TWICE-BITTEN IGNATIUS

In previous postings, we have seen some rather peaceful icons featuring lions, specifically those of Mamas and of Gerasim.  Today we look at a more violent image, that of the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch, called ИГНАТИЙ БОГОНОСЕЦ — Ignatiy Bogonosets — in Russian iconography.  It means “Ignatius [the] God-bearer.”  His Greek title Ιγνάτιος ὁ Θεοφόρος — Ignatios ho Theophoros — has the same meaning (Theos = God, –phoros = bearer).  Though the inscription is rather difficult to see, the icon example shown below uses the Greek ΘΕΟΦΟΡΟC (Theophoros) title.  You are probably already familiar with the –phoros element from the name of the once popular saint Christopher, Khristophoros in Greek, meaning “Christ” (Khristos) -“bearer” (-phoros).

Who was Ignatius?  Well, supposedly he was the third bishop of Antioch, even a disciple of the Apostle John. One tradition makes him the little child used by Jesus as an example in Matthew 18:1-4:

At the same time came the disciples to Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  And Jesus called a little child to him, and set him in the midst of them,  And said, Truly I say to you, Unless your are converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Generally, however, Ignatius  is said to have lived at the end of the first century c.e. and beginning of the second, and to have been martyred by being sent to Rome, where he was thrown to the lions under the Roman Emperor Trajan.  During his unrealistically lengthy journey there, with lots of unlikely stopovers to visit Christians, he was said to have written a number of letters to Christian congregations, and in fact some 15 letters traditionally attributed to him still exist.

However, we have already learned from previous experience with Eastern Orthodox saints to be very careful in accepting hagiographic tales as history, and in fact there is considerable doubt that Ignatius ever really existed, at least as the person presented to us by Orthodox tradition.

(Pushkin Museum)

(Pushkin Museum)

Interestingly, the importance of this doubtful Ignatius in the history of the Church is significant, because in letters attributed to him is found support for changing the early system of governance of Church congregations.  Earlier, the titles “elder” (presbyter) and “bishop” had been used for the same office.  The person writing as Ignatius, however, made a strong and definite distinction between the two, elevating the bishop to a position of great authority over Christian communities and elders  (the so-called “monarchical bishop”), a step that led ultimately to the creation of the Papacy in the West and the Patriarchates in the East.  That gave the supposed writings of Ignatius immense propagandistic significance in church politics.

Though some still consider certain of the 15 letters attributed to Ignatius as authentic, many regard all of them as later forgeries.

Whatever one may think of the authenticity of Ignatius, the type of his martyrdom is easily recognized.  A common format, as shown here, depicts him standing in bishop’s robes, with one attacking lion head-up on the left side, and the other head-down at right.  This often gives an interesting feeling of circular motion to the type.  In the upper part of this example, the blessing “Hand of the Lord” is seen reaching out from Heaven.

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