This is a a small cross, close to the Greek proportions, with a circular medallion in the center and bars ending in spheres. Crosses in this shape were extremely common in Russia in the 11th – 13th centuries. They were found in Novgorod, Kiev, Old Ryazan, Kostroma, Vladimir, Tula, as well as in Latvia and Estonia. On many, the central medallion contains iconographic imagery. Due to the poor state of preservation one cannot determine with absolute certainty whose images are displayed on the crosses, but they are most likely to be the Savior and the Blessed Virgin Mary, with their open palms positioned before their chests.
In this item we have tried to recreate a forgotten ancient form of the cross and to comprehend and, where possible, enhance its symbolic meaning. As with most Greek crosses or those characterized by similar proportions, this cross is understood as a fourfold model of the world created and organized by the Lord. The image of Christ is positioned in the center inside a round medallion, in keeping with the ancient prophecy: “God brought forth salvation in the middle of the earth” (Ps. 73:12). It is a chest-length image of Christ Pantocrator (Greek for “Almighty”), the Creator and the Judge of the World. He is holding the Gospel in His left hand, while His right hand is folded in a gesture of blessing. This image has been known since the 6th century, and, according to the scholar N.P. Kondakov, “is the crown of Byzantine iconography; placed within the dome, it crowns all the other paintings in the church; like a house icon, it serves as the focal point of the church ceremonies, the icon par excellence, and has retained the same quality in Russian iconography to this day”. In this icon, the human nature of Christ does not detract from the power of His divinity as the Almighty, but, after the two have been mysteriously united in Him, His humanity is also exalted and gains power. The spheres at the ends of the bars stand for the four parts of the world and, in turn, are marked by crosses, thus affirming the principle of the Church’s catholicity (or universality), where each of the constituent parts is as complete as the whole.
The immoveable top contains the image of a cherub, which allows one to interpret the top as a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven.
On the back of the cross in a circular medallion one can see the Blessed Virgin Mary with Her palms open and positioned at Her chest. As this iconographic type is often found on the icons of the Ascension and serves as a double for the Theotokos Oranta, it is referred to as the Theotokos Assunta (“Ascended”), after the definition provided by scholar N.P. Kondakov. The image appeared in the 8th – 9th centuries and became particularly common in the 11th – 12th centuries. The main symbolic meaning of the gesture made by the Blessed Virgin is prayerful vigil, which makes it similar to the posture of the Theotokos Oranta. However, in contrast to the Theotokos Oranta, the Theotokos Assunta is less solemn and majestic, and tends to be perceived from a more soulful, emotional perspective. It shows us a Blessed Virgin Mary who is humbly and tenderly confessing Her faith in the Lord and is open to accepting His will. The same gesture with the same meaning, but with only one hand in front of the chest, is found in the icons of the Annunciation and of the holy martyrs and confessors.
In the 11th-12th centuries this iconography of the Mother of God began to acquire an independent quality and turned into something akin to an “emblematic formula of prayer”. Today, it is still widely used in personalized prayer medallions and crosses.
Apart from considering the images on the front and back of the cross separately, one may compare them. In this case, one unwittingly thinks of the system employed in painting cross-domed churches, where all the complex ecclesiastical symbolism revolves around two main images: the Lord Almighty (or the Ascension) in the dome and the Theotokos in the conch of the apse.
Inscribed around the vertical bar, underneath the central medallion, is the troparion to the Holy Cross in Church Slavonic: Сп7си, гDи, люди тво‰… (“Lord, save Your people”).