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 ):

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