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.

Here is an 18th century example of the same type from the Arkhangelsk region:

(Arkhangelskiy Oblast Museum)

 

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