TO CROSS OR NOT TO CROSS

Here is a 13th century fresco from the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery (Đurđevi stupovi) in Serbia:

It depicts three angels seated a a table.  You may recall that we have seen this basic image before, as part of more detailed icons of the “Old Testament Trinity,” also called “The Hospitality of Abraham” (Гостеприимство Авраамово/Gostepriimstvo Avraamovo).  But in this example, Abraham and everything else found in the more elaborate images of the Old Testament Trinity is absent.

We can see the title inscription written at both sides of the halo of the central angel:


It reads:

СТА ТРО    ИЦА

From past postings here, you will recognize that curved line above the first three letters as the sign of abbreviation, and so you will know that СТА with that line above it is the abbreviation for СВЯТАЯ — SVYATAYA — meaning “Holy,” except of course that the third and last letters would be given in the old Slavic form instead of the later Russian Я form for the “ya” sound.

You will probably also easily recognize the separated ТРО    ИЦА as the word ТРОИЦА — TROITSA — meaning “Trinity.”  So this image is titled Svyataya Troitsa — “Holy Trinity.”  You likely also easily noticed that the letters ТР (“TR”) are linked — they form a ligature, with the curve of the Р (“R”) about halfway down the vertical line from the top bar of the T.

Now the second significant thing to note is that this same central angel has the cross in his halo.  I hope you remember that a halo with a cross in it is used for images of Jesus.  Here that means the central angel of this Trinity is identified as Jesus — the Son, and the other two angels would then be the Father and the Holy Spirit.

One of those inter-factional quibbles eventually arose over giving the central angel the cross halo, thus identifying him as Jesus.  The Russian Stoglav Council in 1551 forbade this practice, and decreed that the title of such icons should be Svyataya Troitsa, and should follow the model of Andrey Rublev (there is now some controversy over whether Rublev was the artist of various works attributed to him); and even today Eastern Orthodox bicker over whether the practice of giving the central angel the cross halo is “uncanonical” or not.  That does not matter to students of art history, however, because we are more interested in what was actually done than in what various factions think should have been done.  In any case, the painter of this image had not yet adopted the then relatively recent (in Slavic lands) practice of placing the Ho On — “The One Who Is” — inscription that also eventually became characteristic of the halo of Jesus.  He just used the simple form with no inscription on the cross in the halo.

Interestingly, there was not always agreement in earlier Christianity as to who the three angels were.  Procopius of Gaza (465–528) wrote that some considered them to be three angels, while the “Judaizers” held that only one of them was God, and the other two were angels; still others considered the three angels a “type” for the Holy Trinity (See his Commentary on Genesis XVIII).

Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho LVI, asserted that one of the three was God, and the other two angels, while his opposition held a common Jewish view that the “three men” of the Genesis story were three angels, and that they appeared to Abraham only after God appeared to him, following the text of Genesis 18:1-2:

“And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him…

The consensus in Eastern Orthodoxy, however, came to be that the three angels were the Trinity — or more vaguely, that the three show the “relationship” among the persons of the Trinity.

 

 

 

 

ANGELS — SINGULAR AND PLURAL

Here is a pleasant Russian icon of an angel, most likely once the right panel in a group of at least three related icons:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a closer look at the title inscription:

We see from the curved horizontal line above each word that they are abbreviated.  Here is the inscription with the missing letters added:

АГ[ГЕ]ЛЬ Г[ОСПО]Д[Е]НЬ
ANGEL’ GOSPODEN’
“Angel of the Lord”

Remember that when you see two Gs together in Church Slavic —  ГГ — they are pronounced like “ng” in “tangle.”  Also remember that Church Slavic has no words corresponding to English “the” or “a.”  So ANGEL’ GOSPODEN’ can be translated as “Angel of the Lord” or “The Angel of the Lord.” АГГЕЛЬ is the singular form of angel — used for only one.

You may recall that the curly ribbons at each side of the angel’s head represent divine hearing.

The angel holds a zertsalo — a stylized mirror — on which is written the word
СВЯТЬ/SVYAT’ — meaning “Holy.”  Sometimes shown as a sphere, sometimes as a disk, the zertsalo represents divine seeing — a kind of heavenly television set or surveillance camera.  Notice the stylized clouds around the edge.

Of course if there is more than one angel, the word changes to make it plural, as we see in this icon of the Old Testament Trinity:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here are the inscriptions on the three central angels (representing the Trinity in Eastern Orthodox belief):

Instead of writing “Angel of the Lord” on each halo, the painter has instead used the plural form for each:

АГГ[Е]ЛИ Г[ОСПО]ДНИ
ANGELI GOSPODNI
“ANGELS OF THE LORD.”

If you are curious about the title inscription on the top of the roundel, here it is:

It reads (modern Russian font):

ОБРАЗ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ ЖИВОНАЧАЛЬНАЯ ТРОИЦА
OBRAZ PRESVYATUIYA ZHIVONACHAL’NAYA TROITSA
“Image of the Most Holy Life-giving Trinity.”

If you are a long-time reader here, there is no Church Slavic word used today that you have not seen before, so this is just a little review.

 

 

UNEXPECTED GUESTS: A DETAILED OLD TESTAMENT TRINITY ICON

Many “Old Testament Trinity” icons are very basic, showing only the three angels who appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in the Old Testament story.  The famous Old Testament Trinity attributed to Andrey Rublyov (there is now some controversy over who actually painted it) is a good example:

In that famous icon, Abraham and Sarah were eliminated.  But in other icons, things are more elaborate.  Some painters liked to show much more of the story, as in this example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

First, let’s look at the title:

It reads:

СВЯТАЯ И ЖИВОНАЧАЛНАЯ ТРОИЦА
SVYATYA I ZHIVONACHALNAYA TROITSA
“[The] HOLY AND LIFE-GIVING TRINITY.”

Zhivonachalnaya means “to initiate or begin life — to be the source of life.”  But we can translate it loosely into English as “life-giving.”

At upper left Abraham has met the angels and is bringing them home (here “home” is one of the stylized buildings called “palaces” in Russian iconography, rather than the biblical tent):

In the next image, he washes the dust from the feet of his angel guests:

On the right side, dough is being kneaded to make bread for the visitors:

At left, a calf is being slaughtered to provide meat for the angels (not a very angel-friendly thing to do, one would think now):

At lower center is the main image, with the angels seated at a table, and Abraham and his wife Sarah waiting on them:

 

Finally, at upper right we see Abraham and his wife seeing the departing guests off.

Here is the major portion of the story as related in Chapter 18 of Genesis in the King James Version:

And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.  And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

There is an interval in which the angels predict that Sarah will have a son, and then the guests arise and begin to leave, but Abraham goes with them a short way, to see them off.  As he does so, he is told about the problems in Sodom, makes a deal, and then the angels leave and Abraham returns home.

In the structure of the story, it is made clear that the three angels are really manifestations of Yahweh, the god of Israel.  That is why in later Christian thought, the three angels came to represent the concept of the Trinity.

Here is the same icon with a silver and gilt riza dated 1881 placed over it:

It bears a porcelain plaque reading simply Svyataya Troitsa — “Holy Trinity.”

 

AN UNREVEALING REVELATION: THE “VISION OF JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN”

Here is a 15th-century four-type icon from Novgorod, in the northwest of Russia:

The types it includes are:

Upper left:  The Resurrection of Lazarus.
Upper right:  The Old Testament Trinity.
Lower left:  The Meeting in the Temple.
Lower right:  Ioann Bogoslov and Prokhor (John the Theologian and his disciple and amanuensis Prokhoros).

Today we will focus on the fellow in the fourth type, Ioann Bogoslov — John the Theologian:

ioanniprokkhor

The obvious vertical crease running through John’s image (he is the one at left) is where two boards were joined in the panel on which the icon was painted.

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that John the Theologian is the Eastern Orthodox name for the apostle and evangelist John. We use the term “evangelist” for convenience, because no one really knows who wrote the Gospel called “of John.”  The oldest manuscripts are anonymous.  Nor does anyone know who wrote the two Epistles of John or the Revelation, also called the Apocalypse.  Even though tradition attributes the Apocalypse to John, its style is so remarkably different from that of the Gospel that most consider it extremely unlikely to have have been written by the same person.

In any case, the type from the Novgorod Icon of John and Prokhoros shows them sitting before a cave on the Island of Patmos.  John is dictating and Prokhoros is writing.  Tradition differs as to whether John wrote both the Gospel and the Apocalypse while on that island.  Prokhoros as the disciple and secretary of John comes from tradition and hagiography.  Traditionally, Prokhoros is supposed to have been one of the seven deacons named in Acts 6:5.

Now keeping in mind the type of John and Prokhor and its association with the Apocalypse, today we will look at an icon type relating to the  book in the New Testament called “The Revelation” or “The Apocalypse.”

Αποκάλυψις — Apokalypsis — in Greek significes an “unveiling” or “revealing.”  Apo- means “away from,” and kalypsis means a “cover”; so an apo-kalypsis is taking the cover away from something, revealing what was beneath it.

Traditionally, as already mentioned, it was believed that the author of the Apocalypse was John the Apostle (though there were doubts about that as early as the 3rd century); but that attribution has generally been abandoned by modern scholars.  So we don’t really know who wrote it.  We do know that its acceptance as a part of the New Testament came late (it was the latest book generally accepted), and in the Syriac-speaking Church of the East it was only added in the 6th century.  It has always been accompanied by controversy, not only about whether it deserves to be part of the Bible, but also over the meaning of its obscure and often bizarre visions and symbols.  Even the German reformer Martin Luther did not think much of it, saying that that he found it “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and to most people of most denominations — lay or clergy — the Apocalypse was (and is) simply dark, obscure and puzzling.

Though many people think of the book as the “Revelation of John,” that is not how the book identifies itself.  Instead, it begins Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἣν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεὸς δεῖξαι τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐν τάχει….
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his slaves what must soon happen….

So it identifies itself as a revelation given to Jesus by God.  The revealing by Jesus to John is secondary, as the sentence continues:

…καὶ ἐσήμανεν ἀποστείλας διὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου αὐτοῦ τῷ δούλῳ αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννῃ….
“…and he made known and sent through his angel/messenger to his servant John….”

Here is a Russian icon from the early 17th century:

The title inscription at the top reads:

ВИДЕНИЕ СВЯТАГО АПОСТОЛА ИОАННА
Богослова

VIDENIE SVYATAGO APOSTOLA IOANNA
Bogoslova

Which means:

“[The] VISION OF [the] HOLY APOSTLE JOHN [the] THEOLOGIAN”

Here is another quite similar example of the type, from the 16th century:

(Tretyakov Gallery)
(Tretyakov Gallery)

The icon consists of four basic scenes.

At upper left, we see the first scene, described in Revelation 1:10 onward:

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What you see, write in a book, and send to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.  And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like  the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shines in his strength.

This is how the second icon depicts that scene:

We see Jesus standing, with the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) signifying Eternity behind his head.  From his mouth proceeds a large trumpet.  In his right hand is a starry circle surrounded by angels blowing trumpets.  Seven candlesticks stand at left.  John kneels before Jesus.

The second scene takes up most of the lower half of the icon, excluding the two figures in front of the cave at right.  It is explained by this excerpt from the Apocalypse 1:20 forward:

Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which you saw are the seven churches.

John is told in Revelation 1:11:

What you see, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.

So that portion of the icon depicts John presenting his message of revelation to the angels of the seven churches.   Each angel stands in front of a building and holds a scroll bearing the message intended for that particular church.

The third scene, at upper right, is the angel giving the book to John:

The fourth scene, at lower right, is John the Theologian and his disciple Prokhoros.  It is often found as a separate icon.  It depicts John before his cave on the Isle of Patmos, looking upward to receive inspiration, and reciting his message to his disciple Prokhor, seated at right.

If we look very closely at the page Prokhoros/Prokhor holds, we can see what he is writing:

In the calligraphic style of the 16th century, it says:

В начале бе….
In [the] beginning was…

And we know those are the first words of the Gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the word….”

Having seen the “Vision of John the Theologian” type, you should be aware that there are other related but even more complex and detailed icons of the Apocalypse.  But Apocalypse icons, including the “Vision of John”, are not common.

To finish for today, it is interesting to compare the first scene in the Videnie — that showing Jesus amid the seven candlesticks with the stars in his hand — with the much more sophisticated woodcut of the same subject by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528 ):

APPRECIATING CHARACTER IN ICON PAINTING

When I first became involved with icons many long years ago, there was still a lot of snobbery about their age.  In general the feeling was that the earlier an icon was, the better it was, so icons of the 18th to early 20th centuries were not as appreciated as they should have been.  The reverse side of that coin is that the later icons were much less expensive and more obtainable by museums and collectors than the rarer images from the “Golden Age” of icon painting.

My view on the appeal of icons, however, was always more objective, less concerned with the monetary and “right period” aspects.  I felt that the appreciation of icons should not rely just on age, but also on the “character” of an icon — its inherent visual appeal.  So I had a great interest in icons that would have caused the “classic” collector to turn up his nose — icons from the 1700s up to about the time of the Russian Revolution.  I even had appreciation for what one might call “folk” icons, finding that some of the originally cheap and mass-quantity icons actually had an appeal all their own, particularly those delightful icons of the 18th and 19th century with cinnabar red predominating and embossed, metal leaf “svyet” (background) and garments tinted by varnish overlay to make a cheap substitute for gold leaf.  So yes, my interest in icons extended even to examples of icons as simple folk art.

In fact one could say that nearly all Russian icons in the old style and its variations are to me a kind of Russian folk art, representative of cultural attitudes and the beliefs of their times.

Suffice it to say that attitudes have changed in the last decades, and today there are many collectors of fine and interesting examples of the later period of  Russian painting that formerly was ignored by the cognoscenti.

Most people interested in icons have seen pictures of the Old Testament Trinity attributed to Andrey Rublov (there is now some controversy over who actually painted it), probably the most famous of Russian icons, the “Mona Lisa” of its type.  But look at this later icon of the same subject:

                                              (Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This icon carefully preserves earlier elements, such as the Stroganov-style buildings at left, and the “shingled” appearance of the mountain on the right, but wonderful touches are present — such as the “feathery” appearance of the shingled steps of the mountain, and that particularly pleasing stylized tree behind the central angel, with its abstract leaves that shade so obviously and uniformly from dark in the underpainting to the white overlay.  The painter has even placed a striking, star-like cave opening in the mountain, which adds considerable interest to the image.

No one would mistake these angels for “Rublyov” angels — they are real “folk” angels, but high quality folk angels, with their outstretched, pastel wings that remind one a bit of Giotto.  Icons like this are the reason why I have always preferred the old and stylized “abstract” styles favored by the Old Believers to the almost Italian looking, increasingly saccharine “realistic” images so popular in the State Church from the middle of the 17th century up to the Revolution.  This particular icon is a very pleasing work, a real collector’s item.  The surprising thing is that abstraction continued, among some icon painters, right into the early 20th century — and so one may still look for icons of character as late as the early 1900s.

Now, as to the type itself, we already know that this is the image commonly known as the Old Testament Trinity, to distinguish it from the New Testament Trinity, which shows God the Father as a bearded old man along with Christ, and the Holy Spirit represented as a dove.  But the actual title written on this icon is simply Svyataya Troitsa — “The Holy Trinity.”  It shows the appearance of three angels to the Patriarch (the title in icons is Praotets, meaning “Forefather”) Abraham on the plains of Mamre, as recorded in Genesis, chapter 18.  Abraham is seen with Sarah, his wife, serving the angels seated at the central table.  the tree in the background is the “Oak of Mamre.”  The three angels are the three members of the Christian Trinity, all believed (somehow) to be God in E. Orthodox dogma.

In folk tradition, the central angel is generally considered to be Christ, and sometimes he is even given the three points of the cross in his halo with the Ho On inscription that is characteristic of Christ.  The Stoglav Council opposed the practice, but painters often went their own way, ignoring the decree, which is why in the study of icons one should look not at what theologians said should be done, but rather at what was actually done by icon painters.  Always look at real practice rather than theory.  Another folk belief is that the delightful tree behind Christ in this image represents the wood of his cross.  The angel at left was considered to be God the Father and the building behind him represents the Church; the angel at right was the Holy Spirit, and the mountain behind him is the mountain of spiritual ascent.  Such fanciful interpretations were very popular among ordinary people.

Though they cannot be seen clearly in this photo, the three angels have curling ribbons extending from the area just above their ears.  These are standard in icon depictions of angels, and traditionally they represent divine hearing; angels both hear prayers and are attentive to the will of God.  Of course in this image, the angels are God.

The Greeks called icons of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre the “Hospitality of Abraham” (Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ — He Philoxenia tou Avraam).

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