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.”

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):

О́чи мо­и́ на вѣ́рныя земли́, посаждáти я́ 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):

Свя́тъ, свя́тъ, свя́тъ 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”

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.

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