Here is a rather unsophisticated Russian rendering of a seldom-seen icon type:
The title inscription identifies it as ОБРАЗЪ СВЯТЫХЪ ПРАОТЕТЗЪ — Obraz’ Svyatykh’ Praotets’. Obraz means “image”; Svyatykh/Svyatuikh means “of the Holy” in its plural form; and Praotets’ here means “Forefathers,” but in English we would customarily say “Patriarchs.”
Who are they? The identifying inscriptions in their halos tell us. From left to right they are Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob, the Old Testament figures whose stories are related in the book of Genesis. Abraham was the ancestral patriarch, and his son was Isaac, and Isaac’s son was Jacob.
This icon shows the three as old men sitting on a bench in Paradise (represented as a garden as indicated by the trees in the background), holding infant children in their arms, with more children behind them. This example has two infants per patriarch, while other examples may show only one in each “bosom.”
Well, that is obvious, but beyond that, what is the meaning of this icon?
It actually has its origin in the New Testament parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, as given in Luke 16. Here is the pertinent segment, which begins at Luke 16:19:
There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full of sores,
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
But Abraham said, Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented.
And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from here to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, who would come from there.
This description of Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom” is the reason for the infants held in the arms (bosoms) of the Patriarchs; they represent souls of the righteous, as does the crowd of children in the background. In iconography it is not unusual to see the soul represented as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. Symbolically this crowd of righteous clothed in white is made up of spiritual “children” — descendants of Abraham. In fact the icon of the Patriarchs in Paradise is often called simply Лоно Авраамово — Lono Avraamovo — “The Bosom of Abraham.”
In the upper background is a river of fire; that represents the region of torment separated from Paradise, in which the Rich Man was suffering in flames and asking for even a fingertip wet with water to cool his tongue, as he looked across into Paradise at Abraham and Isaac.
To finish this particular example, we see God the Father as “Lord Sabaoth” in a circle at the top, and in the side borders are name-saint of members of the family that originally owned this icon. At left is Venerable nun Evdokia (Eudocia), and at right the very popular female martyr Paraskovi (Parasceva).
In iconography the parable of “The Poor Man and the Rich Man” in Luke is sometimes depicted more literally, in which case only the Patriarch Abraham is seen in Paradise, holding Lazarus “in his bosom.”
Here is an example from a 14th century Dechanui (Dechani) fresco arranged vertically.
It shows Pravednuiy Avraam — “Righteous Abraham — seated in Paradise, holding a whole crowd of little souls in his bosom. There is a wall around Paradise, and a six-winged Seraph stands guard at the closed gate.