THE SECOND HOLY FOOL PROKOPIY

There are many little pitfalls in the identification of icons, so one must be very careful when something seems a little off.  Here, for example is an icon of a saint named Prokopiy:

It is rather odd, showing the same saint standing at left, and again dead in his coffin at right.

If we look at the title inscription, we might think at first that he is the Holy Fool Prokopiy of Ustiug/Ustiuzh, because we see the name Prokopiy (Прокопий ), and the first letters of the word following that are “Us-” ( Ус-).

But if we stopped there, we would be wrong in identification.  There are two clues to tell us that.  First, Prokopiy of Ustiug is generally shown with a beard, and this fellow is beardless.  Second, the word following the name on the icon, though it begins with “Us-,” has an ending that does not spell Ustiuzhskiy, as in Prokopiy of Ustiug/Ustiuzh.  Instead it ends in “-yan.”

If we put those clues together, then this tells us that the icon is not of the famous Holy Fool Prokopiy of Ustiug, but instead of a rather obscure saint named  Праведный Проко́пий Устья́нский —  Pravednuiy Prokopiy Ustyanskiy —  Righteous Prokopiy of Ustya, sometimes also called Усья́нский (Usyanskiy).

Further confusing the issue, this second and lesser-known Propkopiy was also considered to be a holy fool, or “Fool for Christ’s Sake” as the full title goes.

Now the really odd thing about this second Holy Fool Prokopiy is that absolutely nothing is known about his life.  No one ever heard of him, in fact, before an unidentified body was discovered in the middle of the 17th century.  It was found buried in a willow coffin exposed by the Ustya (Устья) ) River in the Vazhskiy district of Arkhangelsk Province, not far from the village of Veryuga (now Bestuzhevo).  It was said that a “fragrance” was smelled when the body was found, and that it was “incorrupt.”  In addition, it is said that healings began to occur due to the body.

Now as you may recall from a previous posting here,  in traditional Slavic belief, an undecayed body may signify either a saint or a vampire, depending on what additional events accompany such a discovery.  Fragrance is one of the traditional hints that an incorrupt body is a saint.  That is what the local people assumed in this case, so they built a chapel over the body.

The next major event in the story is that a fellow named Saveliy Ontropov (Antropov) had a dream in which the former resident of the body appeared to him, revealed his name as Prokopiy, and told him to place the body in a new coffin.  That was done, and the body in the coffin was then moved to the church, where a service to this supposed saint Prokopiy was initiated.

Later, a Solvychegodsk merchant named Ivan Ermolaev claimed Propkopiy appeared to him, giving authorization for an icon to be painted of him.  Ermolaev hired an icon painter named Onisim Karamzin to paint the first icon of this previously unknown saint Prokopiy.  The icon was made in 1652.

Making all this even stranger, around the beginning of the 19th century, the body was re-examined by authorities and found not to be genuinely incorrupt, and an official declaration was made in 1801 that prayers were not to be made to the supposed saint, but that did not stop the local people, who continued to venerate “their” saint, and the saint’s name was even included in some church lists of saints as a holy fool, and a pamphlet published in the last quarter of the 19th century listed some twenty healings attributed to this Prokopiy between 1641 and 1750, with forty more happening in the interval until 1913.  There is some confusion over the texts supporting wider veneration of Prokopiy, but nonetheless, he became a popular local saint in the northern region, and was particularly prayed to for rain in time of drought, or to prevent excessive rain.  Sometimes he was said to appear, either in the form of a young man or an old man.

The remains of the body of the supposed Prokopiy were destroyed by burning during the Soviet era (it is said that the locals may have retrieved bits from the ashes) in January of 1939, and the church where they had been kept was taken apart for its building materials.

In this old photograph we see the annual religious procession to the Vvdenie (“Entry” [of the Mother of God into the Temple]) Church where the relics of the supposed Prokopiy were kept, on the day of Prokopiy’s commemoration — July 8th/21.

Though Prokopiy was not officially “glorified” (the Eastern Orthodox version of canonization), his veneration continues to this day in the Arkhangelsk region.

As you have probably learned by now, the accumulation of the vast list of saints in Eastern Orthodoxy was often accomplished by dubious or non-existent evidence, and Prokopiy of Ustya certainly fits that pattern.

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WOODEN GODS

Zavodphoto.ru

(Zavodfoto.ru / Zavodfoto.livejournal.com)

I have mentioned previously that sculpture in the round — carved, standing, three dimensional religious images — tended not to be favored in Eastern Orthodoxy, where one usually finds the two-dimensional painted icons of deity and saints.  But that does not mean such religious statues did not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy at all.

You may recall that in 1721, Peter the Great created the so-called “Most Holy Governing Synod” (Святейший Правительствующий Синод) to head the Russian Orthodox Church, taking the authority formerly held by a patriarch.  Peter replaced that patriarchate with the Synod, which continued in office until the restoration of the patriarchate in 1918.

The Synod interests us here because in 1722 it issued a decree including regulations intended to control the making of icons.  Among those regulations, it forbade “to have in churches carved or sculpted icons” (“иметь в церквах иконы резные, или истесанные”).  It blamed the presence of such icons in Russia on the Catholics and Poles.

(Zavodfoto.ru.com / Zavodfoto.livejournal.com)

As is usual with church decrees, however, it was not always and everywhere taken seriously.  That is why, in churches here and there, carved statues (usually in wood) of noted saints such as Nicholas (in the “of Mozhaisk” type), Paraskeva and George were still to be found — in fact, as we have seen in previous postings, some such statues were considered to be “wonder working,” that is, accompanied by and able to work miracles.  In the case of statues of Jesus as the sorrowing “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” (Спас в темнице / Spas v temnitse,  Спас Полуночный / Spas Polunochnuiy) it was even thought such images had the power to walk about.  Incidentally, the “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” type — found also in panel icon form — appeared in Russian iconography in the 17th century, apparently borrowed — as some Orthodox icon types were over the years — including certain examples considered to be “wonder working” — from western Catholic art.

(Zavodfoto.ru.com / Zavodfoto.livejournal.com)

Also mentioned in a previous posting was the use of the colloquial term “God-daubers” for icon painters.  Similarly, icon statues in Russian churches were also sometimes termed “bogi” — “gods.”  For example, in the Urals — in the province of Perm — were found the so-called “Permian Gods” (Пермские боги / Permskie bogi), the present examples of which date from the 17th-19th centuries.  Highly favored by the local people,  these statues — in spite of church decrees — held their places in the rural churches.

We should not be surprised at the term “gods” being used for these figures, because as we have seen in the development of Christian art, the biblical deity and Christian saints replaced the older polytheistic gods — not only in Egypt and Rome, but also eventually (though much later) in the Russian countryside.

For those of you who read German, there is an interesting book on the subject of Russian Orthodox three-dimensional icon statues.  It is titled Verbotene Bilder; Heiligenfiguren aus Russland (Forbidden Images; Sacred Figures from Russia) by Marianne Stößl (Stössl), Hirmer Verlag, München (Munich), 2006.

FROM ART TO ICON

When examining the origins of early Christian art — and the later appearance of icons as venerated images — we must be careful to make precisely that distinction:  between the image used as symbol and/or narrative illustration, and the image used as venerated icon. As I have pointed out in previous postings, Christian icons developed on the fringes where Christianity met non-Christian polytheism, and the former, over time, increasingly borrowed the venerated image from the latter and adopted it into Christian usage.  The use of venerated icons in Christianity was never without controversy, and it took many centuries before icons were officially accepted in the church, and before a theology was created to excuse them.

But what of Christian art before the venerated icon?  It consisted largely of symbols and of narrative images.  That is what we find in the earlier Christian catacombs.

We find symbolic Christian art clearly presented in the Paedagogus (Teacher/Instructor) of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Book III.  He is speaking of seal rings, those bearing an engraved seal.  These were an essential part of daily life in the Greco-Roman world, and Christians needed them as well.  “Pagans” could use all kinds of images, from real people to figures from mythology, etc.  But Clement of Alexandria cautioned Christians that they must be careful in selecting their seal images:

And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates [tyrant of Samos mentioned in Herodotus] used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device [Seleucus Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty; the anchor symbol was said to have been given by the god Apollo to Seleucus’ mother in a dream]; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.  Many of the licentious have their lovers engraved, or their mistresses, as if they wished to make it impossible ever to forget their amatory indulgences, by being perpetually put in mind of their licentiousness.”

The subjects mentioned by Clement were extremely common on the everyday seal market as used by polytheists, but can generally (as he suggests) be given a Christian interpretation.   Note that he forbids images of “idols,” which to him meant any of the deities of the polytheists.  Note also that he does not suggest any images of Jesus or of saints that would have had to be specially made — though he permits generic images that may call such to mind — for example a fisherman, which could remind a Christian both of Peter the Apostle and fisherman, and of baptism.  But the fisherman here is a symbol, not an iconic representation of Peter.

We find many symbolic and narrative images in the early Roman catacombs, and in fact that is what the first Christian art was — symbolic or narrative, or a combination of both — not the venerated icons that came later.  That is not surprising, given that narrative images were already to be found here and there in Jewish art of the 3rd century — itself subject to, and the result of, Hellenistic Greek influence.  In fact the representational use of  art as found on the 3rd century Dura Europos synagogue walls  is characteristic of other religions (polytheistic) of the time, and borrowed by Jews for their own purposes.

We see that syncretism, for example, in the western wall of the Synagogue at Dura Europos, which has a surprising depiction — Orpheus taming the animals with his music, borrowed directly from Greco-Roman mythology.  That shows us the extent to which Jews — and also, we shall see, Christians — borrowed motifs from “pagan” Hellenistic mythology and used them as symbols to refer to figures in their own religious traditions.  In the Dura synagogue, for example, the Orpheus figure is used to remind one of King David — a symbol, in other words, borrowed from the Hellenistic and polytheistic culture, and used much as Clement used a fisherman to call to mind both the apostle Peter and Christian baptism.

Hellenistic influence extended not merely to art, but also to Jewish and Christian theology (think, for example, of the allegorical biblical interpretations of the Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 b.c.e- 50 c.e.), and his discussion of the Logos, the emanation of the hidden God, which is very much the Logos doctrine found in the Gospel called “of John”).  There are other examples from elsewhere of the Jewish use of the Orpheus image during this period.  We find the Orpheus images used also in a Christian context in the Roman catacombs, as well as the image of the sun god Helios/Apollo, again used in a symbolic sense to call Jesus, the “sun of righteousness” to mind — another “polytheistic” image borrowed and given a Christian significance.  It is hardly necessary to mention yet another common image from polytheistic culture — the Kriophoros or ram-bearer, which was borrowed into the earliest Christian art to signify Jesus, the “Good Shepherd.”  One could add more Christian borrowings from the art of the polytheistic culture surrounding them that are found in the art of the early catacombs — and in the first Christian art in general.  In fact — because the same images may be found used both by polytheists and as Christian borrowings, context is important in distinguishing one from the other.

We also find narrative images (images that “tell a story”) in the Dura synagogue, for example this image of the anointing of the young David as king by the Old Testament prophet Samuel:

Again, this is a narrative image, but not a venerated icon such as was found among the polytheists and those later Christians who took the notion of a venerated image as icon from the polytheists and began making Christian venerated icons.  We find narrative art in the Christian catacombs as well, for example this image of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water:

So the religious image as symbol or narrative is found in the art both of Judaism and of early Christianity — but the venerated icon as understood in later Eastern Orthodoxy is something else entirely, and should not be confused with the art of the early Christians as we find it in literature and in the archeological record.

It is convenient for our purposes that a Christian Church was also found at Dura, and it too had art, though not nearly as sophisticated as that in the Dura synagogue.  It is here that we find what may be the earliest-known representation of Jesus, shown as a typical classical figure, healing the paralytic.  We find also the “Good Shepherd” image, what is apparently a representation of Jesus and Peter “walking on the water,”  and also an image generally interpreted as the women coming to the tomb after the resurrection.  All narrative/symbolic images, representing biblical stories.

So early Christian symbolic/narrative art must be distinguished from the later venerated Christian icon as found in Eastern Orthodox art.  Hellenistic, polytheistic culture influenced both early Christian (and Jewish) art of second and third centuries c.e., so it is an egregious error to imagine that Christian art developed free of influence from its polytheistic environment.  Nonetheless, the venerated icon that later developed in Christianity was a significant step beyond the use of narrative and symbol in art;  it was the adoption of the polytheistic practice of veneration of images of the gods into Christianity,  transferring that veneration of the heavenly hierarchy to Jesus and the saints —  a significant distinction that is often overlooked in “religious” discussions of the origins of Christian iconography and of Christian venerated icons.

 

FROM POLYTHEISM TO THE PANOPLY OF SAINTS: THE BEGINNING OF CHRISTIAN ICONS

The god Serapis, Roman Egypt:  tempera on wood, from a triptych, c. 100 c.e. — J. Paul Getty Museum

In earlier postings, I noted that the making and veneration of icons (as the term was later understood in Eastern Orthodoxy) was not an “official” part of earliest Christianity, but rather came into it later, on the fringes of Christianity as it spread out of Judaism and into the polytheistic Greco-Roman world.  The use of icons came from polytheistic religious practice into Christianity gradually (and not without controversy), only being accepted officially as part of Church practice centuries later.

That is why the first evidence we have of icons being venerated as sacred images is found in that border where polytheism meets Christianity, the latter being influenced by the former.

In Greco-Roman polytheism, it was common for those who believed they had received a beneficial answer to their prayer to a deity to offer some sort of gift in return to that god or goddess — a votive offering.  The term comes from the Latin votum, meaning a vow or promise.  Such a gift given in thanks was part of the relationship between worshiper and deity — “you do this for me, and I will do this for you.”

There were various kinds of votive gifts to the deities, but often they were images.  One could donate a clay image of the deity, a stone or bronze statue small or large, and one could even donate a shrine or temple to house such images.  Among these votive gifts were painted panels depicting the deity or deities.  They could be donated to a temple, or placed in a home shrine.  These panels are ancestors of the later Eastern Orthodox icon.

The practice of venerating such images of the gods in polytheistic practice, whether in home or temple, involved honoring them with lights, and with wreaths, crowns, and garlands woven of flowers and foliage.

That is precisely what we find in the apocryphal Acts of John, usually dated as early as 150-200 c.e.   It records how a man named Lycomedes, raised from the dead by the Apostle John, had a painting — for all practical purposes an icon — made of John, enshrined it in his bedroom, and honored it with lights and garlands.  Here is that portion of the account:

There came together therefore a gathering of a great multitude on John’s account; and as he discoursed to them that were there, Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went hastily to him and said to him: You see me in a great hurry to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it. And the painter, giving some one the necessary implements and colors, said to Lycomedes: Show him to me, and for the rest have no anxiety. And Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near him, and shut him up in a room from which the apostle of Christ could be seen. And Lycomedes was with the blessed man, feasting on the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced yet more in the thought that he should possess him in a portrait.

The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of him and went away. And on the next he painted him in with his colors, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes to his great joy. And he took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that you always do when you come in from the bath into your bedchamber alone? do not I pray with you and the rest of the brethren? or is there something you art hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of your gods that is painted here? for I see that you art still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is you, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.

And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: You mock me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] your Lord? how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ lives, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who has imitated this my face, desires to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colors that are now given to you, and boards and plaster (?) and glue (?), and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye.

But do you become for me a good painter, Lycomedes. You have colors which he gives you through me, who paints all of us for himself, even Jesus, who knows the shapes and appearances and postures and dispositions and types of our souls. And the colors wherewith I bid you paint are these: faith in God, knowledge, godly fear, friendship, communion, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, purity, simplicity, tranquillity, fearlessness, grieflessness, sobriety, and the whole band of colors that paint the likeness of thy soul, and even now raise up your members that were cast down, and levels them that were lifted up, and tends your bruises, and heals your wounds, and orders your hair that was disarranged, and washes your face, and chastens your eyes, and purges your bowels, and empties your belly, and cuts off that which is beneath it; and in a word, when the whole company and mingling of such colors is come together, into your soul, it shall present it to our Lord Jesus Christ undaunted, whole (unsmoothed), and firm of shape. But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.

What we see in this early pious tale is the making of a Christian icon by a former “pagan” who just adapts his old religious practice to new Christian circumstances.  And that is precisely how Christian icons began — with the changing of the gods from pagan polytheism to Christian polytheism — the veneration of Jesus and Mary and all the growing panoply of saints who became the new gods in practice, if not in terminology.

Just as Lycomedes was following old polytheistic practice in his obtaining and veneration of an image of John, and his veneration of it with lights and garlands, so Eusebius of Caesarea suggests that the statue of a standing man and kneeling woman once found at the city of Paneas/Banias was a statue of Jesus and the woman with an issue of blood, made by “gentiles” (meaning non-Christian polytheists).  He wrote:

“Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

So again we have an association of the making of images with the traditional practices of “pagan” polytheists — though three dimensional art fell out of favor in later Eastern Orthodoxy, the panel painting survived as the Christian icon.

For more on the Banias/Panias image and its likely real nature, see this earlier posting:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/an-anonymous-woman-the-paneas-image-and-veronica/

Note that Eusebius does not attribute these early Christian images to Christians, but rather to “pagans” following their traditional polytheistic practices of veneration, but applying them to Christian “heroes.”  As Eusebius wrote in his Life of Constantine,

“…we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

That is much in keeping with what Irenaeus  (c. 130–202) had to say about the Carpocratians (a Christian sect founded in the 2nd century), in his Against Heresies, 1:25-6:

They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [‘pagans’]”.

So again we find veneration of images in the traditional polytheistic manner, this time applied to both “pagan” and Christian images — but being “according to the practice” of or “after the same manner” as the “pagan” polytheists.  That is why I often say that the making and veneration of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just the continuation of the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods, but in Christian guise.  Like the saying from the old TV show Dragnet, “Only the names have been changed….”

 

 

TAKING NAMES AND….

At the entrance to old Japanese Budhist temples, there were often two guardian deities.  Here is a pair dating from the Kamakura Period (13th-early 14th century):

I always think of such guardian deities when I see the two angels painted at the entrance to Orthodox Churches in Slavic countries.  These are the “Ангелы Господни, записывающие имена входящих в храм” — the “Angels of the Lord, Recording the Names of Those Entering the Church.”

When both are found (sometimes there is only one), the angel on the left (in Slavic countries) of the entry is the Archangel Michael (Mikhail), as seen here in the Church of Simeon the God-receiver at the Zverin Monastery of Novgorod.:

He threateningly holds a sword in his right hand, and a scroll in his left.

In the Greek Painter’s Manual (Hermineia) of Dionysios of Fourna, we find this:

Inside the door of the temple, on the right, the Archangel Michael; He holds a sword and a scroll with these words:  ‘I am a soldier of God, and armed with a sword. Those who enter here with fear, I defend them, I guard them, I protect them and I observe them; But those who enter with an unclean heart, I strike them mercilessly with this sword.

Sometimes in Slavic Churches, Michael’s scroll reads:

Простираю меч мой на приходящих в чистый дом Божий с нечистыми сердцами.
“I extend my sword to those who enter the pure house of God with impure hearts.”
Again, in Slavic Churches, Gabriel (Gavriil) is commonly on the right side of the entrance, though Dionysios of Fourna writes:
On the left, Gabriel holds a scroll, and writes these words with a reed: ‘I write with this reed the internal disposition of those who enter here; I take good care of the good, but I cause the bad to perish promptly.'”
Here are much more recent versions of the two Archangels, as seen in the Church of St. Kirill in Kiyev, Ukraine.
Michael at left:
And Gabriel at right:
As mentioned earlier, some churches have only a single recording angel, who is sometimes simply known as the Ангел храма — Angel Khrama — “Angel of the Church.”  It is believed that this angel becomes the protector of a church when it is consecrated, and remains on duty there until the Second Coming.  Such an angel may be depicted as standing or sitting, recording on his scroll the names of those entering the church, so that he may give his report on them at the Last Judgment.
Now obviously there is a relationship here to the standard image of the Guardian Angel in icons, who follows each person through life, recording his deeds.

NICHOLAS MILITANT

A reader recently sent me photos of an interesting icon.  Here it is, set in its richly ornamental gilt frame, kept in a glassed-in kiot (protective icon case):

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

The important part, for our purposes, is the icon itself:

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

Well, it looks quite straightforward, doesn’t it?  It has all the characteristics of the type known as Nicholas of Mozhaisk, which depicts St. Nikolai (Nicholas) standing, robed as a bishop, with a sword in his left hand and a church in his right.

We can see that the inscription above Nicholas is a common one:

It reads:

С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ НИКОЛАИ ЧУДОТВОРЕЦЪ
SVYATUIY NIKOLAI CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”

If we left it at that, however, we would be a little too hasty and not quite entirely correct in identification of this icon.  It is important not to miss the little inscription at the base of the image; inscriptions should never be overlooked.  Here is a closer view:

It reads (put into modern Russian font):
ЯВИСЯ ВЪ Г[ОРОДЕ] МЦЕНСКЕ 1415
YAVISYA V G[ORODE] MTSENSKYE 1415
“APPEARED IN [the] CITY MTSENSK 1415”

Well, we know that the Nicholas of Mozhaisk icon itself did not “appear” in 1415, according to its origin story, but rather in the 1300s.  Nor did the legendary event of Nicholas appearing in the air over the city happen in a place called Mtsensk, but rather in the city of Mozhaisk.  What, then, is the significance of this “1415” inscription and the place name “Mtsensk”?  And where exactly is this “Mtsensk”?  Why all these differences?

The answer is that even though this icon is in the form commonly known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” it represents a particular “appearance” of an icon of that form — an “appearance” other than that at Mozhaisk.

First, what or where is Mtsensk (Мценскъ)?

It is a city in the Orlov region of Russia.  Here it is on an 1897 map, just about in the center of this image.  You can see there is a river running through it, called the Zusha:

At lower left is the city of Orel (Орелъ ).

To get a wider view of where it is in Russia, we can look at another map.  We can see the city of Orel southwest of Moscow, about two thirds of the way to the Ukrainian border:

So that tells us where Mtsensk is located.  Now for the origin story of the icon.

The origin story is a bit confused and varies from account to account.  It is said that on a Friday — June 7th of 1415 — the region of Mtsensk was still heavily pagan.  But on that day there was an eclipse of the sun, which the clerics used to frighten the people into becoming baptized as Christians.

It is also said that in the same year and day, a stone — formerly worshiped by the pagan people — was found floating in the Zusha River at Mtsensk. On it was an image of Nicholas with a sword in one hand and in the other a reliquary in the form of a church.  Such an image (which type we now generally call “Nicholas of Mozhaisk”) is commonly known as Николай Ратный —Nikolai Ratnuiy — “Nicholas the Militant.”  And the image that “appeared” at Mtsensk is one example of that type, and in itself is called Nikolai Mtsenskiy  — Nicholas of Mtsensk, or Никола Амченский — Nikola Amchenskiy — “Nicholas of Amchen,” Nikola being a form of Nicholas, and Amchensk being a popular alternate name for the city of Mtsensk.  This icon was also credited — through its supposed miraculous nature — with the conversion of the locals to Christianity.

Scholars, however, generally believe that these “Militant Nicholas” types are likely based upon Western European sculptures of Nicholas, related to that at Bari, in Italy, where the remains of St. Nicholas are thought to have been taken.  Further, that such statues came to Russia as reliquaries in the form of Nicholas given to Russian princes, and supposedly holding relics of the saint. Though three-dimensional sculpture is generally frowned upon in Russian Orthodoxy, such statues of the “Militant Nicholas” were made an exception due to the great veneration accorded them by the people, and the miracles supposedly associated with them.

So it turns out this little icon is actually quite interesting, given that it specifically commemorates the story of the appearance of an image of Nicholas at Mtsensk, which became a noted pilgrimage site in the old days of Tsarist Russia, with thousands of pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Siberia.  And the coming of pilgrims meant money.

One more little detail, and then we will leave this interesting icon.  If we look just below the figure of Nicholas, we can see that he is standing on a rug:

On that rug is the image of an eagle, though it is upside-down, with the head nearest us and the tops of the wings at each side.  Such a rug — called an Орлец — Orlets — “Little Eagle / Eaglet” is used in the Orthodox liturgy, and is round or oval.  The bishop stands upon it at certain parts of the rite.  It depicts an eagle with wings spread, often flying above a city.  The Orlets was once a sign of the Byzantine Emperor’s authority.  In those days it was a double-headed Byzantine Imperial eagle.  Then it became a kind of respectful award given by the Emperor to the Patriarch.  Later, when the Byzantine Empire had fallen,  it came to be used by any bishop in Russia, signifying both the status of the bishop as having a heavenly origin, as well as a sign of the bishop’s oversight of the people of a city, (his diocese), and that a bishop should “rise above” worldly things.  In Russia it was a one-headed eagle.  We can just think of it as a bishop’s symbol.

THAT WOMAN ON THE SLED

Anyone who has studied Russian history or Russian art is familiar with this famous painting by Vasiliy Surikov of the exiling of the Boyarina Morozova (1632–1675):

(V. Surikov; Tretyakov Gallery)

The key to understanding the painting — and its relationship to Russian history — lies in the fingers of her upraised hand:

Look more closely:

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will recognize the position of the fingers as the blessing sign used by the Old Believers — something that often distinguishes Old Believer icons from State Church icons.

What is happening in the painting?  Who was the Boyarina Morozova?

She was born  in 1632 and named Feodosia Prokopievna (in the Russian naming system, that -evna suffix means she was the daughter of a fellow named Prokopiy).  Her father was Prokopiy Feodorovich (meaning “son of Feodor”) Sokovnin.  When she was seventeen, she married a nobleman, boyar Gleb Morozov — thus her married surname Morozova.  They had one son, Ivan, and when her husband died in 1662, she inherited fabulous wealth.

The great change in her life began in 1664, when she met the Archpriest (protopop) Avvakum.  Every student of icons should know that name.  He was the fellow who opposed the changes in the Russian Orthodox liturgy and ritual pushed through — beginning in 1652 — by the Patriarch Nikon.  Then (as now), it is dangerous to oppose authority in Russia, and Avvakum was exiled to Siberia in 1653.  But in 1662 Avvakum was permitted to return to Moscow.  Meanwhile, Patriarch Nikon had fallen from favor, but nonetheless his changes remained in effect, and Avvakum continued to vigorously oppose them, keeping to Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced before Nikon — thus the term used for Avvakum and his followers — “Old Believers” (старове́ры/staroverui) or “Old Ritualists” (старообря́дцы/staroobryadtsui).  Old Believers were given the pejorative title Raskolniki — “schismatics” — because of their refusal to accept Nikon’s changes.

In 1666 the Russian Orthodox Church held a “pan-Orthodox” council — The Great Moscow Synod/Council ( (Большой Московский собор/Bolshoi Moskovskiy sobor) — that paradoxically accused Patriarch Nikon of reviling Church and Tsar, and reduced his status to that of an ordinary monk.  And the Council condemned an important previous Russian Orthodox Church Council — the famous Stoglav (“Hundred Chapters”) Council of 1551, that had approved Russian church practices that differed somewhat from those of Greek Orthodoxy.  This would not be the first time that an Eastern Orthodox Church council negated the declarations of a previous council.  And because the Old Believers refused to renounce the Stoglav Council, and refused to accept the “reforms” instituted by the now deposed Nikon, they were condemned by the Great Moscow Synod of 1666-67.

So in 1666 the Church formally anathematized (cursed) Avvakum and his teachings, and once more exiled him, this time to Pustozersk, a distant northern outpost in what is today the Arkhangelsk region of Russia.  There Avvakum, along with his deacon Feodor, the Solovetsk monk Epifaniy, and the priest Lazar (the latter two had their tongues previously cut out) — all Old Believers — suffered great hardship and torture, and all three were killed by the Russian Orthodox State Church and its governmental arm on April 14, 1682 — ironically, Good Friday.  The “legal” reason given for the murder was «великия на царский дом хулы» — “great blaspheming of the Imperial House”  — referring to caricatures of the Tsar that had circulated among the Old Believers.  Pustozersk was the same place where another Old Believer, Kiprian of Moscow, had been decapitated for his beliefs on July 7, 1675.

Here is an icon-pattern-style illustration of the burning of Avvakum, Feodor, Epifaniy, and Lazar:

By B. V. Kiselnikov/Б.В. Кисельников

Now years before the martyrdom of Avvakum, the Boyarina Morozova had lived a luxurious life with her immense wealth.  It is said that when she went out, she was accompanied by two hundred servants.  But she eventually took on a much simpler life, living like a nun, and taking in all kinds of homeless, poor, and ill people.  Archpriest Avvakum and his wife also had come to live in her home.  Now as mentioned, the Boyarina Morozova met Avvakum in 1664; he became her confessor, and she avidly followed his teachings and opposition to the “reforms” instituted by Nikon.  She became an ever more ardent advocate of the Old Belief, and it is said that she even had “underground” Old Believer literature printed.

Of course it was not long before all this came to the notice of Tsar Aleksei, because of the intimate connection between Church and State.  The sister of the Tsaritsa was sent to try to talk Feodosiya out of her connections with the Old Belief.  It did not work.  Then the Tsar tried confiscating some of her property.  That did not work either.  The Tsar was even more irritated when Feodosiya took in nuns expelled from their convents for holding to the Old Belief.  And then Feodosiya herself took formal nun’s vows, changing her name to Feodora, and would no longer attend the royal court or have anything to do with the State Church.  She even refused to attend the Tsar’s wedding to a new wife, which infuriated him.

In November of 1671, the Tsar had Feodosiya/Feodora and her sister arrested and put in chains.  All her wealth and property was confiscated.  The Boyarina Morozova was tortured.  Her son Ivan, hearing of her horrible treatment, is said to have gone insane.

Here is an illustration in “icon pattern” style showing Feodosiya/Feodora being examined before the Russian Orthodox Church authorities:

By B. V. Kiselnikov/Б.В. Кисельников

We see her right hand raised defiantly in the “two-fingered” blessing sign characteristic of the Old Believers.  The inscription above her head reads:

ПР[ЕПОДОБНО]М[У]Ч[ЕНИЦА] ФЕОДОРА
Prepodobnomuchenitsa Feodora
“Venerable Martyr Feodora/Theodora”

To get Feodosiya/Feodora out of the public eye, the Tsar exiled her to Borovsk.  That is the scene depicted in the famous painting by Surikov — Feodosiya being dragged off in a crude sled to an underground dungeon in Borovsk.  There she and her sister were starved to death, and were buried inside the jail.

And so the Boyarina Morozova became an Old Believer saint.