THE “MISPLACED” RESURRECTION IN “MONTH” ICONS

In Russia, in the period from the 1530s to 1540s, Metropolitan Makariy/Macarius of Moscow supervised the compilation of a series of twelve books known as the Великие Четьи-Минеи (Velikiye Chet’yi-Minei), The Great Menaion Reader, or Great Monthly Reader.  It contains lives of saints for each day of every month (thus the twelve volumes), as well as other ecclesiastical writings.  It is said that Makariy even consulted the exiled Maxim the Greek and included some of his writings in it, but still refused to pardon him for his supposed “heresy.” But for our purposes here, its significance is that all of these newly-collected saints’ lives contributed to the rise in Russia in the latter half of the 1500s of the type of icon called a  минея/mineya — an icon depicting the saints and major festivals for any given month of the year.  So there is the term икона-минея/ikona mineya — a “month icon.”   It is also called месячные святцы/mesyachnuie svatsui — “monthly saints.”

A complete set comprises twelve icons.  In English, you will often see such an icon listed under the term menaion, from the Greek μηναῖον/menaion, meaning loosely “monthly.”  Sometimes more than one month was included on the same panel.  When an icon depicts the saints for the whole year on a single panel, it is called a минея годовая/mineya godovaya — meaning “year mineya” — that is, a year icon.

There are so many saints commemorated in each month that it would be difficult to fit them all onto a panel, so usually “month” icons show only major saints — and not always exactly the same saints from set to set.  Also, because painting such a set of twelve icons with the saints for each day as well as church festivals was a great amount of work, not all such icons were carefully  painted, and many were done not only in a hurried fashion but also often in a limited color palette instead of using the colors for each saint’s garments as listed in the painters’ manuals.

“Month” icons were primarily used in churches, where the icon for the present month could be put out on an icon stand (analoy) for all to see.

Most “month” icons depicted only saints and other festal commemorations, leaving out the many so-called “wonderworking” icons of Mary that also have their days of commemoration.  Some, however, included them.  One may find “year” icons with an entire border of “wonderworking” icons of Mary.

Here is an example of a rather well-painted “month” icon for December:

mineyadecember1

Now if we compare it to another December icon, we see something rather odd:

It is in the middle of the third row down:

There it is:  an icon of the Resurrection, painted in a simple manner.  It was not in the first example, so why is it in the second?

Now as you know, the Resurrection of Jesus is not celebrated in December.  It is a moveable feast that comes either in April or early in May, depending on the year.

I never paid much attention to this oddity, which is found not only in this icon but in many “month” icons, until a reader in Italy pointed it out to me.  Some “month” icons depict the Resurrection not only in April or May, but in other months as widely separated as January and August.  It does not mean, however, that the commemoration of the Resurrection is actually in that particularly month, but rather it was just something icon painters at times would add to a month icon, though really it had no place in the calendar for that month.

Sometimes the Resurrection is depicted in the middle of the top row in a “month” icon, as in this one for February, which interestingly shows it in the “Western” form of Jesus above his empty tomb:

mineyafebruaryVoskresenie

At other times, a Resurrection image is placed right in the center of the icon, as in this example for the month of May:

mayiconjacksonsauction
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

 

Here is an example in which the Resurrection is placed at the top, above the rows of saints for the month of December:

Here it is:

So, don’t be surprised if you find a depiction of the Resurrection in a “month” icon where it does not calendrically belong. It is just another of those peculiar things about Russian icons.

MARY VARIES THE NORM

Yesterday we looked at a Deisis icon, and today we shall look at another.  Why?  Because in this one the inscription on the scroll held by Mary is not the usual inscription.

First, let’s look at the 19th century icon:

Deisis19vekjacksonsauction
Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a clsoer view of Jesus enthroned at center in an eight-pointed Slava — “glory” — surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, with the odd, winged-ring shaped angels known as “Thrones” beneath his feet.   In the outer corners are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

deisusJacksons19vdet1

The inscription on the open Gospels is the most common text in icons of Jesus, taken from Matthew 11:28:

DeisusJacksons19vekdet2

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I [will give you rest.].”

And did you notice the position of the fingers in his blessing hand?  Yes, they form the blessing sign used by the Old Believers.

At right stands John the Forerunner (the Baptist), with a scroll reading “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world.” 

Now all this is very ordinary.  So why are we looking at a Deisis icon again?  It is not just that repetition is the mother of learning (which it is), but rather because this icon differs from most in the inscription on the scroll held by Mary at left.

Now you will recall that the usual scroll inscription of Mary in Deisis icons begins, “Ruler most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ.”  But this one is different:

DeisisJacksons19vekdet4

As you can see, it has abbreviations, which are very common in icon inscriptions. In full the text reads:

ВЛАДИКО ГОСПОДИ ИСУСЕ ХРИСТЕ СЫНЕ БОЖИЙ РОДИВЫИСЯ ОТ БЕЗНАЧАЛНАГО ОТЦА …
VLADIKO GOSPODI ISUSE KHRISTE SUINE BOZHIY RODIVUIISYA OT BEZNACHALNAGO OTSA …
“RULER LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, BORN OF THE BEGINNINGLESS FATHER …

Vladiko means a ruler, a sovereign, a master. It is often rendered simply as “Lord,” but we don’t want to confuse it with the standard word for Lord common in icons, Gospod’.

Now as long-time readers can perhaps tell, after many years of repeating the same things over and over, I am leaving some untranslated here, such as the very easy-to-translate title inscriptions at the top of the icon. If you have read the archives, you should be able to translate them for yourself with no difficulty. And if you cannot, well — just start reading the archives at the beginning, and when you get up to date on them, you will most likely be the icon expert in your region. Unless of course someone else in your region is reading this site, in which case you will have to share the title. And then you can go to lunch together and talk about icons for hours.

A FINE DEISIS

We have seen this icon type in previous postings, but here is a particularly pleasant example from the late 19th century.  You will recognize it (I hope!) as a Deisis icon.  Deisis icons depict Jesus enthroned in the center like a king in his court, and around him are those approaching to intercede on behalf of  — well, those of humanity who think they are there to intercede for them.

If we look closely, we can see the telltale signs that this brightly gilded example is an Old Believer icon.  How do you tell?  Well, long-time readers here know that one obvious way is to look at the position of the fingers in the right blessing hand.

DeisusOBJacksonsauction
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Check the hand of Jesus:

Yes, there it is: the index finger upright, the second finger slightly bent across it, both together signifying the dual nature of Jesus; and the last two fingers and thumb touch.

This very ancient position of the blessing hand was changed with the “reforms” of Patriarch Nikon in the middle of the 17th century, when the State Church adopted the “three-fingered” blessing position. In modern times however, it is generally recognized that the “two-fingered” position of the Old Believers was authorized very early, and was not at all heretical historically.

In Theodoret (393–457) we find this example:

This is how to bless someone with your hand and make the sign of the cross over them.  HOld three fingers, as equals, together, to represent the Trinity:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  These are not three gods, but one God in Trinity.  The names are separate, but the divinity one.  The Father was never incarnate; the Son incarnate, but not created; the HOly Spirit neither incarnate nor created, but issued from the Godhead; three in a single divinity.  Divinity is one force and has one honor.  They receive obeisance from all creation, both angels and humans.  Thus the decree for these three fingers.

You should hold the other two fingers lightly bent, not copletely straignt.  This is because these represent the dual nature of Christ, divine and human.  God in his divinity, and human in his incarnation, yet perfect in both.  The upper finger represents divinity, and the lower humanity; this way salvation goes form the higher finger to the lower.  So is the bending of the fingers interpreted, for the worship of Heaven comes down for our salvation.  This is how you must cross yourselves and give a blessing, as the Holy Fathers have commanded.

So the upright index finger symbolizes Jesus as God in Heaven, and the bent second finger his descent to earth in incarnation in a human form and nature.

Further, when the sign of the cross is made with this hand, the traditional Orthodox manner is up, down, right, left, (head, lower chest, right shoulder, left shoulder) in contrast to the Roman Catholic up-down-left-right.

Athenasius of Alexandria (269-373) explained why:

The use of the right hand signifies his infinite power and the fact that he sits at the right hand of the Father. That the sign begins with a downward movement from above signifies his descent to us from Heaven. Again, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away our enemies and declares that by his invincible power the Lord overcame the Devil, who is on the left side, dark and lacking strength.

So there is the old folk belief again that there is something good about the right side, and something bad about the left side — much to the dismay of left-handed people over the centuries. Even the creepy word “sinister” comes from the Latin meaning “on the left side.”

If we look at the hands of St. Nicholas and John the Forerunner on the right side of the icon, we can see they too use the “two-fingered” sign:

So does Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) in the clouds at the top of the icon:

We even see it in the hand of the kneeling St. Savvatiy at the right base of the icon:

There would have been no doubt in the mind of the person buying this icon that it was true to the “Old Belief.”

Other elements that tell us this is an Old Believer icon are the stylized nature of the painting, as well as the “snail” forms used to make the clouds beneath Lord Sabaoth.

Now let’s go through the icon and discuss further details.  Here is the left side:

At the top are John the Theologian (the Evangelist) with his Gospel book, and beside him St. Peter.
Below is Mary, and below her the Kneeling St. Zosima of Solovetsk.

The angel — like the angel opposite him — carries a disk bearing the abbreviated word СВЯТЬ/SVYAT’, meaning “Holy.”

Here is the right side:

deisusOBdextra

We see the Apostle Paul at upper left, and St. Nicholas beside him.  Below is another “Angel of the Lord,” and beside him John the Forerunner.  Kneeling at the base is Venerable Savvatiy of Solovetsk.

The inscriptions on the scrolls begin with the usual words:

That of Mary begins:  “Ruler most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ ….”
That of Jesus:  “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden ….”
That of John:  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand ….”

At the base kneel the well-known monastic saints Zosima and Savvatiy, considered founders of the Solovetskiy Monastery on the White Sea in far northwestern Russia.

DeisusOBzossavvat

The two border saints representing those for whom the icon was made — probably a husband and wife — are:

Left:  Holy Vasiliy/Basil:

deisusvasiliy

Right:  Holy Martyr Agafiya/Agatha.  This is St. Agatha of Sicily, supposedly martyred in the 3rd century:

deisusagafiya

The gold leaf on the icon is heavily ornamented with stamped, punched, and incised decoration typical of the late 19th to early 20th century.

CROSSED CONNECTIONS

In the preceding posting, I talked about icons of the event celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally on May 7th, or May 20th in the “New Style” calendar: the “Appearance in the Sky of the Cross of the Lord at Jerusalem.”  A reader has drawn my attention to an interesting oddity found in some icons representing the saints and other commemorations for the month of May.

Now on many icons for May, the commemoration of the cross is omitted entirely.  On others the event may be present but depicted very simply due to lack of space — for example, it may show only two or three persons, one of whom is Bishop Kirill/Cyrill, along with the hill of Golgotha.

However, on some icons, instead of depicting the appearance of the cross at Jerusalem, we see instead a depiction of an event or events in the life of the earlier Emperor Constantine, whose supposed vision of the cross is considered the predecessor of, and related to, the later appearance of the cross at Jerusalem.

In this example, that commemoration is represented by “the dream of Constantine,” in which Jesus appeared to him and confirmed that the vision he had in the sky (interpreted as the cross) would lead him to victory.  That image is the first at left in the second row from the top:

mesatsmai1

Here is that segment of the icon:

mesatsmai1detail

Constantine is depicted lying on his bed asleep (wearing his crown), with Jesus above him.  Two soldiers stand by.   It is interesting to note that in the adjoining segment, on the far right we see St. Christopher “Dog-head” — the way Christopher used to be shown in many icons as a man with the head of a dog.

Some icons for May 7th, however, go even farther in relating the commemoration of the appearance of the cross at Jerusalem to Constantine, like this one.  Look at the first image at left in the second row:

It is a little difficult to make it out in the small photo, but it shows scenes from the life of Constantine, including his dream, as well as the sign of the cross in the sky and his consequent victory at the Milvian Bridge that established him as Emperor of all Rome, and eventually as the first “Christian” Roman emperor:

The connecting element here, which is apparently all some iconographers needed, was the motif of the appearance of a cross in the sky.  In Eastern Orthodox thinking, that connection began when Constantine saw the cross in the sky with the words “By this conquer,” which was confirmed when Jesus came to him in a dream; and because he supposedly put the sign on the shields of his soldiers, he was victorious at the battle of the Milvian Bridge.  This, in Eastern Orthodox thought, established Orthodoxy as the approved religion of God.  And by connection, the later event of the appearance of the cross in the sky at Jerusalem supposedly again confirmed Orthodoxy as divinely approved, against the non-Trinitarian Arian beliefs of the son of Constantine, Emperor Constantius.   Of course all this is religious interpretation of events rather than actual history.

And if you look on the far right of the little segment above, you will again see St. Christopher “Dog-head,” whose day of commemoration iin the Orthodox calendar is May 9th by the Old Style calendar.

As I mentioned, this subject of the iconographic depiction of May 7th was raised by a reader’s question.  I always enjoy reader questions, because now and then I find that I too learn something new — and there is always something new to learn about icons, even when you have been at it as long as I have.

Now I hope all of you realize that in the time you spent reading this, you could have been learning a recipe for some kind of new delicious dish, or perhaps adding a few words of French or Italian to your vocabulary, or doing any number of other things of far more use than knowing such odd little details about icons.   But the fact that you have read this through to the end just demonstrates what severe iconoholics you have become.  And don’t even think of what that says about the person who has taken the time to write this.

CROSSES IN THE SKY

A reader asked about a very uncommon icon type.  It is usually referred to in words such as Воспоминание явления на небе Креста Господня в Иерусалиме/Vospominanie yavleniya na nebe Kresta Gospodnya v Ierusalime — “Commemoration of the appearance in heaven of the Cross of the Lord at Jerusalem.”

The supposed event on which it is based  is found now in the Church Calendar on May 20th, formerly May 7th, and descriptions of how to paint it are found in painters’ manuals — but they seem seldom followed. 

Here is an example from the 19th century, attributed to the Old Believers, though it does not look much like their usual style.

YavlenieKrestavIerus

The title inscription at the top says loosely, “Appearance in Heaven of the Sign of the Honorable and Lifegiving Cross at the city of Jerusalem.”

A recent State Church icon depicts the same event a bit more elaborately, with Bishop Kirll/Cyril at right, and anachronistically, Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena standing at left.  The best old painter’s manuals advise depicting a multitude of onlookers of various kinds, but this example is simplified.

signofcrossoverjerusalem

The tale on which such icons are based is found in Book 4, Chapter 5 of Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History:

At the time that Cyril administered the church of Jerusalem after Maximus, the sign of the cross appeared in the heavens. It shone brilliantly, not with divergent rays like a comet, but with the concentration of a great deal of light, apparently dense and yet transparent. Its length was about fifteen stadia [almost two miles] from Calvary to the Mount of Olives, and its breadth was in proportion to its length. So extraordinary a phenomenon excited universal terror. Men, women, and children left their houses, the market-place, or their respective employments, and ran to the church, where they sang hymns to Christ together, and voluntarily confessed their belief in God.  The report disturbed in no little measure our entire dominions, and this happened rapidly; for, as the custom was, there were travelers from every part of the world, so to speak, who were dwelling at Jerusalem for prayer, or to visit its places of interest, these were spectators of the sign, and divulged the facts to their friends at home. The emperor was made acquainted with the occurrence, partly by numerous reports concerning it which were then current, and partly by a letter from Cyril the bishop. It was said that this prodigy was a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy contained in the Holy Scriptures. It was the means of the conversion of many pagans and Jews to Christianity.

Now you will note that the description in Sozomen of a cross with the width in proportion to the height does not fit the cross in the Old Believer icon, nor does it fit the cross in most representations of this type.  The cross depicted in the Old Believer icon above is the “eight-pointed” cross favored by the Old Believers, and not a crux quadrata — a so-called “Greek cross” with arms of equal length, which seems to be what is described by Sozomen.  The State Church icon depicts the cross in the sky as a Latin cross (crux imissa), with the upright beam longer than the two arms.

The standard church description of the event says it happened in 351 on May 7th, at the third hour of morning.   It further describes the appearance of the cross in the sky at Jerusalem as a kind of heavenly refutation of the Arian beliefs of Constantius, Emperor Constantine’s son and successor. Supposedly as a result of the event, Patriarch Kirll/Cyril of Jerusalem (350-387) sent a report to Emperor Constantius urging him to abandon Arianism for the “Orthodox” belief.  Kirill regarded the cross in the sky as the fulfillment of the prediction of the “sign of the Son of Man in the heavens” mentioned in Matthew 24:30:

And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

The cross in the sky is said to have shimmered in the colors of the rainbow and to have caused many of those seeing it in fear and amazement to convert and be baptized.

Did such an event really happen?  All we have is the account.  So whether it was just a bit of anti-Arian propaganda or an interesting meteorological event is hard to say.  Certainly it is not unique.  In his Life of Constantine, Eusebius says the Emperor himself related how he had seen a “trophy of the cross” in the sky above the sun, along with the Greek words Touto Nika — “By this conquer.”  Supposedly his soldiers saw it as well, and it was confirmed in a dream in which Jesus appeared to him.  However some say the symbol used by the soldiers was not a cross, but rather two Greek letters superimposed to form the Chi-Rho — the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek.

Theodoret’s Church History III, 20, 7 records how supposedly in the year 362, when Jews attempted to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, for two nights a bright cross appeared in the sky. 

These appearances were generally understood to be, as the excerpt from Matthew indicates, a sign of the “Last Times.”  Such things, however, when they are not merely the result of religious propaganda, are generally meteorological phenomena.

The British mountaineer Edward Whymper, on his first ascent of the Matterhorn in Switzerland in 1865, reported seeing three crosses in the sky surrounded by a large arch.

whymperapparition

If you would like to see a really impressive recent cross in the sky, take a look at this video of the appearance of a “sun dog” cross witnessed by skiers in Sweden (apparently in 2017).  A sun dog is an optical phenomenon involving ice crystals in the atmosphere:

 

And here is another from Austria in 2014:

And of course if you explore the Internet, you will find more photos of crosses in the sky produced in various ways.

Here is a recent image of a “cross in the sky” event said to have happened in September of 1925:

crossinsky1925

The inscription at the top identifies it as the “Divine confirmation of the Calendar of the Holy Fathers.”

The image relates to another of those quibbles in Eastern Orthodoxy — in this case over the 1925 change in Greece from the old Julian Calendar (the traditional Eastern Orthodox Calendar) to the more accurate Gregorian Calendar. All Greek Orthodox were expected to shift their commemorations to fit the “new” calendar. However there was opposition from conservatives — the so-called “Old Calendarists,” who considered the calendar change heretical.

On the eve of the traditional date of the Exaltation of the Cross, many of those opposed to the calendar change gathered in suburban Athens at the Church of St. John the Theologian at the foot of Mount Hymettus, then outside Athens, but now part of the city. Most of the churches that had refused the change had been closed by the authorities, but this one happened to be left open. Supposedly more than 2,000 conservatives had gathered there, and police were sent ostensibly to “prevent disorder.”

It is said that at 11:30 p.m., a very bright horizontal “cross of light” in the form of a byzantine cross (some say with two crossbars, others with three), shining with such radiance that the stars paled. It lasted for half an hour until midnight, at which time the cross rose upward and faded out.

Not surprisingly this event — whatever it may have been — was likened by the Old Calendarists to the appearance of the cross at Jerusalem in the time of the Arian “heresy” of Constantius, because of what they saw as the new “heresy” of changing the Church Calendar. This opposition between “Old Style” Calendarists and “New Style” Calendarists continues in some quarters to this day, both in Greece and in Russia. Many Eastern Orthodox Church calendars now give the dates of commemorations in both “Old Style” and “New Style.”