THE “UNFADING FLOWER” IN GREEK AND RUSSIAN ICONOGRAPHY

I have previously discussed icons based on the Akathist Hymn to Mary, and today’s example — the Ρόδον τό αμάραντον — Rodon to Amaranton or “Unfading Rose” is another of those, with symbols taken primarily from the related Canon of the Akathist by Joseph the Hymnographer.

When reading these lengthy and oft-repeated liturgical praises of Mary, one cannot help thinking that even a saint would become tired of being extolled over and over again in the same extravagant words. I doubt that genuine saints are interested in hearing themselves praised in any case, being by nature humble and beyond all that.

The “Unfading Rose” type varies in detail from example to example.  The basic image is much as found in the central panel of this Greek triptych:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In this icon Mary holds a blooming rose stalk.  Her son Jesus stands upright on an altar table, a symbol taken from the Canon of the Akathist, as are the other excerpts given first in Greek, then in English in this posting:

χαίρε έμψυχε τράπεζα, άρτον ζωής χωρήσασα,
Hail, living Table that held the bread of life

Both are regally dressed and crowned, and the child Jesus holds the scepter and orb of a king.  At right is a vase of blooming flowers, a frequent element in the type.  The saint in the left panel is John the Forerunner (shown with wings) and at right the popular saint Kharalampios.  These two are of course not part of the central image type.

Examples of the “Unfading Rose” frequently show two angels (Michael and Gabriel by tradition) at upper left and right, and this line is generally used as the top inscription:

Ρόδον τό αμάραντον, χαίρε η μόνη βλαστήσασα, τό μήλον τό εύοσμον,
Hail, from whom alone sprouted the unfading rose, the sweet‑smelling apple

Here is an old example of a more elaborate version, in which Mary and the child Jesus are placed upon a huge blooming rose.  In some examples the stalk of the huge rose rises out of the body of the Old Testament figure Jesse,  relating to also to icons of the “Jesse Tree” type:

 

(Courtesy of Michael Elias)

(Courtesy of Michael Elias)

Here Mary holds a rosebud in her right hand, and in her left hand, that grasps the child Jesus, she also holds an ear of grain, an element taken from this line:

Στάχυν η βλαστήσασα τόν θείον, ως χώρα ανήροτος σαφώς,
From you, like untilled land, grew the divine ear of grain

The “divine ear of grain” is Jesus.

In some examples the ear of grain is misinterpreted by painters as a feather.

Above Mary’s left shoulder (barely visible in this example) is a star, and it is balanced by the sun (with a face, as is common in icons) above the left shoulder of the child.  Some examples misinterpret these as sun and moon, but they are taken from this line:

Χαίρε άστρον άδυτον, εισάγον κόσμω, τόν μέγαν Ήλιον
Hail, unsetting star that brings into the world the great Sun

The “great Sun” is Jesus, called the “Sun of Righteousness.”

At left is the usual vase of blooming flowers, and at right a kind of incense vessel:

χαίρε σκεύος, μύρον τό ακένωτον, επί σέ κενωθέν εισδεξάμενον.
Hail, vessel, the inexhaustible Myrrh, emptied out upon you

This icon uses stamped and incised decoration to ornament the image — something we find also in Russian icons of the 19th century — seen in this closer look:

 

(Courtesy of Michael Elias)

(Courtesy of Michael Elias)

Here is another Greek triptych with the “Unfading Rose” as the central image:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikons: http://www.russianicons.net)

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikons: http://www.russianicons.net)

Let’s take a look at the side panels.  Here is that at left:

At the top are two bishop saints, as we know from their garments and the Gospels they hold.  The name inscription on the left fellow is not clear; we might guess that he is Spyridon.  That on the right is legible as Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΑΘΑΗΑΣΙΟΣ — HO HAGIOS ATHANASIOS — “THE HOLY ATHANASIOS”

Below him, the inscription and form clearly identify Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΓΕΩΡΓΙΟΣ — HO HAGIOS GEORGIOS — “THE HOLY GEORGIOS [George]”

On the right panel, we see two more bishop saints:

That at left is Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΗΙΚΟΛΑΟΣ — HO HAGIOS NIKOLAOS — “THE HOLY NICHOLAS”; that at right is Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΧΑΡΑΛΑΜΠΙΟΣ  HO HAGIOS KHARALAMPIOS —  “THE HOLY KHARALAMPIOS.”  And Below them is  Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟΣ — HO HAGIOS DEMETRIOS — “THE HOLY DEMETRIOS [Demetrius]”

It is worth knowing that the “Unfading Rose” type, when adopted from Greek into pre-modern Russian iconography, is found under two titles.  The first is Неувядаемый Цвет — Neuvyadaemuiy Tsvet — the “Unfading Flower.”  In this form Mary often holds a richly-blooming stalk of flowers, or blooming flowered scepter.  The child Jesus sometimes stands beside her as in the Greek type, but in other examples he is held sitting on her left or right arm.

The second Russian variant is titled Благоуханный Цвет — Blagoukhannuiy Tsvet — the “Sweet-smelling Flower.”  In this variant Mary often holds a blooming stalk of flowers, but the child Jesus is generally seated on her arm rather than standing.  There is of course some confusion between these two titles and their depictions.  Even the old Greek title is sometimes used in translation in modern Russian iconography for close copies of the Greek type, as Неувядаемая Роза — Neuvyadaemaya Roza — the “Unfading Rose.”

In some examples of the Greek type one finds additional symbols from the Akathist or Canon of the Akathist, such as the ladder, the mountain, the staff, etc. etc.

 

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