The Iconography of Christ’s Resurrection
In order to understand the iconography of the Resurrection of Christ, it is necessary to say a few words about the language of the Orthodox icon.
When comparing Western religious paintings to Orthodox Icons, one’s eye immediately catches their distinctive artistic style. (1) But this style of painting was developed gradually over generations of artists in accordance with the purpose and the ideas of art at the time. In Western art, the prominent idea was to achieve the illusion of the visible world.
A Western European painting is like a window through which we look at the real, earthly event depicted in this picture. (2) These paintings are always put into a frame. The frame for the picture serves as a window. In other words, the picture on the wall represents a window to another world, through an illusory one. It is the artist’s imaginary interpretation of reality, but nevertheless an interpretation of the physical world; and a picture frame, like a window, encloses it in certain boundaries. The frame is designed to cordon off the picture from the outside world, to isolate the illusory reality depicted from the real world.
On the other hand, iconography does not set itself the task of depicting the real world. Iconography, through symbols, represents an invisible spiritual world. (3) Orthodox Iconography is not realistic, but symbolic. Icons should not remind us about anything earthly, but rather should lift up our thoughts and feelings from all earthly things and transfer us to the spiritual world. While a Western painting depicts an event, a scene, an icon rather represents a church doctrine, an idea, a thought. (4)
A picture depicts a scene, taking place in a certain place and at a certain moment. In icons, time is conditional, therefore on one icon, there may be represented events which took place at different times and occurred in different places. (5)
At the 7th Ecumenical Council, the importance of Iconography for the illiterate was emphasized, for whom icons, so to speak, replaced Holy Scripture. (Remember, only a small segment of the population was literate. Common people were mostly illiterate).
How did commoners in Russia learn the basics of Orthodox dogma? — While standing in the church at services, listening to the hymns and looking at the icons. Church hymns have been called “theologizing odes” – they are poetry and theology at the same time. Also, icon painting is called “theology in colours”.
On the other hand, Iconographic canons (rules) were not developed at the whim of artists. The iconographic canons were developed over generations and were the creation of the theological thoughts of the Church. Hence there is a concordance between liturgical hymns and iconography. There are icons that are a direct illustration of some church hymns. For example, “In Thee Rejoiceth”, “What will we bring Thee”, etc. (6)
Iconographic Canons of Christ’s Resurrection
The Evangelists don’t describe the Resurrection of Christ. They describe the burial, and then they tell that the Myrrh-Bearing Women found the Sepulchre empty and reported the appearance of Angels.
In agreement with the Gospel narrative, the most ancient image of Christ’s Resurrection is “The Myrrh-Bearers at the Tomb”. This Iconographic canon can be traced down to the first centuries of Christianity. (7)
Several centuries later, by the 6th century, another iconographic canon of the Resurrection was elaborated. (8) This image is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as “the descent of the Lord into Hades by His deified soul”. But it must be said that such interpretation arose only at a later time (from the 19th century). In ancient times this icon was clearly understood as an icon of the Resurrection.
Who can explain the meaning of this icon better than its creators? However, not a single ancient example of such Iconography is inscribed as “Descent into Hades”. They are always called in Greek: “Anastasis” and in Slavonic “Воскресение” (Resurrection). Therefore, this icon undoubtedly depicts the Resurrection of Christ. (9)
The inscription on an icon is extremely important: an icon must always be inscribed — otherwise, it cannot be considered canonical.
In this case, why is this icon called “Resurrection”, if it depicts, apparently, the descent of the Lord into Hades? – Here a misunderstanding occurs because this icon is understood as representing an action (descent into Hades), and not as a symbol of the Resurrection.
Let us recall that in the church hymns the Resurrection of Christ is treated not as a simple action, or a fact, but according to its consequences with regard to humankind: Christ has risen and raised us.
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” (Troparion of Pascha)
“Having fallen asleep in the flesh, as a mortal, O King and Lord, on the third day Thou didst rise again, raising up Adam from corruption, and abolishing death…” (Exapostillarion of Pascha)
Thus, this icon may be regarded as an illustration of the Paschal hymns, for example, of the troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” On the icon, the resurrected Christ is depicted trampling the gates of Hades and raising Adam and Eve from their tombs, who themselves, represent all humanity. (10)
Finally, there is another Iconographic type of Christ’s Resurrection: the Lord with the banner of victory. (11) But this iconography is of Western origin. Such icons appeared in Greek Iconography in the late 15th century and in Russian iconography from the 17th century. That was the time of the decline of Orthodox Iconography when it began to be heavily influenced by Western art. (12)
Bishop Andrei (Erastov)
- Above Paragraph One: Greek icon of the Nativity, 16th century. Below Paragraph One: Dutch painting of the Nativity, 17th c. The Dutch artist using his imagination depicts the moment when the shepherds came to the cave. On the other hand, the icon of the Nativity doesn’t represent one moment. It describes the story of the Nativity, as the Gospel describes it. The icon consists of several small scenes, which occurred at different times.
- Russian landscape in a frame. 19th century
- Russian icon, early 15 century. The Lord Jesus Christ is depicted as Almighty King of the heavens and of the earth. This iconographic type is based on the vision of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 1). Christ’s garment is shining (The Lord wraps Himself in light as with a garment.. (Ps 104, 2). The blue oval filled with seraphim and cherubim symbolizes the heavens, while the red parallelogram represents the earth (four ends of the earth).
- Fresco of Eucharist. Serbia, Gracanica, 14th century. This composition conveys the idea, that Christ Himself performs the mystery of Eucharist. The Apostles represent the faithful of the Church.
- Greek icon of the Transfiguration, 16th century. Aside from the scene of the Transfiguration, the icon depicts Christ with three Apostles ascending and descending Mount Tabor. Following the Gospel, Christ is depicted talking to the Apostles. Thus the icon reminds the viewer of Christ’s teachings in regard to His Transfiguration. The prophets Moses and Elijah are depicted bowing to Christ, but at the same time they stand not on Mount Tabor, but on the two other distant mountains, purple in colour. This is a reference to God’s appearance to both prophets on Mount Sinai. So, the prophets are represented as being present at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, but at the same time, the icon reminds us that these prophets, during their life time, saw God on Mount Sinai. The church hymns of the Transfiguration likewise make reference to this.
- “In Thee Rejoiceth”, Russian icon, 16th century. This icon illustrates the church hymn: “All of the creation rejoices in you, O full of grace, The ranks of Angels and the human race; Hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins…”
- Myrrh-bearing women at the tomb. Theophanis of Crete. 16th century.
- Resurrection. Contemporary icon. Christ tramples the broken gates of Hades while raising Adam and Eve. Prophets and patriarchs stand by, rejoicing. Angels tie up Satan. The pieces of shackles are scattered underneath.
- The Anastasis (Resurrection). Fresco in Chora Monastery. Constantinople, Early 14th century.
- Resurrection. San Marco, Venice. Mosaic from 12th century.
- Resurrection. Russian icon, middle of the 20th century.
- Resurrection. Italian painting, early 16th century.