THE MEANING OF MELCHIZEDEK IN ICONS (if you have the patience….)

Having just discussed the “Blessed Silence” icon type, I would now like to say a few words `about an uncommon type that readers are seldom likely to encounter — one of those icon  types from the 16th century that fall under the general heading of “mystic-didactic” icons — that is, icons that express less-than-obvious (and sometimes questionable, even to other E. Orthodox) points of doctrine and simultaneously act as teaching devices for the same.

The icon I now discuss — TUI ESI IEREI VO VYEK PO CHINU MELKHISEDKOVU — “You Are a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek,” is somewhat variable in its form.  The basic image is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) holding a cross upon which Christ, winged as a seraph, is crucified. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is above the Father’s head, and the symbols of the Four Evangelists are in the outer points of the eight-pointed slava that symbolizes the seven days of Creation and the eighth day, the “day of Eternity.”

In the example shown here, God the Father is superimposed over the usual winged image of Jesus.  In some versions (as here) Jesus is depicted a second time as Christ Immanuel on the bosom of “Lord Sabaoth”;

(Courtesy of

elsewhere he may be depicted sitting, sword in hand, atop the cross on which a seraph (Christ in a “Logos” form, as we saw from the “Blessed Silence” icon) is crucified.  This symbolizes his victory over death.

It should be noted that some interpret the figure in bishop’s garb behind the cross as the “Ancient of Days,” or as Jesus represented as high priest.  It appears that there is some confusion in the transmission of this image, accounting for the uncertainty of identification.  Note that in the icon above, the figure has the long beard of God the Father, but in the image below, the beard is short, yet still not the shape of the beard on conventional icons of Jesus.


So this “seraph” appearance of Jesus identifies him as “Holy Wisdom,” Sophia, the Wisdom of God, the “Angel of Great Counsel.” The point of such a representation is to demonstrate that Jesus, the eternal Logos/Word, was born as a human/divine figure and was crucified. And that this crucifixion is the self-offering sacrifice of Christ as Great High Priest, and as such, he is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, which preceded the later Levitical priesthood of the Jews.

Now you may well ask, why would this be considered important?  The answer is that this icon served as a kind of Christian propaganda (based on Hebrews 7) to show that the priesthood within Christianity — the priesthood in which the crucified and resurrected Jesus is chief priest and is offered as the Eucharistic sacrifice — is more ancient and venerable than the priesthood of the Jews in the time of Jesus, which developed later than the priesthood of Melchizedek.

The priest Melchizedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14, and there is said of him in verse 18:

Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.

This is seen in Eastern Orthodoxy as a prefiguration of the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

We can also see the relationship between this icon type and the “Lord Sabaoth” or “New Testament Trinity” icon we examined in the previous posting as part of the discussion of the “Blessed Silence” type.  All we need do is to look at Psalm 110 relating to Melchizedek, but we must look at it in the Septuagint Greek rather than the Hebrew version (translated, of course):

The Lord said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. The Lord shall send out a rod of power for thee out of Sion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies. With thee is dominion in the day of thy power, in the splendours of thy holy ones: I have begotten you from the womb before the morning star. The Lord swore, and will not repent, you art a priest for ever, after the Order of Melchizedek.

So, in E. Orthodox interpretation, God the Father is telling God the Son/Logos, Jesus, that he has begotten him before the Creation, and that he is to be a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

We should also look at Hebrews 7, which makes the case that Jesus, as a “Melchizedek” priest, is superior to to Jewish priesthood.  We can skip through it here:

…For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;

2 To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;

3 Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abides a priest continually…

14 For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.

15 And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchizedek there arises another priest,

16 Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.

17 For he testifies, you art a priest for ever after the Order of Melchizedek…

21 (For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said to him, The Lord swore and will not repent, you art a priest for ever after the Order of Melchizedek:)

22 By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.

23 And they truly were many priests, because they were not permitted to continue by reason of death:

24 But this man, because he continues ever, has an unchangeable priesthood.

25 Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever lives to make intercession for them.

26 For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens;

27 Who needs not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.

28 For the law makes men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, makes the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.

So, if you have made your way through all of that, you now understand the point of the icon.

The first important part of this image is the figure robed as a priest/bishop; he is Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth, which is God the Father.  He wears the priestly robes to represent the Order of Melchizedek. The third element is the figure of the young Christ, Christ Immanuel, in a seated position.  In other examples of the type, he is seated atop the cross.

We should not be surprised that the depiction may seem a bit confused in a type that was both uncommon and not particularly well understood, as well as being the subject of controversy in the middle of the 1500s.

This icon type may be called by any of three names.  First is the Ты Eси Иерей Bо Bек — “You are a Priest Forever” title.  Second, it is sometimes referred to simply as Христос Распятый Серафим — Khristos Raspyatuiy Serafim — “Christ the Crucified Seraph.”  A less common name for it is Душа Христа — Dusha Khrista — “The Soul of Christ.”  The latter title is taken from the words in Isaiah 53:12:  Он предал Свою Душу на смерть — On predal svoiu dushu na smert’ — “He gave his soul over to death.”

The “Crucified Seraph” representation of Jesus is also found in some icons of the type called Почи Бог в День Седьмый — Pochi Bog v Den’ Sedmuiy — “God Rested on the Seventh Day.” That is often part of icons of the Sotvorenie Mira — “The Creation of the World.”

Here, for example, is the “God Rested on the Seventh Day” segment of a “Creation” icon:

In the center, we see Lord Sabaoth, God the Father, lying on his bed, relaxing on the seventh day after creating the world and all that is in it.

To the left of it is the “Crucified Seraph” image:

Note that here, God the Father is not dressed to represent Melchizedek. The image is used here as a prefiguration of the sending of Jesus into the world to suffer for the sake of humans.

On the right side of the reclining Lord Sabaoth is another image of Jesus:

Here he is depicted as the Logos/Word, “begotten of the Father before all ages,” the Angel of Great Counsel. Note that in this form, Jesus has the eight-pointed “glory,” the halo form which, like that of God the Father, signifies both divinity and eternity. So when Jesus has this halo, as he usually does in icons of the “Blessed Silence” as well, he is represented in his eternal aspect.

Having said all that, it is generally conceded that the visual notion of Christ as a crucified seraph was borrowed and adapted into Russian iconography from Western Roman Catholic depictions of the “Stigmatization of St. Francis,” such as that found in the early 14th century Bardi Chapel in the Church of Santa Croce (“Holy Cross”) in Florence. Here is a detail from that fresco:

And here is the larger image, showing St. Francis of Assisi kneeling at left, receiving the stigmata (wounds of Jesus) in his body from the “Crucified Seraph”:

To the crucified seraph concept from the Francis story, we can add another Western subject — the Trinity depicting the crucified Jesus held by God the Father, as in this central image from Masaccio’s Trinità:

Such an image is commonly titled a “Throne of Mercy” in Western art.

Combine those two notions with a little Russian Orthodox theology, and it is not difficult to see how the idea for icons with forms of the “Crucified Seraph” arose in Russia, where the standard type is also known as Душа Христа/Dusha Khrista — after words from Isaiah 53:12: “Он предал Свою Душу на смерть”/On predal svoiu dushu na smert‘ — “He gave his soul over to death.”


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