THE “O ALL-HYMNED MOTHER” ICON

As I have written previously, icons of Mary form a large segment of Russian icon painting. In fact there are far more icon types of Mary than of Jesus. Many of them have hagiographical stories, frequently dubious, detailing their supposed origins and date, but for some very little information has been passed down.

Today I will discuss such an icon. It is known under three different names, but all for the same icon type. It is called:

1. Arapetskaya
2. Araviyskaya

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Both of those names mean essentially “Arabian.” It is not known why that title became attached to the image, and in any case, the earliest known example of the icon is actually a page from the 17th-century Siya Pictorial Icon Painter’s Manual. So even though there are suggestions made in religious icon literature that the missing prototype dates to the beginning of the 300s c.e., or even may have something to do with the evangelization of India by the Apostle Thomas, there is no support for such colorful suppositions. So the icon’s prototype can at present not be dated earlier than the 17th century.

3. O Vsepetaya Mati

That third title, which means, “O All-Hymned Mother,” is the title I prefer for this image because it relates directly and obviously to one of the characteristics of this icon type: In the border of Mary’s garment is written in Church Slavic the words of the 13th Kontakion of the Akathist prayer/hymn to Mary, the most popular Marian prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy:

О всепетая Мати, рождшая всех святых Святейшее Слово, нынешнее приношение приемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия изми муки, вопиющия Ти: Аллилуиа

O all-hymned Mother worthy of all praise, who brought forth the Word, holiest of all Saints, as you receive this our offering, rescue us all from every calamity, and deliver from future torment those who cry with one voice, Alleluia

The beginning of the Akathist may also sometimes be found as border ornamentation in her garments:

Взбранной воеводе победительная,яко избавльшеся от злых,благодарственная восписуем Ти раби Твои, Богородице; но яко имущая державу непобедимую,
от всяких нас бед свободи,да зовем Ти: радуйся, невесто неневестная
.

Invincible Champion, as deliverance from evil, in thanksgiving your servants ascribe the victory to you. And as you have might unassailable, free us from all distress, so that we may cry to you: Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

The “O All-Hymned Mother” is only one of several Marian icons utilizing or based upon lines from the Akathist.

Let’s look at a detail:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We see in the border of her head covering (Greek maphorion) the words …[п]риемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия и[изми] … “From every calamity rescue all, and deliver from future…”

Note also another characteristic of this particular icon type. Usually Mary is depicted with three stars on her garment, one on her head and one near each shoulder; these traditionally represent her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. But on the “All-Hymned Mother” type, we find instead of stars three circles in which we see the heads of angels. The precise significance of this has been obscured by time, but there are two interpretations: 1. The angels are the “spirits” that manifest as stars, as we find in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. 2. They represent the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — shown as angels, as in the “Hospitality of Abraham” icon type.

A third distinguishing feature of this type is that the garments of Mary are customarily ornamented with stylized clouds, representing not only her existence in Heaven but also her traditional liturgical description as “Wider than the Heavens.”

This particular example is painted very much in the traditional stylized manner. We can see that her face is depicted with a base of sankir, dark brown base paint, over which is placed first a layer of lighter brown to form the face, then a third layer of even lighter brown highlights added primarily as linear strokes. Dark detailing completes the formation of the facial features.

On this example as a whole, notice the golden highlighting on the garments of the child Jesus; such highlighting with gold of garments, angels’ wings, etc. in icons is termed асистasist, usually spelled “assist” in English usage.

It is customary in this type for Mary to have a painted crown of precisely the style shown in this example, though in some examples the crown is absent.  The upper body of the child may be bare or nearly bare in some examples, while in others — usually more recent — it is covered.

I AM WATCHING YOU: THE “ALL-SEEING EYE OF GOD” ICON

One of the most peculiar icon types, and also one of the most interesting, is that known as ВСЕВИДЯЩЕЕ ОКО БОЖИЕ — Vsevidyashchee Oko Bozhie — “THE ALL-SEEING EYE OF GOD.”

Here is a particularly fine example, with the background and border heavily gilded and incised with the geometric decoration characteristic of many icons at the end of the 19th and beginning years of the 20th century:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

To understand this seemingly strange icon type, we may look to  Psalm 33:18:

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy.

What we are seeing in this icon then, is God in Heaven watching over the faithful believers on earth.

But it also relates to the Book of Isaiah.  In some examples, the circle around the sun face bears a variant of the Irmos, Tone 2, from the Easter Octoechos:

Угль велии [Исаии] проявлейся, Солнце из девственныя утробы возсия, во тьме заблуждшым, богоразумия просвещение даруя.

As the Burning Coal that appeared to Isaiah, a sun arose from the virgin’s womb, bringing to those who wandered in darkness the light of the knowledge of God.”

The “sun” that arose from the virgin’s (Mary’s) womb is of course Jesus.

So we see that this icon refers also to the biblical story of the seraph who purified Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar.  That is why this icon type is sometimes also called “The Coal of Isaiah.”

The icon is formed by concentric circles, and in the very center we see Jesus as the youthful Christ, Immanuel. He is placed in the center of the “eyes of God,” depicted here as a sun-red face with four eyes. The reason for Jesus being placed within this sun image is that Jesus is the “Sun of Righteousness.”  In the circle around him, one often finds the text of Psalm 100:6 (101:6 in the KJV):

Очи мо­и на вѣрныя земли, посаждáтия со мнóю
“My eyes [shall be] on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

At the top of the third circle is an image of Mary, “Mother of God,” and her circle is filled with stars.  Some examples, in this “Mary” circle (and beyond it) give the text of the Magnficat in Luke 1:

Величит душа Моя Господа,
и возрадовася дух Мой о Бозе Спасе Моем.
Яко призре на смирение рабы Своея, се бо отныне ублажат Мя вси роди.
Яко сотвори Мне величие Сильный, и свято имя Его,
и милость Его в роды родов боящимся Его.
Сотвори державу мышцею Своею, расточи гордыя мыслию сердца их.
Низложи сильныя со престол, и вознесе смиренныя;
алчущия исполни благ, и богатящияся отпусти тщи.
Восприят Израиля отрока Своего, помянути милости,
якоже глагола ко отцем нашим, Аврааму и семени его даже до века.

46  “[And Mary said,] My soul does magnify the Lord,
47  And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48  For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49  For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.
50  And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.”

Above Mary is the image of Gospod Savaof, “Lord Sabaoth,” who is God the Father represented as a bearded old man.  Sometimes the circle by him bears the “Sanctus” text from Isaiah 6:3):

Святъ, святъ, святъ Госпóдь Саваóѳъ…
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Sabaoth…
(KJV version: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts…”)

The four figures in the other outer red circles, each surrounded with clouds, are from Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:7, considered symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew as an angel, Mark as an Eagle, Luke as a winged ox, and John as a winged lion.  All are “flying in Heaven.” In the outer circle of the main image are winged seraphim.

People of our time often forget that when those of earlier times spoke of “Heaven,” they were not speaking of an invisible spiritual realm in some other dimension, as people often think of it today. To the ordinary old Russian believer, Heaven was just as depicted in the Bible: it was the sky, and God lived in the sky. That is why Jesus is said to have ascended to Heaven in the New Testament, and it is why, when the Soviets began sending men into space, they announced triumphantly that God had nowhere been found up there. Heaven and the sky, in old belief, were the same. There was a kind of diaphragm, the Firmament, which was the blue dome of sky visible from earth, and above that was where God lived. That is why in the New Testament, the Heavens could be “torn open,” as in the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit comes down as a dove from Heaven/the sky through the opened Firmament.

When we look at Russian icons, then, we must not see them in the belief context of present-day humans, but rather in a pre-scientific context in which humans lived on earth, above which was the sky in which God lived, looking down upon the earth, keeping watch over everything, like the sun that in its passage sees all the earth.

Here is a variant of the type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

At lower left in this example is the Prophet Isaiah having his lips purified by a coal from the altar, as described in Isaiah 6:

1  In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

2  Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

3  And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

4  And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

5  Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

6  Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

7  And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

At right the Prophet Ezekiel sees “wheels within wheels,” his vision in Ezekiel, chapter 1:

4  And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

5  Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

6  And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

7  And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.

8  And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.

9  Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.

10  As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

11  Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.

12  And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.

13  As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.

14  And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.

15  Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.

16  The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.

17  When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.

18  As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.

19  And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

20  Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

21  When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

Here is another example, useful for its variations.  The title inscription might puzzle us at first, if we are accustomed to the usual Vsevidyashchee Oko Bozhie title.  This one is inscribed (I am using the modern Russian font):

ОБРАз УГЛЬ ИСАИЯ ПРОЯвЛЕИСЯ СОлНЦЕ
Obraz Ygl’ Isaiya Proyavleisya Solntse

We need not be confused by the different title, if we remember what I wrote above about Irmos, Tone 2, from the Easter Octoechos:

Угль велии [Исаии] проявлейся, Солнце из девственныя утробы возсия, во тьме заблуждшым, богоразумия просвещение даруя.

As the Burning Coal that appeared to Isaiah, a sun arose from the virgin’s womb, bringing to those who wandered in darkness the light of the knowledge of God.”

We can see that the beginning words vary only slightly from the inscription on this icon.  So we can translate the title inscription as:

Obraz Ugl’ Isaiya Proyavleisya Solntse
“Image of the Coal that Appeared to Isaiah — the Sun”

In Eastern Orthodox typology and hymnography, the tongs that held the burning coal in Isaiah 6:6-7 prefigure Mary, who bore Jesus, symbolized by the burning coal.  At Matins on the commemoration of the “Meeting of the Lord in the Temple,” this is sung (in Greek here):

Ἡ λαβις ἡ μυστική ἡ τον άνθρακα Χριστόν συλλαβούσα εν γαστρί σύ υπάρχεις Μαριάμ.

“You are the mystical tongs, who have conceived the coal Christ in your womb, Mary.”

The four figures in the ovals might seem unusual to us, but they are just the Four Evangelists, each with his symbol that is shown alone in the more common “All-Seeing Eye of God” type.  And at bottom left is the Prophet Isaiah having his lips purified by a coal from the altar, held on tongs by an angel.  At right is the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, as he sees wheels within wheels, and is given a scroll to eat.  At the top — in clouds — is Gospod’ Savaof  — Lord Sabaoth — God the Father.

The “All-Seeing Eye of God” type is not found in Russian iconography prior to the end of the 18th century.  It apparently developed as a result of Western European influence via the “eye of God in a triangle” symbol placed in the center of church domes to symbolize the All-seeing Trinity, and then reached its full development as an icon type in panel icons.

STARTING WITH JOHN: MORE ON READING ICON TITLES

In old Russian icon painting workshops, it was traditional that when a young apprentice was felt to be ready to actually learn to paint an icon (other than just sweeping the floors, etc.), he would be given an icon of the Evangelist John to copy.

There was a reason for this, and it was largely theological. As I have mentioned before, the earliest Christians neither made nor venerated icons. Icon veneration was a practice that developed gradually in the centuries following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The actual doctrine that attempted to justify the religious use of icons came even later — centuries later — as a result of conflicts over the spread of the making and veneration of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

To simplify the matter, we can say that the doctrine justifying icons was based essentially on the premise that because Jesus, considered to be God in Eastern Orthodoxy, had taken on flesh and become incarnate, it was therefore permitted to paint and venerate images of him. Of course no one in the beginning days of painting “portrait” icons had any idea what Jesus looked like, but over time a standardized image developed that was taken to be Jesus and came to be accepted. The important thing for our purposes today is to note the relationship between the belief that God became incarnate as a man in Jesus, and the making of icons. What is that relationship exactly? Well, it was believed that just as Jesus took on visible, material flesh to become human, an icon painter used paints to give material form to Jesus as well as other saints. So through his art, the icon painter gave the spiritual material form, it was believed. A common popular term for an icon painter in old Russia was “God-dauber.”

Why, then, was the Evangelist John selected as the first and “foundation” icon for the beginning icon painter? It is because John’s gospel (or rather the gospel given the name “John” — no one knows who really wrote it) starts with the words, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Then it goes on to describe how “the word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” which was seen as an analogy to the icon painter making Jesus and the saints visible in material paints.

That is why in icons of John, as in the two examples on this page, one sees him with a gospel book open to the words “V NACHALE BE SLOVO…” “IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD…” etc.

The two icons on this page represent the icon “type” of John popularly called “John in Silence.” That is because John holds the fingers of his right hand meditatively to his lips in silence, while an angel behind his shoulder whispers into his ear. That is understood as the angel telling him — inspiring him — with the words he was to write in his gospel.

The title inscriptions on such icons, however, generally do not use the “John in Silence” title. Instead they say, as this first example does in Church Slavic,

СВЯТЫ АПОСТОЛ И ЕВАНГЕЛИСТ ИОАННЪ
Svyatui Apostol i Evangelist Ioann
HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN

If you look closely at top right of the image, you can see a word written below ИОАННЪ in smaller letters. It is actually the ending of the main title inscription, and here it is abbreviated as БОГО — BOGO; that is short for BOГОСЛОВ — BOGOSLOV, meaning “Theologian.” So if we translate the identifying title of this icon into normal English, we would have:

THE HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Why, then, does the title of this next icon, also of the “John in Silence” type, look somewhat different?

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

That is because it begins, as do countless icon inscriptions, with the word ОБРАЗOBRAZ. Obraz means “Image.” And what this icon title is saying is that this icon is the IMAGE OF THE HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN. You need not worry about the grammatical details if you do not wish to, but the important thing you should know is that beginning the inscription thus, with this ” Image of thenecessarily alters the form of the words following it. Svyatuiy becomes Svatago,” Bogoslov becomes Bogoslova, etc. These endings just reflect the “of the” form given the title here: The Image OF THE Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. But in Church Slavic, “of the” is not shown by actually writing it in separate words. Instead, it is shown by changing the ending of words. Change the ending of Svyatuiy — “Holy” to Svyatago, and it becomes “of the Holy,” just as Bogoslov becomes insteadBogoslova.” We of course are not used to forming words this way in English, but it is characteristic of Church Slavic, and once you know it, you will recognize it.

OBRAZ (“image”), like SVYATUIY (“HOLY”/”SAINT”) is one of the important words you should remember in order to form the basic vocabulary necessary to read countless icon inscriptions. Most icon titles of saints will thus begin either with Svyatuiy (for a male, Svyataya for a female) — meaning “The Holy…” (so and so), or with Obraz Svyatago “[The] Image of the Holy” (so and so). There are variations on this, but you will generally recognize them easily if you keep this in mind.

By the way, if you are wondering why the second image on this page has additional figures at the sides, then you should know they are not a part of the main icon image. Instead, following Russian practice, they were the “angel saints” — that is, the “name” saints — for whom the members of the family owning the icon were named. Such various name saints are often found as border images outside the main image in old Russian icons.

TRAFFIC LIGHTS AT THE TOMB: THE MYRRH-BEARING WOMEN

The “Myrrh-bearing Women” is a variation on a very old subject in Christian art. Essentially it depicts three (or more) women coming to the tomb of Jesus on “Easter” morning, the morning of the resurrection. What is believed to be a very early painting of this motif (there is some disagreement) still exists as a wall fragment from the little church at Dura Europos, in what is now Syria, which was built about 233-256 c.e. It apparently depicts, at left, either a tomb or a rudimentary sarcophagus with a triangular lid, and at least three women (perhaps originally as many as five — the painting is damaged) approaching from the right, candles or torches in hand. What is either the rising sun or a star is seen just to the right of the tomb. This wall painting, as well as the other paintings in the house Church at Dura Europos, were not “icons” as later found in Eastern Orthodoxy. They were simply illustrations of biblical narratives, in spirit quite like the paintings on the Jewish synagogue of the same time and place, though the house church paintings were less sophisticated.

We have similar, though not identical elements in this Russian icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women. At left is an angel sitting on a rock (rolled away from the tomb entrance in the New Testament accounts). Beside him is a lidless sarcophagus, empty except for linen graveclothes, and to the right stand the three women, listening to the angel. As background elements we have hills at left and right, beyond which is seen the walled city of Jerusalem. The tomb itself is shown as a cave, with a stone sarcophagus lying outside it, though we are to understand that it is within the cave. The sarcophagus is depicted in the old manner of abstract perspective, in which a flat object is tilted toward the viewer, with the height at the back greater than that at the front. This method is often incorrectly described as “reverse perspective.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It all seems very simple and straightforward, but actually this simple scene is an adaptation, a careful selection of elements from the disparate biblical accounts of the resurrection, which do not tell exactly the same story and are not compatible with one another either in the list of women visiting the tomb, which ranges from Mary Magdalene alone to more than three, nor do they agree in why women came or what they saw or were told when they arrived. That, of course, is because the biblical accounts are hagiography, not accurate history. Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, combines biblical accounts with tradition to come up with no less than eight myrrh-bearing women, though all are not always depicted in icons.

The gospel called “Matthew” tells us that the women came only “to see” the tomb. Nothing about bringing any “myrrh,” no spices to anoint the body at all. And in the gospel called “John,” only one woman, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, again bringing no spices, and it is revealed that there would have been no point in her doing so, because the body had already been anointed before entombment with “100 pounds” of spices. The Gospel called “Luke” tells us that in spite of having witnessed the entombment, women prepared spices and brought them to the tomb on “Easter” morning. “Mark,” like “Luke,” tells us that women came to the tomb with spices (the general view is that “Luke” adapted, with variations, his account from that of “Mark”; for an interesting different view, see http://markusvinzent.blogspot.com/search/label/Luke).

Taken together, in fact, the resurrection narratives of the New Testament are so incompatible in details that “fundamentalist” attempts to harmonize them only lead to such bizarre scenarios and so many comings and goings of people to the tomb on Easter morning that I used to joke that they should have installed a traffic light. But my point here is not to go into all of that, interesting as it is, but rather just to point out that the image of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” takes the “spice bringing” motif only from Mark and Luke, leaving aside the quite incompatible accounts of Matthew and John, in which no women who come to the tomb bring spices.

Let’s take a look at the title inscription at the top of the icon:

zhmirdet

It is written in the vyaz (“joined”) calligraphic manner, which in English we may call a “condensed” inscription. It reads ЖЕНЫ МИРОНОСИЦЫ, ZHENI MIRONOSITSY, literally “WOMEN MYRRH-BEARING.”

As we have seen, in the gospel called “of John,” only one woman comes to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection — Mary Magdalene.  We are not told why she comes — after all, we are told in chapter 19 that the body of Jesus had already been anointed with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes when it was laid in the tomb — only that she came early, while it was still dark.  She finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, and she runs to tell Peter “and the other disciple.”  They see the empty tomb, then go away again, but Mary remains, and has an encounter with a man she thinks is the gardener, but who turns out to be the risen Jesus.  So in John, Mary Magdalene is the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.

Here is an icon of her:

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

We can tell from the corner pieces, the foliage pattern in the outer border, and the ornate gilt background that this is an icon in the style of the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  Mary holds a vessel of “myrrh” in her right hand, in keeping with one of her traditional titles — мироносица —mironositsa — “Myrrh-bearer.”

The title inscription reads:
“Image of Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene.”

In Eastern Orthodoxy, Mary Magdalene is the foremost among women given the “Equal-to-the-Apostles” title, which is given those who are believed to have equaled the Apostles in their spreading of the Christian message.  The other biblical woman given this title is (oddly enough) the so-called “Woman at the Well” of the Gospel of John, chapter 4, whom tradition gives the name Фотина — Photina in Russia (Svetlana in Russian translation) and Φωτεινή — Photeini/Photini in Greek.  She was provided with an elaborate, fictionalized biography that has her later dying as a martyr under Nero in Rome.

WORKERS OF THE WORLD, ADJUST! THE “PHYSICAL LABOR OF THE HOLY FAMILY” ICON

As I have mentioned before, readers of this site write to me from time to time asking for help in identifying icons, and I am happy to help them as possible. Today I received a question about an icon one seldom sees.

It depicts Mary, Jesus, and Joseph at the time when Jesus was still young. It is not the usual type — not the version called “The Three Joys.” This one is rather different in that it depicts the family working in Joseph’s carpentry shop. Mary sits spinning wool, Joseph is cutting a board, and the youthful Jesus is cutting a slot into a beam. It is easily distinguished from the “Three Joys” icon (which was also based on a Western prototype) in that the “Three Joys” includes the youthful John the Baptist, and neither Mary, Joseph, Jesus, nor John is laboring.

Physical Labor of the Holy Family

This particular example of the “Physical Labor” icon comes from Mstera (pronounced Mstyora), one of a group of three villages famous for icon production, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the other two being Palekh and Kholui. It was painted by V. O. Mumrikov (it is not hard to tell that: it is signed at bottom right “Icon painter V. O. Mumrikov”).

The most interesting thing about it, however, aside from its being a pleasant image, is that the painting of this icon in 1923 is representative of the “Renewal Movement” (Obnovlenchesto) that began in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922. If you will think a moment, you will realize that 1923 is very late for a Russian icon to have been painted, considering that the Russian Revolution had taken place and the new Communist state was developing.

The painting of this icon at such a late date was an attempt to accommodate icon painting to the new emphasis on workers and labor. That accounts for the strange title of this icon type, which is Физический труд Святого Семейства, “Fizicheskiy Trud Svatogo Semeistva.” It means THE PHYSICAL LABOR OF THE HOLY FAMILY.

Now if we did not think about the time and place in which it is painted, we would think it just a very pleasant and seldom seen icon of the “Holy Family,” and indeed in other times and circumstances it would have been. There are near identical images in Western European art, and the image itself appears to be adapted from Western European biblical depictions, which is more obvious in this version of the image with a Russian title:

hfill

But presented as it is with the “Physical Labor” title, and being painted when it was, this icon was a beginning sign of the drastic change that struck Russian icon painters as the Soviet regime gained power. Eventually, it very much put a stop to most icon painting in Russia, and to survive, painters had to turn to other occupations or adjust their painting, as the villages of Mstera, Palekh, and Kholui did, to the decoration of lacquer boxes with fairy tale motifs and Soviet worker images, paradoxically in a developed form of the same manner in which old icons had been painted.

A very interesting icon indeed!