Search Term Friday: Jesus Crucified Over Adam's Grave

Recently, the following search terms brought someone to the blog:

jesus crucified over adam's grave
Were 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 6.12-13
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 refer to the earthquake associated with the death of Jesus:
Matthew 27.50-51
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.
This brings us to the more interesting and subtle features of the crucifixion icons, the subject of our search terms.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Jesus Crucified Over Adam's Grave”

  1. As one with metastatic breast cancer (that has spread to my bones and brain), I've spent a lot of time the last 18 months thinking about death, and confronting my own fear of death. It has become much more obvious to me how prevalent this fear of death is - everywhere I look, every person I talk to. And I've become more and more interested in Jesus and what his death might mean than I ever have in my life.

    One thing that I know now is that I can't "think" my way through this, but looking - gazing - seems to in some way "lift" me out of my analytical (and hyper-active) left brain to another way of seeing. I'd go so far as to call it a change of consciousness. I tend to think this is what icons do.

    Last weekend 7 (!) friends from my childhood came from all over the country to visit me. (They think my situation is dire - I think I'm doing ok now, but I'm not sure when that will change). We had really not been in touch with each other for years and years but when we got together we all instinctively knew how to relate in a very natural way. We came from the same Kentucky dirt; our parents and families knew each other for generations. I felt as if I were being wrapped up in their lives and carried. As if I could disappear in the flow of their lives around me. I don't think this could have happened if just 1 or 2 friends had shown up - we would have been too analytical. But with all of us the energy of being together and so connected to each other "lifted" us to a higher plane of KNOWING. Nothing that could be articulated. Something more than "love", I think that we were glimpsing what COMMUNION is all about.

    I found myself wondering if what we had was something akin to a Church service where people speak in tongues, but can't imagine anything like this happening outside of deep personal relationships. Death (and my own death, in particular) was right at the center of this, but it was also all of our deaths and Death itself. And it was, indeed, overcome.

  2. For a literary connection to this motif see the Cave of Treasures (a new translation is available in Davila and Bauckham's Old Testament Apocrypha: More Non-canonical Scriptures, but you can likely find a version on-line).

  3. This is the first time I've seen the icons with the skull at the foot of the cross with Jesus' blood flowing over it. Man, that's powerful! The paintings of Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages, the most popular female disciple featured in art at the time, nearly every one showed the alabaster jar and a skull at the bottom. But I understand that the skull in those paintings depicted a message that reminded that we should give up the vanities because we are all mortal. This was also a period when MM was understood to be a penitent prostitute. I hope you will do a feature sometime on MM in the South of France and the great amount of art found there in the Provence District. My son and I visited those MM sites in 2007 and it turned out to be the most fascinating pilgrimage I could possibly imagine. If anyone wants to discuss her presence there for the last 30 years of her life, e-mail me at:

    I've been mentioning a lot lately about the people at the cross when the going was really rough and dangerous - four women and one young male apostle - Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome, Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, and John (John 19:25). There were other women there described as the "daughters of Jerusalem" (Luke 23:27,28). Where was Peter, Thomas, Bartholomew, James, etc.? I don't know, but I do know where the Magdalene was!
    I'm sure we've wondered who would be present when we come to the end of the way. Probably both pleasantly surprised and disappointed.

  4. I've also come across the idea (sorry, but I can't give a source just at present, perhaps someone else knows) that the cross itself was made from the wood from the forbidden tree in the Garden. reinforcing the typology of Jesus as the new Adam, and completing a soteriological circle.

  5. It is an elaborate story, expressed in pictorial form by Piero della Francesca in the Franciscan church in Arrezo. It includes a seed from the Tree of Life being planted in Adam's grave; the wood subsequently recognised by the Queen of Sheba when she visits Solomon; the unearthing of the cross by Helena & so on. Many medieval rood figures have a 'floriated' cross showing Jesus crucified on the living branches of the tree.

  6. Thank you. I knew someone would save me from having to google it. It is, of course, fanciful, but no less satisfying for that. I love the way that someone wanted to tie up all of those threads to make a closed narrative. Very enjoyable.

  7. Certainly fanciful. With the Garden of Eden supposedly in Iraq, it was a long haul for Mr Adam's bones and funeral cortege to bury them in Palestine.

  8. Interesting parallel there between Matthew 27 and Revelation 6. Surprised I didn't see that before, but that's another nail in the coffin of the "Left Behind" style futuristic interpretation of Revelation so common today.

  9. This view is not Biblical at all. How could one know where Adam's grave is when the entire world was destroyed by a global flood in Noah's day?

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