GATHERING AT THE RIVER: THE ASSEMBLY OF JOHN THE FORERUNNER

By now, I hope readers have discovered that if this site is read from the first postings onward, it provides a useful course in identifying icons and reading their inscriptions.  Being able to read inscriptions is a very important part of the study of icons, and it is not difficult.

Today we will look at another icon of Ioann Predtecha —  Иоанн Предтеча — John the Forerunner — commonly called John the Baptist in the West.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

This type is commonly known by the title inscription we see at the top.  We will take it in two parts:

СОБОРЬ СВЯТАГО ПРОРОКА…
SOBOR SVYATAGO PROROKA…
ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY PROPHET…

…ИОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧИ
...IOANNA PREDTECHI
…JOHN THE FORERUNNER

So it reads, all together,

СОБОРЬ СВЯТГО ПРОРОКА ИОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧИ
THE ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY PROPHET JOHN THE FORERUNNER”

You may remember from previous lessons that the Church Slavic СОБОРЬ — Sobor — means “council,” “assembly” “gathering” and it is even the word used for a cathedral.  Here it is appropriate to translate it as “assembly.”  In Orthodox Church calendrical usage, a sobor (Greek synaxis) was originally (in Constantinople) an assembly for liturgical purposes at a church, in honor of a saint or saints involved in a particular event (often a day after an event celebrated as one of the major feasts)  These calendar celebrations were later generally adopted in Orthodoxy.  So we find, for example, the Sobor of John the Forerunner celebrated on January 7th, the day after the Feast of the Bogoyavlenie — the Theophany (the baptism of Jesus).

So this icon is the “Assembly” of John the Forerunner, and it depicts visually the account we find in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Бы́сть Иоáн­нъ крестя́й въ пусты́ни и проповѣ́дая крещéнiе покая́нiя во от­пущéнiе грѣхóвъ.
Buist Ioann krestyay v pustuini i propovyedaya kreshchenie pokayaniya vo otpushchenie gryekhov.
“John was baptizing in the wilderness and preaching baptism of repentance in remission of sins.”

And in this next detail, we find illustrated these words:

И исхождá­ше къ немý вся́ Иудéйская странá и Иерусали́мляне…
I iskhozhdashe k nemu vsya Iudeyskaya strana i Ierusalimlyane…
“And there went out to him all the country of Judea and the Jerusalemites…”

We see the people of Jerusalem coming out of their city, on their way to John.

And in this detail we see illustrated these words:

и крещáхуся вси́ во Иордáнѣ рѣцѣ́ от­ негó, исповѣ́да­ю­ще грѣхи́ своя́.
i kreshchakhusya vsi vo Iordanye ryetsye ot nego, ispovyedaiushche gryekhi svoya.
“…and were all baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins.”

Here we see the people removing their clothes on the banks of the Jordan, in preparation for baptism:

Here John is described:

Бѣ́ же Иоáн­нъ оболчéнъ власы́ велблýжди, и пóясъ усмéнъ о чреслѣ́хъ егó….
Bye zhe Ioann obolchen vlasui velbluzhdi, i poyas usmen o chreslyekh ego….
“John was clothed in camel hair, and a leather belt around his waist….”

It is interesting to note that among the beasts surrounding John, we find a lion, a donkey, a camel, and even a unicorn.  Because the word used to describe John’s desert in the new testament means “wilderness,” (a wild, deserted place) Russian painters — who did not know what the Judean desert was like — just painted a kind of forest instead.  That is typical of this type in Russian iconography.

John is looking upward toward Lord Sabaoth in the sky, who is blessing him with the fingers of the blessing hand in the position used by the Old Believers, so that just confirms what we already suspect from the style of the painting — that this is an Old Believer icon.  We can see Lord Sabaoth’s inscription just above him:

Господъ саваофъ
Gospod savaof
“Lord Sabaoth.”

It is interesting to note how the landscape is painted.  As I have mentioned before, the Old Believers — while keeping the abstraction of “human” figures, nonetheless borrowed techniques for painting landscapes from the more realistic art of Western Europe.  The foliage of the trees and bushes consists of progressively lighter leaves superimposed on a darker background, a technique also used in the landscapes of Western Europe.The water is composed of background washes of shades of blue, with horizontal strokes of dark to light superimposed upon it.

From all of the characteristics of this icon — including the strong use of bright gold with a bright red inscription upon it, as well as the abstract manner of painting the human figures, combined with the somewhat “westernized” landscape, and the Old Believer blessing sign of “Lord Sabaoth,” we can reasonably assume that this attractive icon is from one of the number of Old Believer icon workshops once found in various cities and towns of the Urals.  Today the icons then produced in those Ural workshops are generally known under the blanket term “Nevyansk School” (Невьянская школа — Nevyanskaya shkola ), after the city of Nevyansk (Невьянск), the largest center of the Old Belief in the Urals — though Nevyansk icons were painted in a number of places in the region (such as Nizhniy Tagil/Нижний Тагил, Staraya Utka/Старая Утка, Krasnoufimsk/Красноуфимск).  Large numbers of Old Believers from parts of Poland, northern Russia and the Volga settled in the important mining region in the early 18th century, bringing with them influences from various schools of icon painting.  The “Nevyansk School” of icon painting that developed out of this was largely active from the second half of the 18th through the first half of the 19th century (though there are earlier examples), and benefited from the patronage of those involved in the rich Ural mines.  But with the economic downturn in the Urals and other changes, the school went into a decline in the second half of the 19th century.

Sverdlovsk Oblast (Province), Russia

In the map below, the large black dot in the circle at lower right is the city of Sverdlovsk.  Going northward, we see Nevyansk, and some distance above it, Nizhniy Tagil.  Krasnoufimsk is at lower left.