Here is a Russian icon of Ioann Zlatoust — John the “Golden-mouthed,” better known as John Chrysostom:
We are today primarily interested in the text on the book he holds:
Here it is, with the portion seen on the book in bold type:
Вы есте соль земли: аще же соль обуяет, чим осолится? Ни во чтоже будет ктому, точию да и-[зсыпана будет вон и попираема человеки.]
It is the text of Matthew 5:13:
“You are the salt of the earth. If however the salt loses its strength, how shall it be salted? It will then be good for nothing but to be t[hrown out and trampled by men.]”
Perhaps you noticed some slight spelling variations in the text. These are common in old inscriptions.
Now why should this text be included on an icon of John Chrysostom? Well, most likely because he included a discussion of it in one of his homilies:
“What then? did they restore the decayed? By no means; for neither is it possible to do any good to that which is already spoilt, by sprinkling it with salt. This therefore they did not. But rather, what things had been before restored, and committed to their charge, and freed from that ill savor, these they then salted, maintaining and preserving them in that freshness,  which they had received of the Lord. For that men should be set free from the rottenness of their sins was the good work of Christ; but their not returning to it again any more was the object of these men’s diligence and travail.”
John seems not to have understood the original meaning of the saying, and in fact there is much controversy even today about what was meant by salt losing its strength or savor, because salt remains — well, salt, no matter how old it is. It does not lose its strength or savor. Some think that the “salt” mentioned was not at all what we know as salt, but rather a kind of substance used to fertilize the fields — a fertilizer that could lose its strength. But no firm and definitive solution to the puzzle of this text seems yet to have been found — so it remains obscure.
A reader asked me about this rather unusual image, which we might call the “Rejoicing Demons” type for convenience:
It is an Old Believer image, as we can tell from the kind of lestovka (prayer rope) the man depicted in the center is holding in his left hand.
The image has a rather extensive text in the outer border.
Some people mistakenly connect this type with the so-called “Hell Icons” that were rumored to have existed in old Russia — icons first painted with an image of a devil or devils, then painted over with a conventional religious image, to trick believers who would then unknowingly be sending their prayers before the icon to devils instead of to God. This, however, is not at all a Hell Icon. Instead it is simply a didactic icon intended to teach what was considered to be proper religious behavior.
In the image, we see a man beset by three demons. One sits on his head, and holds a banner:
ТУТЪ МОЯ РАДОСТЬ И ВЕСЕЛИЕ МОЕ TUT MOYA RADOST I VESELIE MOE
“Here is my joy and my merriment.”
Obviously the demons are very happy — but about what?
Well, that is answered in the longer text in the outer border. It is a teaching on how to correctly make the sign of the cross on one’s self in church. And that, of course, is why this is a didactic icon.
The long border text is from the Church lectionary called the Prologue. Here is what it says:
“On the same day, the word of John Chrysostom. The month of April, 18th day: On the Fear of God, and on How to Stand in the Church of God in Fear and Proper Order, and to Sign your Face with the Sign of the Cross:
Many ignorant people pretend to make the sign of the cross by waving their hands over their face. They labor in vain, not correctly drawing the cross on their faces, so that their waving makes demons rejoice. But if you make the sign of the cross properly, placing your hand on the forehead and on the stomach and right shoulder, and then on the left, the angels watch and rejoice to see the true cross represented on their visage. And the Angel of the Lord also writes down when you enter into the Church of the Lord with fear and with belief. If who enters the church stands with fear, and with tenderness makes obeisance to the image of God, that one receives forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God; but if without fear, that one will leave having committed a bigger sin. So, when we come to church, let us stand with fear, awaiting great mercy from God both in this age and the future. To him be praise, now and forever and in the ages of ages.“
At the base of the icon is another large text:
“Maxim the Greek wrote thus: If anyone frantically represents the sign of the cross, at that waving demons rejoice.”
There is also a very small inscription at the base, saying that “This picture was painted on an ancient icon.”
So, to sum up, this type is a teaching and cautionary image, showing a man in church who crosses himself carelessly by just making a hasty waving with his right hand instead of properly “drawing” a cross, and so the demons are all over him, really rejoicing about that.
The 4th century (the 300s c.e.) was an important time for the development of Christianity. That is when it was legalized in the Roman Empire and also when it was given the favor and support of the Emperor Constantine. It was also significant in the development and standardization of Christian dogma. And it was the beginning of the time of reversal, when Christians went from being a persecuted minority to being themselves the persecutors of non-Christians and those who did not toe the favored line doctrinally within Christianity. It was the time of the first great church council — the Council of Nicaea, out of which came a fundamental dogmatic statement of later mainstream Christianity — the Nicene Creed. It was a time when the notion of “heresy” — of scorning other ways of Christian belief — became firmly established in the Imperially-favored church. It was the beginning of the solidification of “official” Christian dogma, in contrast to the earlier wide variations in belief and practice.
As I hope you know by now, some icon types are fixed groupings of certain saints. Today’s image — a Russian icon — is one of them. It depicts three historically-important figures in the development of Eastern Orthodoxy. This example is a little unusual in that the three are commonly depicted on the same panel, but here they are shown as a three-panel set. Nonetheless, the type remains the same.
If you have been reading this site for some time, you should recognize immediately that this is an Old Believer rather than a State Church icon. The two clues are the stylization of the figures, and of course the position of the fingers of the blessing hand, with the “two-fingered” blessing that is the mark of Old Believers quite clear in the central panel.
The figures shown are, from left: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Each is dressed in the robes of a bishop, with the standard omophorion (the long stole) about his neck; and each holds the book of the Gospels, and a little cloth beneath it to show veneration. The arrangement of the three varies from example to example.
The Greeks call them Οἱ Τρεῖς Ἱεράρχαι — Hoi Treis Hierarkhai; in Russia they are generally called either Три святителя — Tri Svyatityelya — “The Three Bishops,” or Три учителя — Tri Uchityelya — “The Three Teachers.” In English the type is commonly found as “The Three Hierarchs.”
Basil is called Василий Великий in Slavic — Vasiliy Velikiy — “Vasiliy the Great.” Gregory is Григорий Богослов — Grigoriy Bogoslov — “Gregory the Theologian.” And John is Иоанн Златоуст — Ioann Zlatoust — “John the Golden-mouthed.” In Greek they are Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας — Vasilios ho Megas, Γρηγόριος ὁ Θεολόγος — Gregorios ho Theologos — and Ιωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος — Ioannes ho Khrysostomos, all with the same meanings as in Slavic.
Just who were these guys?
Basil the Great lived in the 4th century (300s c.e.). He began his career in law, then became a monk and the abbot of a monastery, and eventually founded more and wrote an enduring rule of life for the monks. In 370 he was made a bishop. He is often given credit for the victory of the “Nicene” view of the Trinity over that of Arius. His name is given to the form of Eucharistic liturgy called the “Liturgy of St. Basil.” Basil died in 379.
Gregory the Theologian also lived in the 4th century. He is sometimes called Gregory Nazianzen, after a Cappadocian city. He studied in Athens for six years, and was a school friend of Basil the Great. He later spent several years with Basil in a monastery. Like Basil, Gregory was active in the struggle against the views of the Arians. He was for a time Patriarch of Constantinople, but there was controversy over his appointment, and he eventually withdrew. Gregory died in 390.
John Chrysostom was born in the 4th century, but lived into the early 5th. He became a hermit in 375 c.e., and a priest in 386. He became known as an excellent speaker –thus his name — but he was also virulently anti-Semitic. In 397 he was made archbishop of Constantinople. An intolerant fellow, John supported the destruction of non-Christian temples and shrines, and his mouth got him into so much trouble that he was banished into exile, and died in 407. His name is attached to the common liturgy celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.”
There is another icon type depicting the three, but you are unlikely to come across an actual painted icon of it, unless in a museum or monastery, because it is a very uncommon type. Here is a pattern for it from the transfers of old Russian icons made by Vasiliy P. Guryanov:
It is commonly called Беседа трех святителей (Beseda trekh svyatiteley), meaning “The Conversation of the three Hierarchs/Bishops.” An alternate title for it is “The Blessed Fruits of Doctrine” It is a symbolic icon showing Basel seated at upper left, Gregory below left, and John at center right. Each holds a scroll, and is imparting teachings symbolically seen in the form of curling and streaming waters, which some are seen receiving and drinking in cups. The subject is found in the monastic fresco at Lesovo in Macedonia, and appeared in Russia in the 16th-17th century. There is an apocryphal text with many questions and answers (some quite odd) from the three shown in the icon, titled The Conversation of the Three Hierarchs. In it, Basil asks a question, and Gregory answers “Вода — учение книжное, а морем называется мир” — “The water is the teaching of books, and the sea is called the world.”
If we look at the very long vyaz’ title at the top of the icon, we can see it expands the common title a bit:
It reads : “The Conversation of the Three Hierarchs Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.”
Here is another transfer from the same icon, this time with the portions having light highlights shown in read, for the convenience of painters:
The two words written at the base read ПИСМО ГРЕЧЕСКО — Pismo Grechesko — meaning “Greek Painting.”
It is a commonplace of icon art that saints are generally not painted in a side profile, but either looking straight forward or with the head turned only partially to the side.
Knowing that, When you see an icon of a standing saint with face turned toward one side (but not entirely) and on a large panel tall and narrow in shape, it is very likely that the icon is from an iconostasis, the large wooden wall inset with icons that separates the congregation from the altar in Russian Orthodox churches.
Here is such an icon. This one depicts, as its inscription says, Svyatui Ioann Zlatoust — Holy John Gold-mouth — or as he is better known by the English adaptation of the Greek version of his title (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, =”John the Golden-mouth”) John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407 c.e.).
One finds such bizarre paradoxes in the list of Eastern Orthodox saints. Though he was called “Golden-mouth” in Greek and in Slavic, what sometimes came out of his mouth was actually more like filth — very vile, bitter, and rabid anti-Jewish rants. One gets an idea from this typical quote near the beginning of his work titled Against the Jews (Adversus Iudaeos):
“Indeed the synagogue is less deserving of honor than any inn. It is not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews, as I shall try to prove at the end of my homily.”
No need to quote any more of his toxic words.
Now modern conservative Eastern Orthodox believers like to say that John was merely complaining about “Judaizers” in his congregation — people who took part in some Jewish practices. But it is quite obvious on reading his homilies that beyond and in addition to addressing that issue, he is talking in the most despicable terms about Jews in general. That is, of course, because Jews did not accept the Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah and divine, so John and others like him saw those who questioned the central beliefs of Christianity as a threat. Christianity has a long and dark history of persecuting those who did not subscribe to the accepted dogmas, and for much of its history it had the power of the state backing up such persecutions.
It is not difficult to trace a direct line in Christian and European political history from the anti-Jewish rants of John “Golden-mouth” to the rants of the National Socialists — the Nazis — in the 1930s and 1940s, just as one can trace a direct line to the long tradition of Anti-Semitism in Slavic countries that still can be found to this day. The Eastern Orthodox, however, being so dependent upon “tradition” rather than critical historical examination, are stuck with him, because not only is he considered one of the major Church Fathers (his importance may be seen from the fact that he is included in iconostases), but also the liturgy commonly used in The Eastern Orthodox Church is called the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
But back to the icon itself. We can see that the painter has depicted John very much like the podlinnik descriptions one finds from later centuries:
“Of our Holy Father John Gold-mouth, Patriarch of Tsargrad [Constantinople]: Beard of Cosmas [the Unmercenary Physician], curly head hair, his sakkos [liturgical robe] cinnabar [red]… ornamented with crosses in gold circles, the hand blesses and the other holds the Gospels, under-robe lazor [blue] with white.”
A significant difference is that in the icon shown, John’s right hand is not blessing, but instead is held out in a gesture of beseeching, because in the iconostasis, John is one of numbers of saints approaching a central image of Jesus, like petitioners lined up in the court of a Byzantine emperor.
Here is a look at the reverse side of the icon, in which the shponki — the wooden slats inserted across the panel in an effort to prevent warping — may be clearly seen: