As you know, people often write to me asking for help with the identification of icons. One such recent request involved this image:
It is a late Russian icon, and if you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the subject as Svyatuiy Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker — that is, St. Nicholas of Myra, who was believed to be a miracle worker. Nicholas was extremely popular in Russia, and countless icons of this type were painted. In this example we see the usual elements — the circle enclosing Jesus at left, giving Nicholas his Gospel book, and that of Mary at right, bestowing the bishop’s stole (omophorion) on Nicholas.
I particularly want to take a look at the Church Slavic text held by Nicholas, because it is the most common text used on his icons. As students of icons you should learn to recognize it, because it will enable you to translate a great many icons of Nikolai/Nicholas. Here it is:
VO VREMYA ONO STA ISUS NA MESTE RAVNE I NAROD OUCHENIK EGO I MNOZHESTVO MNOGO LIUDEI OT VSEYA IOUDEI I [I]EROUSALIMA [I] PO[MORIYA TYRSKA I SIDONSKA….]
“At that time Jesus stood on a level place and the group of his disciples and a multitude of many people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon….”
The King James version gives it as: “And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon….“
Now one may ask, why that text, given that it has no obvious connection to Nicholas. The answer is that in the liturgy for the Feast of St. Nicholas in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Gospel reading generally used for that day is Luke 6:17-23.
It is quite a “busy” icon, with so many things happening that it reminds me of an assignment my high school art teacher once gave — to draw “many people doing many things.”
First, we need to know what it represents. For that we can look at the title inscription. It is rather long, so here it is in two parts:
And here is the last part:
Though the inscription appears faint and does not stand out sharply, nonetheless it reads:
Ἡ ΚΟΙΜΕCΙC ΤΟΥ ὉCΙΟΥ Π[ΑΤ]Ρ[O]C ἩΜΩΝ CΑ[B]ΒΑ ΤΟΥ ΙΓΙΑCΜΕΝΟΥ (ἡγιασμένου)
HE KOIMESIS TOU HOSIOU PATERAS HIMON SAVVA TOU ἹGIASMENOU (Egiasmenou)
“THE DORMITION OF THE VENERABLE FATHER OF-US SAVVA THE SANCTIFIED”
In normal English,
“The Dormition of Our Venerable Father Sabbas the Sanctified.”
We are accustomed to seeing the Greek word του as meaning “of,” or “of the,” but here it has more the sense of “the one.”
So this is a “Dormition” icon, but not the most common one, which is the Dormition of Mary. This one is the Dormition of St. Sabbas/Savva the Sanctified, a prominent early monastic leader in the area of Jerusalem.
This image is essentially a copy of an earlier icon of the same type, an example of which is known from the 15th century.
In the foreground of the icon we see the liturgical service taking place at the bier on which the body of Sabbas lies, with an icon of Jesus resting on his chest. One monk bends over to kiss Sabbas, while others stand all around.
The rest of the icon is essentially explained by the image of the monk just above the Dormition gathering. He holds a semantron, which you will recall is the long wooden board beaten with a mallet, and acting as a kind of loud but dull-sounding gong to call monks to assemble. So this fellow is going about beating his semantron to call the monks we see scattered over the remainder of the icon to come to the Dormition service of Sabbas:
We see some of the monks busy with various occupations. Here they are weaving baskets, which Sabbas himself is said to have done. Note the icon on the cave wall:
Here another monk is carving wooden spoons:
And here are monks as scribes writing books:
Near the top of the image, a monk sends provisions up to a stylite (pillar-dweller), using a woven basket on a rope, as another monk in his cave looks on:
We see various scenes of monks on their way to the Dormition service. Here, by the semantron bearer, is a monk carrying an elderly monk on his back:
Here two younger monks carry an old monk on a litter:
Here is an old monk riding on a lion to get to the service. A lion features in the hagiography of Sabbas, as well as in that of other monastic saints:
This one rides a donkey, while the fellow next to him is fishing:
Images in the icon are quite out of proportion, but that is just the old method of getting lots of things into an image without worrying about “real” perspective. Notice that the body of water in the foreground has ships and birds on it, but both are the same size!
A number of creatures such as rabbits, a deer, birds, and so on have been included to add visual interest to the image, something the Cretan iconographers picked up from Italian art of the period, which helped to soften and enliven icons painted or influenced by the Cretan painters.
In the sky above, we see some black demons flying at right…
But at left we see an angel bearing the soul of Sabbas heavenward, in the form of an infant:
In earlier examples of the type, the figure to the left of the angel is generally interpreted as Christ Emmanuel, to whom the angel is bringing the soul of Sabbas — as in this 15th century detail:
The painter of the icon we are examining today, however, may not have clearly understood his model, because he makes the figure look rather like a personification of the sun:
Now look at this Greek icon:
As we see, the iconography is remarkably the same, right down to the monk being carried on a litter at right, and another arriving on a donkey:
We even see the monk riding on a lion at lower left:
We might, then, think we are looking at another remarkably similar icon of the death of Sabbas the Sanctified, but that is not the case at all. It is true that we see a remarkably similar icon here, but the subject is quite different. The Greek inscription tells us that we are looking at the Assembly (Synaxis) at the Koimesis (Dormition/Death) of Ephraim the Syrian. So the same motifs of monks about their daily tasks and arriving at the death of Sabbas are also used in the imagery of the death of Ephraim. They are not “historical” details as such, but rather generic motifs. We see them again in this 15th century Cretan icon of the death of Ephraim:
As for Sabbas himself, he is said to have been a precociously pious 5th century Cappadocian boy who entered a monastery at the age of eight. In Jerusalem he was a disciple of St. Euthymios, and eventually he founded the Mar Saba Monastery — quite a famous one that is generally seen on “map icons” of Jerusalem and its surrounding pious attractions. There are all sorts of miraculous tales told about him, and interesting accounts of the monastery.
The Mar Saba Monastery, by the way, is the place where the biblical scholar and historian Morton Smith said he discovered a copy of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria in 1958, describing a “secret” Gospel of Mark that was only for certain advanced Christians, and not to be revealed to all. Here is a photo of the Mar Saba letter:
Now as you can imagine, this caused great controversy in the world of biblical scholarship, with some accusing Smith of a hoax, while others regarded the text as authentic, revealing a previously unknown side to early Christianity. To this day the matter remains unsettled.