1st-3rd century AD, etching on marble, Paletine museum in Rome
The Alexamenos Graffito is generally held to be the earliest known pictorial representation of Christ. It consists of a crudely drawn image of a crucified man with the head of an ass and a few words in Greek, ‘Alexamenos worships [his] God.’ Although the artist is unknown, it could have been the crass work of a common page mocking the faith of a fellow slave (Tertullian reported that the pagans of his day ‘foolishly imagine that our God has the head of an ass’).
Perhaps it is fitting that the earliest known visual representation of the crucifixion echoes the apostle Paul’s stark admission: ‘we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1:23). But is that the case any longer? Have we so packaged and marketed the Gospel that Christ’s death ceases to be the scandel that prompted the taunting of this ‘Alexamenos’?