The icon of the Blessed Silence Savior (Spas Blagoe Molchanie) is one of only a few types in which Christ is represented in the form of an angel. The most notable other example is Christ as “Sophia, Wisdom of God” — but the latter will be a topic for another day.
Here is a 19th century Russian version of the Blessed Silence image. We can see that Christ is given the same red face one finds in images of Sophia, Wisdom of God. When looking at examples of the Blessed Savior type, one finds variations in the depiction from example to example. In some Christ is bareheaded; in others, as in this icon, he wears the crown of a bishop, to show that he is both Great High Priest and Tsar Tsarem (King of Kings). It is common for the written title on the image to be the standard Spas Blagoe Molchanie (literally
“Savior Blessed Silence”), but on this particular example we find instead ISUS BLAGOE MOLCHANIE — “JESUS THE BLESSED SILENCE.” The spelling of Isus tells us that this is an Old Believer icon, not the product of the State Orthodox Church that forced a revision of the spelling. The “Blessed Silence” type was particularly popular among Old Believers. The type is earliest found in Greece and the Balkans in the 14th-15th century, and appears in Russia in the late 15th-early 16th century.
The key to understanding this icon is the scroll the angel bears, which reads “You are the God of Peace, Father of Mercies, the Angel of Great Counsel” That is taken from Irmos 5 from the Liturgy of the Nativity:
O God of peace and Father of mercies
Thou has sent to us the Angel of Great Counsel who grants us peace.
So we are guided to the light of the knowledge of God.
Waking early from the night we praise Thee, O Lover of men.
Бог сый мира, Отец щедрот, великаго совета Твоего Ангела, мир подавающа, послал еси нам. Тем богоразумия к свету наставльшеся, от нощи утренююще, славословим Тя, Человеколюбче.
Now we need to ask why this image should be associated with the Nativity (Christmas). It is because, in Christian tradition, the words of Isaiah 9:6 in the Old Testament are applied to the birth of Jesus:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
That will still leave us puzzled, however, unless we know that this common translation as found in the King James Bible reflects the Hebrew text as it was known in the 17th century, but it does not reflect Isaiah as it was known to early Christians who knew the biblical texts not in Hebrew, but rather in Greek — the version now called the Septuagint. In Greek, Isaiah 9:6 reads somewhat differently:
For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name is called the Messenger of Great Counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him. His government shall be great, and of his peace there is no end:
We can see that the two texts have substantially different readings. That is not uncommon. There are all kinds of variations from manuscript to manuscript of the Bible, and the Septuagint often has readings that are not found in translations made from the Hebrew Masoretic text. But what we really want to notice are these words:
…his name is called the Messenger of Great Counsel.”
Those of you who have read my article on icons of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) will recall that he is often represented with the wings of an angel, and the reason for that is the Greek word for messenger — used to describe John in the Gospel called “of Mark” — can also mean “angel.” We have two distinct words in English: messenger and angel. But in Greek, there is only one word with both meanings: αγγελος —angelos. Knowing that, we will now know that in the Septuagint translation given above, the name “Messenger of Great Counsel” (Mεγαλης βουλης αγγελος) may also be understood to mean “Angel of Great Counsel.” So there you have it. That tells us why the Nativity Irmos speaks of Jesus as the Angel of Great Counsel,” and that also tells us why Jesus is depicted in this icon as an angel.
That is the essence of the matter, but it goes far beyond that. Notice, for example, that Jesus as Angel has not the usual halo with a cross in it found in most of his other icons; instead his halo is the “eight-pointed slava,” the eight-pointed “glory” that signifies the six days of Creation with the seventh day of rest plus the eighth day, the Day of Eternity. The Day of Eternity signifies that which preceded the Creation and which follows it. So Christ as Angel is also understood as an eternal figure, the Logos (Word/Reason) of God, who according to the old creed, was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” that is, the Father gave birth to the son in eternity, and that son is Christ, the Angel of Great Counsel. So when we think of the Blessed Silence icon as a Nativity image, we should think both of the birth of the Logos from God in Eternity and of the birth of the Christ Child in time.
The Blessed Silence icon is not only a Nativity-related icon, it is also a Passion-related image. It has this in common with another icon type of a winged Christ as the “Crucified Seraph.” In Isaiah 53, we find the “Suffering Servant” passages that Christians associate with the crucifixion of Jesus. Particularly applicable here is Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
So Christ was silent. And Christ the Angel of Great Counsel is the Son begotten in the Silence of Eternity. That “silence” association is one that makes this particular icon type popular with the hesychasts, those who practice an Eastern Orthodox form of meditation by repetition that is somewhat akin (if more dogmatic) to the Pure Land traditions of Chinese Buddhism. Hesychia (ἡσυχία) is Greek for “silence, quiet.”
Another text from Isaiah applied to this Blessed Silence type is 42:2:
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
But getting back to the thinking behind the iconography, there is no need to try to rationalize it. It makes no sense at all, really, except within its own framework, but that is the case with theology. It is of use in studying icons not because of any literal truth to it, but because it enables us to understand why icons are painted as they are.
But there is an even deeper level to this icon that takes us back past Christianity and into the Hebrew religious mind and its notions of deity. Many Christians will hold that Jesus first appears in the New Testament, even though they will say (if they are traditionalists) that he was predicted in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. But in Eastern Orthodoxy — the branch of Christianity that eventually produced icons — Jesus is also found in the Old Testament, but under different names. For example, as we have seen in our discussion of the Old Testament Trinity icon, Jesus was believed to appear in the Old Testament as the “Angel of the Lord” And, of course Eastern Orthodoxy holds that it was Jesus as the Word — the Logos in Greek — who created the world — or to be more specific, that God “created the world through him.” So Christ as Logos was pre-existent, meaning he existed, in E. Orthodox belief, before the creation of the world, and the world was created through him. That is why, in many old Russian icons of the Creation, we see Jesus doing the creating rather than God the Father (many, however, show the Father creating).
One could go on and on discussing this icon and its symbolism and associations, but rather than rattling on too long, I will just mention that there was “in the air” at the time when Christianity first arose, the notion among Jews that there was not just one god. Jews such as Philo of Alexandria recognized this. There was the “Father,” but there was also a “second god,” a “son” who was his Logos. Margaret Barker, a remarkably brilliant scholar, has written extensively on the notion of this “second god,” who appears in the Old Testament As Yahweh and as the “Angel of the Lord.” This all connects back to early Hebrew polytheistic notions, particularly the concept that the Old Testament El Elyon was a heavenly deity who presided over a court of “sons of God,” and when the nations were apportioned out to these sons of God, the son called Yahweh was made God over Israel. That is why, Barker holds, early Christians held Jesus to be “Lord,” which is simply another way of saying they held Jesus to be Yahweh, the God of Israel. This notion gradually became confused as Christianity developed until Yahweh was understood to be the “Father” instead of El Elyon, and Christ then was considered the son of Yahweh instead of being Yahweh himself.
But that is an extensive subject, and though well worth reading about, it is best done in Margaret Barker’s own books. I recommend particularly her volume The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Westminster John Knox Press). And anyone seriously interested in the development of E. Orthodox notions of Christ as Logos and angel should become familiar with the writings of Philo of Alexandria on the topic of the Logos and its relation to the “primary” God.
But back to the icon. I want to show you another image — a variant of the same Blessed Silence” type:
This second image gives some idea of the variations possible within an iconographic type (there are even more in other images). Most obviously, instead of being shown in the same manner as the angel in Sophia, Wisdom of God (which we saw in the first example), this icon depicts the Blessed Silence as Christ Immanuel, that is, Christ shown in the form of a child. That emphasizes the “Nativity” connection, the notion that this icon is both Christ as the Word/Logos born of the Father from Eternity, but also Christ born on earth of Mary. It is also worth noting that the painter of this icon has given him not only the eight-pointed slava/halo appropriate to the type, but has superimposed that over the standard “cross and HO ON” halo found on ordinary icons of Jesus. That is rather unusual.
An even more unusual example of the Blessed Silence type is this:
There are two uncommon things about this icon. First, the Blessed Silence Savior holds the cross, spear and sponge of the Crucifixion. Second, the inscription on the scroll is the beginning of John 5:25: Аминь, аминь глаголю вам, яко грядет час и ныне есть, егда мертвии услышат глас Сына Божия, и услышавше оживут — “Amen, Amen, I say to you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” In some examples the scroll reads: Дух Господень на Мне: его же ради помаза Мя благовестити нищым, посла Мя исцелити сокрушенныя сердцем, проповедати плененным отпущение и слепым прозрение, отпустити сокрушенные во отраду, проповедати лето Господне приятно — “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
There are three winged cherubim depicted on the icon pictured above. Customarily seraphim are red, while cherubim are blue, however it is not unusual to find the colors reversed, with blue seraphim and red cherubim. Some examples of the Blessed Silence type include a single seraph on the bosom of the Angel of Great Counsel. This associates him not only with the highest realms of divinity (the seraphim are in the first rank of angelic beings in the presence of God), but also connects the icon, through the multiple associations one finds in icon symbology, with the Seraph who purified the lips of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah with a fiery coal from the altar — a prefiguration of the fire of divinity that entered Mary as Christ Immanuel was incarnate within her. This sense of a divine, fiery nature is associated with the seraphim, as [pseudo-] Dionysius the Areopagite tells us in his Celestial Hierarchies:
The name Seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness. (Celestial Hierarchies of Dionysius the Areopagite, translation copyright Shrine of Wisdom).
And by the way, when you see a seraph or a cherub depicted in Russian icons, the Hebrew plural forms — seraphim and cherubim — are used even when there is obviously only one. So in Russian icons one sees a “seraphim” not a “seraph,” even though technically the latter singular form would be correct usage.
In other rather rare examples of the type, one finds a key suspended from the hands of the Angel. This evokes what is spoken of Jesus in Revelation (the Apocalypse) 3:7:
These things says he that is holy, he that is true, he that has the key of David, he that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens.”
The Greek equivalent of the Russian Blagoe Molchanie is painted somewhat differently, though it too depicts a winged Jesus. It is titled Ο Μεγάλης Βουλής Άγγελος –– Ho Megales Voules Angelos — “The Angel of Great Counsel” — and is more likely to be found as a fresco than a portable icon. It may bear as inscription part of John 8:42:
ἐγὼ γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐξῆλθον καὶ ἥκω: οὐδὲ γὰρ ἀπ’ ἐμαυτοῦ ἐλήλυθα, ἀλλ’ ἐκεῖνός με ἀπέστειλεν.
“For I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.”
As always, there is much more one could say about the Blessed Silence icon type, but one has to stop somewhere. Follow any thread in the study of icons, and it will lead you to countless different subjects, all of which are connected by that thread. But I shall try to limit myself in these postings.
I will, however, impose a bit further on those of my readers who are serious students of icons by presenting one more related icon — related in the sense that it shows God the Father from whom the Son was born in Eternity, according to the thought behind these types in E. Orthodox icon painting.
Here is the important segment of an icon identified by the slavic inscription at both sides of the top as SVYATUIY GOSPOD’ SAVAOF — “HOLY LORD SABAOTH.” “Lord Sabaoth” is the standard representation of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox iconography.
(Image courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
Now you will find all kinds of “true believers” (usually Western converts to E. Orthodoxy) who will tell you that to depict God the Father as an old man with a beard is heretical. The fact, however, is that icons of God the Father were quite common in Eastern Orthodoxy, and have been for many hundreds of years. When such E. Orthodox fundamentalists begin such quibbles, I just refer them to the Kursk Root Icon, which is considered a miracle-working icon in Eastern Orthodoxy — particularly by the fundamentalists — and that usually shuts them up — because why would a heretical image (there is a little “Lord Sabaoth” image right at the top of the Kursk-Root) be on a miracle-working icon? That presents them with a puzzle for which they have no ready answer. You will read that the images of God the Father and the Old Testament prophets were added to the Kursk Root icon when it was brought to Moscow in 1597, but that changes nothing; no account says the icon stopped “working miracles” post 1597, after the addition of the supposedly “heretical” depiction. It is even recorded that the famous St. Seraphim of Sarov was healed as a boy by kissing the theoretically “hereticalized” Kursk Root image in the latter half of the 18th century. It just shows how completely “orthodox” the image of God the Father was considered to be by the end of the 1500s, and how the addition of the image of God the Father was not considered “un-Orthodox” in general belief and practice — even the belief and practice of St. Seraphim, who died in 1833.
So do not concern yourself with such dogmatic quibbles. As a student of icons, always look at what the icon painters really painted, not at what some modern “more Orthodox than thou” convert says they should have painted. It is always best to work from reality rather than fantasy.
But back to this very interesting icon of God the Father. I have said that icons of God the Father are common (more as elements in other icon types than as icons in themselves), but this particular representation is not common, because of its emphasis on the Father and because of its interesting inscription in the circle. Ordinarily we would term this icon type a “New Testament Trinity,” because it shows God the Father as Lord Sabaoth, God the Son as Christ Immanuel, and in the little circle, the Holy Spirit as a dove (that is another fundamentalist doctrinal quibble, but we shall leave them to their quibbling). Note that both the Father and the Holy Spirit are given the same eight-pointed slava that is found in the icon of the Blessed Silence. As we have seen, it represents existence from Eternity, and that is why it is used with persons of the Trinity, though on Christ usually only when his “from eternity” aspect is emphasized. The painter of this icon has given a pleasant little touch by putting stars in the Father’s slava.
But the important connection I want to make here with the Blessed Silence type is found in that interesting inscription in the circle. It is understood to be God the Father speaking:
IZ CHREVA PREZHEDE DEN’NITSUI ROZHDIKHTYA — “FROM THE WOMB BEFORE THE MORNING STAR BEGOT.”
That comes ultimately from Psalm 110:3, but again we have a difference in textual readings. In the Hebrew version translated in the King James Bible, we find:
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
That is no help with this type; but if we look at the Septuagint version, which is the version used by early Greek-speaking Christians, we find this:
With thee is dominion in the day of thy power, in the splendours of thy saints: I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning.
The word translated “morning” here is εωσφορου in Greek, a form of eosphoros, which actually means “morning-bringer”; it is the name for the morning star, which accounts for why we find “before the morning star” in the Slavic inscription.
So, this icon of Lord Saboth, Christ Immanuel, and the Holy Spirit can also be seen as a Nativity icon, particularly when emphasized by the Slavic Inscription, which we can loosely understand to mean “I begot you from my womb before the morning star.” Yes, that is God the Father talking. So males do not have a womb? Well, I told you not to look for rational sense. This is all a system of symbols and theological connections, and this inscription is intended to point out that Jesus was mysteriously born of God the Father before the creation of the world, according to the teachings of Eastern Orthodoxy. And that is what connects this “Lord Sabaoth” icon with that of the Blessed Silence.
Do not even begin to think that I have said all that can be said of either icon type. But space and time are limited, and so, no doubt is the patience of even serious students of icons.