Today I want to talk a bit about monk saints.
I specifically want to talk about those monks who became famous as founders of monasteries in the northern forests of Russia, the so-called “Northern Thebaid.” Why is it called that? Because the first monks in Christian history appeared in the 3rd century in an area called the Thebaid (after the city of Thebes), in southern Egypt. They went out into the barren regions of the upper (southern) Nile and began monasteries there. When monks in Russia went into the wild northern forest regions centuries later, that eventually came to be known as the Northern Thebaid.
You will want to remember that the standard title for a monk on Russian icons is “Prepodobnuiy” — Преподобный, often abbreviated to “Prep” (ПРЕП) or “Pr” (ПР). Usually it is just loosely rendered in English as “Venerable,” but what it really means is “Most” (Pre-) “Like” (-Podobnuiy.” So a monk is titled “Most-like.” But “Most like” what? Most like Christ, most like the original man Adam before the proverbial “Fall,” who was said in Genesis to be made in the image of God. So Eastern Orthodox believed that in such monks, one saw a person who was most like the true “spiritual” man.
You will also want to know that such monastic founders are often depicted in a monastic robe called the “Great Skhima.” It is (now) the garment worn by monks considered to have reached the highest level of development. The name comes from the Greek Μεγάλο Σχήμα, Megaloskhima, meaning “Great Shape”or “Great Form.” the Russian Great Skhima is often depicted as hooded, though the Greek form is not. You can easily recognize a monk of the Great Skhima by the long and wide cloth band called the analav in Russia (from Greek analavos), which hangs down in front and back and is ornamented with the cross and spear and sponge (and appropriate abbreviations) of the Crucifixion. You can see that analav in this icon of Stefan/Stephan of Makrish, Стефанъ Махрищский. He was a 14th-century monastic founder of the Northern Thebaid:
The icon shown above can easily be dated no earlier than the later years of the 19th century. Before that time, the geometrical and rounded-top border, incised and painted in imitation of cloisonne, was not used, as can be said also of the heavily-incised and gilt decoration of the rest of the image; and of course the manner in which the figure itself is painted indicates the same period.
Let’s look at another icon of a monastic founder of the Northern Thebaid, this time Makariy (Macarius) Unzhenskiy, titled here Prepodobnuiy Markariy Unzhenskiy I Zheltovodsky Chudotvorets Преподобный Макарий Унженский и Желтоводский Чудотворец, — “Venerable Macarius of Unzha and Yellow-Water, Wonderworker” In this icon, Makariy is shown in the center, and at the sides are four scenes from his life. Above him is the “Holy Trinity,” depicted in the form called the “Old Testament Trinity,” that is, as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham in the Old Testament. Makariy founded a monastery in 1434 near Yellow Water Lake on the Volga.
Finally, here is another icon of a monk of the Northern Thebaid, in this case the well-known Nil (Nilus) Stolbensky, who established his hermitage on Stolobny Island in Lake Seliger in the mid-1500s. Before his death, he is said to have predicted that a monastery would be built on the site, and one was established by the monk German (Herman). It became a famous pilgrimage destination, drawing many thousands of visitors a year. It was a place where pilgrims could buy not only painted icons of Nil, but also little carved wooden statues of him, depicted supported on the crutches that he used to sleep upright.
Such “three-dimensional icons” are not usual in Eastern Orthodoxy, but large numbers of them still exist. The pilgrimages and resulting sales were a lucrative business for the monastery, which also boasted reputedly healing waters (Okovetsky Spring). Such attractions made it the most-visited pilgrimage site in Russia before the Revolution. As is common with icons of northern monastic founders, Nil is shown here beside his monastery, though technically, as already mentioned, it did not exist until after his death.
This icon is a mixture of the traditional style with certain westernized elements, such as the trees in the background and the less abstractly-formed (though still not very realistic) clouds in which Jesus is seen blessing Nil.