Today we shall look at a very uncommon icon type. Why then discuss it? Because uncommon types are the “spice” of the subject of iconography — something that catches our interest after seeing countless copies of such common icon types as the “Kazan” Mother of God and the “Lord Almighty.” But there is also another reason to look at it. Its title gives us more words to add to our practical Slavic vocabulary for reading icons.
This icon is Russian, from the 16th century. We might guess it is early, because instead of having the usual one-piece riza (metal cover), it has the kind of ornate frame-shaped covering called a basma ((басма) around its outer edges. A basma is composed of sheets of embossed or engraved metal nailed to the surface of an icon. Use of the basma faded out near the end of the 17th century, when it was gradually replaced by the one-piece metal cover called a riza (literally “robe”). A riza was usually fastened to an icon by nails inserted at the outer sides of the wooden panel, but a basma was just nailed right onto the icon surface, which is why we often find nail holes in the surface of very old icons where a basma cover was once placed.
Note the added metal halos nailed onto the icon above the figures at both sides of the lower portion.
The common title of this icon type (which begins in the larger inscription seen near the top of the basma), is:
ВИДЕНИЕ ПРОРОКА ИЕЗЕКИИЛЯ НА РЕКЕ ХОВАР
VIDENIE PROROKA IEZEKIILYA NA REKE KHOVAR
Videnie means “vision.”
Proroka is the “of” form of prorok, “prophet.”
Iezekiilya is the “of” form of Iezekiil’ (Иезекннль) the name Ezekiel.
Na means “on/at.”
Reke is a form of reka, “river.”
Khovar is the name of the river, called Chebar in the King James translation of the Bible.
So the title all together means:
“[The] VISION OF THE PROPHET EZEKIEL ON THE RIVER CHEBAR”
The text relating to this icon type comes from the first chapters of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. Here are some relevant excerpts:
Now it happened in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God…
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2And the spirit entered into me when he spoke unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spoke unto me.
And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that you find; eat this roll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll. And he said to me, Son of man, cause your belly to eat, and fill your bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.
So that is basically it. The man on the throne in Ezekiel’s vision becomes the image of Christ Immanuel in the icon itself. And down below, Ezekiel is seen standing on the left side, observing the vision. He is seen a second time at the lower right side, eating the scroll (“roll”) that is being handed down to him from Heaven.
The fluffy things at both sides of the circles enclosing Christ Immanuel are stylized clouds, showing that portion is in the sky. Then come the stylized rocks representing the ground, and in the middle of the bottom portion is stylized water, representing the river Chebar.
Having said all that, perhaps you may remember that in a much earlier post on the icon type called the “All-Seeing Eye of God,” we also find Ezekiel and his vision of wheels within wheels, and his eating of the scroll, in the more elaborate versions of that type, also known as the “Coal of Isaiah.”
Here is a 17th century fresco image of the Immanuel portion alone, from the Slivnitsa Monastery in Macedonia:
The Slavic inscription at the top is taken from the Marian hymn “In you rejoices” of which this image is presented as a part in the monastery representation:
” …Младенецъ бысть, прежде векъ сый Богъ нашъ, ложесна бо твоя Престолъ сотвори́,.”
“…of whom God was incarnate, and became a child, before the ages, even our God; for of thy body a throne He made….”
In Greek, the subject is called Το όραμα του Ιεζεκιήλ/To horama tou Iezekiel. One finds Greek-influenced Bulgarian examples in which the lower figure to the right of the river is the Prophet Abbakoum/Habbakuk like this 14th-century example from Thessaloniki, in the Sophia Icon Museum:
And here it is in an earlier mosaic form, from the Church of Hosios Dabid/David in Thessaloniki, variously dated from the 5th to the 7th century:
The text on the scroll held by Jesus is a variation on the text of Isaiah 25:9-10 in the Septuagint version:
ΙΔΟΥ Ὁ Θ[ΕΟ]C ἩΜΩΝ ΕΙΦ Ὡ ΕΛΠΙΖΟΜΕΝ Κ[ΑΙ] ΗΓΑΛΛΙΩΜΕΘΑ ΕΠΙ ΤΗ CΩΤΗΡΙΑ ἩΜΩΝ ὉΤΙ ΑΝΑΠΑΥCΙΝ ΔΩCΕΙ ΕΠΙ ΤΟΝ ΟΙΚΟΝ ΤΟΥΤΟΝ
“Behold our God on whom we hope, and rejoiced in our salvation, for he will give rest upon this house.”
Scholars are not unanimous on the meaning of this mosaic. Some interpret the waters in it as the Four Rivers of Paradise, and think that the “Vision of Ezekiel on the River Chebar” significance that is quite clear in later images of the type may have been an interpretation that developed out of an earlier image of Jesus from the Apocalypse (4:3):
“And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardius: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like an emerald.”
The rainbow association is as we have see, however, already found in Ezekiel 1:28:
“As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spoke.“