There is a standard iconography in Russian Crucifixion icons, and it is important for the student to understand it, because the Crucifixion is one of the most common types one will encounter.
The Crucifixion is often found both in painted icons on wooden panels and in brass castings such as the one depicted here — a “blessing” cross.
We will examine it from top to bottom:
At the very top is the image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — which is God the Father depicted as an old man with a white beard. Here he is shown raising his right hand in blessing. Immediately below Lord Sabaoth is the Dukh Svyatuiy — the Holy Spirit shown in the form of a dove. On the crosses of one sect of “priestless” Old Believers, the image of Lord Sabaoth is replaced by the Image “Not Made by Hands” — the Obraz Nerukotvornnuiy — the Image of Christ on a cloth, with the inscription Svyatuiy Ubrus‘ — “The Holy Cloth.”
On both sides of the Holy Spirit, but slightly lower, is an angel. They bear the inscription Angeli Gospodi — Angels of the Lord. Each has his hands covered with a cloth, a practice that shows reverence.
Then one often finds the inscription Tsar Slavui — “King of Glory” — referring to Christ.
On a sign at the center of the crossbeam just above Christ’s head, we see the superscription borrowed from the biblical account: I N TS I — which abbreviates the Church Slavic words for “Jesus (I) of Nazareth (N), King (TS) of the Jews (I) — Isus Nazoryanin’ Tsar Iudeiskiy.
Just below that, the halo of Christ has the standard three bars of the cross visible in it, with the inscription HO ON — “The One Who Is” — the equivalent of the King James Old Testament title of God, “I Am That I Am.”
Just above the crossbeam of the cross we usually see the stretched-out inscription IC SN’ B ZH I XC. The IC and XC are read first, followed by the rest. All together it reads Isous Khristos Suin Bozhiy — “Jesus Christ [the] Son of God.”
At the left end of the crossbeam is a round circle with a human face. This is the Sun (Solntse). It is commonly depicted as dark in color on painted icons. On the opposite end of the crossbeam is another circle with a face, colored red in painted icons. This is the Moon (Luna). On painted icons, one often finds the explanatory description of these two: “The Sun darkens, the Moon Becomes as Blood.” That is an apocalyptic image from the Bible, taken from Acts 2:20: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come” (King James version). The same image is found in the Apocalypse of John (Revelation 6:12): “And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” Both excerpts are inspired by the words of the Book of Joel in the Old Testament (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.”
Below the outstretched arms of Christ is another long inscription, taken from the Russian Orthodox liturgy: “We Honor Your Cross, Lord, and Praise Your Holy Resurrection (Krestou Tvoemu Poklonyaemsya Vladuiko i Svyatoe Voskresenie Tvoe Slavim). I have loosely translated ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ — “poklonyaemsya” here as “honor,” but it literally means “bow before.” In modern Cyrillic letters the inscription looks like this:
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ ВЛАДЫКО И СВЯТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМ
Next, we must notice that there are two long lines ascending, one on each side of the lower body of Christ. The one on the left has a point at its top. It is the spear with which the body of Christ was pierced. It is identified by the single letter K, for Kopie — “spear.” The other is a long reed bearing a sponge at its top. This is the sponge with which Christ was given vinegar to drink. It is identified by the single letter T for Trost’— “reed.”
Just above the slanted short beam to which Christ’s feet are nailed is the inscription NI KA. This forms the Greek word NIKA, meaning “He [Christ] Conquers.” Some Old Believers have their own interpretation, making the inscription Slavic rather than Greek: N I K A – Nas Iskupi Kroviu Adamova — “Save Us with the Blood of Adam.”
The slanted footbeam itself is notable because of the traditional folk interpretation that it slants up toward Christ’s right hand, indicating the ascent of believers to heaven, and it slants down from his left hand, indicating the descent of non-believers to Hell.
Just beyond both sides of the footbeam we usually see towers and other buildings, representing the walled city of Jerusalem. Sometimes, in place of or in addition to these, we see representations of Mary, mother of Jesus at the left, with her standard title MP ΘΥ (Meter Theou — “Mother of God” — a Greek title — and on the right Svyatuiy Apostol Ioann — “The Holy Apostle John.” In painted icons these two are generally shown full-figure, along with other saints such as Longinus (Svyatuiy Login) the Centurion, whose name comes from apocryphal works such as the Gospel of Nicodemus rather than from the Bible.
At the very base of the central crossbeam we find these letters:
They abbreviate the words Mesto Lobnoe Rai Buist, meaning “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.” Some Old Believers give the letters R B a different interpretation: Rab Bozhiy — “Servant of God.”
Just under the base of the cross is a little opening in the ground containing a skull and bones (often a skull with two bones that form a sideways X). This skull is identified by the letters G A as Golova Adama — “The skull of Adam.” In icon tradition, Adam — the first-created man — was buried precisely on the site where the Crucifixion later took place. And when Christ was crucified there was an earthquake, and the ground opened just below the cross, revealing Adam’s skull.
The very last thing one needs to know about the standard inscriptions is that usually at the bottom of the cross one will also find the letters G G for Gora Golgofui — “The Hill of Golgotha” — identifying the place where Christ was crucified.
However, brass crosses such as the one in the photo often have an inscription on the reverse side, though some have only ornamentation. The most common inscription is part or all of the Exapostilarion of the Elevation of the Cross:
Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei — [The] Cross [is] Protector of All the World
Krest’ Krasota Tserkovnaya — [The] Cross [is the] Beauty of the Church
Krest’ Tsarem’ Derzhava — [The] Cross [is the] Might of Kings
Krest’ Vyernuim’ Utyverzhdenie [The] Cross [is the] Comfort of the Believers
This has variations, one of which changes the last two lines to:
Krest’ Angelom Slava — [The] Cross [is the] Glory of Angels
Krest’ Besyom Yasva — [The] Cross [is the] Plague of Demons
Some examples merely add those last to lines to what came before, like this (in Cyrillic letters):
КРЕСТЪ ХРАНИТЕЛЬ ВСЕЙ ВСЕЛЕННЕЙ
КРЕСТЪ КРАСОТА ЦЕРКОВНАЯ
КРЕСТЪ ЦАРЕМЪ ДЕРЖАВА
КРЕСТЪ ВЕРНЫМЪ УТВЕРЖДЕНIЕ
КРЕСТЪ АНГЕЛОМЪ СЛАВА
КРЕСТЪ БЕСОМЪ ЯЗВА
On the reverse of some crosses, there is sometimes a long additional inscription either following the Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei text, or else found on its own. It is an apocryphal speech of Jesus, in which he says essentially, “For your sake I suffered…” and goes on to detail how “for your sake” he did this and that to show the way to salvation, took on flesh, labored, was cursed and spat upon, crucified, placed in the tomb, descended to Hades, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and finishes up with a caution about the place “prepared for the Devil and his angels.” This brief summary of the longer text, along with the text itself in Church Slavic, should enable you to recognize it. Look for the words Рече Господь — Reche Gospod’ — “The Lord said…” at the beginning, and for the repetition throughout it of the phrase Вас ради — Vas radi — “For your sake…” Here is the Slavic text:
Рече Господь Аз же терпя, ожидах покаяния вашего и обращения ко мне от зол ваших, зане прежде моего суда страшного многи показах вам пути ко спасению, и образ дах вам собою, милуя вас добре. Вас ради в плоть облекохся, и вас ради труждахся, вас ради алчен бых, желая вашего спасения, вас ради связан от беззаконных, бых, вас ради поруган бых, вас ради заплеван бых, вас ради заланиту ударен бых, вас ради на крест вознесен бых, вас ради гвоздия приях в руку и в ногу мою, вас ради тростию биен бых, вас ради оцта и желчи вкусих, и вас ради копием прободен бых вребра моя, вас ради смерть приях, вас ради во гроб положен бых, вас ради в ад снидох и изведох вы оттуду от тьмы на свет и паки воскресох, показуя вам воскресение от мертвых, и на небеса вознесохся, и вас ради послах Дух Святый в мир на апостолы моя, и послах я проповедати царствие мое, и дах Дух Святый в сердца ваша и поставих вам учители великие, и премудрые книжники, и нарекох вас сынове моя и братию, вы же не тако послушаете Мене, но сотвористе волю диаволю и ангел его, и ныне от идите от Мене, злии делатели неправды, в место, уготованное диаволу и ангелом его, не хощу же вас видети николиже.
While I am at it, I might as well throw in a couple of alternate inscriptions common on the backs of some large or small cast metal crosses:
Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…
ДА ВОСКРЕСЕНЕТЪ БОГЪ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТЪ ОТЪ ЛИЦА ЕГО ВСИ НЕНАВИДЯЩЕЙ ЕГО…
“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 Kresty — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”
Such inscriptions added to the believer’s sense that the cross was a powerful “supernatural” talisman that could drive away evil — the same sense that we find in Western horror stories in which the cross wards off vampires.
An inscription sometimes found on small crosses is Спаси и сохрани — Spasi i Sokhrani – “Save and Protect.”
And finally — I promise this is the last inscription for this article — one often finds on the reverse of silver crosses worn by priests (in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century) these words from I Timothy 4:12: “Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (Obraz budi vyernuim’ slovom’, zhitiem’, liuboviu, vyeroiu, chistotoiu“). This was good advice, because at that time there was considerable controversy over misbehavior by Russian Orthodox priests, a good number of whom were given to extorting money from the poor for religious services and/or given to drunkenness. On such crosses, one also finds this abbreviation on the back:
That stands for Nikolai II — Tsar Nicholas II. With that is “Year 1896” (in Cyrillic letter-numbers), and “May, 14[th] day.” That is the date on which Tsar Nicholas II decreed that such a silver pectoral cross was to be given to all priests.
I suppose I should not finish without telling you that some cast brass crosses intended to be displayed in the homes of believers (also sometimes in churches) — and again particularly popular among the Old Believers — had additional scenes added to them. The number of such added scenes varies, and commonly those added are representations of major church festivals, etc. In the example shown below, these added scenes are, from top left:
1. The Entry into Jerusalem; 2. The Resurrection of Christ; 3. The Ascension of Christ; 4. The Presentation [of Christ] in the Temple; 5. The Old Testament Trinity. This example also shows, as the figures standing by the cross, not only Mary, Mother of Jesus and the Apostle John, but also Mary Magdalene (Svyataya Maria Magdalini) and the Centurion Longinus. (Svyatuiy Login). Some brass examples add several rods atop the image, with images of seraphim at the upper ends.
You will note that this particular example of a brass house cross has colored enamel added to the surface. This was a common practice, and having a bit of enamel fired onto the brass during its making added just a bit to the price, both for the original buyer and often for the purchaser (the collector) of such old items today. Brass crosses and other brass icons were commonly cast in sand molds.
Well, now you know far more about crucifixion icons than practically anyone would ever want to know. You are a sudden expert in the matter, knowing what millions do not know. But it probably won’t make you a dime. It is just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, something with which the more curious among us (such as myself, and you, reader, if you have managed to get this far) are afflicted.