A VERY DETAILED RESURRECTION ICON

We have seen Resurrection icons here previously, but today we will look at a rather remarkable example, extraordinary in its detail and the number of related scenes included.  It is Russian, from the 19th century.

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

At the top we see a heavily abbreviated title inscription.  Here is the left side of it:

It reads in large vyaz lettering:

ВоСКР[ЕСЕ]НIЕ
VOSKRESENIE
“RESURRECTION”

Notice how cleverly the left vertical of the K as been shortened at top and bottom to fit within the arms of the C (“S”).

It finishes at top right:

ХР[ИС]Т[О]ВО
KHRISTOVO
“[of] CHRIST”

That strange letter in the middle is the T, with the left vertical shortened to fit below the top of the P (“R”), and the right side extended into a long vertical.  Remember that in some icon inscriptions, T looks very much like an English “M.”  That is the case here, though it has the left vertical shortened.

Now you will recall (I hope) that early icons of the Resurrection depicted it as the descent of Jesus to Hades, where he releases the righteous men and women of the Old Testament from their imprisonment .  Later Russian icons, however, often add to that the “Western” image of the Resurrection — Jesus rising above his empty tomb.  And that is what we see in the center of this example.  At top is the “Western” Resurrection, and at bottom the earlier “Descent to Hades” form:

Taken as a whole, however, the icon is meant to tell the Resurrection story from the Crucifixion to the Ascension of Jesus.  It begins top left with the Crucifixion:

The smaller inscriptions identify each scene.  At top is the Raspyatie Khristovo — the “Crucifixion of Christ.”  Below that is the Snyatie so Kresta — the “Removal from the Cross.”  Then comes the Polozhenie vo Grob — the “Placing in the Tomb.”  And at the base we see that Peter has come to the tomb, and sees the linen graveclothes lying there.

Then we have to jump to the right of Jesus in the upper “western” Resurrection, where the painter has squeezed in two more small scenes — at right the “Myrrh-bearing Women” listening to an angel at the tomb, and at left the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (as previously mentioned, this is an amalgamation of discrepant Gospel accounts of the Resurrection).

At lower left, we see the angels who have been commanded to subdue Hades, along with various devils, and the jouth of Hades depicted as the open jaws of a frightful beast — another borrowing from Western European art.

In the “Descent to Hades” form of the Resurrection, we see Jesus freeing the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve:

At right we see the long line of freed prisoners rising up to the Gates of Paradise, notable among them the “Repentant Thief” who is called Rakh in Russian icons.  He is the fellow in white pants, holding a cross.  In the lower part of this segment we see Jesus giving Rakh the cross that will be his “ticket” into Paradise:

So we see Rakh with Jesus and his cross, and above that at the Gates of Paradise, and then he is inside the Garden of Paradise with other saints and Old Testament worthies.  Note the Seraph with flaming swords who guards the gates.

Now if we look at the “western” Resurrection, we see Jesus rising above the tomb (note the sarcophagus with the empty graveclothes).  Below him is a group of astonished Roman guards (found only in the Gospel called “of Matthew”), fallen to the ground.

At lower right we see two post-Resurrection scenes.  At top is Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and beside that the scene of their recognizing him while sitting at table, when he breaks the bread.

Below that is the scene of the resurrected Jesus meeting the disciples (that is Peter coming out of the water) at the Sea of Tiberias.

Finally, we have to jump back to the upper left side to see the small scenes of Jesus being touched by Thomas at left, Thomas bowing before him at lower left (with the other disciples), and the end of the whole tale at upper left, where the disciples and Mary, standing with angels, see Jesus ascending to heaven — the Voznesenie — the “Ascension.”

An icon such as this is, as I often say, a kind of graphic novel in paint.  A believer could move his or her eyes about the icon to follow the story, noting each incident and its participants.

As I have mentioned before, the iconography of the Resurrection is a conglomeration of elements from various sources, both biblical and extra-biblical.  And even using those sources found only within the Bible requires glossing over their incompatible discrepancies to make an attempt at a unified story.  But keep in mind that Russians — until quite recent times — were not Bible readers.  Most people were illiterate, and Bibles were not easy to obtain or affordable, though the New Testament was more often to be found than the Old.  Most people learned the Bible stories through the readings in the liturgy and through the images of icons, so there was much less chance of noticing all the “holes” in the sewn-together account as seen in icons such as this one.

The spread of the New Testament in Russia was largely made possible by the efforts of Protestants, via at first the British and Foreign Bible Society — which led to a Russian Bible Society.  Even when New Testaments began to appear at affordable prices, they were often in Church Slavic, and finding a Bible also containing the Old Testament often proved difficult even into the 20th century.  The reading of the Bible in Russian rather than Church Slavic is a comparatively recent phenomenon.  Nonetheless, we find that in the 19th century, in the religious classic often known in English as The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim — poor as he was — mentions owning a Bible:

Я по милости Божией человек-христианин, по делам великий грешник, по званию бесприютный странник, самого низкого сословия, скитающийся с места на место. Имение мое следующее: за плечами сумка сухарей, да под пазухой Священная Библия; вот и все.

I am by the grace of God a Christian man, by my deeds a great sinner, by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth, roaming from place to place.  My belongings are the following:  on my back a knapsack of dried bread, and in my breast pocket the Holy Bible — and that is all.”

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A “JOY OF ALL WHO SUFFER” VARIANT

Here is an interesting example of a Marian icon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It has a familiar name, as we see in the title inscription:


It says:

ОБРАЗ ПЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ ВСЕМ СКОРБЯЩИМЪ РАДОСТЬ
OBRAZ PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI VSYEM SKORBYASHCHIM RADOST

“IMAGE OF THE MOST-HOLY MOTHER OF GOD JOY TO ALL WHO SUFFER.”

Now we have seen this “Joy to/of all Who Suffer” icon type before — in fact it is a very common Marian icon type.  But what is unusual about this example is the absence of the angels and of the suffering people usually depicted on both sides of Mary, along with banners bearing a related text.  This icon, however, focuses in on the central image of Mary with crown and scepter, holding the Christ Child — the main element in many “Joy of all Who Suffer” icons — though many also picture Mary without the Child.

This example of the type is particularly unusual in that it depicts Mary to the waist, instead of full length.

Notice that this icon has a kovcheg — an ark — meaning that the main area of the image is recessed below the level of the outer border.  It is characteristic of early icons, but as we see from this example, it was still used now and then even, even into the 19th and beginning of the 20the century.

For more information on the conventional “Joy of All Who Suffer,” type, here is a link to the earlier posting:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/joy-of-all-who-sorrow/

THE BIGGER THEY ARE…

In a previous posting, we looked at Dmitriy/Dimitriy Solunski, Demetrios of Thessaloniki — one of the noted warrior saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  In that previous posting we saw that the defeated figure fallen to the ground in his icons is often vaguely called the “King of the Infidels.”

In Serbia, however, he has a very definite name.   Let’s look at a 14th century fresco from Vuisokie/Vysokie Dechani:

The inscription at the top tells us,
“Holy Dimitriy Impales Tsar Kaloyan of Zagora.”  Kaloyan (c. 1170-1207) was a Bulgarian voevod.  He  died during the siege of Thessaloniki, killed in a plot, it is generally believed, involving the head of his mercenaries, a man named Menastra.  However another account suggests pleurisy as the cause for his death.  In any case, a legend soon arose that St. Dimitriy killed Kaloyan with a lance, which of course was impossible, given that Dimitry had supposedly been martyred in the early 4th century; so Kaloyan’s death became, in popular belief, a miracle attributed to the saint.

Here is Dimitriy again, seen in a 12th century carved stone relief from Kievan Rus.  And the other figure is understood to be St. Nestor — Nestor Solunskiy, that is Nestor of Thessaloniki.

Nestor was said to be a handsome young man who received his Christian belief from Dimitriy/Demetrios.  It happened that Emperor Maximian, who had imprisoned Dimitriy for his Christian belief, was also fond of games and spectacles.  He had a favorite wrestler named Lyaeos (Slavic Лий/Liy).  This man, from the Germanic Vandal people,  was of huge stature, very tall and immensely strong, and supposedly his strength was enhanced by demons.  He put on a performance in which he wrestled people — among them many Christians — on a wooden platform, then threw them onto the points of spears and other sharp weapons that were sticking up below the platform.

Nestor, seeing all this, went to Dimitriy in prison and asked his blessing to defeat Lyaeos in a contest.  Dimitriy gave him his blessing, and in doing so foretold not only Nestor’s victory but also that he would suffer for Christ.

Nestor went to where Lyaeos was doing his wrestling and killing, and taking off his outer garments, he loudly and publicly challenged him.  The Emperor warned Nestor against it, saying that the young man’s small size was no match for the huge Lyaeos.  But Nestor replied that he would fight in Christ’s name.

That angered Maximian, who then told Nestor to enter the platform.  Nestor overcame the much larger Lyaeos, and threw him down upon the upright spears, killing him as Lyaeos had killed so many others.

The Emperor was so upset by this that on learning Dimitriy had encouraged and helped Nestor defeat Maximian’s favorite by blessing the young man, he condemned both Dimitriy and Nestor to death.  Dimitriy was killed with spears, and Nestor was beheaded.  This is said to have happened in the year 306.

It is far from a “turn the other cheek” kind of Christianity, but that is how some of these hagiographic legends go.

Here is a 14th century fresco from Dechani showing Nestor defeating Lyaeos:

Nestor is ranked among the warrior saints in iconography, and he is often shown with armor and weapons, as in this 14th century fresco, again from Vysokie Dechani in Serbia:

THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS

It is possible that the earliest “Resurrection” image was symbolic rather than literal.  Literal images showing the resurrection of Jesus — and actually depicting Jesus — came later.  In the catacombs are found a number of depictions of Jonah and the Sea Monster (later just called a “whale”).  They appear to have been used as images signifying resurrection from the dead.

That is not a surprising representation to find, because in the gospel called “of Matthew,” we find Jesus saying this (Matthew 12:38-40):

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we want to see a sign from you.

But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Now interestingly, “Matthew” has made an addition to the text of “Mark” here.  In the parallel incident in the Gospel called “of Mark,” Jesus says by contrast that no sign at all would be given, and there is no “except” addendum (Mark 8:12):

And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and says, Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, There shall no sign be given to this generation.

So what the addition of Matthew has done is to transform the Markan “no sign” into a supposed prophecy — the “sign of Jonas” then signifying that just as Jonah/Jonas was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so the Son of Man — meaning Jesus himself — would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  This of course refers to the burial of Jesus, which was then — in the biblical accounts — followed by his resurrection.

Now oddly enough, there is yet another parallel in Luke 11:29-30:

And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet.

For as Jonas was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.

Again, no mention of the chronologically impossible “three days and three nights” of Matthew, when applied to the time between the burial and resurrection of Jesus.  In “Luke,” Jonah himself — through his preaching, presumably — was a “sign to the Ninevites.”  This gives the saying a very different meaning:

“…for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here” (Luke 11:32).

Nonetheless, in early Christian art, when we see Jonah being expelled from the mouth of the sea creature after his “three days and three nights” inside the creature, we are seeing what is likely the first symbol of the Resurrection in Christian art — but applied not just to the resurrection of Jesus, but to that of the deceased Christian believer in general, as following the model of Jesus.

And by the way, I will leave aside here the disputes over how the “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” can or cannot be made to fit the Gospel accounts (which add up to Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night) of when Jesus was buried and resurrected, and the various attempts made to adjust the matter.  Suffice it to say that the biblical chronology makes a literal “three days and three nights” impossible.

 

 

SYZRAN AND THE PRIESTLESS POMORTSY

Today we will look at two Russian icons that were once the side panels on a three-panel Deisis set.  As you know, the icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty” would have been the central icon, with Mary approaching him at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right.  They are painted very much in the old and traditional manner:

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

Deisis icons reflect a royal court in which the ruler sits enthroned, and petitioners come to him with requests.

If we look more closely at the panel of John, you will find — if you are a long-time reader here — that you can easily translate his scroll:

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

The common inscription can quickly be recognized by its first two Church Slavic words — АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ/AZ VIDEKH — “I saw…”  You will recall that it continues “…and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God, who takes [away the sins of the world].”

The scroll held by Mary bears a very common text given her in Deisis icons, though sometimes we find variants.

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

This frequent text reads:

ВЛАДИКО МНОГОМИЛОСТИВЕ ГОСПОДИ ИСУСЕ ХРИТСЕ СЫИНЕ МОИ ПРИКЛОНИ УХО…

VLADIKO MNOGOMILOSTIVE GOSPODI ISUSE KHRISTE SUINE MOI PRIKLONI UKHO…

“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, my son, incline [your] ear….”

So Mary is asking Jesus to bend his ear to her and hear her petition on behalf of humans.

A владико/vladiko is a master or ruler.  In Eastern Orthodoxy, one often finds the term vladiko or vladika used when addressing a bishop.

These two Deisis panels are attributed  to vicinity of  Syzran/Suizran (Сызрань), a town on the Volga River, which was a center for traditional icon painting by Old Believers in the 19th century.  The Old Believers seem to have been in the region from the latter part of the 18th century.  In the year 1878, it was noted that between Simbirsk and Syzran there were 14 parishes of “State Church” believers, but 29 parishes of raskolniki — “Schismatics,” the deprecatory State term for Old Believers.

In this map of a segment of the Volga, we see Syzran at left, and Samara (Самара) at right:

In the second half of the 19th century, there were said to be at least 70 icon painting masters and establishments doing a flourishing business in the Syzran area.  The majority of them were Поморцы-Беспоповцы/Pomortsui-Bespopovtsui — that is, members of the Old Believer sect called “priestless” Pomortsui/Pomortsy.  They elected lay persons to conduct their services instead of priests.  In spite of this, their high-quality icons were commissioned not only by their own sect, but by others as well — including members of the State Church.  That does not mean, however, that there were no religious conflicts between the State Church and those holding other beliefs in Syzran.

One characteristic often found in Syzran icons is a kovcheg/ark with a wide and dark luzga — the bevel separating the ark from the outer border.  The luzga was often painted with gold or silver floral, etc. ornament, as we see in this detail from the “Mary” panel:

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

Syzran icon painting flourished from the late 18th to early 29th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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COVERED HANDS

Many people are puzzled by icons in which persons — frequently angels, but also other persons — are seen with the hands covered with what appear to be towels.  They wonder what the reason for these “towels” might be.  When seen in icons of the Baptism of Jesus, they might even think that the angels are carrying towels to dry Jesus off, as though he has just come wet from a bath.  Actually there is a different reason behind this peculiar feature of icons.

Hands are covered in icons as a sign of great reverence and humility.   The practice of covering the hands  may have come from an Eastern court custom followed in the old Persian Empire, which was later adopted in the Greco-roman world and the Roman court, then passed on in the byzantine court.  Hands were covered when objects were handed to or received from the Emperor, both as a sign of great respect and to show a kind of symbolic barrier between the Emperor and those approaching him.   At one time, a cloth was even sewn onto the outer garment of those handing object to or from the Emperor in the byzantine court, so that they might use it to cover their hands.  The impression given is that what was touched by the Emperor had become “sacred” in a sense; it was not an ordinary object and was not to be treated without great respect.  In any case, the practice of covering the hands when touching a sacred object is thought to have been introduced in late antiquity, and was used also in religious contexts to indicate reverence before a divine presence.

Technically in iconography, the motif of covered hands is given the Latin name manus velatae — which simply means “veiled hands,” or manibus velatis.

It is said that at one time when the Roman Emperor Julian was giving rewards to some men called to the palace, one of them reached out to take the gift with bare hands.  Julian then remarked that the men knew how to take, but not how to receive, because the bare hands were not covered in respect, as should have been done with proper etiquette.  It was “very bad form,” as the British expression has it.

So again, in icons, the covering of the hands symbolizes not only great reverence and humility, but also emphasizes the sacredness of certain objects or persons.  The hands may be covered with  separate cloth, or with part of  the garment.  Sometimes only one hand is covered.

We find “covered hands” in many icons, for example — as already mentioned — the angels in icons of the Theophany — the Baptism of Jesus:

We may find them on the angels depicted at the Birth of Jesus:

We often see a cloth or part of a garment between the hand and the Gospels in icons where a saint such as Nicholas holds the book:

(Image: Russianicons.net)

We find it also in icons showing angels carrying the symbols of the Passion:

Now when you see covered hands in this or that icon type, you will know what it signifies — strange though it may sometimes appear.

 

 

THE HAND OF ANGELUS

An interesting icon believed to be by Angelos Akotantos is coming up for auction on January 26th, 2019, in North Carolina (U.S.A.):

(Photo courtesy of Brunk auctions: http://www.brunkauctions.com)

You may recall Angelos Akotantos (Άγγελος Ακοτάντος) from an earlier posting on this site:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/mind-your-manners-the-cretan-school-of-icon-painting/

He was a noted iconographer of the Cretan School of icon painting, and was active about 1425-1450.

Venetian merchants carried on a thriving trade with Crete at that time, and ordered large numbers of icons, whether painted in the maniera greca (“Greek” manner) or the maniera latina (“Latin” or Italian manner).

This icon — depicting the Anastasis, the “Resurrection” of Jesus as his descent to Hades — shows Jesus standing in a mandorla (almond-shaped, full-length halo) of light.  He reaches out to grasp the hand of Adam, the first man.  Behind Adam stands his wife Eve, as well as other figures.

(Photo: Brunk Auctions)

To the left of Jesus we see John the Forerunner (the Baptist), as well as Kings David and Solomon and others.

(Photo: Brunk Auctions)

Two angels hover above, their hands covered with cloths as a sign of reverence.

In the open cavern at the base are two open sarcophagi, and in the center are the broken gates of Hades.

Usually, icons by Angelos Akotantos are signed in Greek ΧΕΙΡ ΑΓΓΕΛΟΥ/Kheir Angelou — “Hand of Angelos,” but this one was obviously intended for a Western — most likely Venetian — customer.  It is signed in Latin rather than Greek:

(Photo: Brunk Auctions)

The signature is:  Angelus pinxit — “Angelus painted [it]” — Angelus being the Latin form of the Greek Angelos.

You may recall that though some earlier icons were signed, it was the Cretan School that really popularized the signing of icons.

The icon is offered through Brunk Auctions in Asheville.