The Passion of Christ

The Women at the tomb

The bible narratives tell of women coming to the tomb of Christ and finding it empty. However, the four accounts differ greatly, which does not make it easy for artists. Here’s my attempt at four synopses.

Mary Magdelene and ‘the other Mary’ came to the tomb. There was a great earthquake , and an angel descended and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it.  The ‘keepers’ were terrified. The angel tells the women that Christ is not there – he has risen. The women run to tell the disciples.

Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices to the tomb. The wondered how they were going to roll away the stone, but when they reached it this had already happened. The entered, and saw ‘a young man’ in white who told them that Christ was not there, he was risen.  The women rushed to tell the disciples.

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James and ‘other women’  brought spices to the tomb and found the stone rolled away. They entered and were perplexed because there was no body. Then two men in shining garments appeared and asked the women why they were looking for the living among the dead., and told them that Christ was risen. They women told the disciples what they had seen.

Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw the stone had been rolled away. She rushed to Simon Peter and ‘the other disciple whom Jesus loved’ (presumably John) and told them that ‘they have taken the Lord out of the sepulchre’. Peter and John ran to the tomb, John getting there first. When Peter arrived they went in and saw that Christ had gone, though they did not yet realise that he had risen as they ‘knew not the scripture.’


Most versions are based on Mark and are known as 'the three Marys at the Tomb' (Salome is also known as Mary - biblical Marys can be a little confusing.) Why? This may reflect the importance of the number three in Christian theology. Here are some examples, starting with two very early images. 

Panel from the Bernward Doors, Hildesheim Cathedral.  1015

Illumination from The Benediction of St Aethelwold, 963 - 984. British Library

Lorenzo Monaco: Antiphonary, 1396

Duccio: from the Maesta, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

These images are clearly based on Mark, though both the Benedictional and the antiphonary add an element only mentioned by Matthew: The keepers stunned by the apparition of the angel. They also appear in the painting on the left below, attributed to Hubert van Eyck, looking like 'dead men' as Matthew puts it.
  Fra Angelico takes a different line. He combines the Women at the Tomb with the Resurrection, and includes more than three women, as suggested by Luke.

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Convento di San Marco, Florence

In contrast, these two even earlier images feature only two women, as in Mathew, but do not include the Keepers.

From the Rabbula Gospels, c586.  Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Florence

Mosaic, 6th century, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna

Finally, two versions based on Luke, with his two angels. Rubens (left)  also includes 'other women'  Jacapo di Cione settles for three.

Norton Simon museum,  Passadena

National Gallery. (detail) 

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