FROM POLYTHEISM TO THE PANOPLY OF SAINTS: THE BEGINNING OF CHRISTIAN ICONS

The god Serapis, Roman Egypt:  tempera on wood, from a triptych, c. 100 c.e. — J. Paul Getty Museum

In earlier postings, I noted that the making and veneration of icons (as the term was later understood in Eastern Orthodoxy) was not an “official” part of earliest Christianity, but rather came into it later, on the fringes of Christianity as it spread out of Judaism and into the polytheistic Greco-Roman world.  The use of icons came from polytheistic religious practice into Christianity gradually (and not without controversy), only being accepted officially as part of Church practice centuries later.

That is why the first evidence we have of icons being venerated as sacred images is found in that border where polytheism meets Christianity, the latter being influenced by the former.

In Greco-Roman polytheism, it was common for those who believed they had received a beneficial answer to their prayer to a deity to offer some sort of gift in return to that god or goddess — a votive offering.  The term comes from the Latin votum, meaning a vow or promise.  Such a gift given in thanks was part of the relationship between worshiper and deity — “you do this for me, and I will do this for you.”

There were various kinds of votive gifts to the deities, but often they were images.  One could donate a clay image of the deity, a stone or bronze statue small or large, and one could even donate a shrine or temple to house such images.  Among these votive gifts were painted panels depicting the deity or deities.  They could be donated to a temple, or placed in a home shrine.  These panels are ancestors of the later Eastern Orthodox icon.

The practice of venerating such images of the gods in polytheistic practice, whether in home or temple, involved honoring them with lights, and with wreaths, crowns, and garlands woven of flowers and foliage.

That is precisely what we find in the apocryphal Acts of John, usually dated as early as 150-200 c.e.   It records how a man named Lycomedes, raised from the dead by the Apostle John, had a painting — for all practical purposes an icon — made of John, enshrined it in his bedroom, and honored it with lights and garlands.  Here is that portion of the account:

There came together therefore a gathering of a great multitude on John’s account; and as he discoursed to them that were there, Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went hastily to him and said to him: You see me in a great hurry to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it. And the painter, giving some one the necessary implements and colors, said to Lycomedes: Show him to me, and for the rest have no anxiety. And Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near him, and shut him up in a room from which the apostle of Christ could be seen. And Lycomedes was with the blessed man, feasting on the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced yet more in the thought that he should possess him in a portrait.

The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of him and went away. And on the next he painted him in with his colors, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes to his great joy. And he took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that you always do when you come in from the bath into your bedchamber alone? do not I pray with you and the rest of the brethren? or is there something you art hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of your gods that is painted here? for I see that you art still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is you, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.

And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: You mock me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] your Lord? how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ lives, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who has imitated this my face, desires to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colors that are now given to you, and boards and plaster (?) and glue (?), and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye.

But do you become for me a good painter, Lycomedes. You have colors which he gives you through me, who paints all of us for himself, even Jesus, who knows the shapes and appearances and postures and dispositions and types of our souls. And the colors wherewith I bid you paint are these: faith in God, knowledge, godly fear, friendship, communion, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, purity, simplicity, tranquillity, fearlessness, grieflessness, sobriety, and the whole band of colors that paint the likeness of thy soul, and even now raise up your members that were cast down, and levels them that were lifted up, and tends your bruises, and heals your wounds, and orders your hair that was disarranged, and washes your face, and chastens your eyes, and purges your bowels, and empties your belly, and cuts off that which is beneath it; and in a word, when the whole company and mingling of such colors is come together, into your soul, it shall present it to our Lord Jesus Christ undaunted, whole (unsmoothed), and firm of shape. But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.

What we see in this early pious tale is the making of a Christian icon by a former “pagan” who just adapts his old religious practice to new Christian circumstances.  And that is precisely how Christian icons began — with the changing of the gods from pagan polytheism to Christian polytheism — the veneration of Jesus and Mary and all the growing panoply of saints who became the new gods in practice, if not in terminology.

Just as Lycomedes was following old polytheistic practice in his obtaining and veneration of an image of John, and his veneration of it with lights and garlands, so Eusebius of Caesarea suggests that the statue of a standing man and kneeling woman once found at the city of Paneas/Banias was a statue of Jesus and the woman with an issue of blood, made by “gentiles” (meaning non-Christian polytheists).  He wrote:

“Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

So again we have an association of the making of images with the traditional practices of “pagan” polytheists — though three dimensional art fell out of favor in later Eastern Orthodoxy, the panel painting survived as the Christian icon.

For more on the Banias/Panias image and its likely real nature, see this earlier posting:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/an-anonymous-woman-the-paneas-image-and-veronica/

Note that Eusebius does not attribute these early Christian images to Christians, but rather to “pagans” following their traditional polytheistic practices of veneration, but applying them to Christian “heroes.”  As Eusebius wrote in his Life of Constantine,

“…we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

That is much in keeping with what Irenaeus  (c. 130–202) had to say about the Carpocratians (a Christian sect founded in the 2nd century), in his Against Heresies, 1:25-6:

They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [‘pagans’]”.

So again we find veneration of images in the traditional polytheistic manner, this time applied to both “pagan” and Christian images — but being “according to the practice” of or “after the same manner” as the “pagan” polytheists.  That is why I often say that the making and veneration of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just the continuation of the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods, but in Christian guise.  Like the saying from the old TV show Dragnet, “Only the names have been changed….”

 

 

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TAKING NAMES AND….

At the entrance to old Japanese Budhist temples, there were often two guardian deities.  Here is a pair dating from the Kamakura Period (13th-early 14th century):

I always think of such guardian deities when I see the two angels painted at the entrance to Orthodox Churches in Slavic countries.  These are the “Ангелы Господни, записывающие имена входящих в храм” — the “Angels of the Lord, Recording the Names of Those Entering the Church.”

When both are found (sometimes there is only one), the angel on the left (in Slavic countries) of the entry is the Archangel Michael (Mikhail), as seen here in the Church of Simeon the God-receiver at the Zverin Monastery of Novgorod.:

He threateningly holds a sword in his right hand, and a scroll in his left.

In the Greek Painter’s Manual (Hermineia) of Dionysios of Fourna, we find this:

Inside the door of the temple, on the right, the Archangel Michael; He holds a sword and a scroll with these words:  ‘I am a soldier of God, and armed with a sword. Those who enter here with fear, I defend them, I guard them, I protect them and I observe them; But those who enter with an unclean heart, I strike them mercilessly with this sword.

Sometimes in Slavic Churches, Michael’s scroll reads:

Простираю меч мой на приходящих в чистый дом Божий с нечистыми сердцами.
“I extend my sword to those who enter the pure house of God with impure hearts.”
Again, in Slavic Churches, Gabriel (Gavriil) is commonly on the right side of the entrance, though Dionysios of Fourna writes:
On the left, Gabriel holds a scroll, and writes these words with a reed: ‘I write with this reed the internal disposition of those who enter here; I take good care of the good, but I cause the bad to perish promptly.'”
Here are much more recent versions of the two Archangels, as seen in the Church of St. Kirill in Kiyev, Ukraine.
Michael at left:
And Gabriel at right:
As mentioned earlier, some churches have only a single recording angel, who is sometimes simply known as the Ангел храма — Angel Khrama — “Angel of the Church.”  It is believed that this angel becomes the protector of a church when it is consecrated, and remains on duty there until the Second Coming.  Such an angel may be depicted as standing or sitting, recording on his scroll the names of those entering the church, so that he may give his report on them at the Last Judgment.
Now obviously there is a relationship here to the standard image of the Guardian Angel in icons, who follows each person through life, recording his deeds.

NICHOLAS MILITANT

A reader recently sent me photos of an interesting icon.  Here it is, set in its richly ornamental gilt frame, kept in a glassed-in kiot (protective icon case):

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

The important part, for our purposes, is the icon itself:

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

Well, it looks quite straightforward, doesn’t it?  It has all the characteristics of the type known as Nicholas of Mozhaisk, which depicts St. Nikolai (Nicholas) standing, robed as a bishop, with a sword in his left hand and a church in his right.

We can see that the inscription above Nicholas is a common one:

It reads:

С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ НИКОЛАИ ЧУДОТВОРЕЦЪ
SVYATUIY NIKOLAI CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”

If we left it at that, however, we would be a little too hasty and not quite entirely correct in identification of this icon.  It is important not to miss the little inscription at the base of the image; inscriptions should never be overlooked.  Here is a closer view:

It reads (put into modern Russian font):
ЯВИСЯ ВЪ Г[ОРОДЕ] МЦЕНСКЕ 1415
YAVISYA V G[ORODE] MTSENSKYE 1415
“APPEARED IN [the] CITY MTSENSK 1415”

Well, we know that the Nicholas of Mozhaisk icon itself did not “appear” in 1415, according to its origin story, but rather in the 1300s.  Nor did the legendary event of Nicholas appearing in the air over the city happen in a place called Mtsensk, but rather in the city of Mozhaisk.  What, then, is the significance of this “1415” inscription and the place name “Mtsensk”?  And where exactly is this “Mtsensk”?  Why all these differences?

The answer is that even though this icon is in the form commonly known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” it represents a particular “appearance” of an icon of that form — an “appearance” other than that at Mozhaisk.

First, what or where is Mtsensk (Мценскъ)?

It is a city in the Orlov region of Russia.  Here it is on an 1897 map, just about in the center of this image.  You can see there is a river running through it, called the Zusha:

At lower left is the city of Orel (Орелъ ).

To get a wider view of where it is in Russia, we can look at another map.  We can see the city of Orel southwest of Moscow, about two thirds of the way to the Ukrainian border:

So that tells us where Mtsensk is located.  Now for the origin story of the icon.

The origin story is a bit confused and varies from account to account.  It is said that on a Friday — June 7th of 1415 — the region of Mtsensk was still heavily pagan.  But on that day there was an eclipse of the sun, which the clerics used to frighten the people into becoming baptized as Christians.

It is also said that in the same year and day, a stone — formerly worshiped by the pagan people — was found floating in the Zusha River at Mtsensk. On it was an image of Nicholas with a sword in one hand and in the other a reliquary in the form of a church.  Such an image (which type we now generally call “Nicholas of Mozhaisk”) is commonly known as Николай Ратный —Nikolai Ratnuiy — “Nicholas the Militant.”  And the image that “appeared” at Mtsensk is one example of that type, and in itself is called Nikolai Mtsenskiy  — Nicholas of Mtsensk, or Никола Амченский — Nikola Amchenskiy — “Nicholas of Amchen,” Nikola being a form of Nicholas, and Amchensk being a popular alternate name for the city of Mtsensk.  This icon was also credited — through its supposed miraculous nature — with the conversion of the locals to Christianity.

Scholars, however, generally believe that these “Militant Nicholas” types are likely based upon Western European sculptures of Nicholas, related to that at Bari, in Italy, where the remains of St. Nicholas are thought to have been taken.  Further, that such statues came to Russia as reliquaries in the form of Nicholas given to Russian princes, and supposedly holding relics of the saint. Though three-dimensional sculpture is generally frowned upon in Russian Orthodoxy, such statues of the “Militant Nicholas” were made an exception due to the great veneration accorded them by the people, and the miracles supposedly associated with them.

So it turns out this little icon is actually quite interesting, given that it specifically commemorates the story of the appearance of an image of Nicholas at Mtsensk, which became a noted pilgrimage site in the old days of Tsarist Russia, with thousands of pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Siberia.  And the coming of pilgrims meant money.

One more little detail, and then we will leave this interesting icon.  If we look just below the figure of Nicholas, we can see that he is standing on a rug:

On that rug is the image of an eagle, though it is upside-down, with the head nearest us and the tops of the wings at each side.  Such a rug — called an Орлец — Orlets — “Little Eagle / Eaglet” is used in the Orthodox liturgy, and is round or oval.  The bishop stands upon it at certain parts of the rite.  It depicts an eagle with wings spread, often flying above a city.  The Orlets was once a sign of the Byzantine Emperor’s authority.  In those days it was a double-headed Byzantine Imperial eagle.  Then it became a kind of respectful award given by the Emperor to the Patriarch.  Later, when the Byzantine Empire had fallen,  it came to be used by any bishop in Russia, signifying both the status of the bishop as having a heavenly origin, as well as a sign of the bishop’s oversight of the people of a city, (his diocese), and that a bishop should “rise above” worldly things.  In Russia it was a one-headed eagle.  We can just think of it as a bishop’s symbol.

THAT WOMAN ON THE SLED

Anyone who has studied Russian history or Russian art is familiar with this famous painting by Vasiliy Surikov of the exiling of the Boyarina Morozova (1632–1675):

(V. Surikov; Tretyakov Gallery)

The key to understanding the painting — and its relationship to Russian history — lies in the fingers of her upraised hand:

Look more closely:

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will recognize the position of the fingers as the blessing sign used by the Old Believers — something that often distinguishes Old Believer icons from State Church icons.

What is happening in the painting?  Who was the Boyarina Morozova?

She was born  in 1632 and named Feodosia Prokopievna (in the Russian naming system, that -evna suffix means she was the daughter of a fellow named Prokopiy).  Her father was Prokopiy Feodorovich (meaning “son of Feodor”) Sokovnin.  When she was seventeen, she married a nobleman, boyar Gleb Morozov — thus her married surname Morozova.  They had one son, Ivan, and when her husband died in 1662, she inherited fabulous wealth.

The great change in her life began in 1664, when she met the Archpriest (protopop) Avvakum.  Every student of icons should know that name.  He was the fellow who opposed the changes in the Russian Orthodox liturgy and ritual pushed through — beginning in 1652 — by the Patriarch Nikon.  Then (as now), it is dangerous to oppose authority in Russia, and Avvakum was exiled to Siberia in 1653.  But in 1662 Avvakum was permitted to return to Moscow.  Meanwhile, Patriarch Nikon had fallen from favor, but nonetheless his changes remained in effect, and Avvakum continued to vigorously oppose them, keeping to Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced before Nikon — thus the term used for Avvakum and his followers — “Old Believers” (старове́ры/staroverui) or “Old Ritualists” (старообря́дцы/staroobryadtsui).  Old Believers were given the pejorative title Raskolniki — “schismatics” — because of their refusal to accept Nikon’s changes.

In 1666 the Russian Orthodox Church held a “pan-Orthodox” council — The Great Moscow Synod/Council ( (Большой Московский собор/Bolshoi Moskovskiy sobor) — that paradoxically accused Patriarch Nikon of reviling Church and Tsar, and reduced his status to that of an ordinary monk.  And the Council condemned an important previous Russian Orthodox Church Council — the famous Stoglav (“Hundred Chapters”) Council of 1551, that had approved Russian church practices that differed somewhat from those of Greek Orthodoxy.  This would not be the first time that an Eastern Orthodox Church council negated the declarations of a previous council.  And because the Old Believers refused to renounce the Stoglav Council, and refused to accept the “reforms” instituted by the now deposed Nikon, they were condemned by the Great Moscow Synod of 1666-67.

So in 1666 the Church formally anathematized (cursed) Avvakum and his teachings, and once more exiled him, this time to Pustozersk, a distant northern outpost in what is today the Arkhangelsk region of Russia.  There Avvakum, along with his deacon Feodor, the Solovetsk monk Epifaniy, and the priest Lazar (the latter two had their tongues previously cut out) — all Old Believers — suffered great hardship and torture, and all three were killed by the Russian Orthodox State Church and its governmental arm on April 14, 1682 — ironically, Good Friday.  The “legal” reason given for the murder was «великия на царский дом хулы» — “great blaspheming of the Imperial House”  — referring to caricatures of the Tsar that had circulated among the Old Believers.  Pustozersk was the same place where another Old Believer, Kiprian of Moscow, had been decapitated for his beliefs on July 7, 1675.

Here is an icon-pattern-style illustration of the burning of Avvakum, Feodor, Epifaniy, and Lazar:

By B. V. Kiselnikov/Б.В. Кисельников

Now years before the martyrdom of Avvakum, the Boyarina Morozova had lived a luxurious life with her immense wealth.  It is said that when she went out, she was accompanied by two hundred servants.  But she eventually took on a much simpler life, living like a nun, and taking in all kinds of homeless, poor, and ill people.  Archpriest Avvakum and his wife also had come to live in her home.  Now as mentioned, the Boyarina Morozova met Avvakum in 1664; he became her confessor, and she avidly followed his teachings and opposition to the “reforms” instituted by Nikon.  She became an ever more ardent advocate of the Old Belief, and it is said that she even had “underground” Old Believer literature printed.

Of course it was not long before all this came to the notice of Tsar Aleksei, because of the intimate connection between Church and State.  The sister of the Tsaritsa was sent to try to talk Feodosiya out of her connections with the Old Belief.  It did not work.  Then the Tsar tried confiscating some of her property.  That did not work either.  The Tsar was even more irritated when Feodosiya took in nuns expelled from their convents for holding to the Old Belief.  And then Feodosiya herself took formal nun’s vows, changing her name to Feodora, and would no longer attend the royal court or have anything to do with the State Church.  She even refused to attend the Tsar’s wedding to a new wife, which infuriated him.

In November of 1671, the Tsar had Feodosiya/Feodora and her sister arrested and put in chains.  All her wealth and property was confiscated.  The Boyarina Morozova was tortured.  Her son Ivan, hearing of her horrible treatment, is said to have gone insane.

Here is an illustration in “icon pattern” style showing Feodosiya/Feodora being examined before the Russian Orthodox Church authorities:

By B. V. Kiselnikov/Б.В. Кисельников

We see her right hand raised defiantly in the “two-fingered” blessing sign characteristic of the Old Believers.  The inscription above her head reads:

ПР[ЕПОДОБНО]М[У]Ч[ЕНИЦА] ФЕОДОРА
Prepodobnomuchenitsa Feodora
“Venerable Martyr Feodora/Theodora”

To get Feodosiya/Feodora out of the public eye, the Tsar exiled her to Borovsk.  That is the scene depicted in the famous painting by Surikov — Feodosiya being dragged off in a crude sled to an underground dungeon in Borovsk.  There she and her sister were starved to death, and were buried inside the jail.

And so the Boyarina Morozova became an Old Believer saint.

THE PARADISE BIRDS

It is not surprising that in Russian folk culture there is no clear dividing line between myth and religion.  The stories told of saints in icons are often largely myth, and elements of folk belief entered into Russian Orthodox religion.

Today we will look at two very interesting beings from traditional Russian folk culture — the Paradise birds Sirin (Сиринъ) and Alkonost ( Алконостлкионъ ).

Here is an old lubok (wood block print) of Sirin from around the beginning of the 19th century:

(Russian State Historical Museum)

In the Russian mixture of folk belief and religion, Sirin is believed to a bird with the head of a woman, in and from the Garden of Paradise.  The first line in the small inscription at the top reads:

Птица Сирин святаго и блаженнаго рая — Ptitsa Sirin svyatago i blazhennago raya
“The Bird Sirin of the holy and blessed Paradise.”

The inscription at the base relates that Sirin is a bird found also in the region of India, which is “near to the blessed place of Paradise.”

In the Lubok, we see a man at upper right, captivated by the Sirin’s song.  Below him a group of people stand by a church bell tower, shooting off cannons and making noise with horn and rifle, etc.  It was believed that the Sirin could not endure such noise, and so could be frightened away by it.

Not surprisingly, the name Sirin comes from the Greek myth of the Σειρήν (Seiren),  the Siren — as in the Sirens in the Odyssey of Homer, who could lure people with their songs.  Apparently the legend came north in the Middle Ages, when Greek culture flowed north into Crimea and Kievan Rus.

The other mythical Paradise bird of Russian folklore that is often paired with the Sirin is Alkonost:

The inscription at the top reads:

ПТИЦА РАИСКАЯ АЛКОНОС  — PTITSA RAISKAYA ALKONOS
“The Bird of Paradise Alkonost.”

As you see, Alkonost also has the head of a woman.  And like Sirin, the name is taken from the Greek, in this case it goes back to the myth of the girl Alcyone ( Ἁλκυόνη), who was the daughter of Aeolus, God of the winds.  She and her husband angered Zeus, the chief of the Gods, and Zeus killed her husband.  In grief Alcyone cast herself into the sea, and was transformed by the Gods into a kingfisher ( ἀλκυών) bird, as was her husband.  

Alkonost was said to be found in Paradise and on the Euphrates River (listed as one of the rivers of Paradise, according to Genesis 2:14)

It is said that in midwinter, Alkonost places her eggs under the sea, where they lie for seven days, then float to the surface.  And that during these days the sea remains calm.

Like that of Sirin, the song of Alkonost causes humans to completely forget everything.

You may recall from a previous posting the term “Apple Savior” (Яблочный Спас), the term for August 6/19th) which in folk custom marks the beginning of autumn.  In folklore it is said that on the morning of “Apple Savior,”  the Sirin flies into the apple orchard, singing a sad song and weeping; and in the afternoon, Alkonost flies into the orchard singing a joyful song and laughing.