The “Myrrh-bearing Women” is a variation on a very old subject in Christian art. Essentially it depicts three (or more) women coming to the tomb of Jesus on “Easter” morning, the morning of the resurrection. What is believed to be a very early painting of this motif (there is some disagreement) still exists as a wall fragment from the little church at Dura Europos, in what is now Syria, which was built about 233-256 c.e. It apparently depicts, at left, either a tomb or a rudimentary sarcophagus with a triangular lid, and at least three women (perhaps originally as many as five — the painting is damaged) approaching from the right, candles or torches in hand. What is either the rising sun or a star is seen just to the right of the tomb. This wall painting, as well as the other paintings in the house Church at Dura Europos, were not “icons” as later found in Eastern Orthodoxy. They were simply illustrations of biblical narratives, in spirit quite like the paintings on the Jewish synagogue of the same time and place, though the house church paintings were less sophisticated.
We have similar, though not identical elements in this Russian icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women. At left is an angel sitting on a rock (rolled away from the tomb entrance in the New Testament accounts). Beside him is a lidless sarcophagus, empty except for linen graveclothes, and to the right stand the three women, listening to the angel. As background elements we have hills at left and right, beyond which is seen the walled city of Jerusalem. The tomb itself is shown as a cave, with a stone sarcophagus lying outside it, though we are to understand that it is within the cave. The sarcophagus is depicted in the old manner of abstract perspective, in which a flat object is tilted toward the viewer, with the height at the back greater than that at the front. This method is often incorrectly described as “reverse perspective.”
It all seems very simple and straightforward, but actually this simple scene is an adaptation, a careful selection of elements from the disparate biblical accounts of the resurrection, which do not tell exactly the same story and are not compatible with one another either in the list of women visiting the tomb, which ranges from Mary Magdalene alone to more than three, nor do they agree in why women came or what they saw or were told when they arrived. That, of course, is because the biblical accounts are hagiography, not accurate history. Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, combines biblical accounts with tradition to come up with no less than eight myrrh-bearing women, though all are not always depicted in icons.
The gospel called “Matthew” tells us that the women came only “to see” the tomb. Nothing about bringing any “myrrh,” no spices to anoint the body at all. And in the gospel called “John,” only one woman, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, again bringing no spices, and it is revealed that there would have been no point in her doing so, because the body had already been anointed before entombment with “100 pounds” of spices. The Gospel called “Luke” tells us that in spite of having witnessed the entombment, women prepared spices and brought them to the tomb on “Easter” morning. “Mark,” like “Luke,” tells us that women came to the tomb with spices (the general view is that “Luke” adapted, with variations, his account from that of “Mark”; for an interesting different view, see http://markusvinzent.blogspot.com/search/label/Luke).
Taken together, in fact, the resurrection narratives of the New Testament are so incompatible in details that “fundamentalist” attempts to harmonize them only lead to such bizarre scenarios and so many comings and goings of people to the tomb on Easter morning that I used to joke that they should have installed a traffic light. But my point here is not to go into all of that, interesting as it is, but rather just to point out that the image of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” takes the “spice bringing” motif only from Mark and Luke, leaving aside the quite incompatible accounts of Matthew and John, in which no women who come to the tomb bring spices.
Let’s take a look at the title inscription at the top of the icon:
It is written in the vyaz (“joined”) calligraphic manner, which in English we may call a “condensed” inscription. It reads ЖЕНЫ МИРОНОСИЦЫ, ZHENI MIRONOSITSY, literally “WOMEN MYRRH-BEARING.”
As we have seen, in the gospel called “of John,” only one woman comes to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection — Mary Magdalene. We are not told why she comes — after all, we are told in chapter 19 that the body of Jesus had already been anointed with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes when it was laid in the tomb — only that she came early, while it was still dark. She finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, and she runs to tell Peter “and the other disciple.” They see the empty tomb, then go away again, but Mary remains, and has an encounter with a man she thinks is the gardener, but who turns out to be the risen Jesus. So in John, Mary Magdalene is the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.
Here is an icon of her:
We can tell from the corner pieces, the foliage pattern in the outer border, and the ornate gilt background that this is an icon in the style of the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century. Mary holds a vessel of “myrrh” in her right hand, in keeping with one of her traditional titles — мироносица —mironositsa — “Myrrh-bearer.”
The title inscription reads:
“Image of Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene.”
In Eastern Orthodoxy, Mary Magdalene is the foremost among women given the “Equal-to-the-Apostles” title, which is given those who are believed to have equaled the Apostles in their spreading of the Christian message. The other biblical woman given this title is (oddly enough) the so-called “Woman at the Well” of the Gospel of John, chapter 4, whom tradition gives the name Фотина — Photina in Russia (Svetlana in Russian translation) and Φωτεινή — Photeini/Photini in Greek. She was provided with an elaborate, fictionalized biography that has her later dying as a martyr under Nero in Rome.