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.
If you talk to the “true believers” in modern Eastern Orthodoxy (who are often enthusiastic Protestant converts), they will frequently tell you that Russian Orthodoxy does not paint icons of God the Father shown as an old man. But that is just doctrinal theory, not the reality of Russian icon painting, and as you know, we deal in reality here rather than in theories or wishful thinking about icons.
The truth is that the painting of icons of God the Father as an old man has a history in the Russian Orthodox Church of at least some 600 years; such depictions became increasingly common, until by the 18th and 19th centuries there were countless icons in existence featuring God the Father. They are found in all the Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to Bulgaria and Serbia to Russia. They were (and are) seen in in churches, in monasteries, and of course in the home.
When the Council of Moscow decreed in 1667 that “the image of Lord Sabaoth shall no longer be depicted or made into an icon, because no one has seen Lord Sabaoth, that is, the Father, in the flesh,” it made not the slightest difference to icon painters or to Eastern Orthodox worshippers. They painted and venerated what their fathers had painted and venerated.
We need not go into all the theological quibbles over this matter, because our concern here is not with what this or that person thinks icon painters should have done, but with what they really did; and what they really did was to paint images of Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in huge numbers over the centuries.
Today I would like to take a look at such an icon, which goes under the general name “The New Testament Trinity.”
The painter, however, has given this icon its own title, written at the top in condensed form, meaning in very decorative cyrillic calligraphy, with words abbreviated and some letters written in smaller form as superscription above the larger letters. In Russian this ornate style of writing is called Vyaz, from the verb meaning to join or tie together.
The inscription on this example, expanded to its full form (Russian font), looks like this:
И возшедшаго на небеса, и седяща одесную Отца I Vozshedshago Na Nebesa, I Sedyashcha Odesnuiu Otsa
It is a line from the Simvol Verui — the “Symbol of Faith,” which is the Russian term for the Nicene Creed; it reads, “He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right [hand] of the Father,” which perfectly describes what the icon depicts — Jesus sitting in Heaven at the right of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof / Lord Sabaoth).
The Father is shown with his typical long beard and eight-pointed halo (termed a slava — a “glory” in this case). The eight points symbolize the seven days of Creation and an added eighth day — the Day of Eternity. The Holy Spirit is seen as a dove above the Father and Son, which is how he is described at the baptism of Jesus in the New Testament.
Above the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a gathering of archangels and angels. We see Michael (Mikhail), Gabriel (Gavriil), Uriel (Uriil), Yehudiel (Yegudiil), Selafiel (Salafiil), Raphael, and a number of others each identified only as “Angel of the Lord”
God the Father — Lord Sabaoth — holds a scroll, as we see in this closeup:
It is a Church Slavic quote from Ezekiel 33:11, and it says, “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live.” In more modern form it is:
Не хочу смерти грешника, но чтобы грешник обратился от пути своего и жив был.
Here is an illustration from a menaion printed in Moscow under the direction of the “Holy Governing Synod” in the reign of Catherine the Great in 1784:
As you see, it depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove at the top of the circle, with Jesus on the left and “Lord Sabaoth” on the right — God the Father depicted as an old man.
By the way, aside from the fact that this illustration comes from a book authorized by the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1721-1918, it is also obvious that this illustration is not from an Old Believer book because it uses the IHC abbreviation for the name Jesus, something the Old Believers considered a sign of heresy, keeping to the traditional IC abbreviation.
So remember, as a student of icons, go with what painters actually painted, with historical reality, not with what religious enthusiasts say they should have painted.
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.
The old Russian Church year — and even the civil year until Peter the Great — began with the first of September, which is called the “Indiction,” a calendar usage that goes back to Roman times. It is paradoxical that while there is a specific icon type for the Indiction — the New Year — it is very seldom seen. Nonetheless, the painting of the Indiction is the first calendrical icon instruction found in — for example — the Bolshakov icon painter’s manual:
Let’s translate that:
“The beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year. And the Indiction is painted: The Savior stands in the Holy Place of God, he reads the book of Isaiah the Prophet.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ [Luke 4:18-19].
Above, Lord Sabaoth, and the Holy Spirit over the Savior, and round about Jews of all kinds.”
Well, that is rather clear. In actual icons painted of the Indiction, Jesus usually stands at a kind of lectern, reading from the Book of Isaiah, but of course in biblical times that would have been a scroll rather than a “codex” book. Let’s take a look at at what such an icon really looks like:
The title inscription (put into modern Cyrillic) reads:
НАЧАЛО ИНДИКТУ ЕЖЕ ЕСТЬ НОВОМУ ЛЕТУ Nachalo indiktu ezhe est’ Novomu Lyetu
“The Beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year”
As the painter’s manual says:
“Above, Lord Sabaoth…” — well, Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) in Russian iconography is simply God the Father shown as an old man with a white beard. That irritates a lot of fundamentalistic E. Orthodox who say that one cannot paint God the Father in icons, but the reality is that for hundreds of years, God the Father has been painted in countless Eastern Orthodox icons all over the “Orthodox” world, and as as can be seen, here he is even in the painters’ manuals.
My amused, standard response to the “true believers” who say such an image is “heretical” is to point out that God the Father is even found at the top of the Kursk Root (Kurskaya-Korennaya) icon of Mary, which is considered “wonder-working” in Eastern Orthodoxy: so why would a supposed heretical image be found on a supposedly miracle-working icon? It is one of those things they cannot reasonably answer. But of course for the art and cultural historian, there is no “heresy” in icon painting; there is only the way icons were painted and used in the real world. One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy, so we have to look, in the study of icons, to what was really done in the past, not to what theologians and dogmatists of one brand or another would prefer to have been done.
The Holy Spirit, in Russian icons, is painted as a white dove (which usually looks more like a pigeon). So this Indiction icon often (but not always) includes all members of the E. Orthodox Trinity.
If you may be wondering why Jesus is shown twice in the icon shown here, that is because a common practice of Russian icons was to indicate the movement of time by showing two different scenes, making a “continuous” image that takes the viewer from one scene in time to another. So in this image we see Jesus both reading from the book of Isaiah and seated in discussion with the men of the synagogue. One might consider this an early precursor of animation — but it is “static” animation.
The point of using this icon type as the beginning icon for the Church year was first, that this preaching of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is usually considered the event marking the beginning of his public ministry; and second, the quotation from Isaiah ends with “the acceptable year of the Lord,” which came to be applied, in Russia, to the Church year as given in the calendar of saints and festal days. Ivan Shmelov (pronounced “Shmelyov”) wrote a book following the course of that religious year in old Russia, and titled it Lyeto Gospodne — “The Year of the Lord”
Here is the biblical account that forms the basis for the “Indiction” type:
Luke 4:16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
When one looks at the old painters’ manuals (podlinniki), they always begin with the images for September 1st. And when one looks at traditional Church calendars that give the saints and festal days for a given year, they too always begin with September 1st — the Indiction. That is not the case, however, with many modern Eastern Orthodox calendars.
Now let’s look at an interesting 14th century image of the Indiction, a fresco from the Dechani Monastery in Kosovo, Serbia:
In spite of the difference in style and detail, it is still easily recognizable as the same scene in the much later Russian icon. Note the red cloth draped over the architectural background, the traditional way of indicating that a scene is taking place in an interior.
We can easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.” But what is the longer inscription above the background structure? Here it is again:
It is a slight but easily recognizable variant of the Church Slavic words taken from Luke 4:17:
И дáша емý кни́гу Исáiи прорóка: I dasha emu knigu Isaii proroka
And was-given to-him [the] book of-Isaiah [the] prophet
In normal English, “…And there was given to him the book of Isaiah the Prophet.”
Finally, let’s take a look at the text on the book Jesus has opened:
It is read from top to bottom of the left page first, then the right:
Дýх[ъ] Г[оспóде]нь на мнѣ́:
егóже рáди по[мáза мя́]…
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me:
For he has anointed me….”
So we see it is the beginning of the text of Isaiah described in Luke 4:18.