By Margaret English Frazer
Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 9 (1974)
Introduction: A Byzantine ivory carved with the crucifixion of Christ has long been considered one of the treasures of the medieval collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Adolph Goldschmidt and Kurt Weitzmann published it as the central plaque of a triptych of the tenth century and characterized its lively narrative style as “painterly.” In its masterly execution it is similar to the ivories of the Koimesis in Munich, the Entry into Jerusalem in Berlin, and the Nativity in the British Museum. The plaque’s iconography is unique among surviving Byzantine representations of the Crucifixion. While the mourning Virgin, St. John, the two angels, and the three soldiers divid- ing Christ’s garment are frequent witnesses to Christ’s sacrifice for mankind, the bearded reclining man stabbed by the cross is found only on this ivory. He was identified in the late nineteenth century by Gustave Schlumberger as Hades, unfortunately without documentation; but modern scholars, for example Kurt Weitzmann, believe him to be Adam. This article will present evidence to support Schlumberger’s earlier identification and to show that Hades’ presence transforms this representation of Christ’s crucifixion into a celebration of the triumph of his cross and his victory over Death.
The difference in the identification of the reclining figure stems from various sources. The inscription flanking the figure is ambiguous: the cross implanted in the stomach of Adou. Abou can be read either as Hades or Hell or Adam. Weitzmann’s preference for the latter probably stems from the well-established imagery of the skull of Adam depicted buried in the Hill of Golgotha, the place of the skull, beneath the cross. The legend that Christ was crucified over the grave of Adam was early promulgated by Christian theologians. Athanasius describes Christ as being “crucified in no other place but the Place of the Skull where Jewish doctors say was the tomb of Adam. For it is fitting that the Savior, wanting to renew the first Adam, suffered precisely in that place, in order that, atoning for his sin, he removes it from all his race.”