This is a four-pointed cross with rounded ends and rounded internal angles between the two criss-crossing bars. This shape is typical for a wide group of Russian crosses that were made in the 14th – 16th centuries and had varied iconographic themes.
The method used to compile the composition on the front of this cross has existed in Christian art since ancient times.
The method entails uniting several iconographic themes that express the main idea of the Divine Liturgy in the same composition, and revealing the essence of one phenomenon through the content of another. This allowed one to avoid any unnecessary historical detail while portraying sacred events, to present them as a single unified whole and to emphasize their spiritual and prophetic, rather than historical, reality. The significance and mutual relationship between the themes combined on the cross is further enhanced by its own symbolism, as well as that of the individual constituents.
The central place on the front is occupied by the Crucified Savior. Standing in prayer before Him are the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, whose chest-length figured are depicted in the medallions at the ends of the horizontal bar. Thus the themes of the Crucifixion and Deesis are combined, showing the Crucifixion as the Work of Christ the High Priest, Who is offering Himself as an atoning sacrifice. The space underneath the Crucifix depicts the result of the atonement – the Resurrection, still another theme, with Adam and Eve reaching out in prayer to the Savior, having risen from their graves. Christ’s victory over death and hell is confirmed by the traditional inscription by the Crucifix: І&С Х&С НИКА (Jesus Christ the victor). The frontal composition is completed by the Prepared Throne (known as “Hetoimasia” in Greek), which, according to N.P. Kondakov, is “an image of the Savior Himself, the Judge of the World, and the Last Judgment or the Second Coming of Christ, and likewise, of the Heavenly Church established by the Savior after His Ascension”. The themes mentioned above, in conjunction with the Hetoimasia, allow the viewer to gain a more complete understanding of the icon “Judgement Day”, which traditionally portrays Adam and Eve as kneeling before the throne and the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist as standing before the throne in prayer. Thus, the frontal composition shows the Acts of God in their liturgical completeness – from the atoning sacrifice of the Crucifixion to the Second Coming and Last Judgment.
The composition on the back depicts the Church founded by Christ. Its main symbol on our cross is the icon of the Theotokos Oranta, cradling the Eternal Infant against Her breast (created after the Great Panagia of Yaroslavl).
The other figures represent the three ranks of the church hierarchy: the apostles, the prophets and the saints. Members of each respective rank can be seen in the miniatures found in the numerous writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes (7th century) grouped around the Holy Cross, which serves as a symbol of the Church. The miniatures are usually accompanied by the following inscription: “For the church appointed first the apostles, second the prophets, and third the teachers to correct Her”. The widespread popularity of Cosmas Indicopleustes’ teachings in medieval Russia could have affected the Russian cross pendants, where one can find the figures of the saints in identical combinations. On our cross, modelled after the ancient miniatures, the first rank is represented by the Chief Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, who are standing at the base of the cross. For a model we used a 12th century Greek iconographic copy where the apostles are depicted in a fraternal embrace, representing the strength and endurance of Christ’s Church, whose members came from diverse nations and were united in Christian love. The second rank, in accordance with the ancient miniatures, is represented by two of the four so-called great prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, with their prophetic scrolls, positioned on the horizontal bar with Isaiah on the left and Jeremiah on the right. The Prophet Isaiah, whose name means “Salvation in the Lord”, acquired a special significance for the Christian Church owing to his prophecy about the Messiah (Emmanuel) (Ch. 7, 9). Isaiah’s strikingly accurate description of Christ’s earthly life earned him the name of the Old Testament Evangelist. The Prophet Jeremiah, whose name means “exalted by God”, is revered as a forerunner of Christ (Matthew 16, 14), as his prophecies paved the way for new religious forms. In the upper part of the cross one can see the chest-length figure of St. Nicholas, who represents the third rank in the hierarchy – that of the teachers and saints. He is shown down to his chest.
St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the greatest Christian saint, is known in the Church as “the prime example of faith and the embodiment of meekness”. His image is universally revered by the entire Christian Church and has always been surrounded by a particular reverence and love in Russia, which is witnessed by his presence on numerous icons and small sculptural items, including cross pendants.