AN UNREVEALING REVELATION: THE “VISION OF JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN”

Here is a 15th-century four-type icon from Novgorod, in the northwest of Russia:

The types it includes are:

Upper left:  The Resurrection of Lazarus.
Upper right:  The Old Testament Trinity.
Lower left:  The Meeting in the Temple.
Lower right:  Ioann Bogoslov and Prokhor (John the Theologian and his disciple and amanuensis Prokhoros).

Today we will focus on the fellow in the fourth type, Ioann Bogoslov — John the Theologian:

ioanniprokkhor

The obvious vertical crease running through John’s image (he is the one at left) is where two boards were joined in the panel on which the icon was painted.

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that John the Theologian is the Eastern Orthodox name for the apostle and evangelist John. We use the term “evangelist” for convenience, because no one really knows who wrote the Gospel called “of John.”  The oldest manuscripts are anonymous.  Nor does anyone know who wrote the two Epistles of John or the Revelation, also called the Apocalypse.  Even though tradition attributes the Apocalypse to John, its style is so remarkably different from that of the Gospel that most consider it extremely unlikely to have have been written by the same person.

In any case, the type from the Novgorod Icon of John and Prokhoros shows them sitting before a cave on the Island of Patmos.  John is dictating and Prokhoros is writing.  Tradition differs as to whether John wrote both the Gospel and the Apocalypse while on that island.  Prokhoros as the disciple and secretary of John comes from tradition and hagiography.  Traditionally, Prokhoros is supposed to have been one of the seven deacons named in Acts 6:5.

Now keeping in mind the type of John and Prokhor and its association with the Apocalypse, today we will look at an icon type relating to the  book in the New Testament called “The Revelation” or “The Apocalypse.”

Αποκάλυψις — Apokalypsis — in Greek significes an “unveiling” or “revealing.”  Apo- means “away from,” and kalypsis means a “cover”; so an apo-kalypsis is taking the cover away from something, revealing what was beneath it.

Traditionally, as already mentioned, it was believed that the author of the Apocalypse was John the Apostle (though there were doubts about that as early as the 3rd century); but that attribution has generally been abandoned by modern scholars.  So we don’t really know who wrote it.  We do know that its acceptance as a part of the New Testament came late (it was the latest book generally accepted), and in the Syriac-speaking Church of the East it was only added in the 6th century.  It has always been accompanied by controversy, not only about whether it deserves to be part of the Bible, but also over the meaning of its obscure and often bizarre visions and symbols.  Even the German reformer Martin Luther did not think much of it, saying that that he found it “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and to most people of most denominations — lay or clergy — the Apocalypse was (and is) simply dark, obscure and puzzling.

Though many people think of the book as the “Revelation of John,” that is not how the book identifies itself.  Instead, it begins Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἣν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεὸς δεῖξαι τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐν τάχει….
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his slaves what must soon happen….

So it identifies itself as a revelation given to Jesus by God.  The revealing by Jesus to John is secondary, as the sentence continues:

…καὶ ἐσήμανεν ἀποστείλας διὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου αὐτοῦ τῷ δούλῳ αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννῃ….
“…and he made known and sent through his angel/messenger to his servant John….”

Here is a Russian icon from the early 17th century:

The title inscription at the top reads:

ВИДЕНИЕ СВЯТАГО АПОСТОЛА ИОАННА
Богослова

VIDENIE SVYATAGO APOSTOLA IOANNA
Bogoslova

Which means:

“[The] VISION OF [the] HOLY APOSTLE JOHN [the] THEOLOGIAN”

Here is another quite similar example of the type, from the 16th century:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

(Tretyakov Gallery)

The icon consists of four basic scenes.

At upper left, we see the first scene, described in Revelation 1:10 onward:

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What you see, write in a book, and send to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.  And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like  the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shines in his strength.

This is how the second icon depicts that scene:

We see Jesus standing, with the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) signifying Eternity behind his head.  From his mouth proceeds a large trumpet.  In his right hand is a starry circle surrounded by angels blowing trumpets.  Seven candlesticks stand at left.  John kneels before Jesus.

The second scene takes up most of the lower half of the icon, excluding the two figures in front of the cave at right.  It is explained by this excerpt from the Apocalypse 1:20 forward:

Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which you saw are the seven churches.

John is told in Revelation 1:11:

What you see, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.

So that portion of the icon depicts John presenting his message of revelation to the angels of the seven churches.   Each angel stands in front of a building and holds a scroll bearing the message intended for that particular church.

The third scene, at upper right, is the angel giving the book to John:

The fourth scene, at lower right, is John the Theologian and his disciple Prokhoros.  It is often found as a separate icon.  It depicts John before his cave on the Isle of Patmos, looking upward to receive inspiration, and reciting his message to his disciple Prokhor, seated at right.

If we look very closely at the page Prokhoros/Prokhor holds, we can see what he is writing:

In the calligraphic style of the 16th century, it says:

В начале бе….
In [the] beginning was…

And we know those are the first words of the Gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the word….”

Having seen the “Vision of John the Theologian” type, you should be aware that there are other related but even more complex and detailed icons of the Apocalypse.  But Apocalypse icons, including the “Vision of John”, are not common.

To finish for today, it is interesting to compare the first scene in the Videnie — that showing Jesus amid the seven candlesticks with the stars in his hand — with the much more sophisticated woodcut of the same subject by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528 ):

NO TOLL HOUSE COOKIES HERE

In a previous posting, I discussed the “Terrible Judgment” icon type that depicts the second coming of Jesus.  And I mentioned that the common motif of the giant serpent with “tollhouses” as rings on his body was not originally a part of the type, but but came later.  It appears to have been added to Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” in the latter part of the 1400s.

tollhouse-snake

It is not surprising that it was a later addition, because technically, it is not really a part of the Last Judgment, but rather it depicts the sequence of “little judgments” that ordinary Russian believers thought the soul had to endure, passing through a sequence of “aerial tollhouses” as it rose into the sky after death.

The primary textual source for aerial tollhouses is a dubious document called The Life of St. Basil the Younger, supposedly written by Basil’s disciple Gregory.  There is good reason to believe, however, that Basil is a largely, possibly even totally, fictional character used by the writer of The Life as a pretext for presenting his view of the afterlife and other matters.  In any case, the document seems to date to the latter half of the 10th century.

What exactly are these tollhouses?  They are believed to be barriers in ascending order through which the soul must rise and pass after death.  At each tollhouse a demon interrogates the soul for particular kinds of sins, and demands payment.  If the soul does not have enough “cash” in the form of good deeds and piety — “cash” attested to by an accompanying angel, then the soul can rise no farther, but is taken down to Hades to await the Last Judgment at the second coming of Jesus.

What are all these demons doing up in the sky with their little tollhouses?  Where did this notion of demons in the sky come from?  Well, it derives from a notion popular in the early days of Christianity.  By that date, there was a belief in both Judaism and Christianity that the universe was like a multi-story building, with one level stacked atop another.  The level between earth and the moon was believed to be the lowest.  In the Christian view, when Satan and his angels were cast out of Heaven, they took as their realm the “sub-lunary” layer or sphere, which extends from the earth all the way to the moon.  Consequently, early Christianity got the notion that the world and the air above it were filled with demons, all trying to cause trouble and to tempt humans to evil.  The sub-lunary (“below the moon”) level was believed to be the most impure and contaminated level.  There were higher levels atop that, with God residing at the very top, like a wealthy man in a penthouse.

In some icons, such as this 19th-century illustration depicting the death and immediate afterlife of St. Theodora, the tollhouses are pictured as a kind of stairway, each with the name of its appropriate sin:

The tale of Theodora and the tollhouses is given in the Life of St. Basil the Younger.  At lower left we see the dying Theodora, with an angel receiving her soul in the form of an infant.  To the right of the angel is Death.   Outside the building to the right, we see Death arriving, seated on a lion, just as depicted in icons of the type “The Only-begotten Son.”  The stairway with its demon-manned tollhouse stages to Heaven is at the right.

Other examples may simply show the soul of the believer in the form of a child accompanied by an angel, stopping at clouds on the ascent, each cloud being the tollhouse of a different demon or demons.

Here is one segment of 20 tollhouse depictions in the Monastery of St. John of Rila, in Bulgaria:

mytarstvo

At left is the accompanying angel, and beside him the Christian soul.  At right are demons holding scrolls showing the sins examined at that tollhouse.  The white inscription at top center reads;
МЫТАРСТВО    Г
Muitarstvo        3 (remember that Cyrillic letters can be used as numbers).

Muitarstvo means “tollhouse” (plural мытарства — muitarstva).

So this illustration depicts Tollhouse #3.  The word on the red demon’s scroll — СРАМОСЛОВИЕ (Sramoslovie) tells us he is checking for obscene speech, and the grey demon’s scroll reads for foolish speech — БУЕСЛОВИЕ — (Bueslovie).

The number of tollhouses shown varies from icon to icon.  And of course the ascending arrangement, with demons blocking progress, reminds one of the icon type “The Ladder of John Climacus (Klimakos) — but that is a topic for another day.

The notion of the sub-lunary realm being in the control of demons — “the powers of the air” — plays a significant role in Christian belief as early as the writings of Paul.  Ephesians 2:2 speaks of the “Prince of the Power of the Air” ( τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος,) and it is a significant topic for those who investigate early Christian belief, as well as the possibility that Jesus may have been originally a mythic being thought to have descended into the sub-lunary realm, being crucified there, unrecognized by the demon controllers of the region.  An excellent and well-researched book on the topic is:

On the Historicity of Jesus:  Why We MIght Have Reason for Doubt, by Richard Carrier: (Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd (2014) )

By the way, readers outside the United States may not be familiar with the term “Toll house cookies.”  They are cookies with chocolate chips in them.  No, they really have nothing to do with the aerial tollhouses, other than my sense of humor.

NOAH WHACKS HIS “ALARM” BOARD

Among the old Russian icons copied as transfers by Vasiliy Guryanov, we find two having to do with the Old Testament fellow Noah — the chief figure in the well-known tale of Noah and his ark.

Here is Noah as visualized in Eastern Orthodoxy:

pranoy

The title inscription reads ПРАОТЕЦ НОЙ — Praotets Noy/Noi — “Forefather Noah,” and his secondary title, in smaller letters at right, is Правед[ный] — Pravednuiy — “the Righteous.”

Noah is holding the ark in his hands.  Keep in mind that “ark” (kovcheg) in Russian also refers to the recessed “box” (the part with the painted image) in the center of those icons having the border standing out like a frame in relief.

Here is another “Noah” type, “Noah Gathering the Animals and Birds into the Ark“:

noahgathers_1

 

Noah Stands at left with his wife and family.  He holds a wooden stick in one hand, and with it he beats on the oddly-shaped long, flat board in his hand.  That will make little sense to you unless you know that boards like this were used in early Eastern Orthodoxy as a kind of “alarm clock” to call people to assemble.  They make a loud noise when struck.  Cast bells (a borrowing from Western Europe) came later in Orthodoxy, but such a board — called a biloило) in Russian, or in Greek semantron — continued to be used in many monasteries to call the monks to assemble for prayer.  So old Noah is banging on his semantron to call the animals and birds to assemble and enter the ark behind him.

We know today that there was no universal flood.  But there were local floods here and there that led to the rise of various legends.  So the Old Testament story of Noah is not the earliest of flood stories; we find older versions from Sumeria and Babylon, using protagonists with other names.  If you are interested in how a variant of the ancient flood legends came to be in the Old Testament, a quite informative and interesting recent book is The Ark Before Noah:  Decoding the Story of the Flood.  It is written by Irving Finkel, a British Museum curator and authority on early Mesopotamia.

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that the bearded figure blessing from the clouds at upper right is “Lord Sabaoth,” that is, God the Father.

A COMMON PATTERN WITH A USEFUL TEXT: THE LORD ALMIGHTY

Today we will look at one of the icon patterns taken off old Russian icons by the icon painter and restorer Vasiliy Pavlovich Guryanov (1867-1920).  These patterns are collected in the book Transfers from Old Icons; Collected and Executed by the Icon Painter and Restorer V. P. Guryanov, St. Petersburg, 1902  (Переводы с древних икон, собранные и исполненные иконописцем и реставратором В. П. Гурьяновым. СПб. 1902), and put out by Alexandr Ivanovich Uspenskiy (1873-1938).

gspdvsedrublgury

 

There is nothing extraordinary about the image — just one of countless examples of the “Lord Almighty” type.  What I want to emphasize is the text in the Gospel book held by Jesus.  Let’s look closer:

It reads:

Left page:

Не на лица
судите
, сынове чело
вечестии

но праве

Ne na litza sudite, suinove chel vechestii, no prave-

Right page:

ден суд
судите
Им же бо су
дом судите,
но судя[т вам]

-den sud sudite. Im zhe bo sudom sudite, no sudya[t vam]

It is a composite text.  The first part is a variant of John 7:24, and the second another variant, from Matthew 7:2.  If we put left and right pages together and join the separated segments of the words, we get:

Не
на лица судите, сынове человечестии но праведен суд судите
Им же бо судом судите, но судя[т вам]

“Judge not according to the appearance, sons of men, but judge righteous judgment.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged.”

Now oddly enough, this composite text from John and Matthew is rather common as a book inscription in icons of the “Lord Almighty” type, so it is good to learn to recognize it.

And by the way, the little note below the icon pattern says essentially “After the tradition of Andrey Rublov.”