Here’s something you don’t see every day — a 1298 Eastern Orthodox fresco from the Church of St. Nicholas in Prilep, Macedonia, showing Jesus voluntarily climbing onto the cross.  And yes, he is climbing up, not down, as we can see from the Greek title inscription:

(from original photo by P. S.Pavlinov)

Here it is:

Ι[ησού]ς Χ[ριστό]ς ἀναβενωντός ἐν το σταυρο (standard spelling ἀναβαίνοντός ἐν τῷ σταυρῶ)

Iesous Khristos anabenontos en to stauro/anabainontos en to stauro

The verb here is ἀναβαίνω anabaíno, meaning “to ascend, to go up, to climb.”  So we can translate as:

“Jesus Christ Ascending the Cross,” or more colloquially as “Jesus Christ Climbing Up Onto the Cross.”

Now if you are familiar with the New Testament accounts of the Crucifixion, you will know there is nothing at all in them about Jesus climbing a ladder onto his cross. It is a theme that developed outside the Bible, and one that seems to have been restricted to a certain period in its popularity.

Now remember that the island of Crete became a possession of Venice (Italy) in 1204-1205, and we know that Italian influence on icon painting only increased through the appearance of the Cretan School from the 15th to the 17th century. But the Macedonian fresco dates to near the beginning of the 1300s, much earlier than the Cretan School.  Yet as I often say, there was never a “pure” Eastern Orthodox iconography untouched by outside influences.

Let’s look at a Crucifixion with associated scenes attributed to the Italian Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo  (1225–1276):

(Museo civico di San Gimignano, Italy)

Such medieval Italian crucifixes always remind me of St. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226.  Probably too many viewings of the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

If we look at the bottom scene on the left side, we can see a relation with the fresco:

There Jesus is, standing with one foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, as though getting ready to climb up it.

We can jump to about 1300-1320 to look at an Italian miniature by Pacino di Buonaguida/Bonaguida:

There we see Jesus climbing resolutely up onto his cross, though by modern standards of perspective, the ladder is at an angle that would cause a nasty fall.

We can move on to the image likely painted about 1270-1280 by Guido da Siena — much more reminiscent of the Macedonian fresco:

(Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecth, Netherlands)

I do not know just how the iconography of Jesus ascending the Ladder got to Macedonia, but it certainly appears that it was due to Italian influence and the appearance in the 13th – early 14th century of this apparently then new visual representation.  How and why did it begin?  We are not certain of that either, and as we see in the example by Guido da Siena, Jesus was not always shown ascending the ladder entirely voluntarily; notice the man atop the crossbeam reaching down to grasp the left hand of Jesus and pull him up:

There are, of course, speculations as to the possible origins of the rather uncommon depiction of Jesus climbing the ladder onto the cross, and if you would like to begin exploring that topic, you might like to read this paper, though it has really nothing to say about the presence of this iconography in a Macedonian church fresco from the end of the 1200s.  It is by Anna Anna Eörsi, and titled “Haec scala significat ascensum virtutumRemarks on the iconography of Christ Mounting the Cross on a Ladder.


I had barely posted this article when I received a comment from a clever reader in the Netherlands, mentioning the very relevant “Dream of the Rood” (Rood means cross here), an Old English poem in which the cross speaks these lines about the Crucifixion:

Then saw I mankind’s Lord
Hasten with great zeal, as though he wanted to climb on me.

(Geseah ic þā Frēan mancynnes
efstan elne micle,⁠ þæt hē mē wolde on gestīgan.)


Today we will look at an icon of the type generally known as the “Fruits of the Passion of Christ.”  Such icons are not common, and are generally  found as Russian examples from the latter part of the 1600s to the first third of the 1800s.  Here, however, is an icon from the Greek-speaking region that appears to be dated 1827:

(Photo courtesy of Benoit Harang)

The “Fruits of the Passion” type is the central image in this triptych, with the left and right wings depicting the different icon type known as the “Communion of the Apostles.”

The “Fruits of the Passion type” represents the benefits believed to have resulted from the crucifixon of Jesus.

(Courtesy of Benoit Harang)

The cross is shown as a blossoming “tree of life.”  Angels in the blossoms just above the crossbar hold symbols relating to the Passion, such as the crown of thorns, the pillar and scourge, and so on.  Among them is a “Not Made by Hands” depiction of Jesus on a cloth, which is actually out of place given its role in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, where it is not passion-related; but it reveals the Western influences that led to this type, because the depiction of Jesus on a cloth as the “Veil of Veronica” does relate to the Passion narrative in Roman Catholic tradition.

At left is a pillared church — representing the founding of the Christian Church.  In it stand the Evangelists Luke, Mark, Matthew and John.  A hand reaches down from a flower blossoming on the left end of the cross, and bestows a crown upon the “Church.”

Another hand reaches down from a blossom on the right side of the cross, and with a sword strikes down Death, who appears in the form of a skeleton.

At the top of the image is the Heavenly Jerusalem.  A hand reaches up from a blossom at the top of the cross to open the door to the Heavenly Jerusalem.  The hand commonly holds a key.

At lower left the dead are seen rising from their graves in the Resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus, and at lower right another hand reaches out of a blossom and strikes with a hammer at the image of Satan, shown in the form of a monster chained to the foot of the cross, and holding Judas in his grasp.  They, in turn, lie within the even larger mouth of Hades, depicted as a huge devouring monster.

The sun and moon are shown at upper left and right, as is common in “Crucifixion” icons.

Inscriptions on icons of this type vary.  This example has four scrolls near the hands of Jesus, but only those on the right are easily legible:


There we find these words:
 …Καί λογισθείς ἐν τοῖς νεκροῖς τόν ἐκεῖσε τύραννον ἔδησας..
“And you were numbered with the dead and there bound the tyrant…”
That is a line from the Greek Orthodox Matins for Great Friday.  So it is possible that the damaged inscription on the left side is what comes just before that line:
Τό χειρόγραφον ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ σταυρῷ διέῤῥηξας, Κύριε…
“You tore up their manuscript [that is, a legal document with charges] on the cross, Lord…”
If that assumption is correct the scrolls all together would read:
Τό χειρόγραφον ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ σταυρῷ διέῤῥηξας, Κύριε. Καί λογισθείς ἐν τοῖς νεκροῖς τόν ἐκεῖσε τύραννον ἔδησας…
In the modern Orthodox liturgy in English, that is rendered more loosely as:
“On the cross you destroyed the legal bond against us, O Lord.  You were reckoned with the dead and there did bind the tyrant…”
Icons of this “Fruits of the Passion of Christ” type (in Slavic Плоды Страданий Христовых — Plodui Stradaniy Khristovuikh) appear to have their origin in a Western-influenced engraving by Vasiliy Andreev that appeared in Moscow about 1682:

 As an engraving, it is given the title Распятие с чудесамиRaspyatie s Chudesami — “Crucifixion with Miracles.”  We can see that aside from the more numerous inscriptions, the engraving and the Greek icon shown above are very much the same.  On the Russian version, the text just below the crossbeam reads:

For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  It is from 1 Corinthians 2:2.
A detail shows us an angel at left catching the blood of Christ in a chalice, with the instruments of the Crucifixion shown in a round medallion.  The angel at right has a medallion with the ladders of the crucifixion.
 At the top we see “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — and the Holy Spirit as dove below him.  They are over the Heavenly Jerusalem, whose gates are being opened by the hand that reaches up from the cross, and holds a key:

At left is the new-founded Church with the Four Evangelists, with the hand reaching down from the cross with a crown:

Here Death, riding a white horse, is struck by a hand reaching down from the cross, wielding a sword:

You will recall that Death represented as a skeleton or corpse on a white horse is also found in the “Only-begotten Son” icon type.

Here is Satan holding Judas in the maw of Hades:

Finally, here are the two wings of the triptych shown at the top of the page.  As mentioned previously, together they form the “Communion of the Apostles” icon type:


Today we will look briefly at another type of cast metal icon.  This type is distinguished from other similar icons of the crucifixion by its very large size, by the number of individual types joined to make it, as well as by the row of 19 to 21 cherubim extending along the very top.

When I say “other types joined to make it,” I mean literally that.  A Great Patriarchal Icon combines forms used to make other individual icons into one very large cast icon.  One can see in the casting where the individual forms were pieced together.

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

At center we can see the form for a standard “house cross” Crucifixion, with its side panels showing Mary and the “Mother of God” at left and the Apostle John and the Centurion Login (Longinus) at right.  Around it are placed the various types for the Major Church Festivals, as well as an icon of St. Nikolai/Nicholas, Marian images, and other saints and angels.

This type of easily-recognized, very large metal icon has a specific name.  It is called a Большое Патриаршее распятие — Bolshoe Patriarshee Raspyatie — a “Great Patriarchal Crucifixion.”  In English it is sometimes just referred to as a “Great Patriarchal Icon” or “Great Patriarchal Cross.”  But in the slang of the everyday Russian icon trade, it is often called a большая-лопата — bolshaya lopata or большая патриаршия лопата — bolshaya patriarshiya lopata — a “Great Shovel” or a “Great Patriarchal Shovel,” because of its shovel-like shape.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

These “Great Patriarchal Crucifixion” icons were, as one might suspect, the product of Old Believer workshops, and were produced largely in the Moscow area in the 18th and 19th centuries, but of course in fewer numbers than the more common and less expensive smaller Crucifixion metal icons.


Eastern Orthodoxy has been generally suspicious of statuary — of images in three dimensions.  Historically, statues are not entirely absent.  Even as early as the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, such three-dimensional images existed in Christianity.  But over time — and particularly after the Iconoclastic period — Eastern Orthodox art has tended to avoid the use of religious statuary.  But one does encounter icons in relief, carved into stone, cast into metal, impressed in clay or carved in wood.

That is why one sometimes finds wooden relief icons of one kind or another in Russian iconography, though they are in general more scarce than painted icons.

Wood carving has been a part of Russian folk art since pre-Christian times, and when one finds carved icons in the 18th and 19th centuries, they still have much the appearance of folk art objects, though they were used just as were painted icons.

Here is a carved wooden icon depicting the Crucifixion.  It is depicted as though in a church interior, which is why we see seven church domes above it:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We see the usual figures found in painted Crucifixion icons — Jesus in the center, his mother Mary and another Mary at left, and at right the disciple John and the Centurion Longinus (Login Sotnik).  Even the inscriptions are carved in wood, and considerable time must have been required for such detail.  When the carving was finished, the icon was painted in suitable colors and then varnished.  The surface has oxidized and aged over the years, which is why the surface now has a rather dark appearance:

Each figure has its title inscription, and above Jesus we see the usual inscription, written here as IНЦI, abbreviating “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  And at the sides of his head is the common IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”

Most notable, however, is the very long carved text in the outer borders of the icon.  The novice student of Russian icons might at first despair of determining what it signifies, but one should always keep in mind that icon inscriptions tend to be very repetitive.  Also, certain texts tend to be associated with certain images.  Given that, can we possibly make any sense out of all those hundreds of letters carved without punctuation or even separation into individual words?

Fortunately, it is not as difficult as it looks.  In fact if you have read the earlier postings on this site, you will already have been given the key to translating it.

What does one do with such an unfamiliar inscription?  One first looks for the familiar, whether in words or phrases.  And if we go to the beginning of the text, which is at the upper left corner, we can begin to work with it.  In general the starting point in most icons for a sequence of images or a long text is at upper left:

That is a bit dark, so it would be helpful to brighten the image to add clarity, like this:

We can now see, looking carefully, that the inscription begins with these letters:


Where have we seen that before?  The most logical place to look is in materials dealing with Crucifixion images.  You may recall that some time ago I did a posting titled “The Instant Expert on Russian Crosses“:


In that article, I gave the standard inscriptions associated with the Crucifixion type.  And among them, you will find this:

Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…


 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

Now one thing we will notice about the form of the text on this icon is that its wording in Church Slavic is a bit different than the standard Russian Orthodox version.  That is because this icon uses the old text, not the revised wording used by the State Church after the separation from the Old Believers.  That tells us this is an Old Believer icon, and indeed such carved relief icons tend to be found more commonly among Old Believers than in the State Church.

Here is the Old Believer text:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

And here is the text as found in State Church prayer books:

Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его. Яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут; яко тает воск от лица огня, тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменующихся крестным знамением, и в веселии глаголющих: радуйся, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень, прогоняяй бесы силою на тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Иисуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго и поправшаго силу диаволю, и даровавшаго нам тебе Крест Свой Честный на прогнание всякаго супостата. О, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень! Помогай ми со Святою Госпожею Девою Богородицею и со всеми святыми во веки. Аминь.

You can see that there are some differences, but not enough to prevent us from recognizing the text in both cases.  Do not be intimidated by this.  All it means for practical purposes is:

If the beginning words read:
Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его… then we know it is likely an Old Believer icon.  But if we see the text beginning like this:
Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его… then we know it is a State Church image.

Keep in mind that one need not be concerned about minor differences in spelling, but differences in wording help us to distinguish icons of the Old Believers from those of the State Church in Russia after the latter part of the 17th century.  One can even see slight differences between the form of the text used on the carved icon and that given above as the Old Believer form of the full prayer.  The reason is that the text on the icon more closely follows the spelling used in the Ostrog Bible (Острожская Библия ) — the first complete printed Church Slavic Bible in the corrected edition of 1581.



It is almost too ridiculous to mention, but some Internet sites actually use this image, from the Serbian Vysoki Decani Monastery, as “proof” of early visitations by aliens from space.  They tell the gullible that the two odd figures at far upper left and right are “flying saucers” piloted by space men, with one following the other across the sky.

Anyone who knows the basics of Eastern Orthodox iconography, however, should recognize that those two images are just stylized representations of the sun (at left) and the moon (at right).

The sun and moon have long been common additions to icons of the Crucifixion, and this is very obviously a Crucifixion icon.

At left is the sun, which is commonly personified by placing a face within it, or sometimes, as here, the body as well.  You can see that aside from the rays emanating at left, the image of the sun has a round shape.

Here is the moon, with another little figure within to personify it.  It has the shape of the crescent moon.  Two stars are added to show the connection with night.

Here is a 13th century Macedonian example from the Church of St. Nicholas near Prilepe, again showing the sun personified at left and the moon personified at right of the crossbeam.


The inscriptions below the standard IC XC for “Jesus Christ” are:

Above the crossbeam:  He Staurosis/”The Crucifixion:
On the crossbeam:  “The King of Glory”
By the figure at left of Jesus:  “Holy John the Theologian”
By the soldier figure at right of Jesus:  “Holy Longinos the Centurion”

And here is a 16th century example from the St. Nicholas Church at the Toplički Monastery in Macedonia, again showing the personified sun at left and the personified moon at right above the crossbeam:


If we look at this 12th century Novgorod icon, we see the same personification of sun (left) and moon (right), this time with just the faces showing.  And beside them, in Church Slavic, is written “Sun” and “Moon.”  Identifying them by title is very common in Crucifixion icons.

The Vysoki Decani Crucifixion follows the biblical accounts,  but the Novgorod example is more an icon of veneration of the cross, which is shown empty.  Above it are seen Cherubim at far left and right, and closer to the top crosspiece are two Seraphim holding ripida, the ceremonial fans used in the liturgy.

At left, identified by inscription, is the Archangel Mikhail (Michael) and at right the Archangel Gavriil (Gabriel).  Michael holds the spear of the Crucifixion, and Gabriel holds the reed with a sponge atop it.


In the opening in the hillock just below the cross (which is decorated with a simple wreath of victory), is a skull — by tradition the skull of Adam, who was supposedly buried at the precise spot where the Crucifixion later took place.  Eastern Orthodoxy is filled with such mythic traditions, theologically symbolic rather than actual history, though many “believers” took them quite literally, and some still do.

So now you know.  Those are not flying saucers manned by aliens, just elements common in medieval to modern icons of the Crucifixion — simply the sun and moon.  They are taken from the Gospel called Matthew, chapter 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:

Also Luke 23:44-45:

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.
And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

And it derives also from the following, which account for why in many icons of the Crucifixion, the sun is painted in a dark color such as blue, and the moon is painted red:

Joel 2:31
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.

Acts 2:20:
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come:

Revelation 6:12:
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

Sun and moon are thus present in icons of the Crucifixion to signify that it is an event of cosmic importance.

The sun and/or moon personified are found in other icon types as well.  Here is the sun personified (at left) as a winged angel — from a sun-moon pair in an image from a “Terrible Judgment” fresco at Dechani in Serbia:

But no flying saucers.