The Skull at the Foot of the Cross

The Passion is one of the most important moments to us, as Christians, in the gospel. After all, it is the moment in which Christ offers up Himself as a sacrifice for us!

There are a lot of little moments that occur across scripture that foretell of the Passion, a lot of details in all four gospels about the Passion, and a lot of traditions passed on. So, it is no surprise that artworks that depict the Passion tend to be chock full of detail and symbolism!

For instance! Check out this painting, by Andrea Mantegna:

Crucifixion, by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1457-59. The Louvre, Paris, France. Via
Crucifixion, by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1457-59. The Louvre, Paris, France.

There’s a lot going on! You have the women mourning at the foot of the cross, including Mary, the Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene. You have the centurions throwing dice for the robe, as well as one centurion that is holding the spear which may pierce Jesus’ side. You have Jerusalem in the background.

But one symbolism that always confused me was the skull. Right at the base of the cross is a skull, which looks like it’s about to be drenched in the blood of Jesus. Nor is this an uncommon scene in art depicting the Crucifixion! There many icons, especially in Eastern icons, which depict a skull at the base of the cross. Sometimes, even, the blood of Christ would be dripping down on the skull.

So, what did this mean? Was it an allusion to the fact that Christ was killed on Golgotha, which means the place of the skull? Was it an allusion to the phrase, “Memento mori” or, in English, “Remember that you have to die”?

Strangely enough, it is neither of those things! It is the skull of Adam!

See, there is a tradition that Calvary is near where Adam was buried. There is an ancient Jewish tradition that Adam was buried just outside of the place where Jerusalem is. St. Jerome, all the way back in 386 A.D., wrote in a letter that Adam was buried near Christ. Legend holds that the skull of Adam was lifted up in the earthquake that happened after the crucifixion. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre — which is the Church that is right on Calvary — has a chapel for Adam exactly one floor below the altar of the crucifixion.

So, why is this such a big deal?

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they created original sin, which cursed all the generations after them. That might seem a little harsh for God to do — to punish the children for the parents’ sin. But, it’s what naturally happens to us anyway. If I, being pregnant, drink buckets of wine, I will probably physically hurt my unborn child and the rest of the generations after will be affected. If someone (heaven forbid!) abuses their child, it is very likely that their child will carry the scars of that trauma and those scars will be passed on through generations. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that this original sin has cursed us all! In fact, I would be surprised if it hadn’t had any lingering effects and only cursed Adam and Eve!

But, with Jesus, the new Adam, that changes. His blood washes us all clean from this original sin and we are free to be with God in paradise once more. And so, when you see depictions of the skull at Jesus’ feet, it is an extra reminder that we are redeemed and that our sins are washed clean, thanks to Jesus.

Furthermore, it is a reminder that the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New Testament. Though we all have fallen short because of sin, God will always be there for us.

Dear Jesus,

Thank You for Your sacrifice, for it is through that sacrifice that we are all redeemed. Let us unite ourselves with You so that we may be with You in paradise.




Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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