PREPARATION OF THE THRONE

Today we will look at an icon type that, while sometimes found as an element in other icons, is also seen on its own.

Here is an example of its frequent use as part of an icon of the Страшный Суд — Strashnuiy Sud in a Balkan fresco — the “Terrible Judgment,” which in the West is generally called the “Last Judgment” or the “Second Coming.”

Let’s looks more closely at the central portion relevant to today’s discussion.

At left and right are two angels.  That on the left, with the “M” above his head, is Mikhail/Michael.  That on the right with the “Г” is Gavriil/Gabriel.

In the center is a table on which is a cushion and a book, and behind it a cross flanked by the symbols of the Passion of Jesus, the spear at left, and the reed with a sponge at right.  On the little footstool below the table is a footstool on which are the four nails used to crucify Jesus.

Atop the cushion on the larger table is a dove that oddly enough bears the cruciform halo peculiar to Jesus, and confirming that, we see the abbreviation IC XC just above it — signifying Isus Khrista (Iesous Khristos in Greek) — “Jesus Christ.”  The dove’s feet rest on the Book of the Gospels.  Ordinarily in this type, the dove represents the Holy Spirit, but the painter of this icon seems to have not quite grasped that, so gave it the cruciform halo and inscription abbreviation for Jesus.  The dove can be understood as the presence of the Holy Spirit as paraclete with the Church until the return of Jesus — his representative in a sense. There is also a cloth (sometimes obviously a garment) as the mantle of Jesus — frequently in royal purple,

Parts of this composition have a double meaning.  The large table is both a throne and an altar (prestol — the Slavic word for an Orthodox altar — means “throne.”  The book on it is both the Gospel book commonly found on Orthodox altars, but it also represents the book of Revelation 5:1:

And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

And it also represents the presence of Jesus.

The identifying inscription of this composition is just below the main crossbar:

OУГОТОВЛЕНИIЕ ПРЕСТОЛА
OUGOTVLENIIE PRESTOLA

Note that in the actual inscription, the “E” in the first word is written with the old Slavic letter pronounced “ye”:

The final IE in the second word is written as the old Slavic compound letter pronounced “IE” (ee-ay):

We will use the more standardized form УГОТОВАНИЕ ПРЕСТОЛА — Ugotovanie Prestola. Ugotovanie means “preparation, making ready”; Prestola is the “of” form of Prestol, meaning “throne.”  So this type is called “The Preparation of the Throne.”

In Psalm 88:15 of the Church Slavic Bible (89:14 KJV), we find:
Прáвда и судьбá уготóванiе престóла тво­егó: ми́лость и и́стина предъи́детѣ предъ лицéмъ тво­и́мъ.
Pravda i sudba ugotovanie prestola tvoego; milost i istina predeidete pred’ litsem’ tvoim’
“Justice and judgment are the preparation of your throne; mercy and truth shall go before your face.”

And in Slavic Psalm 9:8-9 (9:7-8 KJV):
И Госпóдь во вѣ́къ пребывáетъ, уготóва на сýдъ престóлъ свóй: и тóй суди́ти и́мать вселéн­нѣй въ прáвду, суди́ти и́мать лю́демъ въ правотѣ́.
And the Lord forever endures, he has prepared his throne for judgment:  and he will judge the  world in justice, the peoples in uprightness.

Here is a very basic form of the type:

The title inscription above it reads (the two sides join together):

Ἡ ἙΤΥΜΑCΙΑ

That is a rather phonetic variant of the correct spelling:

Ἡ ἙΤΟΙΜΑCΙΑ
He Hetoimasia
“The Preparation.”

In modern Greek the title is pronounced “Ee et-ee-ma-SEE-ah.

Here is a slightly more detailed mosaic version:

note the addition of what appears to be the crown of thorns to the axis of the cross.  In other examples it is a laurel wreath of victory.  The spelling used here is yet another variant:

Ἡ ΕΤΗΜΑCΗΑ
HE ETIMASIA

In this fresco version from the monastery of Dečani, the “Preparation” has become a throne carried by angels:

There is a Gospel book lying on the cloth on the throne, and all together the image forms a kind of Deisis variant, with Mary approaching at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right.  The two figures below are sometimes found in “Preparation” images.  They are Adam and Eve, and should not be confused with Mary and John the Forerunner.  If you look at the first image in this posting, you will again see Adam (at left) and Eve (at right) below the angels.

If we look more closely at the image, we can read its inscription:

It is:

ВТОРО ПРИШЕСТВИIЕ
VTORO PRISHESTVIIE
or as we more normally find it in Russian literature,

Второ Пришествие
Vtoro Prishestvie
“Second Coming”

It means, of course, the second coming of Jesus, and the angels are bringing out the throne to prepare it for the Last Judgment.  Here the Gospel book on the garment represents the presence of Jesus, and the crown on the cross is a laurel wreath.

In the example found at the Church of Saint Paul “Outside the Walls”  (San Paulo fuori le muri), we see yet more variation:

Looking more closely, we find that the laurel wreath generally found on the cross is here placed on its own stand to the left of the spear, and at right beside the sponge on a reed, we see a Eucharistic symbol — the chalice.  It holds three nails of the crucifixion (instead of four as found in the earlier example).  In some versions this chalice becomes a two-handled vessel placed on the footstool, and it may or may not have the nails within it.  Being a Roman church, in this mosaic the scrolls held by the angels are in Latin.  That at right reads GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO (“Glory to God on High”) and that at left “ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS (“And on earth peace to men.”)

The use of an unoccupied throne as the symbol of a ruler is very ancient, and long predates Christianity.

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BORROWED ANGEL: A BULGARIAN FRESCO

The Rila Monastery is the most noted monastic center in Bulgaria.  It burned in 1833, but was then rebuilt between 1834 and 1862.  Its delightfully colorful frescos were completed in 1846.

Here is an interesting example: The inscription (you should be able to read the first three words if you have been following this blog) says, “Holy Archangel Michael Torments the Soul of the Rich Man.” On the image the spelling varies slightly, but we can read it as  С. Архангел Михаил мучит душу богатого — Svyatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail muchit dushu bogatogo.

Michael looks rather glorious in his flowing pastel garments.  But that he is in this scene at all is a bit odd, and it becomes even stranger when we take a look at an earlier painting (c. 1630s) by the Italian Catholic artist Guido Reni:

The main image of Michael in the Bulgarian fresco is obviously ultimately  derived from the earlier image by Reni.  Michael has been given some slight “Orthodox” touches and is simplified in painting technique, but it is the same form overall.

The Reni painting is loosely based on Revelation 12: 7-9 etc.:

7 “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

But in the Rila fresco, the fallen Satan and the Revelation reference is gone, and in their place is the dying Rich Man of the parable in Luke 12: 16:

And he [Jesus]  spoke a parable to them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room in which to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said to him, You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?

21 So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Where in Reni’s painting, Michael holds chains in his right hand, in the Rila fresco they are replaced by the little soul of the Rich Man, a half-naked figure clothed only in a loincloth. Michael holds the little soul by its hair.  And though Reni’s Michael has bare legs, the Rila example gives him rosy leggings, called ноговицы — nogovitsui in Russia.

And of course the entire background is different:  gone are the rocks and flames of the Reni painting, replaced by buildings and the Rich Man’s mourners and demons, one of whom holds a bag of money in one hand and a little scroll in the other, with the text “You are mine, O covetous one.”

An engraving mixing the Reni image of Michael with elements found in the Rila fresco was published in Venice in 1811.  Such engravings were a common means by which Western European religious art was transmitted to the Orthodox countries of the East, to Russia, the Balkans, and Greece.

There were also engravings of the subject from Mt. Athos as early as 1807, with an inscription linking the image to the parable of the Rich Man.  One such copper engraving, from 1858, was printed at the Monastery of Simonopetra on Mt. Athos in Greece:

The title  inscription is in Greek and Slavic.  The Greek reads much as the Slavic:

Ὁ ΑΡΧΑΓΓΕΛΟΣ ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΠΕΔΕΥΕΙ ΤΗΝ ΨΥΧΗΝ ΤΟΥ ΠΛΟΥΣΙΟΥ
HO ARKHANGELOS MIKHAEL PEDEUEI TEN PSYKHEN TOU PLOUSIOU
“The Archangel Michael Chastises the Soul of the Rich Man.”

Now you might think this borrowing of Western European Roman Catholic and Protestant religious imagery into Eastern Orthodox iconography might be very rare, if you are one of those with the delusion of a “pure” Eastern orthodox art.  But it was not.  In Russia and other “Orthodox” countries, and even on Mt. Athos, Western European designs were sometimes used as patterns for icons and frescos.

But now to the matter of how the Archangel Michael, who is not mentioned in the parable of the Rich Man as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, happened to end up in icons and frescos of that parable.

In Orthodox iconography, Michael came to be not only the leader of the heavenly armies, but also the one weighing souls at the Last Judgment, holding the scales that balance a man’s good deeds against the bad.  This latter concept was extended to the “weighing” of the deeds of a man at death, when the soul left the body.  So while in some iconography from the 16th to 19th century, Michael is shown in his armor and with his sword as he stands on the body of the dead man and “weighs” his deeds to determine the fate of the soul, this image also became transferred, in the early 19th century, to images based on the parable of the Rich Man, and that is the version we see in the Rila fresco, though in the Rila example the scales of the earlier form are gone.

In any case, images of Michael either standing on a “generic” dead figure or on the more specific body of the Rich Man were sometimes used on side doors of the iconostasis, primarily in the Balkans.

The theme also relates to Russian icons depicting the “Righteous Man and the Sinful Man,” showing the life and fate at death of a pious man as compared to that of his sinful counterpart.  The “death” portion is depicted in this Russian lubok, circa 1800.  At left is the death of the “Rightous Man.”  At right is the death of the “Sinful Man,” which one may compare with the type of The Archangel Michael tormenting the Rich Man.