The Old Testament Book of Daniel is the source of several icons. It is an historical fiction (though presented as history) set in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 b.c.). It was actually written, scholars have determined, in the 2nd century b.c. It is partly in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic. The version used in Eastern Orthodoxy is longer than that of the Protestant Bible, including additions written in Greek: The Prayer of Azariah, Susannah, and Bel and the Dragon.
The Prayer of Azariah segment is inserted between Chapter 3:23 and 3:24 of Daniel. It includes the “Song of the Three Holy Youths,” which is used as part of an Eastern Orthodox canon sung during Matins, etc. The Susannah segment forms Chapter 13 of Daniel in Eastern Orthodox Bibles. It is widely known in Western art for the erotic scene of Susannah watched by the voyeuristic Elders while bathing. Bel and the Dragon forms Chapter 14 of Daniel in Eastern Orthodox Bibles (and yes, it really does feature a dragon).
Significantly Daniel, being a very late composition, is the only Old Testament book to give angels names, as do the so-called Apocrypha and the New Testament. It is in Daniel that we are first introduced to the angels Michael and Gabriel, very common figures in icons.
Briefly, the Book of Daniel relates the tale of an aristocratic Jewish young man taken captive during the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. Brought to the city of Babylon, he is made an official in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. He becomes well-known in the court because of his ability to interpret dreams, which he does both for Nebuchadnezzar and his successor Cyrus, King of Persia.
Through the wiles of his enemies, Daniel is thrown by the King into a den of lions, but because of his righteousness and faithfulness to the Jewish God, he survives. Daniel has divine and heavily symbolic visions of “future” events, and so he becomes noted as a prophet. In Russian iconography, Daniel is found in the Prophets’ Tier of the iconostasis in Russian Orthodox Churches.
The Book of Daniel also contains the well-known story of the Three Youths, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Jewish captives who were thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they would not worship his image.
Let’s begin by looking at a very early “pre-icon” period image from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, circa 300 c.e.:
It represents the “Three Youths,” or as they are better known in the West, the “Three Hebrew Children” in the fiery furnace. In early Christian art it seems to have been used as a symbol of deliverance from death, as were catacomb images of Daniel in the lions’ den. Not all early Christian images from the “symbolic” period survived in later icon art, and those that did are depicted somewhat differently.
Here is a Russian icon of the Three Youths:
The inscription on it reads:
ТРИ ОТРОКА В ПЕЩИ
TRI OTROKA V PESHCHI
“[The] Three Youths in [the] Furnace”
Nebuchadnezzar is seated on his throne at right, and behind him is the image the Three Youths refused to worship. They stand unharmed in the fiery furnace, protected by an angel who is generally seen, in Eastern Orthodoxy, as Jesus. In some examples the halo of the angel has the three bars of the cross commonly found in the halo of Jesus.
In Greek iconography, the type is called Οι Άγιοι Τρεις Παίδες εν τη Καμίνω — Hoi Hagioi Treis Paides en te Kamino — “The Holy Three Boys in the Furnace.” And neither the Russians nor the Greeks use the Hebrew forms of their names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; instead, they are in Greek Ανανιας, Αζαριας, and Μισαηλ — Ananias, Azarias, and Misael.
Of course both Russian and Greek iconography includes the very old scene of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Here is a very “Westernized” Greek icon of the type, showing popular taste in icons in the 19th and early 20th century, far from the older “byzantine” manner:
The inscription on it reads: Ο ΠΡΟΦΗΤΗΣ ΔΑΝΙΗΛ — HO PROPHETES DANIEL — “The Prophet Daniel.” And the lions are rather charming.
There is also a very seldom-seen variant of the “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” type. It too is called Пророк Даниил во рву львином — Prorok Daniil vo rvu l’vionom — “The Prophet Daniel in the Den of Lions,” but it includes, as you can see, an unusual added element:
This 17th-century icon is from the side door of an iconostasis in a church on the Volga. Its imagery is taken from one of the texts added to the Book of Daniel, in this case the Chapter 14 segment, which Roman Catholics call “Bel and the Dragon”:
33 Now there was in Jewry a prophet, called Habbakuk, who had made pottage, and had broken bread in a bowl, and was going into the field, for to bring it to the reapers. 34 But the angel of the Lord said to Habbakuk, Go, carry the dinner that you have into Babylon to Daniel, who is in the lions’ den.
35 And Habbakuk said, Lord, I never saw Babylon; nor do I know where the den is. 36 Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown, and carried him by the hair of his head, and through the vehemency of his spirit set him in Babylon above the den. 37 And Habbakuk cried, saying, O Daniel, Daniel, take the dinner which God has sent you.
38 And Daniel said, You have remembered me, O God: nor have you forsaken those who seek you and love you. 39 So Daniel arose, and ate: and the angel of the Lord set Habbakuk in his own place again immediately.
So that is what we see in this variant: Habbakuk, with his container of pottage, carried into Babylon by an angel, to give the food to Daniel. And Daniel in the den, with the submissive lions at his feet, is looking up at Habbakuk. At the very top, in heaven, is an image of Jesus in his youthful form, called Christ “Immanuel.”
This does not quite complete the number of types related to Daniel, but it is enough for now. So I will finish today with this very pleasant Russian image of Daniel (at right) painted in the more traditional manner, as he would be seen in the Prophets’ Tier of an iconostasis. The image at left is the Prophet Ezekiel: