THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH: THE NOVGOROD WISDOM “BANQUET” ICON

In earlier postings we looked at icons of Holy Wisdom depicted as a red-faced angel sitting upon a throne often supported by seven pillars.  Today we will look at a 16th century Novgorod icon that again depicts Wisdom, but in a different manner.

Customarily, when looking at icons here, we look at the whole image first, then look more closely at various details.  Today, however, we shall begin with details, which will enable you to understand the icon as a whole when seeing it.

Here is the first detail:

We see a circle with a robed figure in the center, holding a chalice in hand.  Beside the head is a faint inscription reading:

Божия Сила Божия Премудрость
Bozhiya Sila Boshiya Premudrost’
“Power of God — Wisdom of God”

In the red surrounding circle are the winged wheels that are the class of angel called “Thrones” — commonly found in icons of the Trinity.  Also faintly visible in the red circle are representations of Seraphim and the symbols of the Four Evangelists — Man, Eagle, Lion, Ox:

In the darker, cloudy circle enclosing that, we see other angels, as well as a eucharistic container and an altar table.

Not only does the robed central figure have the “Thrones” underfoot — usually a sign of divinity — but also has an eight-pointed halo, another common sign of divinity,  a symbol of the days of Creation with the Eight Day — the Day of Eternity.  Below the seat on which Wisdom sits, we see seven slender supporting pillars.  That takes us back to the fundamental text on which Wisdom icons are based.  Proverbs 9:1:

Wisdom has builded her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars.

The illustration of the text continues:

“She hath killed her beasts…”


Those words are indicating by the two figures slaughtering two cattle beneath them.

She has mingled her wine; she has also furnished her table.

Here we see the wine and the table:

She has sent forth her maidens: she cries upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wants understanding, she says to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.

So in the detail above, we see all the people coming to receive the wine of wisdom.  And “crying from the highest places of the city” is a crowned figure in the tower, holding a scroll:

He is King Solomon, the traditional author of the book of Proverbs.  He is considered a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy.  He holds a scroll that begins:

Premudrost’ sozda sebye kh[ra]m i outverdi…
“Wisdom built herself a temple and set up…”

So of course he is telling us  — as in Proverbs 9:1 — that Wisdom built herself a temple and set it up on seven pillars.

You may recall that older Orthodox translations say  — as here — khram/”temple,” which is also used in Slavic to mean “church.” Later translations use дом (dom), meaning “house.”

At right, above those coming for wine, we see a red circle of seraphim in which Mary is seated with Christ Immanuel, who is considered to be Wisdom:


Below her at right is a turbaned figure  — Kozma/Cosmas of Maium — holding a scroll that has a variant version of  an excerpt by him from the Canon of Holy Thursday:

Всепричинная подательница жизни безмерная мудрость Божия создала себе храм из чистой, не знавшей мужа Матери: ибо в храм телесный облекшийся славно прославился Христос Бог наш»

“The Cause of All, Giver of Life, the immeasurable Wisdom of God, created for himself a temple from the pure, husbandless Mother: for clothed in the temple of the body, gloriously has been glorified Christ our God.”

That illustrates Mary with Christ Immanuel above him — that the child Wisdom, through Mary, was clothed in the temple of a human body.

So that is the main part of the icon, which symbolizes not only the pre-existence but also the incarnation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom — and along with that it represents the Eucharistic sacrifice.

At the top of the icon, we see a seven-domed church:


The scenes beneath the smaller domes represent the Seven Ecumenical Councils, arranged chronologically from left to right:

At left is the Council of Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian controversy and the nature of Jesus.  Beside it is the Council of Constantinople in 381:

Next come the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, and beside it the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

Following that are the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553, under Emperor Justinian, and beside that the Sixth, the Council of Constantinople in 681.


Last — on the far right — is the Seventh Ecumenical Council under Empress Irene and her son Constantine, in 787.

At the very top of the icon are circles with angels bearing scrolls, but the inscriptions are too small to read in the photo. Often these are interpreted as the gifts of the Spirit.

That should go far in enabling you to understand the whole icon:

 

THE (MAYBE, MAYBE NOT) MARTYRS WISDOM, FAITH, HOPE, AND CHARITY

You have probably heard of the Church of Holy Wisdom (now a museum) in Istanbul, the city which, under the name Constantinople, was once the center not only of the Byzantine Empire but also of the Eastern Orthodox Church until it fell to the invading islamic Turks in 1453.  I mention it today because its name has led to some minor confusion.

That confusion arises largely from some calling the church “Saint Sophia.”  However, it was not dedicated to a saint named Sophia, but rather to Jesus in his manifestation as “Holy Wisdom,” which in Greek is Hagia Sophia.

Now you will recall that Hagia in Greek means “holy,” and so it is the word used as the equivalent of our English word “saint.”  So Hagia Sophia can be translated literally as “Holy Wisdom,” or it can be understood to mean “Saint Sophia.”  But “Holy Wisdom” is Jesus, not a saint.  There is, however, a saint found in Eastern Orthodox icons named Sophia.

Do you have all of that straight?  If so, we can move on to take a brief look not at “Holy Wisdom” but rather at the saint named Sophia.

Sophia, according to tradition, was an early Roman Christian, the mother of three daughters named in Greek Πίστη/Piste, Ελπίδα/Elpida, and Αγάπη/Agape — (in Slavic Вѣра/Vyera, Надежда/Nadezha, Любы/Liubui; modern Russian Любовь/Liubov’) — “Faith, Hope, and Love” — in Latin Fides, Spes and Caritas) — all supposedly martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-138).

Here is an old Novgorodian icon of Sophia with her three daughters:

(Russian State Museum)
(Russian State Museum)

 If we translate their names, we get a mother named “Wisdom” whose daughters are “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Love” (or “Charity,” in KJV English).

Now this may seem a bit too contrived — a mother named Wisdom, with offspring named Faith, Hope, and Love, and some scholars think precisely that — that these are completely fictional saints.  Others would say that while the traditional accounts of their martyrdom are fictional, their martyrdom may have been real.  In later writings there seem to have been two groups of four martyrs by the same name — one mother and daughters group with Greek names, supposedly buried on the Aurelian Way at Rome, and another group of presumably unrelated companions with Latin names, supposedly buried on the Appian Way in the Cemetery of St. Callistus.

The end of the matter is that whether they were entirely or merely partly fictional remains uncertain, but in any case their images are not uncommon in both Russian and (generally later) Greek icons.

Here they are again, in a later Russian icon that also includes the Archangel Gabriel at left and Metropolitan Mikhail of Kiev at right:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

One sometimes encounters Westernized icons of the martyr Sophia kneeling beside a cross, an anchor, and a heart.  These symbolize Faith (the cross), Hope (the anchor) and Love (the heart).

Now aren’t you happy to get such a short and undemanding posting after yesterday’s very long one?

 

 

THEY COME IN SEVENS: THE KIEV SOPHIA ICON

In a previous posting, I touched briefly on the interesting icon type known as Sophia, Wisdom of God. Here is one rendering:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It depicts a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.  That angel is Sophia, Wisdom of God.  It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom.  The red color represents the fire of divinity.  If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus.  But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom.  You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) on the other, is a variant of the “Deisis” type (the other two approaching figures are “Holy Apostle John the Theologian” at left and John Chrysostom at right). The starry bands at top represent heaven, in which sits “Lord Savaof” (Sabaoth), God the Father depicted as an old man. This rendering varies from the norm in that the painter has placed the seven pillars in the background, instead of depicting them as small uprights supporting the throne.

Here is another example of the type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The title inscription on this example reads:
ОБРАЗ СОФИЯ ПРЕМУДРОСТИ СЛОВО БОЖИЯ  —
Obraz Sophia Premudrosti Slovo Bozhiya
“[The] Image of Sophia, Wisdom Word of God”

Notice the seven pillars upon which the throne is placed.  These represent the seven pillars upon which Wisdom built her house in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs (see below).  Again, Christ is shown in his “angel” form as Wisdom, and shown again in his usual form in the circle just above.  At the top is the Hetoimasia ( Ετοιμασίᾳ) the “Preparation” — a Greek term used for the depiction of the altar as a symbol of the divine throne prepared for the second coming of Jesus.

This “enthroned angel” image of Sophia, Wisdom of God is known as the “Novgorod” type, because it first appeared in the northern trading city of Novgorod in the 15th century. It is also the most commonly-seen image of Sophia.

There is, however, another and rather more complex “Sophia, Wisdom of God” type, the so-called “Kiev” Sophia. It is a slightly variable type, but the description given here should take you far in understanding and recognizing it. It is noteworthy that the “Kiev” type is customarily painted in the Westerized manner that began to be adopted in Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century.

Here is the Sophia, Wisdom of God “Kievskaya”:

The “Kiev” type is noted for its groups of sevens, though some versions of the image skimp on these, using fewer elements. But here is what the full type generally comprises:

Like the “Novgorod” image, it has its basis in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs in the Septuagint version, which gives us the first “seven.”

SEVEN PILLARS:

The image depicts a circular temple, and around the base of its dome is written Proverbs 9:1 in Greek:

Η ΣΟΦΙΑ ΩΚΟΔΟΜΗΣΕΝ ΟΙΚΟΝ ΚΑΙ ΥΠΗΡΕΙΣΕΝ ΣΤΥΛΟΥΣ ΕΠΤΑ

Here it is in mixed case:

Η σοφια ωκοδομησεν εαυτη οικον και υπηρεισεν στυλους επτα (unaccented)
Η σοφία ᾠκοδόμησεν ἑαυτῇ οἶκον καὶ ὑπήρεισε στύλους ἑπτά (accented)
He Sophia okodomesen heaute oikon kai hypereise stylous hepta (transliteration, old style)

It is also generally written around the dome base in its Church Slavic version:

ПРЕМУДРОСТЬ СОЗДА СЕБЕ ДОМЪ/ХРАМЪ И УТВЕРДИ СТОЛПОВЪ СЕДМЬ
Premudrost sozda sebe dom/khram i utverdi stolpov sedm

Both mean: Wisdom (Premudrost) has built (sozda) herself (sebe) a house (dom)/temple (khram) and (i) set up (utverdi) pillars (stolpov ) seven (sedm). Some texts use dom’ (ДОМЪ; house) while others use Khram’ (ХРАМЪ; temple).

At the top is Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) represented as a bearded old man, often with a triangular halo (a late adoption into Orthodox iconography) signifying the Trinity; He is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and his breath extends to the central image of Mary. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father, but in Roman Catholicism from the Father and the Son. This (the so-called Filioque phrase “…and from the Son”) was an issue of contention in the schism that finally separated the two segments of Christianity in the mutual cursings (anathemas) and excommunications the two divisions laid on one another in 1054.

A double scroll often beside God the Father may read:
АЗЪ УТВЕРДИВЪ СТОЛПЫ ЕЯ
Az utverdiv stolpui eya
“I have set its pillars”
It is taken from Psalm 74:3 (75:3 in KJV numbering).

SEVEN ARCHANGELS:

They are shown with their symbols, which may vary from icon to icon:
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a vessel of medicaments, Gabriel with a blossoming lily, Selaphiel with hands crossed in prayer, Yegudiel with a crown (in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers (roses) on a white cloth.

kievsophiaheutinkikonen
(Courtesy of Heutink Ikonen: https://www.heutinkikonen.nl/)

SEVEN SEVENFOLD SYMBOLS FROM THE APOCALYPSE:

Depicted on the seven pillars are noted items mentioned in sevens from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation); and depicted with accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, the latter coming from Isaiah 11:2-3:

“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God.”

In Church Slavic it reads (Russian font):

И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…

They usually are, from left to right:

1. A book with seven seals; (“The Gift of Wisdom”);
Revelation 5:5: “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

2. A seven-branched candlestick; (“The Gift of Understanding”);
Revelation 1:12: “And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks…

3. Seven eyes; (“The Gift of Counsel”);
Revelation 5:6: “...and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

4. Seven trumpets; (“The Gift of Strength”);
Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

5. A hand with seven stars (“The Gift of Knowledge”);
Revelation 1:16: “And he had in his right hand seven stars…

6. Seven golden vials; (“The Gift of Piety/Godliness”)
Revelation 15:7: “And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.”

7. Seven thunders; (The Gift of the Fear of God”).
Revelation 10:3; “…and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

In the center of the temple Mary stands on a crescent moon; twelve stars are in her halo, representing both the twelve apostles (New Testament) and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Old Testament); the image is taken from Revelation 12:1:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…

Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and her arms are outstretched in the ancient posture of prayer. It is the importance given to Mary in this image, as well as its usual classification among Marian icons, that has led to some confusion. Some mistake Mary for Wisdom, when traditionally Jesus, who is visually only a small part of this image, is Wisdom. In Roman Catholicism, Mary was looked on as being Wisdom, but this view was not the traditional view of Eastern Orthodoxy; however Catholicism — particularly from the latter part of the 17th century and in some respects even earlier — had an influence on Orthodox iconography, and Kiev was subject to that influence.

SEVEN OLD TESTAMENT PERSONS:
At Mary’s sides are seven Old Testament figures: Moses with the tablets of the Law, Aaron the first priest with a blossoming rod, King David with the Ark of the Covenant, the Prophet Isaiah with a scroll showing the text of Isaiah 7:14, beginning “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son…” (Се Дева во чреве приимет и родит СынаSe Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit Suina), the Prophet Jeremiah with a rod, the Prophet Ezekiel with closed doors, and the Prophet Daniel with the stone not cut by hands.

It is noteworthy that these figures are connected with what are considered in Eastern Orthodoxy prefigurations of Mary:

Moses, who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed, used as a prefiguration of Mary holding Jesus within her womb. But here he holds the tablets of the Law, and a scroll that says of Mary, Радуйся, скрижале Божия, на ней же перстом Отчим написася слово Божие — Raduisya, skrizhale Bozhiya, na nei zhe perstom Otchim napisasya slovo Bozhie — “Rejoice, Tablets of God, on which the finger of the father has written the Word of God.” Thus the Law tablets become the prefiguration of Mary as the “tablets” on which Jesus was written, i.e. was incarnated in Christian belief.

Aaron with his blossoming rod: Numbers 17:8: “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” This prefigures Mary giving birth to Jesus.

King David with the Ark of the Covenant: Mary is considered the Ark of the New Testament Covenant, containing Jesus as the Ark of the Old Testament contained the Law — the Old Covenant.

Isaiah 7:14 in Christian tradition is applied to the birth of Jesus from a virgin (though the Hebrew text of Isaiah merely says “young woman” and has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus).

Jeremiah with his rod of almond tree: Jeremiah 1:11: “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree.” This relates to the rod of Aaron.

Ezekiel with closed doors: Ezekiel 44:2: “Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” That is a symbol of the virgin birth and of Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine held by both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics).

Daniel with the uncut stone: Daniel 2:34 “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.” (Again, a symbol of virginity).

SEVEN STEPS

There are seven steps leading to the temple (which represents the Church, as well as Mary as the “house” of Jesus) — СЕДМИЮ ВОЗХОДОВЪ ВОЗХОЖДЕНИЕ ЕЯ — “The Seven Steps of Her Ascent.”  From bottom to top they are:

1. Vera: Faith
2. Nadezhda; Hope
3. Liubov; Love
4. Chistota; Purity
5. Smirenie; Humility
6. Blagodat‘ Blessing/Grace
7. Slava; Glory

Ezekiel, chapter 40:6, speaking of the Temple area, reads in the Septuagint version, “And he entered by seven steps into the gate that looks eastward…”; seven steps are mentioned again in 40:22 and 40:26.

WHO IS WISDOM?

Just who is Wisdom?  Well, if you know a little bit about icons, that seems like an easy question.  Wisdom or Sophia in icons is a representation of Jesus.  Simple and brief, isn’t it? Hah!  You should be so lucky.  If it were that easy, I would not have to write all of this.

Actually the matter of just who Wisdom is, though simple on the surface, is a very complicated matter indeed.  And knowing that Sophia — that is, Wisdom — in icons is a representation of Jesus, is just the very tip of the iceberg.  And the rest of the iceberg is what I am going to talk about today.  So prepare yourself as I take you on a strange journey.  I will try to keep it a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  It might be best to start — well — to start at the beginning:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and God/god was the Logos.

You probably recognize that as the beginning of the Gospel called “of John.”  We don’t really know who wrote it, but there it is.  I have used the original Greek term Logos, usually translated into English as “the Word,” and I have been a little ambiguous about the end of the sentence, with my “God/god.” You will see why I use Logos in a moment.  I use “God/god” because the Greek is itself a little ambiguous.  In English we use upper and lower case letters, which creates a distinction not found in the original Greek.  So if we present it like this, we get a better idea of what the original says:

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE LOGOS AND THE LOGOS WAS WITH GOD AND GOD WAS THE LOGOS. So is the Logos “God,” or is the Logos more “god” in the adjectival sense, or as some have it, “The Word was divine”? The answer is that this ambiguity is inherent in the text, and we find that same ambiguity again and again In the New Testament and in early Christian writings in general.  But if we go a little farther in the first chapter of “John,” we get a very good clue as to who this Logos is:

All things were made by him….

So whoever this Logos was, “John” thought that he made everything that exists, or to follow the Greek a little more literally, “All things were made through [dia] him….” That accounts for why, in many old Russian icons of the Creation of the World, the creating is being done by a figure that is obviously Jesus rather than God the Father.  Jesus is shown as the creator of the world and all things in it. Now where did this notion come from?  Partly from the Old Testament, and partly from early Christian speculation.

We have already seen that it is basic iconographic knowledge that Wisdom is Jesus.  And we see that in “John,” Jesus as Logos or “the Word” is the immediate creator of all things.  So the next step in all this is to realize that the Logos, the “Word of God,” is also the Wisdom figure found in the Old Testament, iconographically speaking.  For example in Proverbs 8:22-27, in which Wisdom speaks:

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.  I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.  When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.  Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:  While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.  When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:

That depicts the existence of Wisdom with God before the Creation.  As “John” says, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God….”  The Logos or Word is Wisdom, and in icons, Wisdom is Jesus. As Psalm 33:6 says,

By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.

It should be obvious at this point that the “Word of the Lord” as used here came to be understood as a “person,” an emanation that comes forth from God as a spoken word comes forth out of the mouth.  Again, iconographically speaking, that Word is the Logos, and the Logos is Wisdom.

This concept of the emanation of Wisdom was not at all new.  You may recall that in Greek mythology, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom ( Η θεά της σοφίας – “The Goddess of Sophia/Wisdom”), was born from the forehead of Zeus.

Now the trouble comes, historically speaking, when one begins to try to define and explain all of this, when one tries to take away the fuzziness of the concept and make it very clear — because as a theological notion, it was not clear at all.

We get a little closer to understanding that if we look at the beginning of the New Testament book called Hebrews:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;  Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:  Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.  For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?  And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.

We see from this that the writer of Hebrews, like the writer of “John,” believed that there was a figure by/through whom God “made the worlds,” and this figure was also considered the “Son of God.” Now here we get into treacherous waters, because in Old Testament usage, the term “Son of God” could mean more than one thing; it could mean a divinely anointed king; it could mean an angel.  But to the author of Hebrews, it meant a figure who is the “image” of God.

To put it all very simply, at this time a notion was current in segments of Judaism that God was a “hidden” figure who did not deal with the world directly.  To deal with the world, he did it through an emanation, a visible intermediary whom he used to create the world.  Philo of Alexandria called that visible intermediary the Logos — the “Word” of God.  So there we have the critical clue that enables us to understand what “John” meant by speaking of the Logos through whom God created the world. Now Philo would have said, like “John,” that the Logos was also “God” in a sense, but in a secondary rather than a primary sense.  In fact Philo in trying to explain the matter, went so far as to call this Logos a deuteros theos, a “second god”:

No mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the Second God, who is the Word of the Supreme Being….  (Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis 2:62)

So for early Christians such as “John” and the writer of Hebrews, Jesus — Wisdom — the Word — the Logos — was God in a sense; not the hidden God, but a visible emanation of the Hidden God.  For those early Christians who believed that Jesus was a divine and pre-existent figure (not all did), Jesus was this “second God,” though they did not express it that way.  Now this second divine figure did not necessary imply polytheism, because he was a manifestation of the “hidden” God who acted as visible intermediary with the created world and with humankind. This led to a lot of problems when, in the 300s, Christianity was adopted as a Roman “State” religion and people began to make attempts to to precisely define what had previously been a very “fuzzy” relationship between the “hidden” God and his visible emanation. That is because pre-Nicene Christianity varied in its views of Jesus and his relation to God.

For many early pre-Nicene Christians, Jesus was God, but in a secondary or subordinate sense.  Obviously, they reasoned, given that he was the “Son” of the “hidden” God, the “hidden” God existed before him, as a Father exists before a son.  If one reads, for example, the Gospel called “of Mark,” one can come away with a thoroughly adoptionist view of Jesus.  By that is meant that Jesus was simply a man — not pre-existent — whom God adopted as his Son at the time of his baptism.  In Mark’s baptism of Jesus, the voice of God is heard:  

And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

If, however, one reads accounts such as the Gospel “of John” and Hebrews, one comes away with a so-called “high” view of Jesus in which he is, in some sense, God, but not precisely the same as the “hidden,” invisible God.  He is an emanation who is the visible image of that invisible God. In pre-Nicene times, one could could get away with a plainly subordinationist view of Jesus as in a sense the “same” as God because he is a visible emanation of God. In “John” Jesus gives a long discourse (John 5:17-47) in which he describes himself as quite subordinate to the will of the Father, and a visible manifestation of the invisible God:

And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.

This is continued in the dialogue with Philip in “John” 14:

If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.  Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.  Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father?  Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.  Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake.  Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.  And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

That expresses a thoroughly subordinationist view in which Jesus as “Son” is the visible emanation and tool among humankind of the “Father.” Aside from the adoptionists, that “fuzzy” view of the relationship between God and his divine emanation, Jesus, was quite common in early Christianity.  But with the creedal definitions of the 4th century, things changed.

The “official” and “orthodox” view gradually became that Jesus, along with God and the “Holy Spirit” formed a kind of Trinity (a word not found in the New Testament) in which each “person” was God and equal to the other persons, yet somehow not precisely the same as the other persons.  That is thus the view we find in Russian Orthodox iconography.  But as we have seen, the matter in its historical entirety is far more complex.

I mention this not to advocate one doctrinal view over another, because my interests are not doctrinal, but rather historical and iconographic.  But knowing that subordinationism was a common view of early Christians allows us to better see how the “one size fits all” Trinitarian view of the Nicene Creed and later “orthodox” definitions of God rather quickly created a multitude of “heretics” where before such views were just a part of the variations to be found in the “fuzzier” Christianity of the early Christians.

There is much more to be said on this matter, for example how Jesus was fitted by early Christian doctrine into the “Angel of the Lord” appearances of the Old Testament, and why the Old Testament figure Joshua (Joshua is the same name as Jesus, in fact Eastern Orthodoxy calls Joshua “Jesus, son of Nun”) is depicted with precisely the same features given Jesus himself in iconography.  But those are topics for another time, because discussing varying views of God in early Christianity quickly becomes wearying.

For further reading on this matter, I recommend a book by Margaret Barker:  The Great Angel; a Study of Israel’s Second God.

Of course the minimum one needs to know for Russian and Greek iconography is that Jesus, the Word or Logos, Wisdom, and the Angel of Great Counsel are all one and the same in Eastern Orthodox doctrine, even though iconographically the representations may differ. Again, as long as this posting is, I have barely touched on all that can be said on this topic.  But let’s finish with a quick look at an icon showing Sophia, Wisdom of God:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Focus on what looks to be a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.

That angel is “Sophia, Wisdom of God.”  It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom.  If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus.  But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom, or as this icon title calls him, “Sophia, Wisdom and Word of God.”  You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) is a variant of the “Deisis” type.

There are more detailed icons of Sophia, in fact one could write a book just on icons of Sophia alone.  But that should suffice for today.