I have said before that the polytheism of the pre-Christian world did not disappear with the arrival of Christianity; it was simply transformed. The pantheon of the old gods was replaced by the “pantheon” of God the Father, Jesus, Mary, the angels and the saints. Where people once turned to this or that lesser deity for help with such things as illness and crops, they now turned to Christian saints.
In the Slavic world, two very important pre-Christian gods were Perun and Veles. Perun was a sky god associated with thunder, lightning, and fire. Veles was a lower earth god associated with herds and flocks.
Now, as one might imagine, both of these things were very important to the average person concerned about his crops and his flocks.
So what happened when Christianity was imposed on such people? They looked for replacements. Here is an icon of the Prophet Elia/Ilya (at left) and of St. Vlasiy, called “Blaise” in the West:
Christianity has the Prophet Elijah, called Ilya in the Slavic world. In the Old Testament story, Ilya was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. His day of celebration came late in July, a time when peasants were very concerned about the effects of weather on their crops. So the characteristics of the thunder god Perun were simply transferred to the Prophet Elijah, who was believed to roll across the heavens in his fiery wagon, making the sound of thunder, which is why in Serbia he is called Sveti Ilija Gromovnik — ” Holy Elijah the Thunderer.” Now you know why there are so many icons of Elijah. When the images of the old gods were done away with, their place was taken by icons. So polytheism did not die out with the arrival of Christianity; it just put on different clothes.
In some places, even the “blood” sacrifices to the old gods survive in the veneration of Elijah. In the Balkans, for example, there is a tradition for a family to kill the oldest rooster each year on Ilinden –Ilya’s Day; and also a ram or bull is killed and boiled so that Ilya will not withhold rain for the crops.
The old rival of Perun in the Slavic pantheon was the god Veles/Volos. When Christianity was introduced (one could say “imposed”), it was not difficult to find a counterpart for Veles in the ranks of saints, because one particular saint had a very similar-sounding name — Vlasiy (Vlasios in Greek, Vlas in Bulgarian). It did not matter that hagiography related that Vlasiy had been a bishop at Sebaste (now Sivas in Turkey) in the late 3rd-early 4th century. There was a legend that he healed wild animals, and that, combined with his name, made him the new Veles, protector of herds and flocks. That is why an icon of Vlasiy was often hung in the shed where livestock was kept. His day of commemoration was in February.
When we think of Greek Eucharistic icons, we commonly think first of the standard type called Ο ΜΥΣΤΙΚΟΣ ΔΕΙΠΝΟΣ, Ho Mystikos Deipnos, — “The Mystic Supper.” It represents the institution of the Eucharist, what Protestants commonly call “The Lord’s Supper,” the same event depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” painting. It shows Jesus seated at a table with his apostles.
There are, however, other Greek Eucharistic types. There is the elaborate ΘΕΙΑ ΛΕΙΤΟΥΡΓΙΑ (Theia Leitourgia), “Divine Liturgy,” which shows the liturgy being celebrated in heaven by Christ robed as a bishop, though with bare head; look for standing angels as identifying elements in this type. Instead of being seated at a table, Jesus stands, and is generally depicted twice.
There is also the similar Η ΘΕΙΑ ΚΟΙΝΩΝΙΑ (He Theia Koinonia) “Holy Communion” type, which we generally call “The Communion of the Apostles.” It too depicts Christ standing at an altar, giving communion to the apostles, who approach from left and right. Again Christ is shown twice, at left in the so-called metalepsis of the wine, and at right in the so-called metadosis of the bread. This represents Christ giving the communion in and to the Church on earth.
I will probably discuss those latter two types in a future posting.
Today, however, we are going to look at an uncommon allegorical icon of the Eucharist that is apparently borrowed from a Western prototype. It shows Christ with blood spurting from his side into a chalice at left, and on the right his fingers rest on the eucharistic bread, which is stamped with the word NIKA, meaning “He conquers”:
The chalice and bread are the chalice of wine and loaf of bread used in the Eucharist rite, which Eastern Orthodoxy considers to be also the blood and body of Christ (a notion that relates it to the mystery religions popular in the Roman Empire at the time of Christianity’s founding).
Here is the inscription on the banner below Jesus:
ΛΑΒΕΤΑΙ ΦΑΓΕΤΑΙ ΤΟΥΤΟ ΕCΤΙ ΤΟ CΟΜΑ ΜΟΥ
ΠΙΕΤΑΙ ΕΞ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΠΑΝΤΕC TOYTO ECTI TO AIMA MOY
Labetai phagetai touto esti to soma mou
Pietai ex autou pantes touto esti to [h]aima mou
“Take, eat, this is the body of-me
Drink of it all [of you], this is the blood of-me”
The inscription is borrowed from Matthew 26:26-28:
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessing, he broke it and gave it his disciples, saying:
‘Take, eat, this is my body’;
And taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying:
‘Drink of it all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the remission of sins.‘”
You perhaps noticed that the calligrapher arranged the words of the inscription in an odd way. Here is how he did it (in transliteration):
LABE TAI PHAGE TAI TOU TOESTI TOSOMAMOU
PIE TAI E XAU TOU PAN TES TOU TOESTI TOAI
Compare that with how it should be read:
LABETAI PHAGETAI TOUTO ESTI[N] TO SOMA MOU
PIETAI EX AUTOU PANTES TOUTO ESTI[N] TO [H]AIMA MOU
You can see that the calligrapher has used some ligatures, which you must learn to recognize if you want to read Greek icon inscriptions.
First, he has joined the letters S and T in this form:
Next, he joins the Greek Y (u) and O like this, placing the Y atop the O:
He also joins the A and N (as in the word pantes, meaning “all”):
Be sure to notice the very little mark that looks like an apostrophe above the first letter A in the word [H]AIMA, meaning “blood”:
When it is written like a crescent with the opening facing the right, as it is here, it signifies what was called the “rough” breathing in ancient Greek. It means simply that you add an “h” to the beginning of the word if you want to pronounce it as in ancient Greek. In later Greek, however (including icon inscriptions), that “h” was no longer pronounced; it was silent. But the Greeks still often wrote it in, as in this inscription, though frequently it is omitted on upper case letters.
Notice also that the calligrapher has written the word “this” — TOYTO (touto)– in two ways; in one he writes it without a ligature:
But the second time he writes the same word with the ligature combining the O and Y (u):
Remember that it is very common in Greek inscriptions to see “S” written as C. That is how it is written in today’s example. But later Greek icons may instead use the form Σ. When written in lower case letters, “s” at the beginning or within a word is written as σ; but at the end of a word it becomes ς.
Here is a Cretan Eucharistic icon very influenced by Western Roman Catholic art:
Jesus sits enthroned on the creatures symbolizing the four Evangelists, his feet resting on a globe symbolizing the cosmos. Mary is at left, John the forerunner (the Baptist) at right. Blood spurts from the side of Jesus through his fingers and into a golden chalice held by a small angel. Another angel opposite him holds the Eucharistic bread. More angels above hold the symbols of the Passion — the cross and ladder, the pillar to which Jesus was tied when scourged, the crown of thorns and the sponge on a reed.
Ιf you have been a faithful reader here, you should be able to translate all the inscriptions on Mary, Jesus, and John the Forerunner.
Here is the inscription on the book:
It is taken from the Gospel of John 6:56-57: Ὁ τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μένει κἀγὼ ἐν αὐτῷ. Ho trogon mou ten sarka kai pinon mou to haima en emoi menei, kago en auto.
“Who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. καθὼς ἀπέστειλέν με ὁ ζῶν πατὴρ κἀγὼ ζῶ διὰ τὸν πατέρα, καὶ ὁ τρώγων με κἀκεῖνος ζήσει δι’ ἐμέ. Kathos apestele me ho zon pater kago zo dia ton patera, kai ho trogon me kakeinos zesetai di eme.
“As the living father sent me and I live by the Father, so who eats me, even he shall live by me.”
The Akathist was originally a 6th-century hymn to Mary — in Greek — attributed to Romanos the Melodist. The word is from the Greek a- meaning “not” and -kathistos, meaning “seated.” So an akathistos or akathist is a hymn sung while “not seated,” that is, while standing.
But there are other akathists as well, addressed to “sacred” persons, liturgical events, and even to Mary as manifested in various icons.
Akathists are divided into thirteen poetic segments, each consisting of a kontakion (Slavic kondak) and an oikos (ikos in the Slavic form). I mention the terms because they appear frequently in Marian icon inscriptions. In the same context, you will also want to know the term troparion (Slavic tropar), which is a short hymn form. When you see a troparion on a Russian icon, it will usually be identified at its beginning with the word tropar, followed by the word glas (“voice”), meaning the tone in which it is sung. There are eight tones used in Eastern Orthodox liturgical singing. “Voice” or “tone” here really means mode, in the musical sense. A mode in Eastern Orthodox singing is a base note with the melody built around it, following a defined set of scale steps. For the base note, think of the “drone” pipe on bagpipes that continually plays the same note while the melody is built up around it. There is more to the eight-tone mode system, but that is all we need for our purposes.
Now personally, I find even this much about the kontakion, ikos, and troparion pretty boring, but it is very helpful when trying to read and identify icons, so students of iconography should know the minimal basics I have just given. More is not necessary unless you plan to study Byzantine or Slavic liturgical music.
Now to today’s very uncommon icon type:
We see Mary standing at the center in a oval of light. Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and in her hands she holds out a cloth –her veil — very much as she does in another icon type called the Pokrov or “Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God.”
Behind her is what appears to be a curved wall, with a turret at each end. At left is a group of nuns, and at right another group of females.
What does all this mean? It is explained by the inscription at top and bottom, identified by its first word as an ikos, and by the following number as “10.” It is Ikos 10 from the “original” akathist to Mary, called the “Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God.”
Стена еси девамъ, Богородице Дево, и всемъ къ Тебе прибегающымъ: ибо небесе и земли Творецъ устрои Тя, Пречистая, вселься во утробе Твоей, и вся приглашати Тебе научивъ:
Радуйся, столпе девства:
радуйся, дверь спасенія.
Радуйся, начальнице мысленнаго назданія:
радуйся, подательнице Божественныя благости.
Радуйся, Ты бо обновила еси зачатыя студно:
радуйся, Ты бо наказала еси окраденныя умомъ.
You are a wall to virgins, O Virgin Mother of God, and to all who flee to you; for heaven and earth’s Maker prepared you, Most Pure One, dwelt in your womb, and taught all to call to you:
Rejoice, pillar of virginity:
Rejoice, gate of salvation!
Rejoice, leader of mental formation:
Rejoice, giver of divine good!
Rejoice, for you did renew those conceived in shame:
Rejoice, for you gave wisdom to those robbed of their reason.
There is more, but that is all the writer of the icon inscription had room for. There are slight variations in the text of the Akathist as found on this image, but that is to be expected when comparing Old Believer inscriptions with those used by the State Church, whose Bible translations and liturgical books vary slightly in translation from those of the Old Believers.
So, what we see in this icon type is Mary holding out her veil of protection, somewhat as in the Pokrov image, but instead of the other details of that type we have instead a wall behind her symbolizing Mary as “Wall to Virgins,” meaning the protector of virgins, and that accounts for the crowd of nuns at left and the crowd of maidens at right — the “virgins.” The sun and moon are added merely as decorative elements, but you will recall also the description of Mary as the “Apocalyptic Woman” standing on the moon and clothed with the sun — so there is a hint of that in their inclusion here.
This icon type, “You Are a Wall to Virgins” (Стена еси девамъ/Stena esi devam) is seldom found separately, but in icons representing the Akathist, and in other icons of Mary “с акафистом” (s akafistom) — that is, “with the Akathist,” it is included in the border scenes depicting the kontakia and oikoi (“houses”) of that hymn. In some examples Mary is shown without Christ Immanuel on her breast and without the veil in her hands.
Though the word стена (“stena”) means literally “wall,” those translating the Akathist often prefer the more florid “bulwark,” so for short one may call this icon type either literally the “Wall to Virgins” or more loosely the “Bulwark of Virgins,”
The history of Russia, like many political histories, has its dark moments and intrigues as “byzantine” as anything in Byzantium. One of the best-known involves the mysterious death of Dmitriy, the youngest son of the tsar known as Ivan Groznuiy, “Ivan the Terrible.”
Upon the death of Tsar Ivan, his son Feodor ascended the throne. But the real power was held by Boris Godunov, Feodor’s brother-in-law. Feodor was weak, sickly, and not mentally competent to be Tsar, though he was said to be very pious.
All of this meant that upon Feodor’s death, he being childless, the next Tsar would be Boris Godunov — except for the obstacle of the younger son of Ivan, Dmitriy, born in 1582.
In 1584 Boris Godunov had Dmitriy and his mother and her brothers packed off to the city of Uglich. In 1591 Dmitriy was dead of a stab wound at the age of eight, and his mother accused Boris Godunov of having sent men to assassinate her son. She was forced to enter a convent and become a nun.
All of this led to much turmoil and confusion.
Just what happened is still unknown. Some believe Boris Godunov did in fact have Dmitriy assassinated so that no son of Ivan could possibly block Godunov’s ascent to the throne. Other historians believe the story that Dmitriy was playing with a knife, and wounded himself during an epileptic seizure. Yet a third story, and one that contributed to a period of great political disturbance called the “Time of Troubles,” said that Dmitriy had managed to escape his assassins. This is the reason why imposters were put forth by Polish factions, claiming the right of such a “false Dmitriy.” to the throne.
Mysteries, assassinations, disappearances — it all sounds like 21st-century Russian politics.
In any case, for Russian Orthodoxy, Dmitriy became a martyred saint.
Here is an icon painted in the Western manner used by the State Church in later years:
At left is the “Good-believing Prince Roman [of Uglich]”. Roman was a 13th-century prince who ruled Uglich and was said to be both pious and devoted to the welfare of the people.
“The Holy Good-believing Tsarevich Dmitriy” stands at right, with the cross of martyrdom in his right hand and the knife that was the instrument of his death in his left. He is also called Dmitriy of Uglich
So in this icon, we have two princely saints associated with the city of Uglich. In the clouds above, Christ, holding the Gospels, looks down upon them.
Here is an icon of the Tsarevich Dmitriy “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his hagiographic biography. It is painted in the traditional stylized manner:
The title inscription at the top is a bit worn, but nonetheless is still readable. Here it is in two images:
ОБРАЗ ЖИТIЕ СВЯТАГО OBRAZ ZHITIE SVYATAGO …
“IMAGE OF [the] Life [of the] Holy …
So all together,
“The Image of the Life of the Holy Orthodox Tsarevich Dimitriy.”
Blagovernago is the male genitive form of blagoverynuiy — “good believing” — which is the Russian rendering of the Greek word εὐσεβής/eusebes, meaning “pious.” It is the title given to a category of royal saints of Eastern Orthodox belief, and was originally used of Byzantine emperors and empresses who were considered to be saints. It can loosely be translated as “Orthodox.”
The 13th century was a very difficult time for the principalities of Kievan Rus’ due to the Mongol invasion, when villages and towns were burned and looted and large numbers of people killed. The princes of that time were thus put in the position of either trying to appease the Tatars or of fighting against them. The land went under Tatar control for over two centuries, with the principalities becoming vassal states, except for Novgorod and Pskov in the northwest, which remained independent.
Today we will take a look at a very pleasant Russian icon (from a private collection) depicting royal saints of this period:
At left are the images “святого благоверного князя Феодора Смоленского (Черного) и его чад Давида и Константина” — “of the holy good-believing prince Feodor of Smolensk (‘The Black’) and his sons David and Konstantin.” “Good-believing,” or as it is often translated, “True-believing,” means that they were faithful to Eastern Orthodox belief:
Feodor Rostislavich was son of the prince of Smolensk. After his father’s death his brothers took the more choice regions, while he was left with Mozhaisk. Nonetheless, through marriage he became prince of Yaroslavl, and engaged in military campaigns for the Tatars of the “Golden Horde,” the western part of the Mongol Empire that had its head in the Sarai on the lower Volga River. He even married the daughter of the Khan Mengu-Timir. He had a previous son, Mikhail, under an earlier wife who died, but with his new wife he had two sons, David And Konstantin. In September of 1299 Feodor became ill, and asked to be made a monk so he might die as one. That is why in the icon he is wearing a monastic cowl (skhima), even though his life had been spent as a warrior and prince. He was succeeded by his son David, Konstantin having apparently died earlier.
At right are two other princes of Yaroslavl, Vasiliy (Basil) and Konstantin (Constantine, not the same as Konstantin son of Feodor):
Their father Vsevolod had been killed fighting the Tatars, who remained a problem first for the older brother Vasiliy, and after his death in 1249 for the younger brother Konstantin, who was killed while fighting the Tatars in 1257.
Royal figures in icons are recognized by their robes, which are usually heavily ornamented, often with damask designs and (as here) borders of white dots as pearls. Look also for the shuba, the fur-trimmed outer cloak-coat seen here on David, Konstantin, Vasiliy, and the other Konstantin. Sometimes royal saints wear metal crowns, but for Russian royalty, often the fur shapka like that worn by Prince David in this icon.
At the top of this example, the Old Testament Trinity is depicted in clouds.
The gold leafed background of this icon has been worn away over time (not uncommon), and with it the inscriptions, leaving the underlying gesso visible. But all the saints are nonetheless recognizable by their iconographic forms. The dark little holes visible in the halos of the saints show that they were once covered by nailed-on metal halos, added as a sign of veneration. That too is common in icons of the 17th century.