This icon is unique in the Rabbula Gospels since it depicts 2 scenes in the life of Christ, and reflects the spiritual perspective of St John’s “hour of glory”. In the “lifting up” of the Son of God the entire plan of divinization is achieved.
The crucifixion takes place against a background of blue mountains (Gareb and Agra). The sun with the eye in the upper part (left) and the moon (right) appear on each side of Christ for this is the hour of darkness and light. The 3 victims are crucified with 4 nails and no foot supports – a unique feature here. Near the cross of Christ 3 soldiers gamble for his clothes.
Jesus is depicted in full royal garments, in typical Syriac style. His long purple-gold tunic signifies the lordship of Christ who is exalted by his Father. The Syriac writing on the tablet declares: “This is the King of the Jews.”
To the left of Christ is Longinus holding the lance which pierced the side of Jesus. The man with the sponge on the right side is Steaton who later converted and was martyred. To the far right are the 3 women who stood at the cross of Jesus: Mary of Magdala, Salome and Mary the wife of Clopas.
Dimas the good thief (viewer’s left but Christ’s right) with his head bent toward Christ is penitent and seeking God’s mercy. The Scriptures recount him saying: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus responded: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Gestas, the unrepentant thief on the right, has an upturned and proud face. The mark near his lip may indicate an evil spirit. Standing near the cross of Dimas is Christ’s mother Mary with raised hands covering her tormented face. The Apostle John suffers silently as he looks on with desolate eyes.
The resurrection scene in the lower half of the icon actually includes 3 distinct scenes: the empty tomb (Mt 28,2), the women carrying fragrant ointment(left-Mt 28,1), and the appearance of Jesus to the women on the road to Jerusalem ( right-Mt 28,9).
The resurrection scenes are dominated by plush greenery which suggests the new life of resurrection. The empty tomb in the shape of a small temple (center) is supported with 2 pink columns to form 2 brackets in the shape of lion’s muzzles. The artist here suggests that the jaws of death cannot contain Christ. The 3 fearful soldiers are held back from the tomb by 3 rays of light seen radiating from the tomb.
On the left, an angel, carrying a wanderer’s staff, sits on the stone, and talks to the women approaching the tomb. The first woman dressed in a royal purple mantle and with a halo alludes to the Mother of Christ. She is holding an alabaster jar; the second woman holds a smoking, cube-shaped censer.
On the right side, these same women kneel before the Risen Lord. The artist has given us a very full treatment of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the oldest in Christian iconography.