There are many icons of Mary in Russian Orthodoxy that are considered chudotvornaya, “wonder-working,” “miracle-working.” A peculiarity of some of these icons is that they are believed to “specialize” in treating certain ailments. There is one, for example, to help women in childbirth. There is another believed to be effective in problems of the mind, whether mental infirmity or helping students perform well in their studies.
An example of the latter is the icon type known as Прибавление ума — Pribavlenie Uma, “Increase of Reason” often translated simply as “Addition of Mind.”
The Church Slavic title written at the top of this icon reads, “Image of the Most Holy Mother of God, Ever Virgin Mary Increase of Reason.”
The peculiar thing about this particular icon type is that, like certain others, it was actually borrowed into Russian Orthodoxy from a western European Roman Catholic image, in fact a very well-known statue in Italy known as “Our Lady of Loreto.” We have already seen that the Buddha found a place in the Calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church under the name St. Ioasaph; in this case an Italian Roman Catholic statue has found a place in the list of Russian Orthodox “wonder-working” icons under the name “Increase of Reason.”
As anyone who has read the group of pious stories known as the Golden Legend knows, the history of saints and images is filled with all kinds of fanciful and imagined and heavily-embroidered stories, and this particular icon goes back to such an imagined story in its Roman Catholic version, which turns out to be quite like the stories one finds in Eastern Orthodoxy about the origins of Marian icons.
When it comes to images and paintings of Mary, there is always the frequently encountered tale that this or that image or painting was created by the evangelist Luke. That is in fact the story that became attached to a blackened image of Mary and the Christ Child that was kept in the shrine of Loreto in Italy. Of course such stories have not a wisp of scientific or historical support, but they served to enhance the importance of such images for pilgrims, and were avidly repeated.
The original Loreto statue was thus one of quite a number of art works attributed by fancy to St. Luke. And even more enhancing was the story that the chapel in which the Loreto image was kept was the original house of Mary, the same one in which she had met the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, the same one in which Jesus grew up; and that it had been carried through the air to Italy (with a long pause in Croatia) all the way from Palestine in the 13th century, to avoid its falling into the hands of Saracens (these were the times of the Crusades). The house was said to have been seen by shepherds, carried in the sky by the hands of angels. That is very reminiscent of tales told of icons, such as the appearance of the Tikhvin icon, seen by fishermen as it moved miraculously through the air over a lake in northern Russia toward its destination.
To make a long story short, the “Increase of Reason” icon is a painted version of the old, blackened statue of Mary and her child that was kept in the supposed house of Mary in Loreto, Italy. The icon reproduces not only the appearance and garments of the image, but even the shape of the niche with side columns in which the image was kept. That is easy to see when one looks at photos of the Loreto shrine and its image.
The present-day Loreto image in Italy, by the way, is a copy of an earlier image destroyed by fire in 1921.
Here is another icon of the “Increase of Reason” type:
At the base of Mary’s garment is a “cherubim” (remember that Slavic uses the plural for the singular in this case). The family name saints at left and right are Svyatuiy Iakov Apostol (Holy Jacob/James the Apostle) and Svyataya Irina Muchenitsa (Holy Irina/Irene the Martyress).
Sometimes one may find lines relating to wisdom from the Akathist on examples of this type.
The Unburnt Thornbush (Neopalimaya Kupina) icon of Mary is of particular interest because it is so very “pagan” in its notion that a painted icon of divine figures has the power to protect from fire. In old Russia, if a house or building burst into flame, people would stand holding this icon facing the fire in the belief that it would be extinguished. It was also hung to protect dwellings from fire.
There is much to say about this type. Its origins are a mixture of references to Old Testament events, to symbolic references to Mary found in the Akathist hymn and canon, and a good portion of it comes simply from apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees, particularly those portions relating to the angels surrounding the central figure of Mary holding the child Christ (Christ Emmanuel).
The immediate reference is to the Burning Bush seen by Moses in the biblical account — a bush that burned but somehow was not consumed. In Eastern Orthodoxy this was and is seen as a prefiguration of Mary, who dogma teaches was pregnant with God (as Jesus) but was not harmed thereby.
That is why Mary holds the central position in this rose-shaped form that is like a Jungian mandala. She is in the center with her child; about her are numbers of angels, who are the powers in nature that control such elements as lightning, thunder, and fire. And beyond the rosette, in the four corners of the icon, are four scenes that show noted Old Testament prefigurations of Mary that are also mentioned in the Akathist, the noted hymn to Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.
We will begin with those, which traditionally are:
Moses sees the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2), shown here with Mary visible in a circle within the flames. Mary was considered to have contained the fire of God, yet was not harmed (this explanation applies also to the separate Ognevidnaya icon depicting Mary with a fiery red face, popular in the 19th century, for which there is no origin story).
Isaiah’s lips are purified by the fire of a coal taken from the altar by a seraph. (Isaiah 6:5-7); Mary was considered purified by being pregnant with the “fire of God.” An alternate image illustrates Isaiah 11:1:
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” The inscription on that image on the second icon shown on this page reads “A shoot comes forth from the root of Jesse, and the blossom thereof is Christ.” The image depicts Jessie lying down, and on the tree that grows out of him, Christ is depicted.
The prophet Ezekiel sees a closed door in the East (Ezekiel 44:1-2), which symbolizes the virginity of Mary in E. Orthodoxy, the closed door to a temple containing the glory of God — the fire of divinity.
The Old Testament forefather Jacob sees, in a dream, a ladder from earth to heaven. Mary is considered a ladder uniting earth and heaven in E. Orthodoxy, through her bearing of Jesus: “Rejoice, heavenly ladder on which God descended.”
Moving inward, we next come to the points of the eight-pointed “slava” (“Glory”) representing divine light and the Eighth day of Creation, the Day of Eternity. In the upper left segment is an angel, representing the Evangelist Matthew as a winged man. At upper right is an eagle, representing the Evangelist Mark. At lower left is a lion, representing the Evangelist John, and at lower right is an ox, representing the Evangelist Luke.
The most interesting parts of the icon are the angels in the “petals” of the rose, which are usually eight or more in number. They are the forces behind the elements of nature, the hidden powers that control the weather and relate also to the apocalyptic end of the world. Inscriptions describing them vary from icon to icon.
Also usually found on this icon type is the inscription “Who makes his angels spirits, his ministers a flame of fire.” “Who makes his angels spirits” is in some versions “Who makes his angels winds.”
There are a number of apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements, but one of the most obvious is the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 2:
And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.
For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him -the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels [of the spirit of fire and the angels] of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth, (He created) the abysses and the darkness, eventide , and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart.
And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day.
One can see that the components of this icon have a great deal to do with fire and burning and lightning, as well as with frost, ice, rain and clouds. When one combines these with the “fire” attributes of Mary, it is not difficult to understand how the belief arose that this icon could control the elements and subdue fire.
The central image of the star set upon the angelic rosette is that of Mary holding Christ Emmanuel. She also holds a ladder, symbolizing her position as ladder between heaven and earth, the unifier of heaven and earth through the incarnation. Also often seen is a stone on her breast, signifying the “Stone not cut by human hands” of Daniel 2:45: “Forasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver and the gold.” This signifies the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, born without the participation of a human male. Additionally one often sees a small image of Christ as “Great High Priest” upon Mary’s breast, showing him wearing a bishop’s crown.
It is common to have an image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth” — Gospod’ Savaof)) seen on clouds just above the main rosette. He is usually shown with hands raised in blessing.
The icon of the Unburnt Thornbush, because of its supposed ability to protect from and to ward off fire, was very popular in Old Russia, where wooden buildings and dwellings were very common and fire a constant threat. This icon type was particularly popular among the Old Believers.
There is a lot of romanticized nonsense written about the painting of icons in old Russia. The fact is that it was a business and a very large business, in spite of sometimes using the euphemism “exchange” for the selling of icons — or more obviously, “to exchange for money.” Huge numbers of icons were sold every year, produced in workshops ranging from large, multi-employee operations to small family or even one-person operations. A good part of icon painting was done by Old Believers, who kept to the old and traditional styles, though some of the workshops — like the one depicted here — could paint in both styles, just as the earlier Cretan workshops in the Greek Islands had produced icons both in the “Byzantine” style and according to Western Roman Catholic taste.
The following excerpts are an actual glimpse into a pre-Revolution icon workshop in Russia through the eyes of Maxim Gorkiy, who was apprenticed to one when young. We should not be surprised at the prevalence of drinking and drunkenness at that time, nor should we consider it odd that workers often saw their task of icon painting as a tedious job (which it was), and were sometimes frustrated by the limits that the necessity of being “living copy machines” put on their artistic impulses. As we see, by this time icon painting had become a production-line process, which is one reason for the tremendous output of icon painting studios, even though they were still doing hand work.
Gorkiy worked in the icon painting studio at a time when icon painting was beginning to be threatened by lithography on paper and on tin — much less expensive to buy than hand painting — and that caused the icon business to already begin its decline, even years before the Russian Revolution was to cut it back sharply for other reasons.
These excerpts are from Gorkiy’s autobiography In the World (V Liudakh}:
The icon-painting workshop took up two rooms in a large house built partly of stone. One room had three windows, one overlooking the yard and one overlooking the garden; the other room had one window overlooking the garden and another facing the street. These windows were small and square, and their panes, distorted with age, unwillingly admitted the pale diffused light of winter days. Both rooms were closely packed with tables, and at every table sat the bent figures of icon painters.
Glass balls full of water were suspended from the ceiling, to reflect the light of the lamps and to throw it upon the square surfaces of the icons in cold, white rays.
It was hot and stuffy in the workshop. Here about twenty men worked, icon painters from Palekh, Kholuiy, and Mstera [the three most noted icon-painting villages at that time]. They all sat in cotton shirts with unfastened collars. They had pants made of ticking, and were barefoot, or wore sandals.
Over their heads, like a blue veil, stretched the smoke of cheap tobacco, and there was a heavy smell of sizing [gluey substance in gesso], varnish, and rotten eggs [egg yolks were used to bind the powdered pigments]. A melancholy Vladimir [town and region] song flowed slowly, like pitch:
How depraved people have become; A boy ruined a girl, and did not care.
They sang other melancholy songs, but that was the one they sang most often. Its long, drawn out movement did not keep one from thinking or impede the motion of the fine brush, made of weasel hair, over the surface of the icons, as it painted the lines of a figure and laid fine lines of suffering upon the emaciated faces of the saints.
By the windows the chaser, Golovev, worked his little hammer. He was a drunken old man with an enormous blue nose. The lazy flow of song was punctuated by the ceaseless tapping of the hammer, like a worm gnawing at a tree.
Some evil genius had divided the work [of icon making] into a long series of actions bereft of beauty and incapable of arousing any love for the business or interest in it. Panfil, the squinting joiner [woodworker], brought the pieces of cypress and lilac-wood of different sizes, which he had planed and glued [the panels on which the icons were painted]. The consumptive [with tuberculosis] lad Davidov laid the colors on. His friend Sorokin painted on the inscription; Milyashin outlined the design from an original with a pencil; old Golovev gilded it and embossed the gold pattern [impressed patterns into the gilded gesso]. The finishers added the landscape [background] and the clothes of the figures; and then they were placed — without faces or hands — against the wall, waiting for the work of the face painter [the worker who did all the visible “flesh,” including the faces of the saints].
It was very weird to see a large icon for an iconostasis, or the doors for an altar, standing against the wall without faces, hands, or feet — just the clerical vestments, or the armor and the short tunics of archangels. These variously-painted panels suggested death; that which should have added life to them was absent, but it seemed as though it had been there but had vanished, leaving only the heavy robes behind.
When the features had been painted in by the face painter, the icon was handed to the workman who filled in the design of the chaser. A different workman did the lettering, and the varnish [olifa] was applied by the head workman himself, Ivan Larionovich, a quiet man. He had a gray face; his beard was gray too, the hairs fine and silky. His gray eyes were particularly deep and sad. He had a pleasant smile, but one could not smile at him; he made one feel somehow awkward. He looked like the image of Simeon Stolpnik [Simeon Stylites], just as skinny and emaciated, and his motionless eyes looked far off in the same abstract way, through people and walls.
Some days after I had entered the workshop, the banner worker [maker of religious and processional banners], a Don Cossack named Kapendiukhin, a strong, handsome fellow, arrived completely drunk. With clenched teeth and his gentle, womanish eyes blinking, he began to smash up everything with his iron fist, without saying a word. Of medium height, he threw himself on the workroom like a cat chasing rats in a cellar. The others lost their composure and hid themselves away in corners, shouting out to one another, “Knock him down!”
The face painter, Evgeniy Sitanov, succeeded in stunning the maddened creature by hitting him on the head with a small stool….
Larionovich appeared on the scene in cap and overcoat, shook his finger at Sitanov, and said to the workmen in a quiet, professional tone, “Carry him into the vestibule, and leave him there ’til he is sober….”
I looked at Larionovich, wondering perplexedly why these strong, belligerent people were so easily controlled by him. He showed every one how he ought to work. Even the best workmen willingly listened to his advice. He taught Kapenduikhin more, with more words, than the others:
“You, Kapendiukhin, are what is called a painter; that is, you ought to paint from life in the Italian manner [the “Westernized” icon style]. Painting in oils requires warm colors, and you have used too much white and have made Our Lady’s eyes cold as winter. The cheeks are painted red, like apples, so that the eyes don’t seem to belong to them. And they are not put in right, either. One is looking over the bridge of the nose, and the other has moved toward the forehead; and the face has not come out pure and holy, but crafty and wintry. You don’t concentrate on your work, Kapendiukhin!….”
Zhikarev…went on with his work. He was the best workman we had, for he could paint faces in the Byzantine manner [the old style] and artistically in the new Italian style. When he took orders for iconostases, Larionovich consulted him. He had a fine knowledge of all the original images. All of the costly copies of miracle-working icons, “Feodorov,” “Kazan,” and others, passed through his hands. But when he looked at the model he growled loudly, “These models tie us down; there is no getting away from that fact.”
In spite of his superior place in the workshop, he was less conceited than others, and was kind to the apprentices — me and Pavel. He wanted to teach us the work, since no one else ever bothered about us.
He was difficult to fathom. He was not usually cheerful, and sometimes he would work for a whole week in silence, as if mute. He looked at everyone like strangers who amazed him, as if it were the first time he had come across such people. And although very fond of singing, at such times he did not sing, nor even listen to the songs. All the others watched him, winking at one another.
He would bend over an icon, which stood aslant, his panel on his knees, the middle resting on the edge of the table, while his fine brush diligently painted the dark, foreign face. He was dark and foreign-looking himself. Suddenly he would say in a clear, offended tone,
“Forerunner” [Predtecha] — what does that mean? Tech, in ancient language, means ‘to go.” A “forerunner” is one who goes before, and that is all” [John the Baptist is called Ioann Predtecha — “John the Forerunner”].
The workshop was very quiet; everyone was glancing sidewise at Zhikarev, snickering, and in the stillness rang out these strange words:
“He ought to be painted with a sheepskin and wings [he is speaking of the image of John the Forerunner as ‘Angel of the Wilderness’ — John the Baptist]”
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
He was silent, either not hearing my question or not caring to answer. Then his words fell again into the expectant silence:
“The lives of the saints are what we ought to know! What do we know? We live without wings. Where is the soul? The soul — where is it? The originals are there — yes — but where is the soul?”
…I remember when the copy of the “Feodorov” Mother of God was finished, Zhikarev placed the icon on the table and said loudly, excitedly:
“It is finished, Little Mother! Bright Chalice, Thou! Thou bottomless cup, in which are shed the bitter tears from the hearts of a world of creatures!” And, throwing an overcoat on his shoulders, he went out to the tavern. The young men laughed and whistled, the older ones looked after him with envious sighs, and Sitanov went to his work. Looking at it attentively, he explained, “Of course he will go and get drunk, because he is sorry to have to hand over his work. That sort of regret is not given to all.”
This late 19th century icon of Christ as “Lord Almighty” shows the kind of border ornamentation often popular in icons of the period. The incised border and halo are painted with imitation cloisonné enamel work. The text on the Gospel book reads “Priidite ko mne vsi truzhdaiushchiysya i obremeneney… ” etc. “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”
In the Eastern Orthodox division of Christianity, which is the primary creator and user of Christian religious icons, there is a very strong emphasis on tradition. But tradition can at times be perilous, and it certainly does not guarantee freedom from error.
Eastern Orthodoxy has never been particularly careful about what it chose to accept as tradition, and this is quite obvious in the stories of the saints, which most believers — until very recently — took to be absolutely true, but which are filled with fictions and fantasy.
Some saints in the Orthodox calendar never existed, or else their existence has been so distorted and fantasized that they are no longer recognizable.
One of quite a number of such errors is seen here: the painting and veneration of icons of a saint called Christopher “Dog-head,” Christopher Kynokephalos.
Yes, the people who painted these icons — which were even included in the painters’ manuals — really did believe that there was a saint who had the head of a dog. But to put that in perspective, keep in mind that icons used to have inscriptions dating the time of their painting from the creation of the world, which the icon painters (and the rest of the Church) believed took place only some 7,000 years ago. That tradition, held for about as long as Eastern Orthodoxy has had a formal dogmatic proclamation authorizing the veneration and making of icons and cursing those who refuse to accept them, has now been quietly retired, except among very conservative Eastern Orthodox, including no doubt many Old Believers.
And though icons of St. Christopher “Dog-head” were painted and venerated in both the Russian and Greek branches of the church, and of course instructions were found in painters’ manuals, one does not generally see new icons of this saint being painted today, or even old ones being venerated in the churches. This saint — in this form — has also been quietly retired, because some traditions do come back to bite you.
There were stories of dog-headed men in early pre-Christian Greek writings, so it is not surprising that when people read that there was a saint from the land of dog-headed men whose name was Christopher (Khristophoros = “Bearer of Christ”), they assumed that he was one of an odd race at the edge of the world, and that he — a soldier — had been converted to Christianity. The “dog-headed men” in these old stories — at least when referring to Africa — may have actually been baboons, which the Greeks later called “Dog-headed Ones” (kynokephaloi).
In Herodotus, Histories 4. 191. 3 (circa 5th century B.C.) we find :
“For the eastern part of Libya, which is inhabited by nomads, is low-lying and sandy as far as the Triton river; but the land west of this, where the farmers live, is very mountainous and wooded and filled with wild animals. In that country are huge snakes and lions, and elephants and bears and asps, horned asses, and the Dog-headed and the Headless men who have their eyes in their chests, as the Libyans say, and the wild men and women…. “
Other early accounts place dog-headed men in India as well.
Christians accepted the existence of dog-headed men as part of the supposed “knowledge” of the time.
On Cyprus at a much later date, another tradition developed, saying that Christopher was not born with a dog’s head. Instead, he was such a strikingly handsome youth that women were always after him. Wanting to avoid temptation, Christopher prayed to God, who in answer to the prayer changed his head to that of a dog.
There is a very good summary of the origins — speculative, inevitably, but well done — of the cult of St. Christopher at this site:
As is common, this summary states that there is no connection between Christopher and Greco-Roman depictions of the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis. Perhaps. But the resemblance to icons of Christopher is nonetheless remarkable, and there are many blank spots in his history.
The earliest surviving Eastern Orthodox example of an icon of Christopher dog-head seems to be this Latin-inscribed ceramic image from Macedonia, depicting him with St. George, dating from the 6th-7th century c.e.:
In the “modernizing” reign of Peter the Great, the “Holy Synod” censored the painting of icons of Christopher Dog-head in Russia in 1722, but as with the earlier Stoglav proclamation against painting icons of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof), it was often ignored in everyday practice, particularly by the Old Believers who did not accept rulings of the State Church, and by those painting icons for the Old Believers. People saw no need to stop doing what had long been done, because in Orthodoxy tradition is very important. In Russian icons, Christopher’s head sometimes tends to look more like that of a horse than the more dog-like depictions favored in Greek icons.
Here is a lubok (print on paper) version of Christopher, with a troparion and kontakion added at the base:
Here is an Old Believer icon of Christopher “with the life,” that is, showing significant incidents from the hagiographic tale of this saint:
Was there ever a real “Christopher,” under any name, with or without a dog’s head? It hardly matters, because the story is so distorted by time and imagination that any real person who may have been behind it has been submerged in hagiography to the point of oblivion. It is often the case that there is little or no difference between Eastern Orthodox traditions and folk tales.
An old Russian painters’ manual describes how he is to be painted:
And the Holy Martyr Christopher: A dog’s head, in armor, in the hand a cross and in the other a sword in sheath; outer robe cinnabar with white, under green; elsewhere is written: Christopher: young man like Demetrius of Thessalonika, robe carmine, under green, in the hand a scroll:
“Lord Almighty, where my memory is honored and you are praised, save them from sin and do not judge them.”
In the following example, a so-called “prayer” icon — Christopher “Dog-head” is seen in Roman armor, with the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (Vera, Nadezha, Liubov)
Each holds a cross of martyrdom. The two border saints are Ekaterina (Catherine) and Marfa (Martha). Christ blesses from the clouds above.
Icons depicting the dog-headed St. Christopher together with Sophia and her daughters are surprisingly frequent. The reason for this is said to be that to the Old Believers, these saints signified persistence and perseverance in the face of persecution and torment, and Christopher also was believed to protect against sudden death. So it was common for an icon combining these saints to be found as a family patronal icon among Old Believers. The forbidding of the dog-headed Christopher by the “Holy Synod” in 1722 only confirmed the Old Believers in their notion that the persecuting State Church was on the side of the Antichrist, and so they clung to icons of Christopher “Dog-head” even more firmly, and continued to paint and venerate them even as they faded away in State Church iconography.
Here is another example with the same pairing of Christopher with Sophia and her daughters:
As one might expect, most modern depictions of Christopher in State Church Eastern Orthodoxy depict him as a normal-looking human, dressed as a Roman soldier.
One Russian blog (in Russian) gives an interesting modern reader’s story about Christopher “Dog-head.” *A customer went into the big “Sofrino” store that is operated by the Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarchate of Moscow. Sofrino sells all kinds of Russian Orthodox Church supplies, including icons. The man requested an icon of St. Christopher painted in the old style, with a dog’s head. The clerk replied that the image was uncanonical, forbidden by the Holy Synod in the 18th century. The customer countered by saying that the Council of 1971 (under the Moscow Patriarchate) abolished all restrictions on the Old Ritualist (Old Believer) canons and icons, and lifted the anathema on the Old Belief. He added that the old-style images of Christopher were still to be found in many local Orthodox Churches.
The clerk was having none of it. He replied that it was not their business — that the factory was forbidden to make them, and that what the customer wanted was blasphemy. He added that the store only sold the “true” image of Christopher. Interestingly enough, he showed the customer an example of a “true” image on his computer: it depicts Christopher carrying Jesus on his shoulders, which type, amusingly, is just as mythical as the dog-headed version. Here is a modern rendering of that type (the tale behind it is found in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine):
According to this relatively late but colorful legend, Christopher was some 18 feet in height, and took as his Christian task the bearing of people across a dangerous river. As the tale goes, one day he was in his hut when he heard a child calling him. Here again is the old “third time is the charm” motif in that portion of the tale as given in the Golden Legend:
The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the rivage of the river, which prayed him goodly to bear him over the water. And then Christopher lifted up the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river for to pass. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and alway as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child more and more waxed heavy, insomuch that Christopher had great anguish and was afeard to be drowned. And when he was escaped with great pain, and passed the water, and set the child aground, he said to the child: Child, thou hast put me in great peril; thou weighest almost as I had all the world upon me, I might bear no greater burden. And the child answered: Christopher, marvel thee nothing, for thou hast not only borne all the world upon thee, but thou hast borne him that created and made all the world, upon thy shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the king, to whom thou servest in this work. And because that thou know that I say to be the truth, set thy staff in the earth by thy house, and thou shalt see to-morn that it shall bear flowers and fruit, and anon he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff like a palmier bearing flowers, leaves and dates.
This motif of Christopher carrying the Christ Child who becomes heavier is Arne-Thompson Folk Motif #768.
Now interestingly, this motif of a man carrying someone who grows heavier and heavier across a river is found in the much earlier ancient Greek episode of Jason and the goddess Hera. In it, Jason is traveling homeward. On the way he comes to the River Anauros, where he finds an old woman wanting to cross, but no one will carry her. Jason takes her on his back, and steps into the water. But as he crosses, the old woman (who is Hera in disguise) becomes very heavy, and Jason loses a sandal in the river (a key plot point of the story that results in his search for the Golden Fleece).
Christopher was considered the patron saint of travelers. Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1960s may recall the fad among the “surfer” crowd and others for wearing the little round colorful silver and enamel St. Christopher medals. These are now collector’s items. St. Christopher was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969, but he is still found as “Great Martyr Christopher” in the Eastern Orthodox Church Calendar, on May 9th.
Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation; Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a rational review of its catalog of saints. That accounts for the numbers of mythical saints long painted in icons and still found in the Church Calendar today, saints venerated even though their reality is equivalent to that of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
One of the most interesting of these is the group of saints known as the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.”
According to the accepted story, these seven youths were all friends who had grown up together in the city of Ephesus, and all had become soldiers in the Roman army and were Christians, even though this was in the time of the Emperor Decius, who persecuted Christians. The Seven youths refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and to avoid punishment they hid out in a cave on a mountain. The Emperor, learning of their hideout, ordered it blocked up with stones. All this is said to have happened in the middle of the 3rd century.
Here is where the “miracle” comes in. The seven youths fell into a strange sleep, and they slept not for a few hours or days or weeks or months; they slept for almost two hundred years.
If we look more closely, we can see them pleasantly snoozing away:
I particularly like this friendly, comfy pair in the middle:
In the time of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, who lived in the first half of the 5th century, certain “heretics” appeared at Ephesus saying that the resurrection of the body was not possible. Meanwhile, a certain man had decided to construct a building on the mountain where the long-forgotten youths lay asleep. He had stones removed from the entrance to the cave.
At this time the youths awoke out of their two-century-long sleep, and one of them, Iamblicus, was sent into the city to buy some bread. When he got there, he was amazed to see a cross on the gates of the city, and further surprised to hear people openly talking of Jesus.
When Iamblicus found a place to buy bread, he paid for it with a coin bearing the image of the Emperor Decius, a two-hundred-year-old coin. The seller considered this very suspicious, and soon the youth was accused of hiding a treasure of old coins somewhere. He was taken before the governor and the bishop, and the bishop, realizing that there was something mysterious here, went with the youth to the cave where his companions were waiting. The story got around, and even the Emperor came to the cave and talked with the young men. But then the youths lay down and went back to sleep again in the cave, this time until the resurrection, which supposedly had been proved possible by their first sleep.
Now as one can tell, the logic of this tale is somewhat skewed, and it is a simple piece of folklore, recorded at least as early as the 6th century (it is found in the writings of the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh, c. 451-521). One wonders why it is still put forward as the “Gospel truth” in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the Seven Sleepers can still be painted and venerated in icons, when their story has no more validity as history than that of Rip van Winkle, to whom a similar thing happened in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
We also find the motif of the “long sleep” in the very old tale recorded by Diogenes Laertius:
“Epimenides, according to Theopompus [4th century b.c.] and many other writers, was the son of Phaestius; some, however, make him the son of Dosiadas, others of Agesarchus. He was a native of Cnossos in Crete, though from wearing his hair long he did not look like a Cretan. One day he was sent into the country by his father to look for a stray sheep, and at noon he turned aside out of the way, and went to sleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years. After this he got up and went in search of the sheep, thinking he had been asleep only a short time. And when he could not find it, he came to the farm, and found everything changed and another owner in possession. Then he went back to the town in utter perplexity; and there, on entering his own house, he fell in with people who wanted to know who he was. At length he found his younger brother, now an old man, and learnt the truth from him. So he became famous throughout Greece, and was believed to be a special favourite of heaven.” (Diogenes Laertius 1.109)
Pausanius (2nd century c.e.) also mentions the old story:
“In front of this temple, where is also the statue of Triptolemus, is a bronze bull being led as it were to sacrifice, and there is a sitting figure of Epimenides of Cnossus, who they say entered a cave in the country and slept. And the sleep did not leave him before the fortieth year, and afterwards he wrote verses and purified Athens and other cities.” (Pausanias 1.14.4)
We find it also in the Natural History (7.175) of Pliny the Elder (died 79 c.e):
“It is told of Epimenides of Cnossus, that when he was a boy, being fatigued by heat and walking, he fell asleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years; and that when he awoke, as though it had been on the following day, he was much astonished at the changes which he saw in the appearance of every thing around him: after this, old age it is said, came upon him in an equal number of days with the years he had slept, but his life was prolonged to his hundred and fifty-seventh year.”
The “long sleep” motif is also found in the Apocryphal Jewish work, 4 Baruch (5.1-52, etc.), generally considered to date from the 2nd century c.e. The tale begins with:
“But Abimelech took the figs in the burning heat; and coming upon a tree, he sat under its shade to rest a bit. And leaning his head on the basket of figs, he fell asleep and slept for 66 years; and he was not awakened from his slumber.”
So it is a very old motif, recycled in Christian hagiography.
Candida Moss says of such fanciful “lives of saints” (in her book The Myth of Persecution; how early Christians invented a story of Martyrdom, Harper One, 2013) that “The fact of the matter is that these aren’t historical accounts; they are religious romances written and intended to be read for moral instruction and entertainment.” It is unfortunate that Eastern Orthodoxy does not inform its laity that much of what they read in the lives of the early saints is not history at all, but rather religious fiction, and that many of the saints depicted in icons either never existed at all or have had their stories heavily embroidered with non-historical elements.
The title on Russian “Seven Sleepers” icon usually is, with some variation, that found in the image below:
It reads, OBRAZ SEDMI OTROKOV IZHE VO EFESYE, meaning “[The] IMAGE OF THE SEVEN YOUTHS WHO [were} AT EPHESUS.”
If we look at the title at the first icon on this page, however, it reads a bit differently:
СВЯТЫЯ СЕДЬМЪ ОТРОКОВЪ СПЯЩИЯ ВО ЕФЕСЕ SVYATUIYA SEDM OTROKOV SPYASHCHIYA VO EFESE
“[The] Holy Seven Youths Sleeping in Ephesus”
Here is another example:
It depicts the Seven Youths asleep in their cave on the mountain near Ephesus. The names usually assigned them are:
Максимилиан, Иамвлих, Мартиниан, Иоанн, Дионисий, Ексакустодиан (Константин) и Антонин — Iamvlikh, Martinian, Ioann, Dionisiy, Eksakustodian (Konstantin), and Antonin — Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian (Constantine) and Antoninus. Four patron saints of the person who owned the icon are shown in the borders of the image. The one at upper left is the “Angel Khranitel,” the Guardian Angel, a generic figure in icons who represents the angel guarding every believer.
Here is yet another example, this time with strong Western influence. We can tell from the border and style that it comes from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century As you can see, once you know what this icon type looks like, it is very easy to identify:
Finally, here are the Seven Sleepers in a fresco at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos, in Greece. Their names, given in the Greek form, are from left: Maximianos, Iamblikhos, Martinianos, Dionysios, Antoninos, Exakostoudianos, and Konstantinos.