As far as the shape is concerned, this cross is similar to a large group of encolpion crosses that were widespread in Byzantium and its provinces in the 9th-12th centuries, as well as in the Kiev Rus. The defining feature of this group is a simple four-point shape that is slightly elongated along the vertical axis, with broad bars that widen from the center outwards. The mobile top part was barrel-shaped, as was typical for any encolpia made during this period. This top is distinguished by the flat trapezoid base with an attached hinge.
The iconography of the cross is quite complex and continues the artistic traditions of the ancient Church, which sought to have each individual item, however small it might have been, illustrate the the entire salvific feat of Christ, where His kenosis from the Incarnation and obedience “unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2.8) is crowned by His Resurrection and Ascension to the Father, and by the universal confession of Christ as Lord in His glory. This is especially prominent in some surviving sacred objects dating back to the 9th-12th centuries, such as the gold encolpion from Pliska (Bulgaria), the bronze cross from the Chersonese or the golden cross from Golutovo (Poland), which is not surprising, since, owing to the symbolism of its shape, a cross can organize and structure the space on an iconostasis. As a replica of the Lord’s Cross, a cross pendant that depicts certain events from the Gospel allows one to understand them from a theological perspective, and confirms, through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, that, in the words of St. Ignatius (Bryanchaninov), “the Cross is the one true school, storehouse and throne of genuine theology”.
Our work is dedicated to the events of the Passover (Easter) and Pentecost. We know that the early Christians understood Passover (Easter) not as a mystery of Lord’s the Resurrection, but as His sacrifice, according to the First Epistle to the Corinthians – “for even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). The Pentecost, on the other hand, was celebrated to glorify the Resurrection as “the triumph of the risen Lord’s ascent”, which revealed the redemptive mystery in full, including the Ascension, the revelation of the Paraclete and the Second Coming. The entire fifty days after Passover (Easter) were celebrated as a whole, as a single day – the day of the Lord. Accordingly, the nascent iconography of the feast tried to use a single image to combine all the important events in this solemn fifty-day period, the most important of which were the Ascension and the Pentecost. In the 5th century, the Ascension and Pentecost came to be celebrated separately, which eventually shaped the two distinct iconographic types we are familiar with today, Ascension and Descent of the Holy Spirit. In our item, we have tried to reconnect these events, not by combining them in a single scene but, rather, through the Cross, by placing the icons of the two feasts on different sides of a pendant. The front depicts the Ascension, while the back depicts the Descent of the Holy Spirit. This allows to present the cross as the Easter altar and to simultaneously demonstrate the glory of God and the fullness of the salvation granted to us by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Thus, to use the words of a character created by church writer Sergei Nilus, there is a “cruciform” glorification of the Lord.
In addition, on the cross, which is a sign and symbol of the Church, the main idea of the Pentecost – the birth of “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” – becomes more evident. In this context, let us consider the iconography of our cross in more detail.
The composition of the Ascension on the front had to be adapted to the shape of the cross and is arranged as follows. The upper part contains an almond-shaped mandorla with the ascending Christ, which is supported at the top and bottom by two pairs of angels. The top of the mandorla extends over the edge of the cross, demonstrating the dynamics of the Ascension (here, we should remember that the cross may represent the world, among other things). The upper pair of angels belongs to the space on the top part, which symbolizes the Kingdom of Heaven. At the base of the cross there is an image of the Theotokos Oranta. On either side of the horizontal bar there are two groups of Apostles, six on each side. In the exact center of the pendant there is a Cross inside a circle, positioned over the head of the Blessed Virgin. Apart from merely illustrating the event chronicled in the Gospel, such a composition allows for different symbolic interpretations that do not contradict each other.
These interpretations arise due to the ambiguous and symbolic perception of Our Lady. Her isolated position at the bottom and Her solemn posture as the Oranta make Her stand out among the group of apostles, who are merely witnessing the event. By the way, there is no mention in the Gospel about the Mother of God being present at Christ’s ascension, but Her image can be seen in any works of art illustrating the event. Firstly, the Virgin Oranta is associated in ecclesiastical art with the Incarnation. Then the composition, developing from the bottom upward along a vertical axis, illustrates the entire salvific feat of Christ, from the Incarnation through the Sacrifice on the Cross to the Resurrection and the Ascension, as it used to be done in early Christian art, while the Apostles, standing in two groups at the ends of the horizontal bar, act as witnesses to these events.
Second, the Virgin Mary is commonly seen as the personification of the Church. This meaning is most often attributed to the image of the Mother of God in the oldest known icon of the Ascension, the 5th century relief on the doors of the church St. Sabina Church in Rome, where the Chief Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul hold a cross inside a circle over the head of the standing Mary. In later Byzantine works of art, where the artists did not confine themselves to historical fact, the Mother of God could also embody the Church if Her image was highlighted in a special manner. All the more so that the feast of the Ascension contains the promise of Christ’s Church, to which the Lord promises to send the Holy Spirit and in which He, too, shall be present relentlessly. This is what we sought to emphasize on our item. And, of course, on the icon of the feast, the image of the praying Blessed Virgin, Who has already acquired the Holy Spirit and become a “container for the uncontainable God” is also seen a symbolic image of the Church.
A particular challenge in icons of the Ascension was the need to convey the mysterious presence of Christ in the world even as He ascends into glory. For this purpose, a variety of symbolic images were employed: a cross within a circle, as on the 5th century relief we mentioned earlier, or Christ’s footprints on mountain ledges, as on 17th century Russian icons. On our item, the presence of the Lord is expressed in two different ways: liturgically, through the kontakion read during the feast of the Ascension: Ѓзъ є4смь съ вaми, и3 никт0же на вы2 (Ch. 6) (“I am with you, and no-one shall stand against you”), inscribed at the base of the cross, and symbolically, through a cross drawn inside a circle and located in the exact geometric center of the pendant. Let us recall the center of a cross pendant is always understood as the center of the world, the place of the Lord, while a cross in a circle stands for Christ in His glory. Thus, apart from illustrating the event from the Gospel through the symbolic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Church and the cross in a circle, the composition of the Ascension at the front tells us about the promise of Christ’s Church, with the Savior, Who is mysteriously present in the world, serving as the Head, and shows us the foundation for the future Church – the twelve chosen disciples who witnessed the Lord’s Ascension and His promise.
The reverse side of the cross contains a composition of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, compiled in keeping with the Byzantine tradition. The upper part of the vertical bar takes contains an image of the Prepared Throne in a circle, with twelve rays radiating outward. This image first appeared in the iconography of the Pentecost in the 4th century and symbolizes the Holy Trinity, or the “Sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father to the Son for transmission“ – an action committed within the Trinity, where the Pentecost is a “feast of initiation into the Trinitarian mystery”. That is why, in the modern church tradition, the feast of the Pentecost is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The whole horizontal bar is occupied by the twelve Apostles, who are shown seated in a semi-circular exedra. Their heads are surrounded by halos, which are never depicted in compositions of the Ascension. Over the Apostles’ heads one can see tongues of flame, which signal the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The free space in the center of the cross pendant divides the gathering of the Apostles into two equal groups. The empty space by the seat is marked by a blossoming cross and may be seen as a mirror image of the prepared throne in the Church here on earth. Thus, it is shown that the council of the twelve Apostles (the number signifies completion) represents the newly born Church, whose Head, Christ, is always invisibly present among the members.
On our cross, the center carries the same symbolic meaning both on the front and back, and denotes Christ in keeping with the phrase from the Gospel: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).
At the bottom of the cross, in an arc-shaped arch, one can see the King of the Cosmos, holding a board with twelve scrolls. This iconography originated in the 14th century and replaced the previous image, which included groups of people from all over the world waiting to hear the good news from the Apostles. These images demonstrate the purpose of the apostolic ministry – the salvation of all peoples, and, indeed, of the whole world, which continues Christ’s soteriological mission in His Church, as stated in the Gospel of Matthew: “go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19).
The allegorical image of the King holding a board with twelve scrolls, which represent the apostolic gospel, is a perfect personification for the whole world as it receives the Good News. At the very bottom of the cross one can find the troparion read during the feast of the Pentecost, which also refers to the salvation of the world by the Lord through the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” He established: Бlгословeнъ є3си2 хrтE б9е нaшъ, и4же премyдры ловцы2 kвлeй, низпослaвъ и5мъ д¦а с™aго, и3 тёми ўловлeй вселeнную,.. (“Be Blessed, O Christ our Lord, You Who revealed wise fishermen by sending the Holy Spirit down onto them, and Who has them catch the entire universe…”)