Unless you are new here, you should certainly know who this fellow is:

Благоразумныйразбойник(Moscow State United Art Historical, Architectural, and Natural Landscape Museum Reserve Kolomenskoye)

Yes, he is, as the title inscription says, BLAGORAZUMNUIY RAZBOINIK RAKH  / БЛАГОРАЗУМНЫ РАЗБОЙНИК РАХЬ — “THE WISE THIEF RAKH,” better known in the West simply as “The Repentant Thief.”

This particular icon is from the middle of the 17th century, which you may recall was a turbulent time in Russian Orthodoxy, when it split into two factions:  the State Church, which had the support of the Tsar, and the Old Believers, who kept the traditional church rituals and practices and texts instead of adopting the very controversial changes instituted by Patriarch Nikon in 1653, and consequently were severely persecuted.

As you have learned from previous postings here about him, Rakh may be recognized by his beard, by his wearing only a loincloth, and by the cross he carries.  And as in this icon, he is often depicted surrounded by flowering plants or shrubs that represent the Paradise Garden, in keeping with the promise of Jesus to Rakh at the Crucifixion:  “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  You will find those previous posting here:


And here:


We find the story of Rakh’s entry into Paradise in the Gospel of Nicodemus, also known in Greek as the Πράξεις Πιλάτου / Praxeis Pilatou) — “The Acts of Pilate.”  It is a work generally dated in its known form to approximately the 4th or 5th century.

Here is the portion giving the relevant account:


Then the Lord holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the Archangel; and he led them into Paradise, filled with mercy and glory;

2 And two very ancient men met them, and were asked by the saints, Who are you, who have not yet been with us in Hades, and have had your bodies placed in Paradise?

3 One of them answering, said, I am Enoch, who was translated by the word of God; and this man who is with me, is Elijah the Tishbite, who was translated in a fiery chariot.

4 Here we have so far been, and have not tasted death, but are now about to return at the coming of Antichrist, being armed with divine signs and miracles, to engage with him in battle, and to be slain by him at Jerusalem, and to be taken up alive again into the clouds, after three days and a half.

5 And while the holy Enoch and Elias were relating this, behold, there came another man as a miserable figure carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulders.

6 And when all the saints saw him, they said to him, Who are you? For your countenance is like a thief’s; and why do you carry a cross on your shoulders?

7 To which he answered, saying, You say right, for I was a thief who committed all sorts of wickedness upon earth.

8 And the Jews crucified me with Jesus; and I observed the surprising things which happened in the creation at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.

9 And I believed him to be the Creator of all things, and the Almighty King; and I prayed to him, saying, Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.

10 He presently regarded my plea, and said to me, Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.

11 And he gave me this sign of the cross saying, Carry this, and go to Paradise; and if the angel who is the guard of Paradise will not admit you, show him the sign of the cross, and say to him: Jesus Christ who is now crucified, has sent me here to you.

12 When I did this, and told the angel who is the guard of Paradise all these things, and he heard them, he presently opened the gates, introduced me, and placed me on the right-hand in Paradise,

13 Saying, Stay here a little time, till Adam, the father of all mankind, shall enter in with all his sons, who are the holy and righteous servants of Jesus Christ, who was crucified.

14 When they heard all this account from the thief, all the patriarchs said with one voice, Blessed be You, O Almighty God, the Father of everlasting goodness, and the Father of mercies, who has shown such favor to those who were sinners against him, and have brought them to the mercy of Paradise, and have placed them amid thy large and spiritual provisions, in a spiritual and holy life. Amen.

I hope you remember from a previous posting that the name Rakh is found nowhere in the Bible, and not used in Greek Orthodoxy either, but seems to have originated in a misreading of a Church Slavic title inscription for the “Wise Thief in Paradise.”



In the previous posting we looked at an icon of the Приведение ко Кресту — the “Bringing to the Cross.” 

Here is another icon, this time Greek, dating to about 1200.  It too is a “Bringing to the Cross” type:

Bringing to the CrossGreekc1200

Like the Russian examples, it depicts the bound Jesus being led to the cross.  Beside him are soldiers and an attendant holding the rope.  At right is a pharisee, John the Theologian (the disciple John), and Mary.  But notice the little fellow at lower right, still busy hammering in a wedge to support the cross in place.  he is a link to the next type we shall examine.

It is a Russian icon from near the end of the 1400s — another uncommon type — the Утверждение Креста / Utverzhdenie Kresta).  Utverzhdenie is a word with a wide range of meanings, including “affirmation” and “approval.”  In biblical use it tends to mean “ground” or “position.”  For the sake of clarity here, it is perhaps best to call the type simply the “Placing of the Cross.”  This icon was originally in the iconostasis of the Dormition Cathedral of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in northern Russia.


Note all the little holes in the surface, indications that the icon was once covered with a basma — an early form of metal cover.

It depicts the hill of Golgotha.  At right is a gathering of Jewish figures, and in the center two workmen are busy installing the cross on which Jesus is to be crucified.  There is also the outline of another figure at far left no longer visible.

Now the significance of all this for students of iconography is that these images make clear the distinction between traditional Eastern Orthodox and modern Western notions of how Jesus was crucified.  You have perhaps seen one or another biblical movie in which Jesus is nailed to a cross lying on the ground, which is then raised with Jesus on it.  But in Eastern Orthodoxy (and in some early western European art and literature), Jesus climbs up onto the already erected cross, and then is nailed to it.  It is that previously erected cross we see in the “Placing of the Cross” type.

We should also note that in post-Medieval western European images of the crucifixion, the feet of Jesus are often nailed with a single nail — one foot behind the other.  This is something that began to appear in the 13th century.  But in Eastern Orthodoxy, there are two “feet” nails — one for each foot, and an additional two nails — one for each hand, making four nails in all that were used, unlike the three nails often found in later western European art.  If you look at the Greek image above, you can clearly see the four nails temporarily stuck into the footboard, waiting to be used.


A reader recently asked me to identify the cross bearers in a 17th century icon at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, which you will find via this link:


It depicts three men carrying crosses — two fully clothed and one in a loincloth — and other figures to the left.

The confusion as to their identity arose because the painter of the Sinai icon did not depict the subject well.  Instead of showing only one cross bearer in a loincloth, there should have been two in loincloths, and the third fully clothed man would then complete the trio correctly. 

Seen that way, one can tell that the figures at left are the bound Jesus being led by what should be a Roman soldier (though the fellow does not look at all like a Roman soldier in this icon), and behind him some Pharisees.  And of course the figures on the right are the two “thieves” who were crucified with Jesus, and with them Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry the cross of Jesus.

Do not be surprised that the crosses they carry are a completely unrealistic size:  they are more just symbols here than any attempt at realism.  We often find the same thing — a ridiculously small cross — in icons of the feast of the Elevation of the Cross.

If we now look at this central image on Russian icon from near the end of the 1400s, we get a much more sensible depiction of the same type than in the later Sinai example. The type in both is the “Bringing to the Cross” (Приведение ко Кресту/Privedenie ko krestu):

(Andrei Rublov Central Museum of Old Russian Culture and Art, Moscow)

In the background we see the walls of Jerusalem at left and a stylized hill at right, this icon’s version of the standard “hills and palaces” so common in Russian icons. And in the foreground we see Jesus at left. His hands are bound with a red cord, and he is being led by three Roman soldiers with rather fantastic headgear. Behind Jesus are the “three Marys” — Mary the mother of Jesus (identified here as “Mother of God”), Mary Magdalene, and Mary wife of of Clopas/Cleophas.

At right we see Simon of Cyrene bearing the cross of Jesus. He is fully clothed. And beside him — correctly represented with a loincloth in this icon, unlike in the Sinai example — is the unrepentant thief, and on the far right is Rakh, the repentant thief, who has such an important place in Russian iconography. And as in the Sinai example, the crosses they bear are unrealistically small.

It is more common in Eastern Orthodox iconography to find depictions of Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha than examples of the “Bringing to the Cross” type, but nonetheless they do appear occasionally.  Here is another example of the type in the lower left quarter of a four-part “Passion” Novgorod icon from around the end of the 15th century — roughly the same period as the icon above:


This example omits both Pharisees and the “three Marys,” showing only the bound Jesus led by Roman soldiers, and again the fully clothed Simon of Cyrene, the unrepentant thief in his loincloth, and the repentant thief Rakh at right in his loincloth.  Rakh is easily identified because the unrepentant thief is traditionally beardless in Russian icons, and Rakh has a beard.



Here is a modern Romanian image from the Monastery of the Holy Imperials Constantin and Elena (Constantine and Helen):

It depicts Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu (1654 – August 15, 1714) of Wallachia and his sons Constantin, Stefan, Radu, and Matei. With them at far left is Enache Văcărescu (1654–1714) Grand Treasurer of Wallachia. All suffered and were martyred in a horrific beheading by the Ottoman Turks in Istanbul (Constantinople) in 1714.

First you should know that Wallachia was a principality in what is now Romania. It was known in Romanian as Țara Românească — “The Romanian Land.” Wallachia was south of Transylvania and Moldova, as seen in this map:

Romania has always suffered from invaders.  In 1415 the principality of Wallachia became a tributary state to the Ottoman Empire (the Muslim Ottoman Turks), a condition known as suzerainty.  It remained under Ottoman domination until the 19th century.

Constantin Brâncoveanu  was Prince of Wallachia from 1688-1714.  He is credited with bringing a kind of cultural renaissance to the principality.  During the Russo-Turkish War of 1710-1711, he attempted to create a secret, anti-Ottoman Coalition with Tsar Peter the Great of Russia.  Apparently, Constantin tried to play both sides — hoping for successful Russian intervention against the Ottomans, but having a backup plan to support the Ottoman side if the first plan proved unsuccessful.  Unfortunately the Ottoman Sultan — Ahmed III — discovered what was happening, and had Prince Constantin arrested and taken to Istanbul, along with his sons and his treasurer.  There the Sultan had Constantin tortured to find the location and amount of his wealth.

From the Christian perspective, while under arrest Constantin and his sons and treasurer friend were pressured to abandon Christianity for Islam and thereby save their lives.  It is said that Constantin steadily refused.

His youngest son Matei — then only 11 or 12 — was so terrified at seeing his brothers beheaded that he begged his father in tears to let him become a Muslim and live. His father, however, told him in so many words that it was better to die than convert, and so Matei was killed as well.  Thus Prince Constantin, Stefan Radu and Matei and the treasurer Enache Văcărescu were all beheaded.  The bodies were tossed into the Bosporus but were later retrieved by Christian fishermen and placed in a monastery.

If we look closely at the depiction of Matei, we see that he holds the cross of martyrdom is his right and and in his left a scroll that reads in Romanian, Vreau si eu să mor creştin! — “I too want to die a Christian.”


Constantin and his sons and treasurer were “glorified” — declared saints — by the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1992.



This pleasant and obviously recent icon in a beautifully enameled riza is called in Russia the Stragovskaya, but its origins are not Russian.  As you have perhaps noticed by now, when there is much gentleness in icons of Mary, it often means Western European influence, and that is again the case here.  The Stragovskaya icon actually takes its name from an earlier image kept in the Strahov Monastery near Prague in the Czech Republic.  The Strahov Monastery was founded in the 12th century.


Here is that earlier Strahov Monastery image, an example of Bohemian art of the 14th century, which gives Mary both a crown and a headcovering.


Now if you look closely at the right hand of Jesus in both the earlier and later images, there is a goldfinch pecking at his thumb.  The goldfinch is a bird often found in Western European religious art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Its presence in icons of Mary with the child Jesus can be traced to the belief that when Jesus was on his way to the Crucifixion, the goldfinch pecked thorns from the crown of thorns impaled on his brow.  In doing so, the head of the goldfinch became stained red with Jesus’ blood.  So the goldfinch became associated, in religious symbolism, with the Passion of Jesus and the redemption of humans, as Christian belief would have it.  Of course to folklorists, this is just another example of the “origin story” of one thing or another — such as why the robin has a red breast, or why the crow is black.  The association of the goldfinch with the crown of thorns likely had its origin when people saw the goldfinch pecking at the seed heads on thistles and the spiny teasel.


Here is one of many examples of the goldfinch in religious art, seen in a 14th century Madonna and Child by Italian painter Taddeo di Bartolo: