THE “MORTAL MAN” ICON TYPE

Today we will look at a moralizing “didactic” — that is, “teaching” icon type.   It is a kind of equivalent of the western European “Memento Mori” depictions — “Remembrance of Death” images, in this case showing a wealthy man dressed in rich clothing, along with the symbol of death.

In Russia, this type commonly is called Бренность Жизни/Brennost’ Zhizni or Бренная Жизнь/Brennaya Zhizn’ — “The Frailty of Life” or “Frail/Mortal Life,” or alternatively by the first words of the inscription it often bears:  Смертный человек/Smertnuiy chelovek — “Mortal Man.”

(Ikona i blagochestie, Tarasov, Progress-Traditsiya Press)

The key to understanding this icon type is found in the inscription held by the central figure:

Line by line, it is:

Смертный человек бойся того кто над тобою.
Smertnuiy chelovek boisya togo kto nad toboiu.
“Mortal man, fear him who is above you.”

Не уйдёшь от того, кто за тобою.
Ne uidyosh’ ot togo kto za toboiu.
“You will not escape from him who is behind you”

Не надейся на то что пред тобою.
Ne nedisya na to cho pred toboiu.
“Do not rely on that which is before you.

Не минуешь того, что под тобою.
Ne minuesh’ togo, chto pod toboiu.
“Do not overlook that which is beneath you.”

The line arrangement may differ from version to version, and sometimes it ends with:

Жизнь наша яко свеча весело светит и яко дым скоро исчезает.
Zhizn’ nasha yako svecha veselo svetit i yako duim skoro ischezaet.
“Our life is like a candle that cheerfully shines, and like smoke it soon vanishes.”

We see lines of the text illustrated in the icon.

At center is the figure symbolizing “mortal man”:

“Mortal man, fear him who is above you.”

“Him who is above you” is Jesus, shown in the clouds of heaven.

“You will not escape from him who is behind you”


“Him who is behind you” is Death (Смерть/Smert’), shown as a skeleton wielding a scythe, about to cut down the person before him.

“Do not rely on that which is before you.”

“That which is before you” is earthly power and wealth, symbolized by a crown and scepter, and by a pile and full box of сребро и злато/srebro i zlato — “silver and gold.”

“That which is beneath you” is Гробъ/Grob — the coffin — the grave, the tomb.

This icon then, is warning the believer to fear God, because one will not escape death, and cannot rely on earthly power and wealth for protection, and no one evades the grave.

Here is another rendering of the type.  In this icon, the text is placed at the base rather than on a scroll in the hand of the man, and “him who is above” is depicted as Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in the heavens above, instead of Jesus.

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Icons of this type are generally from the 18th-19th centuries, likely based on western European engravings.