Here is a 14th century fresco from Vysokie Dechani, in Serbia:
The visible inscription says only МОЛЕНИЕ/MOLENIE — “Prayer.” and below that we see the common title inscription identifying the woman as ΜΡ ΘΥ — Meter Theou — Greek for “Mother of God,” i.e. Mary.
So this fresco depicts Mary praying, but what is the story behind it?
It comes from the legendary tale of her “Dormition” — which means “Falling Asleep” — that is, her death. Earliest Christianity left no tradition about what became of Mary. It was not until the 5th century that stories giving varying accounts of her death began to appear.
The tradition in iconography relates that one day Mary went to Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and prayed that her soul might be taken from her body so that she might see her son again. The angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that her wish was to be granted: she would die in three days.
So that is what we see in this fresco from Dechani — the “Prayer of the Mother of God on the Mount of Olives.” This example does not show the angel (some do) — just a hand blessing from Heaven.
Now you may notice the stylized trees are all bent in Mary’s direction. That is because tradition says that when Mary said her prayer on the Mount of Olives, the trees bowed to her in reverence (we also find the motif of “bowing trees” in icons of Irene Chrysovolantou).
It is not surprising that we seldom see this subject on its own. Usually it is depicted as one of the scenes in detailed icons of the Dormition, such as this 17th century Russian example from Yaroslavl:
The image of the “Prayer of the Mother of God on the Mount of Olives” (Моление Богоматери на Елеонской горе/Molenie Bogomateri na Eleonskoy Gore) is the second scene from the left in the bottom row. Though small in the photo, we can see that it nonetheless has the same basic elements as the Dechani fresco.
You may recall the words often used to frighten and discipline misbehaving school children — “It is going on your permanent record.” Well, it was not only teachers who used this threat. It has long been practiced in Eastern Orthodox iconography as well.
Today we will look at an icon type more often found in fresco than in painted panel form Here is a rare example of the latter:
It obviously depicts two angels holding scrolls, but to find out who they are, we must read the title inscription at the top:
ѠБРАЗ АНГЕЛА ВХОДЯЩИХЪ И IСХОДЯЩИХЪ OBRAZ ANGELA VKHODYASHCHIKH” I ISKHODYASHCHIKH
“IMAGE OF THE ANGEL [of those] ENTERING AND [those] LEAVING.”
You may recall that some time ago we looked at frescos of the angel or angels painted at the entrance to Russian churches, who record the names of those entering the church:
Well, this icon is another and smaller version of that. Though sometimes the standing angel at the left is called Michael (and he may also carry a sword), and the (usually seated) angel at the right Gabriel, in other examples they may be anonymous, as are the angels in this painted panel example.
In it, we see the recording angels that note down the names and disposition of those who enter and those who leave the church — whether they are present, and whether they enter in a reverent manner, and whether they leave earlier than appropriate.
As you see, each angel in the icon holds a scroll, but instead of simply listing names, the scrolls in this example bear pious inscriptions.
Here is the angel at left:
His scroll reads (I am putting it in the modern Russian font):
Радуйтеся и веселитеся, яко мзда ваша мн[ога на небесех].
Raduitesya i veselitesya, yako mzda vasha mn[oga na nebesekh].
It is the first words of Matthew 5:12:
“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”
Here is the angel on the right:
He has a pen in hand, and he has written:
It is the beginning of Psalm 33:1 (Psalm 32:1 in Western numbering):
Радуйтеся, пра[веднии, о Господе: правым подобает похвала]. Raduitesya, pra[vednii, o Gospode: pravuim podobaet pokhvala].
“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.”
The motif of an angel with a scroll is called — sensibly enough — Ангел со свитком/Angel so svitkom — “The Angel with a Scroll.”
An icon from the Blagovyeshchenie (Annunciation) Monastery in Murom shows an “Angel with a Scroll,” and the title inscription identifies it as the angel seen in the vision of “Holy Father Ammon,” who saw “the Angel of the Lord Sitting and Writing Names of Those Entering the Church of God.”
This relates to the old tale that the Egyptian monk-priest Ammon was given the ability to see spiritual things. Once during the Eucharist, he saw an angel near the altar who was writing down the names of those present, and crossing out the names of the absent monks.
The scroll of the Murom angel reads:
“The Angel of the Lord Writes Down the Names of Those Entering the Church of the Lord ….”
Sometimes the inscription is a bit longer:
Ангел Господень написует имена входящыя в церковь Господню со страхом, и с верою.
ANGEL GOSPODEN’ NAPISUET IMENA VKHODYASHCHUIYA V TSERKOV’ GOSPODNIU SO STRAKHOM I S VEROIU.
“The Angel of the Lord writes down the names of those entering the Church of the Lord with Fear and with belief.”
As mentioned in my earlier posting, a single recording angel is sometimes simply known as the Ангел храма — Angel Khrama — “Angel of the Church.” It is believed that this angel becomes the protector of a church when it is consecrated, and remains on duty there until the Second Coming — even, it is said, if the church is destroyed. Such an angel may be depicted as standing or sitting, recording on his scroll the names of those entering the church, noting those absent or late or leaving early, so that he may give his report on them at the Last Judgment.
It is written in the Spiritual Meadow that Abba Leontios — the priest of the coenobitic Monastery of St. Theodosios — reported:
“Once on Sunday I came to church to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. On entering the temple, I saw an angel standing at the right side of the throne [the altar]. Horrified, I retired to my cell. And there came a voice to me: ‘Since this throne was consecrated, I am commanded to be with it all the time.'”
Now obviously there is a relationship here to the standard image of the Guardian Angel in icons, who follows each person through life, recording his deeds. Sometimes the iconography of the two becomes mixed, particularly when the angel writing on a scroll is simply called “The Angel with a Scroll.”
Today we will look at the iconography of one of the saints of the island of Crete:
In the center we see the large image of the saint himself. If it once had his title, it is worn away. But we see it abbreviated in another similar icon of the same fellow:
abbreviating Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC/Ho Hagios — “The Holy”;
And we see
It has a mark of abbreviation above it. It abbreviates ΙѠΑΝΝΗC/Ioannes — “John”:
And finally, divided into two parts at the sides of his head, we find:
Ὁ ΕΡΗ ΜΙΤΗC — Ho Eremites — “The Hermit.“
If we put it all together, we get:
Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC ΙѠΑΝΝΗC Ὁ ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC HO HAGIOS IOANNES HO EREMITES
“[The] HOLY JOHN THE HERMIT.”
Because he was a monk, John is often titled Όσιος Ιωάννης ο Ερημίτης/Hosios Ioannes ho Eremites. You will recall that Hosios is the Greek equivalent of the Russian Prepodobnuiy; it signifies a male monastic.
You may have recognized that the Greek word ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC/Eremites is already found in English as “eremite,” and in fact our English word “hermit” comes ultimately from the Greek eremites, which in turn is derived from Greek ἔρημος/eremos — meaning a deserted, wild place. It is the word used in the New Testament for the “desert” where John the Forerunner/Baptist preached. So an eremite or hermit was originally one who went out to live in wild, uninhabited places — like the Judean desert, or the Nitrian Desert in Egypt.
The icon of John the Hermit tells the hagiographic tale of his life in condensed form. We will look at elements of this tale taken from two similar icons. Remember that these lives of the saints are not literal history, but rather tales to inspire and entertain believers — so they are often a mixture of history and fanciful fiction — and sometimes entirely fiction.
The tale tells us that in the year 1600 (others say it may have been even some two centuries earlier) 36 monastics came with John from Egypt to lead ascetic lives on the island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea. There they made such a local impression that they were joined by 39 more — this time Cypriots. By this time, things were so lively around them that they wanted to find a quieter place to live a monastic life. First they tried going to Antalya in Asia Minor (now in Turkey), but again they were pestered by lots of religious “groupies.” Nonetheless, another 24 monastics joined them, so now they were, all together, 99 monks. They decided that number was enough, and would not accept more, because they considered Jesus to the the 100th member of their community — a nice round number.
To find a quieter place for their ascetic lifestyle, they got on a ship and headed for the island of Crete, but the weather was bad and the sea rough, so they only managed to make it to the island of Gavdos, which is about 26 miles south of Crete. There they stayed only for 24 days, and then set off again, sailing to Crete.
When they got there, they discovered that John was missing. According to the tale, he had fallen asleep on Gavdos, and so missed the boat when all the others got on board to sail for Crete.
When they found John was gone, they went to the beach and waited there for him. And John was supposedly able to miraculously put his mantle on the sea, and using his staff as a mast, he stepped onto the cloth and sailed across the waters to join the other monks on Crete.
That is what we see in this part of the icon. At the top is the ship. Below it, John stands at right on the island of Gavdos. Another monk stands on the shore of Crete, opposite him. And then below that we see John sailing across the sea from Gavdos to Crete on his cloth mantle:
Below that, we find the old monks all gathered together, and above them is a Greek inscription identifying them as ῾Η Σύναξις τῶν Γερόντων/He Synaxis ton Geronton — “The Assembly of the Elders.”
The remainder of scenes on the left side of the icon deal with the death of John.
The monks, having arrived on Crete, lived in caves. John eventually went off to find a place by himself.
So he left the 98 other “Fathers,” and went to Akrotiri on Crete. There he managed to live in a cave he found for many years.
It is said that John prayed so much on his knees that at last he had trouble standing, and would crawl about on all fours. It happened that one day when he was out gathering greens for food, a hunter passing by with his bow and arrows mistook John crawling in the bushes for a beast, and shot him with an arrow.
He begged and received John’s forgiveness.
John is said to have breathed his last in his cave, and in the icon we see his koimesis/”dormition” there — his death, with an angel on each side of his body.
Here is the second of the two icons of John the Hermit, which as you can see, is much the same as the first.
There is a particularly peculiar element in John’s hagiography. He is supposed to have made an agreement with the other 98 monks that when one of them died, they would all die. And it is said that when the hunter who accidentally killed John went to inform the other monks of John’s death, he found that they had already died at the time when John died.
Here is yet another “icon in a tree” image. If you look closely, however, you will see that there is also a large fish and a round loaf of bread in the tree:
It all relates to the story of another of the monastic founder monks of the “Northern Thebaid” — one of those who wandered off into the forested wilds of northern Russia. This one is “Holy Venerable Martyr Adrian Poshekhonskiy, Wonderworker.”
Adrian was a monk at the Vologda-Korneliev Monastery. He supposedly had a vision in which Mary appeared to him, telling him to go into the northern wilds and build a church there. An alternate account says that while at that monastery, Adrian met a strange old starets (religious elder) named Bestuzh, who told Adrian his future was to build a church in a wild place, and also told Adrian he knew where that place was to be found.
With the permission of his abbot, Adrian set off into the forests with his fellow monk Leonid, and the strange starets travelled with them, guiding their way into the swampy, forested region. when they arrived at their destination, the starets mysteriously vanished — and they determined from this that he must have been an angel sent to guide and protect them.
They had brought with them an icon of the Dormition (Uspenie) of the Mother of God, and this they hung in an oak tree. Then they went off into the forest — some say to look for whatever mushrooms and berries they might find to eat.
While they were gone, some local fishermen from the village of Beloselsk came into the area, fishing on the Vetka River at the same place where the monks had hung the icon of Mary. There they were able to catch two extraordinarily large pike (a kind of fish). One of them found the icon — some say shining with a bright light — and climbed up and attempted to take the icon from the tree, but a strong unseen force pushed him away. Impressed by all this, the fishermen left offerings at the tree, in the form of fish and bread. That accounts for the large fish we see lying across a branch of the tree in the icon, and it also accounts for the round loaf near it.
When Adrian and his companion returned, they were surprised to find the food left at the tree.
Feeling this was the spot for their church, the monks set to work. Other people in the region came to them and helped, and eventually a church and monastery rose on the site.
There was trouble, however. In the year 1550, robbers came from the village of Beloye to the monastery, thinking that there must be wealth inside. They tried to get Adrian — now the abbot — to reveal the wealth, but when he told them there was only 40 Rubles for the construction work, they strangled him with a rope and killed other monks as well.
The story is that that the robbers carried away Adrian’s body. Some say they just threw it aside in the forest, and that later a priest found it, buried it, and planted a rowan tree over the grave. The killing of Adrian is why he has the title Prepodobnomuchenik — “Venerable Marytr,” that is, a monk-martyr.
As these tales go, however, that was not the end. It is said that people in one of the local villages on the Ukra River began to notice something odd. If they were ill and happened to eat the berries from a certain rowan tree (rowan trees, by the way, were often considered sacred in pre-Christian times), they would suddenly find themselves well again. Of course word about this miraculous tree got out, and some priests finally came to investigate in the year 1625. They dug under the rowan tree, and there, it is said, they found the incorrupt body of Adrian. And of course the usual tales of miraculous healings associated with the remains of Adrian followed.
Though icons of Adrian have the same general form, depicting Adrian on one side and the tree with the the icon of the Dormition, fish, and loaf in it on the other, some examples — like the one above — also include the fishermen with their nets in the river, and one of them finding the icon. Other examples show an additional monk or monks standing with Adrian Some also show in the background the monastery he founded, as in this icon:
There are a number of icons related to Russian history. This is one of them, painted near the end of the 18th century:
As you can tell, it is another of those icons using the motif of the “icon in a tree.”
If we look at the inscription at the base, we find it tells us what the scene represents:
Како Яавися Икона Свяыителя Николы Чюдотворца
Великому Князю Димитрию Иоанновичу Донскому
на Месте нзываемом Угреша В лето [date]
В походе на Мамая
“How the icon of Bishop Nicholas the Wonderworker appeared to Great Prince Dimitriy Ioannovich Donskoy at the place called Ugresh in the year 1379-9 in the campaign against Mamai.”
The date in Cyrillic letter numbers in the inscription appears to read 1379 — 9[th month, i.e. September] though the conventional date given for the event is September of 1380.
In any case, the legend is that Dimitriy had brought his soldiers out to do battle with the Tatar Khan Mamai. But before the battle, an icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker “miraculously” appeared in a tree. That, of course was seen as a divine sign that Dimitriy and his army would be successful in overcoming the forces of Mamai.
Dimitriy is said (though that too appears to be just a legend) to have founded the Nikolo-Ugreshkiy Monastery on the site of the appearance, which came to be called Ugresh, because Dimitriy had supposedly exclaimed on seeing the miraculous appearance of the icon, “This all has warmed [ugresha] my heart” (Сия вся угреша сердце мое).
Here is a closer look at Dimitriy kneeling before the icon in the tree:
It is interesting to see how the painter has stylized the “hills”:
Even before identifying who is depicted in this icon, we can nonetheless immediately tell certain things about it.
First, because of the arched border decorated with geometric designs, and incised and painted to imitate enamel, we know it dates in the period from the latter part of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century.
Second, because it is painted in a semi- “realistic” manner, we can tell that it is a State Church icon and not an Old Believer icon.
Now as to who it depicts, well, there are lots of rather obscure female saints in the Eastern Orthodox calendar, and many of them are shown in just the same way, with the same kind of garments. So her appearance does not tell us much. And of course her features are entirely the product of the imagination, given that no one has the slightest idea what she really looked like.
Given that there are no characteristics other than the generic in her iconography, the painter has given her same scroll text as held by the similar-appearing and more noted female saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa — the so-called “Symbol of Faith” that begins:
“I believe in one God the Father Almighty… [etc. etc.]”
In icons of Paraskeva, however, it is more common for the unrolled scroll to extend upward from her hand, instead of downward.
There is not much to Galina’s hagiographic tale, given that she is included among a group said to have been martyred at Corinth in the 3rd century.
She was supposedly instructed in Christianity by the Elder (and later martyr) Kodrat (Quadratus). It is said that in the persecution under Emperor Trajan Decius (249-251), a hegemon named Jason came to Corinth, where he imprisoned Kodrat and his disciples, one of whom was Galina (her name is given as Calla in one account). It is said that she and the others were beheaded, and on the spot of their execution a clear spring of water burst forth out of the ground.
Well, that is one version. Another says that she was martyred under Emperor Valerian (253-260). In this account, instead of being beheaded, she and other women, along with the male martyr Leonidas, were thrown into the sea to drown. However they did not sink, but instead walked on the waves, singing Christian hymns all the while. So their persecutors caught up with them by boat, tied stones around their necks, and that way they were finally drowned and martyred. Now as one can tell, her hagiography is not reliable as history.
There is another Saint Galina celebrated on a different day, but she is titled Pravednaya (“Righteous”) or sometimes Blazhennaya (“Blessed”) rather than Muchenitsa (“Martyress”). By tradition she was the daughter of Emperor Severus, and was moved to become a Christian by exposure to the noted saint Kharlampiy/Haralambos of Magnesia. She can generally easily be distinguished from Galina the Martyress because “Righteous” Galina is commonly depicted wearing a crown.
I do not know by whom or where this contemporary icon in the Neo-byzantine manner often used in modern Greek Orthodoxy (whether in Greece or abroad) was painted:
Nonetheless, I was quite amused to see it, because it exemplifies the ongoing borrowing of iconographic imagery from non-Eastern Orthodox sources — whether Catholic or Protestant — that we have seen so often in the earlier history of icons.
Most Eastern Orthodox are not likely to know the source of this icon, but I recognized it immediately. It is from a painting by that most ubiquitous 20th century painter of Protestant religious art — Warner Sallman (April 30, 1892 – May 25, 1968). His paintings — in countless printed reproductions — were widely found in Protestant churches and homes in the last century, and are still reproduced today:
Yes, the icon painter has added a traditional halo containing the cross and Greek Ho On inscription to the head of Jesus, and he has changed the hair style of the boy at the wheel by making it less mid-20th century American, but these and the other small changes do nothing to disguise the source of the image.
The original title of the Sallman painting is “Christ our Pilot.” It calls to mind the once-popular Protestant hymn by Edward Hopper (1816-1888), first published in The Sailor’s Magazine and Seaman’s Friend in the March 3, 1871, and later found in Protestant hymnals. Hopper’s inspiration came from the accounts of Jesus stilling the storm on the sea of Galilee in the Gospels (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). The melody added to the verses was composed by John Edgar Gould (1822-1875), of Bangor, Maine. The first verse of the hymn is:
Jesus, Saviour, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea; Unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treach’rous shoal; Chart and compass come from Thee—Jesus, Saviour, pilot me.
Just as Western European religious engravings found their way into Eastern Orthodox iconography from Mount Athos to Russia in earlier centuries, this mid-20th century painting by a Protestant from Chicago seems to have found its way into modern Eastern Orthodox iconography — or at least an icon painted in the Eastern Orthodox manner.