‘There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome’ Mark 15:40. ‘Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre’ Matt 27:61. ‘Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them’ Luke 24:10
A mystery, already present in the discrepancies of the gospel accounts, surrounds the myrrh bearing women who planned to anoint the body of Christ with oil. Instead they found the tomb empty and a man in a ‘shining garment’ asking them ‘why seek ye the living among the dead?’
A sparse landscape with a tower and a mountain and, in the background, a wall are the symbolic features the iconographer employs to set the scene. In the foreground are the tomb with its shroud and napkin, the three women and an angel in white. Muted and subtle colours contrast with the black and white of the empty tomb. The atmosphere throughout the whole composition is wistful and poetic. This is a good example of how the medieval Russian icon painter has a natural, and at the same time, profound sense of the event’s higher meaning. His reference to the literal narrative is minimal thus leaving the imagination free to explore the abstract and psychological dimensions where restrained gestures, formalised rhythmic choreography and silent conversation create another world, silent and closer to God.
The icon would have originally been part of the ‘Feasts Row’ of an iconostasis in a remote part of central or northern Russia far from the western influences that would soon pervade the main centres of culture.