ANOTHER OTECHESTVO

In previous postings I discussed variations on the Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” — or to use a Latin-influenced term — the “Paternity” icon.

Here is another example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

God the father has the eight-pointed slava — “glory” — in his halo that signifies the seven days of Creation as well as the eighth day — the Day of Eternity.  Christ Immanuel is on his breast, along with the Holy Spirit is the form of a dove — so this is also a “Trinity” icon.

It has a rather grand gold-washed riza in the neoclassical style.  That it adds a lot to the grandeur of the icon may be seen if we look at the icon with the cover removed:


The abbreviated inscription at the top reads (with missing letters added):
ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ
GOSPOD’ SAVOF
“LORD SABAOTH.”

That is the standard name given God the Father in Russian Orthodox iconography.

If we look at the blessing hand, we can tell from the position of the fingers that, in spite of the very traditional style of painting, this is not an Old Believer icon.

If it were, the thumb and last two fingers would touch.  As it is, it forms the IC XC letters abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”

MAKING A SAINT OUT OF ALMOST NOTHING

Here is a 17th century Russian icon.  It depicts:

СВЯТЫЙ СВЯЩЕННОМУЧЕНИК КЛИМЕНТ ПАПА РИМСКИЙ
SVYATUIY SVYASHCHENNOMUCHENIK KLIMENT, PAPA RIMSKIY
“Holy Priest-martyr Clement, Pope of Rome”

(Perm State Art Gallery)

A priest-martyr is also often termed a “hieromartyr” — which means basically the same thing.

The posture used in this icon — a saint bending to one side, with the face near but not entirely in profile — was popular in the 17th century.  The icon depicts Clement in a landscape with miniature background scenes from his traditional life, instead of placing them in separate border cells as is common in many other icons.

Though it is rather difficult to see in the photo, Clement holds the fingers of his right hand in the position favored by the Old Believers, who split from the State Orthodox Church in the middle of the 1600s (or perhaps it is more accurate to say the State Church split from the Old Believers).   Clement looks up at an angle toward the image of the New Testament Trinity on the left.

Now you may wonder what a Roman Pope is doing in a Russian Orthodox icon, given the historical antipathy of Russian Orthodoxy toward Roman Catholicism.  Well, the answer is that at the time when Clement is said to have lived — the first century c.e. — the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches had not yet separated.  That is why Eastern Orthodoxy may recognize some Catholic saints prior to the Great Schism of 1054, but not after.

Given that almost no reliable evidence concerning Kliment/Clement is known, there was wide space left for hagiographic embroidery of his life and deeds.

Clement was supposedly born into a noble and wealthy family.  He lost touch with his mother and two brothers — Faustinus and Faustinian — who were driven off-course by a storm during a sea voyage.  His father disappeared too, on going to look for them.

Later, when Clement went to Alexandria in Egypt seeking his family, he met the apostle Barnabas, and not only found his two brothers there — who had become followers of St. Peter — but when he went to Palestine, he also met St. Peter, who was able to turn up Clement’s old mother and father as well.

The tradition relates that Clement was consecrated as bishop of Rome by St. Peter, following the bishoprics of Linus (67-79) and Anacletus (79-91).  Clement supposedly was bishop from 92-101, though dates in the sources vary, and he is sometimes said to have died about 98 c.e.

Many stories are told of Clement:  he supposedly baptized 424 people on an Easter, then earned the wrath of Emperor Trajan by scorning the gods.  First Trajan sent an officer named Sissinius to arrest Clement, but he and his men were miraculously blinded, and mistakenly dragged a column to the prison instead of Clement.  Then Trajan had Clement exiled to a quarry in Crimea, near the city of Cherson.  Supposedly many of his disciples followed him into exile there.

In the quarry there was a severe lack of water.  Tradition says that Clement prayed, and Jesus appeared to him in the form of a lamb on a hill.  The lamb struck at the ground with one hoof, and when Clement hit the spot with his pickaxe, a spring gushed forth that turned into a veritable river, resulting in another mass conversion.  A church was even built for him in the quarries.

All this supposedly only irritated Trajan more, so the Emperor ordered Clement to be drowned in the sea, an anchor tied to his neck.  And so Clement died.  But thanks to the prayers of Bishop Cornelius, St. Fibius and others, the sea miraculously pulled back some three miles to reveal Clement’s remains, which were found in a church-shaped “angelic” undersea cave.   After that, the waters would miraculously withdraw every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom, and remain back for a week, in order to make his relics available for Christian veneration.  Once a child was caught in the sea when it came flooding back over the site, but he was found alive on the spot the next year, when the waters again withdrew.

It is said that in reign of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus (802-811), God did not allow the sea to withdraw for 50 years, and so the Christians could not get to the submerged church-cave.

Later in the 9th century, the missionaries to the Slavs Cyril and Methodius and a number of others supposedly prayed at midnight for Clement’s relics to appear, and the relics miraculously did so.  This time they were taken to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.  Later some of the remains were taken to Rome, and the head of Clement was taken to Kyiv by St. Vladimir — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict.  There they — along with the relics of St. Fibius of Rome/Фива Римский/Fiva Rimskiy — were placed in the Church of the Tithes (Десятинна церква/Desyatinna tserkva) — the first stone church in Kyiv/Kiev.  At present the head of Clement is said to be kept in the caves of the Pecherskaya Lavra at Kyiv.

Now obviously there is a lot of nonsense and uncertainty in all this. An anonymous letter (1 Clement) is generally attributed to Clement.  But so were a number of other writings that are now considered to be misattributed to him.  And though Clement is called “Pope of Rome,” the title is anachronistic; it did not exist at that time.  Some vague early references to a “Clement” were applied to Clement of Rome, including that of Paul in Philippians 4:3:

And I intreat you also, true yoke-fellow, help those women who labored with me in the Gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life.”

and that found in The Shepherd of Hermas, 4[8]:3:

“You shall therefore write two little books, and shall send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans.”

The earliest references to Clement in Eusebius and Jerome do not mention that he was martyred.  The tale that he was drowned with an anchor tied to his neck is found no earlier than the 4th century, and many modern scholars believe that Clement’s martyrdom is the result of confusing him with another Roman saint of a similar name who was a martyr, Titus Flavius Clemens.  Nonetheless, the anchor became the symbol of “Pope Clement I”  in Catholic Christianity.

As for his relics, there is an account that in 868 St. Cyril, while in the Crimea, found some bones and an anchor buried in a mound, which he identified as the bones of Clement of Rome.  They were brought to Rome, and placed as Clement’s relics in the Basilica of St. Clement/San Clemente.  But as we know from history, tales of saints’ relics are highly unreliable in any case, as there was a very large market in fake relics to meet the vast demand.

Here is another icon of “Clement, Pope of Rome,” depicting him in the more conventional frontal pose, with scenes from his hagiographic life in the borders:

 

 

THE TRAVELING OX: ANOTHER NATIVITY TRADITION

In icons of the Birth of Christ we often find an ox and an ass somewhere nearby — frequently very close to the child in the manger, as in this Russian example:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

Depictions of the ox and ass have a long history in Christian iconography, which I discussed briefly in this previous posting:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/an-italian-flavo…ek-nativity-icon/

We know where the ass comes from; it is the ass that Mary traditionally rode from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as described in the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James — though if we look at the Gospel accounts, we find no ass (nor ox) mentioned in relation to the Nativity narratives found in Matthew or Luke — the only two that have such narratives.  Like several elements in the Nativity story, the ass and ox are later additions.

But from where does the ox come?  As we saw in that earlier posting, it was likely inspired by an originally irrelevant excerpt from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel does not know, my people do not consider.”

Now it is very interesting (at least to people such as myself) that in most Christian depictions of the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we find an ass shown — the ass on which Mary supposedly rode.  But in them we find no ox.  The ox shows up after they are settled in Bethlehem, whether depicted at the manger or nearby.

However (and this is the interesting part), there are exceptions, and we find them primarily in some old Western European depictions of the Journey to Bethlehem, including those showing Joseph and Mary seeking an inn.

We see an example of the latter in the circa 1510-1520 century Croy Hours (also called the Book of Drolleries), created in Flanders.  It is the illustration of the so-called Herbergsuche  — German for the “Seeking of an Inn.”

(Austrian National Library)

There we see the ox and ass together, going along with Mary and Joseph as they seek shelter.

So how did the ox in the tradition followed by this manuscript illustration find itself placed also in the journey from Nazareth, instead of just at the birth of Christ?

We find in several places, among them the mention in the Life of Christ (Volume I) by  the 14th century Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony, and also in the 14th century Meditations on the Life of Christ (attributed to Johannes de Caulibus)  that Joseph and Mary brought both the ox and the ass with them on their journey.  Speculation was that Joseph had brought the ox along to sell, and thereby pay his tax to the Romans.

Knowing that, one may now look more carefully at early western European depictions of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem — whether as paintings or in stained glass windows (for example, the 16th century window of Notre Dame at Chalons-en-Champagne)  — to see if they follow the tradition in which both the ox and ass make the trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A ROMANIAN FOLK CRUCIFIX

A reader kindly shared this photo of a painted wooden folk crucifix in a little church in Dridif, a small village in Transylvania, Romania.   It is located northwest of Brașov on the road between Făgăraș and Sibiu.  The church was originally Greco-Catholic/Greek Catholic, and the reader’s great grandfather, Iosif Oprisiu, was priest there.  Later the church became Romanian Orthodox.

(Courtesy of Nancy Oprisch Ewing)

It is a delightful example of Romanian folk art, and bears the date 1886 near its base.  It has much in common in style with Romanian folk icons painted on glass.  Everything is very simple and “primitive.”  The sun and moon are shown at the top, stars and floral decoration are added on the sides, and at the base is a stylized head of Adam.

Let’s look more closely at the inscriptions:

At the top is an I N Ц I inscription — for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but interestingly the painter has written it from right to left in two lines.

Below that, along the base of the main crossbeam, we find in a mixture of Slavic letters and old spelling the Romanian inscription (I have added letters in brackets to put it in modern spelling):

Răsti[g]nirea lui I[i]sus
Răstignirea lui Iisus

“Crucifixion of Jesus.”

Here is the church in which it is found:

(Courtesy of Nancy Oprisch Ewing)

Across the road is a more elaborate church — also Romanian Orthodox — with a much more ornate interior, and icons painted in a more sophisticated style, rather than in the Romanian folk manner:

(Courtesy of Nancy Oprisch Ewing)

Here is a closer look at the iconostasis, with the Romanian flag displayed on the left above it:

Thanks to Nancy for sharing these images with all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A PLACE FOR ICONS

In the traditional Russian home,  in the right corner of the main room — generally on the east side near a window — was the “Beautiful Corner” (красный угол/krasnuiy ugol ).

In the Beautiful Corner was the Bozhnitsa /Божница — the shelf on which the icons were placed.  Little lamps hung before them or candles were lit.  It was not uncommon to ornament an icon in the Beautiful Corner with a plain white or colorfully embroidered towel.  Any visitor entering the room would always first pause and cross himself/herself before the icons.

(Painting by Vasiliy Maximovich Maximov/Василий Максимович Максимов, 1844-1911: Tretyakov Gallery)

Some families, who had the space and could afford it, might set aside a separate room for icons and prayer called the Obraznaya/Образная, the “Image Room.”  That term is now seldom used.  Instead, one often finds the term Molennaya/Моленная, the “Prayer Room,” or to use an old Latin-based term, the Oratory.

The Old Believers who kept themselves separate from the State Church were particularly fond of the Molennaya, which served not only as a place to keep the icons, but also as a kind of prayer chapel where sacred books were kept and read, The photo below shows an example from a museum:

(Museum of Russian icons, Moscow: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. )

As we can see from a closer look, this typical Old Believer Molennaya displays both icons painted on wood and cast metal icons:

When icons were placed on their shelf in the Beautiful Corner or in a Molennaya, it was generally customary to place an icon of Jesus in the central area together with an icon of Mary to the left of it, as we see in the detail above.  Next came the icons of popular saints such as Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, George, Nicholas, etc. — and beyond those were icons of the “name” saints of the members of the family — the same kinds of saints we often find in the outer borders of icons.

On the left side of this Molennaya we also see a wooden stand holding candles:


Such candles were traditionally made of fragrant beeswax.  Many years ago, I learned from some very conservative Old Believers how to make the traditional long and thin candles they use in their rituals.  It is really quite simple.  One softens the chunks of beeswax on a tray in an oven to the consistency of molding clay, and then a good-sized piece of the softened beeswax is flattened, and a long string is placed in the center of the flattened beeswax, which is then folded around it.  Then the wax with the string in it is then rolled out on a flat surface with the hands, just as a child rolls out a clay snake.  It is important to try to keep the string — which is the wick — in the center of the wax “snake,” and when it is rolled to the desired length, one just trims the string and lets the candle cool and harden.  Then it is ready for use.  It was the first time I had seen candles made in this remarkably easy and quick way, instead of by the dipping or molding methods used in the West.

On the right side we see a table containing the book of the Gospels at left, and another stand on which is an open liturgical book with a text and musical notation in the Old Believer manner:

I was once in an Old Believer Molennaya very much like this one in layout, with icons on three sides.  Relics of saints were also kept there.

Among the Bezpopovtsui/”Priestless” Old Believers, a Molennaya  — including as a separate building — could take the place of a conventional church.  In such a chapel — given that there was no Eucharist — a wall of icons with no altar behind it took the place of the iconostasis in a “State” Orthodox Church.

ANOTHER LOOK AT A COMMON ICON TYPE

In a previous posting, we saw this image in the center of a multiple icon:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

As you know if you are a long-time reader here, it is an example of the icon type known as the “Image Not Made by Hands”:

ѠБРАЗ НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ
OBRAZ NERUKOTVORENNUIY
Literally, “IMAGE NOT-HAND-MADE”

— which by tradition (fiction, not history) was the first icon, supposedly created miraculously by Jesus when he pressed a cloth/towel to his wet face, and the image of his face appeared on the cloth.

It is a very common type in Russian icons, both as a primary and a secondary image, and I have discussed it more than once in postings you will now find in the archives, among them this one:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/an-ubiquitous-image-an-uncommon-inscription/

and this one:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/the-real-origin-of-the-eastern-orthodox-icon/

As  you will know from those past postings, the inscription at the base of the cloth reads  С[ВЯ]Т[ЫЙ] ОУБРУСЪ/SVYATUIY OUBRUS/OUBROUS/UBRUS — meaning “Holy Cloth/Towel.”  There are variations in spelling, which is common in Russian icons.

When used as a primary image — which it very often was — the cloth is frequently held by angels, as in this example from the latter part of the 19th century:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

My point in discussing it again today is simply to give you another title inscription variant to add to your Church Slavic vocabulary.

Here is the title inscription on the icon:


It is written very clearly, and only the last word is abbreviated.  In full, it is:

НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ УБРУСЪ ГОСПОДЕНЬ
NERUKOTVORENNUIY UBRUS  G[OSPO]D[E]N’
NOT-HAND-MADE CLOTH [of the] LORD

In normal English, “The ‘Not Made by Hands’ Cloth of the Lord.”  The “Not Made by Hands” part refers of course to the image on the cloth, not to the cloth itself.  One does not often see it titled this way, but now when you do, you will recognize the variation.

You should be able to recognize all the other standard abbreviations found in this icon — the IC XC borrowed from the Greek Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos “Jesus Christ,” which in Russia is found as Исус Христос/Isus Khristos among the Old Believers and as Иисус Христос/Iisus Khristos in the State Orthodox Church.  And by now you should know the Ὁ ѠΗ (ΗΟ ΟΝ) inscription commonly found in the halo of Jesus, meaning “The One Who Is” — the Septuagint translation of the title of God that is rendered in the King James Version of  the Bible as “I Am That I Am” (Exodux 3:14).

It is important also to remember this abbreviation:

It is the letters А  Г  (A-G), which abbreviate Ангел Господень /Angel Gospoden’, meaning “Angel [of the] Lord.”  It is an abbreviation found in countless icons with angels.

Finally, you probably noticed that this particular icon is a combination of traditional stylization and “Westernized” naturalism.  It keeps the old form found in traditional painting, while using more natural folds to the cloth and robes, and more naturalistic coloring and color transitions, though still showing some of the more stylized traits of traditional painting.

 

AN APPROACH TO ICON IDENTIFICATION

Now and then the student of icons will encounter examples with substantial amounts of text on the painted surface, which can be quite intimidating.  Here is an icon which does not have an obvious title inscription, but is clearly centered around the large central figure:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

We can tell from his garments that he is a bishop of some kind, but we do not yet know who he is.  And then we are faced with the four substantial portions of written text.

When one encounters large segments of text on an icon that are not scroll inscriptions or “signature” inscriptions, the text most commonly falls into one of these categories:  it may be a biblical text; it may be a liturgical text; as a sub-category of the latter, it may be an akathist or some other kind of hymn or prayer.  Another major category of text relates the story of the icon.   We have seen examples of this in the frequent Marian icons called “Unexpected Joy.”  The text may also relate incidents from the traditional life of a saint.  The problem for the student who is no expert on Church Slavic or Greek is in determining which of these it is most likely to be.

When faced with the challenge of such large portions of text, a good place to begin is to use common sense.  In the case of this icon, the first thing we want to know is who the large saint shown in the center is.  So the next step is to look at the text for anything resembling a saint’s name — because given his halo, he is obviously a saint.

Let’s start with the segment of text at upper left:


If we look quickly through it, we will soon discover that in the middle of the first line is the name Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont.  And when we reach the last line, we find at its beginning the same name — Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont.  So our logical hypothesis would be that the text is telling us something about a fellow named Niphont.

If we look at the lower left segment of text, we can expect — if we are right — to find the name repeated again somewhere:


Quickly scanning though the text, we find again near the end of the second line, a grammatical form of the name Niphont — in this case Нифонту/Niphontu; that tells us our hypothesis about the main saint being named Niphont is even more likely to be correct.

And if we move over to the beginning of the text segment next to it, we see this:


The second line begins with the words Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta — which we should recognize — even if our knowledge of Church Slavic is very basic — as “Venerable Nifont/Niphont”;  and that makes us even more certain that our hypothesis identifying the main saint as Niphont is correct.

The next thing to do is to consider the context of the texts.  If we look at the whole icon again, we can see that at both sides of the main saint are smaller secondary scenes.  Given that the main figure on the icon is a saint, we would be justified in supposing that these secondary scenes depict events from the traditional life of that saint.

The scene at upper left depicts a saint kneeling before an icon of a haloed mother and child — which we may reasonably identify as a Marian icon — in a church:

The scene at lower left depicts the saint looking at a figure whom we can easily identify as Jesus by his physical appearance and the bars of the cross in his halo, standing in a mandorla of light.  And we can see words coming from the mouth of Jesus, so he is obviously speaking to the saint:

At lower left in the icon we see a larger scene filled with saints of various kinds, along with angels:


We see in the midst of them a saint identified by the inscription in his halo as Nifont/Niphont (hey, our guess was right!) kneeling before a mandorla in which Jesus appears again, and to the left of Nifont is another mandorla in which stands a female figure we can reasonably assume to be Mary.

So now we have three scenes, which it would be logical at this point to conclude are scenes from the life of St. Nifont/Niphont.

Given that, it is also reasonable to conclude that the segments of text we find are likely telling us about events from the life of St. Nifont.

To explore that, let’s return to the first scene at upper left — the one with the man kneeling before the Marian icon:


And in the next scene, we see Jesus speaking to the man, and telling him something; so it looks like a vision the saint had at some point in his life:

And finally, there is that last scene, with saints and angels, Jesus and Mary, and Nifont kneeling in the midst of them.

Knowing all that, we have several clues to identifying the saint and the scenes.  We already have determined his name is Nifont/Niphont, so the next step is to look through the lives of saints named Nifont to see which one has events that match those in the scenes.  And we also know that this Niphont ended up as some kind of bishop, because we can tell that from his garments in the main image of him on the icon.

Well, to save you a lot of bother (and sometimes the identification of icons can require a lot of bother and many hours), there is a saint whose name is Niphont who was a bishop, and his traditional life describes events that match those in the scenes on this icon.  His name is:

Преподобный Нифонт, Епископ Кипрский
Prepodobnuiy Nifont, Episkop Kiprskiy
“Venerable Niphont, Bishop [of] Cyprus”

And lo and behold, in that name we find the same Prepodobnuiy Nifont (“Venerable Niphont) that we found in a grammatical form in the text as Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta; and we also see he has the secondary title of Episkop/Bishop.  And that certainly fits with what we first determined from the garments of the main, central figure on the icon.  This Niphont is also sometimes called Niphont of Constantia, a city on the island of Cyprus.  He is listed as a Fourth-century saint who lived in the time of Constantine I.

Now on to how the scenes on the icon fit with events in the traditional life of Niphont:

Once Niphont went to church, and there he prayed before an icon of Mary in a very humble and contrite manner.  When he looked at the icon, it returned his glance with a kind and gentle look.  He went away feeling comforted.  And on another occasion, he was on his way to the same church when he saw a man doing something sinful, and he criticized the man in his mind.  Then, when he entered the church and was again before the icon of Mary, he saw her looking at him in a disapproving manner and turning away from him because of his judgmental attitude toward another human.  So of course he repented, and as these stories go, Mary in the icon again turned toward him with a kind and gentle gaze.

Well, that takes care of the first scene from the life of Niphont.

But what about an appearance of Jesus to Niphont?  Well, according to his hagiography, Niphont did have encounters with Jesus, who not only appeared to Niphont as alive in his icon — a repeat of the “living” icon of Mary — (notice the icon of Jesus in the background in the second scene at left) but also gave Niphon a long and extensive vision of the happenings to come in the Last Judgment.  And in that vision Niphont is kissed by Jesus, who promises  to favor those believers who call on the name of Niphont.  He also makes a promise to come to Niphont at the bishop’s time of death and receive Niphont’s soul in his hands.

Well, if we look at the large text segment below that scene on the icon we find — if we know a bit of Church Slavic — that it refers to promises made by Jesus “to his beloved угодник/ugodnik blessed Niphont. An ugodnik in religious usage is one who endeavors to please God — a saintly, pious person.  And it is also said in this text segment that when Niphont dies, Jesus will come “with ranks of angels”  and receive the soul of Niphont in his own hands, and will give him rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (you will recall the icon type called the “Bosom of Abraham).  So we can see that this generally corresponds with the second scene.  And at the end of this segment, we see something else that corresponds with the icon scene:


“And the Lord blessed him, and said, Миръ ти рабе мой Нифонте. And he departed for Heaven.” Those words I have put in bold type — Mir ti rabe moy Niphonte — meaning “Peace be unto you my servant Niphon” — are exactly the words coming from the mouth of Jesus in the painted scene.

Now for the more elaborate, saint-filled scene at right.  Let’s look at it again:


Well, as we have seen, in the traditional story Jesus promised Niphont to be present at his death with ranks of angels.  And the tale of Niphont adds that St. Athanasios/Athanasius was also present.  We see him robed and crowned as a bishop at lower right.  Also in the crowd were apostles, martyrs, Mary, as well as other kinds of saints.  So that accounts for the figures we see in the scene above.  Perhaps you also notice that Jesus is holding what appears to be an infant clothed in white in his right hand.  That is identified by the abbreviation Д Н (D N) as the “Soul [душа/dusha] of Niphont.”

So there you have it.  We know who the saint is, and we know what the scenes from his life represent.

We should also know a bit about the traditional vita (“life”) of Niphont, keeping in mind that such hagiographic tales are commonly heavily fictionalized and not reliable as history.  They served as admonitory and entertaining tales for believers.

The tale of Niphont is no exception.  Scholars commonly date the vita of Niphont as late as the eighth to eleventh centuries, with the preference generally for the latter.

He was said to have been from the city of Plagion in Paphlagonia, a region on the Black Sea.  At age eight he was sent to Constantinople to be educated.  Initially all went well, but as he neared and entered his teens, his behavior began to change.  He proceeded to lead a lively and colorful life, going to entertainments, singing in theatres, enjoying an over-abundance of food and drink.  Niphont was also given to ανδρομανια — andromania — which is a fancy term for saying he was crazy about other males and intimate relations with them — so a kind of homosexual.

Now Eastern Orthodoxy traditionally has not looked kindly on homosexuality, and of course in early times when Church doctrine was formed, there was no real understanding of it as a natural variation in human behavior.  So then it was seen as something to repress and deny, which can and did sometimes lead to all kinds of peculiar psychological results, and repression is precisely what Niphont — feeling guilty  — did.  He turned to beating and slapping himself to try to weaken temptation, bruising and harming his body in the process.

He is said to have once met a friend, who looked at him long in an odd way.  When Niphont asked him why, the friend replied that Niphont’s face was black, like that of an Ethiopian.  This supposedly was interpreted by Niphont as revealing his own sinful condition.

Niphont blamed his temptations on devils, and began to do his best to live an ascetic life.  During his life of struggles with his temptation, he had visions of devils and angels, and as we have seen, of Mary and of Jesus.  Finally — when he had grown old — he was made Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus — but he died not long after.

Now rather appropriately for an icon of an ascetic, we find some interesting figures used as border saints.

At upper left is “Holy Andrey, Fool for Christ’s Sake”:

At lower left is “Holy Vasiliy/Basil, Holy Fool of Moscow”:

At upper right is “Holy Feodor/Theodore, Fool for Christ’s Sake” (of Novgorod).

And finally, at lower right we see the monastic saint “Venerable Ephrim Sirin/Ephrem the Syrian.”

All of these saints — the three “Holy Fools” and Ephrem of Syria — were all noted for ascetic lives.