Icon researchers have their pet mysteries — unanswered questions about icons or icon painting that tend to frequently occupy their thoughts.  For me, one of these bothersome unanswered questions was for a long time the origin of the name Rakh.

Who is Rakh?  Well, in Russian iconography he is the Repentant Thief, the fellow crucified next to Jesus, as the tale is told in the 23rd chapter of the Gospel called “of Luke” (no one really knows who wrote it).  And of course Luke just calls him a “malefactor,” κακουργος — kakourgos, meaning one who does bad, a criminal — not specifically a thief, which notion arises elsewhere.

32 And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death.

 33 And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left…

 39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

 40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?

 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

 42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

 43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Now interestingly, this account disagrees with that of Matthew.  In Matthew 27 we are told that two thieves (lestai) were crucified with Jesus, but neither is repentant:

43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.

 44The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.

The earliest gospel — that called “of Mark” — also has thieves, but in Mark (chapter 15) they are simply there to fulfil  supposed prophecy.  They neither scorn Jesus nor does either “repent”:

27 And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.

28 And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.

Now interestingly enough, the Greek word used in Mark and Matthew for the two “thieves” crucified with Jesus is λησταί/lestai (in the form λῃστάς/lestas in Mark), which in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus is the term commonly used for Jewish rebels against Rome, who likely had robbery as part of their anti-Roman activities.  So it is possible that instead of  simply “thieves,” we should understand the two crucified with Jesus to be anti-Roman rebels.  In the Gospel of John, the Barabbas who was released in place of Jesus is called a λῃστής/lestes, so it is very possible that he also was an anti-Roman rebel.

However, regarding the crucifixion, the gospel called “of John” (chapter 19) merely mentions two other people being crucified with Jesus.  It tells us nothing whatsoever about them:

17 And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha:

18 Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.

So we see that only “Luke” tells us that one of the two crucified with Jesus was repentant, though he does not specify that the penitent was a thief.  And that, combined with calling the two crucified with Jesus “thieves” in Matthew and Mark, along with the following from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, are the sources for icons of the Repentant Thief:

5  Then Pilate commanded the veil to be drawn before the judgement-seat whereon he sat, and saith unto Jesus: Thy nation hath convicted thee (accused thee) as being a king: therefore have I decreed that thou shouldest first be scourged according to the law of the pious emperors, and thereafter hanged upon the cross in the garden wherein thou wast taken: and let Dysmas and Gestas the two malefactors be crucified with thee…

2  And one of the malefactors that were hanged [by name Gestas] spake unto him, saying: If thou be the Christ, save thyself, and us. But Dysmas answering rebuked him, saying: Dost thou not at all fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? and we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus: Remember me, Lord, in thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, that today thou shalt be (art) with me in paradise.

It does not take much thought to realize that we are not dealing with history, but rather with hagiography — pious writings written for a purpose other than literal history.  People often just “made things up.”  But what we should note in these excerpts for our purposes here is that first, only one biblical gospel, that of Luke, tells us that one of the malefactors crucified with Jesus was “repentant” and was promised paradise.  Second, we should note that this “repentant thief” is not named.  Third, we find a similar, though somewhat elaborated story in the Gospel of Nicodemus, in which the repentant thief is given the name Dysmas, generally spelled Dismas.

That is the name we find, for example, on the title of the missing figure at right on this remnant of a 9th century Crucifixion icon from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai.  We see the still remaining image and title of Gestas at left:

Now we might logically expect to find, on Russian icons of the Repentant Thief, an identifying inscription such as “The Holy Repentant Thief Dismas,” or something similar.  But this is where the mystery comes in.  Russian icons do not call him Dismas.  They call him Rakh.  What makes this name even more puzzling is that the Greeks, from whom the Russians inherited a great many iconographic types, do not call the thief Rakh or even anything remotely similar.

How, then, did this name arise?

That mystery has puzzled me for decades, but finally I came across what seems a logical answer. The credit for this goes to Thomas Daiber (Daiber, Thomas (2008): Zum Bildmotiv des reumütigen Räubers. // Gerstenlauer, Renate (ed.): Die Rach-Ikone. Entdeckung der wahren Identität (The Rakh Icon: Discovery of its True Identity). Tübingen, 132-138).

There — again thanks to Thomas Daiber — one finds the most reasonable explanation to date.  He explains that it likely arose from a misreading of a title inscription, which was then perpetuated in titles given new icons of the Penitent Thief.  Here is how it may have happened.

In Russian the title of the Penitent Thief is generally:


In Cyrillic it looks like this:


Daiber theorizes that the Russian title may have come from a garbled reading [possibly due to damage of the inscription or unclear writing] of the title of a particular icon type of the Penitent Thief that is called “The Wise/Prudent Thief in Paradise,” written in Cyrillic as


It is in the last three words that the problem seems to have occurred.  Instead of reading them as РАЗБОЙНИК В РАЮ, they were somehow misread as РАЗБОЙНИК РАХ, which could easily have happened if the inscription had been damaged, with the В disappearing and the word РАЮ — “paradise” — misread as РАХ — “Rakh,” with the transliteration “kh” pronounced as the gutteral “ch” in the German name Bach.  Rakh rhymes with Bach.

This suggested solution to the problem of the origin of the mysterious name for the Penitent Thief — a name that appeared to have been pulled out of nowhere by Russian icon painters — seems very likely to be the solution to the mystery that pestered my mind for many long years.

Russian icon with 5 themes. Fragment: Good Fel...

I hope the reader has noticed by now that icons have a very spotted history.  In this case, the Penitent Thief arose because one gospel writer — whom we now call Luke — somehow got the idea that one of the two thieves mentioned in the Gospel of Mark should have repented.  Where he got this idea we do not know, because Matthew obviously did not hold the same view.  And then, some three hundred years later, this thief was given the name Dismas in the Gospel of Nicodemus.  There are also other variant names in circulation from other apocryphal works, but only Dismas seems to have stuck.  The noted exception, of course, being Russian iconography, where many centuries later he was named Rakh, apparently due to a mistake.  It is all a rather touchy, haphazard business, but that is how religious stories and traditions arise.  One should not take them too literally.

In Russian iconography, Rakh may be found in his own icons, carrying a cross.  He is also a notable figure in Russian icons of the Resurrection, which in its traditional version is Christ’s descent into Hades, also taken from apocryphal sources.  In that icon Rakh is at the head of a long line of saints winding up from Hades to the Gates of Paradise, and Rakh is generally the first at the door (I will probably discuss this type in some future posting).  Some icons also show him within paradise, still holding his cross, thus a variant of the title inscription discussed above — “The Wise/Prudent Thief Rakh in Paradise.”  Such icons have lots of odd little “Dr. Seuss-like” trees around Rakh, as in the example at the top of this page.

Here is a 14th century example from the Gračanica Monastery, Serbia:

The inscription reads:


Interestingly, the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel of the Savior traces the thieves crucified with Jesus back to the story of the Flight to Egypt after the birth of Jesus.  In it, thieves named Titus and Dumachus accost Joseph and Mary on their way:

And turning away from this place, they came to a desert; and hearing that it was infested by robbers, Joseph and the Lady Mary resolved to cross this region by night. But as they go along, behold, they see two robbers lying in the way, and along with them a great number of robbers, who were their associates, sleeping. Now those two robbers, into whose hands they had fallen, were Titus and Dumachus. Titus therefore said to Dumachus: I beg you to let these persons go freely, and so that our comrades may not see them. And as Dumachus refused, Titus said to him again: Take to yourself forty drachmas from me, and hold this as a pledge. At the same time he held out to him the belt which he had about his waist, to keep him from opening his mouth or speaking. And the Lady Mary, seeing that the robber had done them a kindness, said to him: The Lord God will sustain you by His right hand, and will grant you remission of your sins. And the Lord Jesus answered, and said to His mother: Thirty years hence, O my mother, the Jews will crucify me at Jerusalem, and these two robbers will be raised upon the cross along with me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left; and after that day Titus shall go before me into Paradise. And she said: God keep this from you, my son. And they went from there towards a city of idols, which, as they came near it, was changed into sand-hills.

The Arabic Infancy Gospel — also called the Syriac Infancy Gospel — may have originated as early as the 500s, though the earliest surviving manuscript is from 1299.

I could not possibly end this little discussion without mentioning that the home town of Bill and Ted in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is San Dimas, California — and San Dimas is just the Spanish form of Saint Dismas, the old name of the Repentant Thief in the Gospel of Nicodemus.  Life is strange.  And the holy word according to Bill and Ted saith “Be excellent to each other.”



One of the oldest existing icons — generally dated to the 6th century — is this icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai.  It is commonly called the Sinai Pantokrator.  Pantokrator in Greek means literally “Ruler of All,” but its equivalent in ordinary English is simply “Almighty.”

There are two important things to note about this early icon.  First, unlike both the Russian and Greek icon traditions in general, it is not “stylized,” not abstract.  So we can see that abstraction for its own sake was not characteristic of all early icons.

The second important thing to note is that if one divides the face down the middle vertically, one is left with two distinct depictions:  the Christ on the left of the painting is mild and pleasant:


But Christ on the right side of the painting is severe and angry-looking:


The consensus is that the painter intended precisely that:  the two sides of Christ, one the good Savior with his hand raised in blessing; the other the severe Judge, book in hand.  If one looks at a large example of the image, it is easy to see that even the manner of applying the strokes of pigment was quite different from side to side.

In an earlier posting I mentioned that the earliest Christians had really no idea at all what Jesus looked like.  But gradually, over time, the image as shown here began to take precedence over another type in circulation that depicted Jesus with short, frizzy hair and a sharper chin.  But neither image — in fact no image existing then and now — is authentic.  They all, like the popular Protestant depictions of Jesus by Warner Sallman, come from the mind of the painter.  To put it bluntly, they are imaginary portraits.



Christmas is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox year.  But for those familiar with the Western European Christmas, the traditional Eastern Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Jesus is likely to seem disappointing and somewhat gloomy in appearance.  Here is an example — circa 1500 — from the Rostov-Suzdal School:


It has the usual elements:

The baby Jesus lies in a stylized cave, wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a long manger box.  Beside him are an ass and an ox, derived from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”

The “divine light” coming down from heaven in the top center of many such icons represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi.

Mary is lying on her pallet, with her face serious and turned away both from Joseph and the child Jesus.  She looks rather unhappy about the whole affair, and that is typical of this icon type, whether Russian or Greek, though the “accepted” interpretation is that she is absorbed in pondering matters.

At lower left, we see the husband, Joseph, sitting in deep thought, often with his chin resting on his left hand.  He too looks worried, and with reason.  According to Russian folk tradition, the shaggily-dressed shepherd standing beside Joseph and talking to him is actually the Devil in disguise.  He is trying to talk Joseph into doubting the virgin birth.  And from the looks of this icon, Joseph seems in a mood to buy what the Devil is selling.  This identification of the shepherd with the Devil is obviously not the case in all Nativity icons — not even in Russia

In the upper part of the icon are angels — who vary in number from example to example — announcing the birth to a shepherd or shepherds.  On the left, we see in older icons the three Magi (“Wise Men”) arriving on their horses across the hills, though later icons often show them as having arrived at the manger.  The Magi would actually have been astrologers.  The Slavic text of Matthew calls them Volsvi, which relates to the modern Russian word volshebstvo, meaning “magic.”

Icons tend to ignore chronology, mixing a number of related scenes together, and that is what we often see in Nativity icons, with the angelic annunciation to the shepherds combined with the arrival of the Magi.  We see another such “out of time” incident in the usual element of the midwife washing the Christ Child after his birth (she is known as Zelomi in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew).  Her helper Salome is pouring the water for washing into the basin.

We know from the apocryphal story that Salome doubted the perpetual virginity of Mary (a dogma of Eastern Orthodoxy), and even tried to physically check Mary out with her hand to determine the truth.  Salome was punished for her “scientific” research by the withering of her hand, but then, as these stories usually go, she repented and her hand was healed, as we read in the source of this tale, the Protoevangelion of James:

And the midwife went in and said unto Mary: Order thyself, for there is no small contention arisen concerning thee. And Salome made trial and cried out and said: Woe unto mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God, and lo, my hand falleth away from me in fire. And she bowed her knees unto the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob: make me not a public example unto the children of Israel, but restore me unto the poor, for thou knowest, Lord, that in thy name did I perform my cures, and did receive my hire of thee. 3 And lo, an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath hearkened to thee: bring thine hand near unto the young child and take him up, and there shall be unto thee salvation and joy.

The unspoken moral to that story was obviously, “Don’t question what we tell you, and do not examine the evidence.”  A lot of politicians today would favor that approach.

Here is another and similar example, with slight variations:


Though painted in the old manner, it has a later style inscription:


It reads (with missing letters added):

“Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Рождество/Rozhdestvo is the spelling found in modern Russian, but in Church Slavic it is written without the d as Рожество/Rozhestvo.  That is why on old icons of the Nativity, the Church Slavic inscriptions often read:

Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Literally it is [THE] BIRTH (Rozhestvo) OF THE LORD (Gospoda) OF US (Nashego) JESUS CHRIST (Isusa Khrista).  But of course in normal English we would translate it as “The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Not the cheeriest of “Christmas” images, this traditional Nativity icon type was nonetheless the prevalent depiction of the birth of Christ in Greek and in Russian iconography.  Fortunately, however, later Russian icon painting began to be influenced by the Western versions of the Nativity, and so there are many “late” (18th and 19th century) Russian icons showing a far more pleasant scene of Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus, much like scenes one finds in Italian painting.  It seems that even the Russians eventually found the traditional depiction too depressing to allow it to be the only type representing the Nativity.

As a sidelight, it is worth mentioning that the stories of the birth of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke (the other two gospels have no birth stories) differ significantly from one another, and are virtually incompatible on close examination.  Even the genealogies given in those two writings have irreconcilable differences.  Depictions of the Nativity, whether in Eastern Orthodoxy or Western Christianity, generally combine various elements of each story to make a “unified” account that is not what one actually finds in the original texts.  That artificially unified account is the common matter of traditional school and church “Christmas plays.”  And of course both Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity mixed in apocryphal details as well, though that tendency faded out in groups allied with the rise of Protestantism.