THE “SILUAM” ICON

There is an interesting Russian Marian icon type that is generally named Силуамския/Siluamskiya — “Of Siluam” — in Church Slavic, and Siluamskaya in Russian.  The title may also be found as Siluanskaya (“of Siluan/Silouan”).

It is said to have originated in a celebration (The Feast to the All-Merciful Saviour and the Most Holy Mother of God) established by the Byzantine Emperor Manual I Komnenos in 1158, to celebrate his victory over the Saracens.  The celebration  was set on August 1st.  The same date was fixed in Russia to celebrate the victory of Andrey Bogoliubskiy over the Volga Tatars.  That is why in listings of Marian icons, the Siluam/Siluan type is found on August 1st (new style August 14th).

However, no one knows why the icon was called “of Siluan,” or “of Siluam,” nor is it known what became of it.  And in any case, the icon depicted in the standard old Russian book of Marian icons by Poselyanin — whether accurately or not — is a very different image than the icons commonly known under that name, in that the child Jesus holds an orb in his hand, which he does not in the better-known and more standard depictions of the type.

Now we can tell from this that there is confusion in the history of this icon, and we are likely dealing with quite different images that go under the same or similar names.  To get a better idea of the extent of this confusion, let’s look at the type that is now generally known as the Siluam icon of Mary:

We can see immediately that there are a couple of things to note in this image.  First and most obvious is the unusual head covering.  Second, and related to that, is Mary’s long and loose hair.

Now we know it is generally the custom in Eastern Orthodox iconography to depict Mary with her hair hidden by the maphorion that covers her head and shoulders.  And in instances when we have seen Mary with long hair, it has tended to be an indication that the image was borrowed from Western European or Roman Catholic religious art — though the result came to be adopted as an Eastern Orthodox icon.

That is the case also with the Siluam icon type.  Let’s look at another image of it:

The painter has added a smaller Marian image on the upper right of the panel, but our focus is on the main image.

Now it happens that the Siluam image as shown in the two icons above first appeared in Russia quite late — around 1710.  Interestingly enough, we can determine where it came from — and it was not from Greece or Russia.  It was from a Flemish engraver named Hieronymus/Jeroen Wierix ((1553–1619), of Antwerp.

You will recall that in the 1600s, Russian iconography began to be influenced by engravings brought from Western Europe, and that influence gradually appears in many icons.  Here is the first of two engravings by Wierix.  Notice how the icon above has kept the distinctive cut of the neckline:

The Latin inscription at the base reads, “You are all beautiful, my friend, come, you will be crowned”, followed by “You are all beautiful, my beloved”.

Here is the second, which omits the angels:

(Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam)

Here the Latin inscription reads, “Beautiful as the moon, pure as the sun, terrible as an army arrayed in battle.”  The inscriptions in both engravings use lines taken from the Song of Solomon.

Now obviously the Russian painters of the various icons based upon the Wierix engraving did not quite understand the head covering Mary wears in it.  The first icon on this page has it looking rather like a hat.  The second icon includes the little fold on the right side of the head covering, but omits the falling cloth at the left side — again making it look like a hat.

Neither icon shown above includes angels, but this 18th century example of the Siluam icon does have two angels, though used and positioned differently, carrying the cross, spear and sponge of the Passion:

(State Museum of the History of Religion)

The Russian painter and engraver Grigoriy Pavlovich Tepchegorskiy (Григорий Павлович Тепчегорский), who worked at the end of the 17-beginning of the 18th century, used the work of  Wierix when he compiled his cycle of engravings of icons of Mary in 1713-1714.

Finally, here is a colorful example of the Siluam type that evolves the head covering of Mary even farther from its origins in the Wierix engraving:

As I have said previously, there never was a “pure” Eastern Orthodox iconography free of outside influences.  The same can be said of Christianity in general.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.