Ruins of Nero’s Paedagogium in Rome

The ugliest -- most wonderful -- picture in the world


John W. Cowart

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
              And I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best
For a world of lost sinners was slain...

Oh, that old rugged cross so despised by the world,
              Has a wondrous attraction for me;
              For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above,
              To bear it to dark Calvary.

Visitors to my office say the picture of Jesus  above my desk is gross, obscene, disgusting, shocking, filthy, even blasphemous.

I treasure it.

To me it is the most meaningful religious picture I have ever seen. Archaeologists discovered the original on a wall in Rome.

After the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64, the Emperor Nero built a new palace which he named Domus Aurea, "The Golden House" on Palatine Hill northeast of the Coliseum site where some say Christians, accused of setting the fire, were fed to the lions.

The Roman writer Suetonius described Nero's magnificent palace:

  "Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the Emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house, all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of-pearl."

When Nero saw his new palace he said, “Good! Now at last I can live like a human being”!

On Palatine Hill close to "The Golden House" Nero also constructed a building called the Paedagogium. It housed imperial offices as well a school for servants and barracks rooms where palace guards and gladiators lived while on duty.

The soldiers often scratched rough pictures and slogans, called graffiti,  into the plaster walls of their barracks. In 1857, in the fourth room on the left of the entrance to the Paedagogium archaelogists discovered a number of these graffiti.

 One of these pictures bears the inscription, "Alexamenos worships his God".

This graffito, now housed in Rome's Museo Kircheriano at the Collegion Romano, is the earliest known portrait of the Crucifixion, the earliest known picture of Christ.

It’s a cartoon.

Archaeologists say it was drawn within 30 years of Christ's Resurrection.

The picture shows a small man, Alexamenos, praying with one arm extended toward our Saviour suffering on the cross.

The cross appears to be a Tau Cross, one shaped like a capital T, with a title board on top.

Our Lord's feet rest on a small shelf or crossbar, his body is taut, his arms stretch out on the hard wood of the cross with the nails fastening his hands visible.

In this crude picture, scratched on the barracks wall by some pagan soldier, Jesus has the body of a crucified man  -- but the head of a Jackass!

Although this mocking picture offends modern Christian sensitivities, it would hold no shock for the writers of the Bible; they knew the cross as an emblem of shame.

The book of Hebrews NIV speaks of "crucifying  the Son of God... and subjecting him to public disgrace". It says " Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith... endured the cross, scorning its shame”.

Peter said, "If you are reproached for the name of Christ, happy are you; for the spirit of glory and of God rests on you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified."

Paul told the Galatians, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.

He told the people of Corinth, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing... Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.

Shame! Disgrace! Foolishness! Stumbling block! Curse! -- these are the words Bible writers associated with crucifixion.

The Romans reserved crucifixion as a form of execution for runaway slaves, rebels,  child molesters, thieves who knocked down old ladies, abusers of their parents -- the lowest criminal scum.

The Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero, a pagan,  wrote, "Let even the name 'cross' be kept away not only from the bodies of the citizens of Rome but also from their thought, sight and hearing... It is a grave offense even to bind a Roman citizen, a crime to flog him, almost the act of parricide to put him to death: What shall I then call crucifying him? Language worthy of such an enormity -- It is impossible to find!"

Is it any wonder that the pagan soldier associated crucifixion with repugnance and ridicule and so drew his picture of Christ on the cross with the head of an ass?

Pagans often made such an association. Tertullian mentions another such picture of the God of the Christians -- this one shows a man with an ass's head; he wears a toga and carries a book.

Minucius Felix said, "Audio eos turpissiame pecudis caput asini... venerari -- I hear they worship the very filthiest beast with the head of an ass".

The pagan word for the earliest Christians was Asinarii, which can be politely translated to mean "belonging to an ass".

Everyone -- Hebrew, Christian and pagan -- knew that crucifixion was a filthy disgusting ignominious way to die.

.  So naturally, the pagan artist -- who wanted to tease his fellow soldier, to show repugnance and ridicule --drew that picture of Alexamenos praying to Christ crucified.

Jesus himself linked the cross with utter degradation coming before resurrection:

He told his disciples, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again."

Handed over. Mocked. Insulted. Spit on. Flogged -- Crucified.

Yes, Jesus knew what he was getting into; on the Mount of Transfiguration he said, "The Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life".

Then he continued to say,: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory".

Suffering...rejection... torture... shame.

Who was Jesus to take such abuse? And why? Why, knowing what lay ahead,  did he deliberately go to Jerusalem and crucifixion?

Who was this who was crucified?

Today many people seem to get hung up on the question Who Killed Jesus?

Might as well ask, Who Poisoned Socrates?

Such an esoteric question matters only to the very learned – or the very ignorant.

If Jesus is indeed the Lord of Life who rose from the dead, then why ask who killed him? After all the Scripture says he is the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world.

The question that matters to everybody is, Who Is It That Was Crucified?

Why does that matter to everyone?

Because Jesus once said that a time is coming when all the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live! “A time is coming,” he said, “When all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned”.

Is that the truth?

I mean, if Jesus was just innocent victim of man’s inhumanity to man that’s too bad, but that’s the way it goes.

Tough luck.

But what if he isn’t just another dead guy?

What if he were something else altogether?

The author of Hebrews said, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son of God is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word."

The Apostle John said, "At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him... He came into the world -- the world he had created -- and the world failed to recognize him He came into his own creation, and his own people would not accept him...So the word of God became a human being and lived among us."

Paul stated, "In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form!"


The owner of all things? The Creator of the Universe? The shine of God's glory? The exact replica of God? The sustainer of all things? The personal expression of God. The fullness of the Deity!

The Ancient of Days. The Lord of Hosts. The Prince of Peace. Wonderful Counselor. King of kings and Lord of lords. Light of lights. Very God of Very God. The owner of all things. The Creator of the Universe. The shine of God's glory. The exact replica of God. The sustainer of all things. The personal expression of God. The fullness of the Deity! -- These are the terms church and Scripture use in speaking of Jesus.

But isn't he honored today mostly for being a great teacher?


But what was it he taught?

"I am the light of the world," Jesus said.

"I am the door," Jesus said.

"I am the bread of life," Jesus said.

"I am the Good Shepherd," Jesus said.

"I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus said.

He said that he saw Satan fall from heaven before earth's creation. He said he existed before Abraham. He said that he had the authority to forgive sin. He said he was Lord of the Sabbath. He said that he and the Father are one and the same...

 The Ancient of Days. The Lord of Hosts. The Prince of Peace. The Wonderful Counselor. King of kings and Lord of lords. Light of lights. Very God of Very God, begotten not made...

The night before Jesus was crucified, Caiaphas, the high priest, asked him:

"I charge you under oath by the Living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."

"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied, "But I say to all of you: In the future, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

Now, when Jesus walked around saying he was God, the Mighty One, the light of the world -- stuff like that -- Was he telling lies? Was he crazy? Was he telling the truth? Are these the only three possibilities?

We know that Jesus is the Son of God because of the things he said and because of the things he did.

So, what did he do?

Jesus once withered a fig tree. Jesus calmed a storm. Jesus walked on water. Jesus gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. He fed the hungry, cured the sick, taught the ignorant, confused the proud -- whatever was wrong, Jesus made it right.

So, what did we do?

One of us betrayed him. One of us smashed a thorny crown on his head. One of us whipped him. One of us whacked him on the head with a stick. One of us stripped him naked. One of us held his arm down while another hammered a nail through his hand -- We crucified him.

And then, while he hung on the cross in agony, we mocked him:

"He 'saved' others but he can't save himself," one said.

"If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross," shouted another.

"If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself," mocked one.

If you're such a Hot Shot, why don't you do something, they teased.

So Jesus did something...

He forgave them.

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," he said.

Yes indeed, the cross demonstrates God's forgiveness and love as well as Man's cruelty and shame.

Writing to the Philippians the Apostle Paul explained what had happened at Calvary:

"He, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God's equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal."


Why did all this awful stuff happen?

Why did he suffer all this mockery, this humiliation, this shameful treatment?

If Jesus really was the Lord God Almighty come in the flesh and if he really had the power to call legions of angels to his rescue, why did he stay on the cross?

He'd have to be crazy to put up with all this if he didn't have to!

That's right!

You hit the nail on the head.

God is crazy about us.

He endured all this for love of you and me.

Paul told the Romans why the Lord Christ endured the shame and mockery of the cross: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly... God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

But how could mere men kill the Almighty God, the Prince and Source of All Life?

The God we pray to, The High and Holy One Who Inhabits Eternity, Who Dwells between the cherubim, Who has His throne in the heavens and the earth as his footstool, Who holds the entire universe, small as a hazel nut, in the hollow of His hand, The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Bright and Morning Star, Emmanuel, God with us -- Jesus --somehow lowered himself, emptied himself, reduced himself to enter the world he had created:

Remember what Paul said? "He, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God's equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal."

In the early days of computer technology, the machinery for a mainframe filled a whole floor in a building; then came the microprocessors with microchips so small that the same power can be found in a laptop... Well, God's love motivated him to  sort of micro-process himself, to condensed himself down so he could squeeze into this world to get to where the problem was -- that's us.

In his essay "The Grand Miracle" C.S. Lewis uses the analogy of a diver to illustrate the idea of God's entering the world to save sinners -- what theologians call the Incarnation:

 “ One has the picture of a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again in the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get”.

Down. Down. Down to the very bottom to get us -- that's the Incarnation; then up, up, up, back to where he came from -- that's the Resurrection!

"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father".

Yet all the shame, degradation, filth and mockery we subjected him to -- like unruly, spoiled, vicious brats pounding on a sofa cushion -- hardly left a dent, except for the nail prints still in his hands when he arose.

So, do you understand why I treasure the picture above my desk? Why I see such glowing beauty in the awful thing?

You see, God has no shame.

For love, there's virtually nothing he won't do.

He loves us and He wants you and me for himself, for his kingdom…

And he'll go to any lengths to get us, to make us princes and princesses in that kingdom.

Hey, we're talking here about a God who'd kiss frogs!

In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see;
For t'was on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,

To pardon and sanctify me.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down:
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.



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