PUTTING OUT THE FIRE: THE “PURE SOUL” ICON TYPE

There is an uncommon but rather interesting icon type called Чистая Душа — Chistaya Dusha (or Dusha Chistaya), meaning “The Pure Soul.”  Here is an example from the 17th century:

We get a better idea of its nature if we look at the same subject in a different medium, this time in tempera on paper, from the end of the 18th-beginning of the 19th century (from the collection of the Russian State HIstorical Museum)

The typical inscription at right reads:

“The Pure Soul stands like a bride ornamented, having on her head a royal crown, the moon beneath her feet; a prayer goes forth from her mouth, rising like a flame to heaven.  The lion is bound with fasting, the dragon/serpent tamed with humility.  Tears put out the burning flames — the falling Devil cannot endure her goodness.”

The text on some examples specifies that the Devil falls to earth “like a cat.”

The white figure sitting gloomily in darkness (a dark cave) at right is, by contrast, identified as the Greshnaya Dusha, “The Sinful Soul.”

So the “Pure Soul” is subduing sinful passions through her  prayer, tears, humility, and fasting.  In accounts of Russian Orthodox spirituality, such as those of the monastics and startsy — the mystical ascetics — tears are seen as a very significant sign of piety and spiritual development, the “gift of tears.” In the image, the tears are poured from the vessel held by the “Pure Soul” onto the flames of passion and sinful impulses, extinguishing them.

Some examples, like the first image above, show Christ as “Lord Almighty” in heaven at the top of the image.  To his right is the Guardian Angel, and to his left stands the Pure Soul, offering her prayers.  So we see this this icon type also has undertones of the Deisis image in which Mary appears, crowned and dressed like a Queen, to the right of Jesus — the type called “The Queen Stands at your Right.”

“Pure Soul” images commonly include a depiction of the sun, which, together with the crowned woman standing on the moon, points us to its textual origin.  It is based upon the “Apocalyptic Woman” in the book of Revelation ( the Apocalypse), chapter 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…”

Obviously, however, the Pure Soul image deviates from that text, and it appears to have been derived from  depictions of Mary as the Apocalyptic Woman.  That accounts for it sometimes being classified as a “Mother of God” image.  The Apocalyptic Woman also represents the Church, thus the transition to understanding the figure crowned and standing on the moon as “The Pure Soul.”  This allegorical type seems to have entered Russian iconography in the latter half of the 16th century, and was later generally found among the Old Believers.

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