SWORDS AND SOFTENING HEARTS: A CONFUSING GROUP OF ICONS

Marian icon types can sometimes be a little confusing because there are so many of them, in addition to variations on a standard type.

Today we will look at an image very popular in the 19th century.  It is called Умягчение Злых Сердец — Umyaghenie Zluikh Serdets.  It means literally the “Softener” (Ymyagchenie) “of Evil” (Zluikh) “Hearts” Serdets.  It is often translated more loosely into English as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.”

Here is the type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

I hope you know by now that the border images are not part of the icon type.  They are usually the “name saints” of family members for whom the icon was painted.  So the important part here is the central image of Mary, with seven swords all pointing to her breast.

Now if you are of Roman Catholic background, or at least familiar with Catholic art, you are probably thinking, “Hey, isn’t that just a borrowing from images of the “Seven Sorrows of Mary”?  Well, you are right.  A number of so called “miracle-working” Marian icons in Eastern Orthodoxy do come originally from Roman Catholic use.  Of course the average Russian had no idea it was anything but “pure” Eastern Orthodox.

The standard “Softener of Evil Hearts” type appeared in Russia about 1800.  Here is an enamel on copper image — a Catholic rendering of the Seven Sorrows (with each sorrow in a circle) from 1541:

Perhaps you recall the common girl’s name “Dolores.”  It is actually the Spanish word for “sorrows,” and it comes from the Virgen de los Dolores, the “Virgin of the Sorrows,” meaning Mary, and of course in Catholic tradition there were seven “sorrows.”  Another Spanish name for her is Nuestra Señora de los Dolores — “Our Lady of the Sorrows.

The “Seven Sorrows of Mary” in Catholic tradition are:

The Prophecy of Simeon (in some lists the Circumcision of Jesus);
The Flight into Egypt;
The loss of the boy Jesus in the Temple;
Mary sees Jesus on the way to Calvary;
The death of Jesus on the cross;
The piercing of the side of Jesus, and Mary receiving his body of Jesus in her arms;
Jesus placed in the tomb.

This list may seem rather irrelevant to Russian icons, but I mention it because the icon type of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” also has an alternate title based on the first of the Seven Sorrows.  It is Симеоново проречение — Simeonovo Prorechenie — the “Prediction of Simeon.”  This refers to the meeting of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, as given in Luke.  The important part for this icon type is found in Luke 2:34-35

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35 Yes, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Now to confuse matters a bit, there is also another Russian icon type very much like the “Softener of Evil Hearts.”  It is called the Семистрельная — Semistrel’naya, “Seven Arrows.”  Russians have the notion that the reason there are seven is that the number indicates fullness, completeness, like the seven days of the week, so this represents Mary’s “full” sorrow.  Though the title says “arrows,” nonetheless swords are shown.

Now the difference between the “Softener of Evil Hearts” and the Semistrel’naya type lies simply in the number and placement of the swords.  In the “Softener,” there are three swords at left, three at right, and one coming up from below.  In the Semistrel’naya, there are four swords on the left side and three on the right.

Here are two 20th-century enamel icons showing each type.  At left is the “Melter of Evil Hearts,” and at right the Semistrel’naya:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Another difference is that in contrast to the “Softener,” the Semistrel’naya has an origin story.  It is said that a peasant of the Vologda district had a bad and chronic limp.  Though he spent much money on attempted cures, it did not improve.  Finally he had a dream  (that “it came to me in a dream” motif again) in which he heard a voice telling him to go to the bell tower of the Church of John the Theologian and to pray before the image of Mary there, and he would be healed.

The peasant set off for the church, but when he arrived there and told of his dream, he was not believed, and was not allowed into the bell tower.  He came a second time, and again failed.  So he tried once more (there is the old “third time is the charm” motif).  This time, seeing his persistence, they relented and let him into the tower.  He climbed up the stairs and at a turn in the stairs saw an old board on floor, where it could be walked upon.  Picking it up, he found it was an icon of Mary.  The image was taken into the Church and cleaned, and a moleben, a formal prayer service, was held before it.  The peasant prayed earnestly, and some time after discovered that his limp was gone.

It is said that after this event, the icon was nearly forgotten until in 1830 Vologda was struck by a plague of cholera.  The local people took up the Semistrel’naya icon and also an old icon of the Dormition painted in 1437 and called the Semigradskaya or Semigorodnaya (“Seven Cities,” also known as the “Transylvanian” icon), and carried them both around the city in formal procession.  Gradually, it is said, the number of people sick with cholera diminished, and eventually the plague stopped.

The Vologda Semistrel’naya icon was painted on canvas glued to a board.

You think we are done?  No, you will have to endure a bit more of this.

Now to confuse matters further, there is a variant of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” called the Умягчение Злых Сердец, Скорбящая — the “‘Suffering’ Softener of Evil Hearts.”  This variant has only a single sword piercing Mary’s heart from the right.

If you can just manage to hold on a bit longer before you leave your keyboard and run to have a snack, here is something to confuse matters even more:

There is another icon type also called the “Softener of Evil Hearts.”  And it is nothing like the type with swords.  Here it is:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This type is actually a copy of the  Рудненской-Ченстоховской — Rudenskaya-Chenstokhovskaya — icon that has become known under this “Softener” title.  It is said to have “appeared” in 1687 in the village of Rudnya in Mogilev Province (now in Belarus).

You will notice that in the crown of Mary in this type we see a representation of Mary mourning over the body of her dead son Jesus, which of course takes us right back to the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a slight variation on #7, Mary holding the body of her son.

Now as you can imagine, Russian icon painters occasionally got confused by the differences in titles and the number and placement of swords, so expect variations in this group of icon types, as well as some misidentification in the literature.

Now go have your snack.  And ask yourself why you spent so much time reading this, though it probably won’t do any good.  You will likely be back for the next posting on another esoteric subject.

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