For centuries symbols have been used as a means of identification, often in an immediate, compact and powerful way. Sometimes political or religious extremists do so to claim power or supremacy, to produce fear or insecurity, or even to convey hate or anger. Many are easily recognized, one of the most powerful and emotive being the Nazi swastika.
Opponents during the notorious ‘Troubles' in Northern Ireland, which lasted for thirty years from the nineteen-sixties and cost over 3,000 lives, often used eye-catching and dramatic symbols. Some of these showed armed and hooded men and covered the outer walls of buildings in Belfast and elsewhere.
Over the centuries, authorities have used many different means of executing criminals and enemies. These have included stoning, the guillotine, the firing squad, hanging, electrocution, gassing and lethal injection. In almost all these cases the death of the victim is instantaneous, while in the others the death throes last only a few minutes.
From the fourth century B.C. onwards at least four powers, including the Roman Empire, employed a form of execution that was indescribably painful and prolonged—crucifixion. The word comes from the Latin for ‘fix to a cross', and this cruel and savage practice was used for about 1,000 years.
In ad 337 it was abolished in the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine I, yet for nearly 2,000 years a cross has been the universally recognized symbol of Christianity, whose founder, Jesus Christ, was crucified on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The British author Malcolm Muggeridge called it ‘the most famous death in history,' but what is not immediately obvious is why a cross should be the Christian church's symbol of choice.
It might be difficult to think of one that would represent Jesus' moral example, or the miracles attributed to him, but at first glance it seems grotesque to highlight his death in this way.
The symbol of the cross has now been sanitized in such a way that it seems to have lost its macabre associations. It is on millions of books, buildings and bodies; it decorates the clothing of countless people during their lives and is often etched on their gravestones when they die. Are any other instruments of death universally popular in these ways? The choice does seem strange.