Russia, Late Sixteenth century
Depicting the moment when Jesus bequeaths Mary and John to each other: “Woman, Behold your son,” the simple composition of this icon reflects the gravity of this world-changing event.
Above the Cross, two grieving angels, representing the sun and moon often seen in Crucifixion scenes, attend Jesus. Though John, said to be the “beloved disciple” is often dressed in brilliant red, in this icon he wears muddy, earthy green and terra cotta colors. Mary’s outer red robe has so much dark pigment in it that it appears nearly black. Standing behind to support her is Mary Magdalene, who stayed with Jesus to the very end, as it says in the Gospel of John. She wears the brighter red robes of a witness, one who testifies.
Standing behind John is the centurion, whose name has come down in tradition as Longinus, though he is not named in the Gospels. He is the Roman soldier who saw Jesus at the moment of his death and proclaimed: “In truth this man was the Son of God” (see John 19:34, Matthew 27:54, and Mark 15:39)
Beneath the Cross yawns a cavern that symbolizes the Pit of Hell. It contains a skull, said to be the Skull of Adam, marking Golgotha as the “Place of the Skull.” The cross in the halo around the head of Jesus glows red, in witness to his suffering, along with the grieving angels.
This icon is now in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and came from the Arkangelsk, or Archangel, region of Northern Russia, near the Arctic Circle. It was painted in the style of the Stroganov School, famous for expressive detail and theological depth.
The anonymous iconographer who created this work probably occupied a middle ground position in Christological controversies about the humanity and divinity of Christ, based on the balanced qualities of pathos and dignity conveyed in this icon.
Over the top of the Cross is the sign, in Old Church Slavonic, bearing the initials for Jesus Christ and declaring: “This is the King of the Jews.” On either side of the Cross are two doorways into the unknown realms of birth and death, which Jesus went through, as a human being, our Brother and Friend, Teacher, Redeemer, and Healer.
and carried our sorrows
Written by St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer, Lisa Bellan-Boyer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011