Seeing actual painter’s manuals is often something of a letdown for the student of icons, who may expect to find every saint, every festal day, every “wonderworking” icon of Mary, as well as every other icon type in existence depicted and described. It is not going to happen. The greater part of most podlinniki is taken up with rather dull and repetitive descriptions of hundreds of saints who differ little from one another in appearance, and descriptions of how they are to be painted. A few major festal icons may be included, but for the descriptions of the vast majority of icons of Mary, or even of Jesus, etc. — one must look elsewhere.
Podlinniks (more accurately, podlinniki) can be divided into those that are predominantly illustrated — such as the Stroganov Podlinnik — and those that are non-illustrated descriptive text only, such as the “Filimonov” Podlinnik.
The beginning student of icons should first learn both the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, because a Russian podlinnik will be in Cyrillic letters, and the Greek examples of the equivalent — the hermineia — are written in Greek. But don’t worry. You do not have to learn the entire Russian or Greek language. You just have to accumulate a useful, basic vocabulary of terms, and that will take you a long way, because painter’s manuals and icon inscriptions in general are VERY repetitive. You will begin to see how repetitive just from the first couple of pages of the Stroganov Podlinnik, which I have shown here.
Those who want to read the Russian podlinniki in their originals will want to become familiar with the old names for pigments used in painting, because those are the colors described in the manuals. Learning all these things is a gradual process, and one can go as quickly or as slowly as one wishes. I have already posted an article on the icon painter’s palette — the old color names and their meanings — which you will find in the archives.
Here is the beginning page for September from the Stroganov Podlinnik, along with transliterations of its information. Those who have been reading this site for a while will recall that the important icon for the beginning of September is the “Indiction” type, which represents the beginning of the Church year — yet it is not included in this podlinnik, which begins instead with the standard first saint for podlinniki, Simeon “Stolpnik,” meaning essentially Simeon “the pillar guy” — the saint who lived atop a pillar, often known by his Greek title Stylites, which means the same as “Stolpnik” in Russian. There is more than one “pillar guy” icon saint, so that is why title inscriptions are very important.
Let’s take a look:
You can see that there are four saints on this page, the first two under the letter “a,” the second two under what looks like a B, but it is actually the third letter of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is pronounced like a “v.” But these letters are also numbers, so the “a” means day “1,” and the “B” means day “3.” So right away we see that this podlinnik has omitted the saints for September 2nd.
Starting from the left, we can skip most of the first inscription because it tells us simply that it is the month of September, which has 30 days, with 12 hours in a day, 12 in a night. So let’s get on to the important descriptions, which begin like this:
1. Prepodobnuiy Simeon. Syed. Stolpnika
2. Prepodobnaya Mar’fa riza dich bagor z belilom is[pod] sankir.
3. Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod’ lazor’
It tells us that the left-hand image is that of “Prepodobnuiy” Simeon. Prepodobnuiy is a title literally meaning “most like,” meaning “most like Christ,” but in icon inscriptions it means a person is a monk. We are given a very brief description of how he is to be painted: Syed — “Grey.” That means his hair is grey. Beyond that all it tells us is “Stolpnik,” meaning Simeon is a “pillar guy,” depicted atop a pillar. So we know this Stolpnik is Simeon of the Pillar, Simeon Stylites, which means the same thing.
The next figure from the left, we are told, is “Prepodobnaya” Marfa. Prepodobnaya is just the feminine form of Prepodobnuiy, so Prepodobnaya means the saint is a nun. “Marfa” is just the Russian form of “Martha.” In Russian the Greek “th” is usually replaced by an “f” sound, because Russian did not have a “th” sound. It says of the nun Martha that she is painted “Riza dich.” Riza is the generic term for a robe. So we know that Martha’s robe is “dich,” which, if you read my posting on icon pigment colors, you will recall as a grey color, sometimes with a faint bluish tinge. It adds bagor –reddish purple — with byelila, — white — and that the ispod — the garment beneath — is sankir — the dark brownish color used in many ways in icons, including as the foundation color — the first-painted layer of tempera — for flesh and other objects.
The page skips September 2nd and goes to two saints for September 3rd,the first of which is Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod lazor.
“Svyatuiy” just means “holy” or “saint.” So this is saint Mamant. His riza — his robe — is kinovar — that bright red made of powdered cinnabar, mercury sulphide. Ispod — the undergarment — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue, the best of which was made of powdered lapis lazuli.
And next to Mamant is the commemoration of Prepodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsarya grada. Rus’. Prepodobnago is just another grammatical form of Prepodobnuiy. It means this is the day “of the monk saint” Ioann Postnik, meaning Ioann the Faster ( fasting in the sense of abstaining from food, not in the sense of moving speedily). He is Patriarkha Tsaryagrada — the Patriarch of the Tsar City, meaning Constantinople. And finally, it tells us that Ioann is “rus,” which refers to his hair color, just as “syed” referred to the hair color of Simeon Stolpnik. Rus’ means literally “Russian,” meaning his hair is like that of a lot of Russians, a kind of light brown to dark blond.
Now we move on to the 3rd and 4th days of September.
The first description on the left tells us this day is the commemoration Svayatago Svyashchennomuchenika Anfim’ Episkop’ Nikomidiskiy. Svyatago is just again the “of” form of Svyatuiy, meaning”Saint” or “Holy.” So this is the day of commemoration of Holy Svyashcennomuchenika Anfim’ You will recall that a muchenik is a martyr. This fellow is a Svyashchenno-muchenik, meaning a priest-martyr. And his name is Anfim. It tells us further that he is Episkop’ — meaning bishop — Nikomidiskiy — of a place called Nicomedia. We are told he is syed, meaning grey-haired, and that his riza — his robe — is kreshchata, ornamented with crosses (cross patterns on the robe).
The second description from the left tells us that on Toy zhe den’ — meaning “on the same day,” is also celebrated Prepodobnuiy Feoktist’. If you have been paying attention, you will know that the first word means he is a monk saint, and the second word is his name, Feoktist. We are told he is syed, which again is a word you know now. It means his hair (and beard if he has one, which he does) are grey. Then it tells us his riza ispod — the undergarment beneath his monk’s robe — is vokhra z byelilom — ochre with white.
The third fellow from left — on the 4th of September — is Svyatuiy Muchenik Vavila — Holy Marytr Vavila. He is syed — grey-haired. His Riza is with krestuiy bagrovui, ornamented with crosses that are bagrovuiy — a form of bagor — meaning crosses that are reddish-purple. But the youths — the three mladentsi with him — are v sorochnakh — in “shirts” loosely, but a better way to translate v sorochnakh would be “in tunics.”
There are a couple of notes added , one of which says V’ toy zhe den’ Moisey Bogovidets’ — “On the same day Moses the God-seer,” and the other says Cei den’ praznouem neopalimiya koupinuiy, meaning “This day is celebrated the Unburnt Thornbush,” meaning the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary. Neither Moses (the Old Testament fellow) nor the icon are shown.
The last guy on the right is Svatuiy Vavila Nikomidiskiy, “Holy Vavila of Nicomedia.” We are told he is syed, which should be an old word to you by now — meaning grey [-haired], and that his riza verkh is bagor (reddish-purple) dich [grey]. Riza, you will recall, means “robe.” And verkh means “outer.” So when talking about robes, the verkh is the outer robe, and the ispod is the robe beneath or “under.” The painter adds the note that the probel — the highlighting on the robe — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue. And finally the ispod — the under-robe — is bakan dich. Bakan is a dark red, and dich, you will recall, is grey to grey-blue.
We have only covered some main saints for four days, and already you can see how very repetitive this all is, which is why it is not really difficult to learn to read icon titles and a good part of the podlinniki — the painter’s manuals — as well. Now imagine how many of these saints one has to go through for the whole year, and you begin to get an idea of just how dull these manuals really are. They are not page-turners, they were not meant for reading enjoyment. They really were just working documents for icon painters that enabled them to follow the standard forms for hundreds of common saints (and the Stroganov Podlinnik does not include all the saints in the calendar by any means). They were the painter’s equivalent of a schematic diagram in electronics. One referred to it to make sure one was assembling a saint on the prepared icon board correctly.
One had to have the descriptions of all these saints not only to paint calendar icons, but also for those patrons who would come in and want to order an icon of their “Angel Day” saint — meaning their name-day saint. Russians were named for these saints, so, for example, a fellow named “Feoktist” would want an icon of his saint, who was also named Feoktist.
All of this kept the icon painters in business, but it could be deadly dull work for them, as one can imagine, with little room left for imagination and creativity.
If you would like to examine the Stroganov Podlinnik in more detail, it can be downloaded free of charge at the following site:
There is a lot of romanticized nonsense written about the painting of icons in old Russia. The fact is that it was a business and a very large business, in spite of sometimes using the euphemism “exchange” for the selling of icons — or more obviously, “to exchange for money.” Huge numbers of icons were sold every year, produced in workshops ranging from large, multi-employee operations to small family or even one-person operations. A good part of icon painting was done by Old Believers, who kept to the old and traditional styles, though some of the workshops — like the one depicted here — could paint in both styles, just as the earlier Cretan workshops in the Greek Islands had produced icons both in the “Byzantine” style and according to Western Roman Catholic taste.
The following excerpts are an actual glimpse into a pre-Revolution icon workshop in Russia through the eyes of Maxim Gorkiy, who was apprenticed to one when young. We should not be surprised at the prevalence of drinking and drunkenness at that time, nor should we consider it odd that workers often saw their task of icon painting as a tedious job (which it was), and were sometimes frustrated by the limits that the necessity of being “living copy machines” put on their artistic impulses. As we see, by this time icon painting had become a production-line process, which is one reason for the tremendous output of icon painting studios, even though they were still doing hand work.
Gorkiy worked in the icon painting studio at a time when icon painting was beginning to be threatened by lithography on paper and on tin — much less expensive to buy than hand painting — and that caused the icon business to already begin its decline, even years before the Russian Revolution was to cut it back sharply for other reasons.
These excerpts are from Gorkiy’s autobiography In the World (V Liudakh}:
The icon-painting workshop took up two rooms in a large house built partly of stone. One room had three windows, one overlooking the yard and one overlooking the garden; the other room had one window overlooking the garden and another facing the street. These windows were small and square, and their panes, distorted with age, unwillingly admitted the pale diffused light of winter days. Both rooms were closely packed with tables, and at every table sat the bent figures of icon painters.
Glass balls full of water were suspended from the ceiling, to reflect the light of the lamps and to throw it upon the square surfaces of the icons in cold, white rays.
It was hot and stuffy in the workshop. Here about twenty men worked, icon painters from Palekh, Kholuiy, and Mstera [the three most noted icon-painting villages at that time]. They all sat in cotton shirts with unfastened collars. They had pants made of ticking, and were barefoot, or wore sandals.
Over their heads, like a blue veil, stretched the smoke of cheap tobacco, and there was a heavy smell of sizing [gluey substance in gesso], varnish, and rotten eggs [egg yolks were used to bind the powdered pigments]. A melancholy Vladimir [town and region] song flowed slowly, like pitch:
How depraved people have become; A boy ruined a girl, and did not care.
They sang other melancholy songs, but that was the one they sang most often. Its long, drawn out movement did not keep one from thinking or impede the motion of the fine brush, made of weasel hair, over the surface of the icons, as it painted the lines of a figure and laid fine lines of suffering upon the emaciated faces of the saints.
By the windows the chaser, Golovev, worked his little hammer. He was a drunken old man with an enormous blue nose. The lazy flow of song was punctuated by the ceaseless tapping of the hammer, like a worm gnawing at a tree.
Some evil genius had divided the work [of icon making] into a long series of actions bereft of beauty and incapable of arousing any love for the business or interest in it. Panfil, the squinting joiner [woodworker], brought the pieces of cypress and lilac-wood of different sizes, which he had planed and glued [the panels on which the icons were painted]. The consumptive [with tuberculosis] lad Davidov laid the colors on. His friend Sorokin painted on the inscription; Milyashin outlined the design from an original with a pencil; old Golovev gilded it and embossed the gold pattern [impressed patterns into the gilded gesso]. The finishers added the landscape [background] and the clothes of the figures; and then they were placed — without faces or hands — against the wall, waiting for the work of the face painter [the worker who did all the visible “flesh,” including the faces of the saints].
It was very weird to see a large icon for an iconostasis, or the doors for an altar, standing against the wall without faces, hands, or feet — just the clerical vestments, or the armor and the short tunics of archangels. These variously-painted panels suggested death; that which should have added life to them was absent, but it seemed as though it had been there but had vanished, leaving only the heavy robes behind.
When the features had been painted in by the face painter, the icon was handed to the workman who filled in the design of the chaser. A different workman did the lettering, and the varnish [olifa] was applied by the head workman himself, Ivan Larionovich, a quiet man. He had a gray face; his beard was gray too, the hairs fine and silky. His gray eyes were particularly deep and sad. He had a pleasant smile, but one could not smile at him; he made one feel somehow awkward. He looked like the image of Simeon Stolpnik [Simeon Stylites], just as skinny and emaciated, and his motionless eyes looked far off in the same abstract way, through people and walls.
Some days after I had entered the workshop, the banner worker [maker of religious and processional banners], a Don Cossack named Kapendiukhin, a strong, handsome fellow, arrived completely drunk. With clenched teeth and his gentle, womanish eyes blinking, he began to smash up everything with his iron fist, without saying a word. Of medium height, he threw himself on the workroom like a cat chasing rats in a cellar. The others lost their composure and hid themselves away in corners, shouting out to one another, “Knock him down!”
The face painter, Evgeniy Sitanov, succeeded in stunning the maddened creature by hitting him on the head with a small stool….
Larionovich appeared on the scene in cap and overcoat, shook his finger at Sitanov, and said to the workmen in a quiet, professional tone, “Carry him into the vestibule, and leave him there ’til he is sober….”
I looked at Larionovich, wondering perplexedly why these strong, belligerent people were so easily controlled by him. He showed every one how he ought to work. Even the best workmen willingly listened to his advice. He taught Kapenduikhin more, with more words, than the others:
“You, Kapendiukhin, are what is called a painter; that is, you ought to paint from life in the Italian manner [the “Westernized” icon style]. Painting in oils requires warm colors, and you have used too much white and have made Our Lady’s eyes cold as winter. The cheeks are painted red, like apples, so that the eyes don’t seem to belong to them. And they are not put in right, either. One is looking over the bridge of the nose, and the other has moved toward the forehead; and the face has not come out pure and holy, but crafty and wintry. You don’t concentrate on your work, Kapendiukhin!….”
Zhikarev…went on with his work. He was the best workman we had, for he could paint faces in the Byzantine manner [the old style] and artistically in the new Italian style. When he took orders for iconostases, Larionovich consulted him. He had a fine knowledge of all the original images. All of the costly copies of miracle-working icons, “Feodorov,” “Kazan,” and others, passed through his hands. But when he looked at the model he growled loudly, “These models tie us down; there is no getting away from that fact.”
In spite of his superior place in the workshop, he was less conceited than others, and was kind to the apprentices — me and Pavel. He wanted to teach us the work, since no one else ever bothered about us.
He was difficult to fathom. He was not usually cheerful, and sometimes he would work for a whole week in silence, as if mute. He looked at everyone like strangers who amazed him, as if it were the first time he had come across such people. And although very fond of singing, at such times he did not sing, nor even listen to the songs. All the others watched him, winking at one another.
He would bend over an icon, which stood aslant, his panel on his knees, the middle resting on the edge of the table, while his fine brush diligently painted the dark, foreign face. He was dark and foreign-looking himself. Suddenly he would say in a clear, offended tone,
“Forerunner” [Predtecha] — what does that mean? Tech, in ancient language, means ‘to go.” A “forerunner” is one who goes before, and that is all” [John the Baptist is called Ioann Predtecha — “John the Forerunner”].
The workshop was very quiet; everyone was glancing sidewise at Zhikarev, snickering, and in the stillness rang out these strange words:
“He ought to be painted with a sheepskin and wings [he is speaking of the image of John the Forerunner as ‘Angel of the Wilderness’ — John the Baptist]”
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
He was silent, either not hearing my question or not caring to answer. Then his words fell again into the expectant silence:
“The lives of the saints are what we ought to know! What do we know? We live without wings. Where is the soul? The soul — where is it? The originals are there — yes — but where is the soul?”
…I remember when the copy of the “Feodorov” Mother of God was finished, Zhikarev placed the icon on the table and said loudly, excitedly:
“It is finished, Little Mother! Bright Chalice, Thou! Thou bottomless cup, in which are shed the bitter tears from the hearts of a world of creatures!” And, throwing an overcoat on his shoulders, he went out to the tavern. The young men laughed and whistled, the older ones looked after him with envious sighs, and Sitanov went to his work. Looking at it attentively, he explained, “Of course he will go and get drunk, because he is sorry to have to hand over his work. That sort of regret is not given to all.”
This late 19th century icon of Christ as “Lord Almighty” shows the kind of border ornamentation often popular in icons of the period. The incised border and halo are painted with imitation cloisonné enamel work. The text on the Gospel book reads “Priidite ko mne vsi truzhdaiushchiysya i obremeneney… ” etc. “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”
IIn the Eastern Orthodox division of Christianity, which is the primary creator and user of Christian religious icons, there is a very strong emphasis on tradition. But tradition can at times be perilous, and it certainly does not guarantee freedom from error.
Eastern Orthodoxy has never been particularly careful about what it chose to accept as tradition, and this is quite obvious in the stories of the saints, which most believers — until very recently — took to be absolutely true, but which are filled with fictions and fantasy.
Some saints in the Orthodox calendar never existed, or else their existence has been so distorted and fantasized that they are no longer recognizable.
One of quite a number of such errors is seen here: the painting and veneration of icons of a saint called Christopher “Dog-head,” Christopher Kynokephalos.
Yes, the people who painted these icons — which were even included in the painters’ manuals — really did believe that there was a saint who had the head of a dog. But to put that in perspective, keep in mind that icons used to have inscriptions dating the time of their painting from the creation of the world, which the icon painters (and the rest of the Church) believed took place only some 7,000 years ago. That tradition, held for about as long as Eastern Orthodoxy has had a formal dogmatic proclamation authorizing the veneration and making of icons and cursing those who refuse to accept them, has now been quietly retired, except among very conservative Eastern Orthodox, including no doubt many Old Believers.
And though icons of St. Christopher “Dog-head” were painted and venerated in both the Russian and Greek branches of the church, and of course instructions were found in painters’ manuals, one does not generally see new icons of this saint being painted today, or even old ones being venerated in the churches. This saint — in this form — has also been quietly retired, because some traditions do come back to bite you.
There were stories of dog-headed men in early pre-Christian Greek writings, so it is not surprising that when people read that there was a saint from the land of dog-headed men whose name was Christopher (Khristophoros = “Bearer of Christ”), they assumed that he was one of an odd race at the edge of the world, and that he — a soldier — had been converted to Christianity. The “dog-headed men” in these old stories — at least when referring to Africa — may have actually been baboons, which the Greeks later called “Dog-headed Ones” (kynokephaloi).
In Herodotus, Histories 4. 191. 3 (circa 5th century B.C.) we find :
“For the eastern part of Libya, which is inhabited by nomads, is low-lying and sandy as far as the Triton river; but the land west of this, where the farmers live, is very mountainous and wooded and filled with wild animals. In that country are huge snakes and lions, and elephants and bears and asps, horned asses, and the Dog-headed and the Headless men who have their eyes in their chests, as the Libyans say, and the wild men and women…. “
Other early accounts place dog-headed men in India as well.
Christians accepted the existence of dog-headed men as part of the supposed “knowledge” of the time.
On Cyprus at a much later date, another tradition developed, saying that Christopher was not born with a dog’s head. Instead, he was such a strikingly handsome youth that women were always after him. Wanting to avoid temptation, Christopher prayed to God, who in answer to the prayer changed his head to that of a dog.
There is a very good summary of the origins — speculative, inevitably, but well done — of the cult of St. Christopher at this site:
As is common, this summary states that there is no connection between Christopher and Greco-Roman depictions of the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis. Perhaps. But the resemblance to icons of Christopher is nonetheless remarkable, and there are many blank spots in his history.
The earliest surviving Eastern Orthodox example of an icon of Christopher dog-head seems to be this Latin-inscribed ceramic image from Macedonia, depicting him with St. George, dating from the 6th-7th century c.e.:
In the “modernizing” reign of Peter the Great, the “Holy Synod” censored the painting of icons of Christopher Dog-head in Russia in 1722, but as with the earlier Stoglav proclamation against painting icons of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof), it was often ignored in everyday practice, particularly by the Old Believers who did not accept rulings of the State Church, and by those painting icons for the Old Believers. People saw no need to stop doing what had long been done, because in Orthodoxy tradition is very important. In Russian icons, Christopher’s head sometimes tends to look more like that of a horse than the more dog-like depictions favored in Greek icons.
Here is a lubok (print on paper) version of Christopher, with a troparion and kontakion added at the base:
Here is an Old Believer icon of Christopher “with the life,” that is, showing significant incidents from the hagiographic tale of this saint:
Was there ever a real “Christopher,” under any name, with or without a dog’s head? It hardly matters, because the story is so distorted by time and imagination that any real person who may have been behind it has been submerged in hagiography to the point of oblivion. It is often the case that there is little or no difference between Eastern Orthodox traditions and folk tales.
An old Russian painters’ manual describes how he is to be painted:
And the Holy Martyr Christopher: A dog’s head, in armor, in the hand a cross and in the other a sword in sheath; outer robe cinnabar with white, under green; elsewhere is written: Christopher: young man like Demetrius of Thessalonika, robe carmine, under green, in the hand a scroll:
“Lord Almighty, where my memory is honored and you are praised, save them from sin and do not judge them.”
In the following example, a so-called “prayer” icon — Christopher “Dog-head” is seen in Roman armor, with the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (Vera, Nadezha, Liubov)
Each holds a cross of martyrdom. The two border saints are Ekaterina (Catherine) and Marfa (Martha). Christ blesses from the clouds above.
Icons depicting the dog-headed St. Christopher together with Sophia and her daughters are surprisingly frequent. The reason for this is said to be that to the Old Believers, these saints signified persistence and perseverance in the face of persecution and torment, and Christopher also was believed to protect against sudden death. So it was common for an icon combining these saints to be found as a family patronal icon among Old Believers. The forbidding of the dog-headed Christopher by the “Holy Synod” in 1722 only confirmed the Old Believers in their notion that the persecuting State Church was on the side of the Antichrist, and so they clung to icons of Christopher “Dog-head” even more firmly, and continued to paint and venerate them even as they faded away in State Church iconography.
Here is another example with the same pairing of Christopher with Sophia and her daughters:
As one might expect, most modern depictions of Christopher in State Church Eastern Orthodoxy depict him as a normal-looking human, dressed as a Roman soldier.
One Russian blog (in Russian) gives an interesting modern reader’s story about Christopher “Dog-head.” *A customer went into the big “Sofrino” store that is operated by the Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarchate of Moscow. Sofrino sells all kinds of Russian Orthodox Church supplies, including icons. The man requested an icon of St. Christopher painted in the old style, with a dog’s head. The clerk replied that the image was uncanonical, forbidden by the Holy Synod in the 18th century. The customer countered by saying that the Council of 1971 (under the Moscow Patriarchate) abolished all restrictions on the Old Ritualist (Old Believer) canons and icons, and lifted the anathema on the Old Belief. He added that the old-style images of Christopher were still to be found in many local Orthodox Churches.
The clerk was having none of it. He replied that it was not their business — that the factory was forbidden to make them, and that what the customer wanted was blasphemy. He added that the store only sold the “true” image of Christopher. Interestingly enough, he showed the customer an image on his computer of Christopher carrying Jesus on his shoulders, which type, amusingly, is just as mythical as the dog-headed version. Here is a modern rendering of that type (the tale behind it is found in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine):
According to this relatively late but colorful legend, Christopher was some 18 feet in height, and took as his Christian task the bearing of people across a dangerous river. As the tale goes, one day he was in his hut when he heard a child calling him. Here again is the old “third time is the charm” motif in that portion of the tale as given in the Golden Legend:
The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the rivage of the river, which prayed him goodly to bear him over the water. And then Christopher lifted up the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river for to pass. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and alway as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child more and more waxed heavy, insomuch that Christopher had great anguish and was afeard to be drowned. And when he was escaped with great pain, and passed the water, and set the child aground, he said to the child: Child, thou hast put me in great peril; thou weighest almost as I had all the world upon me, I might bear no greater burden. And the child answered: Christopher, marvel thee nothing, for thou hast not only borne all the world upon thee, but thou hast borne him that created and made all the world, upon thy shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the king, to whom thou servest in this work. And because that thou know that I say to be the truth, set thy staff in the earth by thy house, and thou shalt see to-morn that it shall bear flowers and fruit, and anon he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff like a palmier bearing flowers, leaves and dates.
This motif of Christopher carrying the Christ Child who becomes heavier is Arne-Thompson Folk Motif #768.
Now interestingly, this motif of a man carrying someone who grows heavier and heavier across a river is found in the much earlier ancient Greek episode of Jason and the goddess Hera. In it, Jason is traveling homeward. On the way he comes to the River Anauros, where he finds an old woman wanting to cross, but no one will carry her. Jason takes her on his back, and steps into the water. But as he crosses, the old woman (who is Hera in disguise) becomes very heavy, and Jason loses a sandal in the river (a key plot point of the story that results in his search for the Golden Fleece).
Christopher was considered the patron saint of travelers. Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1960s may recall the fad among the “surfer” crowd and others for wearing the little round colorful silver and enamel St. Christopher medals. These are now collector’s items. St. Christopher was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969, but he is still found as “Great Martyr Christopher” in the Eastern Orthodox Church Calendar, on May 9th.
In Tolstoy’s time the following article was prohibited in Russia, because it essentially calls the Tsar and the Orthodox clergy robbers and misleading thieves. Though it could not be printed in Russia, nonetheless some handwritten copies managed to circulate. It is noteworthy that the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death — 2010 — passed virtually ignored by the Russian Government and the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of Tolstoy being the most famous of Russian authors. See for example: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/arts_n_ideas/article/state-church-ignore-tolstoy-anniversary/425477.html?photo=2
CHURCH AND STATE
What an extraordinary thing it is! There are people who seem ready to climb out of their skins for the sake of making others accept this, and not that, form of revelation. They cannot rest till others have accepted their form of revelation, and no other. They anathematize, persecute, and kill whom they can of the dissenters. Other groups of people do the same — anathematize, persecute, and kill whom they can of the dissenters. And others again do the same. So that they are all anathematizing, persecuting, and killing — demanding that every one should believe as they do. And it results that there are hundreds of sects all anathematizing, persecuting, and killing one another.
At first I was astonished that such an obvious absurdity — such an evident contradiction — did not destroy religion itself. How can religious people remain so deluded? And really, viewed from the general, external point of view it is incomprehensible, and proves irrefragably that every religion is a fraud, and that the whole thing is supersitition, as the dominant philosophy of today declares. And looking at things from this general point of view, I inevitably came to acknowledge that all religion is a human fraud. But I could not help pausing at the reflection that the very absurdity and obviousness of the fraud, and the fact that nevertheless all humanity yields to it, indicates that this fraud must rest on some basis that is not fraudulent. Otherwise we could not let it deceive us — it is too stupid. The very fact that all of mankind that really lives a human life yields to this fraud, obliged me to acknowledge the importance of the phenomena on which the fraud is based. And in consequence of this reflection, I began to analyze the Christian teaching, which for all Christendom, supplies the basis of this fraud.
That is what was apparent from the general point of view. But from the individual point of view — which shows us that each man (and I myself) must, in order to live, always have a religion show him the meaning of life — the fact that violence is employed in questions of religion is yet more amazing in its absurdity.
Indeed how can it, and why should it, concern any one to make somebody else, not merely have the same religion as himself, but also profess it in the same way as he does? A man lives, and must, therefore, know why he lives. He has established his relation to God; he knows the very truth of truths, and I know the very truth of truths. Our expression may differ; the essence must be the same — we are both of us men.
Then why should I –what can induce me to — oblige any one or demand of any one absolutely to express his truth as I express it?
I cannot compel a man to alter his religion either by violence or by cunning or by fraud — false miracles.
His religion is his life. How can I take from him his religion and give him another? It is like taking out his heart and putting another it its place. I can only do that if his religion and mine are words, and are not what gives him life; if it is a wart and not a heart. Such a thing is impossible also, because no man can deceive or compel another to believe what he does not believe; for if a man has adjusted his relation toward God and knows that religion is the relation in which man stands toward God he cannot desire to define another man’s relation to God by means of force or fraud. That is impossible, but yet it is being done, and has been done everywhere and always. That is to say, it can never really be done, because it is in itself impossible; but something has been done, and is being done, that looks very much like it. What has been, and is being done, is that some people impose on others a counterfeit of religion and others accept this counterfeit — this sham religion.
Religion cannot be forced and cannot be accepted for the sake of anything, force, fraud, or profit. Therefore what is so accepted is not a religion but a fraud. And this religious fraud is a long-established condition of man’s life.
In what does this fraud consist, and on what is it based? What induces the deceivers to produce it? And what makes it plausible to the deceived. I will not discuss the same phenomena in Brahmanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Mohammedanism, though any one who has read about those religions may see that the case has been the same in them as in Christianity; but I will speak only of the latter — it being the religion known, necessary, and dear to us. In Christianity, the whole fraud is built up on the fantastic conception of a Church; a conception founded on nothing, and which as soon as we begin to study Christianity amazes us by its unexpected and useless absurdity.
Of all the godless ideas and words there is none more godless than that of a Church. There is no idea which has produced more evil, none more inimical to Christ’s teaching, than the idea of a Church.
In reality the word ekklesia means an assembly and nothing more, and it is so used in the Gospels. In the language of all modern nations the world ekklesia (or the equivalent word “church”) means a house for prayer. Beyond that, the word has not progressed in any language — notwithstanding the fifteen hundred years’ existence of the Church-fraud. According to the definition given to the word by priests (to whom the Church-fraud is necessary) it amounts to nothing else than a preface which says: “All that I am going to say is true, and if you disbelieve I shall burn you, or denounce you, and do you all manner of harm.” This conception is a sophistry, needed for certain dialectical purposes, and it has remained the possession of those to whom it is necessary. Among the people, and not only among common people, but also in society, among educated people, no such conception is held at all, even though it is taught in the catechisms. Strange as it seems to examine this definition, one has to do so because so many people proclaim it seriously as something important, though it is absolutely false. When people say that the Church is an assembly of the true believers, nothing is really said (leaving aside the fantastic inclusion of the dead); for if I assert that the choir is an assembly of all true musicians, I have elucidated nothing unless I say what I mean by true musicians. In theology we learn that true believers are those who follow the teaching of the Church, i.e. belong to the Church.
Not to dwell on the fact that there are hundreds of such true Churches, this definition tells us nothing, and at first seems as useless as the definition of “choir” as the assembly of true musicians.. But then we catch sight of the fox’s tail. The Church is true, and it is one, and in it are pastors and flocks, and the pastors, ordained by God, teach this true and only religion. So that it amounts to saying: “By God, all that we are going to say, is all real truth.” That is all The whole fraud lies in that, — in the word and idea of a Church. And the meaning of the fraud is merely that there are people who are beside themselves with desire to teach their religion to other people.
And why are they so anxious to teach their religion to other people? If they had a real religion they would know that religion is the understanding of life, the relation each man establishes to God, and that consequently you cannot teach a religion, but only a counterfeit of religion. But they want to teach. What for? The simplest reply would be that the priest wants rolls and eggs, and the archbishop wants a palace, fish pies, and a silk cassock. But this reply is insufficient. Such is no doubt the inner, psychological motive for the deception, — that which maintains the fraud. But as it would be insufficient, when asking why one man (an executioner) consents to kill another against whom he feels no anger, — to say that the executioner kills because he thereby gets bread and brandy and a red shirt, so it is insufficient to say that the Metropolitan [high church official] of Kiev with his monks stuffs sacks with straw and calls them relics of the saints*, merely to get thirty thousand rubles a year income. [*Tolstoy is referring to an account that once, when a fire broke out in the Kiev Catacombs — a famous site of religious pilgrimage — people hurrying to save the supposedly “incorruptible body” (a sign of sainthood in Eastern Orthodoxy) of a monk found that the relic was in fact just a bag stuffed with straw.] The one act and the other is too terrible and too revolting to human nature for so simple and rude an explanation to be sufficient. Both the executioner and the Metropolitan explaining their actions would have a whole series of arguments based chiefly on historical tradition. Men must be executed; executions have gone on since the world commenced. If I don’t do it another will. I hope, by God’s grace, to do it better than another would. So also the Metropolitan would say: External worship is necessary; since the commencement of the world, relics of the saints have been worshipped. People respect the relics in the Kiev Catacombs and pilgrims come here; I, by God’s grace, hope to make the most pious use of the money thus blasphemously obtained.
To understand the religious fraud it is necessary to go to its source and origin.
We are speaking about what we know of Christianity. Turn to the commencement of Christian doctrine in the Gospels and we find a teaching which plainly excludes the external worship of God, condemning it; and which, with special clearness, positively repudiates mastership. But from the time of Christ onward we find a deviation from these principles laid down by Christ. This deviation begins from the times of the Apostles and especially from that hankerer after mastership — Paul. And the farther Christianity goes the more it deviates, and the more it adopts the methods of external worship and mastership which Christ had so definitely condemned. But in the early times of Christianity the conception of a Church was only employed to refer to all those who shared the beliefs which I consider true. That conception of the Church is quite correct if it does not include those that make a verbal expression of religion instead of its expression in the whole of life — for religion cannot be expressed in words.
The idea of a true Church was also used as an argument against dissenters. But till the time of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, the Church was only an idea.
Since the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea the Church becomes a reality, and a fraudulent reality, — that fraud of metropolitans with relics, and priests with the Eucharist, Iverskaya* Mothers of God, synods, etc., which so astonish and horrify us, and which are so odious that they cannot be explained merely by the avarice of those that perpetuate them. [*The Iverskaya or “Iberian” icon of Mary is one of the famous supposedly “miracle-working” icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, of which many copies have been made] The fraud is ancient, and was not begun merely for the profit of private individuals. No one would be such a monster of iniquity as to be the first to perpetrate it, if that were the only reason. The reasons which caused the thing to be done were evil: “By their fruits ye shall know them.’ The root was evil — hatred, pride, enmity against Arius and others; and another yet greater evil, the alliance of Christianity with power. Power, personified in the Emperor Constantine, who in the heathen conception of things, stood at the summit of human greatness (he was enrolled among the gods), accepts Christianity, gives an example to all the people, converts the people, lends a helping hand against the heretics, and by means of the Ecumenical Council establishes the one true Christian religion.
The Catholic [universal] Christian religion was established for all time. It was so natural to yield to this deception that, to the present day, there are people who believe in the saving efficacy of that assembly. Yet that was the moment when a majority of Christians abandoned their religion. At that turning the great majority of Christians entered the heathen path, which they have followed ever since. Charlemagne and Vladimir* continued in the same direction. [*Vladimir was the Russian ruler who in 988 A.D. forced the conversion of Russia to Eastern Orthodoxy by royal decree; the Church made him a saint.]
And the Church fraud continues till now. The fraud consists in this: that the conversion of the powers-that-be to Christianity is necessary for those that understand the letter, but not the spirit, of Christianity; but the acceptance of Christianity without the abandonment of power is a satire on, and a perversion of, Christianity.
the sanctification of political power by Christianity is blasphemy; it is the negation of Christianity.
After fifteen hundred years of this blasphemous alliance of pseudo-Christianity with the State, it needs a strong effort to free oneself from all the complex sophistries by which, always and everywhere (to please the authorities), the sanctity and righteousness of State-power, and the possibility of its being Christian, has been pleaded.
In truth, the words a “Christian State” resemble the words “hot ice.” The thing is either not a State using violence, or it is not Christian.
In order to understand this clearly we must forget all those fantastic notions in which we have been carefully brought up, and must ask plainly, what is the purpose of such historical and juridical science as has been taught us? Such sciences have no sound basis; their purpose is merely to supply a vindication for the use of violence.
Omitting the history of the Persians, the Medes, etc., let us take the history of that government which first formed an alliance with Christianity.
A robbers’ nest existed at Rome. It grew by robbery, violence, murders, and it subdued nations. These robbers and their descendants, led by their chieftains (whom they sometimes called Caesar, sometimes Augustus), robbed and tormented nations to satisfy their desires. One of the descendants of these robber-chiefs, Constantine (a reader of books and a man satiated by an evil life), preferred certain Christian dogmas to those of the old creeds: instead of offering human sacrifices he preferred the mass; instead of the worship of Apollo, Venus, and Zeus, he preferred that of a single God with a son — Christ. So he decreed that this religion should be introduced among those that were under his power.
No one said to him: “The kings exercise authority among the nations, but among you it shall not be so. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not lay up riches, judge not, condemn not, resist not him that is evil.”
But they said to him: “You wish to be called a Christian and to continue to be the chieftain of the robbers, — to kill, burn, fight, lust, execute, and live in luxury? That can all be arranged.”
And they arranged a Christianity for him, and arranged it very smoothly, better even than could have been expected. They foresaw that, reading the Gospels, it might occur to him that all this (i.e. a Christian life) is demanded — and not the building of temples or worshipping in them. This they foresaw, and they carefully devised such a Christianity for him as would let him continue to live his old heathen life unembarrassed. On the one hand Christ, God’s Son, only came to bring salvation to him and to everybody. Christ having died, Constantine can live as he likes. More even that that, — one may repent and swallow a little bit of bread and some wine* [*meaning the Eucharist], and that will bring salvation, and all will be forgiven.
But more even than that: they sanctify his robber-chieftainship, and say that it proceeds from God, and they anoint him with holy oil. And he, on his side, arranges for the congress of priests that they wish for, and orders them to say what each man’s relation to God should be, and orders every one to repeat what they say.
And they all start repeating it, and were contented, and now this same religion has existed for fifteen hundred years, and other robber-chiefs have adopted it, and they have all been lubricated with the holy oil, and they were all, all ordained by God. If any scoundrel robs every one and slays many people, they will oil him, and he will then be from God. In Russia, Catharine II, the adulteress who killed her husband, was from God; so, in France, was Napoleon.
To balance matters the priests are not only from God, but are almost gods, because the Holy Ghost sits inside them as well as inside the Pope, and in our Synod with its commandant-officials* [*In Tolstoy’s time the Russian Orthodox Church was under the control of the so-called “Holy Governing Synod”].
And as soon as one of the anointed robber-chiefs wishes his own and another folk to begin slaying each other, the priests immediately prepare some holy water, sprinkle a cross (which Christ bore and on which he died because he repudiated such robbers), take the cross and bless the robber-chief in his work of slaughtering, hanging, and destroying.
And it all might have been well if only they had been able to agree about it, and the anointed had not begun to call each other robbers, which is what they really are, and the people had not begun to listen to them and to cease to believe either in anointed people or in depositories of the Holy Ghost, and had not learned from them to call them as they call each other, by their right names, i.e. robbers and deceivers.
But we have only spoken of the robbers incidentally, because it was they who led the deceivers astray. It is the deceivers, the pseudo-Christians, that we have to consider. They became such by their alliance with the robbers. It could not be otherwise. They turned from the road when they consecrated the first ruler and assured him that he, by his power, could help religion — the religion of humility, self-sacrifice, and the endurance of evil. All the history, not of the imaginary, but of the real Church, i.e. of the priests under the sway of kings, is a series of useless efforts of these unfortunate priests to preserve the truth of the teaching while preaching it by falsehood, and while abandoning it in practice. The importance of the priesthood depends entirley on the teaching it wishes to spread; that teaching speaks of humility, self-sacrifice, love, poverty; but it is preached by violence and wrongdoing.
In order that the priesthood should have something to teach and that they should have disciples, they cannot get rid of the teaching. but in order to whitewash themselves and justify their immoral alliance with power, they have, by all the cunningest devices possible, to conceal the essence of the teaching, and for this purpose they have to shift the center of gravity from what is essential in the teaching to what is external. And this is what is done by the priesthood — this is the source of the sham religion taught by the Church. The source is the alliance of the priests (calling themselves the Church) with the powers-that-be, i. e. with violence. The souce of their desire to teach a religion to others lies in the fact that true religion exposes them, and they want to replace true religion by a fictitious religion arranged to justify their deeds.
True religion may exist anywhere except where it is evidently false, i. e. violent; it cannot be a State religion.
True religion may exist in all the so-called sects and heresies, only it surely cannot exist where it is joined to a State using violence. Curiously enough the names “Orthodox Greek,” “Catholic,’ or “Protestant” religion, as those words are commonly used, mean nothing but “religion allied to power,” — State religion and therefore false religion.
The idea of a Church as a union of many — of the majority — in one belief and in nearness to the source of the teaching, was in the first two centuries of Christianity merely one feeble external argument in favor of the correctness of certain views. Paul said, “I know from Christ Himself.” Another said, “I know from Luke,’ And all said, “We think rightly, and the proof that we are right is that we are a big assembly, ekklesia, the Church.” But only beginning with the Council of Nicaea, organized by an emperor, does the Chruch become a plain and tangible fraud practised by some of the people who professed this religion.
They began to say, “It has pleased us and the Holy Ghost.” The “Church no longer meant merely a part of a weak argument, it meant power in the hands of certain people . It allied itself with the rulers, and began to act like the rulers. And all that united itself with power and submitted to power, ceased to be a religion and became a fraud.
What does Christianity teach, understanding it as the teaching of any or of all the churches?
Examine it as you will, compound it or divide it, — the Christian teaching always falls with two sharply separated parts. There is the teaching of dogmas: from the divine Son, the Holy Ghost, and the relationship of these persons — to the Eucharist with or without wine, and with leavened or with unleavened bread; and there is the moral teaching: of humility, freedom from covetousness, purity of mind and body, forgiveness, freedom from bondage, peacefulness. Much as the doctors of the Church have labored to mix these two sides of the teachings, they have never mingled, but like oil and water have always remained apart in large or smaller circles.
The difference of the two sides of the teaching is clear to everyone, and all can see the fruits of the one and of the other in the life of men, and by these fruits can conclude which side is the more important, and (if one may use the comparative form) more true. One looks at the history of Christendom from this aspect, and one is horror-struck. Without exception, from the very beginning and to the very end, till today, look where one will, examine what dogma you like, — from the dogma of the divinity of Christ, to the manner of making the sign of the cross, and to the question of serving the communion with or without wine, the fruit of mental labors to explain the dogmas has always been envy, hatred, executions, banishments, slaughter of women and children, burnings and tortures. Look on the other side, the moral teaching from the going into the wilderness to commune with God, to the practice of supplying food to those who are in prison; the fruits of it are all our conceptions of goodness, all that is joyful, comforting, and that serves as a beacon to us in history.
People before whose eyes the fruits of the one and other side of Christianity were not yet evident, might be misled and could hardly help being misled. And people might be misled who were sincerely drawn into disputes about dogmas, not noticing that by such disputes they were serving not God but the devil, not noticing that Christ said plainly that he came to destroy all dogmas; those also might be led astray who had inherited a traditional belief in the importance of these dogmas, and had received such a perverse mental training that they could not see their mistake; and again, those ignorant people might be led astray to whom these dogmas seemed nothing but words or fantastic notions. But we to whom the simple meaning of the Gospels — repudiating all dogmas — is evident, we before whose eyes are the fruits of these dogmas in history, cannot be so misled. History is for us a means — even a mechanical means — of verifying the teaching.
Is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception* [*the teaching that Mary was conceived without sin] necessary or not? What has come of it? Hatred, abuse, irony. And did it bring any benefit? None at all.
Was the teaching that the adulteress should not be sentenced necessary or not? What has come of it? Thousands and thousands of times people have been softened by that recollection.
Again, does everybody agree about any one of the dogmas? No. Do people agree that it is good to give to him that has need? Yes, all agree.
But the one side, the dogmas — about which every one disagrees, and which no one requires — is what the priesthood gave out and still gives out, under the name of religion; while the other side, about which all can agree, and which is necessary to all, and which saves people, is the side which the priesthood, though they have not dared to reject it, have also not dared to set forth as a teaching, for that teaching repudiates them.
Religion is the meaning we give to our lives, it is that which gives strength and direction to our life. Every one that lives finds such a meaning, and lives on the basis of that meaning. If man finds no meaning in life, he dies. In this search man uses all that the previous efforts of humanity have supplied. And what humanity has reached we call revelation. Revelation is what helps man to understand the meaning of life.
Such is the relation in which man stands toward religion.
Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation; Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a rational review of its catalog of saints. That accounts for the numbers of mythical saints long painted in icons and still found in the Church Calendar today, saints venerated even though their reality is equivalent to that of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
One of the most interesting of these is the group of saints known as the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.”
According to the accepted story, these seven youths were all friends who had grown up together in the city of Ephesus, and all had become soldiers in the Roman army and were Christians, even though this was in the time of the Emperor Decius, who persecuted Christians. The Seven youths refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and to avoid punishment they hid out in a cave on a mountain. The Emperor, learning of their hideout, ordered it blocked up with stones. All this is said to have happened in the middle of the 3rd century.
Here is where the “miracle” comes in. The seven youths fell into a strange sleep, and they slept not for a few hours or days or weeks or months; they slept for almost two hundred years.
If we look more closely, we can see them pleasantly snoozing away:
I particularly like this friendly, comfy pair in the middle:
In the time of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, who lived in the first half of the 5th century, certain “heretics” appeared at Ephesus saying that the resurrection of the body was not possible. Meanwhile, a certain man had decided to construct a building on the mountain where the long-forgotten youths lay asleep. He had stones removed from the entrance to the cave.
At this time the youths awoke out of their two-century-long sleep, and one of them, Iamblicus, was sent into the city to buy some bread. When he got there, he was amazed to see a cross on the gates of the city, and further surprised to hear people openly talking of Jesus.
When Iamblicus found a place to buy bread, he paid for it with a coin bearing the image of the Emperor Decius, a two-hundred-year-old coin. The seller considered this very suspicious, and soon the youth was accused of hiding a treasure of old coins somewhere. He was taken before the governor and the bishop, and the bishop, realizing that there was something mysterious here, went with the youth to the cave where his companions were waiting. The story got around, and even the Emperor came to the cave and talked with the young men. But then the youths lay down and went back to sleep again in the cave, this time until the resurrection, which supposedly had been proved possible by their first sleep.
Now as one can tell, the logic of this tale is somewhat skewed, and it is a simple piece of folklore, recorded at least as early as the 6th century (it is found in the writings of the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh, c. 451-521). One wonders why it is still put forward as the “Gospel truth” in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the Seven Sleepers can still be painted and venerated in icons, when their story has no more validity as history than that of Rip van Winkle, to whom a similar thing happened in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
We also find the motif of the “long sleep” in the very old tale recorded by Diogenes Laertius:
“Epimenides, according to Theopompus [4th century b.c.] and many other writers, was the son of Phaestius; some, however, make him the son of Dosiadas, others of Agesarchus. He was a native of Cnossos in Crete, though from wearing his hair long he did not look like a Cretan. One day he was sent into the country by his father to look for a stray sheep, and at noon he turned aside out of the way, and went to sleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years. After this he got up and went in search of the sheep, thinking he had been asleep only a short time. And when he could not find it, he came to the farm, and found everything changed and another owner in possession. Then he went back to the town in utter perplexity; and there, on entering his own house, he fell in with people who wanted to know who he was. At length he found his younger brother, now an old man, and learnt the truth from him. So he became famous throughout Greece, and was believed to be a special favourite of heaven.” (Diogenes Laertius 1.109)
Pausanius (2nd century c.e.) also mentions the old story:
“In front of this temple, where is also the statue of Triptolemus, is a bronze bull being led as it were to sacrifice, and there is a sitting figure of Epimenides of Cnossus, who they say entered a cave in the country and slept. And the sleep did not leave him before the fortieth year, and afterwards he wrote verses and purified Athens and other cities.” (Pausanias 1.14.4)
We find it also in the Natural History (7.175) of Pliny the Elder (died 79 c.e):
“It is told of Epimenides of Cnossus, that when he was a boy, being fatigued by heat and walking, he fell asleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years; and that when he awoke, as though it had been on the following day, he was much astonished at the changes which he saw in the appearance of every thing around him: after this, old age it is said, came upon him in an equal number of days with the years he had slept, but his life was prolonged to his hundred and fifty-seventh year.”
The “long sleep” motif is also found in the Apocryphal Jewish work, 4 Baruch (5.1-52, etc.), generally considered to date from the 2nd century c.e. The tale begins with:
“But Abimelech took the figs in the burning heat; and coming upon a tree, he sat under its shade to rest a bit. And leaning his head on the basket of figs, he fell asleep and slept for 66 years; and he was not awakened from his slumber.”
So it is a very old motif, recycled in Christian hagiography.
Candida Moss says of such fanciful “lives of saints” (in her book The Myth of Persecution; how early Christians invented a story of Martyrdom, Harper One, 2013) that “The fact of the matter is that these aren’t historical accounts; they are religious romances written and intended to be read for moral instruction and entertainment.” It is unfortunate that Eastern Orthodoxy does not inform its laity that much of what they read in the lives of the early saints is not history at all, but rather religious fiction, and that many of the saints depicted in icons either never existed at all or have had their stories heavily embroidered with non-historical elements.
The title on Russian “Seven Sleepers” icon usually is, with some variation, that found in the image below:
It reads, OBRAZ SEDMI OTROKOV IZHE VO EFESYE, meaning “[The] IMAGE OF THE SEVEN YOUTHS WHO [were} AT EPHESUS.”
If we look at the title at the first icon on this page, however, it reads a bit differently:
СВЯТЫЯ СЕДЬМЪ ОТРОКОВЪ СПЯЩИЯ ВО ЕФЕСЕ SVYATUIYA SEDM OTROKOV SPYASHCHIYA VO EFESE
“[The] Holy Seven Youths Sleeping in Ephesus”
Here is another example:
It depicts the Seven Youths asleep in their cave on the mountain near Ephesus. The names usually assigned them are:
Максимилиан, Иамвлих, Мартиниан, Иоанн, Дионисий, Ексакустодиан (Константин) и Антонин — Iamvlikh, Martinian, Ioann, Dionisiy, Eksakustodian (Konstantin), and Antonin — Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian (Constantine) and Antoninus. Four patron saints of the person who owned the icon are shown in the borders of the image. The one at upper left is the “Angel Khranitel,” the Guardian Angel, a generic figure in icons who represents the angel guarding every believer.
Here is yet another example, this time with strong Western influence. We can tell from the border and style that it comes from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century As you can see, once you know what this icon type looks like, it is very easy to identify:
Finally, here are the Seven Sleepers in a fresco at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos, in Greece. Their names, given in the Greek form, are from left: Maximianos, Iamblikhos, Martinianos, Dionysios, Antoninos, Exakostoudianos, and Konstantinos.
If you really want to learn about old icons, you will have to learn to read some of the basic information in old painters’ manuals, which give the instructions for painting this or that saint. Such instructions include the traditional colors used, and that is what I want to talk a bit about today — pigments used in icon painting.
On the page shown above, one finds among other descriptions the instructions for painting the martyrs Timofei (Timothy) and Mavra. The page tells us that the martyr (muchenik) Timofei is painted as a young man (mlad) with “riza apostolskaya“, meaning he wears the standard robe (riza) of an apostle. His robe is “sankir dich, ispod lazor.” That is where knowing colors — the pigments of icon painting — comes in. Mavra, who was Timothy’s wife, is painted like St. Paraskeva Piatnitsa, and her robe (riza) is “bakan, ispod vokhra.”
Among others on this same page, we find the martyr Pelagia, who is painted with “riza prazelen, ispod bakan.”
One can see that these descriptions are rather simple. First comes the color of the outer robe (riza), and then we are told the color to paint the under (ispod)-robe.
Now to know what these instructions mean, one must know what those color names meant to the icon painters of old Russia. Below is a basic listing, but keep in mind that the nature of the colors varied considerably in both appearance and composition, and sometimes the names were not used precisely. They could refer both to the substance of pigments and at times simply to color. Consequently, this list should only be used as a very general guide. One also finds variant spellings of the same color name. Note also that such ingredients as lead and mercury, arsenic, etc., are toxic, so this list is for historical purposes only.
Careful painters would follow the color instructions given without fail, but by no means all painters were careful. Sometimes a painter would just use what he had at hand or what was convenient, ignoring the color instructions, particularly on “month” icons that would show the saints and festivals of the month all lined up in a series of vertical rows. In addition, the composition of these colors varied somewhat depending on what sources were available to the painter. There were also disagreements among the old painter’s manuals as to the appropriate colors for the garments of particular saints.
THE COLORS OF ICON PAINTING
Dark olive to dark brown:
The composition of sankir differed from time to time and place to place; in general it was the dark olive or dark brown color used as the base coat for painting flesh; lighter colors were imposed on it to model the features, along with dark lines and bright highlights. Greek sankir — called proplasmos (προπλασμος) was more olive in tone, Russian more brown. Russian sankir was often a mixture of ochre and black, but it could also be of prazelen’ (green) and black and white.
Bright red to reddish orange:
Kinovar is mercury sulphide, cinnabar. It occurs naturally in the earth, but can also be compounded artificially from mercury and sulphur, a very toxic process. Used for inscriptions, clothing, etc.
Chervlen’, sometimes “Cherlen'(Черлень) was a bright, scarlet-red color derived from crushed insects, the coccid “mealybug” (червец). It can also be made from an iron oxide-kaolin “earth” source. Sometimes tended more to brownish-red.
Scarlet red to “brick” red-brown, reddish-orange.
Surik is the equivalent of the western minium; it was made by heating white lead oxide until it turned red.
Derived from plant materials or from cochineal insect (“червец”).
Crimson red to purplish dark red
Bagor is the often reddish-purple color generally used for painting the outer garment of Mary.
Red to purplish-red:
Often used for clothes and other fabrics — “royal purple”
Lazor is a strong but often rather radiant blue, the best being derived from powdered lapis lazuli, but cheaper versions used other sources; could also be used as a general term for blue.
Dark blue to lighter blue:
Golubets was a rather general term for blue, and might be derived from various sources, among them the copper ore azurite and lazurite.
Sin’, also called Sin’ gornaya (Синь горная –“mountain/stone blue” is again a dark blue color usually made of blue copper ore (carbonate of copper) — azurite.
Krutik/Sinilo is a dark blue color derived from the plant woad in Russia, but the indigo plant could also be used where available..
Belila is one of the most common color terms used in icon painting, because being white, it is used not only in highlights but also in lightening other colors. Belila was formerly made by exposing pieces of lead to the vapors of vinegar, which resulted in oxidation of the metal, and the white oxide was then used for belila.
Earth yellow to brownish-yellow to reddish brown
Okhra is a natural yellowish-brown earth pigment (containing iron oxides) which varies somewhat from locale to locale. Okhra (we can just say “ochre”) was commonly the foremost pigment used in painting faces and hands, with the successive layers lightened by the admixture of white (belila), etc. This was known as Vokhrenie (Вохрение) or later okhrenie (охрение).
Zelen, as one might guess, was generally made by mixing yellow and blue colors. But in addition, zelen was sometimes made from the copper ore malachite or from glauconite. Often identical with Berggrin.
PRAZELEN’ ( Празелень):
Soft green, grassy green
Sometimes made from the mineral glauconite, but also from other sources such as onion juice.
YAR’ (Ярь )
Derived from copper exposed to vinegar or to sour milk.
Yar-Medianka was generally derived from oxidized copper — the same green color one gets from copper kept moist.
Green made from powdered malachite (name comes from German “Berggrün”, i.e. “Mountain (stone) green.”
Soot-black color, often actually made from soot or charcoal. Used for writing inscriptions, painting weapons and caves, etc.
Often made of bakan and chernila mixed.
This is the equivalent of umber in the west, a mineral “earth” paint.
Very dark brown color made by mixing ochre with soot black, sometimes giving it a reddish tinge.
Varziya is a simple red derived from plant sources, commonly a kind of sandalwood tree.
Zhelt’ is often a lead-oxide-derived yellow equivalent to Blyagil’, but was also sometimes derived from orpiment — a sulfide of arsenic; see Rashgil’ below.
RASHGIL’ (Рашгиль/Рахгиль, from German Rauschgelb).
Orpiment, a yellow derived from sulfide of Arsenic, very toxic.
SHISHGIL’ (Шишгиль, from German Schüttgelb.
A bright yellow derived largely from a mixture of buckthorn berries (Rhamnus species) and chalk. Schüttgelb is derived ultimately from Dutch Schyt-gheel — literally “shit-yellow,” because the yellow color is like that of the excrement of infants.
BLYAGIL’ (Блягиль, from German Bleigelb, i.e. “lead yellow.”)
Blyagil’ is a yellowish-white paint derived from lead oxide.
A yellow much the same as Rashgil’
Grey-blue, light grey:
Dich is a grey with a hint of blue, often used in painting monastic garments. It may also shade to grey-brown.
Dark grey to blackish:
Reft’ is a dark grey color often made from charcoal (or soot) mixed with a lightener, the mixing of chernilo and belila, or of lazor and chernila. In some shades it is used for clouds and water.
Bright yellow (“Chrome yellow”)
One sometime sees that an object is to be painted this way, and it simply means that it is to be like smoke — as greyish-black smoke would appear.
Look in a Russian Orthodox (or Greek Orthodox) Church calendar, which gives the saints commemorated on each day of the year, and you will find this entry:
Dec 02 / Nov 19: Venerables Barlaam and loasaph, Prince of India, and Saint Abenner the King, father of St. loasaph (4th c.).
The interesting thing about that entry is that Ioasaph/Ioasaf, Prince of India, is actually the Buddha. Yes, you read correctly: the Buddha. The Eastern Orthodox Church annually commemorates the Buddha in their calendar of saints.
Of course the reason for this is that until relatively recently, no one in Eastern Orthodoxy knew that Ioasaph was the Buddha. But that is the inescapable conclusion of scholars who have studied the matter, and the reason for it turns out to have been rather simple.
In early times, Buddhist missionaries were found on parts of the trade route extending from the West all the way to India. And so stories of the life of the Buddha became spread here and there, and one of those stories — the story of the Buddha’s early life — came West. It is the tale of a young Prince of India who decides to renounce his wealth and power for the spiritual life.
When Christians encountered this tale, it became distorted into the story of a Prince of India who renounced his wealth and power for Christianity, and that, in brief, is how the Buddha came to be a Christian saint commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.
The name “Ioasaph” — also found as Ioasaf, Joasaph and Josaphat — is simply a garbled version of the word “Bodhisattva” — the title applied to the Buddha before his enlightenment. The identity becomes more clear if one sees the Arabic intermediate forms Budasaf and Iudasaf. Barlaam — written as “Varlaam” on Russian icons — was a pious hermit who counseled Ioasaph.
The story of Barlaam and Ioasaph in Greek was once attributed to the 7th century John of Damascus (the big supporter of icon veneration), but apparently the core was actually transmitted earlier through Manichaean writings on the trade route. A christianized version comes from the Balavariani, a 10th century Georgian epic; Euthymios of Athos, a Georgian monk, translated the story into Greek in the early 11th century. It can be traced back through an Arabic version to early Sanskrit Mahayana texts recounting the life of the Buddha. In its Greek version — the one still considered “history” by countless Orthodox believers — it is called The Precious Pearl.
In the Western church, the two saints are called Barlaam and Josaphat.
When I first began telling “true believers” the facts about this years ago — that Eastern Orthodoxy makes and venerates icons of a saint who was really the Buddha and annually commemorates him in their Church Calendar — they simply refused to believe me. Today it is common knowledge among educated Eastern Orthodox — yet there Varlaam/Barlaam and Ioasaf/Ioasaph still are, in the Church Calendar, under November 19th by the old calendar, December 2nd by the new:
Sunday, December 2:
27TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—PROPHET OBADIAH OF THE 12, MARTYR BARLAAM OF CAESAREA IN CAPPADOCIA, MARTYR HELIODORUS IN PAMPHYLIA, MARTYR AZES IN ISAURIA & 150 SOLDIERS WITH HIM,VENERABLE BARLAAM & IOSAPH PRINCE OF INDIA & HIS FATHER SAINT ABENER THE KING, VENERABLE HILARION-MONK & WONDERWORKER OF GEORGIA, VENERABLE BARLAAM-ABBOT OF PECHERSKY LAVRA, SAINT PATROCLUS OF BOURGES IN GAUL
Eastern Orthodoxy has a very strong attachment to tradition (one of the chief sources, in fact, of its doctrines and lore of saints and icons), but it has never had a clear boundary between higher and lower traditions, nor has it ever been particularly careful or scrupulous about actually checking the veracity of those traditions, as this one out of many examples illustrates. As one person on the Internet remarked concerning this mistaking of the Buddha for a Christian saint, “Saint….OOPS!” Eastern Orthodox bookstores still sell the life of Sts. Varlaam and Ioasaph.
Those who want a more detailed account of the transmission and transformation of the story of the Buddha into that of a Christian saint will want to read the book In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint, by Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken, W.W. Norton & Co, 2014.
There is a useful account of the history of the Varlaam and Ioasaph tale at:
The image at the top of this posting shows Varlaam at left, holding a scroll reading, “I declare to you, child, the priceless pearl which is Christ….” (the Greek manuscript of the tale of Varlaam and Ioasaph is titled The Precious Pearl). Iosaph is at right.
In the complete icon, we also see Venerable Athanasius of Athos at left: