LESS THAN GOLDEN-MOUTHED JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

It is a commonplace of icon art that saints are generally not painted in a side profile, but either looking straight forward or with the head turned only partially to the side.

Knowing that, When you see an icon of a standing saint with face turned toward one side (but not entirely) and on a large panel tall and narrow in shape, it is very likely that the icon is from an iconostasis, the large wooden wall inset with icons that separates the congregation from the altar in Russian Orthodox churches.

Here is such an icon. This one depicts, as its inscription says, Svyatui Ioann Zlatoust — Holy John Gold-mouth — or as he is better known by the English adaptation of the Greek version of his title (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, =”John the Golden-mouth”) John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407 c.e.).

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

One finds such bizarre paradoxes in the list of Eastern Orthodox saints. Though he was called “Golden-mouth” in Greek and in Slavic, what sometimes came out of his mouth was actually more like filth — very vile, bitter, and rabid anti-Jewish rants. One gets an idea from this typical quote near the beginning of his work titled Against the Jews (Adversus Iudaeos):

Indeed the synagogue is less deserving of honor than any inn. It is not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews, as I shall try to prove at the end of my homily.

No need to quote any more of his toxic words.

Now modern conservative Eastern Orthodox believers like to say that John was merely complaining about “Judaizers” in his congregation — people who took part in some Jewish practices. But it is quite obvious on reading his homilies that beyond and in addition to addressing that issue, he is talking in the most despicable terms about Jews in general. That is, of course, because Jews did not accept the Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah and divine, so John and others like him saw those who questioned the central beliefs of Christianity as a threat. Christianity has a long and dark history of persecuting those who did not subscribe to the accepted dogmas, and for much of its history it had the power of the state backing up such persecutions.

It is not difficult to trace a direct line in Christian and European political history from the anti-Jewish rants of John “Golden-mouth” to the rants of the National Socialists — the Nazis — in the 1930s and 1940s, just as one can trace a direct line to the long tradition of Anti-Semitism in Slavic countries that still can be found to this day. The Eastern Orthodox, however, being so dependent upon “tradition” rather than critical historical examination, are stuck with him, because not only is he considered one of the major Church Fathers (his importance may be seen from the fact that he is included in iconostases), but also the liturgy commonly used in The Eastern Orthodox Church is called the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

But back to the icon itself. We can see that the painter has depicted John very much like the podlinnik descriptions one finds from later centuries:

“Of our Holy Father John Gold-mouth, Patriarch of Tsargrad [Constantinople]: Beard of Cosmas [the Unmercenary Physician], curly head hair, his sakkos [liturgical robe] cinnabar [red]… ornamented with crosses in gold circles, the hand blesses and the other holds the Gospels, under-robe lazor [blue] with white.”

A significant difference is that in the icon shown, John’s right hand is not blessing, but instead is held out in a gesture of beseeching, because in the iconostasis, John is one of numbers of saints approaching a central image of Jesus, like petitioners lined up in the court of a Byzantine emperor.

Here is a look at the reverse side of the icon, in which the shponki — the wooden slats inserted across the panel in an effort to prevent warping — may be clearly seen:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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