In a previous posting, I briefly discussed the unusual Marian icon type called Ognevidnaya (Огневидная). The title does not translate easily into English. It means that it “looks like fire,” or is “seen as fire,” but that hardly sounds euphonic, which is why we generally find loose but better-sounding translations such as “Fiery-faced.”
Very little is known about the origins of this icon type. Tradition relates that the earliest example was a miracle-working icon that was in Russia in 895, but the attribution of such a date — considerably earlier than the conversion of Kievan Rus to Christianity — is rather hard to take seriously.
What we do know is that icons of this type began to appear in Russian iconography in the 18th century, and it is also near the turn of that century when mentions of the Ognevidnaya begin to appear in the lists of saints and icons. It is mentioned in a Church calendar printed in 1815 at the Dormition-Pochayiv Lavra in Pochayiv (Pochaev), Ukraine. It says simply:
10 февраля. Святого мученика Харлампия. И явление иконы Пресвятыя Богородицы, нарицаемыя Огневидная, в лето 6353
“10th of February: The Holy Martyr Kharlampiy. And the appearance of the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God called Ognevidnaya, in the year 6353 [853 modern calendar]
So for all practical purposes, we may regard the type as dating from the 18th century onward. It was particularly favored by the Old Believers, to whom fire was a purifying element. In this type Mary is shown as illuminated with divine fire.
It was considered inappropriate to give this icon as a marriage gift, because folk belief was that because Mary is shown without her child in this icon type, there was a danger that the married couple would be childless.
Some speculate that the Ognevidnaya may have its origins in the Byzantine icon called Hagiosoritissa, like this 14th century example:
That, however, would not account for the red face of the standard Ognevidnaya type.
I mention the Ognevidnaya again because a reader asked me about another and related icon. Here is an example — in fact the only example of this variant I have seen to date:
This type is called the Ogneobraznaya Kolesnitsa Slova (Огнеобразная колесница Слова), meaning roughly “Fire-imaged Chariot of the Word.” It depicts Mary waist-length instead of breast-length, and her raised hands are visible. She is surrounded by flames and fiery wheels.
The example shown is an Old Believer icon from the Urals, and it apparently dates to the 19th century. The title written on the icon connects it to the Akathist, which calls Mary “fiery throne of the Almighty,” and further:
Огневидная колесница Слова,
радуйся, Владычице, одушевленный рай,
посреди себя имеющий древо жизни – Господа….
“Fire-like chariot of the Word,
Rejoice, Mistress, living Paradise,
Having in your midst the Tree of Life — of the Lord….”
Now that would seem to solve the mystery of this variant, were it not for the peculiar fiery, geometric wheels so prominent on the icon. And that takes us into a quite different field and another mystery — the possible relation of this icon to survivals of ancient Slavic religion in peasant folklore.
Wheels similar to those in the icon are a frequent European folk motif, and in Russia they actually have a name — the “Thunder Sign” (Громовой знак/Gromovoy znak) or the “Thunder Wheel (Громовое колесо/Gromovoe koleso). In Slavic folk belief it was used as a decorative motif, and when carved on houses it was believed to avert lightning.
Now it is very difficult to tell at this late date just where factual information about the old Slavic religion and modern fictionalizing of it separate. Generally the Thunder Wheel is interpreted as the symbol of the old god Perun — somewhat the Slavic equivalent of the nordic Thor, god of thunder. Perun was the caster of lightning bolts, and lightning — in a culture in which most dwellings were made of wood and grain crops were subject to destruction by fire — was a very dangerous phenomenon.
Further, Perun supposedly had a sister — Ognyena — who — at least in later “Christian” Slavic folklore — had an equivalent given the name “Огненная Мария/Ognennaya Mariya or Мария Огненная/Mariya Ognennaya — “Burning Mary.”
Now to complicate matters further, there were three holidays in July called the “Hot days,” related to agriculture. At this time of year, everything — including the fields — was dry and thus very vulnerable to destruction by lightning. In Bulgaria, for example, people would stop baking bread during these days. They were just a part of a period — July 15 through July 20th — associated with dryness and the threat of fire.
The third of these days — July 17th — was often called Marina Ognena — “Burning Marina,” — because it fell on the day of commemoration of St. Marina of Antioch. However, this name may be slurred to “Burning Mary” (Огненная Мария/Ognennaya Mariya), and as we know, saints in Eastern Orthodoxy sometimes became mixed with one another in popular belief.
Given these associations of mid July with lightning, thunder, and fire, we should not be surprised to recall that July 20th is the day of commemoration of the Prophet Elijah — Ilya in Slavic — of whom II Kings 2:11 says:
И бысть идущема има, идяста и глаголаста: и се, колесница огненная и кони огненнии, и разделиша между обема.
“And it happened, as they still went on and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.“
And that chariot of fire — kolesnitsa ognennaya — of course reminds us of Mary as Fiery Chariot of the Word. And the prophet Ilya — “The Thunderer” in Slavic folk belief — took on the attributes of the old Slavic god Perun. His chariot wheels caused thunder as it rolled across the sky in the hot days of summer, and lightning was the form his arrows took, as well as the fire from the nostrils of his horses. And oddly enough, in folklore “Burning Mary” or “Burning Marina” was Ilya’s sister.
So we have lots of connections here, but the problem lies in distinguishing which are valid and which are just coincidence or fantasy. Does the icon of Mary as “Fire-imaged Chariot of the Word” connect here with the “Burning Mary” of Slavic folk belief, and perhaps even further, back to the sister of the Slavic thunder god Perun? Given the rarity of this icon type and the paucity of reliable information on the old Slavic religion and its survival in various aspects of Slavic peasant lore in the Christian period, it is very difficult to say.
It is possible that the icon of Mary as Fire-imaged Chariot of the Word simply used the “Thunder Wheel” symbols because they were a folk motif associated with lightning and fire, and not because of any connection of Mary in the icon with the “Burning Mary” of Slavic folklore. One must also consider the possible relation of the wheels in the icon to the “Thrones” — Slavic престолы/prestolui and Greek θρόνοι/thronoi — the fiery wheels with eyes — a class of angel — that were believed to be the chariot of God’s throne. To sort all of this out, one would have to do a great deal of research, and first in line would be determining whether there are actually other icons of this unusual Ognevidnaya “Fiery Chariot of the Word” variant, or whether the example shown is just a rare oddity.
If anyone knows of another icon of this variant type, please let me know.