Most of us think of crucifixion as ancient history – a gruesome execution method practiced by the Romans and other long-ago cultures – with Jesus Christ its most famous victim. But crucifixion, though rare, has continued into the modern day – as a devotional practice among fervent Christians, as a tool of terror, even as performance art. Some of the modern crucified were victims of brutality, but some of them actually volunteered.
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10. Ruben Enaje, the Filipino Christ
When it comes to crucifixion bragging rights, it’s hard to top Ruben Enaje, a Filipino sign painter. As of 2014, he had been nailed to a cross for 28 consecutive years, volunteering annually for the gory ritual.
Enaje is one of many Filipinos, most from the northern province of Pampanga, who re-enact the death of Jesus Christ every Good Friday. Enaje is thought to have performed it the most times.
“Two years ago, I said it would be the last time I’d do it,” Enaje told a journalist in 2013. “But every time I say that, my wife gets sick. I guess God wants me to continue this sacrifice as a lifetime vow.”
Initially, Enaje promised God he would be crucified for nine years, his thanks for surviving a three-story fall from a billboard he was painting. He continued for nine more years as a prayer for healing for his asthmatic daughter, and an additional nine for his wife, suffering from a lump in her jaw.
Thousands watch as Enaje has 5-inch stainless steel nails driven into his hands and feet. After hanging on the cross for five minutes, he is brought down to have the wounds cleaned and bandaged.
Souvenir sellers and food vendors work the crowd, proving no spectacle is too gory to make a peso. The Filipino Catholic Church officially disapproves of the annual rites, but that has done little to stop the devout. Enaje’s wounds heal within a couple of months. His wife, Juanita, keeps the four nails soaking in alcohol year round.
9. The actor portraying Jesus in the Iztapalapa Passion Play
The man chosen to play Jesus in one of the biggest, most ardent passion plays in the world faces challenges beyond embodying the savior of all humankind.
He must endure a ritual whipping, then drag a 200-pound cross for three miles up a steep hill. Finally, he must withstand 20 minutes bound to the cross in Iztapalapa, a borough of Mexico City. And remember his lines.
Oh – and no dating, drinking, smoking or partying for Jesus, or Mary either. Once cast, the actors must emulate the purity of their characters. (As for Judas, the villain, he has to put up with taunts of “traitor,” and may even have rotten fruit thrown at him.)
The spectacle lasts the entire Holy Week, has 50 main roles and attracts more than two million spectators. Many of the key parts have remained with certain families for generations, handed down from father to son and mother to daughter.
In 2009, Diego Villagrán Villalobos, the 18-year-old football player chosen to play Jesus, embarked on an enhanced fitness regimen that included running more than three miles a day to prepare for his performance. But he still struggled to shoulder the cross to the site of his crucifixion.
8. Victims of ISIS Executions, Whose Corpses Were Crucified and Displayed
In Raqqa, a Syrian city, ISIS terrorists have tied the bodies of some of their victims to crosses with string and publicly displayed them in the square. Eyewitnesses have taken photographs of the grisly scenes and circulated them online. Masked men wrapped one corpse in a banner that read in Arabic: “This man fought Muslims and detonated an IED here.”
The crucifixions are calculated to terrorize anyone who might question the regime, as well as a revival of ancient punishments seen by fanatical Muslims as more religiously “authentic,” according to an American professor of Islamic studies.
“ISIS needs to attach meaning to their killing. Simply murdering in a state of constant warfare is void of value, so they must attach a message or propaganda to what they are doing,” said Abbas Barzegar of Georgia State University.
Crucifixion is mentioned in the Koran as a suitable punishment for those “waging war against Allah” (although the following passage urges believers to remember Allah’s mercy).
7. Saleh Ahmed Saleh al-Jamli, a Yemeni man accused of opposing a militant group
From January through May 2012, a militant group, Ansar al-Shari’a, controlled part of southern Yemen. Amnesty International documented the al-Qa’ida affiliate’s human-rights abuses – including public executions, flogging, chopping off hands and the crucifixion of an executed man.
Saleh Ahmed Saleh al-Jamli, 28, was found guilty by a religious court of planting electronic devices in vehicles carrying Ansar al-Shari’a commanders. The devices, the court ruled, allowed U.S. drones to track and kill the commanders. Saleh Ahmed Saleh al-Jamli was sentenced to death, and his body hung afterward on a cross.
The radical Islamist group was driven out of the region in June 2012.
6. Saudi Arabia’s Headless Corpse Crucifixions
A punishment known as “crucifixion” remains a sentencing option in Saudi Arabia. It takes place after beheadings, with headless corpses hung from horizontal bars in public places, the severed heads suspended beside them in bags. The hanging bodies often resemble crosses.
The kingdom imposes the death penalty for offenses to Islam as well as for actual crimes. People accused of apostasy, adultery, homosexual acts or witchcraft can be executed.
In 2009, Amnesty International denounced the beheading and crucifixion of a man accused of kidnapping and murder, as well as homosexual intercourse and porn possession. The human-rights organization also protested the 2013 beheading and crucifixion of five Yemeni men, whose bodies were displayed in front of the University of Jizan during exams. The Yemenis allegedly were part of a gang of armed robbers.
Also in 2013, the kingdom sentenced seven convicted thieves to beheading and crucifixion, but only carried out the beheadings after human rights groups protested. The seven men were allegedly juveniles at the time of their arrests and claimed they were tortured and denied lawyers.
5. Eladio Martinez Cruz, crucified and hung on a road sign
An accused rapist was snatched from police custody, crucified naked and left hanging from a road sign – his penis cut off and stuffed in his mouth – in Mexico in 2012.
Police found the unfortunate victim, Eladio Martinez Cruz, 24, the day after armed men in two cars blocked the police cruisers taking him to the station and kidnapped him. Cruz’s arms had been tied to a wooden pole and a cardboard sign staked to his chest with ice picks. The sign read: “This happened to me for being a rapist, and it is going to happen to all the scandalmongers, traitors … Be aware that this is not a game.”
Authorities suspected a drug cartel called the Knights Templar, whose members set themselves up as Robin Hood-style vigilantes.
4. Herbert James “Ringer” Edwards, Crucified World War II POW
A few soldiers captured by the Japanese in World War II reported their captors used a form of crucifixion as punishment. The most well-known victim was Herbert James “Ringer” Edwards, the inspiration for the character Joe Harman in Nevil Shute’s novel, “A Town Like Alice.”
According to his own account, Edwards and two comrades were bound with fencing wire, suspended from a tree and beaten with baseball bats – because they had killed Burmese cattle for food. When Edwards managed to free one hand, the Japanese drove the wire through his palms. The only one of the three Australians to survive, Edwards endured his punishment for 63 hours.
Another POW forced to help build the Thailand-Burma Railway testified before a war-crimes tribunal he found evidence of the crucifixion of four soldiers who had tried to escape. Amid the undergrowth outside the camp he and other POWs discovered four bamboo crosses, one of which had the dead body of a British soldier tied to it.
3. Sebastian Horsley, flamboyant artist and “Soho Kristos”
Sebastian Horsley, the London diarist, artist, drug abuser, obsessive compulsive and provocateur, liked to do hands-on artistic research. When he decided to paint crucifixions, he had himself crucified in the Philippines in 2000. Overcoming the country’s reluctance to allow a foreigner to participate in the Good Friday rituals, he brought along a photographer and videographer to document the experience.
Overwhelmed by pain when the nails were driven into his hands, Horsley passed out. His cross was raised, but the foot rest broke, followed by the wrist straps. Horsley tumbled to the ground. When he came to, he was devastated. He wrote in his diary, “I have been punished by a God I don’t believe in and he has thrown me off the cross for impersonating his son, for being an atheist, and for being a disaster. I have made a complete fool of myself. I am going to be a laughing stock.”
2. Chris Burden, suffering for his art
Getting nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle was just another day at the office for Chris Burden.
As an American performance “body artist” in the 70s, Burden specialized in pushing his limits in pursuit of his artistic vision. He was shot, burned, stuck with pins, crawled across 50 feet of broken glass and lived crammed in a tiny locker for five days. Burden and other conceptual artists of the time confronted a public desensitized to violence by TV images of the Vietnam War, while creating art focused on action, rather than objects.
For “Trans-fixed,” performed in 1974 in Venice, Calif., Burden had himself nailed, arms outstretched, across the back of a Volkswagen. It was rolled out of a garage to be viewed by the audience, the engine running at full throttle for two minutes to represent screaming in pain. Then the ignition was turned off, the car pushed back into the garage and the door closed.
Burden still works as an artist, now mainly creating sculptures and art installations. No word on what happened to the Volkswagen.
1. S.P. Howarth, crucified at Oxford Circus
It seems nothing can faze London shoppers, not even a man crucified right outside a busy London transit station.
Artist Richard Bagguley staged the crucifixion of S.P. Howarth, poet and performance artist, at Oxford Circus in October 2009. Howarth was tied to the cross and photographed by André Camara. Bagguley studied the commuters’ reactions – or lack of them – in the photographs and used them as the basis for two paintings of the scene.
As the finished paintings show, most people ignored the spectacle and went about their business.
As one Englishwoman commented, “People are too busy shopping. No one would bother to look if Michael Jackson returned from the dead and re-enacted ‘Thriller’.”