Here is a Russian icon that appears to be from the Forefathers tier of an iconostasis:
We can tell from the inscription that it depicts
СВЯТЫЙ ПРАОТЕЦ МЕЛХИЗЕДЕКЪ SVYATUIY PRAOTETS MELKHIZEDEK
“Holy Forefather Melchizedek”
Melchizedek is a mysterious figure, because while there is so little information about him in the Bible, he is nonetheless a part of significant doctrinal understanding of Jesus in the New Testament.
We first find him the the Old Testament, where he appears in Genesis 14:
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth loaves and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God. 19 And he blessed Abram, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, who made heaven and earth, 20 and blessed be the most high God who delivered your enemies into your power. And Abram gave him the tithe of all.
Next in Psalm 109 (110 KJV):
1 The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. 2 The Lord shall send out a rod of power for you out of Sion: rule in the midst of your enemies. 3 With you is dominion in the day of your power, in the splendors of your saints: I have begotten you from the womb before the morning. 4 The Lord swore, and will not repent, You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.
And we find him in the New Testament book of Hebrews, which makes a rather lengthy and wordy connection of Melchizedek with Jesus in chapter 7 — too long to include here.
In the icon, we see Abraham wearing a crown and omophorion (the stole around his neck), holding a tray on which are loaves of bread.
What I want to note today, however, is found in the odd scroll text given him here:
It says basically that God sent Abraham to Melchizedek to “cut my hair” — Ostrizhe vlasui moy.
“Cut my hair”? There is nothing whatsoever about Abraham cutting Melchizedek’s hair in the Bible. But as you all should know by now, when information was lacking — whether in the Bible or out of it — people just made things up. There are apocryphal writings in which Abraham cuts Melchizedek’s hair — the so-called “Apocrypha of Melchizedek.” One version of the story is found in the Byzantine-Slavic text Palea Historia — “Old [Testment] History.”
The tale, which has variations, relates basically that Melchizedek was one of two sons of a king of Salem. The king asked him to bring oxen to sacrifice to the gods, but Melchizedek tried to convince his father to sacrifice instead to the God of Heaven. His father was unhappy, and decided to sacrifice Melchizedek to the gods instead. Melchizedek prayed to God that the city and its worshippers and idols would be destroyed, and God caused an earthquake that swallowed up all the city and its people. Melchizedek went to Mount Tabor, where he lived as an ascetic hermit on wild plants and water. However, God sent Abraham to find Melchizedek — who by that time had hair down to his feet and very long nails. Abraham met Melchizedek and cut his long hair and trimmed his nails. Melchizedek and Abraham then worshipped the “most high God,” and Melchizedek blessed Abraham.
So that is how the scroll in today’s icon has Melchizedek oddly saying that Abraham “cut my hair.”
There is a cave chapel on Mount Tabor that in Medieval times was often considered by pilgrims to be the dwelling of Melchizedek.
Poor Joseph. Everyone seems to want to push him into the background. Mary is the mother of Jesus, but people generally avoid referring to Joseph as the father — whether biological or adoptive. Instead, in Russian Orthodoxy he is commonly referred to as Иосиф Обручник/Iosif Obruchnik — “Joseph the Betrothed.”
All this in spite of the fact that the two discrepant genealogies of Jesus found in the gospels called “of Matthew” and “of Luke” both oddly trace the descent of Jesus through Joseph. And in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart Ehrman writes:
“…in virtually every instance in which Joseph is called Jesus’ father or parent, various scribes have changed the text in such a way as to obviate the possibilities of misconstrual.”
The scribes who copied the early manuscripts of the Gospels seem not to have known how to deal with Joseph, given the rise of the veneration of Mary and the evolution of the doctrine of her perpetual virginity.
Nonetheless, Joseph does appear in icons, though usually not alone (some modern icons depict him so more frequently). He of course appears in icons of the Birth of Jesus, but he also appears in a Marian icon type called Трехъ Радостей / Trekh Radostey — “The Three Joys.” Here is an example:
Mary and the child Jesus are in the center, Joseph is on the left side, and on the right — in this example — is John the Theologian. That is a bit odd, because customarily the figure on the right in this icon type is John the Forerunner, so it appears that this is a variant that arose because at some time, a painter made an error. And when an error is made, others are likely to copy it.
That John the Forerunner (the Baptist) should be on the right is all the more certain because the “Three Joys” icon from which later examples descend was said to have been brought from Italy near the beginning of the 18th century. And in Italian art, paintings depicting Mary and the child Jesus along with Joseph and the young John the Forerunner are very common. So this icon is another of those adopted into Russian Orthodoxy from Roman Catholic art.
It is likely that because the figure on the right is depicted as a young male, some painter saw an image of it and the first name Ioann/John — and thought it was Ioann Bogoslov — John the Theologian (John the Apostle) instead of Ioann Predtecha — John the Forerunner (the Baptist).
The four border images in the above example are not a part of the icon type, but are “family” images added: The Guardian Angel, Paphnutios, Antipas, and Catherine.
The rather vague origin story associated with the icon says that when brought from Italy, the original was given to a priest of the Trinity Church in Moscow. A noble lady fell on hard times: her husband was exiled, her estate was taken, and her son was made a captive. She prayed to Mary, and then dreamed she heard a voice telling her to find the icon of the Holy Family and to pray before it. The woman searched through Moscow churches, and eventually found the icon hanging in the porch of the Church of the Life-giving Trinity. She prayed before it, and then her husband was returned, her estate was restored, and her son was freed. Because of these “three joys,” the icon received its name, though perhaps it was originally associated with the three figures in the icon. The tale of the unnamed noble woman and her three losses and restorations all sounds suspiciously dubious, but then that is often the case with icons and their traditions.
The “original” icon is said to have been a copy of a painting of the Holy Family by the Italian artist Raphael, so it is interesting to see how an icon that once looked like this …
… is sometimes transformed into an icon painted in the traditional, stylized manner of old Russian icons, like the pleasant example at the top of this page.
Here is a simply-painted Russian icon in the style of the 17th century, apparently re-set later into a new panel — a practice not uncommon.
Any identifying inscriptions that once may have existed are now gone, but nonetheless we can identify the type, because it is more commonly found as a border image in icons of the Prophet Elijah “with the life,” that is, with scenes showing incidents from his story. That enables us to identify the icon above as the Prophet Elijah raising/resurrecting the widow’s son — an account found in 1 Kings 17:17-24.
We ordinarily see many icons of the “Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah” icon type, but examples showing Elijah “with the life” are not as frequent, so that gives us a good excuse to look at one.
Here is a very detailed icon of the Yaroslavl School, painted in the year 1678 by the noted artist Semyon Spiridonov (СемёнСпиридонов — 1642-1693/95), often given the added appellation Kholmogorets (Холмогорец) because he was born in Холмогоры/Kholmogorui. It has 26 border scenes from the life of Elijah:
In the center we see the Prophet Elijah standing with face turned up to the left, where we see Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) in the clouds. The eyes of Elijah are nonetheless directed toward the viewer. Elijah is shown in the slightly forward-bending posture, with face almost but not completely in profile, which I mentioned in a previous posting was popular in icons of the 17th century.
Bordering that central image all around is a Vyaz text in gold letters, beginning at upper left: it is read left to right across the top, then top to bottom down the right side, then top to bottom down the left side, and finally left to right across the bottom. It is — with slight variations and omissions — the text I have placed between each segment here:
Во плота ангел, пророков основание, вторый предтеча пришествия Христова,
Илиа славный, свыше пославый Елисееви благодать недуги отгоняти
и прокаженные очищати, темже и почитающим его точит исцеления.
Пророче и провидче великих дел Бога нашего, Илие
великоимените, вещанием твоим
уставивый водоточныя облаки, моли о нас Единаго Человеколюбца.
Now what is all this text? Well, it is a troparion and kontakion in praise of the Prophet Elijah, who is commemorated in the Russian Orthodox Church on July 20/August 2.
Here it is again in Church Slavic and an English translation:
(Troparion, tone 4)
Во плота ангел, пророков основание, вторый предтеча пришествия Христова, Илиа славный, свыше пославый Елисееви благодать недуги отгоняти и прокаженные очищати, темже и почитающим его точит исцеления.
“An angel in the flesh and cornerstone of the prophets, second forerunner of the coming of Christ, / Glorious Elijah sent grace from on high to Elisha, to dispel diseases and/ to cleanse lepers. Therefore, on those who honor him he pours forth healings.”
(Kontakion, tone 2)
Пророче и провидче великих дел Бога нашего, Илие великоимените, вещанием твоим /уставивый водоточныя облаки, моли о нас Единаго Человеколюбца.
“Prophet and seer of the mighty works of our God, reknowned Elijah, / by your command you held back the water-pouring clouds; pray for us to the only/ Lover of mankind.”
As for the border scenes, those are:Top, left to right:
1. A certain man predicts to Elijah’s father the birth of a son.
2. The birth of Elijah; The angels swaddle Elijah in flames.3. The miracle of the appearance of the Godhead to Elijah.
4. Elijah denounces King Ahab.5. The Prophet Elijah in the wilderness.
6. The Lord sends Elijah to Zarephath.
7. Elijah meets the widow at Zarephath.From this point the sequence alternates from side to side:
8. Elijah works the miracle of the undiminishing flour and oil in the widow’s house.9. Death of the widow’s son.10. Miracle of the resurrection of the widow’s son by Elijah. This is the same scene as in the icon at the top of the page.11. The Lord sends Elijah to Ahab with an appeal to repent; meeting of Elijah and Obadiah.12. Elijah and Obadiah reprove Ahab for the corruption of Israel.13. Elijah denounces the priests of Baal.14. The sacrifice of the ministers of Baal.15. The sacrifice made by Elijah is acceptable to God.16. Elijah kills the priests of Baal.17. Jezebel’s ambassador hands her threat to Elijah.18. Elijah hides in the desert and is fed by an angel.19. Elijah in the desert; the voice of the Lord directs him to Damascus.Now the bottom row:20. Elijah calls Elisha to prophetic ministry.21. Elijah denounces Ahab for the vineyard of Naboth.22. King Ahaziah sends messengers asking for healing in the sanctuary of Baal.23. Elijah sends heavenly fire on the army of Ahaziah.
24. Elijah predicts the death of Ahaziah.25. Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan on dry land.
26. The fiery ascension of Elijah to heaven.If you did not abandon reading this lengthy posting out of severe boredom long ago, I am going to inflict one last bit of information on you.Perhaps you noticed — if you are familiar with the Bible — that the incident of Elijah as a newborn infant being swaddled in fire by angels is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. Instead, it is a from an account by Epiphanius of Cyprus (c. 310-403), who tells that when Elijah was born, his father — who is given the name Sobach/Sabah — saw a vision in which the baby was swaddled in flames by angels, who also fed him with fire. On consulting an oracle at Jerusalem, the father was told the vision signified that his son would dwell in light and judge Israel by fire and sword.Well, I thought that was the last bit of information I would include in this posting. But as soon as I finished it, I received an email question from a reader asking about the meaning of the scroll inscription commonly found in many icons of Elijah, such as this one:
The partially abbreviated inscription is taken from 1 Kings 19:10. I have put the portion on the scroll in bold type:
И рече Илиа: Ревнуя поревновах по Господе Бозе Вседержители, яко оставиша Тя сынове Израилевы:
I reche Ilia: Revnuya porevnovakh po Gospode Boze Vsederzhiteli, yako ostavisha Tya suinove Izrailevui.
“And Elijah said: ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord God Almighty, that the sons of Israel have forsaken you.'”
In Russian folk belief, it was wise not to offend Elijah, because he could burn your crops by lightning or wither them by withholding rain.
Now stop reading. Take a rest. Have a snack. Go for a walk.
СВЯТЫЙ СВЯЩЕННОМУЧЕНИК КЛИМЕНТ ПАПА РИМСКИЙ SVYATUIY SVYASHCHENNOMUCHENIK KLIMENT, PAPA RIMSKIY
“Holy Priest-martyr Clement, Pope of Rome”
A priest-martyr is also often termed a “hieromartyr” — which means basically the same thing.
The posture used in this icon — a saint bending to one side, with the face near but not entirely in profile — was popular in the 17th century. The icon depicts Clement in a landscape with miniature background scenes from his traditional life, instead of placing them in separate border cells as is common in many other icons.
Though it is rather difficult to see in the photo, Clement holds the fingers of his right hand in the position favored by the Old Believers, who split from the State Orthodox Church in the middle of the 1600s (or perhaps it is more accurate to say the State Church split from the Old Believers). Clement looks up at an angle toward the image of the New Testament Trinity on the left.
Now you may wonder what a Roman Pope is doing in a Russian Orthodox icon, given the historical antipathy of Russian Orthodoxy toward Roman Catholicism. Well, the answer is that at the time when Clement is said to have lived — the first century c.e. — the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches had not yet separated. That is why Eastern Orthodoxy may recognize some Catholic saints prior to the Great Schism of 1054, but not after.
Given that almost no reliable evidence concerning Kliment/Clement is known, there was wide space left for hagiographic embroidery of his life and deeds.
Clement was supposedly born into a noble and wealthy family. He lost touch with his mother and two brothers — Faustinus and Faustinian — who were driven off-course by a storm during a sea voyage. His father disappeared too, on going to look for them.
Later, when Clement went to Alexandria in Egypt seeking his family, he met the apostle Barnabas, and not only found his two brothers there — who had become followers of St. Peter — but when he went to Palestine, he also met St. Peter, who was able to turn up Clement’s old mother and father as well.
The tradition relates that Clement was consecrated as bishop of Rome by St. Peter, following the bishoprics of Linus (67-79) and Anacletus (79-91). Clement supposedly was bishop from 92-101, though dates in the sources vary, and he is sometimes said to have died about 98 c.e.
Many stories are told of Clement: he supposedly baptized 424 people on an Easter, then earned the wrath of Emperor Trajan by scorning the gods. First Trajan sent an officer named Sissinius to arrest Clement, but he and his men were miraculously blinded, and mistakenly dragged a column to the prison instead of Clement. Then Trajan had Clement exiled to a quarry in Crimea, near the city of Cherson. Supposedly many of his disciples followed him into exile there.
In the quarry there was a severe lack of water. Tradition says that Clement prayed, and Jesus appeared to him in the form of a lamb on a hill. The lamb struck at the ground with one hoof, and when Clement hit the spot with his pickaxe, a spring gushed forth that turned into a veritable river, resulting in another mass conversion. A church was even built for him in the quarries.
All this supposedly only irritated Trajan more, so the Emperor ordered Clement to be drowned in the sea, an anchor tied to his neck. And so Clement died. But thanks to the prayers of Bishop Cornelius, St. Fibius and others, the sea miraculously pulled back some three miles to reveal Clement’s remains, which were found in a church-shaped “angelic” undersea cave. After that, the waters would miraculously withdraw every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom, and remain back for a week, in order to make his relics available for Christian veneration. Once a child was caught in the sea when it came flooding back over the site, but he was found alive on the spot the next year, when the waters again withdrew.
It is said that in reign of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus (802-811), God did not allow the sea to withdraw for 50 years, and so the Christians could not get to the submerged church-cave.
Later in the 9th century, the missionaries to the Slavs Cyril and Methodius and a number of others supposedly prayed at midnight for Clement’s relics to appear, and the relics miraculously did so. This time they were taken to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. Later some of the remains were taken to Rome, and the head of Clement was taken to Kyiv by St. Vladimir — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict. There they — along with the relics of St. Fibius of Rome/Фива Римский/Fiva Rimskiy — were placed in the Church of the Tithes (Десятинна церква/Desyatinna tserkva) — the first stone church in Kyiv/Kiev. At present the head of Clement is said to be kept in the caves of the Pecherskaya Lavra at Kyiv.
Now obviously there is a lot of nonsense and uncertainty in all this. An anonymous letter (1 Clement) is generally attributed to Clement. But so were a number of other writings that are now considered to be misattributed to him. And though Clement is called “Pope of Rome,” the title is anachronistic; it did not exist at that time. Some vague early references to a “Clement” were applied to Clement of Rome, including that of Paul in Philippians 4:3:
” And I intreat you also, true yoke-fellow, help those women who labored with me in the Gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life.”
and that found in The Shepherd of Hermas, 4:3:
“You shall therefore write two little books, and shall send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans.”
The earliest references to Clement in Eusebius and Jerome do not mention that he was martyred. The tale that he was drowned with an anchor tied to his neck is found no earlier than the 4th century, and many modern scholars believe that Clement’s martyrdom is the result of confusing him with another Roman saint of a similar name who was a martyr, Titus Flavius Clemens. Nonetheless, the anchor became the symbol of “Pope Clement I” in Catholic Christianity.
As for his relics, there is an account that in 868 St. Cyril, while in the Crimea, found some bones and an anchor buried in a mound, which he identified as the bones of Clement of Rome. They were brought to Rome, and placed as Clement’s relics in the Basilica of St. Clement/San Clemente. But as we know from history, tales of saints’ relics are highly unreliable in any case, as there was a very large market in fake relics to meet the vast demand.
Here is another icon of “Clement, Pope of Rome,” depicting him in the more conventional frontal pose, with scenes from his hagiographic life in the borders:
In the traditional Russian home, in the right corner of the main room — generally on the east side near a window — was the “Beautiful Corner” (красный угол/krasnuiy ugol ).
In the Beautiful Corner was the Bozhnitsa /Божница — the shelf on which the icons were placed. Little lamps hung before them or candles were lit. It was not uncommon to ornament an icon in the Beautiful Corner with a plain white or colorfully embroidered towel. Any visitor entering the room would always first pause and cross himself/herself before the icons.
Some families, who had the space and could afford it, might set aside a separate room for icons and prayer called the Obraznaya/Образная, the “Image Room.” That term is now seldom used. Instead, one often finds the term Molennaya/Моленная, the “Prayer Room,” or to use an old Latin-based term, the Oratory.
The Old Believers who kept themselves separate from the State Church were particularly fond of the Molennaya, which served not only as a place to keep the icons, but also as a kind of prayer chapel where sacred books were kept and read, The photo below shows an example from a museum:
As we can see from a closer look, this typical Old Believer Molennaya displays both icons painted on wood and cast metal icons:
When icons were placed on their shelf in the Beautiful Corner or in a Molennaya, it was generally customary to place an icon of Jesus in the central area together with an icon of Mary to the left of it, as we see in the detail above. Next came the icons of popular saints such as Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, George, Nicholas, etc. — and beyond those were icons of the “name” saints of the members of the family — the same kinds of saints we often find in the outer borders of icons.
On the left side of this Molennaya we also see a wooden stand holding candles:
Such candles were traditionally made of fragrant beeswax. Many years ago, I learned from some very conservative Old Believers how to make the traditional long and thin candles they use in their rituals. It is really quite simple. One softens the chunks of beeswax on a tray in an oven to the consistency of molding clay, and then a good-sized piece of the softened beeswax is flattened, and a long string is placed in the center of the flattened beeswax, which is then folded around it. Then the wax with the string in it is then rolled out on a flat surface with the hands, just as a child rolls out a clay snake. It is important to try to keep the string — which is the wick — in the center of the wax “snake,” and when it is rolled to the desired length, one just trims the string and lets the candle cool and harden. Then it is ready for use. It was the first time I had seen candles made in this remarkably easy and quick way, instead of by the dipping or molding methods used in the West.
On the right side we see a table containing the book of the Gospels at left, and another stand on which is an open liturgical book with a text and musical notation in the Old Believer manner:
I was once in an Old Believer Molennaya very much like this one in layout, with icons on three sides. Relics of saints were also kept there.
Among the Bezpopovtsui/”Priestless” Old Believers, a Molennaya — including as a separate building — could take the place of a conventional church. In such a chapel — given that there was no Eucharist — a wall of icons with no altar behind it took the place of the iconostasis in a “State” Orthodox Church.
Now and then the student of icons will encounter examples with substantial amounts of text on the painted surface, which can be quite intimidating. Here is an icon which does not have an obvious title inscription, but is clearly centered around the large central figure:
We can tell from his garments that he is a bishop of some kind, but we do not yet know who he is. And then we are faced with the four substantial portions of written text.
When one encounters large segments of text on an icon that are not scroll inscriptions or “signature” inscriptions, the text most commonly falls into one of these categories: it may be a biblical text; it may be a liturgical text; as a sub-category of the latter, it may be an akathist or some other kind of hymn or prayer. Another major category of text relates the story of the icon. We have seen examples of this in the frequent Marian icons called “Unexpected Joy.” The text may also relate incidents from the traditional life of a saint. The problem for the student who is no expert on Church Slavic or Greek is in determining which of these it is most likely to be.
When faced with the challenge of such large portions of text, a good place to begin is to use common sense. In the case of this icon, the first thing we want to know is who the large saint shown in the center is. So the next step is to look at the text for anything resembling a saint’s name — because given his halo, he is obviously a saint.
Let’s start with the segment of text at upper left:
If we look quickly through it, we will soon discover that in the middle of the first line is the name Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. And when we reach the last line, we find at its beginning the same name — Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. So our logical hypothesis would be that the text is telling us something about a fellow named Niphont.
If we look at the lower left segment of text, we can expect — if we are right — to find the name repeated again somewhere:
Quickly scanning though the text, we find again near the end of the second line, a grammatical form of the name Niphont — in this case Нифонту/Niphontu; that tells us our hypothesis about the main saint being named Niphont is even more likely to be correct.
And if we move over to the beginning of the text segment next to it, we see this:
The second line begins with the words Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta — which we should recognize — even if our knowledge of Church Slavic is very basic — as “Venerable Nifont/Niphont”; and that makes us even more certain that our hypothesis identifying the main saint as Niphont is correct.
The next thing to do is to consider the context of the texts. If we look at the whole icon again, we can see that at both sides of the main saint are smaller secondary scenes. Given that the main figure on the icon is a saint, we would be justified in supposing that these secondary scenes depict events from the traditional life of that saint.
The scene at upper left depicts a saint kneeling before an icon of a haloed mother and child — which we may reasonably identify as a Marian icon — in a church:
The scene at lower left depicts the saint looking at a figure whom we can easily identify as Jesus by his physical appearance and the bars of the cross in his halo, standing in a mandorla of light. And we can see words coming from the mouth of Jesus, so he is obviously speaking to the saint:
At lower left in the icon we see a larger scene filled with saints of various kinds, along with angels:
We see in the midst of them a saint identified by the inscription in his halo as Nifont/Niphont (hey, our guess was right!) kneeling before a mandorla in which Jesus appears again, and to the left of Nifont is another mandorla in which stands a female figure we can reasonably assume to be Mary.
So now we have three scenes, which it would be logical at this point to conclude are scenes from the life of St. Nifont/Niphont.
Given that, it is also reasonable to conclude that the segments of text we find are likely telling us about events from the life of St. Nifont.
To explore that, let’s return to the first scene at upper left — the one with the man kneeling before the Marian icon:
And in the next scene, we see Jesus speaking to the man, and telling him something; so it looks like a vision the saint had at some point in his life:
And finally, there is that last scene, with saints and angels, Jesus and Mary, and Nifont kneeling in the midst of them.
Knowing all that, we have several clues to identifying the saint and the scenes. We already have determined his name is Nifont/Niphont, so the next step is to look through the lives of saints named Nifont to see which one has events that match those in the scenes. And we also know that this Niphont ended up as some kind of bishop, because we can tell that from his garments in the main image of him on the icon.
Well, to save you a lot of bother (and sometimes the identification of icons can require a lot of bother and many hours), there is a saint whose name is Niphont who was a bishop, and his traditional life describes events that match those in the scenes on this icon. His name is:
And lo and behold, in that name we find the same Prepodobnuiy Nifont (“Venerable Niphont) that we found in a grammatical form in the text as Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta; and we also see he has the secondary title of Episkop/Bishop. And that certainly fits with what we first determined from the garments of the main, central figure on the icon. This Niphont is also sometimes called Niphont of Constantia, a city on the island of Cyprus. He is listed as a Fourth-century saint who lived in the time of Constantine I.
Now on to how the scenes on the icon fit with events in the traditional life of Niphont:
Once Niphont went to church, and there he prayed before an icon of Mary in a very humble and contrite manner. When he looked at the icon, it returned his glance with a kind and gentle look. He went away feeling comforted. And on another occasion, he was on his way to the same church when he saw a man doing something sinful, and he criticized the man in his mind. Then, when he entered the church and was again before the icon of Mary, he saw her looking at him in a disapproving manner and turning away from him because of his judgmental attitude toward another human. So of course he repented, and as these stories go, Mary in the icon again turned toward him with a kind and gentle gaze.
Well, that takes care of the first scene from the life of Niphont.
But what about an appearance of Jesus to Niphont? Well, according to his hagiography, Niphont did have encounters with Jesus, who not only appeared to Niphont as alive in his icon — a repeat of the “living” icon of Mary — (notice the icon of Jesus in the background in the second scene at left) but also gave Niphon a long and extensive vision of the happenings to come in the Last Judgment. And in that vision Niphont is kissed by Jesus, who promises to favor those believers who call on the name of Niphont. He also makes a promise to come to Niphont at the bishop’s time of death and receive Niphont’s soul in his hands.
Well, if we look at the large text segment below that scene on the icon we find — if we know a bit of Church Slavic — that it refers to promises made by Jesus “to his beloved угодник/ugodnik blessed Niphont. An ugodnik in religious usage is one who endeavors to please God — a saintly, pious person. And it is also said in this text segment that when Niphont dies, Jesus will come “with ranks of angels” and receive the soul of Niphont in his own hands, and will give him rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (you will recall the icon type called the “Bosom of Abraham). So we can see that this generally corresponds with the second scene. And at the end of this segment, we see something else that corresponds with the icon scene:
“And the Lord blessed him, and said, Миръ ти рабе мой Нифонте. And he departed for Heaven.” Those words I have put in bold type — Mir ti rabe moy Niphonte — meaning “Peace be unto you my servant Niphon” — are exactly the words coming from the mouth of Jesus in the painted scene.
Now for the more elaborate, saint-filled scene at right. Let’s look at it again:
Well, as we have seen, in the traditional story Jesus promised Niphont to be present at his death with ranks of angels. And the tale of Niphont adds that St. Athanasios/Athanasius was also present. We see him robed and crowned as a bishop at lower right. Also in the crowd were apostles, martyrs, Mary, as well as other kinds of saints. So that accounts for the figures we see in the scene above. Perhaps you also notice that Jesus is holding what appears to be an infant clothed in white in his right hand. That is identified by the abbreviation Д Н (D N) as the “Soul [душа/dusha] of Niphont.”
So there you have it. We know who the saint is, and we know what the scenes from his life represent.
We should also know a bit about the traditional vita (“life”) of Niphont, keeping in mind that such hagiographic tales are commonly heavily fictionalized and not reliable as history. They served as admonitory and entertaining tales for believers.
The tale of Niphont is no exception. Scholars commonly date the vita of Niphont as late as the eighth to eleventh centuries, with the preference generally for the latter.
He was said to have been from the city of Plagion in Paphlagonia, a region on the Black Sea. At age eight he was sent to Constantinople to be educated. Initially all went well, but as he neared and entered his teens, his behavior began to change. He proceeded to lead a lively and colorful life, going to entertainments, singing in theatres, enjoying an over-abundance of food and drink. Niphont was also given to ανδρομανια — andromania — which is a fancy term for saying he was crazy about other males and intimate relations with them — so a kind of homosexual.
Now Eastern Orthodoxy traditionally has not looked kindly on homosexuality, and of course in early times when Church doctrine was formed, there was no real understanding of it as a natural variation in human behavior. So then it was seen as something to repress and deny, which can and did sometimes lead to all kinds of peculiar psychological results, and repression is precisely what Niphont — feeling guilty — did. He turned to beating and slapping himself to try to weaken temptation, bruising and harming his body in the process.
He is said to have once met a friend, who looked at him long in an odd way. When Niphont asked him why, the friend replied that Niphont’s face was black, like that of an Ethiopian. This supposedly was interpreted by Niphont as revealing his own sinful condition.
Niphont blamed his temptations on devils, and began to do his best to live an ascetic life. During his life of struggles with his temptation, he had visions of devils and angels, and as we have seen, of Mary and of Jesus. Finally — when he had grown old — he was made Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus — but he died not long after.
Now rather appropriately for an icon of an ascetic, we find some interesting figures used as border saints.
At upper left is “Holy Andrey, Fool for Christ’s Sake”:
At lower left is “Holy Vasiliy/Basil, Holy Fool of Moscow”:
At upper right is “Holy Feodor/Theodore, Fool for Christ’s Sake” (of Novgorod).
And finally, at lower right we see the monastic saint “Venerable Ephrim Sirin/Ephrem the Syrian.”
All of these saints — the three “Holy Fools” and Ephrem of Syria — were all noted for ascetic lives.
Now as we have learned, when identifying icons it is important to pay close attention to details.
At first glance, one might think the above image is just another example of the “Vladimir” icon of Mary, and we would not be entirely wrong, though also not entirely correct in so identifying it, if we left it at that.
One can see a very good reason for a “Vladimir” identification. The position of the figures and their limbs fits that of the “Vladimir” type, of which the icon below is an example:
There is a reason why they look so similar. The first icon on this page began with a copy of the Vladimir icon.
Still, if we look again, we can see there are differences, specifically in the head-covering of Mary and in the “crown” that surmounts her halo in the first example. We can tell that even though the original gold leaf on them is now gone.
Those differences mark the icon as a sub-type of the Vladimir icon with its own name — the Volokolamskaya (Волокаламская) — or as it is sometimes even more specifically known, the Vladimirskaya-Volokolamskaya (Владимирская-Волокаламская) icon.
Identification can be a bit tricky though, because sometimes painters only mentioned the first part of the name, as in the following example.
In this icon the distinctive head-covering with its “crown” is quite obvious, but nonetheless the painter added only the “Vladimir” title inscription, which is rather misleading, though as already mentioned, not entirely inaccurate.
The Volokolamskaya subtype originated, as we have seen, as a copy of the “Vladimir” icon, and that copy was taken from the city of Zvenigorod to the Uspenskiy Cathedral of the Iosifo-Volotskiy Monastery on March 2, 1572. There it supposedly worked miracles.
In 1954 the Volokolamskaya icon was placed in the Andrey Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art in Moscow.
Now the Iosifo-Voltskiy Monastery is named for its founder, Iosif Volotskiy/Joseph of Volotsk, also known as Joseph of Volokolamsk. You may recall Joseph of Volokolamsk as the devilish advocate of the “Possessor” position, which held that there was nothing wrong in monasteries owning vast church lands and wealth, villages, peasants and slaves. He also asserted that those viewed as heretics (i.e. those with different beliefs than he) should be executed.
Many examples of the Volokolamskaya/”Volokolamsk” icon include two border figures — often the Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr and Iona (Peter and Jonah), but alternate saints may be found as well.