For the Jews request a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified — to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks — Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God”
– Apostle Paul (1st Letter to the Corinthians)
The physical reality of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross is not to be ignored by those who follow Him. Crucifixion was a method of execution by the Romans, and the Icon of Christ’s Crucifixion shows this event both in the earthly and heavenly realms
Jesus Christ is nailed to the Cross at the hands and feet on a hill, outside of the city walls, which can be seen in the background. At the foot of the Cross stands Jesus’ Mother, grieving with the other women – among them Mary Madeline and Mary Cleopas; to Jesus’ left stands the young Apostle John and one of the Roman centurions. Jesus Himself bears the spear-wound on His right side, gushing blood and water. His head is bowed, His eyes are closed; He has breathed His last (Mk 15:37; Jn 19:30).
The sorrow of this scene is etched into the faces of those at the foot of the Cross. This tragedy is also played out in the Heavenly realm: two angels in the top corners rush in to take Jesus’ spirit, covering their faces, unable to witness the scene.
The physical drama of the scene is also written into the Icon: the ground beneath the Cross is cracked in two, revealing a skull. Christ’s place of execution was called Golgotha, the place of the skull, and tradition related that this was the site of the first man Adam’s tomb.
At the top the sun is shown black, and the moon is shown blood-red. The solar eclipse at Christ’s crucifixion is described in the Gospels, yet Peter, quoting a prophecy of Joel, also affirms that a lunar eclipse occurred, which would have caused the moon to turn red (Joel 2:31; Acts 2:19-22).
Yet for all this fearful drama, the Icon of the Crucifixion doesn’t dwell on the physical aspects of Christ’s Passion, but also the meaning of it. As Leo the Great said:
[D]early-beloved, at Christ being lifted up upon the cross, let the eyes of your mind not dwell only on that sight which those wicked sinners saw, to whom it was said by the mouth of Moses, “And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt not be assured of thy life.” … But let our understandings, illumined by the Spirit of Truth, foster with pure and free heart the glory of the cross which irradiates heaven and earth, and see with the inner sight what the Lord meant when He spoke of His coming Passion: “The hour is come that the Son of man may be glorified”
– Leo the Great (On the Passion of Christ)
The multitudes of mockers, “wicked sinners” and doubters who thronged Golgotha are not shown. In some icons only the Mother of God and Apostle John are shown; in most, it is only the faithful disciples of Christ who are shown. The Roman centurion, rather than being Christ’s executioner, is depicted in the process of proclaiming with wonder: “Truly, this man is the son of God”. By tradition he is recognized as the saint: Longinus. Only those, saints and angels, “illumined by the Truth” witness the Cross now, and we are invited to observe it along with them. What do we see?
The most striking detail is that Jesus, clearly shown as dead, still has His halo. Despite undergoing bodily death, and contrary to some heretical teachings, Jesus Christ’s Divinity has not left Him. Even bleeding and physically dead upon the Cross, Christ is still fully divine. He wears a crown of Glory, not a crown of thorns. Indeed, it is difficult to find an Orthodox Icon which shows Jesus Christ wearing the crown of thorns. Such a crown, made for Christ by His mockers, has no place upon this Icon.
Christ’s hands are shown palm upwards, almost in an embrace, which beautifully echoes numerous prayers of the Church, such as:
Jesus, Who stretches out Your hands from the Cross to all, draw me to Yourself, for I too have gone astray!
(Akathist to the Passion of Christ)
From Christ’s side, the blood and water is collected by an angel with a chalice. The resonance of this image with the Divine Liturgy is obvious, and brings to remembrance Christ’s words regarding His Passion: “Drink from it all of you. For this is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins”. The blood from Christ’s side which convinced the faithless at Golgotha that He was dead is in fact the very thing which brings life to those dead in sin.
We cannot look upon the Crucifixion of Our Lord without some sense of shame at what He suffered. Yet we are told by Jesus Himself that His Passion upon the Cross was necessary for our Salvation. The Icon of the Crucifixion portrays the horror and victory, the earthly and heavenly, together in one image, so that – impossible as it may seem – we can behold this paradox.
Supreme Ruler and Lord of Heaven and earth, seeing Thee, the Immortal King, hanging on the Cross, all creation was changed, Heaven was horrified, and the foundations of the earth were shaken. But we, unworthy as we are, offer Thee thankful adoration for Thy Passion in our behalf, and with the robber we cry to Thee:
Jesus, Son of God, remember us when Thou
comest in Thy Kingdom!