Introduction to the icon of the Crucifixion

By Robert Gallacher

Most Orthodox Churches will have a form of the crucifixion icon high on the iconostasis at the front of the church.

1. HistoryIcon of the crucifixion

This form of the icon was developed in the East in the 10th century, relatively late. In 1054 the legates of Pope Leo IX listed the icon as one of the grievances the West (Rome) had against the East (Constantinople).
 The West held to the crucifix,  maintaining Christ crucified was a living sacrifice,  and so presented him clothed,  impassive, and above all as alive and suffering on the cross, establishing the treasury of merit.

Iconoclasts (those who destroy images) have always kept the symbol of the cross. It could be decorated, but it must be empty for Christ is risen. This became the position of most Reformed Churches. The Eastern Church celebrates the mystical and triumphant moments in the New Testament, as they lift our hearts above our cares. There is more emphasis on the Annunciation, Transfiguration, Resurrection and Pentecost than on the Crucifixion, which is a step on the way to Christ’s glory. Nevertheless most Orthodox Churches will have a form of the crucifixion icon high on the iconostasis at the front of the church.

2. Theology

The icon shows the reality of the incarnation. Jesus is mortal, knowing death. We see the extent of his voluntary humiliation and obedience (kenosis – Philippians 2:1-11).

Through death Christ overcomes death.   
“Death of death” as the hymn “Guide me O thou Great Jehovah” puts it.
If we have died to death,  nothing can threaten us.

The crucifixion is the concrete expression of the Christian mystery of

  • victory by defeat
  • glory by humiliation
  • life from death

 

Chrysostom said, “I see him crucified and I call him king.” The suffering of Jesus shows the extent of God’s love. (John 3:16)

3. Devotion

Every Christian must take up the cross, to die with Christ in order to be raised with him. Many Christians make the sign of the cross as a commitment, expressing their primary loyalty. Most traditions practice the Eucharist, when the broken body of Christ is taken into the body of the believer,  a reminder that in baptism we have died with Christ to be raised with him.

4. Features of the icon

Christ is dead. His eyes are closed, his head down, his body slumped.

The figures at the foot of the cross are limited, either two or four:

  • Mother Mary expressing grief, yet faithfully present at the death of her son
  • The beloved disciple,  sometimes bent in terror,  yet always pointing to Christ
  • A holy woman lamenting (Mary Magdalene?)
  • A soldier (Longinus) with a hand raised in confession (or, perhaps, to cross himself).

 

The cave is said to have opened when the rocks split as Christ died, revealing a skull (Golgotha = the place of the skull). The understanding that it is the skull of Adam comes from an apocryphal source, but it makes good theological sense even if not literal sense. The blood of the new Adam drips down and redeems the old Adam. The human race is given life in the place of death.

There are three cross beams. 

  • The upper cross is inscribed INRI = Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews
  • The lower cross is a stool for the feet of Christ, and is set at an angle to represent the two thieves crucified with him, one went up to paradise, the other down.
  • The arms of the cross are set against the sky, giving it cosmic significance. The sacrifice of Christ purifies the air, frees the universe.

 

The walls of Jerusalem show that the crucifixion takes place outside the city, not in conformity with  prevailing culture.  “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” (Hebrews 13:11-14)

The cross is planted in the earth but it reaches to heaven. It is a bridge, enabling us to cross the gap that divides us from God.

The colour scheme presents the figures in warm colours in contrast to the cold background of the wall.

Now move from head to heart. With this understanding, enter into the icon in prayer and renew your commitment.

The Crucifixion

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son ...”
Look not on the horror, but on the love, and in that find glory.
Here is the demonstration of the heart of God,
     love, amazing and divine,
     love that counts not the cost,
     love that puts other before self - not my will but yours be done
     love that reaches us through those who worship around the cross,
          and share the broken body at the Lord’s table.

As Chrysostom said, “I see you crucified and I call you king.”
     Christ, you bowed neither to threat nor to pain,
     Your death broke the power of death.
     “Death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side.”

Planted on the earth, the tree of crucifixion reaches to the heavens;
      a reconciling bridge, a way  to God, a source of life.
     Drops of your lifeblood fall on the skull of Adam. 
     The tomb of our decaying humanity is opened.
     Shaken are the foundations of a world humanly fabricated.
     The stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.

Planted on the earth, your cross reaches to heaven.
     It breaks out of every human framework, birthing new creation.
     Your kingdom that is not of this world.
     Its paradise is glimpsed by the dying thief at your side.
     Its power offers hope for humans otherwise doomed only to die.

Planted on the earth, your cross stands outside the city wall.
     We who follow the faith journey must leave much behind.
     On earth we have no permanent home.  
     We become a colony living in hope in a foreign land.
     “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” (Hebrews 13:11-14)

Gathered at your cross we see a grieving mother,
     a stricken disciple,
     a soldier who begins to see
     and a holy woman worshipping.
They neither fight nor flee, but find their being in the presence of the holy.

Where do I stand?
How close can I come?

     “When I survey the wondrous cross
      on which the prince of glory died,
      my richest gain I count but loss,
      and pour contempt on all my pride. (AHB 258)

Jesus dies, but Christ lives.
Blessed Son of God, live in me and I in you.
Through your death, raise me from earth to heaven,
     from bondage to liberation,
     from despair to hope,
     from death to life.