The old Russian Church year — and even the civil year until Peter the Great — began with the first of September, which is called the “Indiction,” a calendar usage that goes back to Roman times. It is paradoxical that while there is a specific icon type for the Indiction — the New Year — it is very seldom seen. Nonetheless, the painting of the Indiction is the first calendrical icon instruction found in — for example — the Bolshakov icon painter’s manual:
Let’s translate that:
“The beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year. And the Indiction is painted: The Savior stands in the Holy Place of God, he reads the book of Isaiah the Prophet.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ [Luke 4:18-19].
Above, Lord Sabaoth, and the Holy Spirit over the Savior, and round about Jews of all kinds.”
Well, that is rather clear. In actual icons painted of the Indiction, Jesus usually stands at a kind of lectern, reading from the Book of Isaiah, but of course in biblical times that would have been a scroll rather than a “codex” book. Let’s take a look at at what such an icon really looks like:
The title inscription (put into modern Cyrillic) reads:
НАЧАЛО ИНДИКТУ ЕЖЕ ЕСТЬ НОВОМУ ЛЕТУ
Nachalo indiktu ezhe est’ Novomu Lyetu
“The Beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year”
As the painter’s manual says:
“Above, Lord Sabaoth…” — well, Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) in Russian iconography is simply God the Father shown as an old man with a white beard. That irritates a lot of fundamentalistic E. Orthodox who say that one cannot paint God the Father in icons, but the reality is that for hundreds of years, God the Father has been painted in countless Eastern Orthodox icons all over the “Orthodox” world, and as as can be seen, here he is even in the painters’ manuals.
My amused, standard response to the “true believers” who say such an image is “heretical” is to point out that God the Father is even found at the top of the Kursk Root (Kurskaya-Korennaya) icon of Mary, which is considered “wonder-working” in Eastern Orthodoxy: so why would a supposed heretical image be found on a supposedly miracle-working icon? It is one of those things they cannot reasonably answer. But of course for the art and cultural historian, there is no “heresy” in icon painting; there is only the way icons were painted and used in the real world. One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy, so we have to look, in the study of icons, to what was really done in the past, not to what theologians and dogmatists of one brand or another would prefer to have been done.
The Holy Spirit, in Russian icons, is painted as a white dove (which usually looks more like a pigeon). So this Indiction icon often (but not always) includes all members of the E. Orthodox Trinity.
If you may be wondering why Jesus is shown twice in the icon shown here, that is because a common practice of Russian icons was to indicate the movement of time by showing two different scenes, making a “continuous” image that takes the viewer from one scene in time to another. So in this image we see Jesus both reading from the book of Isaiah and seated in discussion with the men of the synagogue. One might consider this an early precursor of animation — but it is “static” animation.
The point of using this icon type as the beginning icon for the Church year was first, that this preaching of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is usually considered the event marking the beginning of his public ministry; and second, the quotation from Isaiah ends with “the acceptable year of the Lord,” which came to be applied, in Russia, to the Church year as given in the calendar of saints and festal days. Ivan Shmelov (pronounced “Shmelyov”) wrote a book following the course of that religious year in old Russia, and titled it Lyeto Gospodne — “The Year of the Lord”
Here is the biblical account that forms the basis for the “Indiction” type:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
When one looks at the old painters’ manuals (podlinniki), they always begin with the images for September 1st. And when one looks at traditional Church calendars that give the saints and festal days for a given year, they too always begin with September 1st — the Indiction. That is not the case, however, with many modern Eastern Orthodox calendars.
Now let’s look at an interesting 14th century image of the Indiction, a fresco from the Dechani Monastery in Kosovo, Serbia:
In spite of the difference in style and detail, it is still easily recognizable as the same scene in the much later Russian icon. Note the red cloth draped over the architectural background, the traditional way of indicating that a scene is taking place in an interior.
We can easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.” But what is the longer inscription above the background structure? Here it is again:
И дáша емý кни́гу Исáiи прорóка:
I dasha emu knigu Isaii proroka
And was-given to-him [the] book of-Isaiah [the] prophet
In normal English, “…And there was given to him the book of Isaiah the Prophet.”
Finally, let’s take a look at the text on the book Jesus has opened:
It is read from top to bottom of the left page first, then the right:
Дýх[ъ] Г[оспóде]нь на мнѣ́:
егóже рáди по[мáза мя́]…
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me:
For he has anointed me….”
So we see it is the beginning of the text of Isaiah described in Luke 4:18.