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Return to the Convent by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868) Carmen Thyssen Museum (Public Domain)

Mockery of the Crucifixion: The Sacred Donkey and the Cross

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In 1857 in a cell of the ruins of Imperial Palace on the Palantine Hill in Rome, a curious graffiti representing a crucified man ( corpus humanum... suffigitur in cruce ) but with the head and ears of a donkey ( cervix asinina caputque auritu ) was discovered. Beneath the sketch was etched in broken Greek: ‘Alexameno worships his God'. Who could have been the instigator behind this primitive, apparent blasphemous fresco?

 ‘Alexameno worships his God' was graffitied next to an image depicting a monophonic Christ. "Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries",  by Rodolfo Lancian (1898) (Public Domain)

 ‘Alexameno worships his God' was graffitied next to an image depicting a monophonic Christ. "Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries",  by Rodolfo Lancian (1898) ( Public Domain )

Careio and Alexameno

In 1903 Giovanni Pascoli dedicated his poetic composition in Latin, called the ' Paedagogium' to a fictional episode that could have occurred in third century Rome, at the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill.  The cells in the Imperial Palace were actually used to house the princes of foreign kings - captured or given as hostages to Rome - where they were educated according to local customs and cultural canons, including the study of Latin and Roman traditions.

Ruins of Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill (Johan Haggi/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ruins of Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill ( Johan Haggi / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Pascoli imagines that one of these young princes, to whom he gave the name of Careio, turned to a Greek prince of the same age - Alessameno - inviting him to participate in a game, but he was rejected. The disagreement between the two results in a heated quarrel inside the adjacent cells of the two students. Pascoli imagines Careio, offended, desperate and angry, engraves on the wall of his room, for the sake of mockery and complacency (... tunc scribit... et sibi plaudit ...), in the language of the antagonist, the phrase beneath the 'blasphemous' drawing. But the question is raised: Was the drawing of the donkey crucifix really 'blasphemous' and then, why choose a donkey?

Detail of Seth (onecephalos) in the act of crowning Ramesses III , from a statuary group [18] . Egyptian museum in Cairo. (CC0)

Detail of Seth (onecephalos) in the act of crowning Ramesses III , from a statuary group [18] . Egyptian museum in Cairo. ( CC0)

The Ambivalence of the Donkey in Iconography

As the medievalist Franco Cardini pointed out, the donkey, together with the onager, (an animal of a race of the Asian wild ass native to northern Iran) have always had an ambivalent value in the religious sphere. On the one hand it was a sacred animal to the cruel god Seth; it was considered sacred to Underworld chthonic deities as mentioned by Plutarch in his work Isis and Osiris.  

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Dr Roberto Volterri is the author of 40 books including Omicidi/Murder the Fascination of Evil

Top Image : Return to the Convent by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868) Carmen Thyssen Museum ( Public Domain)

By Dr Roberto Volterri

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