details of Roman soldiers pounding the plaited crown of thorns deep into the skull of Our Savior, the blows of the hammer that spiked His hands and feet to the cross, and the outsized, clumsy rusted nails that broiled Our Lord’s open nerves whenever he tried to lift His body even a little—to relieve the strain on His hands, or to take a small breath into His drowning lungs. This was an ordeal that anyone would want forever forgotten.