AN UBIQUITOUS IMAGE, AN UNCOMMON INSCRIPTION

You will easily recognize today’s icon as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, which according to tradition appeared miraculously when Jesus pressed a cloth to his wet face, and his image was transferred to the cloth, becoming supposedly the “first Christian icon.”

Well, as you learned in a previous posting on this type, that is just a legend that developed over time.  But the result of that legend was not only images of this type being used to support the practice of icon veneration, but also the eventual creation of immense numbers of icons bearing the image — including even Russian military banners.

This interesting example bears the inscription:
ѠБРАЗ НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫИ
OBRAZ NERUKOTVORENNUIY
Literally, IMAGE NOT-HAND-MADE, or in the usual translation,
“THE IMAGE NOT MADE BY HANDS.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Two angels standing on stylized clouds support the cloth.

Just below the face of Jesus is the inscription on the cloth:

It reads:

СВЯТЫ УБРУС
S[VYA]TUI UBRUS
“[The] Holy Cloth.”

Ubrus can be translated both as “cloth” and as “towel.”  In Russian religious practice, it is also the name for the white towel — often colorfully embroidered at both ends — placed atop and at the sides of an icon to decorate and honor it in a home shrine — the “beautiful corner” of the room where the icons are placed.

The most interesting thing about this example, however, is the uncommon inscription found at the base of the icon:

It reads:

БОЖIЕ ВИДЕНIЕ Б[О]Ж[ЕС]Т[ВЕН]НОЕ ЧУДО
BOZHIE VIDENIE BOZHESTVENNOE CHUDO

What does it mean?  Well, you may recall that some time ago there was a posting here on Greek abbreviations found on stone crosses, etc.  Among them was this one:

ΘΘΘΘ
ΘΕΟΥ ΘΕΑ ΘΕIΟΝ ΘΑΥΜΑ
Theou Thea Theion Thauma
“Vision of God — Divine Wonder”

The base inscription on this Russian icon of the “Not Made by Hands Image” is just the Church Slavic translation of that Greek phrase, which we could also render as:
“The Vision of God — a Divine Miracle.”

The reference here is to the visual presentation of the image — the face — of Jesus, which in Eastern Orthodox tradition appeared miraculously on the cloth, and so was a “divine wonder” — a miracle.

The point behind its use on this icon is that in Eastern Orthodoxy theology and belief, this first appearance (though legendary in reality, of course) of the image of Jesus on the cloth — the first Christian icon — was the excuse made for the practice of making and venerating icons.  The argument was that formerly God — being a spirit — could not be represented in paintings.  But because God was incarnate — made flesh — in the person of Jesus, and could then be seen by human eyes, one could therefore paint and venerate icons of God  in the visible person of Jesus.  And of course Eastern Orthodox tradition held that the “real” visage of Jesus could be seen in icons of the “Image Not Made by Hands,” which was considered an actual seeing — a “vision” — of God, and therefore a divine miracle.  So the incarnation of Jesus was used as the (rather shaky) basis of the argument for icon veneration.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL IN ICONS

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL AND THE NUN FEODOSIYA (Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

I have spoken earlier of how often icon saints are just generic images.  That is particularly obvious in the image of the Guardian Angel (Angel Khranitel) who represents each individual believer’s guardian angel —  “one image fits all.”

The Guardian Angel was believed to watch over each Orthodox believer, keeping note of his or her good and bad deeds.  He is generally shown with a cross in the right hand — representing faith — and a sword in the left, signifiying his power to protect from evil.

In the example shown here, the Guardian Angel stands on a cloud depicted, as Russian icon clouds generally are — as a collection of snail-like curls.  The Guardian Angel is sometimes the main icon figure, but more often he is found in the company of other saints, and he is also a very common border image.

The other saint in this image is Svayataya Prepodobnaya Feodosiya.  If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that Svyataya means “holy” or “saint,” and Prepodobnaya signifies a female monastic — a nun.  And this nun saint’s name is Feodosiya, or if we put it in a western form, Theodosia.  Remember when reading icon inscriptions that the Church Slavic in which icon titles are written has no “TH,” and uses “F” instead.

This icon most likely belonged to a girl or woman named Feodosiya.  Using it, she could pray both to the saint for whom she was named and to her Guardian Angel.

The little image at the center of the top border — between the two inscriptions identifying the saint and angel below — is the “Not Made By Hands” image of Christ (I discussed this image in an earlier posting).  It holds the place that generally would be taken by an image of Gospod’ Savaof — God the Father painted as an old man with a white beard.  One sect of Old Believers abjured the “Gospod’ Savaof” image, and used the “Not Made By Hands” image in its place, as here and at the top of crucifix icons.

Did you notice that the main images in this icon — painted near the beginning of the 20th century — are on a central field surrounded by a raised border?  The border and recessed field form a kovcheg — literally an “ark,” but more simply a “box,” meaning a kind of visual box in which sacred things are found — the sacred things in this case being the two figures.  The use of the kovcheg is generally characteristic of much older icons, but from the late date of this particular image, we see that it is by no means an infallible indicator of date.  Note also that though the sacred figures in this icon all have haloes, there is no real svyet’ (literally “light”) — no bright or gilded background such as is often found on other icons.

Here is another example, dated 1904:

angelkhranitel2jacksonsauction
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It has the ornate border typical of many icons of the late 19th-early 20th century, and shows a mixture of Byzantine and western European influence in its style.

 

*