Word Magazine April 1987 Page 6-8


To understand the nature of the icon and to be able to read the contents of it, one has to understand the basis for a particular icon. In this article, examining representations of our Lord’s Resurrection, we will explore the source of canonical depiction in the Orthodox iconography.

The feast of Christ’s Resurrection stands out among all other feasts in the Orthodox Church. The utmost attention is paid to this event because of our Lord’s final act in the redemptive mission of all mankind. According to St. Paul the Apostle: If Christ be not raised your faith is in vain (I Cor. 15:17). This means that hope of all followers of Christ, throughout the ages, would be of no importance or value to them — resurrection from the dead, the promised Kingdom of God would be nonexistent.


Not one evangelist tells us how Christ rose from the dead. The evangelists tell us only of the manifestations of the Risen Lord; they do not describe the actual Resurrection. St. Matthew comes nearest to describing the actual moment of Christ’s Resurrection, when he tells us about the descent of an angel whose countenance was like lightning who rolled the stone back from the entrance to the grave and sat upon it. . . And for fear of him the keepers did shake and become as dead men (Mt. 28:2-4). This account was later taken by iconographers as a subject for the icon of the Resurrection of Christ. The genuine iconography of the Church shows the spiritual aspect of Christ’s Resurrection, the immaterial essence: the descent of the Victorious Lord into Hell, the freeing of Adam and Eve along with other prisoners of Hell from the Old Testament, and the factual witnessing of the myrrh-bearing women that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, that “He is Risen.”


A strong influence of Western realism (17th c.) made its way into the homes and churches of Orthodox Christians. The golden age iconography (11-17 c.) suffered a considerable blow from which it began to recuperate only in recent decades. One of such pictures, still popularly found, is the Risen Lord emerging from the grave with a banner of victory. The impression is that the stone was rolled away from the grave in order to allow Christ to come out of it on an analogy with the raising of Lazarus, and the soldiers at the cave were terrified, not so much by the appearance of the angel, as by the actual Resurrection.

It is not hard to see what a profound distortion of the Gospel story such an artistic rendering or, more precisely, such a free reinterpretation it is.

The angel rolled the stone away not in order to let out the Risen Lord but, on the contrary, in order to show that He is not in the tomb: He is not here, for he is risen, and in order to give them who seek Jesus, which was crucified the opportunity to convince themselves of the emptiness of the grave by the evidence of their own eyes, by looking at the place where the Lord lay.

The Resurrection was already accomplished before the descent of the angel, before the stone was rolled away; it was accomplished in an inexpressible fashion, not susceptible to human vision. The soldiers could not have witnessed the Resurrection. The evangelist clearly leads us to understand that the women bearing the myrrh and spices were witnesses not only to the earthquake, the descent of the angel, but also to the terror of the fleeing men. The women were there when it happened. The angel, as though distinguishing them from the terrified soldiers, says: Fear not ye, and then he promises them that they will see the Lord at a later time. If the myrrh-bearers did not see the Resurrection, then it is unlikely indeed that the soldiers should have seen it.

Such distortive pictures of the truth in western imagination are not admissible in the language of canonical iconography in the Orthodox Church because they are foreign to the Holy Scriptures and Tradition. Imagination or misinterpretation of God’s revelation has no room in the doctrine of redemption. The Gospels are silent as to the fact of how Christ arose. Neither does the icon show it.


If the light of the Lord’s Transfiguration was too strong for the Apostles to bear, how much stronger it would be at His Resurrection. If it were possible or beneficial for man to witness the actual Resurrection it would have been unveiled before him. A witness could not follow Him to Hell where the conquest of darkness was taking place, nor could he casually observe the act of the Almighty God at the Resurrection in the transfigured body. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a complex wonder beyond human physical grasp.


Our Church in her hymnography, just like in iconography, always remained faithful to the account given in the Gospels. The hymns of the Divine Services help us to understand the miracle of the Resurrection.

In the Paschal Canon (Ode 6:1), we sing: “Without breaking the seal, O Christ, didst Thou rise from the tomb.” Not only was the stone not rolled aside, but the seal which was set on it was untouched at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. And, “Life shone forth from the grave,” into “the grave yet sealed.” The Risen Lord came forth from the grave in the same way as He came to the Apostles though “the doors were shut” without opening them. He came out of the tomb without any outward signs which might have been noticed by outside observers. “Enclosed in the tomb in Thy describable (that is limited by the usual laws of space and other material conditions of our life on earth) flesh, indescribable (free of all present forms and not subject to earthly observation) didst Thou arise, O Christ” (Canon of St. Thomas Sunday, Ode 3:2). In particular: “The soldiers who guarded Thee did not feel the moment of Thy Resurrection.” Like the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Christ remains a mystery “sealed to those who seek for proof” (not subject to the researchers of human scholarship) and, as a miracle, remains “the mystery of the Resurrection revealed in faith” (Versicle to Lauds, tone 5). The ordinary scholar who would examine the mystery of the empty tomb will discover no more than was known to the soldiers themselves; that He Who was buried is not there, but that He is risen. And how He rose is a miracle revealed only to believers.


It is impossible to imagine that the Lord, having risen from the place where they laid Him, should have cast off His winding sheet like ordinary clothes or, like Lazarus, had to be unwound by others. The grave clothes of the Risen Christ remained in the grave folded as they have been wrapped around the body of Him Who was laid to rest in the tomb, only that He was no longer in them. This is the lesson to be learned from the Gospel account of how the napkin, that was about his head was found not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself This means that the napkin remained folded as it was bound about the head of Christ. It is not hard to understand why it was that the other disciple, as soon as he set his eyes on the abandoned grave clothes, saw, and believed (Jn. 20:8). He saw at once that something quite different occurred here from that which Mary Magdalene first suspected; there was no question of the Lord having been taken away . . . out of the sepulcher and of not knowing where they have laid him (v. 2). It was impossible to take the buried Jesus from the winding sheet (which, according to the usage of the time, would have been soaked through with sticky substances and, most probably, all stuck together), without unwinding the linen clothes and tearing them apart in the process. It was, therefore, clear that the Lord departed from the grave into the resurrection of life and that the grave clothes could not restrict the transfigured flesh of the Risen Lord, Who became part of another world (Jn. 5:28-29).

Our Saviour was empowered to be visible or invisible as He wished. The Lord could not only choose to whom He wished to appear but, if one may express it that way, controlled also the outward seeming of His appearance. He accompanied Luke and Cleopas on a journey, talking with them on the way, joined them at the evening meal and suddenly vanished from their sight (Lk. 24:31). The transfigured Body of the Lord was free to pass through all material barriers. In general the glorified flesh of the Son of God was, from the earthly point of view, so materially refined, so free from the coarse material imperfections and limitations, to which we are accustomed, that the Apostles thought they had seen a spirit (Lk. 24:37).

Contemplation of Christ’s Resurrection is only possible to our spiritual eyes of faith, free of everything that may obscure our sight. Our vision must be focused on the spiritual fountain of life rather than on material comfort. This is why our Church begins her Paschal Canon with the words: “let us purify our senses (of all that is sinful, vain, corruptible) and we shall behold Christ (spiritually), radiant, with the light unapproachable (to flesh and blood) of the Resurrection, and shall hear Him say, in accents clear: Rejoice!


According to the Orthodox doctrine, the Descent of Christ into Hell was the final act of man’s Redemption. As the first Adam died in sin, the Second Adam (Christ) Who assumed the created nature had to reach the same depths to which the first man descended. Although no mention is made in the Gospels about this event, St. Peter speaks of it on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:31), and in his epistle (1 Peter 3:19); He went and preached unto the spirits in prison. Also, the main theme throughout the Paschal hymnography is interwoven with the Lord’s Descent into Hell and His Resurrection in the flesh.

The icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual reality of the Resurrection and the results of His descent. The action in the icon takes place in Hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the center of the icon is the Saviour robed in white garment. He appears in Hell not as its captive but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of the Old Testament prisoners; not as a slave but as the Master of Life. He is depicted in the circle of the mandorla (symbol of God’s power and glory) of various shades of blue, pierced with golden rays coming out from the Lord’s body. The darkness of Hell is filled with the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of Pascha. The Saviour stands on the two crossed leaves of Hell’s doors. Below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen a chained figure of the prince of darkness, Satan, with fragments of broken chains, nail, keys, locks scattered all around. The Lord frees the souls of Adam and Eve along with the souls of all others who wait for His coming with faith. Christ is surrounded by two groups of the Old Testament saints, one on either side of Him. To the left are Kings David and Solomon in royal robes and crowns with John the Forerunner; on the right is Moses, holding the book of law, and other prophets. Seeing the Saviour’s presence in Hell, they immediately recognize Him, pointing Him out to others Whose coming they foretold.

The descent of Christ into Hell ends His degradation and marks the beginning of His glory. He opened to us the access to Heaven. He laid a foundation of a new life for all those who have united themselves with Christ. The conquest of Hell is the sunrise of a new reborn humanity. The Resurrection of Christ is a token of our own resurrection.


Our Lord’s return from among the dead is expressed in the icon of the Myrrh-Bearing Women in the same way the Gospels describe the event of His Resurrection. The women witnessed an earthquake, saw the angel descended from heaven who rolled the stone away from the entrance to the sepulcher, and saw the fear of the watch (Mt. 28:1-4).

According to the Gospel, the icon depicts the burial cave with an empty tomb where the linen cloth was lying. Usually, to the left of the tomb a group of women is standing and the angel in white garment sitting on the rock, which he rolled away from the door, is on the right. The angel points to the empty tomb showing to the women that the Lord is no longer there, that “He is risen.” The narration of the Gospels differs as to the number of women and angels. In the Gospel of St. Luke the number of women is not mentioned at all. This is why, in some icons, the number of women depicted may be five or more. In the same way, icons either show one angel according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, or two, according to Luke and John, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain (Jn. 20:12). Generally, this Paschal icon is an exact reproduction of the Gospel stories, down to the smallest detail. Even the napkin, that was about his head is depicted lying in a place by itself (Jn. 20:7).


The Lord’s Resurrection took place in the morning after the seventh day (following the Sabbath). This was the beginning of the first day of the week. For this reason, the first day of the week is the day for celebration of all Christians commemorating the beginning of the new life in Jesus Christ. The early Christians called this day the eighth day, or the eighth day of creation as it is now theologically known. It is not only to commemorate the day on which Christ arose but to celebrate the beginning and prefiguration of the eternal life with God to come for the renewed mankind. As the first day of creation was the beginning of days in time, so the day of the Resurrection of Christ is the beginning of days outside of time, that is, the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise of the Kingdom to come, where God is all in all.


Sergiy, Patriarch of Moscow; The Resurrection of Christ as Distinct from the Resurrection of Lazarus.

L. Ouspensky; The Meaning of Icons.

Father Alexander is an iconographer and a priest in the Orthodox Church in America.