We have seen Resurrection icons here previously, but today we will look at a rather remarkable example, extraordinary in its detail and the number of related scenes included.  It is Russian, from the 19th century.

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

At the top we see a heavily abbreviated title inscription.  Here is the left side of it:

It reads in large vyaz lettering:


Notice how cleverly the left vertical of the K as been shortened at top and bottom to fit within the arms of the C (“S”).

It finishes at top right:

“[of] CHRIST”

That strange letter in the middle is the T, with the left vertical shortened to fit below the top of the P (“R”), and the right side extended into a long vertical.  Remember that in some icon inscriptions, T looks very much like an English “M.”  That is the case here, though it has the left vertical shortened.

Now you will recall (I hope) that early icons of the Resurrection depicted it as the descent of Jesus to Hades, where he releases the righteous men and women of the Old Testament from their imprisonment .  Later Russian icons, however, often add to that the “Western” image of the Resurrection — Jesus rising above his empty tomb.  And that is what we see in the center of this example.  At top is the “Western” Resurrection, and at bottom the earlier “Descent to Hades” form:

Taken as a whole, however, the icon is meant to tell the Resurrection story from the Crucifixion to the Ascension of Jesus.  It begins top left with the Crucifixion:

The smaller inscriptions identify each scene.  At top is the Raspyatie Khristovo — the “Crucifixion of Christ.”  Below that is the Snyatie so Kresta — the “Removal from the Cross.”  Then comes the Polozhenie vo Grob — the “Placing in the Tomb.”  And at the base we see that Peter has come to the tomb, and sees the linen graveclothes lying there.

Then we have to jump to the right of Jesus in the upper “Western” Resurrection, where the painter has squeezed in two more small scenes — at right the “Myrrh-bearing Women” listening to an angel at the tomb, and at left the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (as previously mentioned, this is an amalgamation of discrepant Gospel accounts of the Resurrection).

At lower left, we see the angels who have been commanded to subdue Hades, along with various devils, and the mouth of Hades depicted as the open jaws of a frightful beast — another borrowing from Western European art.

In the “Descent to Hades” form of the Resurrection, we see Jesus freeing the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve:

At right we see the long line of freed prisoners rising up to the Gates of Paradise, notable among them the “Repentant Thief” who is called Rakh in Russian icons.  He is the fellow in white pants, holding a cross.  In the lower part of this segment we see Jesus giving Rakh the cross that will be his “ticket” into Paradise:

So we see Rakh with Jesus and his cross, and above that at the Gates of Paradise, and then he is inside the Garden of Paradise with other saints and Old Testament worthies.  Note the Seraph with flaming swords who guards the gates.

Now if we look at the “Western” Resurrection, we see Jesus rising above the tomb (note the sarcophagus with the empty graveclothes).  Below him is a group of astonished Roman guards (found only in the Gospel called “of Matthew”), fallen to the ground.

At lower right we see two post-Resurrection scenes.  At top is Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and beside that the scene of their recognizing him while sitting at table, when he breaks the bread.

Below that is the scene of the resurrected Jesus meeting the disciples (that is Peter coming out of the water) at the Sea of Tiberias.

Finally, we have to jump back to the upper left side to see the small scenes of Jesus being touched by Thomas at left, Thomas bowing before him at lower left (with the other disciples), and the end of the whole tale at upper left, where the disciples and Mary, standing with angels, see Jesus ascending to heaven — the Voznesenie — the “Ascension.”

An icon such as this is, as I often say, a kind of graphic novel in paint.  A believer could move his or her eyes about the icon to follow the story, noting each incident and its participants.

As I have mentioned before, the iconography of the Resurrection is a conglomeration of elements from various sources, both biblical and extra-biblical.  And even using those sources found only within the Bible requires glossing over their incompatible discrepancies to make an attempt at a unified story.  But keep in mind that Russians — until quite recent times — were not Bible readers.  Most people were illiterate.  At the end of the 18th century, only somewhere between 1 and 12% of peasant males could read.  Around a quarter of city dwellers were literate.  Nobles had the highest literacy rates at about 84-87%, and  about 75% of merchants were literate.  By 1897, about a quarter of the population of the western part of Russia was literate, with the highest rates still among the wealthy, the nobles, merchants, and clergy, and peasants far below them.  Bibles were not easy to obtain or affordable, though the New Testament was more often to be found than the Old.  Most people learned the Bible stories through the readings in the liturgy and through the images on icons, so there was much less chance of noticing all the “holes” in the sewn-together account as seen in icons such as this one.

The spread of the New Testament in Russia was largely made possible by the efforts of Protestants, via at first the British and Foreign Bible Society — which led to a Russian Bible Society.  Even when New Testaments began to appear at affordable prices, they were often in Church Slavic, and finding a Bible also containing the Old Testament often proved difficult even into the 20th century.  The reading of the Bible in Russian rather than Church Slavic is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

In spite of all these difficulties, we nonetheless find that in the 19th century religious classic often known in English as The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim — poor as he was — mentions owning a Bible:

Я по милости Божией человек-христианин, по делам великий грешник, по званию бесприютный странник, самого низкого сословия, скитающийся с места на место. Имение мое следующее: за плечами сумка сухарей, да под пазухой Священная Библия; вот и все.

I am by the grace of God a Christian man, by my deeds a great sinner, by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth, roaming from place to place.  My belongings are the following:  on my back a knapsack of dried bread, and in my breast pocket the Holy Bible — and that is all.”


Prepare yourself.  This is a long one.

Today we will look again at the  “Major Festivals” icon type.  These commonly have the Resurrection type in the center, surrounded by icons for each of the major church festivals.  Commonly there are usually twelve festivals shown with the central Resurrection image, but some examples, like this one, show sixteen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net)
(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

First, let’s look at the central Resurrection type, which in this form is quite common in icons by the 19th century:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net)
(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

At the top is the title, Voskresenie Khristovo, “The Resurrection of Christ.”

This Resurrection type includes several scenes.  Let’s look more closely:

Here we see the Repentant Thief, called Rakh in Russia, as he comes to the Gates of Paradise.  There he is stopped by a cherub (Russians use the plural “cherubim” for the singular) with a flaming sword; but when Rakh shows his cross, the angel allows him to enter.  At left we see Rakh inside Paradise, conversing with the Old Testament persons Enoch and the Prophet Elijah.


Here the Zhenui Mironositsui — the “Myrhh-bearing Women — Come to the tomb and see an angel sitting upon the stone that has been rolled away from the entrance.


Here “the Lord” has commanded the angels to bind Satan.


Here Jesus appears after his resurrection to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.


It was common in late icons of the Resurrection to include both the “Western” and the traditional Eastern forms of the Resurrection.  Here is the “Western” form, Jesus in a mandorla of light above his tomb.


Here is the earlier Resurrection type, called “The Descent into Hades.”  Jesus, having broken down the Gates of Hades,  grasps the old Testament Patriarch Adam by the hand as Eve and other Old Testament figures are freed from Hades and begin their ascent to the Gates of Paradise.  Hades is commonly pictured in later icons such as this one as a great beast with mouth wide open, an image borrowed from Western Europe.

I have already discussed the surrounding feast day icons in a previous posting, so now let’s move on to a variation on the Major Festivals Icon:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net)
(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.ne

As you can see, the painter has added a sequence of additional images from the “Passion of Christ” cycle around the central Resurrection image.  And he has abbreviated the Resurrection type, not only leaving out the appearance of Jesus to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, but also leaving out the Thief Rakh (Rakh Razboinik) outside the Gate of Paradise, but he has nonetheless shown Enoch and Elijah within.  You will notice other omissions as well.

Here is a closer look:

And now let’s look at the “Passion” images, each identified by inscription:


The inscriptions on this top four (left to right) are:

1. “The Mystic Supper,” known as the “Last Supper” in Western Europe.

2.  “The  Lord Washes of the Feet of the Disciples”

3.  “The Prayer of the Cup of our Lord”

4.  “The Betrayal by Judas of our Lord”

Here are the two middle images on the right:

5.  “The Bringing to Pilate of our Lord”

6.  “The Placing of the Crown of Thorns”

Here are the bottom images:

7.  “The Carrying of the Cross of our Lord”

8.  “The Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ”

9.  “The Removal from the Cross of our Lord”

10.  The Placing in the Tomb of our Lord”

And here are the images in the center of the left side:

11.  “The Bringing to Caiaphas of our Lord”

12.  “The Scourging at the Pillar of our Lord”

Let’s take a quick look (well, maybe not so quick) at another “Major Festivals” variant image:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net)
(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

We can see that the central Resurrection image is very similar to the first we examined:


Let’s look at individual scenes again.  First, here is Rakh at the Gate of Paradise and inside Paradise with Enoch and Elijah:


And here is the scene of the Myrrh-Bearing Women (Mary Magdalene, Salome, and the other Mary) seeing the angel at the tomb.  But notice that just to the right of the women is an additional scene found in some examples.  The inscription tells us what it is:

“Peter Comes to the Tomb and Sees the Linen Clothes Lying.”  It is Peter entering the tomb of Jesus and finding the empty linen graveclothes:

Below the Myrrh-Bearing Women, we see the scene identified by inscription as “The Lord Commands the Angels to Bind Satan and to Beat Him Mercilessly”:

Here is this icon’s version of the “Descent into Hades.”  Jesus, standing on the fallen Gates of Hades, grasps Adam by the hand as Eve bows, and behind her stand the Old Testament righteous women Rachel and Sarah:


And here is a look at the “Jesus Appears to his Disciples at the Sea of Tiberias” scene.  We see the apostles John and James (Iakov) in the boat, and Peter has jumped into the sea to get quickly to Jesus on the shore:


Finally, we will end today’s discussion with a look at four of the bottom images in the third “Major Festivals” icon variant.  Perhaps you noticed that they do not seem to fit with the rest in the outer border.  You are right; they do not.  They were probably added at the request of the customer who ordered the icon.  Let’s take a closer look (and no doubt you are glad that we are finally near the end of this posting):

First, here is the image at bottom left.  You probably recognize him as one of the most popular of Russian saints.  His title inscription at left reads Svyatuiy Nikolae Chu[dotvorets] — “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.”  And by the way, the little guy at lower left is one of the Four Evangelists in the outer corners of this icon (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John); this one is Mark:


Yes, we have finally reached the last images.  Here they are:

The two saints at left are identified by title inscriptions as

1.  Svyatuiy Svyashchenomuchenik Kharlampiy — “Holy Priest-Martyr Kharlampy” (Kharalampios)

2.  Svyatuiy Veliko Muchenik Ioann Voin’ — “Holy Great Martyr John the Warrior”

The third image is a well-known Marian icon:

3.  Pecherskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Pecherskaya Most Holy Mother of God.”  She is shown with saints Antoniy Pecherskiy and Feodosiy (Theodosius) Pecherskiy standing beside her.

4.  Svyatuiy Prepodobnuiy Sergiy Radonezhskiy Chudotvorets –“Holy Venerable Sergiy of Radonezh, Wonderworker.”  Sergiy is another of the most popular Russian saints.  He is shown here standing at the tomb of his mother Maria and father Kirill, both of whom became monastics.  They had asked him to wait to become a monk until they had both died.

I could talk in much greater detail about the icons shown here, but even the most enthusiastic readers of information on icons can only endure so much at a given time.

Now you can lean back, rest your eyes, perhaps sip a nice cup of herbal tea, and wonder why you ever got involved with icons and their interpretation.



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.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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:

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

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.


The image below is a wall painting from the Khora Church complex in Istanbul (Kariye Camii), and dates from the 14th century. It depicts the most important event in the Eastern Orthodox Church year, the Resurrection. It will look strange to most Americans or Western Europeans, because the iconic form of the Resurrection originally preferred in Eastern Orthodoxy was actually the event known in the West as the “Descent into Hell” or more colorfully, “The Harrowing of Hell.”

(Photo: Wikipedia)
(Photo: Wikipedia)

The Khora fresco is painted in the “Byzantine” or Greek manner, not surprisingly, given that the church complex is in what was once Constantinople. But I want to concentrate more on its textual origins and iconography.

Where did such an image of Resurrection originate? Well, it is very loosely based on lines from the New Testament book called I Peter, Chapter 3, verses 18-20 (no one really knows who wrote I Peter, or precisely when):

18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

That is certainly vague enough. To find a more detailed origin of the Resurrection iconography however, we must look to a later apocryphal work (what we would call today a “forgery”) the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, from the 4th Century (during which, you may recall, the Christian Church came under Roman State sponsorship/control). I will append some segments of it pertinent to the Resurrection icon at the end of this article.

But now, let’s look at the fresco image:

It is set in a stylized cavern, the depths of Hades under mountains, in which the “righteous” men and women of the Old Testament have been kept in prison by Satan, the Prince of Hades, and assorted devils. At the top of the image we see its title in Greek, H ANACTACIC (Η ΑΝΑΣΤΑΣΙΣ). ”  He Anastasis means “The Resurrection.” We also see the standard IC XC abbreviation for Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ.” Jesus stands in an almond shaped “glory” of light; such a “glory” is usually called a “mandorla” from the Italian word for “almond.” He grasps the “first man” Adam with his right hand, and “first woman” Eve with his left, pulling them out of their sarcophagus-like prisons.

At the feet of Jesus we see the broken gates of Hades (“Hell”), as well as enough broken locks, bolts, and bars to stock a small hardware shop. That is all to tell us that Jesus has broken into the prison of Hades, and is letting the prisoners out. Various other Old Testament figures are seen to right and left, including (at left) Kings David and Solomon and John the Forerunner (Baptist). Foremost among those on the right is Abel, son of Adam and Eve, holding his shepherd’s staff.  Abel is considered the protomartyr — the “first martyr,” because he was killed by his brother Cain.  But remember that Stephen in the New Testament is considered the first “Christian” martyr.

So that is the Greek manner. But what about Russian icons? Well, the medieval Russian versions of the Resurrection, called in Slavic Voskresenie, were generally very similar to the Greek form, though painted with a bit more simplicity.

That all changed, however, in later Russian icon painting. By the time we get to the 18th and 19th centuries, the Resurrection had become far more elaborate, depicting even more of the detail from the Gospel of Nicodemus. Here is a 19th century Russian version:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This image is very typical of later Russian icons of the Resurrection. At the bottom is an elaborated version of the “old” image, with Christ standing on the gates of Hades and grasping Adam by the hand, as Eve and other Old Testament women kneel before him. John the Forerunner and King David are already in the crowd that is moving up toward Paradise in a long line. The huge mouth in which Eve kneels shows the manner in which the “Jaws of Hell/Hades” were depicted at that time, like a great monster with his mouth open.

At the top of the line going to Paradise is the Repentant Thief Rakh, holding his cross that will guarantee him admission if he is questioned, because Jesus himself had promised him “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” At upper right we see Rakh after he has been let through the doors of Paradise, being welcomed by Enoch and Elijah, the only Old Testament figures allowed in Paradise previously.

Now obviously the notion of the “Descent to Hades” given in the Gospel of Nicodemus and represented in Greek and Russian iconography goes far beyond limiting the “spirits in prison” to those from the “days of Noah,” as they are described in I Peter.

The main upper image, however, is a more European depiction of the Resurrection of Christ that was adopted into later Russian iconography. It shows Jesus standing above his empty tomb. To the left is a related scene of Peter in Christ’s tomb, looking at the empty linen wrappings. Below Peter, a separate scene shows an angel binding the Prince of Hell; in the Greek version of the Gospels of Nicodemus, this is Satan.  Though he is rather difficult to see, this bound figure is down among the fallen locks and bolts in the Khora image:


“Then the King of glory seized the chief satrap Satan by the head, and delivered him to his angels, and said: With iron chains bind his hands and his feet, and his neck, and his mouth. Then he delivered him to Hades, and said: Take him, and keep him secure till my second appearing.”

At lower right is a post-resurrection scene of Jesus appearing to the disciples who were fishing on the Sea of Tiberias, as recorded in the Gospel of John.

Of course all of this, in its thinking and imagery, is very “pre-Darwin.” The people who developed this iconography did not know the questionable sources of the texts they used, nor did they know that the world was far more than a few thousand years old, and that there never was an Adam and Eve as depicted in those texts and in the icons. Actually, if one thinks about it, the scientific knowledge of evolution quite destroys the whole traditional notion of the Fall of Adam and the need for a redemptive sacrifice. But icons are not from the world of science, they are from the world of imagination and belief, and in pre-scientific times they gave people an explanation for why things were the way things were; not a scientifically accurate or defendable explanation, but those were the times.

Looking at such icons, then, is not so much a “window into Heaven” as the saying goes, as it is a window into pre-scientific thinking and culture.

For those who have not yet had enough, here are some pertinent excerpts from the Gospel of Nicodemus.)


AND while Satan and the prince of hell were discoursing thus to each other, on a sudden there was a voice as of thunder and the rushing of winds, saying, 2 Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.

4 And the prince said to his impious officers, Shut the brass gates of cruelty, and make them fast with iron bars, and fight courageously, lest we be taken captives.

7 And the divine prophet David, cried out saying, 3 Did not I when on earth truly prophesy and say, O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men.

8 For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder. He hath taken them because of their iniquity, and because of their unrighteousness they are afflicted.

18 While David was saying this, the mighty Lord appeared in the form of a man, and enlightened those places which had ever before been in darkness,

19 And broke asunder the fetters which before could not be broken; and with his invincible power visited those who sate in the deep darkness by iniquity, and the shadow of death by sin. 3

13 Then the King of Glory trampling upon death, seized the prince of hell, deprived him of all his power, and took our earthly father Adam with him to his glory.


3 For behold now that Jesus of Nazareth, with the brightness of his glorious divinity, puts to flight all the horrid powers of darkness and death;

4 He has broke down our prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound, and all who were wont formerly to groan under the weight of their torments have now insulted us, and we are like to be defeated by their prayers.


THEN Jesus stretched forth his hand, and said, Come to me, all ye my saints, who were created in my image, who were condemned by the tree of forbidden fruit, and by the devil and death;

2 Live now by the wood of my cross; the devil, the prince of this world, is overcome, and death is conquered.

3 Then presently all the saints were joined together under the hand of the most high God; and the Lord Jesus laid hold on Adam’s hand and said to him, Peace be to thee, and all thy righteous posterity, which is mine.
12 And taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him.


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 ye, who have not yet been with us in hell, 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: 5 and this man who is with me, is Elijah the Tishbite, who was translated in a fiery chariot. 6

5 ¶ And while the holy Enoch and Elias were relating this, behold there came another man in 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 art thou? For thy countenance is like a thief’s; and why dost thou carry a cross upon thy shoulders?

7 To which he answering, said, Ye 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 thou comest into thy kingdom.

10 He presently regarded my supplication, and said to me, Verily I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise. 1

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 thee, shew him the sign of the cross, and say unto him: Jesus Christ who is now crucified, hath sent me hither to thee.

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 thou, O Almighty God, the Father of everlasting goodness, and the Father of mercies, who hast shewn such favour to those who were sinners against him, and hast brought them to the mercy of Paradise, and hast placed them amidst thy large and spiritual provisions, in a spiritual and holy life. Amen.


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.”