I have discussed icons of the “Flight to Egypt” previously. Today we will examine a variant of that type in this 14th century fresco from Vysokie Dechani in Serbia:
Perhaps you noticed all those little white guys falling from the tops of the walls. They are explained by the origin of this variant.
The reason for their addition is that this type illustrates — as the Slavic inscription on it tells us by giving the first words — Ikos 6 from the Akathist hymn to Mary:
«Возсиявый во Египте просвещение истины, отгнал еси лжи тьму: идоли бо его, Спасе, не терпяще Твоея крепости, падоша»
“By shining in Egypt the light of truth, you did dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Savior, unable to endure your strength.”
So this variant depicts the idols of Egypt — those little white fellows in the fresco — falling at the arrival of Jesus, which is a tale found in apocryphal writings narrating the childhood of Jesus. And these tales ultimately may be traced back to a rather fanciful interpretation of Isaiah 19:1:
Here is another parable of Jesus, recalled on Tuesday of Holy Week (“Great Tuesday”) in Orthodox Churches. It is here represented in a 14th century fresco from Pech, Serbia:
As the Slavic title inscription tells us, it is the “Parable of Christ about the Ten Virgins.”
Here is another Serbian example from the same century, this time from Vysokie Dechani:
Perhaps you noticed that the writer of the inscription in that example has not written out the word “ten,” but instead has just used the Slavic letter number for it:
Here is the parable, from Matthew 25:
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened to ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
2And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom comes; go you out to meet him.
7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
8 And the foolish said to the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go you rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
12 But he answered and said, Truly I say to you, I know you not.
13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man comes.
Now the conventional interpretation of this is that some Christians keep prepared for the coming of the bridegroom — Jesus — and some foolishly do not. There is some controversy (largely outside Eastern Orthodoxy) over whether this parable depicts ten female companions of an unmentioned bride, or whether the virgins in the story are all intended brides of the bridegroom — which would of course be polygamy, though the number of brides does not seem to be the point of the parable — or allegory, as some prefer.
Our purpose today is not to unravel what the original significance of this parable might have been, but rather to identify it as a somewhat variable iconographic type.
Here is a more sophisticated example:
If we look more closely, we can read the inscription by the central figure of Jesus:
As you know IC abbreviates ΙΗCΟΥΣ/Iesous — “Jesus,” and XC abbreviates ΧΡΙCΤΟC/Khristos — “Christ.”
The Ὁ ΝΥΜΦΙΟC/Ho Nymphios inscription identifies Jesus as “The Bridegroom.”
Now you will recall that there is a separate “Passion” icon in which Jesus is identified as “The Bridegroom,” but that is a different type — though its title is related. To refresh your mind about that other “Bridegroom” type, read this previous posting:
Just below the Ho Nymphios inscription, there is another barely visible inscription in the photo. It is Jesus talking to the rather sad-looking women on the right side (at his left hand). He is saying:
[οὐκ] οἶδα ὑμᾶς/[ouk] oida hymas
The words are taken from Matthew 25:12, literally “not I-know you” — in normal English, “I do not know you.”
A troparion from Great Tuesday says in Church Slavic:
Се, Жених грядет в полунощи,
и блажен раб, егоже обрящет бдяща:
недостоин же паки, егоже обрящет унывающа.
Блюди убо, душе моя, не сном отяготися,
да не смерти предана будеши и Царствия вне затворишися,
но воспряни зовущи: Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже,
Богородицею помилуй нас.
Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!
That of course relates also to Mark 13:34-37:
But of that day and that hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take you heed, watch and pray: for you know not when the time is. For the Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. Watch you therefore: for you know not when the master of the house comes, at evening, or at midnight, or at the cock crowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.
11 And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the evening was come, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
12And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if perhaps he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
14 And Jesus said to it, No man eat fruit of you hereafter forever. And his disciples heard it.
After this, they go into Jerusalem, and there Jesus “cleanses the Temple” by turning over the tables of the money changers.
19And when evening was come, he went out of the city.
20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
21 And Peter, calling to remembrance, says to him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursed is withered away.
22 And Jesus answering says to them, Have faith in God.
23For truly I say to you, That whoever shall say to this mountain, Be you removed, and be you cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he says shall happen; he shall have whatever he says.
24 Therefore I say to you, Whatever things you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them.
As uncomfortable Christians have long noted, this story makes Jesus look like a peevish child having a temper tantrum. No one can expect to find figs on a tree when it is not yet time for it to bear, so cursing it so no one may ever eat figs from it is like a child kicking and damaging a toy that does not behave as he wishes it to.
The Markan Gospel of course adds a little moral to the story about getting whatever one prays for if one truly believes (a result centuries of earnestly believing and praying Christians have thoroughly disproved) but the unsound moral hardly seems to fit the oddity of the event. It is no wonder then, that for centuries believers have sought some allegorical meaning to the tale, whether it be that the Jews were not “bearing fruit” of righteousness, or that the days of Temple worship had ended, or even the very interesting theory (for which there is some support) that the present Gospel of Mark was intended for the consumption of beginners in the faith, who understood things literally, but those more advanced were taught the secret meaning behind these stories of Jesus.
Every year the tale of the cursing of the fig tree is read in Orthodox Churches on the Monday of Holy Week, but it is read in the version found in Matthew, which differs in interesting ways. You may recall that the consensus of scholarship is that the Matthaean Gospel is based upon (today we would say plagiarizes) that called “of Mark.”
First, Matthew removes the embarrassment of Jesus cursing the non-bearing fig at a time when it was not the season for it to bear. It is done by omitting this Markan line:
“…for the time of figs was not yet.“
Next, the writer of “Matthew” makes the withering of the fig more dramatic in his revised version. Instead of having the disciples notice that the fig has withered when they pass by it on the day after the cursing, “Matthew” makes the fig wither as soon as it is cursed, and the disciples watch it happen. In Matthew 21, we find:
19 And when he [Jesus] saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon but leaves, and said to it, Let no fruit grow on you henceforward forever. And immediately the fig tree withered away.
20And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!
The point of all this for us, however, is that there are icons of the cursing of the fig. Here is a Russian example:
And of course there is the 14th century fresco in the Serbian Patriarchate at Pech:
Here is yet another fresco:
The cursing of the fig tree is not at all a common icon subject, which is as one might expect, given the troubling nature of the story.
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.
Today we will look at a 13th century fresco from the cupola of the Boyana Church just outside of Sophia, in Bulgaria.
Of course we are already quite familiar with these “Lord Almighty” (Greek: Pantokrator) images, which are extremely common. This one, however, has a rather different Slavic inscription on the book.
Ordinarily, the book held by Jesus is the Gospels, and usually one of the standard Gospel texts is written on it. That is not what we find here.
Let’s look more closely:
When we put spaces between the words, we find it reads:
Видите, видите, яко азъ есмь Богъ и нѣсть иного развѣ мене Vidite, vidite, yako az esm’ Bog i nest’ inogo razvye mene “See, See, that I am God, and there is no other besides me.”
It is a variation on the words found in Deuteronomy 32:39 in the Old Testament:
Видите, видите, яко Аз есмь, и несть Бог разве Мене: Аз убию и жити сотворю. Vidite, vidite, yako Az esm’, i nest’ Bog razve mene: Az ubiiu i zhiti sotvoriu.
“See, see, that I am, and there is no God besides me: I kill and create life.”
Similarly, in Isaiah 45:21 we read:
Аз Бог, и несть иного разве Мене Az Bog, i nest’ inogo razve Mene
“I am God, and there is no other besides me.”