A View from the Sacristy: Skull and Bones

March 2, 2016 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: Skull and Bones

icon crossI seem to be spending this Lent talking about our different processional crosses! This week I want to lift the veil on our Icon Cross for a quick peek.

During the first night of our Lenten adult education series, Contemplating the Cross, we looked at images of the crucifixion from different times during the 2000 years of Christian history. The task was to regard each of the works from the perspective of not being a follower of the Christian tradition, or being a person unfamiliar with the Christian story … not such an easy task.

The first image was a very traditional orthodox icon of the Crucifixion. We all agreed that the image of the figure who is crucified is the most important person in the painting. He is larger than the other figures, the other figures are all gathered around him, and they all seem to be very concerned about what is happening to him. One aspect of this icon that we all noticed was a small skull and crossbones in a cave at the base of the cross. It is a very strange image. What could it mean?

icon cross skull

In my studies in iconography, I have always been told that the image of the skull and crossbones is a reference to the first man, Adam. Our sacred tradition says that Golgotha (Γολγοθα ) is the site of the tomb of Adam. Golgotha means Skull.

This combination of symbols also reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Visually, the placement of the bones of Adam underneath the base of the cross signify that they have been sanctified by the sacrifice of Christ, and, as they reside in a tomb, will once again be fleshed and raised from the dead.

Just look at any orthodox icon of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and notice how he is always pulling Adam out of his tomb. Now that’s a far cry from the bones beneath the cross, but still …

I remembered during our meditation that we have a very similar image on our Icon Cross. My recollection was that it appeared in the same place below the image of the crucified Christ as the one in our meditation. I checked, but there is no Adam’s skull on the image of the crucified on our Icon Cross.  Then I looked on the other side and there it was right underneath the image of Jessie, the father of King David, and the ancestor of Jesus.

If we accept that the skull and bones are a symbol for Adam, then in our very own icon we have the whole history of salvation beginning with Adam, continuing with Jessie and ending with the Virgin and Child. This image is called a “Jessie Tree” that can be part of Advent celebrations.

– Sean Scheller

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