This is a cross in a simple four-point shape with a vertical bar that widens at the ends. The shape was typical for the wooden crosses widespread in in the Russian North in the 17th – 18th centuries.
On either side of the cross, one can see the iconographic themes of the Epiphany or Theophany and the Crucifixion. We have deliberately refused to highlight either of these two scenes as the main one in order to show their intimate relationship and their equally close link to the sacrament of Baptism. However, it is still customary to see the side of the cross that contains the Crucifix as the front.
In the center of our cross one can see the figure of Christ, crucified on an eight-pointed cross against the background of the Jerusalem walls. The top rung bears the Lord’s name: І&С Х&С (“Jesus Christ”), while the inscription under the Savior’s outstretched arms reads НИКА (“be victorious”). The horizontal bar depicts the half-length figures of the Holy Intercessors, who are standing before the Savior in prayer: the Blessed Virgin Mary (the inscription reads М&Р F&V – “Mother of God”) and St. John the Evangelist (the inscription reads оа7гi iw8 – “Saint John”). At the bottom of the cross there are Mount Golgotha and the cave with Adam’s head inside. At the top of the cross there is an image of the Hetoimasia, or Prepared Throne. In a case such as this, when the composition contains the symbols of God the Father (the throne), the Word of God (the Gospel) and God the Holy Spirit (the dove), the Hetoimasia should be understood as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
The other side of the cross contains the icon of the Theophany or Epiphany, as evidenced by the Church Slavonic inscription at the top (бг7zвление). In the center, one can see the nude Savior standing in the waters of Jordan. The defeated serpent lies under His feet, its head crushed by the Cross. The Lord is blessing the water with His right hand. To the left of Christ one can see John the Baptist (the Church Slavonic inscription reads iw7а пр7т – “John the Forerunner“, a name commonly used for John the Baptist in the Russian tradition). His right hand rests upon the Savior’s bowed head, whereas his left hand and eyes are turned to Heaven, from whence comes from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. To the right of Christ there is an angel with his head bowed, who indicates the Savior’s divine dignity.
Let us try to explain what made us choose this specific composition, and, most importantly, elaborate on the meaning of these two themes combined on a cross pendant.
In the context of the sacred history recorded in the Gospel, the Epiphany and the Crucifixion marked the beginning and the end of God’s salvific deeds on earth, the alpha and omega of His earthly life. After His baptism in the Jordan, Christ revealed Himself to the people and began His messianic ministry. All the three Persons of the Holy Trinity participated in this event: God the Father, Whose voice was heard during the baptism, the Holy Spirit, who came down as a dove, and God the Son, Who was being baptized. This is why this event is referred to as the Epiphany. Accordingly, the final action that completed the Lord’s atoning sacrifice was His death on the cross, or Crucifixion.
If we consider the Epiphany and the Crucifixion from the soteriological rather than the historical aspect, both events could be connected into a single whole – a great act of salvation by the Lord of fallen humanity, or the “old Adam”. This unification of the two events can already be encountered on the miniatures in the Khludovsky Psalter, dating back to the 9th century. Here, the scenes of the Lord’s Crucifixion and Baptism are used to illustrate Psalm 73, which speaks of the Lord’s saving deeds. In particular, the scene of the Crucifixion is provided to interpret the twelfth verse: “For God was our King since before the beginning of time, and He brought forth salvation in the middle of the earth”. The scene of the Baptism, where one can see several serpents with their heads chopped off, explains the thirteenth verse: “By Thy strength, Thou hast established the sea, Thou hast erased the serpents’ heads in the water”. These words of Psalm are a prophetic revealation of the reason behind Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. After all, being originally pure, He did not have to be baprized by John the Baptist to repent and be purified. St. John of Damascus explains the reason for the baptism of Christ: “He was baptized not because He needed purification, but because He took my purification upon Himself, in order to erase the serpents’ heads in the water, to wash away sin, and to bury the old Adam as such in the water” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Vol. 4, Ch. 9). This idea of victory over the serpent (Satan), the culprit of Adam’s original fall, is found in many liturgical hymns sung during the feast of the Epiphany, while the image of the defeated serpent immersed in the water can be seen on iconographic compositions of the Epiphany.
However, the same idea – the redemption of the fallen Adam – is also present on any composition of the Crucifixion. The ancient icons of the Crucifixion, where Christ’s Cross is seen striking down the serpent or satan, establish a direct connection with the compositions of the Epiphany. Another linking element is the image of the Cross in the waters of Jordan, which is encountered on Byzantine and Russian icons of the Epiphany. Thus the Epiphany foreshadows the Crucifixion and depicts the Cross as having a cleansing and saving effect.
If one pays closer attention to the images that are positioned above the Crucifixion on cross pendants, one can notice an important detail that indicates a connection with the iconography of the Lord’s Baptism. This is the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove, which comes either from the throne, as on some 12th – 13th century encolpia, or from God the Father, as on numerous crosses dating back to the 19th century. These iconographic elements, as well as some compositional similarities between the icons of the Crucifixion an the Epiphany, suggest an exceptionally close link between these sacred events.
Their ontological unity is particularly pronounced in the sacrament of Baptism granted to us by the Lord. The very name of the sacrament in Russian, “kreshcheniye”, implies the Savior’s death on the cross. According to the apostolic teaching, the triple ritual immersion into water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit signifies “the three days the Lord spent in the Holy Sepulcher”. The Apostle Paul describes this as follows: “therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4), and “buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). By being baptized in the Jordan, the Lord gave us an example of baptism by water, but, according to St. John of Damascus, there is another baptism – “the baptism of blood and martyrdom, which Christ Himself accepted for our sake” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Vol. 4, Ch. 9). Therefore, the sacrament of Baptism, which we accept in church, contains a reference to the two sacred events. Its external form mirrors the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan, while its innermost essence, according to the apostolic teaching, lies in the crucifixion of the “old man” within us alongside Christ, in death to sin and life for God in Christ.
Therefore, the union of the two iconographic scenes – namely, the Epiphany and the Crucifixion – on a cross pendant given to us when we are baptized serves as a visual illustration for the deepest essence of the sacrament itself, which is carried out “for the remission of sins and for eternal life”.