Greek popular icons, one finds, have far less variety of subject than Russian icons. Generally only a few patron saints are favored. That does not mean icons of many more saints do not exist, it just means one does not see them nearly as often as those of the popular patron saints and images of Mary and of Jesus.
This is an icon of Stylianos of Paphlagonia, a region in what is now Turkey. No one seems quite sure when this fellow actually lived, which should be a sign of caution to us, a warning flag, as we shall see; accounts place him somewhere in the 4th to 6th century. He is said to have inherited wealth from his parents, but he gave it all away and went to live a monastic life, then a hermit’s life in a cave. Nonetheless, he did not isolate himself from society, but could also be seen going about among ordinary people.
He became known as a healer, with his first cure that of a child. The healing and welfare of children became a major concern to him, and he is said to have begun, with the assistance of other hermits, a refuge for the care and tending of children.
Stylianos also became noted as something of a fertility specialist, after a young woman who could not bear children appealed to him for help. When she conceived and bore a child, that brought even more visitors asking for his miraculous assistance.
The consequence of all this is that Stylianos is regarded as the saint to go to for illness in children, for the ability to bear children, and for the protection of children. He is said to have been a happy and smiling saint, and completely unmercenary.
Unfortunately, in spite of this cheerful tale, Stylianos is one of those saints who likely never actually existed. Researchers in hagiography opine that his name is actually a misunderstanding. The confusion arose, apparently, because there is another saint, Alypios, who was celebrated on the same day on which Stylianos came to be celebrated (November 26). This Alypios was a stylite — a saint who lived atop a pillar, so his name and title were Ἀλύπιος ὁ Στυλίτης — Alypios ho Stylites — and it is the Stylites part that apparently was garbled into a Saint Stylianos. Alypios is said to have lived in Paphlagonia, and had a mother who gave her money to the poor. And strangely enough, Alypios the Stylite also became known as a “fertility” saint and a guardian of children. So it would appear that the very popular saint Stylianos found in so many Greek icons was created by error as a “duplicate” saint cobbled together from the account of Alypios.
But on to the icon.
It is not difficult to recognize icons of Stylianos. He usually holds a child wrapped in swaddling clothes in one arm (this odd practice of binding prevented an infant from moving), as well as a scroll with this inscription:
ΠΑΙΔΩΝ ΦΥΛΑΞ ΠΕΦΥΚΑ ΘΕΟΥ ΤΟ ΔΩΡΟΝ — PAIDON PHYLAX PEPHYKA THEOU TO DORON, meaning loosely “The Protector of Children is a gift from God.”
At the top we see the identifying title inscription: ΑΓΙΟΣ ΣΤΥΛΙΑΝΟΣ (Αγιος Στυλιανός); in old Greek it would be Hagios Stylianos, and in modern pronunciation Ayos Stylianos — “Holy Stylianos” — or as we would say, Saint Stylianos.
The icon depicted puts prayer beads in his other hand, which has the fingers loosely forming the letters IC XC (abbreviating “Jesus Christ”), a position used as a sign of blessing.
The image of Stylianos may vary slighty, with some examples including more than one infant being held, but one swaddled child is the norm.
Now that you know the iconography of Stylianos, you will easily be able to recognize him in this detail from another and even more folkish Greek icon:
The name inscription at left reads:
Ο Αγιος Στυλιανός — Ho Hagios Stylianos — “The Holy Stylianos.” Notice that in writing ος (-os) the painter has added the s as a very small cedilla-like appendage to the bottom right of the letter o. He has also combined the letters Σ (σ = s) and τ (t) at the beginning of “Stylianos,” with the bar of the t placed atop the s.
What is a palladium? The name originates in Greek myth. There was, it is said, an ancient wooden image of the goddess Athena kept in the city of Troy, and the image — said to have fallen from heaven — was the great protector of the city. By extension, a palladium is any image believed to protect or ward off evil from a city or country.
This notion of a palladium did not end with the fall of the classical world. It was adopted by Byzantine Christianity — which we now call Eastern Orthodoxy. According to the story of Aeneus, the Troy palladium was eventually brought to Rome. Whatever the truth of the matter, when the Emperor Constantine (considered a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy) founded Constantinople, a statue of him was placed on a hundred-foot stone pillar there. In the hand of the statue was an image of the goddess Tyche, who was believed to protect a city; the Romans called her Fortuna; and it is said that within the pillar itself was placed a mixture of “pagan” and Christian relics, among them an axe used by Noah, the ointment container used by Mary Magdalene, pieces of the loaves from the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus, and notably the Palladium image of Athena that Aeneas had supposedly brought from Troy to Rome.
Now we need not concern ourselves with the authenticity of these items; what is important is that they were believed at the time to be genuine, and belief can be a powerful force.
So not only did the “New Rome” Constantinople continue the notion of a city-protecting image, but it also transferred that notion from the pre-Christian “pagan” world into the new Christian world of Byzantium.
Not surprisingly, when Eastern Orthodoxy came to Kievan Rus and that state was converted to Christianity by edict of the Great Prince Vladimir in 988 c.e., this notion of a city-protecting sacred object was not abandoned. But now, instead of an image of the warrior Goddess Athena, the new protecting images depicted Mary, called “Mother of God” in Eastern Orthodoxy.
That is why we find the icon as palladium repeatedly in Russian history. Let’s take a look at some examples of palladia:
Here is the very well-known image known as the Znamenie or “Sign” icon of Mary:
In the 1100s there was a very important merchant city-state on the long trade route from northeastern Europe (think northern Germany and Scandinavia) down to Constantinople. It was the city of Novgorod (literally “new town”), called Novgorod the Great, which gives you an idea of its significance. All kinds of wares and valuables passed to and fro through the city, which made it a rich prize.
About 1169-1170 it was attacked by the forces of Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy (see my article on the “Bogoliubskaya” Mother of God icon). To protect the city, the icon of the “Sign” Mother of God was taken from its place in the Transfiguration Church to the walls of the city, facing the attacking Suzdalians.
The Suzdalians shot a great volley of arrows at those on the walls, one of which struck the face of Mary. According to the legend, the icon turned its face away from the Suzdalians toward the city, and began to weep. At the same time the attackers were seized by a great fear, their sight was obscured, and they began to fight one another. Seeing this, the Novgorodians opened their gates and poured out upon the Suzdalians, defeating them at this moment of great weakness. The Novgorodians were said to have been assisted in their attack on the Suzdalians by saints and angels.
Not only are there countless renditions of the “Sign” Mother of God icon, but there are also old icons depicting the attack of the Suzdalians and their repulsion by the icon, such as this example:
We see from this not only how an icon may be used as a palladium, but also another example of how, in Russian (and Greek) Orthodox tradition, icons can behave like living beings. The icon is “wounded”; it “turns its face”; it “weeps.” We also see the intimate historical connection between Church and State, which extended from the conversion of Russia in 988 c.e. up to the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Russian Revolution. Now, unfortunately, we are seeing a revival of that old Church-State bond, in spite of all the trouble it has caused over the centuries.
The city-state of Novgorod flourished long as a republic, and was never conquered by the Mongols. Nonetheless, in 1478 Novgorod was taken over by the greater power in Moscow, and its importance faded.
The battle of the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians is not the only instance of the “Sign” icon used as a palladium. When a great fire broke out in 1566 (remember that wooden construction was common in those days), Metropolitan Makariy again went to the church, prayed before the icon, then carried it in formal procession along the Volkhov River. It is said that the wind then changed direction, and the fire was halted.
When the Swedes captured and plundered Novgorod in 1611, it is said that some of them came to rob the church where the icon was kept, but every time they tried to enter, they were pushed back by an invisible force, so the church was left unharmed.
In 1636 it is said that a silvermith named Luka Plavisshchikov hid in the church one evening after the service, planning to rob it; by night he took the silver vessels from the altar, as well as money, and then went to the icon to rip off the valuables with which it had been ornamented. But when he touched the icon, he was knocked unconscious to the floor. The next morning the church sexton saw him lying there before the icon, and thought he was drunk. It is said that the thief lost his mind for some time, but eventually recovered and told the story of his attempted robbery and of how the icon prevented it.
The next great palladium icon is also the most famous icon of Russia — the “Vladimir” image of Mary. Here is a rendition of it in the later “red” style that was popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries:
Icons painted in this “red” style can vary from a simple and very folkish manner to more sophisticated renditions. The example shown here is one of the finest in this style that I have seen. These “red” icons should not be cleaned, if it can at all be avoided, because the gold backgrounds are the result of a tinted varnish over a metal leaf background, not real gold leaf; so if that varnish is removed, the color of the background changes completely, from the intended gold to silver.
But back to the original image of the type:
It has an extensive story, but here are a few highlights: In 1164 Great Prince Andrei Bogoliubskiy took it in his military campaign against the Volga Bulgars and his victory was attributed to the help of the icon.
After Andrei was killed by boyars in 1173, the city of Vladimir broke out in looting and chaos. A priest named Nicholas then took the Vladimir icon in procession through the streets, and the outbreak subsided.
At the end of the 14th century, with the invasion of Russia by Tamerlane, the icon was taken from Vladimir to Moscow, much to the dismay of the people of Vladimir, who were said to have wept and cried to the departing icon, “Where are you going from us, O Most Pure One? Why are you leaving us orphans?”
Along the way to Moscow, crowds lined both sides of the road kneeling and shouting, “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую!” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuyu — “Mother of God, save the Russian Land!” When it reached Moscow, the icon was greeted there by all the clergy of the city, as well as the nobles and the family of the Great prince.
As a result of all this, Tamerlane, sleeping in his tent, is said to have had a dream in which he saw Mary in a blaze of light, surrounded by angels with fiery swords. He awoke in great fright, summoned his council, and told his dream, asking what it meant. They told him that he had seen the Protectress of the Russian land. Tamerlane, regarding all this as a very bad sign, then turned his forces back and gave up the attack. The icon is said to have again protected Moscow from the Tatars in 1408, as well as several times in later years.
Finally, today, we come to the latest of these three famous palladium icons, the “Kazan” icon of Mary. Here is just one of countless renditions:
The Kazan icon is said to have appeared after its existence was revealed in a dream (you will have noticed by now that this “dream” motif is very common in the tales associated with icons). It is said to have saved Russia during the “Time of Troubles” in 1605-1612, when the country was invaded by the Poles, who even took control of Moscow. A special commemoration of the saving of Moscow by the icon was set on October 22 annually. That date is significant also because, during the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon, it was on the October 22nd memorial of the icon that the first major Russian defeat of the French in battle took place. It is said that thanks to the Kazan icon, on that day snow and freezing weather began that was so severe an obstacle to the French troops that it led to their ultimate defeat.
It is not difficult to see the psychological value in war of palladium icons that are supposed to be divine protectors of a city or country, and that of course contributes to the attribution of victories to them. Defeats receive far less attention. There was, for example, a “new” icon that was painted at the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1914-1905 by Pavel Fedorovich Shtronda.
The story is that Mary appeared to an old sailor in Kiev in a dream (again, that dream motif!) on December 11, 1903, telling him that a war was coming, and that an icon should be painted of her as she appeared in the vision, and sent to the church at Port Arthur on the Pacific Coast. She promised it would protect and bring victory to the Russian troops there. The cost of painting the icon was paid by thousands of donations by those who heard the tale of the old man’s vision. Two months after the supposed vision, the war began. But when the icon was sent, it only got as far as Vladivostok, because Port Arthur itself was under siege, surrounded by Japanese troops. An attempt was made by a retired captain to bring the icon into the city, but on January 11th of 1905 he reported that the icon could not be delivered because Port Arthur had already fallen to the Japanese.
The Port Arthur icon fell completely from notice as a consequence, until it was said to have been found in an antique shop in Jerusalem by some pilgrims from Vladivostok in February of 1998. On May 6, 1998, the icon was received back in Vladivostok. There are not many copies of this Порт-Артурская — Port-Arturskaya — “Port Arthur” icon, and those that exist are likely to be quite recent. Being a “State Church” icon, it is painted in the Westernized manner.
It is interesting that the notion here is that the icon — like a person — has to be actually present in the city to protect it. In any case, these palladia may or may not “work.” The believers will say something like “It is due to whether the people sincerely repent or not,” but most of us will see the victories supposedly won by palladium icons as just a reflection of the ironic remark by Higgs in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”
And that brings us back full circle to the statue of Constantine, standing atop its pillar in Constantinople, holding a miniature image of the Goddess Tyche (Τύχη) on its outstretched hand. Tyche is Luck, she is Fortune. And she might protect your city, or as history has demonstrated, she might not. It’s all a matter of luck — “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”
I have mentioned previously how icon painting in Russia changed drastically from the latter part of the 1600s onwards. And I have mentioned that the old stylized manner of icon painting survived largely due to the ultra-conservatism of the Old Believers, who not only refused the innovations in ritual and text forced on them by the Patriarch Nikon, but also kept to the old style of icon painting, scorning the western innovations favored later by Tsar Peter “The Great.”
I have mentioned too how the “official” Russian Orthodox Church, working hand in hand with the Tsar in the 1600s, had the chief voice of the Old Believers — the Archpriest Avvakum — murdered; they burnt him at the stake. And when the State Church went after the other Old Believers, they escaped and spread into distant regions farther from the Church and State authorities, moving into northern Russia, into the Urals and Siberia, and down among the Cossacks and into other regions where they might be safer.
Nonetheless, some of the Old Believers, when threatened by the forces of the Tsar, locked themselves inside their wooden churches and set them on fire, preferring to die in flames rather than to accept what they considered to be the great heresy that had come into the Russian Orthodox Church through the innovations of its Patriarch, Nikon.
And that is today’s topic — the odd connection one finds between the Old Believers and fire.
Fire, in Russian, is огонь — ogon‘. Russian being an Indo-European language, it is not difficult to see that the Russian word is in essence the same as the Sanskrit Agni, which, in addition to meaning “fire,” is also the name of the Vedic God of Fire, to whom sacrifices are made. So there is an interesting psychological link here with the Old Believer way of thinking.
The Old Believers saw fire as both a purifier and a connection to the end of the world and the Last Judgement. It is not surprising that we see this reflected in their icons.
They were also the chief makers of cast metal icons, and saw them as images created by fire rather than painted by the hand of man.
They were also fond of icons of the Prophet Elijah (Iliya), who through his prayers was able to call down fire from heaven upon his sacrifice. So we find many Old Believer icons of Elijah that include the “Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah,” as in this example, painted by a very skilled artist:
Let’s take a look at the identifying inscription, apparently written by a hand other than that of the painter of the image, which was a common practice:
It reads, ОБРАз ОГНЕННОЕ ВОСХОЖДЕНИЕ С[вя]ТАГО ПРО[рок]а ИЛИЙ — OBRAZ OGNENNOE VOSKHOZHDENIE SVYATAGO PROROKA ILIY — “IMAGE OF THE FIERY ASCENSION OF THE HOLY PROPHET ELIJAH.”
We see, as the central image, Elijah seated in his cave in the wilderness. Around him are scenes with his follower Elisha, showing Elijah parting the waters of the Jordan River with his mantle (on one side), and (on the other side) is Elisha doing the same with the mantle dropped to him from Elijah’s fiery chariot, the scene at the top. At lower left is an angel about to awaken Elijah to eat the food brought to him.
Here is a detail of the fiery horses; note how the painter has delineated them in just black and white, with the flames doing the rest:
And here is a closer view of Elijah ascending in the fiery chariot. Look at the gold highlighting on his garments:
Look closely at his garments again in this detail showing the angel awakening Elijah:
There is something interesting about the technique here. As already mentioned, the highlights on the garments are gold. That was made possible by gilding the entire background of the icon, then painting the figures over it. The highlights were then added by removing paint from the area to be highlighted, revealing the gold base beneath. This is in contrast to highlighting practiced in many icons simply by lightening the base color with white, or by adding gilding over the garments. This method of “removing to reveal” the gold beneath was very effective, and makes for very striking icons.
Look also at the trees and leaves in the background. Though the Old Believers were careful to keep to stylization in the figures of the saints, it is not uncommon to see touches of westernization in the painting of the background landscape, and in the trees and leaves seen here, which are not as radically stylized as in earlier times.
Finally, we can see the skill of the face painter in this detail, showing careful whitened highlighting over the sankir (dark brown) base, and the painting of beard and hair by the persistent adding of very fine, white lines.
The inscription in the halo reads “Holy Prophet Elijah.”
One thing the serious student of icons learns quite soon is not to mistake the accounts of the lives of the saints celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy for actual history. Though the percentage of fact to fiction varies from saint to saint, some, as we have seen in previous postings here, are entirely fictional.
The icon saint I want to discuss today is one of the most prominent, and was famous not only in Russia but also throughout the pre-Protestant Christian world — St. George.
Paradoxically, however, George is also one of the most heavily fictionalized saints. Did he exist at all? Samantha Riches, in her book St. George; Hero, Martyr and Myth, writes that “there is no aspect of St. George’s life that is incontrovertible, whether his birthplace, profession, the year of his death or details of his tortures.” It is true that if we investigate all of the early documents purporting to tell the life of George, we find a mass of contradictory disparities. And again, As Riches writes, “The net result is that none of the competing camps are able to offer a truly convincing explanation of who St. George was, or indeed, if he actually existed at all.”
What we do know is that churches were dedicated to George early on, and that as a reputed martyr saint his veneration was very widespread, and the stories told of him and his miracles only multiplied in extravagance. Whether originally so or not, George came to be noted as a military saint, which is why he is customarily depicted in armor.
His most popular image, of course, is as the dragonslayer, as in this Novgorod icon from the 1400s:
George is commonly depicted in icons in these ways:
1. Standing without armor or weapons, as in the “Deisis” ranks of the iconostasis;
2. Standing with armor and weapons, as in his individual icons and with other saints;
3. As dragon slayer.
4. As rescuer of a boy captured by muslims (this type is often combined with the type of George as dragon slayer)
Here is an example of the first form, an iconostasis panel showing George robed but without armor or weapons. The image in this icon was uncovered after overlying paint layers were removed to reveal the earliest layer. Patches of the overlay may still be seen; note particularly the later patch at upper right, left on because it contains the saint’s name and title:
Here is an example of the second form, a simply-painted icon showing, at left, the three patron saints of marriage fidelity, Samon, Aviv, and Guriy; and at right George in his Roman armor with lance, the Prophetess Anna (the one from the meeting of Christ in the temple as an infant), and the nun Evdokia (Eudocia), as well as Jesus blessing from the clouds above:
Now we come to the very prevalent and widespread depiction of George as slayer of the dragon:
It is a very pleasantly stylized icon showing George striking with his lance at the fallen dragon, while in the “palaces” to the right the King and Queen look on, as does their rescued daughter Elisava, standing below. At upper left Christ blesses from the clouds, while an angel descends to place the crown of victory upon George’s head. This is the type in which George is usually given his standard title, Георгий Победоносец — Georgiy Pobedonosets — “George the Victory-bearer,” meaning George the Victorious.
It is the familiar old story of the dragon that had to be placated by being fed periodically, and of lots being cast to decide who to feed to the monster; the lot falls upon the daughter of the pagan king, but George the hero appears and subdues and wounds the dragon, which in the iconic version is then leashed and led by the rescued princess into the city. There George tells the populace that if they will convert to Christianity, he will slay the dragon, which upon their agreement he then does.
It is not hard to see that this is the same kind of thing we find in mythology and in fairy tales. We can recall the Greek story of Perseus saving the princess Andromeda from the sea monster as her parents looked on. And of course for prototypes of the warrior hero in Roman armor on horseback, striking with his lance at a dragon-like creature, we need look no farther than Egyptian depictions of the God Horus fighting the evil God Seth in crocodile form, as in this image from the 300s c.e.:
Many modern-day Eastern Orthodox tend to now see the “George and the Dragon” icon as a symbol of Good overcoming Evil, or of Christianity overcoming paganism, but of course before modern times Orthodox believers held to a quite literal interpretation in which a real hero George killed a real dragon and saved a real princess. And of course there are still conservative Eastern Orthodox who take the icon as history, just as they consider the world only a few thousand years old. In any case, the earliest textual version of the “George and the Dragon” story dates to the 1100s.
Let’s take a look at another example of this type:
We can see that things are moved around a bit, and small details change from example to example of this type, but the basic concept remains the same. However, what I want you to notice particularly in this example is the upraised right hand of George that holds the lance:
The observant student of icons will notice that in addition to holding the lance, the hand also shows the fingers in the position of blessing used by the Old Believers, and used by them as a sign of the “true belief” in opposition to that of the State Russian Orthodox Church, which adopted a different position for the fingers in the middle of the 1600s. So this little detail of the hand is telling us that the painter wanted everyone to know that this was an “Old Believer” icon. And in fact this is a good time to note that most of the “traditional” icons painted in the stylized manner that we find in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were painted by or for Old Believers. The State Church, you will recall, had adopted the westernized and more realistic manner of painting icons, but the Old Believers stuck tenaciously to the stylized manner that is so popular among collectors and icon enthusiasts today.
Here is another example of “The Great Martyr George the Victory-bearer”:
This finely-painted example not only includes the usual elements of the “Dragon” type, but also adds four scenes at the base from the tale of the martyrdom of George.
As mentioned earlier, there is also a fourth type depicting George on a white horse, and a boy riding with him. This motif is found mostly in Greek iconography and in regions influenced by it, as well as in the Balkans. We can call it the “rescued boy” motif. Here is an 1833 example on a copper engraving from Mount Athos, which combines the “rescued boy” with the usual “dragon” scene.
It appears both as a separate type, and as we see in the engraving, as an added element in icons of George and the Dragon. George is depicted on a white horse, but with him is a boy. Some examples show the boy held under George’s arm, while others depict him sitting on the horse behind George. The boy commonly holds a cup or bowl in one hand and a narrow-necked jug with a spout in the other. Some examples also give him a long towel over one shoulder.
The large building at the base of the engraving is the Xenophontos Monastery at Mount Athos, which is dedicated to St. George (the Monastery is named after its founder, St. Xenophon).
This “rescued boy” story apparently dates back to the 11th century, In its early version, it relates that there was a handsome serving boy in the Monastery of St. George at Phatris in Paphlagonia, a region bordering the southern coast of the Black Sea. There was a raid by muslims, who captured the boy and took him away. Because of his good looks he was kept alive and put to work as a servant to the leader. Wanting to escape, the boy prayed to St. George, who came one night to rescue him, carrying him away on his horse. That same night George left the boy in a place where he fell asleep. When he awoke, he found that he was in the same Monastery of St. George from which he had been taken by the Arabs.
In a second version of the tale, the boy is named after St. George, and becomes a soldier in the Byzantine army at age 20. Then he goes to fight the Bulgarians and others invading from the North. George is captured by the Bulgarians, and put to work serving their king. When the eve of the commemoration of St. George arrives, the lad’s mother prays in a church to St. George for his release. St. George appears just as the lad is bringing a jug of hot water and a towel to the king. The saint takes the lad on his horse, and returns him to his distant family.
In a third version, the boy is living at Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, the son of a widow (unlike the second story, where he has both mother and father). He is carried off from church on the feast day of St. George by muslims from Crete, and set to serving the Emir. The boy’s mother, meanwhile, has prayed a year for his return. She is praying on the feast day of the saint when, at the same time far away, her son is just about to serve wine to the Emir. Suddenly St. George appears on a white horse and takes the boy back home to Mytilene.
So, having gone through all of this, was there really a St. George? We know there were early churches dedicated to him, and an inscription mentioning him among saints as early as 323 c.e., but we also know that the earliest account of his life is full of the usual hagiographical extravagant nonsense, and cannot be regarded as historical. There are various places claiming to have physical relics (meaning bones/body parts) of St. George, but there was a thriving historical trade in fake relics, so that means nothing.
All we can say, then, is that veneration of a saint called George who was considered a martyr existed by the 6th century. But when we look for any definite or conclusive information about details in the life of a real person, we find none, and so St. George remains, in the words of Samantha Riches, “enigma personified.”
My own view is that it hardly matters whether there ever was a real St. George, because no reliable information about him remains, just masses of extravagant, fabricated acts and miracles for this saint who was once “hugely popular” all the way from the Middle East to the British Isles and northern and southern Europe — and of course, throughout the Greek and Slavic realms.
George’s real importance in the lives of Slavic peasants was as the mythical hero “Yegoriy the Brave,” the militant protector of cattle from wolves and bears, associated not only with the wellbeing of horses but also with the greening of the grass after winter and the pasturing of the cattle. St. George became a kind of nature god, like the Prophet Elijah, whose chariot rolling across the heavens made the thunder. George was, in Russian peasant lore, the one who brought the spring.
He is one of the most easily recognizable saints in icons and is also one associated in hagiography with the last Tsar and the downfall of the Romanov Dynasty — Seraphim of Sarov.
Seraphim’s image is further notable because he is one of the relatively small number of saints of whom a portrait was made during his lifetime. Most depictions of saints in icons, as mentioned previously, are imaginary and largely generic.
Here is a portrait of Seraphim said to have been painted from life:
He was born in Kursk, southwestern Russia, in 1759. His parents named him Prokhor. The family name was Moshnin. He lost his father, a builder, at age three, and when he was seven he was with his mother as she was supervising construction of the cathedral. The boy fell from the bell tower to the ground, but instead of being killed, his mother found him standing unharmed.
When nine, Seraphim learned to read and write Church Slavic (the liturgical language of Russian Orthodoxy), but fell very ill. But while asleep he had a vision of Mary, who told him he would soon be healed; and in fact on a rainy day the “Sign” icon of Mary in its Kursk-Korennaya version was being carried in procession through the town and was taken on a shortcut through the Moshnin’s yard. Seraphim was brought out to kiss the icon, and he was cured. Not surprisingly, the Kursk-Korennaya or “Kursk Root” icon is included among those considered wonderworking in Russian Orthodoxy.
He was a very pious boy, spending much time in church and in the reading of religious books.
At age 17, he decided to become a monk, and went on a pilgrimage to the famous Pecherskaya Lavra monastery in Kiev; there he met the hermit Dosifei, who told him that his real place was in the Sarov Monastery. Prokhor went there in 1778 and kept himself busy both with religious practices and with work at such things as baking and carpentry.
He practiced the “Jesus Prayer,” (Иисусова молитва —Iisusova molitva) — a form of constant audible or inward repetition of the words Господи Иисусе Христе Сыне Божий помилуй мя грешнаго — Gospodi Iisuse Khriste Suine Bozhiy pomilui mya greshnago — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or in its shorter form, Господи Иисусе Христе помилуй мя — Gospodi Iisuse Khriste pomilui mya “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” This is the prayer made famous by the little Russian classic commonly called The Way of a Pilgrim in English translation — a book purporting to be a biography but suspected of being a highly fictionalized religious work that nonetheless gives a good picture of the practice of this form of prayer and what was believed to result from it.
Practicing this method of prayer and longing for more isolation, Prokhor was permitted to go out into the forest to fast and pray.
In 1780 he became ill with a swelling of the body that lasted for three years. He took communion in his cell, and had another vision of Mary, this time with the apostles Peter and John. She touched his head, and liquid began to run out of his side and the swelling went down and he was healed.
In 1786, aged 27, Seraphim officially became a monk with the name Seraphim. He saw angels in the church during the liturgy, and once he saw Jesus appear surrounded by the “Heavenly Powers,’ the ranks of angels. Jesus floated through the air and into his icon at the right side of the “Tsar Doors” of the iconostasis.
After this, Seraphim divided his time between his duties in the church and prayer in a hut built for him in the forest quite some distance from the monastery.
A large bear used to come to Seraphim’s forest hut to be fed, and when Seraphim told him to come or to leave, he would obey.
This icon of Seraphim “with the life,” meaning with scenes from his life, shows Seraphim with the bear, among other images depicting major events in his story:
People, hearing of his reputation for holiness and piety, began showing up in his forest for counseling, many of them women. Seraphim was troubled by the notion of women coming to him, so he blocked the path with logs.
In his retreat, he experienced the kinds of apparitions and noises recorded by rigorous ascetics as far back as the famous “temptations of St. Anthony” — he would hear howling beasts and mobs of people beating at his door, see attacking animals and evil spirits, and even a dead man coming out of a coffin, what today we would call hallucinations. Such apparitions are common to ascetics in several world religions.
Seraphim decided to spend the nights standing or kneeling in prayer on a huge granite boulder in the forest. He brought a smaller boulder into his hut, and he prayed kneeling on that during the day. He is said to have kept up this rigorous practice on a minimum of food for nearly three years, getting ulcerated varicose veins on his legs, an affliction that never left him. Such radical self-mortification is something we encounter frequently in stories of the lives of Eastern Orthodox saints. Suffering was considered a virtue and purifying, even if self-inflicted.
In 1804 Seraphim was out in the forest cutting wood with an axe. Three peasants came up and asked him for money. He told them he had none, but they did not believe it, and began beating him. Instead of defending himself, he took the severe beating, and one of the peasants even struck Seraphim’s head with the axe. He fell bleeding and silent, and the peasants, thinking he was dead, tied his hands and feet with rope and were going to toss him into the river to hide the body. But when they rifled his cell and found only an icon and some potatoes, they began to be afraid, thinking they had killed a saintly man, so they ran away and left him lying.
Seraphim regained consciousness, managed to untie himself, and crawled to his hut. The next day he dragged himself, all bloody and broken-toothed, to the monastery, and was kept there for some time, recovering from broken bones and many wounds.
Seraphim fell asleep and had another vision. This time Mary was there again with the apostles Peter and John. Mary spoke to the doctors who had come to treat Seraphim, asking them “Why do you trouble yourselves?” Of course no one but Seraphim could see or hear all of this.
As a consequence, Seraphim refused help from the doctors, yet his pain quickly went away and later that day he was able to stand and walk about a little. But he kept the effects of the severe beating all the rest of his life, and though he previously walked a bit bent over from an accident with a tree, he was even more bent and stooped now, a posture that is common in his icons.
Here is a typical icon of Seraphim, showing the stooped posture characteristic of him:
The peasants who had beaten him were caught, but Seraphim said that they must be forgiven, otherwise he would leave Sarov. Not wanting to lose their local holy man, the serfs were forgiven, but their houses caught fire (unexplainedly) and were destroyed. Seeing this as divine punishment, the peasants begged and received forgiveness directly from Seraphim.
In 1806 Seraphim was offered and refused headship of the monastery.
After this, he went into a long period of silence, not talking to those who came to him. This period of silence extended some five years. He spent even more time in solitude and prayer, living a rigorously ascetic life, wearing a large iron cross under his garment and keeping a lamp burning before the icon of Mary in his cell that he called his “Joy of Joys,” an icon painted, incidentally, in the westernized manner of the State Church.
After these five years of silence and isolation, Seraphim began to talk again, allowing people to come to him for counseling, and he kept his door open to them from early morning into the evening. He is said to have told people where to find lost or stolen objects, and he also is said to have cured people by touching them with oil taken from his icon lamp. In short, he took on the role of the starets, the spiritual advisor.
In November of 1825 he had another vision in which he saw Mary with saints Peter of Alexandria and Clement of Rome (who happened to be celebrated in the church calendar on that day). After this vision he again began going into the forest for prayer. A hut was built for him near a spring some distance from the monastery, which he used as a hermitage during the day.
In most of the literature on him, it is emphasized that Seraphim was a strict adherent of the State Church. He supposedly, when asked by a “schismatic” visitor whether the State Church or the Old Believer view was better, told the fellow to stop his nonsense. And when an old lady, crippled and near paralyzed, came to him and told him she had left the State Church for the Old Belief of her husband, Seraphim told her to return to the State Church and to stop making the sign of the cross with fingers in the position used by Old Believers. He touched her hands and chest with oil from his icon lamp, and, the story goes, she was immediately cured. All of this opposition to the Old Believers, however, may be simply State Church propaganda, because there is evidence that Seraphim may actually have been sympathetic toward the Old Belief, and in many of his icons he is shown holding the lestovka (лeстовка), the “little ladder” — the distinctive leather prayer rope used by Old Believers. Often icons either omit this detail, or in some cases, replace it with a less controversial form, as seen in the first image on this page.
It is said that Seraphim made a number of predictions of events in the future of Russia — for example the Crimean War and a famine, and the number of healings attributed to him multiplied greatly. After his ordination as a priest monk in 1793 he also became spiritual advisor to the nuns of the Diveyevo Convent.
One day, when asked why he dressed in such tattered garments, Seraphim replied, “Ioasaph the king’s son considered the mantle given him by Vaarlam the Solitary more high and valuable than the royal purple” (for more on the surprising history of these two supposed saints, read the article on them in the blog archives).
Slightly less than two years before his death, Seraphim had another vision of Mary, this time accompanied by a bright light, two angels, and twelve virgins. This time it was said to have been seen not only by Seraphim but also by an elderly Diveyevo nun visiting him on that day. Mary told Seraphim he would soon be with them, a foretelling of his death.
On January 2, 1833, the smell of smoke alerted a monk, who went to Seraphim’s cell and found some cloth smouldering, apparently set aflame by a fallen candle. The monk could see little in the cell, and went to tell the other monks. They returned, looked about the cell, and found Seraphim still in kneeling position before his lectern and icon of Mary. He was dead.
In 1902 Tsar Nicholas II urged the “Holy Synod” governing the Russian Orthodox Church at that time to get on with procedures that had begun some time earlier in investigating Seraphim for sainthood. So on the 19th of July, 1903, Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, and the rest of the Imperial Family attended the glorification process that officially made Seraphim a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.
There are stories that Seraphim had “clearly predicted” that Tsar Nicholas would be killed and Russia would be taken over by “lawless men” for a time, but like much that has to do with saints, it is often very difficult to know what in his life is historical fact and what is just pious hagiography. What is certain is that Seraphim, titled in his icons “Holy Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, Wonderworker,” is one of the most popular saints of the Russian Orthodox Church today.
It should be obvious that icons of Seraphim of Sarov will be relatively late. One often sees examples from the first quarter of the 20th century, and of course there are many modern examples as well.
In the latter 17th Century — the late 1600s — there was a significant change in Russian icon painting. That was an important century, historically.
First, in its middle, came the huge controversy in the Russian Orthodox Church over revisions in ritual (such as how to make the sign of the cross) and in liturgical books. Patriarch Nikon, the head of the Church, thought that the way the Greeks did things at that time was the correct model to follow, and that the Russian Church had deviated from what he thought was that standard. On the other hand, conservative traditionalists were furious over that uppity Nikon wanting to change the way their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done things, and saw Nikon as a dangerous heretic. How dare he say that the spelling of Jesus should have an extra letter! How dare he change the way everyone had always crossed themselves, saying that the fingers had to be in the position used by those deviant Greeks, who, after all, had their civilization destroyed for their evil ways when God punished them for their heresies by allowing the Moslems to conquer Constantinople, the Second Rome, in 1453!
Well, Moscow was now the Third Rome, the bastion of true Orthodoxy, the conservatives believed — and now that devilish Nikon was trying to lead the Russians away from the true path! They were having none of it, and their chief spokesman, the Archpriest Avvakum, ranted against the innovations of Nikon and eventually got himself murdered for it by the authorities as a consequence.
In short, there was a tremendous schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, and it separated into two main divisions: first, that of the conservatives who firmly maintained the old ways of doing things, and second, that of the State Church, with the punishing authority of the Tsar behind it. As a consequence, the Old Believers — the “Old Ritualists” went one way, and the State Church, persecuting those they considered to be raskolniki — “schismatics” went another.
For a short time this had little effect on icon painting. Nikon, after all, did not like Western European religious painting any more than did the Old Believers. Nonetheless, even in his time the influence of the “Franks,” meaning the Western Europeans such as Germans, Dutch, and Italians — penetrated first secular painting, and soon after, icon painting.
Just as the Russians liked to say, for appearances, that icons were “exchanged” instead of “bought,” even so the moderates who wrote of icon painting at that time were perfectly willing to allow such new “Frankish” innovations into icons as naturalistic shading and perspective, while maintaining that all was still perfectly “Orthodox” as long as such painting maintained the podobie, the “likeness” of Jesus and Mary and the saints. But that “likeness” was understood very loosely, so loosely in fact that it was little more than the general outline of a saint or type.
This was, after all, the period when the Russians began to really look to the West, realizing that it was making rapid strides in many fields while Russia was still lingering in the Dark Ages. And when Peter I — Peter the Great as he is called — came to power, he had little patience with Russian “overkill” in the matter of icons. He was quite aware that the Westerners in Russia at that time looked on the over-the-top veneration of icons they witnessed in Russian churches and public and private buildings as backward idolatry, so Peter took steps such as clearing out the numerous icons found on Russian ships, reducing the allowed number to one only; he is said to have done the same in his own residences, getting rid of all the numerous icons of saints and keeping only the cross and an icon of Jesus. He also tried — not entirely successfully — to stem the Russian predilection for declaring icons “miracle-working.”
A good marker for the change in art in the latter part of the 1600s is the painter Simon Ushakov, who maintained the old forms of icons while nonetheless incorporating shading and perspective. No longer were all icons to be rigidly stylized; instead, lines softened, garments began to drape naturally, the use of more accurate light and shadow was introduced, and a more naturalistic way of depiction in general became the norm.
We can see this “having it both ways” mode of icon painting quite clearly in Ushakov’s version of the Kykkos Mother of God — his rendering of a supposedly miraculous Greek icon of Mary and the child Jesus. Here it is:
There are a number of things to note about this painting. We can see first of all, that there is a conscious effort to make the figures more real and naturalistic; they have not only more realistic proportions than in traditional icon painting, but also attention is paid to correct shading and there is a move toward natural draping of the garments, though there is still some stylization in the folds. Coloring — such as that of the flesh — is far more realistic.
I would like you to look at it very closely, particularly at the eyes (see the detail image below). In them you will find a useful tip for dating. I once saw an icon of the Georgian (Gruzinskaya) Mother of God type in a university museum, and I could tell immediately that the date on its label was considerably earlier than it should have been. How did I know? Because the inner corner of the eye had that little dot of flesh (technically the lacrimal caruncle) that eyes really have, and that we see in the inner corners of the eyes of Mary in Ushakov’s Kykkos icon. That little detail is not found in Russian icons before the latter part of the 1600s.
Nonetheless, even with the advent of greater realism, State Church icons in Russia retained an inherent conservatism of form. Ushakov’s painting of the Kykkos Mother of God is still rather rigid, and painters tended not to adapt the more relaxed attitude toward positioning figures that was found in Western European religious art of the period. Ushakov is, in a sense, still “copying,” still keeping the podobie — the “likeness” or “form” — while filling that form with greater, though still restrained, naturalism.
Of course that does not mean the old stylized manner was abandoned in Russia; it was kept alive by the Old Believers, who continue to paint stylized icons right up to the present. In the following example, though considerably later than Ushakov, we find the figures depicted as though the innovations of Ushakov and those like him had never taken place:
Ushakov also reflects his conservative side in the inscription on the Kykkos image, which shows its Greek title — written in Greek:
It reads “HE ELOUSA HE KYKYOTISSA — literally “The Merciful the Kykkos” (Meaning “The Merciful One of Kykkos”). But in very small, nearly invisible letters just below ELEOUSA is written its translation in Church Slavic: Milostivaya — meaning “Merciful” — a tiny concession to those who wanted things more “Russian.”
But what of the original Kykkos image?
Well, as you know by now, all of these famous icons — famous because they are considered to be miracle-working in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity — have their various origin stories, and the Kykkos icon (that is a simple name for it in English) is no exception.
You will recall that one way to give great importance to an icon was to say it was painted by St. Luke. In a previous posting I discussed the fact that there is no support whatsoever for the notion that a St. Luke ever painted icons in the first years of Christianity, and that quite to the contrary, the first Christians did not paint or venerate icons, and would have considered the whole notion frightfully pagan.
And speaking of pagan notions, that is one of the most interesting things about the Kykkiotissa icon.
There is the motif in ancient Greek mythology of the “person that must not be looked upon.” It has its variations. There is, for example, the Gorgon Medusa, whose countenance was so frightful that anyone who looked upon her would be turned to stone. And there is the tale of Semele, the unfortunate girl who wheedled the promise from Zeus that he would grant her a favor, and then asked to see him in all his full splendor. Well, you may recall that when Semele saw him in his glory, she was consumed to ashes.
A variation on that motif is applied, oddly enough, to the Kykkiotissa icon, which is kept in the Kykkos Monastery on the island of Cyprus. Unlike most such icons, the faces of Mary and the child Jesus on the Kykkos icon are not to be seen, but are always covered with a veil that obscures a good part of the image. That is because it is generally believed that to look upon the faces of that icon will bring misfortune — even blindness — to the viewer. This does not generally apply to copies of the image, in which there is no such prohibition.
The origin story of the icon relates that it was sent by Luke to Egypt. When persecution arose there, the icon was packed off to the chief city of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, in the year 980. There was a delay when the ship was attacked by Saracens, but eventually the icon made it to the great city. Keep in mind that these tales are hagiography (not reliable history) — religious writings for what we today would call propagandistic purposes.
The icon was then said to have been sent by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to Cyprus in 1082, after the Emperor’s daughter became inexplicably ill. The Emperor was told that she would be cured if he would send the miraculous icon of Mary to the hermit Isaiah on Cyprus, who had been having divine revelations that Mary wanted her image there. Isaiah built a church to house the image, and when the Emperor finally did send it, it was placed in the new church.
As is frequent in such stories, there are little details such as the Emperor’s hesitation after agreeing to send the image, during which he was punished by heaven for not getting on with it, but again as usual, all was made right when he did finally send it to Cyprus. Monks settled around the church, an abbot was appointed, and the monks were given land and three villages. And that was the origin of the Kykkos monastery.
We find the usual miracle stories associated with the Kykkos image — cures of physical ailments, prayers for rain answered, and also the usual “negative side” miracles, such as the withering of the hand of someone who showed disrespect to the icon.
Copies of the Kykkiotissa image began being painted in Russia in the 1600s, which is why we find the type among the extant icons painted by Simon Ushakov. The Russians generally call it the Milostivaya Kikkskaya — the “Merciful Kykkos” icon.