Iconography of the Myrrh-bearing Women

The Gospel episode about the appearance of an angel to the women near the Lord’s Tomb, which shows the first evidence of the Lord’s Resurrection, became the base for the “Christ’s Resurrection” early iconography. The evangelists state various numbers of the participants of this event, while the Mother of God is not mentioned among them. However, the holy fathers (for example, St. Gregory Palamas) accepted Her presence, what affected the iconography. The amount of angels is also different in the stories. Apostles Matthew (28:2-3) and Mark (16:5) tell about one angel; apostles Luke (24:4) and John (20:11-12) – about two angels in shining and white clothes. The amount of wardens near the tomb is not specified.
The earliest known image of the myrrh-bearing Women near the tomb is located in the baptistery in Dura-Europos (232-256). It embodies the narrative principle, early Christian symbolism and conditionalism. The myrrh-bearing Women are depicted going from left to right towards the closed tomb. In their hands, they take the vessels with oil and the burning torches. Above the tomb, there are two stars symbolizing angels. On the mural of the burial complex in Karmus, Alexandria (2nd part of the 5th century), there is an image of an angel without wings sitting in front of the tomb. Later that image got the name “The appearance of the angel to the Myrrh-bearing Women”.
On the silver kist (4th century) in San Nazzaro Maggiore, Milan, we can see three myrrh-bearing Women before the tomb in the shape of a building, above which there is a half-figure of a descending angel. On the relief icon in the Bavarian national museum, Munich, the tomb is depicted as a two-story stone building. The wardens are sleeping, leaning on its walls. An angel is sitting on the left near the slightly open door of the tomb; the myrrh-bearing Women are coming from the right, and above them there is the “Ascension of the Lord”: young Christ is ascending Heavens, holding God’s hand.
In the 6th century, the scene near the Tomb of the Lord was still concerned to be a part of the iconography of the Resurrection. At the same time, it was included into the Holy Week cycle. For example, we can see it on the mural in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (before 526). Like all the compositions of this ensemble, “The appearance of the angel to the Myrrh-bearing Women” is depicted in a shortened form: in the center – the Lord’s Tomb in the shape of a rotunda with a dome and an opened kist inside. On the left, there is an angel with the wings; on the right, there are two Women with empty hands. In the Rabbula Gospels, there is a miniature painting consisting of two parts – “The appearance of the angel to the Myrrh-bearing Women” in the lower part and the composition of “Crucifix” in the upper part. In the middle of the composition among the trees, on the same level with the treetops, there is a small tomb with a slightly opened door. The wardens near the door fell on their knees, while another one of them is blinded by the light beaming from the tomb. To the left of the tomb, there is an angel sitting on the stone block and telling two Women about the Resurrection of Christ. In one of them, the one with the halo, we can recognize the Mother of God. Her original image was also presented in the “Crucifix” scene and to the right of the tomb in the scene “The appearance of Christ to Mary after His Resurrection”. That composition would become later a separate iconography: the Lord goes to the right, blessing two women who fall to His feet.
In the Chludov Psalter, the myrrh-bearing Women are depicted standing or sitting near the cylindrical building of the tomb but without an angel. In the 10-11th centuries, near this scene there is the scene “The appearance of Christ to the Myrrh-bearing Women”. The following composition became rather wide-spread: the blessing Christ is standing between two trees, while from the both sides the myrrh-bearing Women fall to His feet. In the byzantine tradition, this composition is called “Kherete” (χαίρετε – rejoice) in accordance with the greeting word of the Resurrected Christ addressed to the myrrh-bearing Women.
[…] Another variant of the iconography of “The appearance of the angel to the Myrrh-bearing Women” can be seen on the icon in the iconostasis of the Trinity Cathedral (1425). The scene is taking place against the background of mountains. An angel with the wings is depicted sitting on the round stone near the diagonally standing kist with the cloths, the upper part of which is hidden in the cave. To the left of the kist, there are three myrrh-bearing Women, looking inside of it. This composition with the diagonally painted kist became especially popular in Russian art.
An excerpt from the Chapter 19 of “Orthodox Encyclopedia”, 2008
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds
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