A reader requested a discussion of this detailed image:

(National Museum, Athens)

If we look in the lower right corner, we see this Latin inscription:


That really tells us a lot.  First, it reveals the name of the painter — Andreas Pavias; — Pinxit means “painted it.”  And de Candia — “of Candia”– tells us where he worked.  Candia was both the name for the island of Crete when it was a colony of the Venetian Republic, and of the island’s capital city.  So we know this is an icon from the Cretan school of icon painting.  And because we know it is by Andreas Pavias, we know also his dates — 1440 to somewhere within or near the first decade of the 1500s.  That it is written in Latin rather than Greek tells us that this image was intended for a “Latinate” customer — A Roman Catholic rather than a Greek Orthodox, and we already know that icon painters on Crete worked for both kinds of customers, and did a very large business in selling icons to Venetian buyers.

As you can see, there is a great deal of information condensed into this icon.  Let’s begin by looking at the focal center of the icon — the image of Jesus on the cross.  Around him are grieving angels, some catching his blood in chalices:

Let’s begin with the inscriptions and the upper portion of the cross:

On the titulus — the “name board” of the cross — we see the letters VNRI.  This is a variant of the standard spelling INRI — abbreviating Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum — “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  Below that — written in red letters — we see the Greek inscription identifying the image.  It is divided by the vertical beam of the cross:

We read it as:


And of course you recognize the IC XC abbreviations for Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”

But look at the image just above the very top of the cross.  That is something we do not ordinarily see in Greek iconography.  It is a popular Western Christian symbol — a pelican tearing open her own breast with her beak, in order to feed the blood to her young, and thus give them life.  It is put here as a symbol of Jesus giving his blood in the Crucifixion, to give life to believers.  If you look at what is supporting the nest in which the pelican and her brood are found, it appears to be a branching coral.  In Christian symbolism, coral was associated with the blood and Passion of Jesus, which is why it was also used as a protective talisman for children.

Let’s move down to the base of the cross:

We see the blood dripping down the shaft, and a woman in grief embracing the cross.  She is Mary Magdalene.

The redemptive blood drips all the way down to the skull in a hollow below the cross.  It is the skull of Adam — the legendary first man — who was said to have been buried on the site of the Crucifixion.  This of course is a symbol for the reversal of the “Fall,” at least for Christian believers.  Below the skull we see devils/demons in Hades, upset by the redemptive act taking place above them.

We must not overlook this fellow with his long pole, at the top of which is a sponge.  He used it in giving Jesus vinegar to drink, as mentioned in Mark 15:36, Matthew 27:48, and John 19:29. :

Behind him is a soldier with a lance.  A lance was used to pierce the side of Jesus.

Just to his left (but notably on what would be the side at the right hand of Jesus) we see the distraught Mary being held up by the other women, and by the youthful-looking disciple John (called “the Theologian” in Eastern Orthodoxy):

Moving up to the top on the “right hand of Jesus” side, we find one of the malefactors crucified with Jesus — the one who supposedly repented (though not in all accounts:  see this posting:  In Latin Christianity he was called Dismas. Note that he is crucified facing the viewer.  Above him — among the grieving angels, we not only see the image of the sun, but just below it an angel holding an infant.  This is the soul of Dismas being carried to Paradise.

The man with a club, standing on the ladder, is breaking the legs of Dismas to ensure death.

If we look on the opposite side of the cross — the left-hand of Jesus side — the “sinister” side — we find the unrepentant malefactor Gestas.  Above him is the moon.  Below the moon is a winged devil, who has caught the departing soul of Gestas — again in the form of an infant —  on a long hook, and will take him off to punishment.

In contrast to the repentant Dismas, who is crucified facing the viewer, Gestas is crucified facing away.  On the ladder at left we see another man with a club, breaking the legs of Gestas, and to his right is the scene of Judas — who traditionally betrayed Jesus — hanging himself from a tree (though actually there are two discrepant Gospel accounts of how Judas died).

Returning to the lower right-hand of Jesus side, we see the dead rising from their graves, as described in Matthew 27:52-53:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

On the “sinister” lower side of the icon, we see the soldiers who had “cast lots” for the garment of Jesus, as described in Matthew 27:35:

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.

The soldiers are dividing the cloth with a sword.  Note the three dice at the bottom of the image:

Andreas Pavia has filled the remainder of the painting with crowds of people, both on horseback and on foot.  He does this not only to show the importance of the event, but also to add visual interest for the buyer, who can take his time in looking from face to face and scene to scene, and feel he is getting his money’s worth in this very detailed icon.