Today I want to talk about icons of the Dormition, Uspenie in Slavic, Koimesis in Greek. It means “Falling Asleep.” The Dormition icon represents the death of Mary, mother of Jesus. We have already seen that many icons incorporate apocryphal elements. The Dormition type is based entirely on such “pseudepigraphal” writings, or to avoid the euphemism, writings forged under the names of noted figures in Christian history.
Here is an elaborate version of the Dormition:
In the center is Mary lying on a bier. In the sky above we see the Apostles arriving on clouds moved by angels, to be present at her death:
And then we see them after arrival, standing around her bier. So they are represented twice in the icon, to show two stages of time.
Directly above Mary stands Jesus, who holds Mary’s soul, depicted as an infant because she was just born into Heaven, on his left arm. Above Jesus is a red, winged angel of the cherubim rank.
The fellow whose head is visible at lower right in the image above is Dionysius the Areopagite. He wears the stole of a bishop, and often shown also are Timothy (the one known to the Apostle Paul) and Hierotheus. Some examples also include James, while other examples include saints of later periods.
In the clouds at the top, we see two angels waiting on the other side of the opened doors of Heaven. Their hands are covered with cloths, which is a sign of veneration for a sacred object or person:
Just below Mary’s bier is a man with his hands reaching upward. This, according to the old story, is Athonios (Iephonias in Greek examples), a Jew jealous of the honor shown Mary, who tried to push over the bier but was prevented from doing so by an angel with a sword, who cuts of Athonias’ hands. In this example his hands have not yet been cut off. In some examples, however, his hands are shown severed from his arms. This is an example of the anti-Semitism that one sometimes finds in Christian history and in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize that the story of the Dormition is nowhere found in it. It actually comes from extra-biblical spurious writings, primarily represented by the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that is usually dated to the 6th century, though some would date it earlier (and which of course uses the name of the Apostle John to give a semblance of veracity). However Epiphanius of Salamis, who died c. 403, wrote in his Panarion 79:11, that nothing certain was known of the death of Mary, quite in contrast to the later, elaborate tale of the Dormition, in which we find the account of why and how the Apostles were brought to witness Mary’s death:
And she prayed, saying: My Lord Jesus Christ, who did deign through your supreme goodness to be born of me, hear my voice, and send me your apostle John, in order that, seeing him, I may partake of joy; and send me also the rest of Thy apostles, both those who have already gone to you, and those in the world that now is, in whatever country they may be, through your holy commandment, in order that, having beheld them, I may bless your name much to be praised; for I am confident that you hear your servant in everything.
And while she was praying, I John came, the Holy Spirit having snatched me up by a cloud from Ephesus, and set me in the place where the mother of my Lord was lying… And the three virgins came and worshipped… And the holy mother of God answered and said to me: The Jews have sworn that after I have died they will burn my body. And I answered and said to her: Your holy and precious body will by no means see corruption…
And the Holy Spirit said to the apostles: Let all of you together, having come by the clouds from the ends of the world, be assembled to holy Bethlehem by a whirlwind, on account of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; Peter from Rome, Paul from Tiberia, Thomas from hither India, James from Jerusalem. Andrew, Peter’s brother, and Philip, Luke, and Simon the Cananaean, and Thaddaeus who had fallen asleep, were raised by the Holy Spirit out of their tombs; to whom the Holy Spirit said: Do not think that it is now the resurrection; but on this account you have risen out of your tombs, that you may go to give greeting to the honour and wonder-working of the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because the day of her departure is at hand, of her going up into the heavens. And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.
Now obviously this is not an historical event. It is mythmaking, a part of the ever-increasing veneration of Mary that occurred in the Church after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine and the influx into the Church of large numbers of pagans, accustomed to a mother goddess, who found in Mary a replacement. The earliest written example of Marian veneration is found on a damaged papyrus that dates no earlier than the 4th century to the second half of the 3rd century, and comes, not surprisingly, from Egypt, where formerly the Goddess Isis was very prominent, whose worship also spread into Rome:
The emended Greek version of the prayer (I have added an interlinear translation) reads:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν Beneath your
καταφεύγομεν We flee for refuge
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν O Birth-giver-of-God; our
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ- petitions do not
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει despise in need
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου but from peril
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς deliver us
μόνη ἁγνὴ Only Pure [One]
μόνη εὐλογημένη. Only Blessed [One]
There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first, like that above, shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.
The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is found both in icons of the major Church festivals and, as we have seen, as a separate icon type.
A widespread, popular apocryphal tale of Mary descending into Hades before she ascended to Heaven came into Russia from the Byzantine Greek world, via Bulgaria. In it, Mary goes to the Mount of Olives and calls the Archangel Michael to take her down to Hades so she might see the torments sinful Christians were suffering there. Michael then acts as her guide through Hades (“Hell”), and shows her its various regions and gruesome tortures, much as Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil. The difference is that Mary then beseeches God to be merciful, but he only relents to a certain degree, holding off the tortures of the condemned to give them a rest between Easter and All Saints Day (or Good Thursday through Pentecost– accounts vary) Oddly, it is specifically mentioned that Mary refuses to intercede for “the unbelieving Jews” in Hades, which no doubt contributed to the unfortunate antisemitism that so often appears in Slavic countries. It is likely that Dante got the idea for his guided tour through Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven via this apocryphal tale as brought to Italy by Bulgarian Manicheans. The tale of Mary’s descent to Hades is mentioned in Dostoevskiy’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.
Just a quick note first to say that I am pleased so many people are finding this site both of interest and usefully instructive.
In a previous posting, I mentioned the rather disingenuous comment passed around the Internet that Eastern Orthodox believers pray “in the presence of icons” rather than “to icons.” And I discussed the actual old attitude toward icons thus:
“In short, the traditional attitude toward icons — the attitude actually held by Eastern Orthodox believers, not theoreticians or converts — was that icons behaved like living creatures — and so they were treated as such. That is why a believer would pray before such an icon, as though talking to a person, and that is why it is often said that believers would pray to an icon, because that is precisely what they did. One can see from this that the feeble notion that Eastern Orthodox believers merely pray “in the presence of” icons is, from an historical point of view, both very misleading and quite inaccurate. To discover the real situation one must go to what was actually said and written about such icons and how they were regarded by the ordinary believers of past centuries.”
An excellent example of this traditional belief is the account of the icon type known as the “Unexpected Joy” icon of Mary, which you see here. this type was very popular in the 19th century. The origin story of this icon type is found in The Dew-wet Fleece, by Bishop (and E. Orthodox saint) Dimitriy Rostovskiy (1651-1709).
A standard element of this icon type is an “icon within an icon,” the image of Mary holding the Christ Child that is seen hanging at right on a wall within a room. And before that icon a man is kneeling.
The inscription below the “icon in the icon” tells the origin story of this type, which is one of a great many known as “miracle-working” icons.
“A certain “lawless” man had a daily rule to pray to the most holy Mother of God with the words of the Archangel’s greeting” [the words of Gabriel to Mary in the Annunciation].
Well, according to the story, which, like a fairy tale, is set in no definite time or place, this fellow kneeling before the icon was an habitual lawbreaker. He was just about to leave his home to perform more dastardly deeds when, as was his custom, he paused to pray before the icon of Mary, and was astonished and horrified to see that the images in the icon were “alive” and moved and spoke to him. Wounds on the hands and feet of the Child were bleeding, and the thief, seeing that, spoke to the living image of Mary in his icon, saying, “O Mistress, who did this?”
Mary replied to him, “You and other sinners, with your sins, have crucified my son anew.”
The words of this dialogue are seen written in the lines extending from Mary’s mouth to the kneeling “lawless man,” and from the man’s mouth to Mary, like an early version of the cartoon bubble.
Of course this miracle resulted in the repentance of the thief, and the whole strange event was to him an unexpected joy, thus the title of the icon.
An additional detail shown here, but not always present in examples of this type, is the third line of words extending from the mouth of the Child to the man. Jesus is saying to him, “Now your sins are forgiven you.”
This particular example of the type shows the incised and gilt backgrounds often favored in icons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And of course the style of painting is Westernized.
For comparison, here is another example of the same icon type, painted in a less Westernized manner:
Now of course this is not to say that every icon in every home, church, and monastery was believed to “come alive” and move and talk. But it is very important in understanding icons to know that it was common belief that every icon had the potential of such “miraculous” behavior, and one did not know when and where it would manifest. And of course that is why icons that were believed to have been miraculous in some way were copied endlessly, and some of the copies themselves entered the standard hagiography as being chudotvornaya — “wonder-working” — in turn.
Most people who encounter icons do not realize that they are the product of a mindset that is very much like that of ordinary people in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Eastern Orthodox Russia in particular, in which illiteracy was common very late (estimated at 80% under Tsar Nicholas II) — was still largely medieval in thinking right into the beginning of the 20th century. When one reads all the stories of miraculous appearances of icons and the strange doings of some Eastern Orthodox saints, it is well to remember that what Geoffrey Blainey writes in his Short History of Christianity (page 162) was still applicable in Russia centuries after the Middle Ages had passed in Western Europe:
“In the twenty-first century most people in the western world show instant respect for concepts that seem to have a rational foundation, though some of these concepts are later disproved. In contrast most medieval people tended to marvel at myths, mysteries and rumours, and instantly assured themselves they were true.”
The icon of the Blessed Silence Savior (Spas Blagoe Molchanie) is one of only a few types in which Christ is represented in the form of an angel. The most notable other example is Christ as “Sophia, Wisdom of God” — but the latter will be a topic for another day.
Here is a 19th century Russian version of the Blessed Silence image. We can see that Christ is given the same red face one finds in images of Sophia, Wisdom of God. When looking at examples of the Blessed Savior type, one finds variations in the depiction from example to example. In some Christ is bareheaded; in others, as in this icon, he wears the crown of a bishop, to show that he is both Great High Priest and Tsar Tsarem (King of Kings). It is common for the written title on the image to be the standard Spas Blagoe Molchanie (literally
“Savior Blessed Silence”), but on this particular example we find instead ISUS BLAGOE MOLCHANIE — “JESUS THE BLESSED SILENCE.” The spelling of Isus tells us that this is an Old Believer icon, not the product of the State Orthodox Church that forced a revision of the spelling. The “Blessed Silence” type was particularly popular among Old Believers. The type is earliest found in Greece and the Balkans in the 14th-15th century, and appears in Russia in the late 15th-early 16th century.
The key to understanding this icon is the scroll the angel bears, which reads “You are the God of Peace, Father of Mercies, the Angel of Great Counsel” That is taken from Irmos 5 from the Liturgy of the Nativity:
O God of peace and Father of mercies Thou has sent to us the Angel of Great Counsel who grants us peace. So we are guided to the light of the knowledge of God. Waking early from the night we praise Thee, O Lover of men.
Бог сый мира, Отец щедрот, великаго совета Твоего Ангела, мир подавающа, послал еси нам. Тем богоразумия к свету наставльшеся, от нощи утренююще, славословим Тя, Человеколюбче.
Now we need to ask why this image should be associated with the Nativity (Christmas). It is because, in Christian tradition, the words of Isaiah 9:6 in the Old Testament are applied to the birth of Jesus:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
That will still leave us puzzled, however, unless we know that this common translation as found in the King James Bible reflects the Hebrew text as it was known in the 17th century, but it does not reflect Isaiah as it was known to early Christians who knew the biblical texts not in Hebrew, but rather in Greek — the version now called the Septuagint. In Greek, Isaiah 9:6 reads somewhat differently:
For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder, and his name is called the Messenger of Great Counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him. His government shall be great, and of his peace there is no end:
We can see that the two texts have substantially different readings. That is not uncommon. There are all kinds of variations from manuscript to manuscript of the Bible, and the Septuagint often has readings that are not found in translations made from the Hebrew Masoretic text. But what we really want to notice are these words:
…his name is called the Messenger of Great Counsel.”
Those of you who have read my article on icons of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) will recall that he is often represented with the wings of an angel, and the reason for that is the Greek word for messenger — used to describe John in the Gospel called “of Mark” — can also mean “angel.” We have two distinct words in English: messenger and angel. But in Greek, there is only one word with both meanings: αγγελος —angelos. Knowing that, we will now know that in the Septuagint translation given above, the name “Messenger of Great Counsel” (Mεγαλης βουλης αγγελος) may also be understood to mean “Angel of Great Counsel.” So there you have it. That tells us why the Nativity Irmos speaks of Jesus as the Angel of Great Counsel,” and that also tells us why Jesus is depicted in this icon as an angel.
That is the essence of the matter, but it goes far beyond that. Notice, for example, that Jesus as Angel has not the usual halo with a cross in it found in most of his other icons; instead his halo is the “eight-pointed slava,” the eight-pointed “glory” that signifies the six days of Creation with the seventh day of rest plus the eighth day, the Day of Eternity. The Day of Eternity signifies that which preceded the Creation and which follows it. So Christ as Angel is also understood as an eternal figure, the Logos (Word/Reason) of God, who according to the old creed, was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” that is, the Father gave birth to the son in eternity, and that son is Christ, the Angel of Great Counsel. So when we think of the Blessed Silence icon as a Nativity image, we should think both of the birth of the Logos from God in Eternity and of the birth of the Christ Child in time.
The Blessed Silence icon is not only a Nativity-related icon, it is also a Passion-related image. It has this in common with another icon type of a winged Christ as the “Crucified Seraph.” In Isaiah 53, we find the “Suffering Servant” passages that Christians associate with the crucifixion of Jesus. Particularly applicable here is Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
So Christ was silent. And Christ the Angel of Great Counsel is the Son begotten in the Silence of Eternity. That “silence” association is one that makes this particular icon type popular with the hesychasts, those who practice an Eastern Orthodox form of meditation by repetition that is somewhat akin (if more dogmatic) to the Pure Land traditions of Chinese Buddhism. Hesychia (ἡσυχία) is Greek for “silence, quiet.”
Another text from Isaiah applied to this Blessed Silence type is 42:2:
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
But getting back to the thinking behind the iconography, there is no need to try to rationalize it. It makes no sense at all, really, except within its own framework, but that is the case with theology. It is of use in studying icons not because of any literal truth to it, but because it enables us to understand why icons are painted as they are.
But there is an even deeper level to this icon that takes us back past Christianity and into the Hebrew religious mind and its notions of deity. Many Christians will hold that Jesus first appears in the New Testament, even though they will say (if they are traditionalists) that he was predicted in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. But in Eastern Orthodoxy — the branch of Christianity that eventually produced icons — Jesus is also found in the Old Testament, but under different names. For example, as we have seen in our discussion of the Old Testament Trinity icon, Jesus was believed to appear in the Old Testament as the “Angel of the Lord” And, of course Eastern Orthodoxy holds that it was Jesus as the Word — the Logos in Greek — who created the world — or to be more specific, that God “created the world through him.” So Christ as Logos was pre-existent, meaning he existed, in E. Orthodox belief, before the creation of the world, and the world was created through him. That is why, in many old Russian icons of the Creation, we see Jesus doing the creating rather than God the Father (many, however, show the Father creating).
One could go on and on discussing this icon and its symbolism and associations, but rather than rattling on too long, I will just mention that there was “in the air” at the time when Christianity first arose, the notion among Jews that there was not just one god. Jews such as Philo of Alexandria recognized this. There was the “Father,” but there was also a “second god,” a “son” who was his Logos. Margaret Barker, a remarkably brilliant scholar, has written extensively on the notion of this “second god,” who appears in the Old Testament As Yahweh and as the “Angel of the Lord.” This all connects back to early Hebrew polytheistic notions, particularly the concept that the Old Testament El Elyon was a heavenly deity who presided over a court of “sons of God,” and when the nations were apportioned out to these sons of God, the son called Yahweh was made God over Israel. That is why, Barker holds, early Christians held Jesus to be “Lord,” which is simply another way of saying they held Jesus to be Yahweh, the God of Israel. This notion gradually became confused as Christianity developed until Yahweh was understood to be the “Father” instead of El Elyon, and Christ then was considered the son of Yahweh instead of being Yahweh himself.
But that is an extensive subject, and though well worth reading about, it is best done in Margaret Barker’s own books. I recommend particularly her volume The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Westminster John Knox Press). And anyone seriously interested in the development of E. Orthodox notions of Christ as Logos and angel should become familiar with the writings of Philo of Alexandria on the topic of the Logos and its relation to the “primary” God.
But back to the icon. I want to show you another image — a variant of the same Blessed Silence” type:
This second image gives some idea of the variations possible within an iconographic type (there are even more in other images). Most obviously, instead of being shown in the same manner as the angel in Sophia, Wisdom of God (which we saw in the first example), this icon depicts the Blessed Silence as Christ Immanuel, that is, Christ shown in the form of a child. That emphasizes the “Nativity” connection, the notion that this icon is both Christ as the Word/Logos born of the Father from Eternity, but also Christ born on earth of Mary. It is also worth noting that the painter of this icon has given him not only the eight-pointed slava/halo appropriate to the type, but has superimposed that over the standard “cross and HO ON” halo found on ordinary icons of Jesus. That is rather unusual.
An even more unusual example of the Blessed Silence type is this:
There are two uncommon things about this icon. First, the Blessed Silence Savior holds the cross, spear and sponge of the Crucifixion. Second, the inscription on the scroll is the beginning of John 5:25:
Аминь, аминь глаголю вам, яко грядет час и ныне есть, егда мертвии услышат глас Сына Божия, и услышавше оживут.
“Amen, Amen, I say to you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.”
In many examples the scroll reads:
Дух Господень на Мне: его же ради помаза Мя благовестити нищым, посла Мя исцелити сокрушенныя сердцем, проповедати плененным отпущение и слепым прозрение, отпустити сокрушенные во отраду, проповедати лето Господне приятно.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
Some examples of the “Blessed Silence” type, as we have seen, use texts other than that most common one. For example, I saw one having a scroll with this text, the beginning of a long liturgical hymn/chant based loosely on Isaiah 8:8-9, etc.:
С нами Бог. Разумейте, языцы, и покаряйтеся, яко с нами Бог.
Услышите даже до последних земли:
“God is with us. Know, nations, and submit, for God is with us. Hear, even unto the ends of the earth.”
Later in that same hymn, the “Angel of Great Counsel” is mentioned — taken from Isaiah 9:6.
There are three winged cherubim depicted on the icon pictured above. Customarily seraphim are red, while cherubim are blue, however it is not unusual to find the colors reversed, with blue seraphim and red cherubim. Some examples of the Blessed Silence type include a single seraph on the bosom of the Angel of Great Counsel. This associates him not only with the highest realms of divinity (the seraphim are in the first rank of angelic beings in the presence of God), but also connects the icon, through the multiple associations one finds in icon symbology, with the Seraph who purified the lips of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah with a fiery coal from the altar — a prefiguration of the fire of divinity that entered Mary as Christ Immanuel was incarnate within her. This sense of a divine, fiery nature is associated with the seraphim, as [pseudo-] Dionysius the Areopagite tells us in his Celestial Hierarchies:
The name Seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness. (Celestial Hierarchies of Dionysius the Areopagite, translation copyright Shrine of Wisdom).
And by the way, when you see a seraph or a cherub depicted in Russian icons, the Hebrew plural forms — seraphim and cherubim — are used even when there is obviously only one. So in Russian icons one sees a “seraphim” not a “seraph,” even though technically the latter singular form would be correct usage.
In other rather rare examples of the type, one finds a key suspended from the hands of the Angel. This evokes what is spoken of Jesus in Revelation (the Apocalypse) 3:7:
These things says he that is holy, he that is true, he that has the key of David, he that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens.”
The Greek equivalent of the Russian Blagoe Molchanie is painted somewhat differently, though it too depicts a winged Jesus. It is titled Ο Μεγάλης Βουλής Άγγελος –– Ho Megales Voules Angelos — “The Angel of Great Counsel” — and is more likely to be found as a fresco than a portable icon. It may bear as inscription part of John 8:42:
“For a child is born to us, and a son given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder, and his name is called Messenger/Angel of Great Counsel, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Potentate, Prince of Peace, Father of the Age to Come. For I will bring peace upon the princes and health to him.
Some Greek versions depict the Angel of Great Counsel as an older but still generally youthful Jesus — commonly beardless.
As always, there is much more one could say about the Blessed Silence icon type, but one has to stop somewhere. Follow any thread in the study of icons, and it will lead you to countless different subjects, all of which are connected by that thread. But I shall try to limit myself in these postings.
I will, however, impose a bit further on those of my readers who are serious students of icons by presenting one more related icon — related in the sense that it shows God the Father from whom the Son was born in Eternity, according to the thought behind these types in E. Orthodox icon painting.
Here is the important segment of an icon identified by the slavic inscription at both sides of the top as SVYATUIY GOSPOD’ SAVAOF — “HOLY LORD SABAOTH.” “Lord Sabaoth” is the standard representation of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox iconography.
(Image courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
Now you will find all kinds of “true believers” (usually Western converts to E. Orthodoxy) who will tell you that to depict God the Father as an old man with a beard is heretical. The fact, however, is that icons of God the Father were quite common in Eastern Orthodoxy, and have been for many hundreds of years. When such E. Orthodox fundamentalists begin such quibbles, I just refer them to the Kursk Root Icon, which is considered a miracle-working icon in Eastern Orthodoxy — particularly by the fundamentalists — and that usually shuts them up — because why would a heretical image (there is a little “Lord Sabaoth” image right at the top of the Kursk-Root) be on a miracle-working icon? That presents them with a puzzle for which they have no ready answer. You will read that the images of God the Father and the Old Testament prophets were added to the Kursk Root icon when it was brought to Moscow in 1597, but that changes nothing; no account says the icon stopped “working miracles” post 1597, after the addition of the supposedly “heretical” depiction. It is even recorded that the famous St. Seraphim of Sarov was healed as a boy by kissing the theoretically “hereticalized” Kursk Root image in the latter half of the 18th century. It just shows how completely “orthodox” the image of God the Father was considered to be by the end of the 1500s, and how the addition of the image of God the Father was not considered “un-Orthodox” in general belief and practice — even the belief and practice of St. Seraphim, who died in 1833.
So do not concern yourself with such dogmatic quibbles. As a student of icons, always look at what the icon painters really painted, not at what some modern “more Orthodox than thou” convert says they should have painted. It is always best to work from reality rather than fantasy.
But back to this very interesting icon of God the Father. I have said that icons of God the Father are common (more as elements in other icon types than as icons in themselves), but this particular representation is not common, because of its emphasis on the Father and because of its interesting inscription in the circle. Ordinarily we would term this icon type a “New Testament Trinity,” because it shows God the Father as Lord Sabaoth, God the Son as Christ Immanuel, and in the little circle, the Holy Spirit as a dove (that is another fundamentalist doctrinal quibble, but we shall leave them to their quibbling). Note that both the Father and the Holy Spirit are given the same eight-pointed slava that is found in the icon of the Blessed Silence. As we have seen, it represents existence from Eternity, and that is why it is used with persons of the Trinity, though on Christ usually only when his “from eternity” aspect is emphasized. The painter of this icon has given a pleasant little touch by putting stars in the Father’s slava.
But the important connection I want to make here with the Blessed Silence type is found in that interesting inscription in the circle. It is understood to be God the Father speaking:
IZ CHREVA PREZHDE DEN’NITSUI ROZHDIKHTYA — “FROM THE WOMB BEFORE THE MORNING STAR BEGOT.”
That comes ultimately from Psalm 110:3 (109:3 in the Slavic Bible), but again we have a difference in textual readings. In the Hebrew version translated in the King James Bible, we find:
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
That is no help with this type; but if we look at the Septuagint version, which is the version used by early Greek-speaking Christians, we find this:
With thee is dominion in the day of thy power, in the splendours of thy saints: I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning.
The word translated “morning” here is εωσφορου in Greek, a form of eosphoros, which actually means “morning-bringer”; it is the name for the morning star, which accounts for why we find “before the morning star” in the Slavic inscription.
So, this icon of Lord Saboth, Christ Immanuel, and the Holy Spirit can also be seen as a Nativity icon, particularly when emphasized by the Slavic Inscription, which we can loosely understand to mean “I begot you from my womb before the morning star.” Yes, that is God the Father talking. So males do not have a womb? Well, I told you not to look for rational sense. This is all a system of symbols and theological connections, and this inscription is intended to point out that Jesus was mysteriously born of God the Father before the creation of the world, according to the teachings of Eastern Orthodoxy. And that is what connects this “Lord Sabaoth” icon with that of the Blessed Silence.
Do not even begin to think that I have said all that can be said of either icon type. But space and time are limited, and so, no doubt is the patience of even serious students of icons.
Here is more information to enable the student to begin reading Greek icon inscriptions. This does not make for thrilling reading, but it is essential for those who seriously want to understand icons.
You already know one of the most common Greek inscriptions because it is also used in Russian icons: IC XC. Those are the letters abbreviating Ιησους Χριστος — ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — IESOUS KHRISTOS — JESUS CHRIST. They are found (logically) on icons depicting Jesus.
The other inscription you already know from the posting on Russian inscriptions is MP ΘΥ abbreviating Μητηρ θεου — ΜΗΤΗΡ ΘΕΟΥ — METER THEOU — MOTHER OF GOD. Meter in Greek is “mother,” and Theos is “God.” When it is written as “theou,” it means “of God” — thus “Mother of God.” That inscription is found on icons of Mary. Remember that the horizontal squiggle (which I have not included here) is written above letters to mark them as abbreviations.
The other very common inscription found on Marian icons is ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΣ — Θεοτοκος —Theotokos, meaning “Birth-giver of God.” In Eastern Orthodox belief, Mary gave birth to God as Jesus. This title was hugely controversial in early Christendom, and caused great theological conflicts, but those favoring calling Mary essentially “Mother of God” won out. Winning factions in Orthodox theological conflicts often had the most power and political support, not necessarily the best argument.
We saw in the previous posting that the generic term for a male saint in Greek is ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS, and that the generic term for a female saint is ΑΓΙΑ — HAGIA. Both mean literally “holy,” but we usually translate them into English as “saint,” which comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy.”
There are, however, different kinds of saints, and some categories of these are distinguished by their own titles. For example, if we are looking at an icon of a saint who has the title ΟΣΙΟΣ — HOSIOS instead of HAGIOS, then we know we are looking at a monastic saint, a monk of some kind, and he will likely be wearing a monk’s garb. Given that there are different saints having the same name, the title Hosios may distinguish one who was a monk from one who was not.
Remember that in old Greek icon inscriptions, the letter “S”, which is Σ (sigma) in Greek, is often written as C.
Now look at the icon image below. It illustrates some of the oddities of Greek icon inscriptions. First, the triangular arrangement of the letters ΟΓΑ may mystify you until you realize that it is just an abbreviation of the word ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS — meaning “Saint,” with the “g’ in Hagios placed above the letters O (for “ho”) and A, beginning the word Hagios. Once you know that, you can read it on every icon in which it is abbreviated like this.
Now look at the word below it. It is ΙΟΥCΤΙΝΟC — IOUSTINOS, which is Greek for the name “Justin.” Notice, however, that the Y (which looks like a V here) is placed right atop a very angular, diamond-shaped O. And that next odd-looking letter is just a T with the preceding C (alternate form of Σ) made much smaller and attached just below the left side of the crossbar on the T.
On the right side, what looks like one word on the first line is really two, and it continues onto the two lines below. It is Ο ΦΙΛΟCΟΦΟC — HO PHILOSOPHOS. You already know that HO (the O) means “the.” And Philosophos means “philosopher.” So this is HO HAGIOS IUSTINOS HO PHILOSOPHOS — literally “The holy Justin the Philosopher.” This is the person generally known in the West as Justin Martyr, which is why he holds a cross in his right hand, as is customary for martyrs in icon painting.
Note how the last C (in Greek) of Philosophos is written smaller and at an angle just below the rest of the word, with a little ornamental squiggle attached to its base — but once you know it is just C (Σ-sigma), it is easy to recognize in other icons, even when that ornamental squiggle is longer.If you learn bit by bit like this, you can soon read huge numbers of titles of saints in Greek icons. It is not difficult, and you do not have to learn the entire Greek language to do it, because, as with Russian icons, these titles are very repetitive. So a little learning goes a long way.
There is a standard iconography in Russian Crucifixion icons, and it is important for the student to understand it, because the Crucifixion is one of the most common types one will encounter.
The Crucifixion is often found both in painted icons on wooden panels and in brass castings such as the one depicted here — a “blessing” cross.
We will examine it from top to bottom:
At the very top is the image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — which is God the Father depicted as an old man with a white beard. Here he is shown raising his right hand in blessing. Immediately below Lord Sabaoth is the Dukh Svyatuiy — the Holy Spirit shown in the form of a dove. On the crosses of one sect of “priestless” Old Believers, the image of Lord Sabaoth is replaced by the Image “Not Made by Hands” — the Obraz Nerukotvornnuiy — the Image of Christ on a cloth, with the inscription Svyatuiy Ubrus‘ — “The Holy Cloth.”
On both sides of the Holy Spirit, but slightly lower, is an angel. They bear the inscription Angeli Gospodi — Angels of the Lord. Each has his hands covered with a cloth, a practice that shows reverence.
Then one often finds the inscription Tsar Slavui — “King of Glory” — referring to Christ.
On a sign at the center of the crossbeam just above Christ’s head, we see the superscription borrowed from the biblical account: I N TS I — which abbreviates the Church Slavic words for “Jesus (I) of Nazareth (N), King (TS) of the Jews (I) — Isus Nazoryanin’ Tsar Iudeiskiy.
Just below that, the halo of Christ has the standard three bars of the cross visible in it, with the inscription HO ON — “The One Who Is” — the equivalent of the King James Old Testament title of God, “I Am That I Am.”
Just above the crossbeam of the cross we usually see the stretched-out inscription IC SN’ B ZH I XC. The IC and XC are read first, followed by the rest. All together it reads Isous Khristos Suin Bozhiy — “Jesus Christ [the] Son of God.”
At the left end of the crossbeam is a round circle with a human face. This is the Sun (Solntse). It is commonly depicted as dark in color on painted icons. On the opposite end of the crossbeam is another circle with a face, colored red in painted icons. This is the Moon (Luna). On painted icons, one often finds the explanatory description of these two: “The Sun darkens, the Moon Becomes as Blood.” That is an apocalyptic image from the Bible, taken from Acts 2:20: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come” (King James version). The same image is found in the Apocalypse of John (Revelation 6:12): “And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” Both excerpts are inspired by the words of the Book of Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:31): “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.”
Below the outstretched arms of Christ is another long inscription, taken from the Russian Orthodox liturgy: “We Honor Your Cross, Lord, and Praise Your Holy Resurrection (Krestou Tvoemu Poklonyaemsya Vladuiko i Svyatoe Voskresenie Tvoe Slavim). I have loosely translated ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ — “poklonyaemsya” here as “honor,” but it literally means “bow before.” In modern Cyrillic letters the inscription looks like this:
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ ВЛАДЫКО И СВЯТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМ
Next, we must notice that there are two long lines ascending, one on each side of the lower body of Christ. The one on the left has a point at its top. It is the spear with which the body of Christ was pierced. It is identified by the single letter K, for Kopie — “spear.” The other is a long reed bearing a sponge at its top. This is the sponge with which Christ was given vinegar to drink. It is identified by the single letter T for Trost’— “reed.”
Just above the slanted short beam to which Christ’s feet are nailed is the inscription NI KA. This forms the Greek word NIKA, meaning “He [Christ] Conquers.” Some Old Believers have their own interpretation, making the inscription Slavic rather than Greek: N I K A – Nas Iskupi Kroviu Adamova — “Save Us with the Blood of Adam.”
The slanted footbeam itself is notable because of the traditional folk interpretation that it slants up toward Christ’s right hand, indicating the ascent of believers to heaven, and it slants down from his left hand, indicating the descent of non-believers to Hell.
Just beyond both sides of the footbeam we usually see towers and other buildings, representing the walled city of Jerusalem. Sometimes, in place of or in addition to these, we see representations of Mary, mother of Jesus at the left, with her standard title MP ΘΥ (Meter Theou — “Mother of God” — a Greek title — and on the right Svyatuiy Apostol Ioann — “The Holy Apostle John.” In painted icons these two are generally shown full-figure, along with other saints such as Longinus (Svyatuiy Login) the Centurion, whose name comes from apocryphal works such as the Gospel of Nicodemus rather than from the Bible.
At the very base of the central crossbeam we find these letters:
They abbreviate the words Mesto Lobnoe Rai Buist, meaning “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.” Some Old Believers give the letters R B a different interpretation: Rab Bozhiy — “Servant of God.”
Just under the base of the cross is a little opening in the ground containing a skull and bones (often a skull with two bones that form a sideways X). This skull is identified by the letters G A as Golova Adama — “The skull of Adam.” In icon tradition, Adam — the first-created man — was buried precisely on the site where the Crucifixion later took place. And when Christ was crucified there was an earthquake, and the ground opened just below the cross, revealing Adam’s skull.
The very last thing one needs to know about the standard inscriptions is that usually at the bottom of the cross one will also find the letters G G for Gora Golgofui — “The Hill of Golgotha” — identifying the place where Christ was crucified.
However, brass crosses such as the one in the photo often have an inscription on the reverse side, though some have only ornamentation. The most common inscription is part or all of the Exapostilarion of the Elevation of the Cross:
Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei — [The] Cross [is] Protector of All the World Krest’ Krasota Tserkovnaya — [The] Cross [is the] Beauty of the Church Krest’ Tsarem’ Derzhava — [The] Cross [is the] Might of Kings Krest’ Vyernuim’ Utyverzhdenie [The] Cross [is the] Comfort of the Believers
This has variations, one of which changes the last two lines to:
Some examples merely add those last to lines to what came before, like this (in Cyrillic letters):
КРЕСТЪ ХРАНИТЕЛЬ ВСЕЙ ВСЕЛЕННЕЙ
КРЕСТЪ КРАСОТА ЦЕРКОВНАЯ
КРЕСТЪ ЦАРЕМЪ ДЕРЖАВА
КРЕСТЪ ВЕРНЫМЪ УТВЕРЖДЕНIЕ
КРЕСТЪ АНГЕЛОМЪ СЛАВА
КРЕСТЪ БЕСОМЪ ЯЗВА
On the reverse of some crosses, there is sometimes a long additional inscription either following the Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei text, or else found on its own. It is an apocryphal speech of Jesus, beginning “The Lord said, ‘For I suffered, waiting for your repentance and turning to me from your evil; before my Terrible Judgment I have shown you many ways to salvation…'” and it continues, saying, “For your sake I suffered…” and goes on to detail how “for your sake” he took on flesh, labored, was cursed and spat upon, was crucified, placed in the tomb, descended to Hades, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and finishes up with a caution about the place “prepared for the Devil and his angels.” This brief summary of the longer text, along with the text itself in Church Slavic, should enable you to recognize it. Look for the words Рече Господь — Reche Gospod’ — “The Lord said…” at the beginning, and for the repetition throughout it of the phrase Вас ради — Vas radi — “For your sake…” Here is the Slavic text:
Рече Господь Аз же терпя, ожидах покаяния вашего и обращения ко мне от зол ваших, зане прежде моего суда страшного многи показах вам пути ко спасению, и образ дах вам собою, милуя вас добре. Вас ради в плоть облекохся, и вас ради труждахся, вас ради алчен бых, желая вашего спасения, вас ради связан от беззаконных, бых, вас ради поруган бых, вас ради заплеван бых, вас ради заланиту ударен бых, вас ради на крест вознесен бых, вас ради гвоздия приях в руку и в ногу мою, вас ради тростию биен бых, вас ради оцта и желчи вкусих, и вас ради копием прободен бых вребра моя, вас ради смерть приях, вас ради во гроб положен бых, вас ради в ад снидох и изведох вы оттуду от тьмы на свет и паки воскресох, показуя вам воскресение от мертвых, и на небеса вознесохся, и вас ради послах Дух Святый в мир на апостолы моя, и послах я проповедати царствие мое, и дах Дух Святый в сердца ваша и поставих вам учители великие, и премудрые книжники, и нарекох вас сынове моя и братию, вы же не тако послушаете Мене, но сотвористе волю диаволю и ангел его, и ныне от идите от Мене, злии делатели неправды, в место, уготованное диаволу и ангелом его, не хощу же вас видети николиже.
While I am at it, I might as well throw in a couple of alternate inscriptions common on the backs of some large or small cast metal crosses:
Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…
ДА ВОСКРЕСЕНЕТЪ БОГЪ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТЪ ОТЪ ЛИЦА ЕГО ВСИ НЕНАВИДЯЩЕЙ ЕГО…
“Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomu Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”
Such inscriptions added to the believer’s sense that the cross was a powerful “supernatural” talisman that could drive away evil — the same sense that we find in Western horror stories in which the cross wards off vampires.
An inscription sometimes found on small crosses is Спаси и сохрани — Spasi i Sokhrani – “Save and Protect.”
And finally — I promise this is the last inscription for this article — one often finds on the reverse of silver crosses worn by priests (in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century) these words from I Timothy 4:12: “Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (Obraz budi vyernuim’ slovom’, zhitiem’, liuboviu, vyeroiu, chistotoiu“). This was good advice, because at that time there was considerable controversy over misbehavior by Russian Orthodox priests, a good number of whom were given to extorting money from the poor for religious services and/or given to drunkenness. On such crosses, one also finds this abbreviation on the back:
That stands for Nikolai II — Tsar Nicholas II. With that is “Year 1896” (in Cyrillic letter-numbers), and “May, 14[th] day.” That is the date on which Tsar Nicholas II decreed that such a silver pectoral cross was to be given to all priests.
I suppose I should not finish without telling you that some cast brass crosses intended to be displayed in the homes of believers (also sometimes in churches) — and again particularly popular among the Old Believers — had additional scenes added to them. The number of such added scenes varies, and commonly those added are representations of major church festivals, etc. In the example shown below, these added scenes are, from top left:
1. The Entry into Jerusalem; 2. The Resurrection of Christ; 3. The Ascension of Christ; 4. The Presentation [of Christ] in the Temple; 5. The Old Testament Trinity. This example also shows, as the figures standing by the cross, not only Mary, Mother of Jesus and the Apostle John, but also Mary Magdalene (Svyataya Maria Magdalini) and the Centurion Longinus. (Svyatuiy Login). Some brass examples add several rods atop the image, with images of seraphim at the upper ends.
You will note that this particular example of a brass house cross has colored enamel added to the surface. This was a common practice, and having a bit of enamel fired onto the brass during its making added just a bit to the price, both for the original buyer and often for the purchaser (the collector) of such old items today. Brass crosses and other brass icons were commonly cast in sand molds.
Well, now you know far more about crucifixion icons than practically anyone would ever want to know. You are a sudden expert in the matter, knowing what millions do not know. But it probably won’t make you a dime. It is just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, something with which the more curious among us (such as myself, and you, reader, if you have managed to get this far) are afflicted.
If you are the kind of person who wants to know even more about Russian cross inscriptions, you will want to also read this posting:
In Tolstoy’s time the following article was prohibited in Russia, because it essentially calls the Tsar and the Orthodox clergy robbers and misleading thieves. Though it could not be printed in Russia, nonetheless some handwritten copies managed to circulate. It is noteworthy that the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death — 2010 — passed virtually ignored by the Russian Government and the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of Tolstoy being the most famous of Russian authors. See for example: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/arts_n_ideas/article/state-church-ignore-tolstoy-anniversary/425477.html?photo=2
CHURCH AND STATE
What an extraordinary thing it is! There are people who seem ready to climb out of their skins for the sake of making others accept this, and not that, form of revelation. They cannot rest till others have accepted their form of revelation, and no other. They anathematize, persecute, and kill whom they can of the dissenters. Other groups of people do the same — anathematize, persecute, and kill whom they can of the dissenters. And others again do the same. So that they are all anathematizing, persecuting, and killing — demanding that every one should believe as they do. And it results that there are hundreds of sects all anathematizing, persecuting, and killing one another.
At first I was astonished that such an obvious absurdity — such an evident contradiction — did not destroy religion itself. How can religious people remain so deluded? And really, viewed from the general, external point of view it is incomprehensible, and proves irrefragably that every religion is a fraud, and that the whole thing is supersitition, as the dominant philosophy of today declares. And looking at things from this general point of view, I inevitably came to acknowledge that all religion is a human fraud. But I could not help pausing at the reflection that the very absurdity and obviousness of the fraud, and the fact that nevertheless all humanity yields to it, indicates that this fraud must rest on some basis that is not fraudulent. Otherwise we could not let it deceive us — it is too stupid. The very fact that all of mankind that really lives a human life yields to this fraud, obliged me to acknowledge the importance of the phenomena on which the fraud is based. And in consequence of this reflection, I began to analyze the Christian teaching, which for all Christendom, supplies the basis of this fraud.
That is what was apparent from the general point of view. But from the individual point of view — which shows us that each man (and I myself) must, in order to live, always have a religion show him the meaning of life — the fact that violence is employed in questions of religion is yet more amazing in its absurdity.
Indeed how can it, and why should it, concern any one to make somebody else, not merely have the same religion as himself, but also profess it in the same way as he does? A man lives, and must, therefore, know why he lives. He has established his relation to God; he knows the very truth of truths, and I know the very truth of truths. Our expression may differ; the essence must be the same — we are both of us men.
Then why should I –what can induce me to — oblige any one or demand of any one absolutely to express his truth as I express it?
I cannot compel a man to alter his religion either by violence or by cunning or by fraud — false miracles.
His religion is his life. How can I take from him his religion and give him another? It is like taking out his heart and putting another it its place. I can only do that if his religion and mine are words, and are not what gives him life; if it is a wart and not a heart. Such a thing is impossible also, because no man can deceive or compel another to believe what he does not believe; for if a man has adjusted his relation toward God and knows that religion is the relation in which man stands toward God he cannot desire to define another man’s relation to God by means of force or fraud. That is impossible, but yet it is being done, and has been done everywhere and always. That is to say, it can never really be done, because it is in itself impossible; but something has been done, and is being done, that looks very much like it. What has been, and is being done, is that some people impose on others a counterfeit of religion and others accept this counterfeit — this sham religion.
Religion cannot be forced and cannot be accepted for the sake of anything, force, fraud, or profit. Therefore what is so accepted is not a religion but a fraud. And this religious fraud is a long-established condition of man’s life.
In what does this fraud consist, and on what is it based? What induces the deceivers to produce it? And what makes it plausible to the deceived. I will not discuss the same phenomena in Brahmanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Mohammedanism, though any one who has read about those religions may see that the case has been the same in them as in Christianity; but I will speak only of the latter — it being the religion known, necessary, and dear to us. In Christianity, the whole fraud is built up on the fantastic conception of a Church; a conception founded on nothing, and which as soon as we begin to study Christianity amazes us by its unexpected and useless absurdity.
Of all the godless ideas and words there is none more godless than that of a Church. There is no idea which has produced more evil, none more inimical to Christ’s teaching, than the idea of a Church.
In reality the word ekklesia means an assembly and nothing more, and it is so used in the Gospels. In the language of all modern nations the world ekklesia (or the equivalent word “church”) means a house for prayer. Beyond that, the word has not progressed in any language — notwithstanding the fifteen hundred years’ existence of the Church-fraud. According to the definition given to the word by priests (to whom the Church-fraud is necessary) it amounts to nothing else than a preface which says: “All that I am going to say is true, and if you disbelieve I shall burn you, or denounce you, and do you all manner of harm.” This conception is a sophistry, needed for certain dialectical purposes, and it has remained the possession of those to whom it is necessary. Among the people, and not only among common people, but also in society, among educated people, no such conception is held at all, even though it is taught in the catechisms. Strange as it seems to examine this definition, one has to do so because so many people proclaim it seriously as something important, though it is absolutely false. When people say that the Church is an assembly of the true believers, nothing is really said (leaving aside the fantastic inclusion of the dead); for if I assert that the choir is an assembly of all true musicians, I have elucidated nothing unless I say what I mean by true musicians. In theology we learn that true believers are those who follow the teaching of the Church, i.e. belong to the Church.
Not to dwell on the fact that there are hundreds of such true Churches, this definition tells us nothing, and at first seems as useless as the definition of “choir” as the assembly of true musicians.. But then we catch sight of the fox’s tail. The Church is true, and it is one, and in it are pastors and flocks, and the pastors, ordained by God, teach this true and only religion. So that it amounts to saying: “By God, all that we are going to say, is all real truth.” That is all The whole fraud lies in that, — in the word and idea of a Church. And the meaning of the fraud is merely that there are people who are beside themselves with desire to teach their religion to other people.
And why are they so anxious to teach their religion to other people? If they had a real religion they would know that religion is the understanding of life, the relation each man establishes to God, and that consequently you cannot teach a religion, but only a counterfeit of religion. But they want to teach. What for? The simplest reply would be that the priest wants rolls and eggs, and the archbishop wants a palace, fish pies, and a silk cassock. But this reply is insufficient. Such is no doubt the inner, psychological motive for the deception, — that which maintains the fraud. But as it would be insufficient, when asking why one man (an executioner) consents to kill another against whom he feels no anger, — to say that the executioner kills because he thereby gets bread and brandy and a red shirt, so it is insufficient to say that the Metropolitan [high church official] of Kiev with his monks stuffs sacks with straw and calls them relics of the saints*, merely to get thirty thousand rubles a year income. [*Tolstoy is referring to an account that once, when a fire broke out in the Kiev Catacombs — a famous site of religious pilgrimage — people hurrying to save the supposedly “incorruptible body” (a sign of sainthood in Eastern Orthodoxy) of a monk found that the relic was in fact just a bag stuffed with straw.] The one act and the other is too terrible and too revolting to human nature for so simple and rude an explanation to be sufficient. Both the executioner and the Metropolitan explaining their actions would have a whole series of arguments based chiefly on historical tradition. Men must be executed; executions have gone on since the world commenced. If I don’t do it another will. I hope, by God’s grace, to do it better than another would. So also the Metropolitan would say: External worship is necessary; since the commencement of the world, relics of the saints have been worshipped. People respect the relics in the Kiev Catacombs and pilgrims come here; I, by God’s grace, hope to make the most pious use of the money thus blasphemously obtained.
To understand the religious fraud it is necessary to go to its source and origin.
We are speaking about what we know of Christianity. Turn to the commencement of Christian doctrine in the Gospels and we find a teaching which plainly excludes the external worship of God, condemning it; and which, with special clearness, positively repudiates mastership. But from the time of Christ onward we find a deviation from these principles laid down by Christ. This deviation begins from the times of the Apostles and especially from that hankerer after mastership — Paul. And the farther Christianity goes the more it deviates, and the more it adopts the methods of external worship and mastership which Christ had so definitely condemned. But in the early times of Christianity the conception of a Church was only employed to refer to all those who shared the beliefs which I consider true. That conception of the Church is quite correct if it does not include those that make a verbal expression of religion instead of its expression in the whole of life — for religion cannot be expressed in words.
The idea of a true Church was also used as an argument against dissenters. But till the time of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, the Church was only an idea.
Since the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea the Church becomes a reality, and a fraudulent reality, — that fraud of metropolitans with relics, and priests with the Eucharist, Iverskaya* Mothers of God, synods, etc., which so astonish and horrify us, and which are so odious that they cannot be explained merely by the avarice of those that perpetuate them. [*The Iverskaya or “Iberian” icon of Mary is one of the famous supposedly “miracle-working” icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, of which many copies have been made] The fraud is ancient, and was not begun merely for the profit of private individuals. No one would be such a monster of iniquity as to be the first to perpetrate it, if that were the only reason. The reasons which caused the thing to be done were evil: “By their fruits ye shall know them.’ The root was evil — hatred, pride, enmity against Arius and others; and another yet greater evil, the alliance of Christianity with power. Power, personified in the Emperor Constantine, who in the heathen conception of things, stood at the summit of human greatness (he was enrolled among the gods), accepts Christianity, gives an example to all the people, converts the people, lends a helping hand against the heretics, and by means of the Ecumenical Council establishes the one true Christian religion.
The Catholic [universal] Christian religion was established for all time. It was so natural to yield to this deception that, to the present day, there are people who believe in the saving efficacy of that assembly. Yet that was the moment when a majority of Christians abandoned their religion. At that turning the great majority of Christians entered the heathen path, which they have followed ever since. Charlemagne and Vladimir* continued in the same direction. [*Vladimir was the Russian ruler who in 988 A.D. forced the conversion of Russia to Eastern Orthodoxy by royal decree; the Church made him a saint.]
And the Church fraud continues till now. The fraud consists in this: that the conversion of the powers-that-be to Christianity is necessary for those that understand the letter, but not the spirit, of Christianity; but the acceptance of Christianity without the abandonment of power is a satire on, and a perversion of, Christianity.
the sanctification of political power by Christianity is blasphemy; it is the negation of Christianity.
After fifteen hundred years of this blasphemous alliance of pseudo-Christianity with the State, it needs a strong effort to free oneself from all the complex sophistries by which, always and everywhere (to please the authorities), the sanctity and righteousness of State-power, and the possibility of its being Christian, has been pleaded.
In truth, the words a “Christian State” resemble the words “hot ice.” The thing is either not a State using violence, or it is not Christian.
In order to understand this clearly we must forget all those fantastic notions in which we have been carefully brought up, and must ask plainly, what is the purpose of such historical and juridical science as has been taught us? Such sciences have no sound basis; their purpose is merely to supply a vindication for the use of violence.
Omitting the history of the Persians, the Medes, etc., let us take the history of that government which first formed an alliance with Christianity.
A robbers’ nest existed at Rome. It grew by robbery, violence, murders, and it subdued nations. These robbers and their descendants, led by their chieftains (whom they sometimes called Caesar, sometimes Augustus), robbed and tormented nations to satisfy their desires. One of the descendants of these robber-chiefs, Constantine (a reader of books and a man satiated by an evil life), preferred certain Christian dogmas to those of the old creeds: instead of offering human sacrifices he preferred the mass; instead of the worship of Apollo, Venus, and Zeus, he preferred that of a single God with a son — Christ. So he decreed that this religion should be introduced among those that were under his power.
No one said to him: “The kings exercise authority among the nations, but among you it shall not be so. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not lay up riches, judge not, condemn not, resist not him that is evil.”
But they said to him: “You wish to be called a Christian and to continue to be the chieftain of the robbers, — to kill, burn, fight, lust, execute, and live in luxury? That can all be arranged.”
And they arranged a Christianity for him, and arranged it very smoothly, better even than could have been expected. They foresaw that, reading the Gospels, it might occur to him that all this (i.e. a Christian life) is demanded — and not the building of temples or worshipping in them. This they foresaw, and they carefully devised such a Christianity for him as would let him continue to live his old heathen life unembarrassed. On the one hand Christ, God’s Son, only came to bring salvation to him and to everybody. Christ having died, Constantine can live as he likes. More even that that, — one may repent and swallow a little bit of bread and some wine* [*meaning the Eucharist], and that will bring salvation, and all will be forgiven.
But more even than that: they sanctify his robber-chieftainship, and say that it proceeds from God, and they anoint him with holy oil. And he, on his side, arranges for the congress of priests that they wish for, and orders them to say what each man’s relation to God should be, and orders every one to repeat what they say.
And they all start repeating it, and were contented, and now this same religion has existed for fifteen hundred years, and other robber-chiefs have adopted it, and they have all been lubricated with the holy oil, and they were all, all ordained by God. If any scoundrel robs every one and slays many people, they will oil him, and he will then be from God. In Russia, Catharine II, the adulteress who killed her husband, was from God; so, in France, was Napoleon.
To balance matters the priests are not only from God, but are almost gods, because the Holy Ghost sits inside them as well as inside the Pope, and in our Synod with its commandant-officials* [*In Tolstoy’s time the Russian Orthodox Church was under the control of the so-called “Holy Governing Synod”].
And as soon as one of the anointed robber-chiefs wishes his own and another folk to begin slaying each other, the priests immediately prepare some holy water, sprinkle a cross (which Christ bore and on which he died because he repudiated such robbers), take the cross and bless the robber-chief in his work of slaughtering, hanging, and destroying.
And it all might have been well if only they had been able to agree about it, and the anointed had not begun to call each other robbers, which is what they really are, and the people had not begun to listen to them and to cease to believe either in anointed people or in depositories of the Holy Ghost, and had not learned from them to call them as they call each other, by their right names, i.e. robbers and deceivers.
But we have only spoken of the robbers incidentally, because it was they who led the deceivers astray. It is the deceivers, the pseudo-Christians, that we have to consider. They became such by their alliance with the robbers. It could not be otherwise. They turned from the road when they consecrated the first ruler and assured him that he, by his power, could help religion — the religion of humility, self-sacrifice, and the endurance of evil. All the history, not of the imaginary, but of the real Church, i.e. of the priests under the sway of kings, is a series of useless efforts of these unfortunate priests to preserve the truth of the teaching while preaching it by falsehood, and while abandoning it in practice. The importance of the priesthood depends entirley on the teaching it wishes to spread; that teaching speaks of humility, self-sacrifice, love, poverty; but it is preached by violence and wrongdoing.
In order that the priesthood should have something to teach and that they should have disciples, they cannot get rid of the teaching. but in order to whitewash themselves and justify their immoral alliance with power, they have, by all the cunningest devices possible, to conceal the essence of the teaching, and for this purpose they have to shift the center of gravity from what is essential in the teaching to what is external. And this is what is done by the priesthood — this is the source of the sham religion taught by the Church. The source is the alliance of the priests (calling themselves the Church) with the powers-that-be, i. e. with violence. The souce of their desire to teach a religion to others lies in the fact that true religion exposes them, and they want to replace true religion by a fictitious religion arranged to justify their deeds.
True religion may exist anywhere except where it is evidently false, i. e. violent; it cannot be a State religion.
True religion may exist in all the so-called sects and heresies, only it surely cannot exist where it is joined to a State using violence. Curiously enough the names “Orthodox Greek,” “Catholic,’ or “Protestant” religion, as those words are commonly used, mean nothing but “religion allied to power,” — State religion and therefore false religion.
The idea of a Church as a union of many — of the majority — in one belief and in nearness to the source of the teaching, was in the first two centuries of Christianity merely one feeble external argument in favor of the correctness of certain views. Paul said, “I know from Christ Himself.” Another said, “I know from Luke,’ And all said, “We think rightly, and the proof that we are right is that we are a big assembly, ekklesia, the Church.” But only beginning with the Council of Nicaea, organized by an emperor, does the Chruch become a plain and tangible fraud practised by some of the people who professed this religion.
They began to say, “It has pleased us and the Holy Ghost.” The “Church no longer meant merely a part of a weak argument, it meant power in the hands of certain people . It allied itself with the rulers, and began to act like the rulers. And all that united itself with power and submitted to power, ceased to be a religion and became a fraud.
What does Christianity teach, understanding it as the teaching of any or of all the churches?
Examine it as you will, compound it or divide it, — the Christian teaching always falls with two sharply separated parts. There is the teaching of dogmas: from the divine Son, the Holy Ghost, and the relationship of these persons — to the Eucharist with or without wine, and with leavened or with unleavened bread; and there is the moral teaching: of humility, freedom from covetousness, purity of mind and body, forgiveness, freedom from bondage, peacefulness. Much as the doctors of the Church have labored to mix these two sides of the teachings, they have never mingled, but like oil and water have always remained apart in large or smaller circles.
The difference of the two sides of the teaching is clear to everyone, and all can see the fruits of the one and of the other in the life of men, and by these fruits can conclude which side is the more important, and (if one may use the comparative form) more true. One looks at the history of Christendom from this aspect, and one is horror-struck. Without exception, from the very beginning and to the very end, till today, look where one will, examine what dogma you like, — from the dogma of the divinity of Christ, to the manner of making the sign of the cross, and to the question of serving the communion with or without wine, the fruit of mental labors to explain the dogmas has always been envy, hatred, executions, banishments, slaughter of women and children, burnings and tortures. Look on the other side, the moral teaching from the going into the wilderness to commune with God, to the practice of supplying food to those who are in prison; the fruits of it are all our conceptions of goodness, all that is joyful, comforting, and that serves as a beacon to us in history.
People before whose eyes the fruits of the one and other side of Christianity were not yet evident, might be misled and could hardly help being misled. And people might be misled who were sincerely drawn into disputes about dogmas, not noticing that by such disputes they were serving not God but the devil, not noticing that Christ said plainly that he came to destroy all dogmas; those also might be led astray who had inherited a traditional belief in the importance of these dogmas, and had received such a perverse mental training that they could not see their mistake; and again, those ignorant people might be led astray to whom these dogmas seemed nothing but words or fantastic notions. But we to whom the simple meaning of the Gospels — repudiating all dogmas — is evident, we before whose eyes are the fruits of these dogmas in history, cannot be so misled. History is for us a means — even a mechanical means — of verifying the teaching.
Is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception* [*the teaching that Mary was conceived without sin] necessary or not? What has come of it? Hatred, abuse, irony. And did it bring any benefit? None at all.
Was the teaching that the adulteress should not be sentenced necessary or not? What has come of it? Thousands and thousands of times people have been softened by that recollection.
Again, does everybody agree about any one of the dogmas? No. Do people agree that it is good to give to him that has need? Yes, all agree.
But the one side, the dogmas — about which every one disagrees, and which no one requires — is what the priesthood gave out and still gives out, under the name of religion; while the other side, about which all can agree, and which is necessary to all, and which saves people, is the side which the priesthood, though they have not dared to reject it, have also not dared to set forth as a teaching, for that teaching repudiates them.
Religion is the meaning we give to our lives, it is that which gives strength and direction to our life. Every one that lives finds such a meaning, and lives on the basis of that meaning. If man finds no meaning in life, he dies. In this search man uses all that the previous efforts of humanity have supplied. And what humanity has reached we call revelation. Revelation is what helps man to understand the meaning of life.
Such is the relation in which man stands toward religion.