ANIMALS IN ICONS — AN 18TH CENTURY DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

When we find saints in icons who are somewhat generic in appearance and not easily identifiable, the reason is often that they are the “name” saints of members of the family that ordered the icon. Those saints are frequently among the less known and less popular figures in the Russian Orthodox calendar.  Sometimes, however, there are generic-appearing saints who are on an icon not because they are “name” saints of members of the family, but because they are among the “special needs” saints — those saints who took the place of the old pre-Christian gods by specializing in certain services to Orthodox believers — for example, sending rain or dealing with a toothache.

Today’s icon features two of those generic-appearing but “special needs” saints.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

As painted here, the two could be twin brothers.  Not only are their faces, hair and beards remarkably similar, they are even dressed identically in the same garments of the same colors, and both hold identical Gospel books.

We can see from their garments — particularly the long stole called an omofor/omomphorion each wears about the neck, as well as from the book each has in hand, that they are bishops of some kind.  But what are two bishops doing at opposite sides of an icon with lots of animals and a well between them?

It is, of course, easy to identify the figure of Jesus in the clouds above — something that is a very common addition to icons of saints.  But let’s look more closely at the saints themselves to see if we can identify them.

Certainly we cannot do so by appearance alone in this case.  There are lots of bishops with long beards in Russian iconography.  That means we shall have to read the title inscriptions that identify each.

First, the fellow on the left:


His Church Slavic title reads:
СВЯТЫЙ ВЛАСИЙ ЕПИСКОПЪ СЕВАСТИЙский
SVYATUIY VLASIY EPISCOP SEVASTIYSKIY
“HOLY VLASIY BISHOP [of] SEBASTE”

Note how the writer ran out of space, so wrote the last part of the last word in smaller letters below the end of the first part.

Now the fellow on the right:

His title reads:

СВЯТЫЙ МЕДОСТЪ ПАТРИАРХЪ …
SVYATUIY MEDOST PATRIARKH …
“HOLY MEDOST PATRIARCH …

And then in small letters written below due to lack of space is the rest of his title:
иерусалимский
IERUSALIMSKIY
“…OF JERUSALEM.”

So all together, he is:

СВЯТЫЙ МЕДОСТЪ ПАТРИАРХЪ ИЕРУСАЛИМСКИЙ
SVYATUIY MEDOST PATRIARKH IERUSALIMSKIY
“HOLY MEDOST PATRIARCH OF JERUSALEM.”

Now that we have identified both saints, let’s look at the scene between them:

Below some stylized hills among which are a few trees, we see a group of goats, and below them some cattle, and below them is a well.  But what are those two creatures below the well and beside the stream?

First, we see a horned serpent/dragon:

Notice that Vlasiy is stepping on the dragon’s tail.

Just to the right of the dragon is a dog, but we can tell from his fiery-looking tongue that he is not an ordinary dog:

What does all this mean?  Well, it goes back to traditions associated with each saint.

In the old Slavic world, Veles/Volos was the god of cattle.  Because the name was so similar to that of the old 4th century bishop of Sebaste Vlasiy/Blasios/Blaise — who was said to have been kind to animals — Vlasiy took over the duties of Veles/Volos as the people became Christianized.  So in Russia, Vlasiy became a saint one invoked for protection of livestock.

Have you recalled yet that we have seen these two saints before, in the discussion of a previous icon?

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/medost-of-jerusalem/

If so, you may recall the reason for the dragon and the dog.  Here it is again:

A demonic serpent is said to have killed animals in Jerusalem by poisoning the water with his venom. Medost/Modest got rid of him.  It is also said that Modest once adjured the devil, who had appeared in the shape of a dog.

You may also remember that Medost is associated with the healing of oxen:

It is said that a poor widowed woman was very distressed because her five pairs of oxen were seriously ill. Distraught, she prayed in tears to the “unmercenary” saints Comas And Damian to heal her oxen. However, Cosmas appeared to her in a dream telling her essentially that the healing of oxen was not in his job description:

“O woman, we are not empowered by God to give healing to cattle. This grace is given to Modest, the great hierarch of Jerusalem. He — if you approach him — will heal your oxen.”

Now not being able to find him directly, she began to pray earnestly to Medost/Modest. He then appeared to her in a dream, saying:

“O woman, why are you so weeping? I am Modest, whom you seek, and hearing your prayer I appeared to make healthy your oxen.”

Sometimes Vlasiy or Medost/Modest/Modestus appear alone in icons, sometimes — as here — together, and at other times they are combined with other saints associated with animals, such as Flor and Lavr the patrons of horses, or even with other saints such as Nikolai/Nicholas.

Now oddly enough, the “Holy Governing Synod” that in 1721 took over the duties previously held by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia prohibited the depiction of cattle and horses and other animals and such creatures in icons in 1722.  They held that because one prayed before icons,  such non-human creatures had no place in them.  But as we have seen, such declarations could be ignored.  They would not have made any difference to the painter of this icon in any case, and if we look again at the image of Modest, we can see why:

Look at the position of the fingers in his blessing hand.  They are in the form used by the Old Believers, who did not accept the declarations of the State Church in Russia, but kept up the old ways.  They often used the position of the fingers on the blessing hand in their icons to verify that their icons were of the “pure” Old Belief, and not icons of the State Church, which they believed had fallen into heresy.  If you remember that important point, you will be able to distinguish many Old Believer icons from those of State Church painters.

As I have said before, polytheism never really ended in old Russia.  The people just transferred the duties of the old gods to the Christian deity and the saints we find in icons.

 

 

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