Most icons showing biblical events from the traditional accounts of the life of Jesus make obvious sense in relation to the church year: the Nativity icon celebrates the event depicted, the birth of Jesus; the Baptism (Theophany) icon celebrates the baptism. Even the Indiction icon, which shows the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he enters the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from the book of Isaiah, makes sense in its position as the beginning of the church year.
Today’s icon, however, does not make obvious sense, in spite of the fact that it is an easily recognized scene.
It depicts the event called in Western art “Jesus Among the Doctors,” recorded in Luke 2:41-49:
Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said to him, Son, why have you thus dealt with us? Behold, your father and I have sought you sorrowing.
And he said to them, How is it that you sought me? Know you not that I must be about my Father’s business?
The title written on this icon is ПРЕПОЛОВЕНИЕ Г[ОСПО]ДНЕ — Prepolovenie Gospodne, meaning “[The] Middle of the Lord.” That is rather cryptic until I tell you that the complete name of the festival it celebrates, as written in the calendar, is actually Преполовение Пятидесятницы (Prepolovenie Pyatidesyatnitsui), meaning “[The] Middle of Pentecost,” or as it is usually written in English, “Mid-Pentecost.”
Mid-Pentecost happens on Wednesday in the middle of the fourth week after Easter, halfway between Easter and the festival of Pentecost (the celebration of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles), sometimes called “Whitsun” or “Whitsunday” in the West.
So that is what this icon type signifies in the Eastern Orthodox liturgical year: the festival that occurs halfway between Easter and Pentecost — in “the middle.”
The type varies slightly from example to example. In this one Joseph and Mary stand at left, and the youthful Jesus is seated in the Temple amid the elders, discussing texts with them. Jesus holds an open book. In some other examples, he holds a rolled scroll.
It is rather odd that the image of the young Jesus among the elders became used for Mid-Pentecost, because the biblical text that connects the Mid-Pentecost icon type with that festival, and is sometimes used as the title of the icon, actually refers to a different (but similar) event supposedly later in the life of Jesus, as written in John 7:14:
Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marveled, saying, How knows this man letters, having never learned? Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.
The excerpt sometimes used as the title inscription for this icon type is:
ВЪ ПРЕПОЛОВЕНИЕ ПРАЗДНИКА ВЗЫДЕ ИИСУСЪ ВО СВЯТИЛИЩЕ
V’ PREPOLOVENIE PRAZDNIKA VZUIDE IISUS’ VO SVYATILISHCHE
“In the Middle of the Feast Jesus Entered into the Temple…”
That excerpt originally referred to the adult Jesus and to the Jewish feast of Sukkoth, but Eastern Orthodoxy made use of that “middle of the feast” notion to apply the image instead to Mid-Pentecost. All in all, it makes for rather confused and stretched connections, but that is tradition. In any case, it shows us how intimately icons are connected with the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodox Church.
There is, however, another manner of depicting “The Middle,” in keeping with the adult Jesus preaching in the Temple, as in John 7. Here is a 14th century fresco from Pech, Serbia:
The inscription reads:
ПРЕПОЛОВЛIЕНIЕ ПРАЗНИКА — Prepolovlienie Praznika
Though the spelling is a bit different, the meaning is the same: “[The] Middle of the Feast.”
The troparion for the Mid-Pentecost festival also makes use of that “middle of the feast” concept:
Тропарь, глас 8
Преполовившуся празднику, / жаждущую душу мою благочестия напой водами, / яко всем, Спасе, возопил еси: / жаждай да грядет ко Мне и да пиет. / Источниче жизни нашея, Христе Боже, слава Тебе.
Troparion, voice (tone) 8:
In the middle of the feast, fill my thirsty soul with the waters of piety, as to all, Savior, you cried: Let the thirsty come to me and drink. Fountain of our life, Christ God, glory to you.
Here is another example of the second type:
In it, Jesus holds a book with the text taken from John 7:27:
СТОЯШЕ ИИСУСЪ И ЗВАШЕ ГЛАГОЛЯ АЩЕ КТО ЖАЖДЕТЪ ДА ПРИИДЕТЪ КО МНЕ
STOYASHE IISUS I ZVASHE GLAGOLYA ASHCHE KTO ZHAZHDET DA PRIIDET KO MNE
“[On the last day of the great feast] Jesus stood and cried, saying: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me [and drink.]”
At left is Peter, who holds a scroll bearing a text from John 6:68:
ГОСПОДИ КЪ КОМУ ИДЕМ ГЛАГОЛЫ ЖИВОТА ВЕЧНАГО ИМАШИ
GOSPODI K KOMU IDEM GLAGOLUI ZHIVOTA VYECHNAGO IMASHI
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Below Peter is one of the Jews:
He holds a scroll with a text taken from John 7:15:
КАКО СЕИ КНИГИ ВЕСТЬ НЕ ОУЧИВСЯ
KAKO SEI KNIGI VYEST NE OUCHIVSYA
“How does he know these writings, not having been taught?”
At upper right, the disciple John holds a scroll with a text taken from John 1:3:
ВСЯ ТЕМЪ БЫША И БЕЗ НЕГО ЖЕ НИЧТОЖЕ
VSYA TYEM BUISHA I BEZ NEGO ZHE NICHTOZHE
“All through him came to be, and without him nothing [ came to be that was].”
Below him, another listener holds a scroll with a text from John 7:26:
ЕДА КАКО РАЗУМЕША КНЯЗИ ЯКО СЕИ ЕСТЬ ХРИСТОСЪ
EDA KAKO RAZUMYESHA KNYAZI YAKO SEI EST KHRISTOS
“Do the rulers indeed know that this is the Christ?”
At bottom center is a group (represented as boys) holding a scroll with a text combining concepts from John 7:40-41:
ВОИСТИННУ СЕИ ЕСТЬ МИСЕЯ ХРИСТОСЪ
VOICTINNU SEI EST MISEYA KHRISTOS
“Truly this is the Messiah, the Christ.”
In Russian Orthodoxy, Mid-Pentecost is traditionally a time when both the fields and water are ritually blessed.