THE SECOND HOLY FOOL PROKOPIY

There are many little pitfalls in the identification of icons, so one must be very careful when something seems a little off.  Here, for example is an icon of a saint named Prokopiy:

It is rather odd, showing the same saint standing at left, and again dead in his coffin at right.

If we look at the title inscription, we might think at first that he is the Holy Fool Prokopiy of Ustiug/Ustiuzh, because we see the name Prokopiy (Прокопий ), and the first letters of the word following that are “Us-” ( Ус-).

But if we stopped there, we would be wrong in identification.  There are two clues to tell us that.  First, Prokopiy of Ustiug is generally shown with a beard, and this fellow is beardless.  Second, the word following the name on the icon, though it begins with “Us-,” has an ending that does not spell Ustiuzhskiy, as in Prokopiy of Ustiug/Ustiuzh.  Instead it ends in “-yan.”

If we put those clues together, then this tells us that the icon is not of the famous Holy Fool Prokopiy of Ustiug, but instead of a rather obscure saint named  Праведный Проко́пий Устья́нский —  Pravednuiy Prokopiy Ustyanskiy —  Righteous Prokopiy of Ustya, sometimes also called Усья́нский (Usyanskiy).

Further confusing the issue, this second and lesser-known Propkopiy was also considered to be a holy fool, or “Fool for Christ’s Sake” as the full title goes.

Now the really odd thing about this second Holy Fool Prokopiy is that absolutely nothing is known about his life.  No one ever heard of him, in fact, before an unidentified body was discovered in the middle of the 17th century.  It was found buried in a willow coffin exposed by the Ustya (Устья) ) River in the Vazhskiy district of Arkhangelsk Province, not far from the village of Veryuga (now Bestuzhevo).  It was said that a “fragrance” was smelled when the body was found, and that it was “incorrupt.”  In addition, it is said that healings began to occur due to the body.

Now as you may recall from a previous posting here,  in traditional Slavic belief, an undecayed body may signify either a saint or a vampire, depending on what additional events accompany such a discovery.  Fragrance is one of the traditional hints that an incorrupt body is a saint.  That is what the local people assumed in this case, so they built a chapel over the body.

The next major event in the story is that a fellow named Saveliy Ontropov (Antropov) had a dream in which the former resident of the body appeared to him, revealed his name as Prokopiy, and told him to place the body in a new coffin.  That was done, and the body in the coffin was then moved to the church, where a service to this supposed saint Prokopiy was initiated.

Later, a Solvychegodsk merchant named Ivan Ermolaev claimed Propkopiy appeared to him, giving authorization for an icon to be painted of him.  Ermolaev hired an icon painter named Onisim Karamzin to paint the first icon of this previously unknown saint Prokopiy.  The icon was made in 1652.

Making all this even stranger, around the beginning of the 19th century, the body was re-examined by authorities and found not to be genuinely incorrupt, and an official declaration was made in 1801 that prayers were not to be made to the supposed saint, but that did not stop the local people, who continued to venerate “their” saint, and the saint’s name was even included in some church lists of saints as a holy fool, and a pamphlet published in the last quarter of the 19th century listed some twenty healings attributed to this Prokopiy between 1641 and 1750, with forty more happening in the interval until 1913.  There is some confusion over the texts supporting wider veneration of Prokopiy, but nonetheless, he became a popular local saint in the northern region, and was particularly prayed to for rain in time of drought, or to prevent excessive rain.  Sometimes he was said to appear, either in the form of a young man or an old man.

The remains of the body of the supposed Prokopiy were destroyed by burning during the Soviet era (it is said that the locals may have retrieved bits from the ashes) in January of 1939, and the church where they had been kept was taken apart for its building materials.

In this old photograph we see the annual religious procession to the Vvdenie (“Entry” [of the Mother of God into the Temple]) Church where the relics of the supposed Prokopiy were kept, on the day of Prokopiy’s commemoration — July 8th/21.

Though Prokopiy was not officially “glorified” (the Eastern Orthodox version of canonization), his veneration continues to this day in the Arkhangelsk region.

As you have probably learned by now, the accumulation of the vast list of saints in Eastern Orthodoxy was often accomplished by dubious or non-existent evidence, and Prokopiy of Ustya certainly fits that pattern.

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WOODEN GODS

Zavodphoto.ru

(Zavodfoto.ru / Zavodfoto.livejournal.com)

I have mentioned previously that sculpture in the round — carved, standing, three dimensional religious images — tended not to be favored in Eastern Orthodoxy, where one usually finds the two-dimensional painted icons of deity and saints.  But that does not mean such religious statues did not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy at all.

You may recall that in 1721, Peter the Great created the so-called “Most Holy Governing Synod” (Святейший Правительствующий Синод) to head the Russian Orthodox Church, taking the authority formerly held by a patriarch.  Peter replaced that patriarchate with the Synod, which continued in office until the restoration of the patriarchate in 1918.

The Synod interests us here because in 1722 it issued a decree including regulations intended to control the making of icons.  Among those regulations, it forbade “to have in churches carved or sculpted icons” (“иметь в церквах иконы резные, или истесанные”).  It blamed the presence of such icons in Russia on the Catholics and Poles.

(Zavodfoto.ru.com / Zavodfoto.livejournal.com)

As is usual with church decrees, however, it was not always and everywhere taken seriously.  That is why, in churches here and there, carved statues (usually in wood) of noted saints such as Nicholas (in the “of Mozhaisk” type), Paraskeva and George were still to be found — in fact, as we have seen in previous postings, some such statues were considered to be “wonder working,” that is, accompanied by and able to work miracles.  In the case of statues of Jesus as the sorrowing “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” (Спас в темнице / Spas v temnitse,  Спас Полуночный / Spas Polunochnuiy) it was even thought such images had the power to walk about.  Incidentally, the “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” type — found also in panel icon form — appeared in Russian iconography in the 17th century, apparently borrowed — as some Orthodox icon types were over the years — including certain examples considered to be “wonder working” — from western Catholic art.

(Zavodfoto.ru.com / Zavodfoto.livejournal.com)

Also mentioned in a previous posting was the use of the colloquial term “God-daubers” for icon painters.  Similarly, icon statues in Russian churches were also sometimes termed “bogi” — “gods.”  For example, in the Urals — in the province of Perm — were found the so-called “Permian Gods” (Пермские боги / Permskie bogi), the present examples of which date from the 17th-19th centuries.  Highly favored by the local people,  these statues — in spite of church decrees — held their places in the rural churches.

We should not be surprised at the term “gods” being used for these figures, because as we have seen in the development of Christian art, the biblical deity and Christian saints replaced the older polytheistic gods — not only in Egypt and Rome, but also eventually (though much later) in the Russian countryside.

For those of you who read German, there is an interesting book on the subject of Russian Orthodox three-dimensional icon statues.  It is titled Verbotene Bilder; Heiligenfiguren aus Russland (Forbidden Images; Sacred Figures from Russia) by Marianne Stößl (Stössl), Hirmer Verlag, München (Munich), 2006.

FROM ART TO ICON

When examining the origins of early Christian art — and the later appearance of icons as venerated images — we must be careful to make precisely that distinction:  between the image used as symbol and/or narrative illustration, and the image used as venerated icon. As I have pointed out in previous postings, Christian icons developed on the fringes where Christianity met non-Christian polytheism, and the former, over time, increasingly borrowed the venerated image from the latter and adopted it into Christian usage.  The use of venerated icons in Christianity was never without controversy, and it took many centuries before icons were officially accepted in the church, and before a theology was created to excuse them.

But what of Christian art before the venerated icon?  It consisted largely of symbols and of narrative images.  That is what we find in the earlier Christian catacombs.

We find symbolic Christian art clearly presented in the Paedagogus (Teacher/Instructor) of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Book III.  He is speaking of seal rings, those bearing an engraved seal.  These were an essential part of daily life in the Greco-Roman world, and Christians needed them as well.  “Pagans” could use all kinds of images, from real people to figures from mythology, etc.  But Clement of Alexandria cautioned Christians that they must be careful in selecting their seal images:

And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates [tyrant of Samos mentioned in Herodotus] used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device [Seleucus Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty; the anchor symbol was said to have been given by the god Apollo to Seleucus’ mother in a dream]; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.  Many of the licentious have their lovers engraved, or their mistresses, as if they wished to make it impossible ever to forget their amatory indulgences, by being perpetually put in mind of their licentiousness.”

The subjects mentioned by Clement were extremely common on the everyday seal market as used by polytheists, but can generally (as he suggests) be given a Christian interpretation.   Note that he forbids images of “idols,” which to him meant any of the deities of the polytheists.  Note also that he does not suggest any images of Jesus or of saints that would have had to be specially made — though he permits generic images that may call such to mind — for example a fisherman, which could remind a Christian both of Peter the Apostle and fisherman, and of baptism.  But the fisherman here is a symbol, not an iconic representation of Peter.

We find many symbolic and narrative images in the early Roman catacombs, and in fact that is what the first Christian art was — symbolic or narrative, or a combination of both — not the venerated icons that came later.  That is not surprising, given that narrative images were already to be found here and there in Jewish art of the 3rd century — itself subject to, and the result of, Hellenistic Greek influence.  In fact the representational use of  art as found on the 3rd century Dura Europos synagogue walls  is characteristic of other religions (polytheistic) of the time, and borrowed by Jews for their own purposes.

We see that syncretism, for example, in the western wall of the Synagogue at Dura Europos, which has a surprising depiction — Orpheus taming the animals with his music, borrowed directly from Greco-Roman mythology.  That shows us the extent to which Jews — and also, we shall see, Christians — borrowed motifs from “pagan” Hellenistic mythology and used them as symbols to refer to figures in their own religious traditions.  In the Dura synagogue, for example, the Orpheus figure is used to remind one of King David — a symbol, in other words, borrowed from the Hellenistic and polytheistic culture, and used much as Clement used a fisherman to call to mind both the apostle Peter and Christian baptism.

Hellenistic influence extended not merely to art, but also to Jewish and Christian theology.  Think, for example, of the allegorical biblical interpretations of the Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 b.c.e- 50 c.e.), and his discussion of the Logos, the emanation of the hidden God, which is very much the Logos (“In the beginning was the Word…” John 1:1) doctrine found in the Gospel called “of John”.  There are other examples from elsewhere of the Jewish use of the Orpheus image during this period.  We find Orpheus images used also in a Christian context in the Roman catacombs, as well as the image of the sun god Helios/Apollo, again used in a symbolic sense to call Jesus, the “sun of righteousness” to mind — another “polytheistic” image borrowed and given a Christian significance.  It is hardly necessary to mention yet another common image from polytheistic culture — the Kriophoros or ram-bearer, which was borrowed into the earliest Christian art to signify Jesus, the “Good Shepherd.”  One could add more Christian borrowings from the art of the polytheistic culture surrounding them that are found in the art of the early catacombs — and in the first Christian art in general.  In fact — because the same images may be found used both by polytheists and as Christian borrowings, context is important in distinguishing one from the other.

We also find narrative images (images that “tell a story”) in the Dura synagogue, for example this image of the anointing of the young David as king by the Old Testament prophet Samuel:

Again, this is a narrative image, but not a venerated icon such as was found among the polytheists and those later Christians who took the notion of a venerated image as icon from the polytheists and began making Christian venerated icons.  We find narrative art in the Christian catacombs as well, for example this image of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water:

So the religious image as symbol or narrative is found in the art both of Judaism and of early Christianity — but the venerated icon as understood in later Eastern Orthodoxy is something else entirely, and should not be confused with the art of the early Christians as we find it in literature and in the archeological record.

It is convenient for our purposes that a Christian Church was also found at Dura, and it too had art, though not nearly as sophisticated as that in the Dura synagogue.  It is here that we find what may be the earliest-known representation of Jesus, shown as a typical classical figure, healing the paralytic.  We find also the “Good Shepherd” image, what is apparently a representation of Jesus and Peter “walking on the water,”  and also an image generally interpreted as the women coming to the tomb after the resurrection.  All narrative/symbolic images, representing biblical stories.

So early Christian symbolic/narrative art must be distinguished from the later venerated Christian icon as found in Eastern Orthodox art.  Hellenistic, polytheistic culture influenced both early Christian (and Jewish) art of second and third centuries c.e., so it is an egregious error to imagine that Christian art developed free of influence from its polytheistic environment.  Nonetheless, the venerated icon that later developed in Christianity was a significant step beyond the use of narrative and symbol in art;  it was the adoption of the polytheistic practice of veneration of images of the gods into Christianity,  transferring that veneration of the heavenly hierarchy to Jesus and the saints —  a significant distinction that is often overlooked in “religious” discussions of the origins of Christian iconography and of Christian venerated icons.