A reader of this site asked about images of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which are commonly called “The Agony in the Garden” in Western European art, But in Russia, icons showing this scene are generally called Моление о Чаше — Molenie o Chashe, which we can translate as “The Prayer” (molenie) of/about “the Cup” (chasha/chashe). Why the discrepancy?
To answer that, we can take a look at a folkish and rather unsophisticated icon from the Ukrainian region. Ukraine has long been an area where two main Christian traditions meet — The Russian Orthodox and the Western European Catholic. Consequently there was a mixing of influences, and that is very obvious in this example, which not only is painted in a rather primitive Western manner, but is inscribed with a dedicatory inscription at the base in Slavic, yet signed in Latin Iohanes Mihalyi Depinxit — “Painted by Johanes Mihalyi,” and it is dated 1834. We can see that it appears to have been removed from an icon screen, and in fact the Slavic inscription says that it was given to the Church of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The icon scene of Jesus praying in the garden is not an old one in Russian or Greek Orthodox iconography, but it was not unusual in the West. Even Duccio painted it in the first quarter of the 14th century. Here is his Agonia nel Getsemani — “Agony in Gethsemane”:
So did the former icon painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco — “The Greek” — in Spain, in this example from the end of the 16th century:
So this type was largely borrowed into Eastern Orthodoxy iconography from Western European art.
Instead of calling it “The Agony in the Garden,” Russians instead favored the “Prayer of the Cup” title.
Now obviously the titles are quite different, but the event depicted is much the same — the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Western title is based on the general suffering of Jesus there, just before his betrayal, but the Russian title focuses on that suffering as manifested in the prayer he is said to have prayed in that place. The account is found in Matthew, chapter 26:
36 “Then comes Jesus with them to a place called Gethsemane, and says to the disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go and pray yonder.’
37 And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
38 Then he says to them, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: wait here, and watch with me.’
39 And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.’
40 And he comes to the disciples, and finds them asleep, and says to Peter, ‘What, could you not watch with me one hour?
41 Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.‘”
So obviously the Russian “Prayer of the Cup” title is based on verse 39, in which Jesus asks that if it is possible, he may be spared drinking of the (metaphorical) cup of suffering, that is, having to endure his betrayal, passion, and crucifixion. Russian iconography liked to show the cup, though in Western art Jesus is sometimes shown in prayer without it.
Here is a much more finely painted Russian example of the type, put into “traditional” form used by those trained in the Old Believer manner:
The scene, very stylized here, is the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives. In the foreground, Jesus prays to God the Father (Lord Sabaoth), who is seen seated on his throne in the clouds at upper left. He holds an orb surmounted by a cross — a symbol of royalty. At upper right, three apostles sleep on the mountain while Jesus prays.
A fragment of his prayer is written extending up to the left, and it is upside-down, so I have flipped it in the following photo. The inscription is read from Jesus’ mouth toward the flying angel bearing a cup just to the left of Jesus in the icon itself:
Аще мимо идетъ чаше сия — Ashche mimo idet chasha siya — “…That this cup might pass away….”
Let’s look at the title inscription, written in ornate vyaz calligraphy, at the top:
You should already be able to read and translate the second half of the inscription, if you have kept up with postings on this site. But to make the first part a little easier, I have divided the words. First comes:
The symbols at each end of the whole inscription are just ornamentation, so we begin with the first large letter, which is an “M” So we have:
MoLeNie = Molenie “The Prayer.”
The second letter is an O, written like a Greek omega. It means “about,” but here “of” is a better English translation.
Next comes this:
It begins with the Slavic letter Ч, which we transliterate as “ch.” So this word is Chashe, a grammatical form of chasha, meaning “cup” (it can also mean “chalice”).
We can look at the second half all together:
This part uses abbreviation:
GDA N[a]SHeGO I[iS[u[s]A KH[rist]A
With the missing letters added, it reads:
Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Khrista — “Of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If we put the whole thing together, it reads:
Molenie O Chashe Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Khrista,
“The Prayer Of the Cup of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Just to fill things out, the border saint at left is Ioann Zlatoust — John Chrysostom; that at right is the Priest-martyr Vlasiy (Blaise); both are robed as bishops.
Essentially, then, both Western and Russian depictions are about the “Agony in the Garden,” but Russian iconography sees that agony symbolized by the “Prayer of the Cup.”
It was not at all unusual in the later years of icon painting for painters trained in the stylized Old Believer manner to borrow patterns from Western Catholic and Protestant iconography, and to “translate” them from realism into the stylized manner preferred by those of the Old Belief.
Among other essentially “Western” types that were borrowed into late Russian iconography are “The Good Shepherd” and “Christ Blessing the Children.” The “Good Shepherd” had been a common image in the first Christian art of the pre-icon period (as in the Roman catacombs), but was abandoned by Eastern Orthodoxy for well over a thousand years. “Christ Blessing the Children” is not commonly found as an icon subject in Russian iconography until the late 19th-early 20th century. It is based on Matthew 19:
13 Then were there brought to him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.
14 But Jesus said, let the little children, and forbid them not, to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
15 And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.
Parallels to this text are found in Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 18:15-17.
One may deplore the blandness of some State Church icons influenced by the devotional Catholic and Protestant art of the West, but one cannot deny that the influence of Western European models brought a gentleness into Russian iconography that helped to moderate its traditional severity.