One often encounters Russian icons from the 18th and 19th centuries that are “multiple” icons, meaning they include more than one icon type as main images on the same panel. The number of types varies, but four were often used, no doubt for pleasant symmetry.
Today I would like to discuss such an icon, first generally, and then focusing on one particular type on the panel. Here is the icon:
It was painted, as the inscription at the base says, in 1833. We can see a lingering baroque influence in the ornate gold framing of the four main images.
Let’s “read” the icon, by which I mean identify all its images.
At the top we see the three seated angels that comprise the “Old Testament Trinity” type, representing the Trinity as the three angels that appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the Plains of Mamre.
Just below and to the right is the Voskresenie Khristovo, the “Resurrection of Christ.” Here it is depicted in the Western manner, showing Christ rising above his empty tomb, rather than as the “Descent into Hades” that was the older Russian Orthodox form.
To the right is the Mother of God type often identified simply by its general Greek title, Hodigitria, meaning “Way-Shower.” But in Russia the type in the form shown here is the “Smolensk” Mother of God. It differs from the very similar Iverskaya/Iveron type in that the head of the mother is erect (or nearly so), whereas in the Iverskaya type the head of the mother inclines more toward the Christ Child.
At lower left is the “Joy of All Who Suffer” type, showing Mary aiding those suffering and in need of help, such as the blind, the lame, etc. This was a very popular type in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At lower right is the “Lamb of God” (Agnets Bozhiy) type. I will discuss this further below.
In the very center of the icon is the “Image Not Made by Hands,” the image of Christ on a cloth in the apocryphal tale of King Abgar of Edessa.
In the four corners of the icon we see images representing the Four Evangelists. St. John and his disciple Prokhor are at upper left, St. Matthew at upper right, St. Mark at lower left and St. Luke at lower right.
To finish general mention of the images, we find as border saints Prepodobnaya Maria (Venerable Maria) at left. Remember that Prepodobnaya, though meaning literally “most like,” is the Slavic term signifying a nun in Russia. At right is the Svyataya Muchenitsa Varvara, “The Holy Martyr Barbara.”
Now let’s go again to the fourth main image, that a lower right, the “Lamb of God.”
Those new to icons are often mystified by the “Lamb of God” type, because they are unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodox liturgical practices. To understand this type it is essential to know that unlike the flat, round wafer used in the Roman Catholic Eucharist, Russian Orthodoxy uses a “raised” loaf of bread, in fact five in total are used. Out of the first loaf, the priest cuts a cube of bread that is called “The Lamb,” because it signifies Jesus, the “lamb of God” as he is called by John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) in John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
The priest places the “Lamb” portion of the loaf on a footed, round metal dish called a diskos (Дискос), corresponding to the paten in a Catholic mass. Over that is placed the zvezditsa (Звездица), meaning “star.” It looks like a thin metal cross with the arms bending downward. This makes an arch framework above the “Lamb” piece of bread. Usually there is a round boss in the center of the zvezditsa that is ornamented with a star. This symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem from the nativity story. The zvezditsa provides an open framework so that a cloth may be placed over it without touching the “Lamb.” Additional pieces of bread are also placed on the diskos representing Mary, the nine ranks of angels, and saints, but as they do not figure in the imagery here they need not be discussed further.
You may wish to know that at one point a large cloth called the vozdukh (Воздýхъ) is placed over both diskos and chalice. The “Lamb” on the diskos is considered to be the body of Jesus, and the wine in the chalice (mixed with a little water) the blood. The cloth that covers both represents the graveclothes in which the body of Jesus was wrapped at death, as well as the swaddling clothes in which he was wrapped at birth. In Greek Orthodoxy, the zvezditsa is called the asteriskos, and the vozdukh is called the aër, meaning “air.” The vozdukh is not shown in the “Lamb of God” icon type, but I mention it here because it extends the symbology.
You will notice that in the type, Jesus is depicted, though without clothing, as Christ Immanuel, the child Christ. It is worth mentioning that this “Lamb of God” symbology is often found in icons of John the Forerunner as well.
Beyond that, we need only mention the two angels, one at each side of the “Lamb,” and the red rank of winged angel known as Seraphim, shown above and at both sides.
There are, as with most icon types, little variations that appear from example to example. Here is an icon pattern for a “Lamb of God” type showing some such variations:
This version is presented as a “Deisis” variant, with the “Lamb” in the center instead of the enthroned Jesus. At the top is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) shown as an old man supported on Seraphim, and holding a cross-surmounted orb. Below that are angels holding the cross and the spear and sponge of the Passion of Jesus. Below them are two angels holding ripida (рипида), the ceremonial fans representing Cherubim and Seraphim (two ranks of angel).
Two angels immediately above the “Lamb” hold the prosfor (the liturgical loaf) and a knife called the “spear” (kopie/копие). The spear is used by the priest, in the liturgy, to cut out the piece of bread called the “Lamb.”
At the left of this icon pattern is Mary, and at the right is John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). The strange, winged rings below the diskos holding the “Lamb” are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”
Now you understand why knowing the basics of the Russian Orthodox Eucharist ceremony is essential to understanding the “Lamb of God” icon type.