The icon depicted here is Slavic, not Greek. That is obvious from the inscription, which is in abbreviated form (note those horizontal squiggles above words that indicate abbreviation four times here?). The letters in it, transliterated, are:
In full it would read BOGOIAVLENIE GOSPODNE. If you look at the letters ГДНЕ — GDNE — on the right, you will notice a tiny letter “c” above them. That is the Cyrillic letter for “S,” and its presence below the abbreviation line indicates that it is to be inserted into the abbreviation. What I transliterate as “IA” here is the single letter that looks like an “A” with an extra little vertical line in the middle. That gives us a “YA” sound. So BOGOIAVLENIE, which we can also transliterate as BOGOYAVLENIE means literally “GOD-APPEARANCE.” BOG = GOD, YAVLENIE = APPEARANCE. Yavlenie is the same term used in Russian icon lore for the “Appearance” of a supposedly miraculous icon of Mary — the time when it is first noticed. GOSPODNE, from GOSPOD (Lord), means “of the Lord,” so this icon title reads in full “THE GOD-APPEARANCE OF THE LORD.”
The BOGOYAVLENIE — THE GOD-APPEARANCE — shows Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River, which was followed by the beginning of his ministry. This is the time when Jesus is acknowledged by a voice from heaven as the Son of God, along with the descent upon Jesus of the Holy Spirit — and of course given that Jesus is God in Eastern Orthodox belief, that accounts for the name; all three persons of the Trinity manifest here. The Greek term for the event is the Theophany, which also means “God-Appearance”: Theos = God, phaneia = appearance.
If you have been keeping up on postings here, you will immediately recognize the shorter IC XC abbreviations as signifying Iesous Khristos — Jesus Christ.
As noted, this icon obviously depicts the Baptism of Jesus, and in fact the Greeks generally just title it Η ΒΑΠΤΙCΙC — HE BAPTISIS — “THE BAPTISM.”
I have already mentioned that the image shown here is Slavic, rather than Greek, but there are elements in it found commonly in Greek versions of this type. The standard Russian image will show John the Forerunner (Ioann Predtecha) — who is John the Baptist –standing on the left bank of the river facing Christ; Christ will be in the water, nude though always without genitals (sometimes he wears a towel); three angels on the right bank incline toward him, reverently holding the cloths over their hands that are a sign of touching something sacred in E. Orthodoxy (no angels are mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the baptism); the Holy spirit is shown above in the form of a dove.
But what differs significantly in this particular icon is the presence of the odd little figures in the river. This shows the painter was heavily influenced by a Greek model. These riverine figures are survivals from the pre-Christian belief in minor deities and spirits of nature that are seen in early Roman and Greek art. That on the left is an old man holding a jug from which water flows. He is the spirit — we can say the god — of the Jordan River. Today an E. Orthodox believer would probably simply say he “symbolizes” the Jordan, but given that we see the Jordan, there is hardly any need for a symbol.
The other figure is a crowned woman who is Thalassa (in Greek) — the Sea. She rides on a sea creature. In the E. Orthodox liturgy for the celebration of the Theophany, the priest quotes lines excerpted from Psalm 114:
“When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. The sea saw it and fled; Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs. What ailed you, O you sea, that you fled? You Jordan, that you were driven back? You mountains, that you skipped like rams; and you little hills, like lambs? Tremble, you earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; whch turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”
Of course “The sea saw it and fled” refers to the parting of the waters of the Red Sea in the tale of the Israelites leaving Egypt in the book of Exodus; “The Jordan fled” refers to the similar tale in the book of Joshua that the Jordan River parted to let the Israelites cross it. (It is very common in E. Orthodoxy for Old Testament quotes to be re-applied to New Testament situations and persons).
Other Greek examples of this type may show more fish in the water for decorative purposes, or even two flat stones forming an X-like cross at the feet of Jesus, with the heads of snakes rising up. This comes from Psalm 74:13:
“You did divide the sea by your strength: you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.”
An example of this icon type given in the Ekphrasis of Photios Kontoglou — the best example of a Greek painter’s manual one can find, though also comparatively recent — shows Thalassa holding an old-fashioned sailing ship in one hand, and the Jordan River with a very large crab on his head. If you don’t know who Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) was, I should tell you that he is the person largely responsible for the revival of the so called “Byzantine” style in Greek icon painting. His Εκφρασις τησ Ορθοδοξου Εικονογραφιας —Ekphrasis tes Orthodoxou Eikonographias — The Expression/Description of Orthodox Iconography — is the best work available on Greek iconography in general, much better than the older and unillustrated Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna. But unfortunately it is not available in English. In connection with Kontoglou, you may wish to note the comparatively recent trend in Greek Orthodoxy for a return to the older style of painting, which is really a mid-to-late 20th century phenomenon.
Note the extreme stylization — the abstraction — of the background in this icon. The banks of the Jordan are shown as rocky hills, and the Jordan itself is vertical. One cannot help thinking that the odd triangle shapes repeated in the formation of the hills, along with the multiple little circles, may have some “Freudian” significance; they really do remind one of the female torso and breasts. But then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
It is interesting to note how the painter has used a single line extending from Christ’s left leg all the way up his body to loop left below the chest, forming a kind of extended question mark that makes a pleasant abstraction.
In any case, the Bogoyavlenie or Theophany is one of the major church festivals in Eastern Orthodoxy, and so there are countless icons of this subject, whether Russian or Greek. The Theophany is celebrated on January 6th, which Westerners may recognize as the Festival of the Epiphany. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is the day of the Blessing of the Waters, which is a chilly event in Russia. There, after the waters are blessed, it is a tradition to break or cut a hole in the river ice and to bathe in the near-freezing water, which is considered “holy” at this time. The Russian priest dips a cross into the water; the Greek priest (where the waters are considerably warmer) throws a cross into the water, which people jump in to retrieve.
Because of calendar differences, the Theophany is celebrated on January 19th (Julian Calendar) in Russia. It is interesting to compare the image at the top of the page with this later Russian example from the 19th century:
You will notice that though the figures of John, Jesus, and the angels are still stylized, the background is now very different. That is the influence of western European realism. So even though the trees and ground and river are painted very simply, they do not even approach the degree of abstraction found in early examples. Compare that image with another icon, which though also late, nonetheless presents the Baptism, both figures and background, in a very stylized, abstract manner. It thus maintains the artistic approach of the early examples of this type, while nonetheless revealing the differences in techniques of abstraction that developed over time in Russian icon painting.
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