THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH: THE NOVGOROD WISDOM “BANQUET” ICON

In earlier postings we looked at icons of Holy Wisdom depicted as a red-faced angel sitting upon a throne often supported by seven pillars.  Today we will look at a 16th century Novgorod icon that again depicts Wisdom, but in a different manner.

Customarily, when looking at icons here, we look at the whole image first, then look more closely at various details.  Today, however, we shall begin with details, which will enable you to understand the icon as a whole when seeing it.

Here is the first detail:

We see a circle with a robed figure in the center, holding a chalice in hand.  Beside the head is a faint inscription reading:

Божия Сила Божия Премудрость
Bozhiya Sila Boshiya Premudrost’
“Power of God — Wisdom of God”

In the red surrounding circle are the winged wheels that are the class of angel called “Thrones” — commonly found in icons of the Trinity.  Also faintly visible in the red circle are representations of Seraphim and the symbols of the Four Evangelists — Man, Eagle, Lion, Ox:

In the darker, cloudy circle enclosing that, we see other angels, as well as a eucharistic container and an altar table.

Not only does the robed central figure have the “Thrones” underfoot — usually a sign of divinity — but also has an eight-pointed halo, another common sign of divinity,  a symbol of the days of Creation with the Eight Day — the Day of Eternity.  Below the seat on which Wisdom sits, we see seven slender supporting pillars.  That takes us back to the fundamental text on which Wisdom icons are based.  Proverbs 9:1:

Wisdom has builded her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars.

The illustration of the text continues:

“She hath killed her beasts…”


Those words are indicating by the two figures slaughtering two cattle beneath them.

She has mingled her wine; she has also furnished her table.

Here we see the wine and the table:

She has sent forth her maidens: she cries upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wants understanding, she says to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.

So in the detail above, we see all the people coming to receive the wine of wisdom.  And “crying from the highest places of the city” is a crowned figure in the tower, holding a scroll:

He is King Solomon, the traditional author of the book of Proverbs.  He is considered a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy.  He holds a scroll that begins:

Premudrost’ sozda sebye kh[ra]m i outverdi…
“Wisdom built herself a temple and set up…”

So of course he is telling us  — as in Proverbs 9:1 — that Wisdom built herself a temple and set it up on seven pillars.

You may recall that older Orthodox translations say  — as here — khram/”temple,” which is also used in Slavic to mean “church.” Later translations use дом (dom), meaning “house.”

At right, above those coming for wine, we see a red circle of seraphim in which Mary is seated with Christ Immanuel, who is considered to be Wisdom:


Below her at right is a turbaned figure  — Kozma/Cosmas of Maium — holding a scroll that has a variant version of  an excerpt by him from the Canon of Holy Thursday:

Всепричинная подательница жизни безмерная мудрость Божия создала себе храм из чистой, не знавшей мужа Матери: ибо в храм телесный облекшийся славно прославился Христос Бог наш»

“The Cause of All, Giver of Life, the immeasurable Wisdom of God, created for himself a temple from the pure, husbandless Mother: for clothed in the temple of the body, gloriously has been glorified Christ our God.”

That illustrates Mary with Christ Immanuel above him — that the child Wisdom, through Mary, was clothed in the temple of a human body.

So that is the main part of the icon, which symbolizes not only the pre-existence but also the incarnation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom — and along with that it represents the Eucharistic sacrifice.

At the top of the icon, we see a seven-domed church:


The scenes beneath the smaller domes represent the Seven Ecumenical Councils, arranged chronologically from left to right:

At left is the Council of Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian controversy and the nature of Jesus.  Beside it is the Council of Constantinople in 381:

Next come the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, and beside it the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

Following that are the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553, under Emperor Justinian, and beside that the Sixth, the Council of Constantinople in 681.


Last — on the far right — is the Seventh Ecumenical Council under Empress Irene and her son Constantine, in 787.

At the very top of the icon are circles with angels bearing scrolls, but the inscriptions are too small to read in the photo. Often these are interpreted as the gifts of the Spirit.

That should go far in enabling you to understand the whole icon:

 

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