When one first begins to learn about icons, every icon is interesting, and each new icon is a new experience. After one has seen many, many icons, however, one becomes more discriminating. One begins to look for intriguing variations, for quality of painting, and, of course, for unusual types.
Today’s icon is one of those unusual types. Examples of it are seldom seen. It is called the Nedremannoe Oko (Недреманное Око), “The Unsleeping Eye.”
It depicts Christ Immanuel, that is the youthful or child Christ reclining on a bed. At left is Mary, and at right an angel, his hands covered with a cloth to show reverence. If we look at a pattern of the type (reversed, as patterns taken from old icons generally are), we can see further details:
Above the child is a flying angel of the Seraphim rank holding the spear and sponge of the crucifixion; beside him is another angel holding the cross (eight-pointed, as the traditional Russian cross was). Examples of the type often place the scene in a paradise-like garden. As in the first example, God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) may be shown at the top of the icon.
The text associated with this type in Russian iconography is generally that of Psalm 121:4 (Slavic Bible 120:4):
Сé, не воздрéмлетъ, нижé ýснетъ храня́й Изрáиля.
Se, ne vosdremlet, nizhe usnet khranyay Izrailya
“Behold, he that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
The version of this type found in Greek iconography differs somewhat in that it is less elaborate and the eyes of Christ Immanuel, though he is reclining, are generally open. That brings us to the second text associated with the type, taken from Genesis 49:9 of the Greek Septuagint version:
…ἀναπεσὼν ἐκοιμήθης ὡς λέων καὶ ὡς σκύμνος· τίς ἐγερεῖ αὐτόν;
…anapeson ekoimethes hos leon kai hos skumnos; tis egerei auton
“..reclining he slept as a lion, and as a [lion’s] whelp; who shall rouse him up?”
It is from that text that the Greeks take their name for this type — Anapeson.
The text, in regard to the icon, is rather obscure unless we recall that Simeon Metaphrastes, in the tenth century, expressed the odd belief that a lion sleeps without closing his eyes; further, that the young of the lion are born dead, but are brought to life by the parent on the third day. This, of course, begins to “open our eyes” as to the significance of this icon, because this being “born dead” and being “brought to life” on the third day is an allegory for Jesus, who is said to have been in the tomb until the third day, when he rose to life.
Further, if we turn to the E. Orthodox liturgy, a hymn for Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) reads:
“Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that lie dead in their tombs. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as he sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to him: You have lain down; you have slept as a lion; who shall awaken you, O King?”
From all of this we see that the “Unsleeping Eye” icon represents the “sleep” of Jesus, after the crucifixion, in the tomb on Holy Saturday; and that while sleeping he is also, as God, eternally awake, according to Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
The Greek version of the type, as already mentioned, is generally simpler than the Russian, and may consist only of the reclining Christ Immanuel, sometimes with an accompanying angel (who may hold the spear, sponge and cross), and sometimes with the angel and with Mary. Russian examples generally depict Mary standing, while Greek versions tend to depict her as seated in a chair to the right of the sleeping Immanuel, with right arm outstretched and holding a cloth at the side of the child’s head.
In old Greek churches it was sometimes painted over the western door; because of that, it is at times associated also with Psalm 121:8:
“The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
However it is sometimes found at the diakonikon (a chamber on the south side of the central church apse).