In a previous discussion of Theophany icons — also called “Baptism of the Lord” icons — I mentioned two figures often found in such images. Both are seen in the water at the feet of Jesus. One represents the Jordan River, the other generally the Sea.
Let’s look at the mosaic of the Baptism found in the Arian chapel at Ravenna in Italy, dated to the end of the 5th-beginning of the 6th century. In it we see Jesus in the water at center with the Holy Spirit as dove above him, John the Forerunner (Baptist) at right (though usually in later icons he is on the left side of the water), and on the left there is an old man with a reedy stalk in his hand, and a jug behind him from which water pours out to form the Jordan River. This old man is a survival of the ancient pre-Christian river gods — in this case the god of the Jordan.
If we look at the Jordan deity a bit closer, we can see he has “crab claws” on his head:
Now if we look at a mosaic rescued from the now drowned ancient city of Zeugma, we see the god Okeanos (Oceanus /”Ocean”) and his wife Tethys, the goddess of fresh waters; and on the head of Okeanos is the same “crab claws” motif:
The reedy plant that the Jordan god holds in the Ravenna mosaic is also easily found among images of river deities from Zeugma.
As for the jug the Jordan god holds, it is traced back to Roman art such as this example from the reign of Hadrian, found in the Vatican Museums. It is thought to represent the river Arno.
In this this Russian icon of the Theophany/Baptism from 1408, we see things have changed:
In it we find two figures in the water:
The fellow at left has the jug above his shoulder, and at the right — atop two rather dolphin-like fish — is another figure, generally understood to be female Neither has an identifying inscription here, which is a good recipe for iconographic confusion. And in fact, if we look at the same figures in an icon from the end of the 16th century (from Solvuichegodsk) —
— we find a change in identification:
We see again a male figure at left, but here an inscription identifies him as МОРЕ/MORE — “The Sea”; and the female figure at right is identified as IОРДАН/IORDAN — “The Jordan [River].” So the Jordan has changed genders.
To further complicate matters, in some icons the figure at right is represented as male rather than female, as we shall soon find.
If we look at this Greek icon from a private collection —
— we also see the male figure with his jug at left, and the female “Sea” figure at right. It is likely that “Sea” (θάλασσα/Thalassa) is depicted as female because in Greek Thalassa is a feminine noun.
At left is the male figure with the jug in his right hand, and at right is the other male figure. This iconography is thought to represent the two traditional tributaries of the Jordan River — the Ior (“Jor-“) and the Dan. Even in the time of St. Jerome (400), this tradition of the Ior and Dan tributaries was known. It appears, however, that most traditions concerning the origin of the name of the Jordan are mistaken, because there were a number of rivers in the ancient world called Iordanos/”Jordan.”
As I mentioned in a previous posting (), the presence of the Jordan and the Sea in Baptism icons is explained by these words from the E. Orthodox liturgy for the celebration of the Theophany, in which the priest quotes lines excerpted from Psalm 114:
“When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. The sea saw it and fled; Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs. What ailed you, O you sea, that you fled? You Jordan, that you were driven back? You mountains, that you skipped like rams; and you little hills, like lambs? Tremble, you earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; which turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”
Of course “The sea saw it and fled” refers to the parting of the waters of the Red Sea in the tale of the Israelites leaving Egypt in the book of Exodus; “The Jordan fled” refers to the similar tale in the book of Joshua that the Jordan River parted to let the Israelites cross it. (It is very common in E. Orthodoxy for Old Testament excerpts to be re-applied to New Testament situations and persons). Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313 – 386), as well as others of that period, claimed that when Jesus stepped into the Jordan to be baptized, the waters of the river stopped flowing and turned back.
Now as I mentioned earlier, icons of the Baptism of Jesus are commonly known in Greek as Theophaneia/”Theophany”icons, and in Russian as Bogoyavlenie icons, both of which mean “God-Appearance.” Sometimes, however, they are simply titled something like “The Baptism” or “The Baptism of the Lord.” “Theophany” is the more theological title, and I cannot write that now without thinking with a smile of the comment of Dr. Dennis R. MacDonald that “theology” is a very long four-letter word.