The icon of the Myrrh-Bearing Women at the Tomb of Christ depicts the events that took place after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The four canonical Gospels report that during the Crucifixion of Christ many women who “followed Him from Galilee” were there watching it from a distance (Matthew 27: 55-56; Mark 15: 40-41; Luke 23: 49; John 19: 24-27). After the death of Christ, some of them were involved in his burial not far away from the execution site (Matthew 17: 59-61; Mark 15: 46-47; Luke 23: 53-55; John 19: 40-42). When the Sabbath passed they were first to return to the tomb bringing myrrh to anoint the body of the Savior. (Mark, 16:1), i.e. to perform the necessary burial ceremony requiring that the dead body be grazed with special fragrant oils. According to the Gospel of Matthew, it was at this point that “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow” (Matthew 28: 2-3). The Angel of the Lord (or “a young man dressed in a white robe” – Mark 16:5, or “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning” - Luke 24:4) tell the Myrrhbearers about the miracle – the Resurrection of Jesus in the closed tomb on the third day, as Jesus Christ himself had told them, and so did the Angel: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee. The Son of Man… on the third day be raised” (Luke 24: 5-7; Matthew 28: 5-6; Mark 16: 6).

The earliest of the known images of the Myrrh-Bearing Women at the Tomb of Christ is in a baptistry in Dura-Europos (232 – 256 AD). This composition might have been part of the Passion cycle in the wall-paintings and mosaics. One of such earliest examples are the mosaics of the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, executed before 526. This episode is also encountered in book miniatures and as cast metal. In the Rabbula Gospel (586 AD) there is a two-part leaf miniature with the scenes of the Appearance of the Angel to the Myrrhbearers in the bottom part and the Crucifixion at the top. On a miniature seal on the cover of a reliquary from the Capella of Sancta Sanctorum (Byzantine, Palestine, ca. 600 AD, the Vatican Museums), in three registers, are the depictions of five Gospel scenes from the Nativity of Christ to the Ascension which also include the scene of the Appearance of the Angel to the Myrrhbearers.

In the post-iconoclastic period (from the 9th c. CE) a different iconography of the Resurrection of Christ – the Descent into Hell was developed

In both the Russian and Byzantine icons, the scene of the Myrrh-Bearing Women at the Tomb of Christ was included in the Passion cycles. This scene is also encountered in the frescoes of the Church of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin in the Snetogorsk Monastery(1313). The icon depicting this scene could be included in the festival row of the iconostasis and in a set of the analogion icons. The earliest of such icons is an icon of the Myrrhbearers at the Tomb of Christ from the festival row in the Holy Trinity Church in the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius (1425-1427) and a double-sided tablet icon of the Myrrhbearers at the Tomb of Christ from a set of the co-called Trinity tablets (the second quarter of the 15th c., the Sergiev-Posad Museum).

While the icon composition may vary in details (the depiction of the tomb and the cloth, the number and poses of the myrrhbearers and the guards etc.), it generally follows the pattern developed in Byzantine in the post-iconoclastic period.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


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