In a previous mention of “Vision” icons, I listed the type known as the “Vision of Tarasiy.” Today we will take a look at that very detailed type through an example from Novgorod, dating to the 16th century.
First, we need to know that in the years 1506 to1508, the great trading city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia (and neighboring Pskov) was severely afflicted by the “Black Death” — the bubonic plague. Following that, in August of 1508, the large trading area of Novgorod (remember that it was a great trading city with links to Western Europe) was destroyed by a great fire, killing some 2000 people, added to the large numbers who had already died in the Plague.
Those unfortunate events are the basis for the “Vision of Tarasiy” type. It is based on a legend (found in the Life of St. Varlaam Khutuinskiy, who died in 1192). It relates that Tarasiy, the sexton of the Transfiguration Cathedral, was in it at prayer one day. As the legend goes, he saw Varlaam rise up from his tomb, go before the icons, and begin praying, with tears flowing from his eyes.
The risen saint then told Sexton Tarasiy to climb up to the top of the church three times, and look out. On doing this, Tarasiy on his first climb saw Lake Ilmen towering over the city, threatening to inundate it with flooding.
On his second ascent, Tarasiy saw angels in the sky, shooting fiery arrows down upon the citizens of Novgorod.
On his third ascent, Tarasiy saw a flaming cloud above the city of Novgorod.
Terrified by what he had seen, Tarasiy listened as Varlaam interpreted the vision. He said that because of the sins of the people of Novgorod, God wanted to flood the city as punishment. But because of prayers made to Mary (“Mother of God,”) and the intercession of other saints, God decided to be merciful. He would only send the plague, which would spare those who sincerely repented their sins. And the plague would be followed by a fire. All of this, theoretically, was a lessening of the “flood” punishment because of the intercession of Mary with her son Jesus — a notion very much in keeping with the medieval Western Catholic idea that Mary was constantly “staying the vengeful hand” of God. It shows us why Mary was so popular among Russians — because she was believed to be more merciful and forgiving than God the Father or his son Jesus, and so was the reliable advocate of humans in the severe heavenly court.
(Novgorod State Museum)
In the upper part of the icon, we see the heavenly court, with Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) seated on the throne, and Christ Immanuel sitting on his lap.
Mary at left and John the Forerunner at right are interceding with God for the city of Novgorod, and along with them various groups of other saints.
In the lower heavenly clouds, we see Tarasiy’s second sight: an army of angels shoots arrows of plague down upon the Novgorodians. At right, we see the first sight of Tarasiy, the waters of Lake Ilmen looming over and threating to flood the city. And in the center is the third sight of Tarasiy, the fiery cloud that was to set the city aflame.
If we look closely at the white church on the left, we can see Tarasiy climbing up a ladder to its roof; and we see him depicted twice on the roof, all representing his three trips up. In the church its iconostasis is visible, as is Varlaam Khutuinskiy talking with Tarasiy.
In the city below, we see the arrows of plague falling on the inhabitants, and angels with books everywhere, looking in them to see the deeds of the inhabitants, deciding who lives and who dies. There are people in boats on the Volkhov River that flows through Novgorod, and men crossing the wooden bridge on horseback.
The “Vision of Tarasiy” icon type gives us an insight into the pre-modern Russian mind and a way of thinking that lasted right into the early 20th century there (and still in some individuals), which is that disease is a punishment of God for sin, with no knowledge of the part played by germs, viruses, and tainted food and water, and natural disasters also are God’s vengeance for human misbehavior, whether fire or flood or famine. It was the old (and rather futile) attempt — as Milton wrote — “to justify the ways of God to men.” It is the world before science, and that is what we see in Eastern Orthodox iconography in general — the world before science.