Drawing on the sound knowledge from certain “icon experts”, I attempt to describe the deep meaning behind this beautiful icon of Andreas Pavias, displayed in the Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens.
The following interpretation of this detailed icon depicting the suffering of Jesus at the Cross derives from early Christianity and Byzantine traditions. The icon combines aspects of the Crucifixion account from all four New Testament Gospels: Matthew 27:45-56, Mark 15:33-41, Luke 23:44-49, and John 19:25-30.
Harvey explained that at the top of the icon, above the cross, the pelican refers to a pre-Christian legend from ancient Greece. In the second-century Christian work called the Physiologus, the Alexandrian author allegorizes Greek legends, some perhaps taken from Aesop’s Fables. The pelican is often associated with Christ in medieval imagery, because in times when food is scarce, the pelican was thought to feed her own blood to her children to keep them alive. The pelican then dies.
In Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:3, and Luke 23:44-45, the sun and the moon are described as darkening at the moment of Crucifixion, because the death of Jesus is a cosmic event.
The angels in the icon are in a traditional stances of mourning. They rend their clothes, weep and cover their faces.
These angels catch the Precious Blood of Jesus in communion chalices for the Holy Eucharist, in reference to 1 Corinthians 11:24, “This is my body, which is for you.” It also points to John 6:56, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
<— Judas hangs himself after betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The account appears in the Gospel of Matthew: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” he said. “What is that to us?” they replied. “You bear the responsibility.” So Judas threw the silver into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matthew, 27, 4-5)
In the lower half of the icon, the dead rise out of their tombs at the moment that Christ dies on the cross. (This image reflecting the Harrowing of Hell is especially poignant for us on Holy Saturday.) The soldiers next to them cower in fear.
The men in the crowd wear different kinds of hats, perhaps indicating that Roman soldiers and ordinary people of different social classes and ethnic groups were present. The crowd is anachronistic, but the painter might have imagined all of the people depicted being in Jerusalem, either in his time or in the time of Jesus’s Crucifixion.
The skull at the bottom of the Cross is known as the “Skull of Golgotha”. Golgotha means ‘the place of the skull’. In Christian tradition that skull is the skull of Adam, who was also the first human being to die. Our Lord Jesus Christ is called ‘the second Adam’ by the Apostle Paul. The Precious Blood dripping down upon the skull will bring Adam to life, and along with him everyone else.
In his article, “Social Media, the Spiritual Version,” Holland Cotter writes, “Icons weren’t just objects, nor were they art, as we understand the term. They were living, interactive entities wired into the world. In a way, they functioned as a spiritual version of social media, connecting and channeling energies among scattered, friendly and largely invisible parties, earthly and celestial.”