WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

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:

https://www.sinaiarchive.org/s/mpa/item/20807#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-4115%2C288%2C13919%2C8756

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:

Strastnaya4partNovgorodend15thcent

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.

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