Now and then the student of icons will encounter examples with substantial amounts of text on the painted surface, which can be quite intimidating. Here is an icon which does not have an obvious title inscription, but is clearly centered around the large central figure:
We can tell from his garments that he is a bishop of some kind, but we do not yet know who he is. And then we are faced with the four substantial portions of written text.
When one encounters large segments of text on an icon that are not scroll inscriptions or “signature” inscriptions, the text most commonly falls into one of these categories: it may be a biblical text; it may be a liturgical text; as a sub-category of the latter, it may be an akathist or some other kind of hymn or prayer. Another major category of text relates the story of the icon. We have seen examples of this in the frequent Marian icons called “Unexpected Joy.” The text may also relate incidents from the traditional life of a saint. The problem for the student who is no expert on Church Slavic or Greek is in determining which of these it is most likely to be.
When faced with the challenge of such large portions of text, a good place to begin is to use common sense. In the case of this icon, the first thing we want to know is who the large saint shown in the center is. So the next step is to look at the text for anything resembling a saint’s name — because given his halo, he is obviously a saint.
Let’s start with the segment of text at upper left:
If we look quickly through it, we will soon discover that in the middle of the first line is the name Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. And when we reach the last line, we find at its beginning the same name — Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. So our logical hypothesis would be that the text is telling us something about a fellow named Niphont.
If we look at the lower left segment of text, we can expect — if we are right — to find the name repeated again somewhere:
Quickly scanning though the text, we find again near the end of the second line, a grammatical form of the name Niphont — in this case Нифонту/Niphontu; that tells us our hypothesis about the main saint being named Niphont is even more likely to be correct.
And if we move over to the beginning of the text segment next to it, we see this:
The second line begins with the words Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta — which we should recognize — even if our knowledge of Church Slavic is very basic — as “Venerable Nifont/Niphont”; and that makes us even more certain that our hypothesis identifying the main saint as Niphont is correct.
The next thing to do is to consider the context of the texts. If we look at the whole icon again, we can see that at both sides of the main saint are smaller secondary scenes. Given that the main figure on the icon is a saint, we would be justified in supposing that these secondary scenes depict events from the traditional life of that saint.
The scene at upper left depicts a saint kneeling before an icon of a haloed mother and child — which we may reasonably identify as a Marian icon — in a church:
The scene at lower left depicts the saint looking at a figure whom we can easily identify as Jesus by his physical appearance and the bars of the cross in his halo, standing in a mandorla of light. And we can see words coming from the mouth of Jesus, so he is obviously speaking to the saint:
At lower left in the icon we see a larger scene filled with saints of various kinds, along with angels:
We see in the midst of them a saint identified by the inscription in his halo as Nifont/Niphont (hey, our guess was right!) kneeling before a mandorla in which Jesus appears again, and to the left of Nifont is another mandorla in which stands a female figure we can reasonably assume to be Mary.
So now we have three scenes, which it would be logical at this point to conclude are scenes from the life of St. Nifont/Niphont.
Given that, it is also reasonable to conclude that the segments of text we find are likely telling us about events from the life of St. Nifont.
To explore that, let’s return to the first scene at upper left — the one with the man kneeling before the Marian icon:
And finally, there is that last scene, with saints and angels, Jesus and Mary, and Nifont kneeling in the midst of them.
Knowing all that, we have several clues to identifying the saint and the scenes. We already have determined his name is Nifont/Niphont, so the next step is to look through the lives of saints named Nifont to see which one has events that match those in the scenes. And we also know that this Niphont ended up as some kind of bishop, because we can tell that from his garments in the main image of him on the icon.
Well, to save you a lot of bother (and sometimes the identification of icons can require a lot of bother and many hours), there is a saint whose name is Niphont who was a bishop, and his traditional life describes events that match those in the scenes on this icon. His name is:
Преподобный Нифонт, Епископ Кипрский
Prepodobnuiy Nifont, Episkop Kiprskiy
“Venerable Niphont, Bishop [of] Cyprus”
And lo and behold, in that name we find the same Prepodobnuiy Nifont (“Venerable Niphont) that we found in a grammatical form in the text as Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta; and we also see he has the secondary title of Episkop/Bishop. And that certainly fits with what we first determined from the garments of the main, central figure on the icon. This Niphont is also sometimes called Niphont of Constantia, a city on the island of Cyprus. He is listed as a Fourth-century saint who lived in the time of Constantine I.
Now on to how the scenes on the icon fit with events in the traditional life of Niphont:
Once Niphont went to church, and there he prayed before an icon of Mary in a very humble and contrite manner. When he looked at the icon, it returned his glance with a kind and gentle look. He went away feeling comforted. And on another occasion, he was on his way to the same church when he saw a man doing something sinful, and he criticized the man in his mind. Then, when he entered the church and was again before the icon of Mary, he saw her looking at him in a disapproving manner and turning away from him because of his judgmental attitude toward another human. So of course he repented, and as these stories go, Mary in the icon again turned toward him with a kind and gentle gaze.
Well, that takes care of the first scene from the life of Niphont.
But what about an appearance of Jesus to Niphont? Well, according to his hagiography, Niphont did have encounters with Jesus, who not only appeared to Niphont as alive in his icon — a repeat of the “living” icon of Mary — (notice the icon of Jesus in the background in the second scene at left) but also gave Niphon a long and extensive vision of the happenings to come in the Last Judgment. And in that vision Niphont is kissed by Jesus, who promises to favor those believers who call on the name of Niphont. He also makes a promise to come to Niphont at the bishop’s time of death and receive Niphont’s soul in his hands.
Well, if we look at the large text segment below that scene on the icon we find — if we know a bit of Church Slavic — that it refers to promises made by Jesus “to his beloved угодник/ugodnik blessed Niphont. An ugodnik in religious usage is one who endeavors to please God — a saintly, pious person. And it is also said in this text segment that when Niphont dies, Jesus will come “with ranks of angels” and receive the soul of Niphont in his own hands, and will give him rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (you will recall the icon type called the “Bosom of Abraham). So we can see that this generally corresponds with the second scene. And at the end of this segment, we see something else that corresponds with the icon scene:
“And the Lord blessed him, and said, Миръ ти рабе мой Нифонте. And he departed for Heaven.” Those words I have put in bold type — Mir ti rabe moy Niphonte — meaning “Peace be unto you my servant Niphon” — are exactly the words coming from the mouth of Jesus in the painted scene.
Now for the more elaborate, saint-filled scene at right. Let’s look at it again:
Well, as we have seen, in the traditional story Jesus promised Niphont to be present at his death with ranks of angels. And the tale of Niphont adds that St. Athanasios/Athanasius was also present. We see him robed and crowned as a bishop at lower right. Also in the crowd were apostles, martyrs, Mary, as well as other kinds of saints. So that accounts for the figures we see in the scene above. Perhaps you also notice that Jesus is holding what appears to be an infant clothed in white in his right hand. That is identified by the abbreviation Д Н (D N) as the “Soul [душа/dusha] of Niphont.”
So there you have it. We know who the saint is, and we know what the scenes from his life represent.
We should also know a bit about the traditional vita (“life”) of Niphont, keeping in mind that such hagiographic tales are commonly heavily fictionalized and not reliable as history. They served as admonitory and entertaining tales for believers.
The tale of Niphont is no exception. Scholars commonly date the vita of Niphont as late as the eighth to eleventh centuries, with the preference generally for the latter.
He was said to have been from the city of Plagion in Paphlagonia, a region on the Black Sea. At age eight he was sent to Constantinople to be educated. Initially all went well, but as he neared and entered his teens, his behavior began to change. He proceeded to lead a lively and colorful life, going to entertainments, singing in theatres, enjoying an over-abundance of food and drink. Niphont was also given to ανδρομανια — andromania — which is a fancy term for saying he was crazy about other males and intimate relations with them — so a kind of homosexual.
Now Eastern Orthodoxy traditionally has not looked kindly on homosexuality, and of course in early times when Church doctrine was formed, there was no real understanding of it as a natural variation in human behavior. So then it was seen as something to repress and deny, which can and did sometimes lead to all kinds of peculiar psychological results, and repression is precisely what Niphont — feeling guilty — did. He turned to beating and slapping himself to try to weaken temptation, bruising and harming his body in the process.
He is said to have once met a friend, who looked at him long in an odd way. When Niphont asked him why, the friend replied that Niphont’s face was black, like that of an Ethiopian. This supposedly was interpreted by Niphont as revealing his own sinful condition.
Niphont blamed his temptations on devils, and began to do his best to live an ascetic life. During his life of struggles with his temptation, he had visions of devils and angels, and as we have seen, of Mary and of Jesus. Finally — when he had grown old — he was made Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus — but he died not long after.
Now rather appropriately for an icon of an ascetic, we find some interesting figures used as border saints.
At upper left is “Holy Andrey, Fool for Christ’s Sake”:
At lower left is “Holy Vasiliy/Basil, Holy Fool of Moscow”:
At upper right is “Holy Feodor/Theodore, Fool for Christ’s Sake” (of Novgorod).
And finally, at lower right we see the monastic saint “Venerable Ephrim Sirin/Ephrem the Syrian.”
All of these saints — the three “Holy Fools” and Ephrem of Syria — were all noted for ascetic lives.