Near the end of the 15th century, a new trend began in icon subjects. These new types were not simply depictions of saints, but often rather complex theological compositions of one kind or another, giving visible form to Church dogma or to biblical or liturgical excerpts. This kind of icon is generally called a “mystic-didactic” icon, meaning it is intended to teach one or another aspect of the “mysteries” of Church dogma by visual representation. A common Russian term for such icons today is богословско-дидактические иконы — bogoslovsko-didakticheskie ikonui — “theological-didactic icons.”
Such icons are often truly a mystery to those who see them for the first time, because it would be quite difficult to understand what they are about, were it not for identifying title inscriptions.
Today we will look at such a complex icon type from the 17th century. Here, in very condensed vyaz’ form, is its title:
ВЕЛИЧИТЬ ДУША МОЯ ГОСПОДА И ВОЗРАДОВАСЯ ДУХЪ МОИ О БОЗЕ СПАСЕ МОЕМЪ
VELICHIT’ DUSHA MOYA GOSPODA I VOZRADOVASYA DUKH MOI O BOZE SPASE MOEM”
Magnifies soul my [the] Lord and rejoiced spirit my in God Savior my
In normal English,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior.”
Now if you are familiar with the Bible (which is extremely helpful in the study of icons), you will recognize that as the speech of Mary commonly called the “Magnificat,” found in the first chapter of the Gospel attributed to Luke.
So that is the title of this type: “MY SOUL MAGNIFIES THE LORD.”
Here is the icon:
As you can see, there are lots of creatures in it, and several different scenes, intended to illustrate various parts of the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55:
“And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.“
At upper right, we see the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary to tell her she will bear a son. This illustrates “For he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden.”
Below that is a large crowd of various kinds of people (including saints) looking up toward the central image of Mary and her son, illustrating “ from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”:
Here is “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” We see devils, the large one being the Antichrist. Some versions show proud monks in Hell for this scene.
Here we see “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones”:
On the left side we see monks flying up to Heaven — the “Heavenly Jerusalem,” illustrating “And exalted the humble.”
Below that is “He has filled the hungry with good things…”
And below that we see some gloomy wealthy people, alone with their money, illustrating “And the rich he has sent away empty”:
At the very top of the icon we see Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) with ranks of angels, two of whom hold the Scroll of Heaven, with the Sun and Moon on it.
Icons of “My Soul Magnifies the Lord” are not common, but nonetheless one should expect some variation in how the scenes are shown from example to example. Now that you understand this old icon, you will also be able to identify and interpret this recent icon of the Velichit Dusha Moya Gospoda type, painted after a 17th century icon of the Yaroslavl School:
Here is the older icon: