“Image of the Assembly of the Holy, Glorious Prophet John the Forerunner.”
Now we have seen the word Sobor before, and you may recall that it means a gathering — an assembly — so in iconography it represents a composition using persons related in some way — as all part of the same story or event; a Sobor is also a gathering or assembly of persons relating in some way to the main Eastern Orthodox church festival celebrated on the previous day. The “church jargon” term generally used for such a secondary festival in English is synaxis, which is just the Greek word that Church Slavic translates as Sobor.
So this is the icon of the Sobor of John the Forerunner — the “Assembly of John the Forerunner” — which is the secondary festival following the major festival of the Bogoyavlenie — The Theophany — the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. Now in some cases Sobor can also mean a main cathedral, as well as a council, as in the Nicene Council.
In the center of the icon, we see John depicted with wings as “Angel of the Wilderness”:
You can probably read his halo inscription, which says “Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.”
He holds a stylized diskos (Eucharistic vessel) in which the child Jesus lies as “Lamb of God” — the signifying the body of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread:
The little curving lines above the diskos represent the liturgical implement called the asteriskos, the “star-cover.” Its purpose is to support the cloth veil that is placed over the diskos during the Eucharistic ritual in Eastern Orthodoxy. If you recall that the Child Christ as “Lamb of God” lies on the diskos, then you will see why this metal “star-cover” represents the Star of Bethlehem.
John carries a scroll with the usual text for this type:
АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ И СВИДЕТЕЛСТВО ВА ОНЕН СЕ АГНЕТЦЪ БОЖИЙ ВЗЕМ[ЛЯЙ ГРЕХИ МИРА]
AZ VIDEKH I SVIDETELSTVO VA ONEN CE AGNETS BOZHIY VZEM[LYAI GRYEKHI MIRA]
It means: “I saw and witnessed concerning him, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’”
That quote requires a jump to the Gospel of John, 1:29, which gives us this in Church Slavic:
Во ýтрiй [же] видѣ Иоáннъ Иисýса грядýща къ себѣ́ и глагóла: сé, áгнецъ Бóжiй, взéмляй грѣхи́ мíра:
Around John are scenes from his life. They begin with the image at lower left:
The inscription at left identifies it as: Rozhestvo Svyatago Proroka Ioanna Predtechi
“Birth of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.
We see John’s mother Svyataya Pravednaya Elizaveta/Holy Righteous Elizabeth at left, the washing of the newborn John at right, and through the doorway we see the child being shown to his father Svyatuiy Prorok Zakhariy/Holy Prophet Zechariah, who holds a scroll reading Ioann da budet — “He shall be [called] John.”
The next scene chronologically is at upper right:
The identifying inscriptions says Angel” Gospoden’ vvede svyatago Ioanna Predtedi v pustuiniu tamo da prebuivaet” do vozrosta svoego — “The Angel of the Lord leads Holy John the Foreunner into the wilderness; there he shall remain until he comes of age.”
Now we move to upper left:
The identifying inscription is Molenie v pustuini Svyatago Proroka Ioanna Predotechi — “The prayer in the wilderness of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.”
Next, at left, comes John’s “Assembly” — his baptizing of people in the Jordan River:
The inscription says Sobor” Svyatago Proroka Ioanna Predotechi — “Assembly of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner.”
Now we move to lower left:
The inscription reads Useknovenie glavui Svyatago Ioanna Predtechi –“The cutting off of the head of Holy John the Forerunner.” We see the execution and the presentation of the head to Salome on a salver.
Now we come to the final scene at middle right:
The inscription says Obretenie glavui Svyatago Ioanna Predtechi — “Finding of the head of Holy John the Forerunner.” Now in the apocryphal tale of John’s life — as separate from the New Testament accounts — there are three findings of the head of John — the thing just kept getting lost — and the one shown here appears to be the second finding. You can read more about these “lost and found” events in this previous posting:
Now and then the student of icons will encounter examples with substantial amounts of text on the painted surface, which can be quite intimidating. Here is an icon which does not have an obvious title inscription, but is clearly centered around the large central figure:
We can tell from his garments that he is a bishop of some kind, but we do not yet know who he is. And then we are faced with the four substantial portions of written text.
When one encounters large segments of text on an icon that are not scroll inscriptions or “signature” inscriptions, the text most commonly falls into one of these categories: it may be a biblical text; it may be a liturgical text; as a sub-category of the latter, it may be an akathist or some other kind of hymn or prayer. Another major category of text relates the story of the icon. We have seen examples of this in the frequent Marian icons called “Unexpected Joy.” The text may also relate incidents from the traditional life of a saint. The problem for the student who is no expert on Church Slavic or Greek is in determining which of these it is most likely to be.
When faced with the challenge of such large portions of text, a good place to begin is to use common sense. In the case of this icon, the first thing we want to know is who the large saint shown in the center is. So the next step is to look at the text for anything resembling a saint’s name — because given his halo, he is obviously a saint.
Let’s start with the segment of text at upper left:
If we look quickly through it, we will soon discover that in the middle of the first line is the name Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. And when we reach the last line, we find at its beginning the same name — Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. So our logical hypothesis would be that the text is telling us something about a fellow named Niphont.
If we look at the lower left segment of text, we can expect — if we are right — to find the name repeated again somewhere:
Quickly scanning though the text, we find again near the end of the second line, a grammatical form of the name Niphont — in this case Нифонту/Niphontu; that tells us our hypothesis about the main saint being named Niphont is even more likely to be correct.
And if we move over to the beginning of the text segment next to it, we see this:
The second line begins with the words Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta — which we should recognize — even if our knowledge of Church Slavic is very basic — as “[of] Venerable Nifont/Niphont”; and that makes us even more certain that our hypothesis identifying the main saint as Niphont is correct.
The next thing to do is to consider the context of the texts. If we look at the whole icon again, we can see that at both sides of the main saint are smaller secondary scenes. Given that the main figure on the icon is a saint, we would be justified in supposing that these secondary scenes depict events from the traditional life of that saint.
The scene at upper left depicts a saint kneeling before an icon of a haloed mother and child — which we may reasonably identify as a Marian icon — in a church:
The scene at lower left depicts the saint looking at a figure whom we can easily identify as Jesus by his physical appearance and the bars of the cross in his halo, standing in a mandorla of light. And we can see words coming from the mouth of Jesus, so he is obviously speaking to the saint:
At lower left in the icon we see a larger scene filled with saints of various kinds, along with angels:
We see in the midst of them a saint identified by the inscription in his halo as Nifont/Niphont (hey, our guess was right!) kneeling before a mandorla in which Jesus appears again, and to the left of Nifont is another mandorla in which stands a female figure we can reasonably assume to be Mary.
So now we have three scenes, which it would be logical at this point to conclude are scenes from the life of St. Nifont/Niphont.
Given that, it is also reasonable to conclude that the segments of text we find are likely telling us about events from the life of St. Nifont.
To explore that, let’s return to the first scene at upper left — the one with the man kneeling before the Marian icon:
And in the next scene, we see Jesus speaking to the man, and telling him something; so it looks like a vision the saint had at some point in his life:
And finally, there is that last scene, with saints and angels, Jesus and Mary, and Nifont kneeling in the midst of them.
Knowing all that, we have several clues to identifying the saint and the scenes. We already have determined his name is Nifont/Niphont, so the next step is to look through the lives of saints named Nifont to see which one has events that match those in the scenes. And we also know that this Niphont ended up as some kind of bishop, because we can tell that from his garments in the main image of him on the icon.
Well, to save you a lot of bother (and sometimes the identification of icons can require a lot of bother and many hours), there is a saint whose name is Niphont who was a bishop, and his traditional life describes events that match those in the scenes on this icon. His name is:
And lo and behold, in that name we find the same Prepodobnuiy Nifont (“Venerable Niphont) that we found in a grammatical form in the text as Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta; and we also see he has the secondary title of Episkop/Bishop. And that certainly fits with what we first determined from the garments of the main, central figure on the icon. This Niphont is also sometimes called Niphont of Constantia, a city on the island of Cyprus. He is listed as a Fourth-century saint who lived in the time of Constantine I.
Now on to how the scenes on the icon fit with events in the traditional life of Niphont:
Once Niphont went to church, and there he prayed before an icon of Mary in a very humble and contrite manner. When he looked at the icon, it returned his glance with a kind and gentle look. He went away feeling comforted. And on another occasion, he was on his way to the same church when he saw a man doing something sinful, and he criticized the man in his mind. Then, when he entered the church and was again before the icon of Mary, he saw her looking at him in a disapproving manner and turning away from him because of his judgmental attitude toward another human. So of course he repented, and as these stories go, Mary in the icon again turned toward him with a kind and gentle gaze.
Well, that takes care of the first scene from the life of Niphont.
But what about an appearance of Jesus to Niphont? Well, according to his hagiography, Niphont did have encounters with Jesus, who not only appeared to Niphont as alive in his icon — a repeat of the “living” icon of Mary — (notice the icon of Jesus in the background in the second scene at left) but also gave Niphon a long and extensive vision of the happenings to come in the Last Judgment. And in that vision Niphont is kissed by Jesus, who promises to favor those believers who call on the name of Niphont. He also makes a promise to come to Niphont at the bishop’s time of death and receive Niphont’s soul in his hands.
Well, if we look at the large text segment below that scene on the icon we find — if we know a bit of Church Slavic — that it refers to promises made by Jesus “to his beloved угодник/ugodnik blessed Niphont. An ugodnik in religious usage is one who endeavors to please God — a saintly, pious person. And it is also said in this text segment that when Niphont dies, Jesus will come “with ranks of angels” and receive the soul of Niphont in his own hands, and will give him rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (you will recall the icon type called the “Bosom of Abraham). So we can see that this generally corresponds with the second scene. And at the end of this segment, we see something else that corresponds with the icon scene:
“And the Lord blessed him, and said, Миръ ти рабе мой Нифонте. And he departed for Heaven.” Those words I have put in bold type — Mir ti rabe moy Niphonte — meaning “Peace be unto you my servant Niphon” — are exactly the words coming from the mouth of Jesus in the painted scene.
Now for the more elaborate, saint-filled scene at right. Let’s look at it again:
Well, as we have seen, in the traditional story Jesus promised Niphont to be present at his death with ranks of angels. And the tale of Niphont adds that St. Athanasios/Athanasius was also present. We see him robed and crowned as a bishop at lower right. Also in the crowd were apostles, martyrs, Mary, as well as other kinds of saints. So that accounts for the figures we see in the scene above. Perhaps you also notice that Jesus is holding what appears to be an infant clothed in white in his right hand. That is identified by the abbreviation Д Н (D N) as the “Soul [душа/dusha] of Niphont.”
So there you have it. We know who the saint is, and we know what the scenes from his life represent.
We should also know a bit about the traditional vita (“life”) of Niphont, keeping in mind that such hagiographic tales are commonly heavily fictionalized and not reliable as history. They served as admonitory and entertaining tales for believers.
The tale of Niphont is no exception. Scholars commonly date the vita of Niphont as late as the eighth to eleventh centuries, with the preference generally for the latter.
He was said to have been from the city of Plagion in Paphlagonia, a region on the Black Sea. At age eight he was sent to Constantinople to be educated. Initially all went well, but as he neared and entered his teens, his behavior began to change. He proceeded to lead a lively and colorful life, going to entertainments, singing in theatres, enjoying an over-abundance of food and drink. Niphont was also given to ανδρομανια — andromania — which is a fancy term for saying he was crazy about other males and intimate relations with them — so a kind of homosexual.
Now Eastern Orthodoxy traditionally has not looked kindly on homosexuality, and of course in early times when Church doctrine was formed, there was no real understanding of it as a natural variation in human behavior. So then it was seen as something to repress and deny, which can and did sometimes lead to all kinds of peculiar psychological results, and repression is precisely what Niphont — feeling guilty — did. He turned to beating and slapping himself to try to weaken temptation, bruising and harming his body in the process.
He is said to have once met a friend, who looked at him long in an odd way. When Niphont asked him why, the friend replied that Niphont’s face was black, like that of an Ethiopian. This supposedly was interpreted by Niphont as revealing his own sinful condition.
Niphont blamed his temptations on devils, and began to do his best to live an ascetic life. During his life of struggles with his temptation, he had visions of devils and angels, and as we have seen, of Mary and of Jesus. Finally — when he had grown old — he was made Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus — but he died not long after.
Now rather appropriately for an icon of an ascetic, we find some interesting figures used as border saints.
At upper left is “Holy Andrey, Fool for Christ’s Sake”:
At lower left is “Holy Vasiliy/Basil, Holy Fool of Moscow”:
At upper right is “Holy Feodor/Theodore, Fool for Christ’s Sake” (of Novgorod).
And finally, at lower right we see the monastic saint “Venerable Ephrim Sirin/Ephrem the Syrian.”
All of these saints — the three “Holy Fools” and Ephrem of Syria — were all noted for ascetic lives.
Here is another 14th century fresco image from the Vysokie Dechani Monastery in Serbia:
If you are familiar with the Bible — which fewer and fewer people are these days — you may recognize the story depicted. Here it consists of three scenes, and the central scene is the clue to identification.
Here is the scene at left:
The inscription at the top tells us what is happening. It is a variant of Acts 9:1-2. Here it is as found in the “Elizabeth” Bible:
Савл [Саул] же, еще дыхая прещением и убийством на ученики Господни, приступль ко архиерею,2 испроси от него послания в Дамаск к соборищем, яко да аще некия обрящет того пути сущыя, мужы же и жены, связаны приведет во Иерусалим.
“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.”
So we see this image depicts Saul — who was to become the Apostle Paul — during his period of persecuting Christians. In the image, we see Paul at right, standing before the High Priest.
The central scene depicts the Vision of Paul — the appearance of Jesus to him on the road to Damascus. The top inscription is a variant of Acts 9:3:
Внегда же ити, бысть ему приближитися к Дамаску, и внезапу облиста его свет от небесе:
“And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light from heaven.“
We see Paul falling to the ground, as Jesus (in the “Immanuel” form) appears to him in the sky. According to the account in Acts 9:3-7:
“And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven:
And falling to the earth, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord [gr. kyrie]?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute: it is hard for thee to kick against the goads’ [a goad is a sharp pole used to control an animal through pain]. 6 And he trembling and astonished said, ‘Lord, what will you have me do?’ And the Lord said to him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.”
The portion underlined in Greek and in bold type in English is not found in early Greek manuscripts, and occurs only in one 14th century manuscript, though it appears in varied manner in some Latin manuscripts from the 5th -12th centuries.
The scene at right depicts Paul — blinded by the vision, being led into the city of Damascus. He is acting on the words spoken by Jesus in his vision, as the inscription tells us — again, a variant of a segment of Acts 9:6:
И Господь рече к нему: востани и вниди во град….
“And the Lord said to him, Arise, and go into the city….”
Greek icons of the incident on the road to Damascus generally bear a title such as: ΤΟ ὉΡΑΜΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΠΟCΤΟΛΟΥ ΠΑΒΛΟΥ TO HORAMA TOU APOSTOLOU PAVLOU
“The Vision of the Apostle Paul”
In Slavic that is:
ВИДЕНИЕ АПОСТОЛА ПАВЛА VIDENIE APOSTOLA PAVLA
“Vision of the Apostle Paul.”
Titles of this type vary, however, so one may find instead something like “The Journey of Paul to Damascus.”
The publisher of that manual was Sergey Tikhonovich Bolshakov (1842–1906), an Old Believer. As I have said many times, it was the Old Believers who kept the old traditions of Russian icon painting alive long after the State Church had adopted the more realistic western European manner of painting.
Here is an old photo. Sergey Bolshakov is the fellow with the long forked beard, second from the right:
This pattern is from the Bolshakov manual:
Those of you who are familiar with the New Testament will recognize it as the Исцеление расслабленного в Капернауме — Istselenie rasslablennogo v Kapernaume — “Healing of the Paralytic in Capernaum.” In Greek the title means the same — Η θεραπεία του παραλυτικού της Καπερναούμ — He Therapeia tou paralytikou tes Kapernaoum.
It is the story found in Mark 2: 1-12:
And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word to them.
And they come to him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four.And when they could not come nigh to him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, your sins be forgiven you.
But there was certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why does this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said to them, Why reason you these things in your hearts?Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Your sins be forgiven you; or to say, Arise, and take up your bed, and walk?But that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins, (he says to the sick of the palsy,)I say to you, Arise, and take up your bed, and go your way into your house.
And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.
In the edited version of this story found in “Matthew (9:1-8) there is no lowering of the man through the roof. Matthew merely says:
And he [Jesus] entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city.
“And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said to the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”
The edited version of Luke 5:18-26 adds the detail that the man was let down through the roof tiles (διά τῶν κεράμων/dia ton keramon):
And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy: and they sought means to bring him in, and to lay him before him.
And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling [dia ton keramon/through the tiles] with his couch into the midst before Jesus.
Here is a 14th century fresco of the icon type from Vysokie Dechany, Serbia:
Do not confuse this type with that of the man healed of paralysis at the Pool of Bethesda — the story given in John 5:1-15. In each tale, a healed man is told to take up his bed and walk. The story of the Paralytic at Capernaum is commemorated on the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in the Orthodox Church.
Today we will take a very brief look at another of the so-called “Wonder-working” icons of Mary — the Rostovskaya (“Of Rostov”) image. There is little information about it, but it is easy to recognize. The “Rostov” of the title is one of two large Russian cities by that name. This one is the Rostov north of Moscow, in Yaroslavl Oblast (Region). The other is Rostov on the Don. The northern city, which is very old, is often distinguished from the other by the title Ростов Великий — Rostov Velikiy — “Rostov the Great”
This type depicts Mary standing on clouds at left. She holds the Christ Child, who blesses those standing on the right, which vary in number from example to example. Here there are three, which is standard in many examples. From left to right they are the Bishops of Rostov Leontiy (Leontius, died 1073), Isaiya (Isaiah, died 1090), and Ignatiy (Ignatius, died 1288).
It is said that Leontiy, who was born in Constantinople, was killed in 1073 at the instigation of sorcerers, which shows that this period was a time of conflict between the indigenous beliefs of the region and the expanding authority of the Orthodox Church. Isaiya was born in Kyiv, and became a monk at the famous Monastery of the Caves there (Pecherskaya Lavra). Ignatiy was born in the Rostov area. Tradition says that at his funeral, two pious nuns, as well as other particularly pious people, saw the saint rise out of his coffin and walk up into the air above the church, where he blessed the people and the city; then he descended into the church, where his coffin lay prepared.
Here is another example of the type, which expands the number of saints at right to fifteen: