TRADITIONAL CREATION ICONS

Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:

The two large words read СОТВОРЕНИЕ СВЕТА — SOTVORENIE SVETA.

Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy). Now oddly enough, it was still commonly believed by many ordinary Russians — right into the early 20th century — that if a person suddenly committed some horrible deed, it was likely due to the influence of a devil.  Some no doubt still believe it.

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.

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