This is quite obviously a modern Russian icon, but the story it depicts is very old, and judging from the bat wings and serpent tail on the flying horse, likely to be interesting.
There is an identifying title at upper right — almost too small to see in the image — but it reads:
Святый Иоаннъ, Архиепископ Новгородский
Svyatuiy Ioann, Arkhiepiskop Novgorodskiy
“Holy John, Archbishop of Novgorod”
So we know this icon is about John of Novgorod — also known as Ilya of Novgorod — who was Archbishop of the city from 1165 to his death on September 7, 1186.
As I have said many times, one thread in the study of icons leads on to countless others, and often we find stories within stories within stories. We have already seen a couple of threads that would lead us — if we followed them — to the story told in this icon.
The first thread is the Marian icon being held up atop the walls of the stylized city seen below the horse. We should recognize it as the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God icon, which relates to the history of Novgorod, the great northern trading city.
The second thread — connected to the first — is the battle taking place before the walls of the city, which we might recognize as the Battle of the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians, seen in more detail in this icon:
So what does John of Novgorod have to do with these two threads? And what is the story of the strange flying horse, and who is the fellow on the raft in the river in the contemporary icon?
Well, as for the icon and the battle, it was Archbishop John of Novgorod who had the “Sign” icon of Mary brought to the walls of the city, as a palladium to ward off the invading Suzdalians from the city of Novgorod, in the year 1170 — which traditionally is credited for saving the city. And as for the horse and the raft, well, it is all rather like a tale out of the Thousand and One Nights.
One evening Archbishop John of Novgorod — so the story goes — was reciting his evening prayers. Suddenly he heard a great splashing noise from a copper water vessel at the washstand. Being clever in such matters, John quickly decided that the splashing was caused not by a person, but by a demon.
He approached the vessel, spoke a prayer and signed the container with the sign of the cross, which locked the demon inside it, unable to escape.
The demon cried out, “O, woe is me! The fire burns so that I can hardly endure it! Release me quickly, righteous man of God!”
“Who are you, and how did you come here?” John asked. The demon admitted that he was a devil, and said he had come to frighten John, to interrupt his prayers. And now he was caught and being burned as if by fire. “Let me go, servant of God, and I will never come here again!”
John spoke severely: “For your impertinence, I command you: This very night you must take me from Novgorod the Great to the city of Jerusalem, to the church where lies the tomb of the Lord, and this very night from Jerusalem back to my cell, into which you dared enter. Then I shall free you.”
The demon swore to obey.
John then told the demon to transform into a horse, saddled and ready. The demon came out of the water vessel like black smoke, and took the form of a horse all prepared for the journey. John signed himself with the cross, mounted the demon horse, and soon he found himself in Jerusalem, near the Church of the Holy Resurrection, where the Holy Sepulchre lay, along with a piece of the cross.
The demon swore he would not stir from that place. As John approached the church doors he prayed, and they opened by themselves, and the hanging lamps and the candles came alight by the tomb of the Lord. John venerated and kissed the tomb and the piece of the cross, as well as the church icons, weeping tears as he did so. Having finished, he left the church, and the doors closed by themselves behind him. He found the demon horse standing where he had been left, mounted him, and soon he was back in his own cell in Novgorod.
The demon complained how much John had made him suffer by commanding him to carry the Archbishop to Jerusalem and back in one night, a command the demon was forced to carry out. “See that you don’t tell anyone what happened to me,” he warned Archbishop John. “If you do, I will make you suffer,” and the demon threatened that if the tale were revealed, he would spread slander that the archbishop was involved in illicit sexual activities.
John made the sign of the cross, and the demon disappeared.
Now some time after that, John was having spiritual conversation with hegumens and priests, and happened to mention — as though it had happened to someone else — that he knew a man who had managed to get to Jerusalem and back in one night, and that while there he had worshipped at the tomb of the Lord.
That was all it took to arouse the demon’s revenge. The next day, the most salacious rumors about the archbishop started to spread through the city. People began seeing a prostitute coming out of Archbishop John’s cell. And when officials visited him for a blessing, they saw articles of womens’ clothing lying about his room. They were all quite shocked. No one realized that the prostitute leaving the cell was the demon in disguise, or that the articles of women’s clothing were his doing as well — all to punish John for revealing the secret of the night ride to Jerusalem.
When the people arrived at John’s cell to confront him about all this, they were just in time to see a young woman scandalously run out of his door. They chased after her, but somehow were not able to catch up with her, and she got away. That again was the demon in disguise.
John, hearing the uproar, came out of his cell to ask what was happening. By that time the people were so upset about everything that had been seen that they decided they did not want Archbishop John in their city any longer. They grabbed him, took him down to the bridge across the Volkhov River, and there they put him on a raft, which they then released to send John floating down the Volkhov and away from their city.
John, however, prayed on the raft that the people might be forgiven for falsely accusing him of evil, and when he did so, instead of floating down the river, the raft began instead to float upriver, against the current. It floated all the way to the St. George Monastery (Юрьев монастырь/Iur’ev Monastuir‘) — over three miles from the city — where it continued to float in place, as though suspended on the water.
The people seeing the raft floating upriver instead of down were amazed, and realized they had falsely accused a holy man. And the demon, on seeing the miracle, recognized that he had failed, and began to weep in defeat.
The townspeople, meanwhile, hurried to the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom, asking the priests there to follow the raft and to beg Archbishop John to come back to them. Carrying crosses, they came in a procession, and with many tears they implored the saint on the raft, and finally the raft gently came to shore at the St. George Monastery, and Archbishop John stepped off it. He forgave all the people, and together they went to the St. George Monastery, where a Holy Fool somehow knew a great saint was coming, and told the head of the monastery to prepare for his arrival. All the bells of the monastery were set ringing in welcome, and when everyone arrived, a prayer service was held, after which Archbishop John returned to his position in the city of Novgorod the Great. There he warned the people to beware of falsely accusing others, and then said no more about it. But the Prince and elders of the city had a stone cross erected as a memorial and warning to the citizens to beware of hastily persecuting people based on rumors.
There is a tradition that on the night he was taken to Jerusalem by the demon, Archbishop John not only prayed there, but also took care to measure the Holy Sepulchre, which is said to account for why there is a chapel in the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Novgorod that has the same measurements.
So now you know the tale of the demon horse that took Archbishop John from Novgorod to Jerusalem and back all in one night, and can interpret the elements of this peculiar but interesting icon.
Fragments of old paintings depicting the story of John — including ПОВЕСТЬ О ПУТЕШЕСТВИИ ИОАННА НОВГОРОДСКОГО НА БЕСЕ — Povest’ o Puteshestvii Ioanna Novgorodskogo na Bese — “The Tale of the Journey of John of Novgorod on the Demon” — are still to be found on interior walls of the Novgorod Kremlin.
Do not confuse this John of Novgorod — also called Ilya of Novgorod — with the earlier Ioann/John of Novgorod who was bishop of Novgorod and Pskov from 1388 to 1415.