THE PLISNESKO-PIDGORETSKA ICON

A reader asked about this Ukrainian icon:

plisnetsko-pidgoretska

It is the Plisnesko-Pidgoretska / Пліснесько-Підгорецька icon, considered by tradition one of the “wonderworking” icons.

If you are a long time reader here, you can probably easily identify the elements that compose it.

In the center is a Hodegitria image of Mary — a generalized type that depicts Mary holding her child on her left arm and gesturing toward him with her right hand.

Around the central image is a gathering of Old Testament figures and a well-known pair from the Apocrypha.  Let’s look more closely:
mosesdavid

Going down the left side, we see:
1.  Moses with the Burning Bush
2.  David with a shrine
3. Jacob (usually with a ladder, unseen here)

AaronSolomon

Down the right side, we find:

4.  Aaron with a budding rod
5.  Solomon with a temple
6.  Gideon with a fleece

Finally, across the bottom from left to right:

EzekielJoakhim

7.  Ezekiel with a closed door
8.  Joachim
9.  Anna
10.  Daniel with a mountain

 

Now as you probably already know, the Old Testament figures carry objects considered prefigurations of Mary.  They are found in this way in other icon types as well.  And the two at bottom center are Joachim and Anna, by tradition the parents of Mary.  Between Joachim and Anna is a damaged inscription beginning “In You rejoices….”

So as you see, there is nothing really new in this image.

The story of this icon relates that it was in the Church of the Nativity in the village of Golubitsa, which accounts for why it is sometimes called the “Golubitsa” icon.  In 1692 the chronicler Vasiliy wrote in his Synopsis of the first supposed miracles attributed to it:

“...the image of the Immaculate Virgin wept with tears, candles that had not been lit by anyone lit up several times at this holy Icon, many sick people who came to this Image with faith, according to their request, were healed here from various ailments and passions….”

On April 17th, 1694, the icon was moved to the Pidgorets Monastery in a formal procession.  In 1695 Tartars were raiding in the region, and the survival of the monastery at this time was attributed to the prayers of the monks to the icon, which supposedly prevented the raiders from entering the monastery.

The icon was kept in hiding during the Soviet Period to save it from destruction, but in 1991 it was returned to the Church of the Annunciation in the Pidgorets Monastery, which follows the rule of St. Basil.

 

MARY AND SILENCE

There is an interesting fresco in the Slivnichki Monastery in Macedonia.  It depicts a phrase from the Akathist hymn.  The phrase is written as the inscription on the image:

WeSeeOratorsMuteSlivnichki

Ветия многовещанныя яко рыбы безгласныя видим
Betiya mnogoveshchannuiya yako ruibui bezglasnuiya vidim

“We see the most eloquent orators mute as fish…”  It is the beginning of the ninth Ikos of the Akathist:

“We see the most eloquent orators mute as fish before you, O Birthgiver of God; for they are at a loss to tell
how you remain a virgin and could bear a child. But we, marveling at this mystery, cry out faithfully….”

It is a variable type, as we see from this quite time-faded image in the Sophia Cathedral in Vologda, Russia.  I have enhanced it a bit to make the faint outlines more visible:

VetiyaMnogoveshSophiaSoborVologda

Mary is seated with the child Jesus with a cleric at each side, and below are three “mute” orators.

There is a connection in Eastern Orthodox iconography between Mary and silence — or to put it in more specific terms, Mary and hesychia (Greek ἡσυχία) — the mystical silence of Eternity, which gives its name to the practice of hesychasm — the meditative, ceaseless repetition of the “Jesus Prayer,” akin to the Pure Land practice in Asian countries of repeating the name of Amitabha Buddha.

Of course readers here are already familiar with the image of Jesus as “Blessed Silence.”  Ephrem the Syrian wrote of the incarnation:

He who is the Word entered and became silent within her; thunder entered her and made no sound;

One might then expect to find a separate image of Mary that would depict clearly her connection with silence, but traditionally the only image that does so (modern innovationist icons excepted) approaches it indirectly, and if one did not know of that connection, one might never guess it.

It is the “Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple.”

VvdenievoKhramPB

You may legitimately ask what on earth the “Entrance” has to do with silence and hesychasm.  Well, it is a very tenuous connection but nonetheless it is made in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Here is how the link is made.  It is based on apocryphal accounts of Mary being taken to the Jerusalem Temple as a child and being left there to live in the Holy of Holies.  It is considered that with this act, the three-year-old child Mary “entered into silence” for years of introspection and prayer without ceasing.  And that silence and ceaseless prayer is of course the practice of hesychast meditation.  The defender of hesychasm Gregory Palamas (c. 1296-1369) considered Mary “the greatest hesychast.”  That is how Mary and silence and hesychasm are joined in Eastern Orthodoxy.

In modern Catholicism an icon called “Our Lady of Silence” is sometimes found, with the original being kept by the elevator in the Vatican to remind people not to chatter and gossip.  It is a recent creation painted at the Benedictine Convent of San Giulio d’Orta in the Italian province of Novara.  Whether that new image will be borrowed and find a place in Eastern Orthodox iconography as a number of Catholic icons have in the past remains to be seen.

OLSilence

But as already mentioned, the only traditional icon of Mary as “Lady of Silence” in Eastern Orthodoxy is the “Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple,” odd as that may seem.  So now you know that the whole concept of connecting the “Entry” and Mary with hesychast silence is based on apocryphal tradition combined with much later theological innovation.

It is worth noting that the ancient Greeks and Romans had their own Goddess of Silence — Hesychia, called Silentia in Latin.  She was the daughter of Dike (Justice).  In the 1st century Thebaid of Statius, we find this in Mozley’s translation.  The Greek names are in brackets:

Thebaid 10. 90:
“[In] the hollow recesses of a deep and rocky cave . . . [are] set the halls of lazy Somnus (Sleep) [Hypnos] and his untroubled dwelling. The threshold is guarded by shady Quies (Quiet) [Hesykhia] and dull Oblivio (Forgetfulness) [Lethe] and torpid Ignavia (Sloth) with ever drowsy countenance. Otia (Ease) and Silentia (Silence) [Hesykhia] with folded wings sit mute in the forecourt sand drive the blustering winds from the roof-top, and forbid the branches to sway, and take away their warblings from the birds. No roar of the sea is here, though all the shores be sounding, nor yet of the sky; the very torrent that runs down the deep valley nigh the cave is silent among the rocks and boulders.”– and made no sound;

ATHENS, JERUSALEM, AND EASTERN ORTHODOXY

A reader asked me to discuss this topic.  It is a wide subject, so here I will give just the basics.

Tertullian, in his Prescription Against Heretics, wrote:

Writing to the Colossians, he [Paul] says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.”  Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!

That famous phrase “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem” has roiled the waters of Christian controversy over the centuries, so many are often surprised to find in the narthex of some Eastern Orthodox churches the images of Greek philosophers and poets.  True, they are not given halos, but there they stand, “Athens,” meaning Greek philosophy, within “Jerusalem” — meaning Christianity.

Even today the presence of the Greek philosophers in churches is a matter of controversy.  In the Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna, we find the heading “Οι σοφοί των Ελλήνων όσοι είπον περί της ενσάρκου οικονομίας του Χριστού” — “The Wise Ones of the Greeks who spoke of the Incarnate Economy of Christ.”  And then are listed the “Wise Ones of the Greeks” and how they are to be painted.  So that is how the philosophers were slipped into the Church — through the misrepresentation that they “spoke of the Incarnate Economy of Christ.”  “Economy” here means essentially the divine plan God supposedly had for humans through the incarnation.  Because they were primarily didactic, the “Wise Ones” were rarely seen in icons, but are more widely found in wall paintings, etc. — images not intended for veneration.

But enough of that.  Let’s take a look at how the “Wise Ones [Sophoi] of the Greeks” are depicted in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  Here is how they appear in the depiction by the modern iconographer Vlasios Tsotsonis at the Great Meteoron or Transfiguration Monastery at Meteora, in central Greece.  They are on an exterior wall on the south side of the refectory.  Above them on both sides and leading to the central figure of Jesus are smaller images of Old Testament figures, so all together the Philosophers and Old Testament figures are considered foreshadowings of the coming of Jesus.

This is the left side of the door:

meteorasophoileft

And this is the right side of the door:

Meteoronsophoiright

And to give a better idea of their positioning, here is the central image of Jesus above the door.  The Greek title inscription reads “This is the King of Glory.”

MeteoronSophoiCentral

Now let’s look examine the images in greater detail.  We will begin at the far left side:

SibyllaSolon

At left is “The Greek Sibyl, Philosopher.”  At right is “Solon, the Wise and Lawmaker.”

Then we have “The Greek Pythagoras, Philosopher and Mathematician” and to his right “The Greek Socrates, Philosopher.”

PythagorasSocrates

The next two are “The Greek Apollonius, Philosopher” and the non-philosopher “The Apostle to the Nations Paul, Martyr of the Church of Greece.”

ApolloniosPaul

Above them are Old Testament figures:  “The Prophet Habakkuk,” “The Prophet David,” “The Prophet Elijah,” “The Prophet Jonah,” “The Prophet Zechariah,” and “The Patriarch Jacob.”

Moving to the right of the door, we see “Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr.”  Beside him is “The Greek Homer the Poet.”

JustinHomer

Then come “The Greek Thucydides the Historian” and  “The Greek Aristotle the Philosopher.”

ThucydidesAristotle

And finally, we see “The Greek Plato the Philosopher” and “The Greek Plutarch, the Father of History.”

PlatoPlutarch

Above them are figures from the Old Testament:  “The Prophet Solomon,” “The Prophet Isaiah,” “The Judge Gideon,” “The Prophet Jeremiah,”  “The Prophet Moses,” and “The Prophet Ezekiel.”

Just which “Philosophers” are included in such depictions vary from place to place, as do the texts on their scrolls.  We can easily see that the list in the Painters’ Manual of Dionysius of Fourna differs somewhat from those depicted in the Great Meteoron.  That former list consists of:

Apollonius,  Solon,  Thucidides, Plutarch, Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Sophocles, “Thoulis, King of Egypt,” “The Diviner Balaam,” and “The Sage Sybil.”  The Sibyl — who was actually one of a number of Sybils — was a pre-Christian prophetess, who supposedly foretold the coming of Jesus.  Thoulis is a completely fictional character said to have been an early Egyptian King who conquered the entire world and foretold the doctrine of the Trinity.  He appears in a book written in the 500s c.e. — the Khronographia or  “Chronicle,” by the Syrian John Malalas (c. 491 – 578).

Now as you can tell, there is much nonsense in this notion of pre-Christian figures somehow “foretelling” Christian events, but Eastern Orthodoxy has never been strong on facts but always prolific in imagination.

The “Wise Ones” are found in Bulgarian and Serbian Church art as well.  In Russian Orthodoxy, the pre-Christian figures generally appear in the wall art of the 16th to 18th centuries after the impetus for their inclusion was given by material written in the 1500s — Пророчества еллинских мудрецов — Prorochestva ellinskikh mudretsov — “Prophecies of the Hellenic Wise Men.”  It was a compilation of sayings attributed to philosophers, etc.  — including forged sayings — given a rather strained Christian interpretation.

PICK AN ENDING

What happened to the Apostle John?  We are not talking history here, because no one knows that.  We are talking about the legendary story of John, who is called in Eastern Orthodoxy John the Theologian.  The traditional sources don’t agree.  But here is an icon to help us begin examining that.

prestavlenieioannbogjacksonsauction
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The title inscription at the base identifies the image:

ПРЕСТАВЛЕНИЕ СВЯТАГО ИОАННА БОГОСЛОВА
PRESTAVLENIE SVYATAGO IOANNA BOGOSLOVA
“REPOSE OF HOLY JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN.”

John has died and his body is being lowered into a cross-shaped grave.  Only John and his disciple Prokhor are identified by title inscriptions in their halos.  But as already mentioned, the circumstances of John’s death and burial are a matter of disagreement in tradition.

The Acts of John says that John laid himself down in the grave and passed away.  Someone did not like that ending, so added another saying that when John’s followers returned to the grave the following day, John’s body was gone, because he had been “translated.”  There is even disagreement about that.  Some think his “translation” meant he was taken up into heaven, and some icons show him rising in an orb held by two angels.  Others think his “translation” meant simply that while his body had disappeared from the grave, he was still mysteriously on earth, waiting for the second coming of Jesus.

These differences are reflected in the iconography of the repose of John.  Icons such as the circa 1900 Russian example above simply show the placing of John in his grave, a normal burial.  Others attempt to depict one or the other notion about his “translation.”

Here is a 1547 fresco by Tsortzis Phouka in the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

metasioanntheologtsortsisphouka

It follows the view that John was “translated” — somehow transferred and changed.  We see John in his tomb at the base, with his followers standing by.  Above, we see John rising from that same tomb.  The inscription on the upper image reads “The Metastasis [‘Change’] of Holy John the Theologian.”  The little book John holds has the beginning of the Gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God ….

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN …

Yes, every now and then I ask new readers here to send me a message via the “Leave a Comment” link found at the top of every posting. Tell me why you are reading this site and what your particular interest in icons is. All such messages are private, and I am the only one who sees them, so you can tell all. I get many kinds of readers here, from museum professionals and art restorers and art auctioners and gallery owners to students of iconography, icon painters, and people simply wishing to learn more about icons. And if you are a longer-time reader here and wish to tell me why you are persistently still here, that is also welcome. As psychologists say, recognizing your problem is the first step toward overcoming it — but that assumes you want to overcome it, which most here don’t, so I remain your friendly enabler in icon studies.

I like to discuss all kinds of icon-related topics here, such as the difficulty painters sometimes had with the concept of the Trinity — a God that is three distinct persons, yet one. No one has ever been able to successfully explain that doctrinal formulation from 4th century — but that did not prevent iconographers from now and then giving it a visual manifestation. And remember that in the study of icons, we don’t look just at how some say an image should have been painted, but rather at what iconographers actually painted in this or that place or time — because that enables us to view and understand the fullness of Eastern Orthodox iconography.

That fullness explains we find some peculiar Trinity images such as this one, a fresco from the Serbian Khilandar monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, the chief monastic center of Eastern Orthodoxy.

As you can see, the title inscription is written in Church Slavic, and reads Svyataya Troitsa — “Holy Trinity.” Of course such a literal view of the Trinity was not always considered acceptable, but examples are found here and there — even at the heart of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.