ANOTHER FROM THE OLD BELIEVERS

Here is another multiple icon.

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

Long-time addicts — I mean readers — on this site should be able to identify both top images as well as that at lower right, because they have all been discussed here previously.  And you do remember everything I have posted here in the last nine-plus years, don’t you?

Well, in case you do not, I will talk about them briefly.

At upper left we see this:

The title inscription at top is heavily abbreviated.  It reads:

УСЕКНОВЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНЫЯ ГЛАВЫ СЛАВНАГО ПРОРОКА ИОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧИ

USEKNOVENIE CHESTNUIYA GLAVUI SLVANAGO PROROKA IOANNA PREDTECHI

“CUTTING OFF OF THE HONORABLE HEAD OF THE GLORIOUS PROPHET JOHN THE FORERUNNER”

It depicts the story from the New Testament in two scenes:  the beheading of John at left, and the presentation of the head on a salver to Salome at right.

Now this icon type had a special meaning for Old Believers.  They saw it not only as relating to John, but also as a symbol that with the great schism in the Russian Church in the mid-1600s, the head had been cut off the “true” Orthodox Church, which of course the Old Believers considered to be themselves, and not the State Orthodox Church, which they saw as an heretical usurper.  It is said that some Old Believer iconographers even depicted the executioner of John with features quite like those of Peter the Great, who was notorious for the wanting all Russian men to cut their beards — though he eased up a bit eventually and let men keep their beards if they paid a beard tax.  Now this may seem odd to us, but in the Russia of that time — and particularly among the Old Believers — beards were seen as essential to a grown male, and to shave off the beard was not only thought sinful but also lascivious, because it made men too sexually attractive, even to other men.  So that tells us a great deal about human nature and the flexibility of gender roles.

One sometimes sees related but similarly gory icons of just the head of John on a salver.  When I met a young icon painter in an Old Believer community many years go, that was the first of his works that he showed me.  Here is an example of such an icon:

That icon type also had a special significance for Old Believers.  Praying before it was a kind of folk remedy for headaches.

The second icon type on the multiple icon is this:

The title inscription reads:
ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ХРИСТОВО
VOSRESENIE KHRISTOVO
“RESURRECTION OF CHRIST”

I have discussed Resurrection icons in great detail in this previous posting, and everything in the image above is explained in it:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/a-very-detailed-resurrection-icon/

Now we will jump to the image at lower right, and leave the “saints” quarter for later.  Here the Marian icon is, with its title inscription below it:

It reads:

УТОЛИ БОЛЕЗНИ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ
UTOLI BOLEZNI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
“‘SOOTH THE ILLS’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

It is discussed in this previous posting:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/the-sooth-my-sorrows-image/

Gee, maybe if I keep this up, and can just eventually refer you all to previous postings instead of having to write anything more.  A lot of information accumulates in nine years.

I will point out, however, the finger position on Mary’s right hand.  By now you should recognize it as the Old Believer blessing position, and that identifies this as an Old Believer icon.

I should also mention the text inscription on the scroll held by the child Jesus:

Судъ праведенъ судите милость и щедроты творите кождо искреннему своему а вдовицы сира и пришельца и убога не насильствуйте, и злобы брата своего не вспоминайте.

It comes from Zachariah 7:9-10 (or 8-10 in Septuagint numeration). It begins with “Judge righteous judgment”:

Here is the saint’s quarter at lower left:

They are, from top left:

Kseniya Prepodobnaya/”Venerable Xenia”
Pravednaya Anna/”Righteous Anna”
Apostol Iakov/”Apostle Jacob/James”
Feodosia/”Theodosiya”
Ioakim/”Joachim” — Anna’s husband
Iustiniya/”Justinia
Kipriyan”/”Cyprian”

Here is the central Crucifixion:

Everything in it is explained in these previous postings:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-instant-expert-in-russian-crosses/

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/02/07/more-cross-talk/

You might, however, be initially puzzled by the letters below the main crossbeam:

The key to the mystery is that the inscription is heavily abbreviated, and it is read by jumping left to right, left to right, repeatedly.  When that is done, the inscription is recognized as:

NIKA, meaning “He [Christ] Conquers” (the first two letters НИ at left with the last two letters КА at right, excluding the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”

Then come the left-right pair Р Г for Raspyatie Gospodne — “Crucifixion of the Lord.”

Then Ц С for Tsar Slavui — “King of Glory>”

Then С Б for Suin” Bozhiy — “Son of God.”

And finally the identifiers  К Т  — which usually come lower, beside the spear and sponge.  K, abbreviating КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear.”   And T, abbreviating  ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod, with the sponge at its top.

And here is Gospod’ Savaof/”Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father, at top center:

His fingers too are in the Old Believer blessing position.  The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is in the circle just below him.

Finally, here are the two border saints.

At left is Svyatuiy Prorok Moisey/”Holy Prophet Moses,” holding his tablets with the Ten Commandments:

At right is Svyataya Prepodobnaya Feodosiya/”Holy Venerable Theodosia.”

Now of course you noticed that the background of this icon — the svyet or “light” — is blue.  A painted svyet made the icon cheaper for the purchaser, and it also saved time for the painter or painters.

 

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.
Deute, 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.