UNFOLDING A “FLATIRON” ICON

In an earlier posting, I briefly mentioned the cast metal four-part folding icons commonly called “irons,” because their shape when closed is similar to that of an old metal flatiron — the kind one had to heat on a stove to use.  You will find that earlier posting here:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/cleansed-by-fire-cast-metal-icons/

Today we shall look a bit more closely at this very popular form of Old Believer metal icon, which may be found both with (as here) and without added colored enamel.

Here is an example:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

It includes icon types of major Church festivals, as well as the commemoration of four “wonderworking” icons of Mary.

If we look more closely, we can identify the scenes in each of the four panels:

The top image is the Crucifixion (Raspyatie), with a tiny image of the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus just above the cross.

The upper left image is the Annunciation (Blagovyeshchenie) to Mary.
The upper right image is the Birth (Rozhestvo) of Jesus.
The lower left image is the Birth (Rozhestvo) of the Mother of God (Mary).
The lower right image is the Entry (Vvedenie) of the Mother of God into the Temple.

At top is the New Testament Trinity, with the inscription, “He Ascended into Heaven and Sits at the Right Hand of the Father.”

Left:  The Meeting (Sretenie) of Jesus in the Temple.
Right:  The Theophany (Bogoyavlenie), that is the Baptism of Jesus
Lower Left:  The Transfiguration (Preobrazhenie) of Jesus.
Lower Right:  The Entry (Vkhod) of Jesus into Jerusalem.


Top:  The Elevation (Vozdvizhenie) of the Cross.
Left:  The Descent (Sozhestvie) to Hades (Resurrection (Voskresenie) of Jesus).
Right:  The Ascension (Voznesenie) of Jesus.
Lower Left:  The Old Testament Trinity (Troitsa); in some examples this is replaced by the Descent (Sozhestvie) of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
Lower Right:  The Dormition (Uspenie) of Mary.

Top:  The Praise (Pokhvala) of the Mother of God.
Below that come four scenes of Poklonenie (Veneration) of Wonderworking icons of Mary:
Left:  The “Tikhvin” icon with saints Maksim and Vasiliy (Maxim and Basil) Fools for Christ’s Sake, etc.
Right:  The “Vladimir” icon with saints Aleksandr Svirskiy and Kirill Byelozerskiy, etc.
Lower left:  The “Smolensk” icon with saints Antoniy and Feodosiy Pecherskiy, etc.
Lower right:  The “Sign” icon with saints Antoniy Rimlyanin and Leontiy Rostovskiy, etc.

On the reverse side of such icons, one often finds a “Golgotha Cross,” which is discussed — as are the icons of major Church festivals and the individual Marian icons — in previous postings that may be found in the archives here through the “search” function on this site.

In Russian terminology, a “folding” icon — whether a diptych (two-panel), triptych (three-panel), quadriptych (four-panel) or simply several-panel (polyptych) form — is called a складень/skladen’.

 

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WHEN PRESENTED WITH A CHALLENGE…

If you have been reading this site from the beginning — and learning from it — it is very likely that you are now your town or city’s expert on icons — and perhaps even the expert in a wider region.  You should be able to deal with the greater percentage of the icons you encounter — able to read the title inscriptions on saints and recognize a great many icon types — even many of those less common.

But what are you going to do if you encounter an icon like this carved wooden example?

Well, you may recall that the thing to do when you encounter an unfamiliar icon is not to worry, but rather to look carefully at it to see if there is anything you might recognize from what you have learned.

Applying that to this image, you will quickly find it is not as unfamiliar as it appears at first glance.  For example, you should already be able to identify this portion and its inscriptions from our previous discussion of cross descriptions:

The letters may look a bit odd because they are carved instead of written, and rather stylized, but nonetheless a little thought will enable you to recognize them, from top to bottom, as abbreviating:

ЦАРЬ СЛАВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

ΙC XC
ISUS KHRISTOS [Old Believer form]
“JESUS CHRIST”

What looks like KM is actually
КТ
K, for Kopie — “spear,” and T for T for Trost’— “reed.”  The former identifies the lance at left, and the latter the long reed at right, bearing a sponge at its top.  Note that in old icon inscriptions “T” often looks rather like an “M,” so that is a very helpful tip.

Then comes

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

After that we find:

НИКА
NIKA
“[He] Conquers.”

Then come the letters

МЛ  РБ

They abbreviate

МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ РАЙ БЫСТЬ
MESTO LOBNOE RAI BUIST’
“The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”

And finally at the base, beside the skull, we find at left:
Г  А
ГОЛОВА АДАМА
GOLOVA ADAMA
“[The] SKULL [literally “head”] [of] ADAM”

And at right:
Г  Г
ГОРА ГОЛГОФА
GORA GOLGOFA
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

So already — just from what you have learned in previous postings, you will have made great progress in interpreting this icon.

Now let’s turn our attention to the long carved inscription at the top:


If you look at it carefully, it will gradually seem familiar.  Do not be deceived by the beginning two letters at upper left:

Here is another helpful tip.  We already saw that in old inscriptions, T often looks like “M.”  Similarly, Д (D) often looks like “A.”  So do not mistake the first letter for an A — it is actually Д (D) — and the second letter is the “A.”  So together these two letters form the word ДA (Da)

Now you may recall that ДA is not just the Russian word for “Yes.”  In Church Slavic, it is used to introduce a “let” sentence, like “Let him be called John.”  And if you think a moment, you may recall that there is a “Da” inscription that is often found on metal crosses and on painted icons of crosses.  Here it is the Old Believer form:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomu Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

If we compare that with the carved text, we can see that aside from insignificant variations, it is precisely the same text.  So now we have translated that text on the icon as well.

Next come these abbreviations.


We can see they are:

КХВВ
ККЦ
КВУ (remember the o with a v atop it is “ou” the “oo” sound,  У in modern Russian.)
КЦД (Yes, the Д here looks like “A,” but remember the tip given above.)
КАС
КБЯ (The inscription uses the old Church Slavic form of Я, which looks like an “A” with a vertical line below the crossbar.)

Now what on earth can we make of that?  Well, it is not as difficult as it looks, because you should already be familiar with the words abbreviated here.  They are found on the back of a great many of those large, cast brass Russian crosses, though you have probably not seen them in this abbreviated form.

They are the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the “Prayer of the Praise of the Cross” (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — so the abbreviations and their meaning are:

КХВВ = Крест Хранитель Всей Вселенной
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy
“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe”

ККЦ = Крест Красота Церковная
Krest krasota tserkovnaya
“The Cross is the beauty of the Church.”

КЦД  = Крест Царем Держава
Krest tsarem derzhava

“The Cross is the might of kings.”

КВУ = Крест Верным Утверждение
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

“The Cross is the confirmation of the faithful.”

КАС = Крест Ангелом Слава
Krest angelom slava
“The Cross is the glory of angels.”

КБЯ =Крест Бесом Язва
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the scourge of demons.”

So we find that those abbreviations, which looked quite mystifying at first, were really something you already knew.

Now we come to the most difficult part — those rows of letters at the outer sides:

The dark ones at the top, which we will read from the left to right sides, are:
КТПВ   ИВТС

Twice we see (in the carved version) the letter T written somewhat like M, but remember the tip above — we know they are both T.  And here is the meaning:

КТПВ   ИВТС

КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО
И СВЯТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ

KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLONAEMSYA VLADIKO
I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM

Meaning,

“We bow before your cross, Master, and praise your holy resurrection.”

So even though the abbreviation omits the usual word svyatoe (“holy”), we can see this abbreviation is just the very common inscription usually found below the crossbeam in icons of the Crucifixion and on brass crosses  — again something you already know.

So we have passed that hurdle successfully.  Now comes the really cryptic part — the side inscriptions in red.  These will likely be new to you:

ББББ   ВВВВ
ВВВВ ДДДД
ДДДД НННН
ОООО КККК
ППППТ ППППЕ

“Cryptic” of course means “hidden” or “secret,” and these really are mysterious, because there are often several ways of interpreting them, some quite peculiar.  I suspect that even the believers who used these icons often did not know what they meant, and just regarded them as a kind of magic charm.  Nonetheless, we will do what we can, giving some of the most commonly-found interpretations:

ББББ
Бич Божий Бьёт Бесов
Bich Bozhiy b’yot Besov
“The scourge of God beats demons.”
Божия Благодать Биет Бесы
Bozhiya blagodat’ biet besui (from Maxim the Greek)
“God’s grace beats demons.”

ВВВВ
Всей Вселенной Возвещает Веру
Vsey vselennoy vozveschchaet veru
“The whole universe announces the Faith.”
Возвращение В рай Всем Верным
“The return to Paradise of all the faithful.” (from Maxim the Greek)
Возвращение Вечное Верным В рай
Vozvrashchenie vechnoe vernuim v rai
“The eternal return of the faithful to Paradise.”
Велие Веселие Верующим В тя
“The great joy of believers in you.”

ВВВВ
Всем Верным Возвращение В рай
Vsem vernuim vozvrashchenie v rai
“The return of all believers to Paradise.”

ДДДД
Древо Добро Досада Дьяволу
Drevo dobro dosada d’yavolu
“The Good Tree [i.e. the cross] is the sorrow of the Devil.”
древо добро диаволу досада
Drevo dobro diavolu dosada
“The good tree is the Devil’s sorrow.”

ДДДД
Древо Дарует Древнeе Достояние
Drevo daruet drevnee dostoyanie
“The tree [i.e. the cross] bestows the ancient inheritance.”

НННН
Нощь Неведения Не светла Неверным
Noshch’ nevedeniya ne svetla nevernuim
“The night of ignorance is not bright to unbelievers.”
Нощь Невидения Неверующих Низлагает
“The night of ignorance does not disprove unbelievers” [does not show them the error of their ways.”

ОООО
Обрете Обретен От Бога От Елены
Obrete obreten ot Boga ot Elenui
“A finding [i.e. discovery] found from God by Helen” [referring to her supposed discovery of the cross].
Обретены Обретатель Обретен От бога
Obretenui obretatel’ obreten ot Boga
“The finding [discovery] of the finder is a find from God.”
оружие одоления ограждает обручники
“The weapon of victory protects the betrothed.”
обретены обретатель, обретен царицею Еленою от Бога
Obretenui obretatel’ obreten tsariteiu Elenoiu ot Boga
“The find of the finder is the finding [discovery] of Empress Helen, from God.”

КККК
Крест Крепость Константина К вере
The cross is the bastion of Constantine for the faith.”
Крест Христов Крепость царем Крепкая К вере (Максим Грек)
“The cross of Christ is the bastion to the emperor strong in faith.” (Maxim the Greek)

ППППТ
Пою Почитаю Поклоняюся Подножию Твоему [Владыко… ]
Poiu pochitaiu poklonyaiusya podnozhiu tvoemu [Vladiko…]
“I sing honoring, bowing at your feet, [Master…]”

ППППЕ
Паки Подает По роду Поклоняющимся Ему.
Paki podaet po rodu poklonyaiushchimsya emy
“Still he offers to those bowing before him.”

Now as you might guess, given the variations — some quite odd — in interpretation of these last cryptograms, one cannot take their meaning in too limited or definite a fashion, because another “believer” may offer yet another and different interpretation familiar in his circle.  But at least these give an idea of some of the meanings that have been attached to these abbreviations.  As with similarly odd Greek abbreviations, it is likely that some of what we see has been corrupted over time or misunderstood.

This icon is a variant of the Голгофский крест/Golgofskiy krest/”Golgotha Cross,” and is usually referred to as the “Golgotha Cross in a Church,” or some slight variant of that.  It is called “in a Church” because as you see, the cross and its abbreviations are set within the design of a many-domed Russian church.

 

TWO TRICKY ICON TYPES

There are two icon types that appear visually similar but should not be confused, because they are really quite different in what they represent.

Here is the first, in a 17th century example from the Stroganov School, by Nikifor Istomin Savin.  It bears a title inscription reading:

Святы Ангел хранит спящего человека душу и тело
Svyatuiy Angel Gospoden Khranit Spyashchego Cheloveka Dushu i Telo

sleeprighteousinscrip

“The Holy Angel of the Lord Protects the Sleeping Man, Soul and Body.”

(State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

It depicts a generic righteous man asleep on his bed.  The Guardian Angel (at left), watches over him, with sword in one hand and cross in the other.  A demon, seeing this protector, flees away at right.  Above the sleeping man is an icon of the Deisis.

Here is another and later example of the same type, though the inscription is slightly different:

“The Holy Guardian Angel Protects the Sleeping Man.”:

It has additions — the image of the same man while awake, praying before the Deisis icon.  The Guardian Angel too is seen a second time (at far right), recording this good deed of the man on his scroll, along with all the rest of his actions.

Both versions are sometimes called simply “The Sleep of the Righteous.”

But be careful.  Here — as mentioned — is a visually similar type, but it is not at all the same in meaning as the two shown above, and should never be confused with them.  It is an Old Believer image of a type popular in the Guslitsa (Гуслица) region — a center of the Old Belief — in the 19th century.

It is easy to see why some misidentify this icon as the first type.  There is a man on a bed, an angel standing by him, and an icon on the wall behind them.  But this type is actually an icon of  Ioann Ogorodnik/Иоанн Огородник  — “John the Gardener.”

The tale comes from the Prolog, November 8th.  It is said that there was once a gardener named John, who was very concerned about the poor.  Consequently, he kept only a small part of his income, and gave the rest away in charity.  But after this had been going on for some time, John began to worry what would become of him when he got old, and if he were to become ill.  So instead of giving away a good part of his money to the poor, he instead began to collect the silver coins for himself, to use in age and illness.

Soon — just as he feared, it seemed — he was stricken with an ailment.  The flesh on his leg began to turn putrid and was covered with sores.  He went to many doctors, and spent a huge amount of money, but none could cure him.  Finally a doctor who was supposed to be the most skilled of all of them told him that there was nothing to be done but to cut the leg off.  John had to agree, and the doctor was to come the next day and perform the operation.

That night, John was in tears.  He prayed to Jesus:
Господи, помяни мои первые дела, когда я был щедр на милостыню, и исцели меня!»

“Lord, remember my first actions, when I was generous in charity, and heal me!

Hardly had he said this when an angel of God appeared before him, saying “Now, where is all the silver you had accumulated?”

John confessed he had sinned, and said that if the Lord would heal him, he would do so no more.

The angel then touched John’s leg (as shown in the icon above) and he was healed.

The next day when the doctor came to cut off the leg, he found John was not home.  He asked where John was, and the reply came that John had left early, to work in his garden.  The doctor set off for the garden, and when he arrived, there was John working away.  Seeing this, the doctor exclaimed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy.”

Here is a four-part icon with “The Suffering of John the Gardener” type at lower left:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The inscription at the base tells not only the title, but also what is happening, beginning with the angel asking John, “Now where is your silver?”

 

 

EASILY AMUSED

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:

It reads:

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:

It reads:

“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.

Apparently demons are very easily amused.

“GREAT PATRIARCHAL CRUCIFIXION” ICONS

Today we will look briefly at another type of cast metal icon.  This type is distinguished from other similar icons of the crucifixion by its very large size, by the number of individual types joined to make it, as well as by the row of 19 to 21 cherubim extending along the very top.

When I say “other types joined to make it,” I mean literally that.  A Great Patriarchal Icon combines forms used to make other individual icons into one very large cast icon.  One can see in the casting where the individual forms were pieced together.

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

At center we can see the form for a standard “house cross” Crucifixion, with its side panels showing Mary and the “Mother of God” at left and the Apostle John and the Centurion Login (Longinus) at right.  Around it are placed the various types for the Major Church Festivals, as well as an icon of St. Nikolai/Nicholas, Marian images, and other saints and angels.

This type of easily-recognized, very large metal icon has a specific name.  It is called a Большое Патриаршее распятие — Bolshoe Patriarshee Raspyatie — a “Great Patriarchal Crucifixion.”  In English it is sometimes just referred to as a “Great Patriarchal Icon” or “Great Patriarchal Cross.”  But in the slang of the everyday Russian icon trade, it is often called a большая-лопата — bolshaya lopata or большая патриаршия лопата — bolshaya patriarshiya lopata — a “Great Shovel” or a “Great Patriarchal Shovel,” because of its shovel-like shape.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

These “Great Patriarchal Crucifixion” icons were, as one might suspect, the product of Old Believer workshops, and were produced largely in the Moscow area in the 18th and 19th centuries, but of course in fewer numbers than the more common and less expensive smaller Crucifixion metal icons.

THAT’S A RELIEF: CARVED WOOD ICONS IN RUSSIA

Eastern Orthodoxy has been generally suspicious of statuary — of images in three dimensions.  Historically, statues are not entirely absent.  Even as early as the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, such three-dimensional images existed in Christianity.  But over time — and particularly after the Iconoclastic period — Eastern Orthodox art has tended to avoid the use of religious statuary.  But one does encounter icons in relief, carved into stone, cast into metal, impressed in clay or carved in wood.

That is why one sometimes finds wooden relief icons of one kind or another in Russian iconography, though they are in general more scarce than painted icons.

Wood carving has been a part of Russian folk art since pre-Christian times, and when one finds carved icons in the 18th and 19th centuries, they still have much the appearance of folk art objects, though they were used just as were painted icons.

Here is a carved wooden icon depicting the Crucifixion.  It is depicted as though in a church interior, which is why we see seven church domes above it:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We see the usual figures found in painted Crucifixion icons — Jesus in the center, his mother Mary and another Mary at left, and at right the disciple John and the Centurion Longinus (Login Sotnik).  Even the inscriptions are carved in wood, and considerable time must have been required for such detail.  When the carving was finished, the icon was painted in suitable colors and then varnished.  The surface has oxidized and aged over the years, which is why the surface now has a rather dark appearance:

Each figure has its title inscription, and above Jesus we see the usual inscription, written here as IНЦI, abbreviating “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  And at the sides of his head is the common IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”

Most notable, however, is the very long carved text in the outer borders of the icon.  The novice student of Russian icons might at first despair of determining what it signifies, but one should always keep in mind that icon inscriptions tend to be very repetitive.  Also, certain texts tend to be associated with certain images.  Given that, can we possibly make any sense out of all those hundreds of letters carved without punctuation or even separation into individual words?

Fortunately, it is not as difficult as it looks.  In fact if you have read the earlier postings on this site, you will already have been given the key to translating it.

What does one do with such an unfamiliar inscription?  One first looks for the familiar, whether in words or phrases.  And if we go to the beginning of the text, which is at the upper left corner, we can begin to work with it.  In general the starting point in most icons for a sequence of images or a long text is at upper left:

That is a bit dark, so it would be helpful to brighten the image to add clarity, like this:

We can now see, looking carefully, that the inscription begins with these letters:

ДАВОСКРЕСНЕТЪБОГЪИРАЗЫ…

Where have we seen that before?  The most logical place to look is in materials dealing with Crucifixion images.  You may recall that some time ago I did a posting titled “The Instant Expert on Russian Crosses“:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-instant-expert-in-russian-crosses/

In that article, I gave the standard inscriptions associated with the Crucifixion type.  And among them, you will find this:

Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…

ДА ВОСКРЕСЕНЕТЪ БОГЪ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТЪ ОТЪ ЛИЦА ЕГО ВСИ НЕНАВИДЯЩЕЙ ЕГО…

 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

Now one thing we will notice about the form of the text on this icon is that its wording in Church Slavic is a bit different than the standard Russian Orthodox version.  That is because this icon uses the old text, not the revised wording used by the State Church after the separation from the Old Believers.  That tells us this is an Old Believer icon, and indeed such carved relief icons tend to be found more commonly among Old Believers than in the State Church.

Here is the Old Believer text:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

And here is the text as found in State Church prayer books:

Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его. Яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут; яко тает воск от лица огня, тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменующихся крестным знамением, и в веселии глаголющих: радуйся, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень, прогоняяй бесы силою на тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Иисуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго и поправшаго силу диаволю, и даровавшаго нам тебе Крест Свой Честный на прогнание всякаго супостата. О, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень! Помогай ми со Святою Госпожею Девою Богородицею и со всеми святыми во веки. Аминь.

You can see that there are some differences, but not enough to prevent us from recognizing the text in both cases.  Do not be intimidated by this.  All it means for practical purposes is:

If the beginning words read:
Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его… then we know it is likely an Old Believer icon.  But if we see the text beginning like this:
Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его… then we know it is a State Church image.

Keep in mind that one need not be concerned about minor differences in spelling, but differences in wording help us to distinguish icons of the Old Believers from those of the State Church in Russia after the latter part of the 17th century.  One can even see slight differences between the form of the text used on the carved icon and that given above as the Old Believer form of the full prayer.  The reason is that the text on the icon more closely follows the spelling used in the Ostrog Bible (Острожская Библия ) — the first complete printed Church Slavic Bible in the corrected edition of 1581.

 

THREE 4TH-CENTURY FELLOWS

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.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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.”

Here is a painted example:

(Perm Gallery of Art)
(Perm Gallery of Art)