In an earlier posting on the icon type of the “Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae,” I mentioned that there was a tendency in early Christianity to worship angels. In an attempt to control it, or at least to put it under the authority of the main Church, there was a third-century Council of Laodicea in Phrygia. It stated in its Canon 35 that Christians were not to avoid the regular church services by going away instead to call upon angels. Though there is some question as to the precise interpretation of this, we can nonetheless see how strong the veneration of angels was at this time by the making of this law (it was also forbidden by this council to join in prayer with “heretics” or “schismatics”).
“Assembly” in Church Slavic is Sobor. It is applied to liturgical celebrations in honor of a saint or saint involved in an event, often one celebrated on a preceding major feast day. The Sobor (Greek Synaxis) of the Archangel Michael, in the Orthodoxy Church calendar, took place on November 8th. Sobor is also the word used for a cathedral and for a Church council.
It was believed that at the end of time — on the day of the “Last Judgment,” there would be a council of all the “heavenly powers” — the angels. Because this was at the “end of time,” it was seen symbolically as the end of the old creation and the beginning of the Eighth Day — the “day of Eternity.” That is why in old Church writings the Last Judgment is sometimes referred to as the “Eighth Day.”
It was considered appropriate, then, that the Church festival celebrating the angelic gathering would also be on an “eighth day,” so it was set on the eighth day of the ninth month (November 8th), which at that time would have been measured from the beginning date of March 1.
That leads us to today’s icon.
Let’s look at the title inscription:
It is so long that to see it more clearly, it is best to divide it in halves. Here is the beginning:
СОБОРЪ СВЯТАГО АРХИСТРАТИГА МИХАИЛА…
SOBOR” SVYATAGO ARKHISTRATIGA MIKHAILA…
“ASSEMBLY [of the] HOLY CHIEF-COMMANDER MICHAEL…
Here is the ending:
…И ПРОЧИХ НЕБЕСНЫХ СИЛЪ БЕЗПЛОТНЫХЪ
….I PROCHIKH NEBESNUIKH SIL” BEZPLOTNUIKH
…”AND OTHER HEAVENLY POWERS BODILESS”
Putting all that together and in normal English, it is:
“THE ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY CHIEF-COMMANDER MICHAEL AND THE OTHER BODILESS POWERS”
You will recall that Michael is traditionally considered the commander of the heavenly armies, and “bodiless powers” means the various ranks of angels, which are considered to be without physical bodies — but rather with “spiritual” bodies. In Greek iconography this type is often called Η Συναξις των Ασωματων — He Synaxis ton Asomaton — “The Assembly of the Bodiless.”
At left we see the Archangel Michael:
At right is the Archangel Gabriel:
The center of the image is balanced by the unidentified (in this example) central angel, who holds two mirrors, that at left with the abbreviation for Jesus (IC) and that at right with the abbreviation for Christ (XC). He has the typical curly ribbon ends at his ears that signify divine hearing. It is noteworthy that the arrangement of the angels varies from example to example. In some, this central angel is identified as Michael, with the two angels in the foreground being Gabriel at left and Raphael at right. In others, Raphael is the central angel. In examples with the foremost angels identified, often the names added to these are the archangels Iegudiel, Selaphiel, Uriel, and Barakhiel.
Below him, in a ring of Seraphim (traditionally Seraphim are red, but often artists reversed the colors, making them blue, and Cherubim red) is the image of Christ Immanuel, the Son born eternally of the Father, again with the IC XC abbreviation and the standard HO ON abbreviation in Greek, signifiying “The One Who Is.”
The red angel at the base of the circle is identified by inscription as:
It is a peculiarity of Russian iconography that the plural form is used for the singular with both cherubim and seraphim, which accounts for the monks (and nuns) named “Seraphim.” In many examples, this red lower central angel is identified as СЕРАФИМЪ — Seraphim.
In English, the icon type “Assembly of the Archangel Michael and Other Bodiless Powers” is often called simply the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael,” the term synaxis being borrowed from the medieval Greek for a “gathering,” often specifically a religious gathering for the celebration of the Eucharist. This type is also sometimes called simply the “Synaxis of the Archangels.”
Here is another example of the type, which we can tell from its style dates from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:
As mentioned earlier, this example has Mikhail (Michael) as the central angel (Archangel); in the left foreground is ГАВРИИЛЪ — Gavriil — Gabriel, and behind him left to right, [И]ЕГУДИИЛЪ — Iegudiil — Iegudiel and СЕЛАФИИЛЪ — Selafiil — Selaphiel. At right foreground is РАФИИЛЪ — Rafiil — Raphael, and behind him УРИИЛЪ — Uriil — Uriel and БАРАХИИЛЪ — Barakhiil — Barachiel. The red central angel at the base is identified as a СЕРАФИМЪ — Serafim — Seraphim, and the title of the blue angels at each side is divided between them: ХЕРУ-ВИМИ — Kheruvimi — Cherubim. The title, rather squeezed in at the top, is given as СОБОРБ АРХ[АНГЕЛА] МИХАИЛА — SOBOR ARKHANGELA MIKHAILA — “The Council of the Archangel Michael.” So this shows the gathering or council of the Archangels — the АРХАНГЕЛЪСКИЙ СОБОР — Arkhangelskiy Sobor.
In the following example, Raphael is the central angel:
In each hand he holds a disk:
On each is written the abbreviated word СВЯТЪ — SVYAT — meaning “Holy.”