In previous postings I discussed variations on the Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” — or to use a Latin-derived term — the “Paternity” icon.
Here is another example:
God the father has the eight-pointed slava — “glory” — in his halo that signifies the seven days of Creation as well as the eighth day — the Day of Eternity. Christ Immanuel is on his breast, along with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove — so this is also a “Trinity” icon.
It has a rather grand gold-washed riza in the neoclassical style. That it adds a lot to the grandeur of the icon may be seen if we look at the icon with the cover removed:
The abbreviated inscription at the top reads (with missing letters added):
ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФЪ GOSPOD’ SAVАOF”
That is the standard name given God the Father in Russian Orthodox iconography.
If we look at the blessing hand, we can tell from the position of the fingers that, in spite of the very traditional style of painting, this is not an Old Believer icon.
If it were, the thumb and last two fingers would touch. As it is, it forms the IC XC letters abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”
A reader kindly shared some photos of the dome fresco in the katholikon (main church) of the Pantokrator Monastery at Mount Athos. The much earlier frescos in the katholikon were painted over in 1854 by Matheos Ioannou of Naoussa, so what we see is comparatively recent.
Our purpose in looking at this fresco today is to examine the Greek inscription. Long-time readers here already know that icons of God the Father painted as an old man are extremely common throughout Eastern Orthodox iconography, with a history going back many centuries.
Here is a closer look at the inscription:
Ὁ ΑΝΑΡΧΟC ΠΑΤΗΡ — HO ANARKHOS PATER — “THE BEGINNINGLESS FATHER.” So the image represents God the Father.
The Pedalion (The Rudder, a treatise on Orthodox Church canons by Nicholas the Hagiorite, 1749-1809) says:
ὁ άναρχος Πατήρ πρέπει να ζωγραφίζεται καθώς εφάνη εις τον προφήτην Δανιήλ ως παλαιός ημερών.
“The Beginningless Father should be painted as he appeared to the Prophet Daniel, as the ‘Ancient of Days.‘”
You will recall from a previous posting here (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/an-ancient-of-days-trinity-icon-and-how-to-read-it/) that there is an ongoing controversy in Eastern Orthodox circles as to whether the “Ancient of Days” type should be used to represent Jesus, or whether it should be God the Father. But in the study of icons we pay no attention to modern doctrinaire quibbles over what this or that person thinks painters should have done. Instead we simply go with historical reality — with what a painter actually did in a given case. And in this case the image is quite clearly identified as the “Beginningless Father” — God the Father. You will recall that in Russian iconography, God the Father is commonly titled “Lord Sabaoth.”
Note the triangle halo with the faint HO ON (“The One Who Is” ) inscription in it — an inscription generally found on icons of Jesus. The triangle with its three points is of course a “Trinity” symbol, and more often found in late Orthodox iconography.
Today we will look at a pleasantly-painted image of Gospod Savaof — “Lord Sabaoth” — as God the Father is generally titled in Russian Orthodoxy.
If you have been reading here for any length of time, you will know that contrary to what is sometimes stated by conservative religious sites, the image of God the Father has been common and very widespread in Eastern Orthodoxy for many centuries. He is shown as an old man with a long white beard, as in the example below. He has the “eight-pointed slava” (slava means “glory” here) behind his head, which symbolizes his eternal nature (the eight points traditionally signify the days of Creation, with the eighth day being the “Day of Eternity”).
In this example, he holds a globe surmounted by a cross, symbolizing universal rule:
He blesses with his right hand. And if we look at the position of the fingers, we can see this is not an Old Believer icon, because the fingers (beginning with the second finger — the one next to the thumb) form the letters IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ” (the finger and thumb touching are loosely interpreted as the “X”).
The Old Believers however –as you know — use the “two-fingered” blessing, as in this illustration. That is characteristic of Old Believer icons.
Though at first this icon of Lord Sabaoth looks to be painted in the old manner, nonetheless we can see signs of the influence of western European art in it. Let’s look more closely at the face:
There is a strong attempt to make the flesh and its wrinkles look more realistic in subtle shading, though there is still sylization. Look particularly at the inner corners of the eyes. There we see that little dot of flesh (technically the lacrimal caruncle) that eyes really have. It is a significant realistic, naturalistic touch, and as I have said before, that little detail is not found in Russian icons before the latter part of the 1600s. Also, you probably noticed that the folds of the garment are more flowing and somewhat less rigid than they would be in the strict old manner. So this is a kind of transitional icon, standing between the old highly stylized manner of painting and the more realistic “Western” style, while incorporating elements of both. The “Western” style (sometimes called “Italianate”) gradually came to predominate in the Russian Orthodox State Church, while the very conservative Old Believers kept the earlier and more stylized tradition alive into modern times.
Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.
Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.
Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating. We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.
There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy. Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science. But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.
We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.
If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:
The two large words read СОТВОРЕНИЕ СВЕТА — SOTVORENIE SVETA.
Sotvorenie means “Creation.” Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.” Here it has the “world” meaning. So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”
In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds. That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.” That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons. At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.” That is the traditional icon title for God the Father. As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).
If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):
The inscription at left tells us what is happening. It reads:
Въ а денъ
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ
V” a den” V” nachale Bog” sotvoril” svet”
On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”) In [the] beginning God created [the] world/light
If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve. And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:
If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon. And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head. The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy). Now oddly enough, it was still commonly believed by many ordinary Russians — right into the early 20th century — that if a person suddenly committed some horrible deed, it was likely due to the influence of a devil. Some no doubt still believe it.
In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:
In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him. At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus. And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world. These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning. The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon. Angels stand in the background.
These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less. But one does notice some significant differences among them:
Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:
Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed. That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:
“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating. This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.
Here is another example of the image of God resting on the seventh day:
The inscription says, “The Lord Rested on the Seventh Day from All the Works that He Had Begun to Do.”
Here is a closer view of Lord Sabaoth resting on his bed:
We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons. For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).
Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator. As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating. But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating. Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title. Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.
The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus. But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…” So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.
“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution. But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.
Icon painting was and is a business. In Russia it was an immense business, but near the end of the 19th century it was seriously threatened by the introduction of printed icons, which were far less expensive than painted images. Those icons printed on tin that one sometimes still sees were from that period. Printing sent icon painting into a precipitous decline, and of course the finishing blow was given by transition from Tsarist absolutism to Communism.
The relative cheapness of printed icons compared to painted makes them still very popular among Eastern Orthodox today, and they have even spread into other denominations such as Catholic and Episcopalian. A chief characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy in the West, from the latter half of the 20th century onward, is the increasing prevalence of printed icons glued to “boards,” which vary from real boards to substitutes such as masonite. Icon prints on panels have become a staple of Eastern Orthodox gift shops, and are frequently found in Catholic and other denominational gift shops as well.
Icon prints are generally copies of old or recent painted icons, and are the logical outcome of a theory of icons in which the validity of an image depends not on the creativity of the painter but rather upon reasonable faithfulness to a prototype. Thus icon painting carried within its own theory the seeds of its own destruction. One painted icon can now be copied and reproduced in thousands or even millions of printed versions.
All of that is a lead-in to today’s discussion of a particular Greek Orthodox example of a painted original that has become a print on board.
A reader recently sent me a photo of this New Testament Trinity icon variant, asking for help in its interpretation. It is a printed copy of a (Macedonian) Greek Orthodox painting from a few decades ago.
As you see, the title inscription reads simply HE HAGIA TRIAS, “THE HOLY TRINITY.” Keep in mind that the little “apostrophe” just to the top left of a vowel (or above it in some cases) indicates that it is preceded (in the old pronunciation) by an “H” in transliteration, though in modern Greek it is silent. I am going to discuss the reading of Greek inscriptions a bit in this posting, for those students who are serious about learning to understand and interpret icons.
If you have been a regular reader of this site, you will recall that images of the Trinity consisting of the figures of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and of God the Father as an old man, which the Russians name “Lord Sabaoth,” are called “New Testament Trinity” icons to distinguish them from the “Old Testament Trinity” icon that depicts the Trinity as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre. New Testament Trinity icons are common throughout Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to the Balkans to Russia and beyond. They are found in churches, monasteries, and in private homes.
Today’s example is an interesting Greek variant of the New Testament Trinity type. The figure of God the Father, which, as mentioned, the Russians would call “Lord Sabaoth,” is here given the Greek title Palaios [ton] Hemeron, “The Ancient of Days.” He is also given a triangular halo, a symbol of the Trinity borrowed from western European religious art. So for the sake of convenience, we can call this example the “Ancient of Days” variant of the “New Testament Trinity” Type.
You should easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for Jesus Christ. So let’s look at the inscription on the dove:
It is TO HAGION PNEUMA, “THE HOLY SPIRIT.” Why is the word “the” HE in He Hagias Trias, but TO in To Hagion Pneuma? Because Trias is a feminine noun in Greek, and He is the feminine definite article. But Pneuma, “Spirit,” is a neuter noun in Greek, and To is the neuter definite article, just as Ho is the masculine definite article.
Look again at the odd triangle halo on God the Father. Within it the painter has given God the Father the HO ON abbreviation, generally found only in in the halo of Jesus; and the painter has placed the same HO ON abbreviation in the halo of the Holy Spirit represented as a dove, his intent being to show that all three persons of the Trinity are God, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
Here is the inscription on God the Father:
It is, again, HO PALAIOS HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS,” usually written as HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON” (literally “The Ancient of the days).” That title comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel, 7:21-22:
“I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them;
Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.”
The book of Daniel, by the way, is as scholars tell us (but which fundamentalists completely ignore) one of those with falsely attributed authorship, and was written considerably later than the period it purports to represent.
Notice how the painter has written the final -os on Palaios as what looks rather like an “at sign” (@) with a curving squiggle below:
That is very common in Greek icon inscriptions.
Let’s take a look at the text on the Gospels held by Jesus:
It is from John 14:23, the portion put in brackets below:
“[Jesus answered and said to him] If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him [and make] our home [with him].”
Notice how the word mou (of-me/my) is written, with an M to the left and to the right a symbol that looks like an o with a v on top of it. It is a common calligraphic way of writing the two letters ΟΥ (ου) combined as one:
Note also how the painter has written the word kai (meaning “and”) in full in one place, while in another he writes it in a shortened form like this:
Also to be noted is the way the painter joins the letters Η and Ρ (e and r) in the word “father,” pater/ΠΑΤΗΡ. like this:
And here is the inscription on the scroll held by God the Father:
Because we only see a few letters showing in the partially unrolled scroll, it might be a bit of a puzzle at first. Here are the letters we see:
τός (there’s that -os ending written with the “at sign-squiggle” again)
The painter has shown us only one whole word (the first one), and the rest of the letters are only parts of words. But here is the intended phrase, which comes from Matthew 3:17:
Οὗτός [ἐ]στιν [ὁ] υἱό[ς] [μου ὁ] ἀγ[απη]τός Houtos estin ho huios mou ho agapetos
Literally, “THIS IS THE SON OF-ME THE BELOVED,” or as it is more commonly translated, “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON.”
And here is the “banner” inscription held by the angels. It is the phrase known as the Sanctus in the Roman Catholic mass, adapted from Isaiah 6:3, and used also in varying forms in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom and in the Liturgy of St. James. In Greek it is sometimes referred to as the “Hymn of Victory,” ἐπινίκιος ὕμνος, (Epinikios Hymnos).
Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου Hagios, hagios, hagios Kyrios Sabaoth pleres ho ouranos kai he ge tes doxes sou
“HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LORD SABAOTH – FULL [are] HEAVEN AND EARTH OF THE GLORY OF-YOU
Or less literally,
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LORD SABAOTH, HEAVEN AND EARTH ARE FULL OF YOUR GLORY”
Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ
“Holy holy holy Lord Saboth”
πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
“Full are heaven and earth of your glory.”
Note how the painter joines the letters T and H (t and e) in the word THC (τῆς/tes), meaning “of”:
Learning to recognize such joined letters (ligatures) is very important when learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.
As is common in icons of the New Testament Trinity, Jesus and God the Father are enthroned on Seraphim and below their feet are the round wheels with many eyes in them that are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”
Finally, it is worth mentioning again that there is a lot of bickering in modern Eastern Orthodoxy between factions who consider certain representations of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit “wrong,” and others who consider them legitimate, and there is even controversy over whether the “Ancient of Days” figure should be used to represent the Father or Jesus (as in Byzantine art). Those who favor the depiction as Jesus interpret the white-haired figure in Revelation 1:14 as being Jesus and the same as the figure in Daniel, while others disagree.
Here is a 12th century image of the “Ancient of Days” as Jesus, from the Church of St. Stephen in Kastoria, Greece:
The inscription writer has left no space between the words HO and PALAEOS (a variant spelling of PALAIOS), and for the final -s in PALEOS he has used a simple strong, downward stroke that looks nothing like the usual letter form.
Here is a fresco from the Monastery Patriarchate of Peć, in Kosovo, Serbia, which is above the narthex entrance door to the Church of the Holy Apostles.
If we look more closely, we see that it too depicts Jesus (titled this time in Slavic) as ВЕТХИ ДЕНМИ — Vetkhi Denmi — “Ancient of Days.”
In the quadrangular slava set into the round halo is the HO ON inscription — “He Who Is” — used in icons of Jesus, and in four circles at left and right are the letters I C X C, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.” In smaller white writing at both sides is the inscription СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ ИСПОЛНЬ НЕБО И ЗЕМЛЯ СЛАВЫ ТВОЕЯ — “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.” In Slavic practice it is called the Трисвятая песнь — Trisvyataya pesn” — “The Thrice-Holy Hymn.”
And here is a Byzantine page from the Cambridge University Library, again showing Jesus as the “Ancient of Days,” along with symbols of the Evangelists — Matthew as winged man, John as eagle, Mark as lion, and Luke as ox in this case. Note the similarity of the partially-rolled scroll in his hand to that in the hand of God The Father in today’s example:
The inscription on the page is divided not only between left and right sides, but the writer has also arranged it oddly. He has begun it at top left with HO, then moved to bottom left for PA-, to middle left for –LAI-, and to middle right of the first cluster for –OS. In the right-hand segment he began at top with TON, then moved to the bottom for HE-, to the middle left for –ME– and to middle right for the final –RON, but nonetheless it is just the standard “HO PALAIOSTON HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS” title.
Some say the Holy Spirit should only be shown as a dove in icons such as the descent of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, while others use the “dove” image, as in today’s example, in Trinity and other images. And of course there are those who say God the Father should not be represented at all in icons, in spite of the fact that it has been common Eastern Orthodox practice for centuries to do so.
Icon students should keep in mind that all of these little controversies are just theological bickering, and in the study of icons we pay attention not to what people say icon painters should have done, but to what they ACTUALLY DID. And icons of the Trinity represented as Jesus, the “dove” Holy Spirit, and God the Father as an old man have a history of many hundreds of years in Eastern Orthodoxy. So in the study of icons and their history, there is no “wrong” or “right” to images, there is only what was done at various periods and how it was understood by icon painters and those who venerated icons.
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.
When I first became involved with icons many long years ago, there was still a lot of snobbery about their age. In general the feeling was that the earlier an icon was, the better it was, so icons of the 18th to early 20th centuries were not as appreciated as they should have been. The reverse side of that coin is that the later icons were much less expensive and more obtainable by museums and collectors than the rarer images from the “Golden Age” of icon painting.
My view on the appeal of icons, however, was always more objective, less concerned with the monetary and “right period” aspects. I felt that the appreciation of icons should not rely just on age, but also on the “character” of an icon — its inherent visual appeal. So I had a great interest in icons that would have caused the “classic” collector to turn up his nose — icons from the 1700s up to about the time of the Russian Revolution. I even had appreciation for what one might call “folk” icons, finding that some of the originally cheap and mass-quantity icons actually had an appeal all their own, particularly those delightful icons of the 18th and 19th century with cinnabar red predominating and embossed, metal leaf “svyet” (background) and garments tinted by varnish overlay to make a cheap substitute for gold leaf. So yes, my interest in icons extended even to examples of icons as simple folk art.
In fact one could say that nearly all Russian icons in the old style and its variations are to me a kind of Russian folk art, representative of cultural attitudes and the beliefs of their times.
Suffice it to say that attitudes have changed in the last decades, and today there are many collectors of fine and interesting examples of the later period of Russian painting that formerly was ignored by the cognoscenti.
Most people interested in icons have seen pictures of the Old Testament Trinity attributed to Andrey Rublov (there is now some controversy over who actually painted it), probably the most famous of Russian icons, the “Mona Lisa” of its type. But look at this later icon of the same subject:
This icon carefully preserves earlier elements, such as the Stroganov-style buildings at left, and the “shingled” appearance of the mountain on the right, but wonderful touches are present — such as the “feathery” appearance of the shingled steps of the mountain, and that particularly pleasing stylized tree behind the central angel, with its abstract leaves that shade so obviously and uniformly from dark in the underpainting to the white overlay. The painter has even placed a striking, star-like cave opening in the mountain, which adds considerable interest to the image.
No one would mistake these angels for “Rublyov” angels — they are real “folk” angels, but high quality folk angels, with their outstretched, pastel wings that remind one a bit of Giotto. Icons like this are the reason why I have always preferred the old and stylized “abstract” styles favored by the Old Believers to the almost Italian looking, increasingly saccharine “realistic” images so popular in the State Church from the middle of the 17th century up to the Revolution. This particular icon is a very pleasing work, a real collector’s item. The surprising thing is that abstraction continued, among some icon painters, right into the early 20th century — and so one may still look for icons of character as late as the early 1900s.
Now, as to the type itself, we already know that this is the image commonly known as the Old Testament Trinity, to distinguish it from the New Testament Trinity, which shows God the Father as a bearded old man along with Christ, and the Holy Spirit represented as a dove. But the actual title written on this icon is simply Svyataya Troitsa — “The Holy Trinity.” It shows the appearance of three angels to the Patriarch (the title in icons is Praotets, meaning “Forefather”) Abraham on the plains of Mamre, as recorded in Genesis, chapter 18. Abraham is seen with Sarah, his wife, serving the angels seated at the central table. the tree in the background is the “Oak of Mamre.” The three angels are the three members of the Christian Trinity, all believed (somehow) to be God in E. Orthodox dogma.
In folk tradition, the central angel is generally considered to be Christ, and sometimes he is even given the three points of the cross in his halo with the Ho On inscription that is characteristic of Christ. The Stoglav Council opposed the practice, but painters often went their own way, ignoring the decree, which is why in the study of icons one should look not at what theologians said should be done, but rather at what was actually done by icon painters. Always look at real practice rather than theory. Another folk belief is that the delightful tree behind Christ in this image represents the wood of his cross. The angel at left was considered to be God the Father and the building behind him represents the Church; the angel at right was the Holy Spirit, and the mountain behind him is the mountain of spiritual ascent. Such fanciful interpretations were very popular among ordinary people.
Though they cannot be seen clearly in this photo, the three angels have curling ribbons extending from the area just above their ears. These are standard in icon depictions of angels, and traditionally they represent divine hearing; angels both hear prayers and are attentive to the will of God. Of course in this image, the angels are God.
The Greeks called icons of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre the “Hospitality of Abraham” (Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ — He Philoxenia tou Avraam).