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Icon of the Crucifixion, 8th cent., Mt. Sinai (image: Cormack: Byzantine Art, p. 69 , 2000)

I was asked to write a piece to spark discussion on this icon for a new Byzantine History forum on the American Historical Association Communities website. Here’s what I wrote:

This is one of the most important icons that survive from Byzantium’s “dark ages.” Images of the Crucifixion were central in the debates about how Christ could be represented and venerated in Christian imagery (Corrigan, for example). It makes sense that many art historians position this work against the backdrop of imperial sponsored iconoclasm and emphasize its isolated and protected location at Mt. Sinai. Because this region of the Sinai peninsula was no longer part of the Byzantine Empire after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, we use the works of art preserved there like relics from a time unspoiled by the destruction of images that (almost) erased history in other places like Constantinople.

Specialists are still digesting the recent reevaluation by Brubaker and Haldon of the primary sources that tells us about imperially-sponsored iconoclasm. I am curious how could we re-imagine our theologically-driven interpretations of this icon in light of their deemphasis on the role of image theory and theology in this period? What if we interpret this work as one of many religious images made in an uninterrupted production of images from this time? Would such a reading take pressure off of this work from being an almost isolated icon on the vanguard of a newly defined and proscribed cult of images?

Crucifixion and Three Marys at the Tomb, Rabbula Gospels, Syriac, 586; now in Florence, Laurentian Library (image: http://www.oberlin.edu/images/Art315/Art315d.html)

In the icon we see Christ crucified with his eyes closed which probably signifies he is dead, or more specifically, that his human body is dead.  A comparison with an earlier depiction of the Crucifixion in the Rabbula Gospels (Syriac, 586 AD) shows a similar depiction of Christ on the cross wearing the purple colobium, or long sleeveless tunic, the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ, and the soldiers below the cross debating who should take Christ’s special garment. On the icon, the thieves’s names are inscribed in gold, Gestas and Demas, whereas in the manuscript, only the name Loginos (Longinus) is written in Greek characters over the head of the Roman soldier thrusting his spear into Christ’s side.

In contrast, the nearly contemporary fresco of the Crucifixion from Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (741–52), shows Christ again wearing the colobium, but no thieves crucified at his side, and no soldiers fighting at the foot of the cross. Again, this image was produced in a region no longer under Byzantine control and therefore not subject to the destruction of images. Rather, this work again repeats Christ’s striking and all-knowing vision with piercing eyes. The icon-like fresco was painted in the chapel to the north of the main apse, and this church was managed by Greek monks in Rome with connections to various popes.

Crucifixion, fresco, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (image: Stella Arena, Maria et alia. Roma dall’Antichita al Medioevo Archeologia e Storia. Vol.1. 2001)

Although the Sinai icon does show a shift in the focus of crucifixion imagery from his everliving divine nature to his human death, it offers a complicated and potentially problematic solution to the problem of representing Christ’s dual natures. Our eyes are brought to Christ’s side through the gaze all of the other figures and angels who are steadfastly focused on the dreadful outpouring of blood and water from his body. Their attention to this sign of his death is reinforced by the bright contrast of the whites of their eyes indicating their unwavering focus on the cross. Barber suggests this depiction of his death verged on heresy by showing the death of both his human and divine natures through the two streams of blood and water. The parallel connection between this direct stream of water and blood and the water and wine transformed through the Eucharistic liturgy is self-evident. Following the flow of these elements from his body to the Virgin, we see her left hand raised, pointing to her face, and holding what appears to be a strap or chord—perhaps from her legendary girdle? Her gesture and prop need to be explained.

In the other two crucifixion images I mentioned, Longinus is shown with his name inscribed immortalizing his spearing of Christ thereby fixing this apocryphal legend into the central Christian narrative. Why not evaluate this icon in terms of its relationships with Biblical and apocryphal Crucifixion narratives? And why not probe this image to see what it tells us about sight-lines, the veneration of images, relics like the Virgin’s girdle, and Eucharistic rituals? Finally, on this icon the decoration of Christ’s robe and nimbus, and the nimbi of the angels were originally gilded. Does this evidence add anything to our understanding of this work’s function as a holy image and icon?

Works cited:

Barber, Charles. “Catalogue 4, Crucifixion with Two Thieves.” Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai. Edited by Robert Nelson. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.

Brubaker, Leslie and John Haldon. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680–850: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Corrigan, Kathleen. “Text and Image on an Icon of the Crucifixion at Mount Sinai.” The Sacred Image East and West. Edited by Robert Ousterhout and Leslie Brubaker.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.