The Iconography of the Crucifixion

More on Greek Orthodox icons…

I want to point out an interesting feature of Orthodox icons about the crucifixion. But before that we should point out some of the fairly obvious features.

First, we tend to see Mary and the women to the left of the cross. Mary is sometimes distinguished as the only woman with a halo around her head. On the other side of the cross is John, also with a halo, and the Centurion who confesses that “Surely this was the Son of God.”

In the background we see the city walls and gates of Jerusalem. This depicts Jesus being crucified “outside the gate,” a reference to the scapegoat ritual during the Day of Atonement where the scapegoat carries the sins of the people “outside the camp.”

One interesting feature in some icons is showing the sun and moon. The sun is generally darkened. The moon is colored red. These symbols echo this passage in Scripture:

Revelation 6.12-13
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.

This passage in Revelation is believed to echo events at the cross after Jesus’ death:

Matthew 27.50-52
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

This brings me to what I consider to be the most interesting feature of these icons as it is non-obvious and is a theological addition to the icon. If you look at the base of the cross you see a skull and perhaps even some bones.

The bible says that Jesus was crucified at a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull. In church tradition the place of the skull was the burial site of Adam. Symbolically, therefore, Jesus is being crucified directly over Adam’s tomb. In the icons we can see this tomb being cracked open which exposes Adam’s skull and bones.

This image represents a couple of different things. First, there is in this association the symbolism that Jesus is now replacing Adam as the New Adam. A new humanity is being established over the death of the old.

Secondly, we see in Adam’s skull the strong Orthodox notion that what was defeated at the cross was death. This is the same emphasis that leads the Orthodox to focus on the harrowing of hell at Easter.

Finally, beyond victory over death, victory over sin is symbolized as the blood of Jesus runs down off of the cross to cover and purify the skull and bones of Adam, representing all of sinful humanity. This particular motif is best seen in the last icon which is bloodier and, thus, clearly shows the blood of Jesus flowing down and over the skull.

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6 thoughts on “The Iconography of the Crucifixion”

  1. It is amazing how much symbolism there is in these ancient pictures of Christ. I really do love the ancient traditions that have arisen out of the Eastern Orthodoxy.

  2. Richard,

    You might be interested in the great varieties of Christian art found at Matt Stone's blog. His collection has such categories as Christian-Aboriginal, Christian-Goth, Christian-Celtic, Christian-Asian, Christian-Alternative,etc.

    Matt is an Aussie.

  3. thanks for unpacking this. very interesting seeing the Orthodox view of Jesus conquering primarily death, something we fail to consider in our Western atonement theories that are overly concerned with sin, and personal sin at that.

    i had this passing thought that struck me as very DaVinci Code-esque. What if we took the EO icons literally and started digging up all around the perimeter of Jerusalem in search of Adam's grave... like the skull is the X that marks the spot. would that be missing the point?

  4. GREAT summary--thanks! There are some Orthodox icons that have Jesus climbing a ladder onto the cross to symbolize his voluntary death. Powerful stuff--I especially appreciated the sympolism with Adam and Christ conquering death. Keep writing up Orthodox icons! Is the Trinity coming soon? :)

  5. I appreciate the reflection and explanations of the various symbols and images. I am sharing this blog post with a retreat group this coming weekend. I will offer them the blog link as well. Thank you.  deacongates

  6. Orthodox belief exist over these facts.. and its this message which gives it strength in belief

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