THREE NORTHERN “GODS”

In the last posting, we looked at a “mystery” icon depicting a saint that we were able to identify as the northern monastery founder Aleksandr Oshevensky of Kargopol. Icons of him are likely to have been painted in that part of Russia, because people often favored their “local” saints.

Here is another icon that includes Aleksandr. It is painted in the heavy, “primitive-looking” style found in many northern Russian icons — that is often so appealing:

(Photo: Severicon.ru)

Here is the saint at left:

His title inscription jumps from the first two words down to the words in the recessed “ark” (kovcheg) of the icon. It reads:

СВЯТЫЙ ПРОРОКЪ
БОЖИЙ
ИЛИЯ

SVYATUIY PROROK” BOZHIY ILIYA
“HOLY PROPHET OF GOD ELIJAH”

He holds a scroll reading:

Ревнуя поревновах по Господе Бозе Вседержителе
Revnuya porevnovakh po Gospode Boze Vsederzhitele

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.”

(1 Kings 19:10)

In the center is, as the title inscription reads:

СВЯТЫЙ АРХАНГЕЛ МИХАИЛ
SVYATUIY ARKHANGEL MIKHAIL
“HOLY ARCHANGEL MICHAEL.”

Michael holds a disk on which is this abbreviation;

IИС

In full it would be:

IИСУС
IISUS

You will recall that is the form of the name “Jesus” that was used in the State Orthodox Church after the great split that severed the Russian Orthodox Church into two main factions in the middle of the 1600s — that of the conservative Old Believers, who kept the rites and practices of old Russia, and the State Orthodox Church, which accepted the revisions to rite and ritual of Patriarch Nikon. So though this icon looks to be painted in a traditional manner, it is nonetheless obvious that it is not an icon intended for Old Believers, who kept the old ISUS spelling of the name “Jesus.” It also tells us this icon was painted after the time of the schism, in fact near the end of the 17th century.

And finally we come to the northern Russian saint we met in the previous posting. His title inscription identifies him thus:

СВЯТЫЙ ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ АЛЕКСАНДР
ѠШЕВЕНСКИЙ

SVYATUIY PREPODOBNUIY ALEKSANDR
OSHEVENSKIY

“HOLY VENERABLE ALEXANDER OSHEVENSKIY”

Did you notice that instead of using the KS in his name, this writer has used the old symbol that is pronounced like the English X? They both have exactly the same sound phonetically.

Alexander holds a scroll with the text

НЕ СКОРБИТЕ УБО БРАТИЕ МОЯ НО ПО СЕМЪ РАЗУМЕЙТЕ….
NE SKORBITE UBO BRATIYA MOYA NO PO SEM” RAZUMEITE ….

“Do not grieve therefore, my brothers, but by this know ….”

One final thing to note: the painter has given the Archangel Michael a golden halo, while the other two are silver.

These saints were part of the new pantheon — the new “gods” that replaced the old pre-Christian deities in the minds of the people. They served the same purposes, but under different names and forms.

IDENTIFYING A “MYSTERY” ICON

Some icons are a mystery, unidentified because the title inscription is damaged or missing. In very common icon types such as those of Mary or of St. Nicholas, that is no problem — because we know who they are by their features and garments. But if an icon depicts an uncommon saint or scene, then it gives the student a puzzle to try to solve. And that is part of the fun of icons — solving such little mysteries.

Here is an example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We know some things about it: for example, it is in the standard form used for depicting icons of founders of monasteries in Russia. And the saint standing at right is obviously a monk, because he wears a monk’s garments.

And if we look at the monastery, we can see it is walled, and the buildings are made of wooden logs.

Further, we can tell from the style of painting that it appears to be a very old icon — apparently 17th century.

What we cannot tell at first look is who the saint is. We see a title inscription, but unfortunately it is damaged by time, and a key part of it — the part with the saint’s name — has been worn away.

Here is the inscription:

So we have a mystery: an unidentified icon of a monastic saint. What do we do?

As usual, we work with what we have and what we know from past studies.

First, we know that name titles of monastic saints in Russian icons commonly begin with the title “Venerable,” which is the very loose English translation of the Slavic word Prepodobnuiy (ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ). So we might expect the name inscription of this mystery saint to begin with Prepodobnuiy. And if we look at the first word in the worn inscription, we can clearly see the Cyrillic letters ПР (PR), as well as what looks like a Б (B). So we can assume the word written at the beginning is Prepodobnuiy, likely abbreviated.

Now we find a serious problem, though. Right after Prepodobnuiy should come the name of the saint — like “Sergiy” or “Nil” or “Kiril” or something like that. But unfortunately that key part of the inscription has been almost completely worn away. But at least we still have the rest of the inscription, so we must look carefully at that to see if it can be a clue as to what the saint’s name was.

We have to look closely and patiently, and if we do, we can see it looks like this:

ѠШЕВЕНСКИЙ И (?) КАРГОП(?)

СКИЙ До ОРЕЦЪ

Now that might seem not much to go on, but actually it is a lot.

First we have the clear word ѠШЕBЕНСКИЙ — OSHEVENSKIY. Now from your experience in reading this site (and this is why I keep encouraging you to read everything in the archives on my blog), you will already know that words ending in -SKIY usually indicate that a person is of or from a certain place. It is the “locator” part of a name inscription. And in the remainder of the inscription, we see what looks like

КАРГОП

СКИЙ



KARGOP
SKIY

It happens there is an area and a town in Russia called KARGOPOL. So someone from that region would legitimately have the locator title KARGOPOLSKIY. So we can suppose that is what the emended word would read.

Putting together what we know at this point, we know we have a monastic saint who is:

PREPODOBNUIY _______OSHEVENSKIY KARGO-POLSKIY ____DO __ORETS

Well, the thing to do at this point is to look in the lists of Russian saints and see if there is anyone who has the locator words OSHEVENSKIY and KARGOPOLSKIY in his title. And if we do that, we quickly find this fellow:

ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ АЛЕКСАНДР ОШЕВЕНСКИЙ КАРГОПОЛСКИЙ
PREPODOBNUIY ALEKSANDR OSHEVENSKIY KARGOPOLSKIY

“VENERABLE ALEXANDER OSHEVENSKY, of KARGOPOL”

But what about the worn ending of the inscription:

DO __ORETS ?

Well, a title “descriptor” that we find for certain saints in Russian Orthodoxy is CHUDOTVORETS — “WONDERWORKER.” Was Venerable Alexander Oshevenskiy of Kargopol considered a “wonderworker”?

We might not find that title in many descriptions of him. But keep in mind that as students of icons, we must look at many, many examples of various icons. And if we look for icons specifically of Venerable Alexander Oshevensky, we might find one like this:

And fortunately, this icon gives him a name inscription:

Now right above the saint’s halo, we see the word ЧЮДОТВОРЕЦ — which is just a variant spelling of CHUDOTVORETS — “WONDERWORKER.”

So we see Alexander Oshevensky of Kargopol WAS at times called a “wonderworker.”

When we put all of that together, we know that we have now correctly identified the saint on the “mystery” icon as “VENERABLE ALEKSANDR OSHEVENSKY of KARGOPOL, WONDERWORKER” (Преподобный Александр Ошевенский Каргополский Чюдотворец) even though his name — ALEKSANDR/ALEXANDER — was worn away by time.

And just as further confirmation, we can compare the images of the monastery depicted in the two icons. If we do that, we see that aside from stylistic differences and small details, the general appearance and layout of the buildings is the same.

Yes, this process can take time and some digging and guessing, but it often results in being able to correctly identify a previously unidentified icon. And don’t expect to be able to do this after a week or two of studying icons. It takes experience and it takes using your head. But it can often be done in cases where it may at first appear to be impossible to identify a saint in an icon with a damaged inscription.

Once we have done all this, we might expand our knowledge of the icon by looking up the biography of Aleksandr Oshevenskiy. In doing so, we would find that he died about 1479, and that he was the founder and abbot of the Oshevenskiy/Oshevensk Dormition (Uspenskiy) Monastery on the left bank of the Onega River in the Kargopol region of Russia.

The original log monastery seen in the two icons disappeared over the years, but recently monks have been attempting to revive a monastery there.