EVEN MORE ON LIGATURES IN GREEK ICON INSCRIPTIONS

Here is a rather long posting that will likely severely bore anyone who is not interested in learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.  But it is a helpful posting for those peculiar souls who do want to learn that rather esoteric skill.  In any case, it is something any serious student of icons should know.

A reader asked about inscriptions on icons of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.  That gave me a good excuse to talk a bit more about ligatures in Greek icon inscriptions.  “Ligature,” in writing, is the linking or joining of letters together.  When icon students first encounter ligatures, they find them mystifying and confusing, but really the principle is quite simple once one knows what to look for.

First, let’s take a look at the main portion of an example of such an icon type in this fresco from Mt. Athos:

Here is what Mary is saying to Jesus in the inscription:

kurieeisu

Let’s look a little closer:

It begins with an abbreviation:  ΚΕ.  But notice the horizontal line above the two letters.  Do you remember that such a line (sometimes curved, but still horizontal) indicates an abbreviation?  Here, the two letters abbreviate ΚΥΡΙΕ (Kyrie).  You may recall that ΚΥΡΙΟC (Kyrios) is the Greek word for “Lord.”  KYRIE is just another form of it — the form used in addressing someone — in talking to them directly.   So here KYRIE also means”Lord” (but see below).

Now in a previous “lesson,” I told you that when encountering unfamiliar inscriptions, one should look at the visual context, at what is in the image.  And here the context is the biblical story of Mary talking to Jesus after his resurrection.  So all we need ask is, where in that context does she address him as “Lord?”  We must also remember that Kyrie is the standard respectful way for a woman to address a male in Greek — which is why the King James version of the Bible sometimes translates it as “Sir.”  So again, where in this context does Mary address Jesus as “Lord” or “Sir?”  We find it in the Gospel called “of John,” Chapter 20, verse 15:

Jesus says to her, Woman, why weep you? whom seek you? She, supposing him to be the gardener, says to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

The next step, of course, is to take a look at the same verse in a Greek New Testament, so that we can verify that we have chosen correctly:

ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΗ ΙΗCΟΥC ΓΥΝΑΙ ΤΙ ΚΛΑΙΕΙC; ΤΙΝΑ ΖΗΤΕΙC; ΕΚΕΙΝΗ ΔΟΚΟΥCΑ ΟΤΙ Ο ΚΗΠΟΥΡΟC ΕCΤΙΝ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ ΚΥΡΙΕ ΕΙ CΥ ΕΒΑCΤΑCΑC ΑΥΤΟΝ ΕΙΠΕ ΜΟΙ ΠΟΥ ΕΘΗΚΑC ΑΥΤΟΝ ΚΑΓΩ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΑΡΩ

Now, let’s compare that with the inscription on the icon:

Here’s where we run into the ligature issue.  We already know that the first two letters, KE, abbbreviate KYRIE — “Lord”/”Sir.”  that means, if we have the chosen the correct text, the next two letters should be EI in Greek.  But in the actual icon inscription, the third symbol does not look like any recognizable letter at all.  The reason is that it is a ligature, a joined letter.  We find it it two places in the inscription:

The first occurance is somewhat marred by a crack in the painting surface, but the second, almost just below the first, is quite clear.  It looks rather like the number nine.  But the rounded part to the left is the “E” portion of the ligature, and the vertical line is the “I.”  So we can be reasonably certain that we have the correct text, because the third and fourth letters in the inscription are EI, meaning “if.”

The next two Greek letters in the inscription look like CV:

C in Greek is “s” in English.  And the V is actually just a way of writing the Greek letter Y, which in lower case is υ.  So the word in Greek is CY, which we can transliterate as SY or sy.  Sy is Greek for “you.”

Up to this point we have:

Lord/Sir if you…

The next word in the inscription is not complete:

 

It has one ligature, the fourth symbol.  That is a combination of C and T in Greek.  So it reads  EBACTAC — Ebastas.  But the word is shortened.  It is really EBACTACAC — Ebastasas, meaning “carried off”

The next word is also missing its ending:

The first symbol is a ligature of a and u, so the three letters shown are aut, which if written in full would be auton, meaning “him.”

Next come these words, all pushed together, as is often common in Greek inscriptions:

eipemoi

The first letter is the ligature of e and i that we have already seen.  With the next two letters, it makes the word ΕΙΠΕ — EIPE–, meaning “tell.”  That is followed by the word MOI, meaning “me.”  And the final word in the line has a common ligature of the letters O and Y, with the Y placed atop the O.  So it is the word ΠΟΥ — POU –, meaning “where.”

So now we have:

“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him, tell me where…”

Then comes:

ethek

The first four letters are ΕΘΗΚ — ethek, but the writer has left off the ending.  The whole word would be ΕΘΗΚΑC — ethekas — meaning “[you] have laid.”  That is followed by the abbreviation for AUTON (AVT) that we have already seen, and so we know AUTON means “him.”  The last four letters form the combined word KAΓω — KAGO –, and the two words put together to make it are ΚΑΙ ΕΓω, kai ego, meaning “and I.”

Adding that to what we already have, it gives us:

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I...”

Then come the last words of Mary’s little speech:

Here the word AYTON — auton, which we saw earlier in its shortened form, is spelled out in full.  You will recall it means “him.”  Next comes a ligature, the letters A and P (R) joined, so the last word is ARω — ARO, meaning ” [I] will take away.”

So the inscription, in our rather literal translation so far, is

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I him will take away.

If we put that into more normal English order, we get,

Sir, if you carried him off, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

Now keep in mind that you did not have to know the entire inscription to know what it was.  You determined that from the first few words, seen in the context of the image shown — Mary kneeling before the resurrected Jesus.  Then all you had to do was to find those few words in the Greek text of the New Testament where the story of Mary before the resurrected Jesus is told.  Using that process enables one to recognize a great many inscriptions without knowing the entire vocabulary of the text at first glance.

We can see how useful that is if we look at another icon of the same type, also with a Greek inscription:

If we look at what Mary is saying to Jesus in this example, we find it to be:

It is very much the same as the inscription in the first example, with only slight differences in writing.  And the one word separated at the bottom is easy.  In Greek letters it is ΡΑΒΒΟΥΝΗ — RABBOUNI — an Aramaic word that means loosely “My Master/Teacher.”  That, according to the Gospel called “of John,” was the exclamation of Mary to Jesus when she finally recognized him.

Just for completeness, let’s deal with the other inscriptions one is likely to find on icons of this type.  First, there is the identifying inscription above Mary:

Picture 089
Picture 089

As you might guess, it just reads:

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΜΑΡΙΑ Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — HE HAGIA MARIA HE MAGDALINE

You probably noticed that the HAGIA is abbreviated.  In the name “Mary,” the A and Ρ (R) are joined, and the HE (H) is linked to the M in Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — “the Magdalene.”

And of course the title as a whole means “THE HOLY MARY THE MAGDALENE.”

There is also an inscription found in this type that you should already recognize from a previous posting.  For it, we will go back to this example in the first image:

The inscription is just above the empty grave of Jesus (with the graveclothes lying in it):

Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΤΑΦΟC — HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “The Holy Sepulchre.”

Let’s also look back at that first image to see what Jesus is saying to Mary:

memou

The IC at the top is of course just the standard abbreviation for “Jesus.”  But the inscription below it has the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene:

ΜΗ ΜΟΥ ΑΠΤΟΥ  — ΜE MOU APTOU  — “ME NOT TOUCH”

In normal English that is “TOUCH ME NOT,” or more modern, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.”  That accounts for the common Latin title often given these images in the West, Noli Me Tangere, which is just the translation of Me Mou Aptou.

I hope you noticed that the letters ΜΗ are joined in a ligature, as are ΟΥ in the word ΜΟΥ, and there is another ligature joining the letters Π and Τ in ΑΠΤΟΥ.

Finally, let’s take a look at the title inscription of the whole image at the very top of the first example.  It is cut off in the photo, but we can fill in what is missing:

memouaptitle

Η ΜΕΤΑ ΤΗΝ ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ ΠΡΟC ΤΗ ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ[Ν] ΜΑΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ  ΣωΤΗΡΟΣ ΕΜΦΑΝΙΑ

HE META TEN EGERSEN PROS TE MAGDALINE[N] MARIA TOU SOTEROS EMPHANIA
The After the Resurrection to the Magdalene Mary of the Savior Appearance

In normal English,

“THE APPEARANCE OF THE SAVIOR TO MARY MAGDALENE AFTER THE RESURRECTION”

One will often find little variations in Greek spelling (as in ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ / ΕΓΕΡCΙΝ in the above example), but usually they are not severe enough to cause confusion.

You may also wish to know that this ME MOU APTOU icon type of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is another of those borrowings into Eastern Orthodox art from Western Catholic art, from the time when Venice controlled the island of Crete, and the icon painters there worked to supply both Greek Orthodox and Western Catholic markets for paintings.  You may have also noticed that Mary Magdalene’s head is bare in these icons, which is a little unusual, given that most women have their heads covered in icons.  But it is usual for Mary’s hair to be seen in this particular type, because the image was borrowed very closely from Western examples — and in the West, Mary Magdalene is often seen with head uncovered.

 

 

IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: MORE ON THE MYRRH-BEARING WOMEN ICON

In a previous posting, I discussed the icon type known as the “Myrrh-bearing Women” (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/traffic-lights-at-the-tomb-the-myrrh-bearing-women/).  There we looked at a Russian example, and encountered some of the discrepancies among New Testament accounts of the Resurrection.

It is generally believed that the Gospel called “of Mark” was the first to be written, and that both that called “of Matthew” and that “of Luke” were merely edited expansions of the text of Mark.  It is noteworthy that Mark has no birth story of Jesus and no story of resurrection appearances of Jesus, both of which were added to the beginning and end of “Matthew” and “Luke.” The post-resurrection appearance of Jesus now found in Mark 16 (after verse 8) was added later. The Gospel called “of John” has no birth story, but it does have a resurrection account, and just as Matthew and Luke differ from one another significantly in telling their tales, so does John differ from both.  All of the resurrection stories in the Gospels have substantial discrepancies.

That brings us back to the icon of the “Myrrh-bearing Women,” the image of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus early Eastern morning and finding that his body was not there.  As we saw in the previous posting, the Gospel accounts differ on just who came to the tomb and why.

Let’s look at a fresco of the Myrrh-Bearing Women from the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos in Greece:

myrrh-bearingwomendionysioumathos

In it we see two women bearing vessels of myrrh, and at the right two angels.  The Gospels disagree on the number present.  The painter here seems to have gone with “Matthew” for the number of women (“Mary and the other Mary”) and with Luke and John for the number of angels (Matthew has only one).   We see the empty tomb with the linen graveclothes in it, and below are the unconscious Roman soldiers who, according to “Matthew,” were set to guard the tomb (the other Gospel accounts have no soldiers).

The common inscription usually found on Greek icons of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” is simply Αἱ Μυροφόροι in Greek — Hai Myrophoroi — pronounced “ay mee-ro-FOR-ee” in modern Greek.  It means simply “The Myrrh-bearers.”  But in the Dionysiou fresco, we do not see that title.  Instead, we find this inscription:

myrophdionysinsc

It reads:

ΙΔΕΟΤο  ΠΟΣ         ΟΠοΥΕΚΑΤοΟΚΣ

As you can see, we find linked letters used.  We see a “τ” atop an “o,” and a “v” atop an “o.”  Those linkages give us “to” and “ou.”  And we also find an abbreviated word, KC for ΚΥΡΙΟC  So we can transliterate the inscription as:

IDE HO TOPOS HOPOU EKATO ΗO KYRIOS

Remember that if you see an inscription you have not encountered before, look for any familiar words.  You know TOPOS from the English word “topography.”  Topos means “place” in Greek.  And if you read my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the common word HO as the masculine form of “the.”  And the last word KYRIOS you should know means “Lord.”  So we can understand this much:

IDE THE PLACE HOPOU EKATO THE LORD

Now if you are familiar with the New Testament — as every student of icons should be — even this small translated amount, when connected with the illustration of the empty tomb, should remind you of the words of the angel to the women in the Gospel of Matthew, 28:6:

…see the place where the Lord lay.

And in fact that is what the inscription means.  In the Greek New Testament it is found as:

Δεῦτε, ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο ὁ κύριος.
Deuter, idete    ton topon hopou   ekeito  ho kurios
Come, see      the   place  where lay      the Lord

In the Dionysiou fresco, there is also a small inscription just above the tomb:

It reads:

Ο ΑΓΙΟς ΤΑΦΟC

The Α (a) and Γ(g) are linked together, and the ς (s) is placed below the O.

Transliterated, it reads:

HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “THE HOLY SEPULCHRE.”

A taphos is a grave, sepulchre, or tomb.

Now very interestingly, if we look at the different Gospel accounts of what the angel (or angels) at the tomb supposedly said to the women, we get an insight into how the writers of Matthew and Luke  altered the original Markan speech.  Let’s examine them:

MARK 16:

You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, the crucified.  He is risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.

MATTHEW 28:

For I know that Jesus, the crucified, you seek; he is not here, for he is risen, as he said.  Come see the place where he lay.  And go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.  And behold, he goes before you into Galilee.  There you will see him.  Behold, I have told you.

LUKE 24:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here but is risen.  Remember how he spoke to you, being still in Galilee, saying the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men…

What in Mark is a prediction made by Jesus that they would see him in Galilee becomes in Matthew a prediction made by the angel that they would see Jesus in Galilee, and in Luke it is changed even more drastically to become something that Jesus predicted in Galilee of his crucifixion!

Why would Luke want to change this statement that the disciples were to see the risen Jesus in Galilee to something quite different that Jesus had formerly said in Galilee?  The answer is simple, but surprising to those who do not read the Bible carefully.  In Matthew, the disciples go to Galilee after the resurrection and see the risen Jesus there.  But in Luke, the disciples do not go to Galilee.  Instead, Luke has Jesus appear to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus that same day, and again on that same day, he appears to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Luke has no appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, so he had to eliminate the prediction found in Mark and Matthew, and he did so by changing it to a prediction Jesus made in Galilee that he would be crucified.

It becomes quite obvious, then, that the writers of the Gospels used the materials they had for their own purposes, altering them as they saw fit.  “Gospel truth” is not the same as historical truth.  So when reading the Bible, as in reading the hagiographic accounts of saints’ lives, it is always wise to keep in mind the saying of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess:  “It ain’t necessarily so.”

A FESTIVAL ISN’T ALWAYS A PARTY: THE MAJOR CHURCH FESTIVALS ICON

In Russian, an icon is an ikona (икона, pronounced ee-KOHN-ah). And every student of icons must learn to recognize the major church festivals. These are the most important days of commemoration in the church year, and each one can be found as a separate icon, as well as combined in icons such as this image of the Resurrection and Major Church Festivals:

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

This example shows sixteen festivals in addition to the most important one, the large image of the Resurrection (Воскресение) in the center.

The other festivals arranged around it are, clockwise with their Russian names, beginning at the upper left side:

1. Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God — Рождество Пресвятой Богородицы
2. Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple — Введение во храм Пресвятой Богородицы
3. Old Testament Trinity (for Trinity Sunday) — Святая Троица
4. Annunciation — Благовещение Пресвятой Богородицы
5. Birth of Christ — Рожество Христово,
6. Baptism of Christ (Theophany) — Богоявление
7. Transfiguration of Christ — Преображение Господне
8. Dormition of the Mother of God — Успение Пресвятой Богородицы
9. Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God — Покров Пресвятой Богородицы,
10. Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) — Сошествие Святого Духа
11. Elevation of the Cross — Воздвижение Креста Господня,
12. Beheading of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) — Усекновение главы Иоанна Предтечи
13. Raising of Lazarus — Воскрешение праведного Лазаря
14. Ascension of Jesus — Вознесение Господне
15. Entry into Jerusalem — Вход Господень в Иерусалим.
16. Meeting of Jesus in the Temple — Сретение Господне

In icons of this type the number of festivals arranged about the central Resurrection image will vary. The first example shown here is more extensive than usual, and in addition it has the images of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in the four outer corners. Commonly, however, the number of festivals added to the central Resurrection image is twelve, thus making thirteen festivals in all, as in this example:

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

 

TRAFFIC LIGHTS AT THE TOMB: THE MYRRH-BEARING WOMEN

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:

zhmirdet

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 RESURRECTION ICON AND THE WORLD WITHOUT CHARLES DARWIN

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.

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.

“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.)

CHAP. XVI.

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.

CHAP. XVIII.

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.

CHAP. XIX.

1
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.

CHAP. XX.

1
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.