jesus crucified over adam's graveWere you aware that Jesus was crucified over Adam's grave?
In 2008 I got really interested in Orthodox iconography. Which eventually drew me into Orthodox theology, some of which ended up in my recent book The Slavery of Death.
Flowing out of this interest, in 2008 a wrote a bit about the iconography of the crucifixion.
To start, some fairly obvious features found in these icons.
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.”
In some icons we also see the sun and moon. The sun is generally darkened. The moon is colored red. These symbols echo the passage in Scripture:
Revelation 6.12-13This passage in Revelation is believed to refer to the earthquake associated with the death of Jesus:
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.
Matthew 27.50-51This brings us to the more interesting and subtle features of the crucifixion icons, the subject of our search terms.
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.
Specifically, if you look at the base of the cross in some icons you'll see a skull and perhaps even some bones.
The gospels report that Jesus was crucified at a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull. And according to church tradition the place of the skull was the burial site of Adam. Symbolically, then, Jesus is being crucified directly over Adam’s grave. In the icons we can see Adam's grave being cracked open exposing Adam’s skull and bones.
This image symbolizes a couple of different things.
First, there is in this the symbolism that Jesus is now replacing Adam as the New Adam. A new humanity is being established over the death of the old.
Second, we see in Adam’s skull the Orthodox notion that what was defeated at the cross was death. This is the same emphasis that has the Orthodox to focusing 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.