In the previous posting we looked at the “Vision of Isaiah.” Today we will look at a 10th century Byzantine miniature from the very famous Paris Psalter — the “Prayer of Isaiah.” It is of interest primarily because of its resemblance to classical Roman art — though it was created centuries later.

In the center we see the Prophet Isaiah looking upward in prayer, and the traditional “hand of God” showering blessing on him.
On the left is a woman with a starry mantle billowing over her head.  She is ΗΥΞ/Nyx — “Night.”  She holds a long torch pointed downward, representing darkness.  At right is a small boy carrying an upright flaming torch representing light.  He is ΟΡΘΡΟC/Orthros — “Dawn.”

The image has its origin in a line from Isaiah 26:9:

 ἐκ νυκτὸς ὀρθρίζει τὸ πνεῦμά μου πρὸς σέ θεός διότι φῶς τὰ προστάγματά σου ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς
ek nyktos orthrizei to pneuma mou pros se, ho Theos, dioti phos ta prostagmata sou epi tes ges.
“… Out of night at dawn my spirit rises to you, O God, for your commandments are a light on the earth.”

Now as I mentioned, the imagery and manner of depiction hark back to the art of Rome.  Look again at the image of Night:

Now look at this female image — a detail from a wall painting in the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii — that Roman city destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e.

The billowing garment over the head of a deity is a common feature in Roman art; it represents the inherent energy in the appearance of a deity, and can also symbolize the firmament as well as the revealing of an otherwise invisible deity — an epiphany.  It is found on deities of the sea and air, as well as in other circumstances.  The technical Latin term for it is velificatio — velification, meaning in this case the billowing like a sail of a cloth article of clothing.

Aside from the stylistic similarity, you already know — if you are a regular reader here — that elements of Roman art and belief are sometimes found in Eastern Orthodox iconography — survivals from pre-Christian times.  And of course the old gods and goddesses never really disappeared; they just came back disguised as saints and angels.  It makes one think you can take the people out of the gods, but you cannot take the gods out of the people.  That certainly applies to the history of icons.

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)  — the Alexandrian poet who wrote in Greek, has a poem reminiscent of this concept:


Because we smashed their images —
Because we cast them from their temples —
It does not mean the gods no longer live. 
O land of Ionia, they love you still; 
You enliven their souls still;
And when an August morn dawns upon you
Your atmosphere turns vibrant with the vigor of their lives;
And sometimes an etheric, youthful form,
Indefinite in moving swiftly by,
Will pass above the summits of your hills. 

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