It is hard to overestimate the importance of learning to read basic Church Slavic for the student of Russian icons. Without that essential knowledge (and it is not difficult to gain), mistakes in identification can very easily happen.
Take for example this icon (possibly a recent imitation). One might assume on first look that it represents the “pillar saint” most often seen in icons — called in Russian Simeon Stolpnik — Simeon Stylities — or Simeon “the Pillar Guy” to put it loosely.
And even if one reads the title inscription a bit too hastily, concentrating only on the first three words, one might also make the same error. After all, as we can see from a closer look, they read СВЯТЫЙ ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ СИМЕОНЪ — SVYATUIY PREPODOBNUIY SIMEON “Holy Venerable Simeon.”
And we can certainly see that he is standing atop a pillar, so the logical conclusion would be that this is Simeon Stylites, the fellow whose description comes first among saints in the old Church year in the old painters’ manuals — on September 2nd. But that is because we have ignored the last word in the title inscription. Here is a larger image of it:
Those of you who have learned the Church Slavic alphabet (you have, haven’t you?) will see that it is written as:
And you can see that it has a curved line of abbreviation above it. It abbreviates
Divno- means “wondrous,” “marvelous,” and “-goretz” means “mountain person,” related to the word gora — “mountain.” So this title is generally translated ” of the Wondrous Mountain” or “of Marvelous Mountain,” or something similar.
So this particular saint is
СВЯТЫЙ ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ СИМЕОНЪ ДИВНОГОРЕЦ —
“HOLY VENERABLE SIMEON OF THE MARVELOUS MOUNTAIN”
So he is named Simeon, and he is a Stylite — but he is Simeon Stylites the Younger, NOT Simeon Stylites the Elder, who is the better-known of the two. In Greek, this “Younger” Simeon is called Όσιος Συμεών ὁ Θαυμαστορείτης — Hosios Symeon ho Thaumastoreites — “Venerable Simeon of the Marvelous Mountain” (“Marvelous,” incidentally, in that it is a place of marvels — of miracles — not that it is just a “marvelous” place to live). You will recall that the Greek title Hosios is the equivalent of the Church Slavic Prepodobnuiy, which we loosely translate as “Venerable” — and it indicates a male “monk” saint.
An important stylistic point: If we look at the background of this icon, we see that the sky is painted in graduated shades of blue, from dark at the bottom to light at the top. This manner of painting the sky is typical of certain Russian icons painted in the last years of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th. We find this graduated sky in the works of such noted Mstera (pron. Mstyora) -trained iconographers as Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev (pron. Dikaryov) and Osip Semyonovich Chirikov, etc. It is a useful point in dating, though of course it can be imitated.
But what about this “other” Simeon Stylities — Simeon of the Marvelous Mountain? Well, the first Simeon Stylities “the Elder” — lived from near the end of the 300s until 459 c.e. But the one in today’s icon — Simeon Stylities “the Younger” — lived 521-597 c.e.
This “of the Marvelous Mountain” Simeon — according to his “life” as written by Dmitriy Rostovskiy — was destined before birth to be an ascetic. Keep in mind that these lives of saints are often highly fictionalized. It happened that a young man of marriageable age named John went with his parents from Edessa to Antioch. There the parents were taken with a lovely young woman named Martha. Martha really did not want to marry, wanting instead to devote her life to religion. She went to a church and prayed in tears to be delivered from marriage. But there she had a vision in which she was told to do as her parents told, and marry John. So she married, but this time kept praying to John the Forerunner (“the Baptist”) that she might have a male child, and that this boy’s life would be consecrated to God. One night while praying in church, she fell asleep and John the Forerunner appeared to her, saying her prayer was accepted. He gave her a censer with burning incense, and told her to take it to her house. She woke to find the fragrant censer in her hand. She had a second vision in which John told her to go to her husband (and essentially to conceive a child). He said her child — to be called Simeon — would only drink milk from Martha’s left breast, not touching the right at all; and that he would not eat meat or drink wine, but his food would be only bread, honey, salt, and water. And she was to bring the child to that church two years after his birth, to be baptized.
After the child was born, on days when Martha ate meat and drank wine, the infant would refuse her breast milk entirely, waiting until the next day. When two years had passed, Simeon was taken to the church and baptized, and as soon as he was baptized, the child spoke, saying, “I have a father, and I do not have a father; I have a mother and I do not have a mother” (Имею отца, и не имею отца; имею матерь, и не имею матери). And he kept saying it for seven days.
When the boy was six years old, there was an earthquake that killed his father. Simeon, being in a church at the time, survived, but when he walked out of the church, he could not find the way to his home amid all the rubble. A pious woman found him, and took him to a mountain not far from the city. His mother did not know where he was, but John the Forerunner appeared to her and told her where to find him.
Martha settled in Antioch with her child Simeon, who began to have visions too. And so did a certain other John, the abbot of a monastery on a mountain. He saw — from atop his pillar — a boy who would come to the monastery. Simeon did come to the monastery at age six, finding his way there alone through a desert region. And he took up his destined life there.
His life from this point was extremely ascetic, filled with visions, and the boy was said to receive the power to drive out demons from people, and to perform other miracles. Simeon began living atop a pillar, living a life of extreme asceticism and self-deprivation and mortification, healing people, casting out demons, and even raising the dead. And of course his visions continued.
Eventually, Simeon decided that the crowds of people coming to him were interfering with his spiritual life, so he decided to go to another mountain that was without water entirely, so people did not go there. It was populated only by wild animals and snakes. With this in mind, Simeon had another vision in which the Lord appeared to him and said,
– Потрудись, Симеон, взойти на эту Дивную гору, ибо с этого времени гора эта назовется сим именем; на ней Я явлю на удивление всем благодать Мою тебе. “Labor, Simeon, to ascend this marvelous mountain, since from this time the mountain will be called by that name. On it I will reveal my grace to you in marvels” — thus the name of the mountain and the title by which this Simeon is known, distinguishing him from the others. And there are others, not only Simeon Stylites the Elder, but also the obscure 5th century Simeon Stylites III, who lived in Cilicia, and a Simeon Stylites of Lesbos, who lived in the latter 700s and first half of the 800s.
But back to our “Marvelous Mountain” Simeon. When his crowds of admirers heard he had moved to another mountain, they all flocked there in crowds as well, so Simeon failed in his effort to live a more isolated life.
One day, when one of these Simeon fans was on his way to see his hero, a lion appeared, and was about to tear him apart when the man said, “Do not harm me, for the sake of Simeon, a saint of God.” And it is said that on hearing this, the lion did not harm him. Nonetheless, when it was reported to Simeon that a lion was living on his mountain and troubling his visitors, he sent one of his disciples — Anastasiy — to the lion’s lair to tell the beast that he was to leave the mountain and to stop frightening the visitors. Hearing this, the lion went away to live in another place.
The rest of Simeon’s life — as these hagiographic tales go — was filled with many other such wondrous events — visions of the future, healing all kinds of diseases, etc. etc. At the age of 33 he decided to become a priest, and at the age of 75 he died.
Oddly enough, the “Marvelous Mountain” on which Simeon lived (near Antakya, Turkey, the former Antioch on the Orontes) is now the site of a number of electricity-producing wind turbines, one placed right at the ruins of the monastery built by his followers. The Turks still call the mountain Samandağ — “Simeon’s Mountain.”