Every now and then, one reads something that is just too off the mark to overlook.

I happened to notice, today, an article talking about the Nativity painted by Giotto (c. 1266-1337):

It is a pleasant scene, typical of the early Italian mixture of old elements from the Greek tradition softened by the Italian sensibility.  It shows the familiar elements:  a star above, angels (one of whom announces the birth to the shepherds at right), the ox and ass, Mary and her child, old Joseph seated to one side, and the two serving women with the infant Jesus and the basin in which he is washed.

The article asked why Jesus is shown twice, as though it were some great mystery.  The explanation it gave was that the two representations symbolize his “divine” and “human” natures.

The correct explanation, of course, is that this double representation was simply the old way of showing two scenes from a narrative.  In one scene here, Mary is holding the infant Jesus.  The other scene is the washing of the infant Jesus by the two serving women.

If we look at a 10th century Byzantine ivory carving of the Nativity, we can see how these same elements were present:

(Walters Gallery)
(Walters Gallery)

Here, instead of Giotto’s warm depiction of Mary holding her child, we find the traditional, rather cold Eastern Orthodox image of Mary turned away from the child.  And then below, we see the child again, this time in the wash basin, being bathed by the two serving women.  At left sits Joseph, and at right is a shepherd.  Three angels are above, one of whom is obviously making his announcement to the shepherd, who is looking upward.

Now if you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that showing a subject twice is simply the icon way of depicting ongoing action by showing two or more scenes or events from a narrative in the same painting.  There is no great mystery or symbolism to it.  As I mentioned in a previous posting, it is a kind of precursor to animation, and we might call it “static” animation, in that it indicates a change of focus from one event to another, but without actual movement of the image; it is the eye of the viewer that moves.  And of course early Italian art was strongly influenced by the Byzantine tradition.

People often give these things fanciful and imaginative interpretations, but they tend to overlook the art historical aspect — the development and changes in iconography over time.


Today we shall look at a very uncommon icon type.  Why then discuss it?  Because uncommon types are the “spice” of the subject of iconography — something that catches our interest after seeing countless copies of such common icon types as the “Kazan” Mother of God and the “Lord Almighty.”  But there is also another reason to look at it.  Its title gives us more words to add to our practical Slavic vocabulary for reading icons.

This icon is Russian, from the 16th century.  We might guess it is early,  because instead of having the usual one-piece riza (metal cover), it has the kind of ornate frame-shaped covering called a basma ((басма) around its outer edges.  A basma is composed of sheets of embossed or engraved metal nailed to the surface of an icon.  Use of the basma faded out near the end of the 17th century, when it was gradually replaced by the one-piece metal cover called a riza (literally “robe”).  A riza was usually fastened to an icon by nails inserted at the outer sides of the wooden panel, but a basma was just nailed right onto the icon surface, which is why we often find nail holes in the surface of very old icons where a basma cover was once placed.

Note the added metal halos nailed onto the icon above the figures at both sides of the lower portion.

The common title of this icon type (which begins in the larger inscription seen near the top of the basma), is:


Videnie means “vision.”

Proroka is the “of” form of prorok, “prophet.”

Iezekiilya is the “of” form of Iezekiil’ (Иезекннль)  the name Ezekiel.

Na means “on/at.”

Reke is a form of reka, “river.”

Khovar is the name of the river, called Chebar in the King James translation of the Bible.

So the title all together means:


The text relating to this icon type comes from the first chapters of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament.  Here are some relevant excerpts:

Now it happened in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God…

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.  And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.  As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.

And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2And the spirit entered into me when he spoke unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spoke unto me.

And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that you find; eat this roll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.  And he said to me, Son of man, cause your belly to eat, and fill your bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.

So that is basically it.  The man on the throne in Ezekiel’s vision becomes the image of Christ Immanuel in the icon itself.  And down below, Ezekiel is seen standing on the left side, observing the vision.  He is seen a second time at the lower right side, eating the scroll (“roll”) that is being handed down to him from Heaven.

The fluffy things at both sides of the circles enclosing Christ Immanuel are stylized clouds, showing that portion is in the sky.  Then come the stylized rocks representing the ground, and in the middle of the bottom portion is stylized water, representing the river Chebar.

Having said all that, perhaps you may remember that in a much earlier post on the icon type called the “All-Seeing Eye of God,” we also find Ezekiel and his vision of wheels within wheels, and his eating of the scroll, in the more elaborate versions of that type, also known as the “Coal of Isaiah.”

Here is a 17th century fresco image of the Immanuel portion alone, from the Slivnitsa Monastery in Macedonia:


The Slavic inscription at the top is taken from the Marian hymn “In you rejoices” of which this image is presented as a part in the monastery representation:

” …Младенецъ бысть, прежде векъ сый Богъ нашъ, ложесна бо твоя Престолъ сотвори́,.”

“…of whom God was incarnate, and became a child, before the ages, even our God; for of thy body a throne He made….”

In Greek, the subject is called Το όραμα του Ιεζεκιήλ/To horama tou Iezekiel.  One finds Greek-influenced Bulgarian examples in which the lower figure to the right of the river is the Prophet Abbakoum/Habbakuk, as in this 14th-century example from Thessaloniki, in the Sophia Icon Museum:


And here it is in an earlier mosaic form, from the Church of Hosios Dabid/David in Thessaloniki, variously dated from the 5th to the 7th century:


The text on the scroll held by Jesus is a variation on the text of Isaiah 25:9-10 in the Septuagint version:


“Behold our God on whom we hope, and rejoiced in our salvation, for he will give rest upon this house.”

Scholars are not unanimous on the meaning of this mosaic.  Some interpret the waters in it as the Four Rivers of Paradise, and think that the “Vision of Ezekiel on the River Chebar” significance that is quite clear in later images of the type may have been an interpretation that developed out of an earlier image of Jesus from the Apocalypse (4:3):

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardius: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like an emerald.

The rainbow association is as we have see, however, already found in Ezekiel 1:28:

As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spoke.


If you have done any reading on the history of icons, you have probably come across this well-known 14th-century image of the Trinity, painted in the northern Russian city of Novgorod, once so famous as a wealthy trading center that it was called “Novgorod the Great.”

This icon type of God the Father seated on a throne, with Jesus as Immanuel (the youthful Christ) on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, is very common in Eastern Orthodoxy, and it is a “New Testament Trinity” type called Отечество — Otechestvo — meaning the “Fatherhood” or “Paternity.”

In addition to the basic elements of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this type shows two seraphim (a category of angel) beside the throne, and the winged circles supporting the Father’s footstool that are another bizarre kind of angel called “Thrones.”  At left, atop his pillar, is the Stylite (pillar-dweller) saint Daniel, and at right another Stylite (called a Stolpnik in Russian icons), Simeon.  At lower right is an apostle.

But what I want to focus on today is the inscription at the top of the icon:

As you already know, if you have been reading here long, in icon inscriptions we often find little variants in spelling.  This inscription is abbreviated, which as you also know is common in icon inscriptions.  You can tell that by the lines above the words.  Here is how it is written on the icon:

ОЦЬ        IСИНЪ


Don’t be confused by the writer’s using a form of Ц (ts) that looks more like the letter Ч (ch); it is Ц  that he intended.

Now we have to “un-abbreviate” the inscription, to write it in full:



OTETS means “Father”:
I (И) means “and”;
SUIN means “Son”;
And SVYATUIY DUKH means “Holy Spirit.”

So we can easily translate the inscription, keeping in mind that Church Slavic has no article “the,” as:


Or we could translate it quite literally as:


It is not surprising to find God the Father (also called “Lord Sabaoth” in icons) frequently depicted as an old and bearded man.  People have always visualized their gods in human form.

In the Septuagint Greek Bible used by the early Christians (and by Greek Orthodoxy) we find these words in the Book of Genesis:

καὶ εἶπεν θεός ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ’ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν…
Kai eipen ho theos poiesomen anthropon kat’ eikona hemeteran kai kath’ homoiosin…

“And God said, let us make man after our image and after the likeness…”

So Adam was believed to be an eikona — an image — an icon — of God.  And so God was thought to have two arms, two legs, and in fact to be in the same form as a human.  And of course in the Middle East in biblical times, humans had kings ruling over them, and so God the Father was visualized as a king sitting on his throne in heaven, which in those days was simply the sky.

Of course later religious thinkers “spiritualized” this notion to mean that humans were somehow in the “spiritual” likeness of God, but that is not what the text originally meant.  It meant simply that humans were given the same form God had.  And notice that Genesis says “Let US make man in OUR image.”  This was later given a Trinitarian interpretation, but it is likely that originally it was simply a leftover of the days when the Hebrews believed that there was more than one divine being in the sky, just as in the Babylonian creation myth, humans were created by the gods.  In Chapter 5 of Septuagint Genesis, we read:

αὕτη βίβλος γενέσεως ἀνθρώπων ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν θεὸς τὸν Αδαμ κατ’ εἰκόνα θεοῦ ἐποίησεν αὐτόν
ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτοὺς καὶ εὐλόγησεν αὐτούς καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῶν Αδαμ ᾗ ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς
ἔζησεν δὲ Αδαμ διακόσια καὶ τριάκοντα ἔτη καὶ ἐγέννησεν κατὰ τὴν ἰδέαν αὐτοῦ καὶ κατὰ τὴν εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Σηθ

“This is the book of the generation/origin of men in the day when God made Adam, after the image (eikona) of God he made him.
Male and female he made them and blessed them, and called his name Adam the day he made him.
And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot according to his form and according to his image (eikona), and called his name Seth.”

So “man” was made in the form/image of God, and Seth was in the form/image of his father Adam.  It meant simply the physical appearance, the physical likeness.  So the “image” of God (Greek eikona, Hebrew tselem) meant simply that Adam was made to look like God, and Seth, Adam’s son, was born looking like Adam.  It is not talking about abstractions such as a “spiritual image” that later were introduced into the matter. It means simply that God looked like Adam (a head, two arms, two legs, etc.) and Adam looked like God, just as Seth looked like Adam.

People are always trying to “update” biblical stories to make them seem more compatible with what we learn of the world, but really the mental world of the Bible and of Christianity in the days before the advancement of science was quite primitive and folkloric.  Until fairly recent times Russian believers held the date of Creation to be only a few thousand years ago, and no doubt some still do.

The “Fatherhood” (“Paternity”) type existed as early as the 11th century.  This example in the Panagia Koumbelidiki Church at Kastoria in Greece is from the latter half of the 1200s:

It shows the Father as the “Ancient of Days” with white hair, and three bars of the cross visible in his halo, usually an identifying characteristic of Jesus.  But here Jesus is shown in adult form on the bosom of the Father, holding a circle containing the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.  The inscription on the fresco image leaves no doubt as to its identity, though the form of the icon and inscription do hint at some confusion as to the precise theology of the “Ancient of Days.”

I[εσου]C X[ριστο]C     Ὁ Θ[εο]C ἩΜΩΝ
Iesous Khristos ho Theos hemon
ho Pater, Huios, kai Pneuma to Agion
“Jesus Christ our God,
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The earliest known depiction of the Trinity, however (though not in the “Otechestvo/Paternity” form), is that found on the so-called “Dogmatic Sarcophagus” from the time of the Emperor Constantine and the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea — circa 320-350.  It was found during work at the Church of San Paolo fuori le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls) in Rome, in the 19th century.  The “Trinity” portion depicts the three persons of the Trinity as identical bearded men at the creation of Eve, with God the Father distinguished only by the fact that he is the one seated on the throne.  You will find the image here:

The “Trinity” image is the first at upper left.