A HIDDEN SIGNIFICANCE

Here is an icon with St. Nicholas — Nicholas of Myra — at its center:

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

It is identified by its title inscription.  The inscription begins at left:

ѠБРАЗ СВЯТАГО
OBRAZ SVYATAGO
“IMAGE OF-THE-HOLY …

And it finishes at right:

НИКОЛЫ ЧУДОТВОРЦА
NIKOLUI CHUDOTVORTSA
…”NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER

Putting them together, we get:

ѠБРАЗ СВЯТАГО НИКОЛЫ ЧУДОТВОРЦА
OBRAZ SVYATAGO NIKOLUI CHUDOTVORTSA
“IMAGE OF HOLY NICHOLAS THE WONDERWORKER.”

Nicholas holds a sword in one hand and a church in the other.  When he is depicted in this way, he is called “Nicholas of Mozhaisk.”  The title of the type originated in the belief that Nicholas was the miraculous defender of the city of Mozhaisk from the invading Tartars.  The church in his hand is sometimes shown as a miniature city.

To the left of Nicholas, we see Jesus in the clouds, and to the right, Mary.

Let’s take a closer look at the face of Nicholas:

Nicholas is flanked by saints on both sides.  Here are those at left:

From top:

“Holy Martyr Tatiana”

“Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene”

“Holy Alexei, Metropolitan”

Here are those at right:

“Holy Great Martyr Anastasia”

“Holy Alexandra, Empress”

“Holy Olga, Princess”

The painter certainly had a definite way of painting faces — so much so that these saints all look very similar in facial features.

The icon is heavily gold leafed, and that enabled the painter to incise baroque ornamentation in the corners of the image and floral ornaments on the garments, such as we see on the robe of Nicholas:

Well, that covers most everything on the icon.  But if we left it at that, we would miss the most significant thing about the image.  Let’s look again at the names of the saints depicted:

Nicholas
Alexandra
Olga
Tatiana
Maria
Anastasia
Alexei

Now if you know anything at all about Russian history, those should sound very familiar — because they are the names of the last Russian Tsar and his family.  And that is the most significant thing about this icon; it represents the saints for whom the members of the ill-fated last Russian Imperial Family were named.

The icon was painted in what was then the Province of Chernigov, and is now the town of Shelomy in Bryansk Oblast, Russia.

If we look at this old map, there are three red dots from the top to the “Tschernigow” (Chernigov) name in large letters.  The third red dot down from the top is the Old Believer settlement of Starodub.  Go straight West from Starodub, and the first village you come to is “Schelomy” — Shelomy.  And if we continue West from Shelomy and cross the red border, we come to Wjetka — “Vetka.”  These were all Old Believer settlements.

An inscription on the reverse says the icon was painted by an Old Believer for presentation on the “Angel Day” — the name-saint day — of Tsar Nicholas, in 1906.

Now there is something odd about that, and it is that an Old Believer is not likely to have had any interest in painting anything for or having to do with the Tsar of Russia, whom Old Believers in general considered a heretic.  But it is very like that this particular Old Believer was one of the Eдиноверцы/Edinovertsui — that is, one of the Uniates.  The Uniates were a religious category that began in the latter part of the 18th century — an attempt by the State Russian Orthodox Church to make some accommodation that would allow Old Believers to have a certain unity with the State Church while still keeping their practice of using the old rituals.  Many Old Believers would have nothing to do with the arrangement, but some communities did make the transition.  The project seems to have really begun as an attempt to bring the Old Believers back into the State Church, but even though some accepted the Edinovertsui/Uniate designation, the attempt to make them fully “State Church” was a failure.  They preferred to keep their own ways.

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