You remember (don’t you?) the word mokraya — as in the popular name for a certain Russian icon type of Jesus — the Spas Mokraya Boroda/Brada — The “Wet-bearded Savior,” discussed in a previous posting here.
And perhaps you also remember from a previous posting Илья Мокрый/Il’ya Mokruiy — “Wet Elijah,” the aspect of the Prophet Elijah as a weather god to whom prayers were made for rain.
Today we will look at another “wet” icon — this time an icon of Nikola/Nikola as Никола Мокрый/Nikola Mokruiy — “Wet Nicholas.”
The distinctive element in this otherwise very common form of St. Nicholas is the child he holds with his left hand. That child comes from a story you already know from a past posting here about one of the miracles of Nicholas from tradition: it is his saving of the child in the Dniepr/Dnieper River.
Supposedly, the child was out in a boat with his parents on the Dniepr, not far from Kyiv. The parents were going from Kyiv to Vyshhorod, just north of Kyiv, to venerate the relics of Saints Borys/Boris and Hlib/Gleb. This supposedly happened sometime between 1087 and 1091. On the river trip, the mother fell asleep as she held the child, and when she did so, the child fell overboard and disappeared beneath the water. The waking mother was beside herself with anguish, and the distraught father prayed to St. Nicholas. The next morning the sacristan at the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv heard a child crying in the choir loft, and on searching, the child that had been lost and drowned in the Dnieper was found lying soaked with river water and crying beneath an icon of St. Nicholas. So because of the “soggy child” saved by Nicholas, this icon type was created, depicting him holding the child. And so it is known as “Wet Nicholas.”
The original icon of “Wet Nicholas” — considered to be “miracle-working” — was lost during the Mongol raids, but a copy was made. One could legitimately ask if the original icon was “miracle-working,” how it could be lost — but that is the way these things go, and it is often the case that to paraphrase the New Testament, “they saved others but cannot save themselves.” But of course these tales of miracle-working icons are largely fiction, created to enhance the prestige of certain icons.
Here is a modern painting of the traditional finding of the “soggy child” beneath an icon of St. Nicholas.
Here is a very unusual icon about which there seems to be no information:
Though the icon has a Church Slavic title inscription, it does little to clarify the origin of the imagery. The title is:
ОБРАЗ ИЗВАЛЕНЕ ОТ МУКЪ ИСУСА ХРИСТА OBRAZ IZBAVLENIE OT MUK” ISUSA KHRISTA “IMAGE OF THE DELIVERANCE FROM TORMENT JESUS CHRIST”
So the title implies that Jesus is the “Deliverance from Torment.”
The image apparently shows Jesus releasing a prisoner or prisoners from punishment, but that is an event that did not happen literally anywhere in the New Testament. One can only speculate what the origin might have been.
Did it come from the words of Luke 4:18?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are oppressed.“
And possibly a relationship to Psalm 68:6?
“God sets the solitary in families: he brings out those which are bound with chains.”
In any case, this is the only example of this type I have seen so far. If the image were large enough to read the text on the scroll held by Jesus, that might help to explain the image. But until further information appears, one can only store the image away in memory and wait. That is sometimes the case with very uncommon icons.
First, let us all hope for the fall of Putin and for the Russian soldiers sent to murder and destroy in Ukraine to be brought home. What horrific evil Putin has done, both for Russian soldiers and for Ukraine. It is hard to believe such barbarity still takes place in the 21st century. Let us hope for the continuing independence of Ukraine, and for the return of freedom of speech to Russia. Slava to those Russians with a conscience who speak out against Putin and his insane mass murdering of soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children.
Today’s image is another of the Serbian 14th century Dechani (Visoki Dečani Monastery) frescoes. It is likely puzzling to those who do not know their Bible well, but for those who do, it presents no problem.
Jesus, with his IC XC abbreviated title inscription is easy to recognize, and three disciples behind him. At right are those he is teaching.
But the key to understanding the image lies in the objects on the ground.
They are, from upper left:
A loaf of bread; a stone
A fish; a serpent
A scorpion; an egg
The inscription at top left of the image tells us what is represented here. It is taken from Luke 11:11, which in the Elizabeth Bible reads like this:
Котораго же вас отца воспросит сын хлеба, еда камень подаст ему Kotorago zhe vas otsa vosprosit suin khleba eda kamen’ podast emu
“Which of you that is a father, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone to eat?”
The image depicts, but does not include in the inscription, the following words extending through Luke 11:12:
Или рыбы еда в рыбы место змию подаст емуИли аще попросит яица еда подаст ему скорпию Ili ruibui eda v ruibui mesto zmiiu podast emu Ili ashche poprosit yaitsa eda podast emu skorpiiu
“Or a fish to eat, in place of a fish will give him a serpent? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion to eat?”
The Gospel generally called “of Matthew” gives a shorter version in 7:9-10:
“Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?”
There was a tradition of belief in the classical world that human saliva had certain properties that made it harmful to snakes and animals, but nonetheless it could be in certain circumstances used in healing humans.
In the first century c.e., a Jewish scholar and reputed miracle worker lived in Galilee. No, in this case it was not Jesus, but rather Hanina Ben Dosa. It is said of him in the Talmud:
A certain person once came before Rabbi Hanina and said to him, ‘I am sure that this man is firstborn’. Rabbi Hanina said to him, ‘How do you know?’ — The person replied to him: ‘Because when people came to his father, he used to say to them: “Go to my son Shikhath, who is firstborn and his saliva heals’. Might he not have been the firstborn of his mother only [but not of his father]? There is a tradition that the saliva of the firstborn of a father heals, but that of the firstborn of a mother does not heal.
And here is that other teacher and reputed miracle worker from Galilee in a late (1908) Russian icon:
The title inscription reads:
ИСЦЕЛЕНИЕ ГЛУХО-НЕМНАГО ISTSELENIE GLUKHO-NEMNAGO “THE HEALING OF THE DEAF-MUTE”
It is a pleasant icon, with the mild expression of Jesus influenced by the softness of Western European art. By tradition, the deaf-mute is often depicted, as in this example, as a youth. The flower he holds in this right hand is a pleasant touch. The icon was originally ordered by a school for deaf-mutes. The saints in the upper corners are too small to read their name inscriptions, but those with Jesus are John the Theologian, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle James.
At the bottom of the icon is a second inscription telling us the source of the event depicted:
OT MARKA GLAVA 7 STIKH 31 “FROM MARK, CHAPTER 7, VERSE 31
And this is what we find beginning there:
31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
32 And they bring to him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.
33 And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue;
34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and says to him, Ephphatha, that is, “Be opened.”
35 And right away his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
36 And he ordered them that they should tell no man: but the more he ordered them, so much the more a great deal they reported it;
37 And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He has done all things well: he makes both the deaf to hear, and the mute to speak.
As you can see, the numbers on the icon are written in Cyrillic number-letters.
In Suetonius, this is recorded about the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69-79 c.e.:
Vespasian, the new Emperor, having been raised unexpectedly from a low estate, wanted something which might clothe him with divine majesty and authority. This, likewise, was now added. A poor man who was blind, and another who was lame, came both together before him, when he was seated on the tribunal, imploring him to heal them, and saying that they were admonished in a dream by the god Serapis to seek his aid, who assured them that he would restore sight to the one by anointing his eyes with his spit, and give strength to the leg of the other, if he would but touch it with his heel. At first he could scarcely believe that the thing would in any way succeed, and therefore hesitated to venture on making the experiment. At length, however, by the advice of his friends, he made the attempt publicly, in the presence of the assembled multitudes, and it was crowned with success.
Similarly, we find in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus this account, also of Vespasian:
In the months during which Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the periodical return of the summer winds and settled weather at sea, many wonders occurred which seemed to point him out as the object of the favor of heaven and of the partiality of the Gods. One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his blindness, threw himself at the Emperor’s knees, and implored him with groans to heal his infirmity…He begged Vespasian that he would deign to moisten his cheeks and eyeballs with his spit … Vespasian, supposing that all things were possible to his good fortune, and that nothing was any longer past belief, with a joyful face, amid the intense expectation of the multitude of bystanders, accomplished what was required…the light of day again shone upon the blind. Persons actually present attest this, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.
Beginning at Mark 8:22 in the New Testament, we find this:
22 And he [Jesus] comes to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man to him, and besought him to touch him.
23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw anything.
24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
26And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.
The account in John 9 gives us another example of Jesus using “spit magic,” as discussed in a previous posting:
Jesus uses a rather odd healing method here. He mixes his own spit with earth, rubs the wet mud mixture onto the blind man’s eyes, then tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. The man does so, then returns, able now to see.
A rather typical example of the icon type for the Sunday of the Healing of the Blind Man — Κυριακή του τυφλού/Kyriake tou typhlou — is this one, from the 16th century and the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece:
The inscription is not difficult:
If we fill out the abbreviation and separate the words, it reads:
Ὁ ΧΡΙCΤΟC ΙΩΜΕΝΟC ΤΟΝ ΤΥΦΛΟΝ Ho Khristos Iomenos Ton Typhlon “Christ Heals the Blind [man]”
At left we see Jesus applying the wet mud to the blind man’s eyes:
Now just a sidelight regarding Mark 7:31:
31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he [Jesus]came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
That is close to the King James Version rendering, but it is not exactly what the Greek text of Mark says:
“And again leaving the region of Tyre, he came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis.”
Critics often use this as an example of the lack of accurate geographical knowledge of the anonymous writer of the gospel called “Of Mark.” Their point is that to go to the Sea of Galilee from Tyre via Sidon means that Jesus went about 25 miles north to Sidon and out of his way to get to a place that was some 39 miles south of Tyre, and to get to the Decapolis one had to actually go some distance south on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We can see how odd that is if we look at a map:
We can also see how odd it would be to go to the Sea of Galilee “through the midst of the region of Decapolis,” because one comes to the sea from the north before reaching the Decapolis.
The author of Matthew apparently tried to correct the oddity by saying simply in Chapter 15:
21 Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts [region] of Tyre and Sidon.
And he emends the return of Jesus southward like this, completely omitting any mention of the Decapolis:
29 And Jesus departed from thence, and came nigh to the sea of Galilee; and went up into a mountain, and sat down there.
Let’s start with Circe. As you may remember, she is the goddess and sorceress in chapter 10 of Homer’s Odyssey, who turns the men of Odysseus into swine:
“She brought them in and made them sit on chairs and seats, and made for them a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey with Pramnian wine; but in the food she mixed baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land. Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before. So they were penned there weeping, and before them Circe flung mast and acorns, and the fruit of the cornel tree, to eat, such things as wallowing swine are wont to feed upon.”
It is that “wand” I want to focus on. The Greek term for it is ράβδος῎rhabdos, and it has a range of meanings, from the basic “stick” to “rod,” “switch,” “wand” etc.
In chapter 16 of the Odyssey, the goddess Athena restores Odysseus to a more youthful appearance with her rhabdos:
“With this,Athena touched him with her golden wand. A well-washed cloak and a tunic she first of all cast about his breast, and she increased his stature and his youthful bloom. Once more he grew dark of color, and his cheeks filled out, and dark grew the beard about his chin.”
Now you may well be wondering why I am talking about the Odyssey and wands. It is because they show the very early connection between a wand/rod and magic. And I do that so you will have a beginning point for a discussion of the very interesting early Christian images of Jesus performing miracles.
You will recall that the appearance of Jesus in the earliest Christian art is nothing like the way he was later shown in icons. Here is an example from the Catacombs on the Via Anapo. Jesus stands at right, and wand in hand, raises Lazarus from his tomb at left.
Here he is again at the tomb of Lazarus, this time from the catacombs on the Via Latina. Note the wand in his outstretched hand:
Here, again from the Via Latina, is Jesus working another miracle, wand in hand. This time it is the multiplication of loaves and fishes.
There are numerous other such early images of Jesus working a miracle with a wand in hand, not only in catacombs but also on stone sarcophagi and even on glass medallions. We find them also carved into the presumably 5th century wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Here he uses a wand not only to multiply loaves and fishes, but also to turn water to wine:
Some argue against using the term “wand” for the rod held by the miracle-working Jesus, and prefer the term “staff,” to make it perhaps seem less magical and Jesus less like the sorcerer Celsus, the 2nd century critic of early Christianity, held him to be, as reported second-hand in the work “Against Celsus,” by Origen:
“… that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”
Critics of calling what Jesus holds in his hand a “wand” point out that the early Christians detested magic, so would not have depicted a “wand” in art; but now we get into the essence of the problem. There is basically no distinction — other than point of view — between the magic worked by the polytheists of early Christian times and the miracles worked by the Christians. The methodology may have been somewhat similar in certain respects or somewhat different in others, but the real difference lay in what was believed to be the source of the “miracles” worked: the Christians asserted that their miracles were of God, and that those of the pagans were worked through demonic powers. So whether one calls the supposed wonders worked “miracles” or “magic” depends solely on viewpoint.
There is a strangeness to early Christianity that the later Church did its best to obscure, but traces of it pop up here and there, and certainly the images of Jesus working miracles with a wand are part of that strangeness that was later removed from Christian art. There is not one word in the New Testament about Jesus holding a wand while performing any miracle, so the wand is something added from the context of the magical-thinking environment of early Christianity. Some have argued that the wand is more a symbol of authority, citing the staff of Moses in the Old Testament, but I find this argument unconvincing.
Jesus was not the only New Testament figure shown with a wand. We also find Peter depicted in an apocryphal story as causing water to gush out in a spring, and thereby converting his two jailers, whom tradition has given the names Processus and Martinianus. As you can see in the image below, he is striking the rock with his wand. Note the rather distinctive round, flat-topped Pannonian hats on two nearby figures, representing the Roman jailers of Peter.
Here is Peter striking the jail wall, as represented on the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus:
In a Fall, 2020 article in the Biblical Archeology Review, Lee M. Jefferson argues that what Jesus holds in these early Christian depictions “. . . is not a magician’s wand but a staff.” I would say that is a meaningless distinction, because the rods held by Jesus and by Peter are certainly not staffs/staves for walking or sheep herding, and they are obviously being used as tools to transmit “power,” and that is basically the definition of a magician’s wand. And as we have seen in the Odyssey, the use of a wand/rhabdos to transmit “power” predates Christianity, so it was nothing new in the first several centuries of Christianity, when it was still trying to prove its superiority to the beliefs of the polytheistic masses.