Russian icon | Crucifixion

Icon: Crucifixion E-2

Russia, Moscow, second half 16th century
Tempera on panel, 40.6 x 30.5 cm

Hammer Galleries, New York, 1930s (according to Hammer Galleries, the icon comes from the imperial icon collection in the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, St Petersburg)
Sotheby’s New York, 27 April 1972, Lot 147
Christie’s Geneva, 22 November 1974, Lot 124
Private Collection, New York
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam
ALR Ref. No.: S00158651


Christie’s Geneva, 22 November 1974, Lot 124

The cross with the figure of Christ, larger in scale than the other figures, is depicted against a large blue mandorla in the centre of this fascinating and intriguing Crucifixion-icon. The cross is placed on an ochre coloured rocky hill representing Mount Golgotha, against  the city wall of Jerusalem in the background. In the dark cave below is the skull of Adam, for Christ is believed to have been crucified over the grave of Adam so that his blood could wash the skull of the first man and thus redeem his Fall. At the foot of the cross, the allegory of Earth is holding a chalice to collect Christ’s blood, which flows from the wounds in his feet. In the foreground three soldiers are casting dice for Christ’s robe.

To the left of Christ’s body, a crowned allegory of the triumphant New Testament Church holds a chalice to collect Christ’s blood from the wound in his side. An angel has been leading this figure in the right direction. To the right, the allegory of the Synagogue is being guided away from the cross by another angel.  

In the upper part of the icon is a dark blue segment of heaven opening up in the centre into a bright red colour. Within this dark blue segment, to the left and to the right the moon and the sun are represented together with angels, of which only the dark faces are discernable. A chorus of six angels, three to the left and three to the right of the segment of heaven, is worshipping Christ, while two of them are swinging a censer.

To the left side we see the apostles standing together in a greyish rocky surrounding, with St Peter standing in front raising both hands. Below, the Roman centurion Longinus is piercing the side of Christ with a lance. The Virgin and St John the Evangelist turn towards each other and mourn the deceased Christ. St John the Evangelist was charged by Christ to take care of his mother (“This is the mother of yours”). Behind is a group of mourning women of Jerusalem.  In the lower left corner of the icon, a crowd of 'white souls' of the Old Testament Righteous, their hands covered in reverence, leave their graves.

To the right side, we see a large group of prophets in an ochre coloured rocky landscape, all turning towards Christ and holding symbolic objects which refer to their prophecies. A soldier is holding a stick which probably once held the vinegar-soaked sponge, now worn off. In the lower right corner two more prophets are sitting on a large throne against an architectural background. One of them is holding an open scroll with his prophesies written in church slavonic.  

The icon can be dated to the second half of the 16th century, a period that is characterized by many  innovations in Russian icon painting and especially by the creation of new, often complex and mystical iconographic variants. An important figure in this respect is Makary (1482- 1563), the influential metropolitan of Moscow in the age of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Metropolitan Makary learned to paint icons in his youth and continued to produce them throughout his life. As archbishop of Novgorod (1528-1542) he stimulated the art of icon painting with his spiritual energy and new ideas. Around the middle of the 16th century he founded the Kremlin workshop for icon painting in Moscow and invited some of Russia’s most talented icon painters to come over to Moscow to work for him. The painters concentrated on illuminating books and painting small icons, often of complex iconography. Our Crucifixion-icon is an excellent example of this trend: an extra layer of mystical allegorical content is added to the traditional Crucifixion scene. The icon demonstrates a novel approach to the visual, creating a new relationship between biblical and allegorical texts and image.