SIMEON GOES FISHING IN SIBERIA

A popular saint in Russian icons of the late 19th-early 20th century was Simeon Verkhoturskiy — Simeon of Verkhoturye.  Here is a very simple “folkish” rendering of his icon type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The easy key to recognizing the most common type of Simeon icon is this:  He stands on the right side of a river, dressed in a simple Russian garment that goes down to his knees.  Beside him on the bank is his water bucket into which the fish he caught were placed.  And his fishing pole is also shown, though the painter of this image seems to have put the string on the land and the pole in the water.

In the background one usually sees a forest, perhaps with a church in the distance.  Some examples show an elaborate building complex as the main background feature, as in this central image from a more detailed example:

Here we see Simeon twice.  First, he stands facing the viewer, holding an admonitory scroll that reads:

Молю вас братия внемлить себъ имейте страх Божий и чистоту душевную. 
“I pray you, brothers, give ear: have the fear of God and purity of soul.”

Remember that scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” of icons, through which the saint speaks to the viewer.

Second, beside the standing Simeon, and without realistic perspective, we see Simeon depicted again, seated on the river bank with fishing pole in hand.  Beside him is his bucket.

The painter of this image has replaced the usual rural and forested background with a large and reasonably accurate depiction of the ecclesiastical complex that stands on the other side of the Tura River in Verkhoturye.  Jesus blesses from the clouds above.

Simeon is one of those saints based on a rather scanty story.  He is said to have been from a wealthy family in western Russia, but being of a religious nature, he decided to go east — very far east — to Siberia.  He stopped first at Verkhoturye,  but then moved on to settle in the more remote village of Merkushino.  There he lived a simple life, fishing for his daily food some miles from Merkushino, while in cold weather he sewed coats and other necessities for the local people, and of course spent lots of time in prayer and fasting and evangelizing the locals.  He had the very annoying habit of sneaking away before the sewing of a garment was quite finished, supposedly so that the customer would not try to pay him for his work.

In 1642 he died — it is said of excessive fasting.  In the accounts of native Russian saints, one frequently comes across a persistent and even admired fanaticism and extremism in bodily deprivation.  He was buried in the churchyard of the Church of the Archangel Michael at Merkushino.  Nothing happened for about fifty years.  Then in the year 1692, the locals found a coffin had pushed up out of the ground.

Now if you have read the posting in the archives on the boy saint Artemiy Verkolskiy, you will know that Russians were suspicious of bodies that did not just decay away, either for good or for ill.  In the case of  the Simeon’s body, miraculous events were said to be occurring since it had turned up, and someone notified the Metropolitan of Tobolsk, a high church official named Ignatiy Rimsky-Korsakoff.  He decided to have the matter investigated.  But it was found that no one locally could remember who the fellow in the coffin was.

Well, in another case of “it came to me in a dream,” an emissary sent by the Metropolitan to investigate, a certain Hierodeacon named Nikifor Amvrosiev, fell asleep after prayer and saw a man in a dream.  The man was dressed in white, was middle-aged, and with brownish-blond (it is called “rus” in the podlinniki) hair.  Nikifor asked the man who he was, and he replied, “Я Симеон Меркушинский,”  — “I am Simeon of Merkushino.”  Then he vanished.

So that gave the body in the coffin a name.

The Metropolitan certified the body as “incorrupt” (though that did not seem to be entirely the case).  Nonetheless, a wide range of miracles attributed to Simeon were said to occur in the following years, and he was officially “glorified” and entered in the list of saints in 1694.

The standard podlinnik (painter’s manual) description of Simeon reads:

Святый и праведный Симеон Меркушинский и Верхотурский, иже в Сибири новый чудотворец; подобием рус, брада и власы на главе аки Козьмы Безсребренника; ризы на нем просты, русския.

The Holy and Righteous Simeon Merkushinskiy and Verkhoturskiy, who is in Siberia the new Wonderworker; likeness rus [there’s that term meaning brownish-blonde hair again]. beard and hair on the head like Cosmas the Unmercenary; the robe on him simple, and Russian.”

One has to be a little careful with the title inscriptions for Simeon Verkhoturskiy, because sometimes a painter will write ПР, which one might mistake for abbreviating Prepodobnuiy, “Venerable” — the title of a monk saint.  But Simeon was not a monk.  Instead, the ПР in this case abbreviates ПРАВЕДНЫЙ — Pravednuiy — meaning “Righteous.”  More careful painters abbreviate it as ПРАВ.

The “relics” of Simeon (what remained of his body) were taken from Merkushino to Verkhoturye in 1704.  In 1880 a charitable brotherhood was founded in his name to support missionaries and schools.  Not long before the Revolution, Simeon’s relics were transferred to the newly-built Exaltation Cathedral at the Nikolaev Monastery in Verkhoturye.  All of this publicity from the late 1800s to just before the Revolution helps to account for why so many icons of Simeon Verkhoturskiy come from that period.

 

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