As far as the shape is concerned, this cross is similar to a small group of crosses that was common in Russia in the 16th century. Their shape, in turn, can be regarded as a derivative from the 14th century encolpia that were characterized by Greek proportions and had little crosses at the ends of the bars. Pre-revolutionary Russian researchers occasionally referred to this shape as a “patriarchal cross”, while foreign researchers call it a crosslet. It was born when the small crosses at the ends of the bars grew more complex and gained a stair-like shape, not unlike the famous Byzantine ornament, while the vertical bar was extended. Sometimes, as in our case, a circle was drawn atop the vertical bar. The changes in the proportions caused a change to the main symbolic meaning of the cross. In the 14th century, a cross was largely used to represent the Christian model of the world, but the new crosses were mainly intended to demonstrate Christ’s soteriological mission in its entirety, making wide use of different iconographic means. On our item, we have tried to preserve and even to strengthen the symbolic meaning of crosses that date back to the 16th century, and, insofar as iconography is concerned, not just to develop the main theological idea, but to reflect the theme of Christian military service, i.e. to connect the military cross with the Cross of the Lord.
On the front of the cross in the center there is the Savior, crucified on a seven-pointed cross. The ends of the horizontal bar carry the waist-length figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, who are standing before Him in prayer. Their shortened names are inscribed nearby. In the lower part of the cross, by the foot, there are two cherubs. At the base of the cross one can see Mount Golgotha and the head of Adam. In the upper part, above the board of Pontius Pilate with the inscription ЦР&Ь СЛ&ВЫ (“King of Glory”), there are two angels. Above them there is a round medallion with the Image of the Savior not made by human hands. The cross is completed by a moveable top in the form of an equal-pointed cross with stair-like ledges, in a shape that echoes that of the ends, with a Cross of Calvary and the traditional inscriptions І&С Х&С НИКА (“Jesus Christ the victor”) and МЛРБ, or место лобно рай бысть (“the place of execution has become paradise”).
This iconographic composition has a number of features that allow us to perceive the Crucifixion as much more than just a historical illustration for Christ’s execution. For instance, the angels, who are positioned by the upper bar of the cross bearing the inscription “King of Glory”, point to the glorious Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. The presence of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, who are standing in prayer, as opposed to the Mother of God and St. John the Evangelist mourning beside the Cross, shows the crucified Christ as the Lord Almighty in the Deesis composition and the Cross as the throne of the Lord. This perception is reinforced by the cherubs at the foot of the Cross, which, on most ancient Byzantine crucifixes, was seen as its most crucial part and symbolized the foot of God’s throne, before which the angelic forces stand in prayer. “Lift the Lord our God up high and worship the foot of His throne, His feet, for they are holy” (Ps. 98:5). If we also take into account the traditional meaning of Adam’s head under the Cross as a symbol of redemption and Resurrection, then the laconic composition of the Crucifixion on our cross, as on many other Orthodox crosses, shows the Christ’s salvific deed in its fullness: the Sacrifice made on the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second Coming of the Lord in all His glory. As usual, the correct reading of the images is aided by the inscriptions, which are traditional for compositions of the Crucifixion and occupy the free space left on the cross: І&С Х&С НИКА (“Jesus Christ the victor”), МЛРБ, or место лобно рай бысть (“the place of execution has become paradise”), кrсту твоему покланzемся влdко (“Lord, we bow before Your cross”).
The Holy Face not made by human hands in the round medallion at the top of the vertical beam indicates that Christ is the High Priest and the Head of the Church. In addition, and this is particularly important in the context of a cross for the military, the meaning of the Holy Face is associated with protection and victory. This is connected with the history of this particular icon, known as the Mandylion or the Image of Edessa. It was created by the Lord for Abgar, King of Edessa, to alleviate his suffering, and was later hung over the gates of the fortress and protected the city from enemies. In Russian military tradition, the Holy Face not made by human hands was the most common image on battle banners, sometimes giving way to the Calvary Cross, which is also present on our item’s mobile top part.
The images of Christ and His Cross are a sign and symbol of the sacrificial path taken by Orthodox soldiers – the “war-band of the Lord” or “brigade of the Lord” – in order to protect and save other people. Military service is not a struggle “against flesh and blood”, i.e., against bad neighbors, but “against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). The ideal of this service is not murder as such, although that is inevitably present in a battle with the enemy, but sacrificial love – “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The reverse of the cross is entirely devoted to the idea of Christian military service. In the center one can see the full-length figure of the Holy Prophet Elijah in prayer. The image of the formidable prophet Elijah, a zealous servant of the Lord, the forerunner of the Second Coming of Christ, whose name means “My God is my castle”, often occupies a central position on the back of numerous Russian crosses, since he is seen as a guardian of the Orthodox people and the Church in general. The feast of the Prophet Elijah takes place on 20 July (2 August).
Note that the element of air, which is where the airborne troops carry out their service, is the abode of the “spiritual wickedness in high places”, or evil spirits, because, according to the teachings of the Church Fathers, “the enemy of our kind, the devil, had fallen down from the sky and flies through lowermost layers of the air”. This is why the round medallion at the top of our cross contains a waist-length image of the Taxiarch Archangel Michael, the Supreme Commander of the angelic forces, “destroyer of the most proud morning star”, “the invincible leader and ally of our Christ-loving armies”, whose “lightning sword protects against all enemies visible and invisible”. Under the icon of the Archangel Michael one can find the troparion to the Holy Cross: Сп7си2, ГDи, лю1ди тво‰ и бл7гослови достоzнiе Твое.. (“Lord, save your people and bless Your patrimony”), which is quite appropriate given that the cross is supposed to secure victory in a war against the enemy.
The edges of the horizontal bar contain the image of the holy warriors and demon-fighters particularly revered in Russia: St. George the Victorious and the Holy Great Martyr Demetrius of Thessaloniki, who helped the Orthodox army in their battles for the Faith, the Tsar and the Homeland more than once.
At the bottom of the cross we have placed the waist-length figure of St. Alexander Nevsky with a banner in his right hand. This iconographic interpretation, where the face of the saint is shown against the background of a flag and appears to replace the Holy Face of the Savior, has a special meaning. Firstly, it refers to the holiness of the prince, who had managed to restore the icon of Christ within himself, and, secondly, portrays St. Alexander Nevsky as the banner of our victory, the ideal of military and political service to the Homeland where any decisions are based on Gospel-based criteria.
The composition is completed by the cryptogram on the reverse, which is inscribed on the eye in the top part. The cryptogram consists of Slavic letters, and by reading it vertically, one gets three praises to the Cross: ВВВВ, or возращение вечное верным в рай (“the eternal return of faithful to paradise”), ДДДД, or древо дарует древнее достояние (“the ancient tree bestows wealth”) and ВВВВ, or велие веселие в него верующих (“the great joy of those who believe in Him”).