This is a small cross pendant with a movable top part, created after the tradition of the so-called “Syrian” encolpia made in the 10th – 11th centuries.
Crosses of this type, with widening bars and engraved images of saints in the Orans (prayerful) posture, most often the Virgin Oranta, were allegedly produced in the Syrian-Palestinian region and were widespread in Byzantium. Owing to pilgrimage, they could sometimes be encountered in Europe and the Kiev Rus. Our item follows this ancient tradition.
The cross is four-pointed. The bars widen from the center outwards and their edges have droplet-shaped extensions, often referred to in Russia as “tearsdrops”. The vertical bar finishes in a circle with a large hole, used to attach a ring for hanging the cross around one’s neck. Crosses in this shape without any iconographic images were known in the Christian East from the 5th century.
The front depicts a relief of the Crucifixion, executed in the style that was common in Byzantium in the 6th-10th centuries. The figure of the crucified Christ is straight, the eyes are open, the head is crowned with a cross-shaped nimbus and slightly inclined toward the left shoulder, His arms are spread out horizontally. Only the Cross behind the Savior’s back and the marks from the four nails in His hands and feet remind us of the crucifixion. The Lord, having defeated death, stands on a three-dimensional foot (which used to signify the greatness of the person being depicted in the Byzantine Empire) and appears to be beckoning everyone to Himself with His arms outstretched.
The upper bar bears the traditional (until the 17th century) inscription I&С Х&С (“Jesus Christ”), which asserts that Jesus is the true Mesiah promised in the Old Testament – the One anointed by God. Our cross is distinguished by the garments worn by Christ. Rather than the loincloth we have grown accustomed to seeing today, He is wearing a colobium – a long sleeveless tunic, decorated with geometric designs and two claves, or vertical gold stripes, which stood for the wearer’s noble birth in antiquity. According to prof. N.V. Pokrovsky (1848-1917): “… from the 6th till the 10th century, when Byzantine art was at its peak, virtually every Byzantine crucifixion showed Christ wearing a long sleeveless colobium”. Since the absolute majority of modern Crucifixes from the East and West are, on the contrary, dominated by the image of a nude Christ, to justify this iconography we have to briefly recall the history of the iconographic image of the Crucified One. The image was shaped under the influence of two distinct factors: the historical and archaeological information about the sacred event and the teaching of the Church about Christ as both God and Man.
Historical evidence tells us that during the time of Christ there were two different customs connected to crucifixion. Among the Jews, a convicted man had to be covered at the front, while a woman had to be covered both from the front and back. For the Romans, the convict had to be naked, which, however, did not mean there could be no subligaculum or lentium (a narrow strip of linen cloth wrapped around the hips, which served as underwear in antiquity). This is precisely what the first known Crucifixes looked like. For example, the Crucifix on the doors of the St. Sabina church in Rome depicts Christ as wearing a lentium, whereas the miniature in the Syrian Gospel-Book of Rabbula shows a colobium.
We know that church art is, above all, the art of spiritual realism. The symbols that convey the reality of the Divine Revelation are always more important than the historical and archaeological details. Therefore, in the first centuries of Christian art, while crucifixion was still remembered as a shameful execution used for the lowest social strata, the prevailing image on the Cross was that of the Triumphant Christ. The emphasis was on the triumph of the Lord, Who had conquered death and granted salvation to all peoples. The crucifixion was shown in a schematic, allegorical manner through the Instruments of the Passion, such as the cross, the spear and the cane, as well as through the characters surrounding the scene. Naturally, the image of a naked Christ was less suitable for expressing the idea of God’s victory. Besides, it is known from historical documents that Crucifixions with a nude Christ offended the pious Christians of the time.
Another reason for the dominance of images that stressed Christ’s Divinity and Regality was the Nestorian heresy, which originated in the 5th century. Nestorius used to say that the man named Jesus was not God, but only an abode of the Divine. Soon after the ecclesiastical condemnation of the Nestorian heresy, Eutyches began to propagate Monophysitism, which went to the opposite extreme, claiming that Christ only had a divine nature that dissolved anything human. In 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon the Church rejected this doctrine and declared the Christological dogma about the mysterious unity and harmony of the two natures in the single incarnation (or hypostasis) of God’s Word. As a consequence, to secure the victory won over the heretics, there was a need in the Christian East for an iconography that would equally show the crucified Christ as God and as man, dead and risen. In the debate with the Monophysites, whose influence was stronger than that of the Nestorians, the image of the dead and naked Christ came to be required again.
Of course, the figure of the Crucified One, despite the outward signs of death, continued to retain its grandeur and conveyed Divine Peace rather than death. In a pious aspiration to hide the nakedness of the Savior, the ancient Roman subligaculum was replaced by by the 8th century by a decorative drapery called a perisoma, which fully covered the hips of the Crucified Savior and sometimes fell below the knees. At the same time, Crucifixes where Christ was dressed in a colobium remained prevalent in the Christian East until the 10th century, while in the West, which was not acquainted with Monophysitism, they were retained until the 13th century. If we compare the image of the Crucified Christ in a colobium as depicted in the Eastern and Western Churches, we shall see that in the East, in demonstrating to us the Triumphant Christ, the artist tried to find various ways to convey God’s kenosis. We have used one of them in our item when we purposefully made the proportions of Christ’s figure childlike. This conveys the human helplessness and humility of the Savior. Besides, the Crucifixion, as the end of the Lord’s earthly path, is spiritually connected to its beginning, that is, to Christmas. This “eternal childlike quality of God” serves as an example for all people, for “whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Mark 10:15). On the other hand, in the Western Church before the 13th century there was a growing trend to stress the grandeur and regal dignity of Christ to the greatest possible extent. The figure of the Crucified One was clothed in a sleeved colobium, there were shoes on His feet and a royal crown over His head. The Eastern iconography of the dead Christ was condemned by Rome. But in the 13th century, Western images of the Crucifixion already began to exhibit a diametrically opposite tendency, in that artists started to show the utmost self-abasement of Christ. Over the following centuries, symbolism was increasingly rejected in favor of naturalism and historical authenticity. The sole objective of a believer’s emotional concentration on the Passion of Christ was his or her moral and ethical education, which created the temptation to compare one’s own sinful suffering with Christ’s pure and sinless Passion. Taken to an extreme, this approach could even provoke mental illness, such as the appearance of stigmata, which for some reason was seen as a sign of holiness in the West. From the 18th century, with the development of humanist culture in Russia, Crucifixes similar to the Catholic ones became increasingly common on Russian crosses; the only difference between them and their Western counterparts was the number of nails. The increasing prevalence of crucifixes that were realistic in anatomical and historical terms was also influenced by the active struggle of the official Church against the Old Believers, representatives of the old sacral culture who tended to attribute a dogmatic meaning to certain symbolic details on crucifixes. Today, since “humanistic values” have won, the image has become partially desacralized, and, despite the existence of an iconographic canon in the Orthodox Church, in actual practice many Crucifixes bring us back to the period of the Nestorian heresy, showing only the suffering human nature of the Savior.
Thus the ancient Byzantine iconography we have chosen for the Crucifixion may, to a certain extent, serve as a counterbalance to modern westernized Crucifixes that fail to take the Savior’s Divine nature into account. Its simplicity makes our thinking switch from rational to symbolic, which helps us unite with Christ, the God and the Man.
The reverse of our cross depicts an engraved full-length image of the Theotokos Oranta, made in the style of Syrian and Palestinian encolpia. Next to the icon one can find the traditional Greek inscriptions: ПАНАГIА (“All-Holy”) and М7Р F7µ (“Mother of God”). These names confirm the Church dogma that arose from the Nestorian controversy about the veneration of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. According to St. John of Damascus, “this name contains the entire mystery of the Incarnation”, and, as a result, reflects the “one incarnation (hypostasis) and two natures of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Therefore, the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary along with inscriptions of Her names is often placed on the back of the cross pendants and fulfills an important dogmatic task.