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 engraving of the same subject by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528 ):

NO TOLL HOUSE COOKIES HERE

In a previous posting, I discussed the “Terrible Judgment” icon type that depicts the second coming of Jesus.  And I mentioned that the common motif of the giant serpent with “tollhouses” as rings on his body was not originally a part of the type, but but came later.  It appears to have been added to Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” in the latter part of the 1400s.

tollhouse-snake

It is not surprising that it was a later addition, because technically, it is not really a part of the Last Judgment, but rather it depicts the sequence of “little judgments” that ordinary Russian believers thought the soul had to endure, passing through a sequence of “aerial tollhouses” as it rose into the sky after death.

The primary textual source for aerial tollhouses is a dubious document called The Life of St. Basil the Younger, supposedly written by Basil’s disciple Gregory.  There is good reason to believe, however, that Basil is a largely, possibly even totally, fictional character used by the writer of The Life as a pretext for presenting his view of the afterlife and other matters.  In any case, the document seems to date to the latter half of the 10th century.

What exactly are these tollhouses?  They are believed to be barriers in ascending order through which the soul must rise and pass after death.  At each tollhouse a demon interrogates the soul for particular kinds of sins, and demands payment.  If the soul does not have enough “cash” in the form of good deeds and piety — “cash” attested to by an accompanying angel, then the soul can rise no farther, but is taken down to Hades to await the Last Judgment at the second coming of Jesus.

What are all these demons doing up in the sky with their little tollhouses?  Where did this notion of demons in the sky come from?  Well, it derives from a notion popular in the early days of Christianity.  By that date, there was a belief in both Judaism and Christianity that the universe was like a multi-story building, with one level stacked atop another.  The level between earth and the moon was believed to be the lowest.  In the Christian view, when Satan and his angels were cast out of Heaven, they took as their realm the “sub-lunary” layer or sphere, which extends from the earth all the way to the moon.  Consequently, early Christianity got the notion that the world and the air above it were filled with demons, all trying to cause trouble and to tempt humans to evil.  The sub-lunary (“below the moon”) level was believed to be the most impure and contaminated level.  There were higher levels atop that, with God residing at the very top, like a wealthy man in a penthouse.

In some icons, such as this 19th-century illustration depicting the death and immediate afterlife of St. Theodora, the tollhouses are pictured as a kind of stairway, each with the name of its appropriate sin:

The tale of Theodora and the tollhouses is given in the Life of St. Basil the Younger.  At lower left we see the dying Theodora, with an angel receiving her soul in the form of an infant.  To the right of the angel is Death.   Outside the building to the right, we see Death arriving, seated on a lion, just as depicted in icons of the type “The Only-begotten Son.”  The stairway with its demon-manned tollhouse stages to Heaven is at the right.

Other examples may simply show the soul of the believer in the form of a child accompanied by an angel, stopping at clouds on the ascent, each cloud being the tollhouse of a different demon or demons.

Here is one segment of 20 tollhouse depictions in the Monastery of St. John of Rila, in Bulgaria:

mytarstvo

At left is the accompanying angel, and beside him the Christian soul.  At right are demons holding scrolls showing the sins examined at that tollhouse.  The white inscription at top center reads;
МЫТАРСТВО    Г
Muitarstvo        3 (remember that Cyrillic letters can be used as numbers).

Muitarstvo means “tollhouse” (plural мытарства — muitarstva).

So this illustration depicts Tollhouse #3.  The word on the red demon’s scroll — СРАМОСЛОВИЕ (Sramoslovie) tells us he is checking for obscene speech, and the grey demon’s scroll reads for foolish speech — БУЕСЛОВИЕ — (Bueslovie).

The number of tollhouses shown varies from icon to icon.  And of course the ascending arrangement, with demons blocking progress, reminds one of the icon type “The Ladder of John Climacus (Klimakos) — but that is a topic for another day.

The notion of the sub-lunary realm being in the control of demons — “the powers of the air” — plays a significant role in Christian belief as early as the writings of Paul.  Ephesians 2:2 speaks of the “Prince of the Power of the Air” ( τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος,) and it is a significant topic for those who investigate early Christian belief, as well as the possibility that Jesus may have been originally a mythic being thought to have descended into the sub-lunary realm, being crucified there, unrecognized by the demon controllers of the region.  An excellent and well-researched book on the topic is:

On the Historicity of Jesus:  Why We MIght Have Reason for Doubt, by Richard Carrier: (Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd (2014) )

By the way, readers outside the United States may not be familiar with the term “Toll house cookies.”  They are cookies with chocolate chips in them.  No, they really have nothing to do with the aerial tollhouses, other than my sense of humor.

NOAH WHACKS HIS “ALARM” BOARD

Among the old Russian icons copied as transfers by Vasiliy Guryanov, we find two having to do with the Old Testament fellow Noah — the chief figure in the well-known tale of Noah and his ark.

Here is Noah as visualized in Eastern Orthodoxy:

pranoy

The title inscription reads ПРАОТЕЦ НОЙ — Praotets Noy/Noi — “Forefather Noah,” and his secondary title, in smaller letters at right, is Правед[ный] — Pravednuiy — “the Righteous.”

Noah is holding the ark in his hands.  Keep in mind that “ark” (kovcheg) in Russian also refers to the recessed “box” (the part with the painted image) in the center of those icons having the border standing out like a frame in relief.

Here is another “Noah” type, “Noah Gathering the Animals and Birds into the Ark“:

noahgathers_1

 

Noah Stands at left with his wife and family.  He holds a wooden stick in one hand, and with it he beats on the oddly-shaped long, flat board in his hand.  That will make little sense to you unless you know that boards like this were used in early Eastern Orthodoxy as a kind of “alarm clock” to call people to assemble.  They make a loud noise when struck.  Cast bells (a borrowing from Western Europe) came later in Orthodoxy, but such a board — called a biloило) in Russian, or in Greek semantron — continued to be used in many monasteries to call the monks to assemble for prayer.  So old Noah is banging on his semantron to call the animals and birds to assemble and enter the ark behind him.

We know today that there was no universal flood.  But there were local floods here and there that led to the rise of various legends.  So the Old Testament story of Noah is not the earliest of flood stories; we find older versions from Sumeria and Babylon, using protagonists with other names.  If you are interested in how a variant of the ancient flood legends came to be in the Old Testament, a quite informative and interesting recent book is The Ark Before Noah:  Decoding the Story of the Flood.  It is written by Irving Finkel, a British Museum curator and authority on early Mesopotamia.

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that the bearded figure blessing from the clouds at upper right is “Lord Sabaoth,” that is, God the Father.

A COMMON PATTERN WITH A USEFUL TEXT: THE LORD ALMIGHTY

Today we will look at one of the icon patterns taken off old Russian icons by the icon painter and restorer Vasiliy Pavlovich Guryanov (1867-1920).  These patterns are collected in the book Transfers from Old Icons; Collected and Executed by the Icon Painter and Restorer V. P. Guryanov, St. Petersburg, 1902  (Переводы с древних икон, собранные и исполненные иконописцем и реставратором В. П. Гурьяновым. СПб. 1902), and put out by Alexandr Ivanovich Uspenskiy (1873-1938).

gspdvsedrublgury

 

There is nothing extraordinary about the image — just one of countless examples of the “Lord Almighty” type.  What I want to emphasize is the text in the Gospel book held by Jesus.  Let’s look closer:

It reads:

Left page:

Не на лица
судите
, сынове чело
вечестии

но праве

Ne na litza sudite, suinove chel vechestii, no prave-

Right page:

ден суд
судите
Им же бо су
дом судите,
но судя[т вам]

-den sud sudite. Im zhe bo sudom sudite, no sudya[t vam]

It is a composite text.  The first part is a variant of John 7:24, and the second another variant, from Matthew 7:2.  If we put left and right pages together and join the separated segments of the words, we get:

Не
на лица судите, сынове человечестии но праведен суд судите
Им же бо судом судите, но судя[т вам]

“Judge not according to the appearance, sons of men, but judge righteous judgment.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged.”

Now oddly enough, this composite text from John and Matthew is rather common as a book inscription in icons of the “Lord Almighty” type, so it is good to learn to recognize it.

And by the way, the little note below the icon pattern says essentially “After the tradition of Andrey Rublov.”

 

 

 

 

THE VISION OF EZEKIEL ON THE RIVER CHEBAR

Today we shall look at a very uncommon icon type.  Why then discuss it?  Because uncommon types are the “spice” of the subject of iconography — something that catches our interest after seeing countless copies of such common icon types as the “Kazan” Mother of God and the “Lord Almighty.”  But there is also another reason to look at it.  Its title gives us more words to add to our practical Slavic vocabulary for reading icons.

This icon is Russian, from the 16th century.  We might guess it is early,  because instead of having the usual one-piece riza (metal cover), it has the kind of ornate frame-shaped covering called a basma ((басма) around its outer edges.  A basma is composed of sheets of embossed or engraved metal nailed to the surface of an icon.  Use of the basma faded out near the end of the 17th century, when it was gradually replaced by the one-piece metal cover called a riza (literally “robe”).  A riza was usually fastened to an icon by nails inserted at the outer sides of the wooden panel, but a basma was just nailed right onto the icon surface, which is why we often find nail holes in the surface of very old icons where a basma cover was once placed.

Note the added metal halos nailed onto the icon above the figures at both sides of the lower portion.

The common title of this icon type (which begins in the larger inscription seen near the top of the basma), is:

ВИДЕНИЕ ПРОРОКА ИЕЗЕКИИЛЯ НА РЕКЕ ХОВАР
VIDENIE     PROROKA IEZEKIILYA     NA  REKE KHOVAR

Videnie means “vision.”

Proroka is the “of” form of prorok, “prophet.”

Iezekiilya is the “of” form of Iezekiil’ (Иезекннль)  the name Ezekiel.

Na means “on/at.”

Reke is a form of reka, “river.”

Khovar is the name of the river, called Chebar in the King James translation of the Bible.

So the title all together means:

“[The] VISION OF THE PROPHET EZEKIEL ON THE RIVER CHEBAR”

The text relating to this icon type comes from the first chapters of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament.  Here are some relevant excerpts:

Now it happened in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God…

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.  And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.  As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.

And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2And the spirit entered into me when he spoke unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spoke unto me.

And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that you find; eat this roll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.  And he said to me, Son of man, cause your belly to eat, and fill your bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.

So that is basically it.  The man on the throne in Ezekiel’s vision becomes the image of Christ Immanuel in the icon itself.  And down below, Ezekiel is seen standing on the left side, observing the vision.  He is seen a second time at the lower right side, eating the scroll (“roll”) that is being handed down to him from Heaven.

The fluffy things at both sides of the circles enclosing Christ Immanuel are stylized clouds, showing that portion is in the sky.  Then come the stylized rocks representing the ground, and in the middle of the bottom portion is stylized water, representing the river Chebar.

Having said all that, perhaps you may remember that in a much earlier post on the icon type called the “All-Seeing Eye of God,” we also find Ezekiel and his vision of wheels within wheels, and his eating of the scroll, in the more elaborate versions of that type, also known as the “Coal of Isaiah.”

THE NOVGOROD “FATHERHOOD” ICON

If you have done any reading on the history of icons, you have probably come across this well-known 14th-century image of the Trinity, painted in the northern Russian city of Novgorod, once so famous as a wealthy trading center that it was called “Novgorod the Great.”

This icon type of God the Father seated on a throne, with Jesus as Immanuel (the youthful Christ) on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, is very common in Eastern Orthodoxy, and it is a “New Testament Trinity” type called Отечество — Otechestvo — meaning the “Fatherhood” or “Paternity.”

In addition to the basic elements of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this type shows two seraphim (a category of angel) beside the throne, and the winged circles supporting the Father’s footstool that are another bizarre kind of angel called “Thrones.”  At left, atop his pillar, is the Stylite (pillar-dweller) saint Daniel, and at right another Stylite (called a Stolpnik in Russian icons), Simeon.  At lower right is an apostle.

But what I want to focus on today is the inscription at the top of the icon:

As you already know, if you have been reading here long, in icon inscriptions we often find little variants in spelling.  This inscription is abbreviated, which as you also know is common in icon inscriptions.  You can tell that by the lines above the words.  Here is how it is written on the icon:

ОЦЬ        IСИНЪ

IС Т Ы    ДУХЪ

Don’t be confused by the writer’s using a form of Ц (ts) that looks more like the letter Ч (ch); it is Ц  that he intended.

Now we have to “un-abbreviate” the inscription, to write it in full:

ОТЕЦЬ I СЫИНЪ
I СВЯТЫЙ ДУХЪ

OTETS’ I SUIN”
I SVYATUIY DUKH”

OTETS means “Father”:
I (И) means “and”;
SUIN means “Son”;
And SVYATUIY DUKH means “Holy Spirit.”

So we can easily translate the inscription, keeping in mind that Church Slavic has no article “the,” as:

[The] FATHER AND [The] SON AND [The} HOLY SPIRIT

Or we could translate it quite literally as:

FATHER AND SON AND HOLY SPIRIT

It is not surprising to find God the Father (also called “Lord Sabaoth” in icons) frequently depicted as an old and bearded man.  People have always visualized their gods in human form.

In the Septuagint Greek Bible used by the early Christians (and by Greek Orthodoxy) we find these words in the Book of Genesis:

καὶ εἶπεν θεός ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ’ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν…
Kai eipen ho theos poiesomen anthropon kat’ eikona hemeteran kai kath’ homoiosin…

“And God said, let us make man after our image and after the likeness…”

So Adam was believed to be an eikona — an image — an icon — of God.  And so God was thought to have two arms, two legs, and in fact to be in the same form as a human.  And of course in the Middle East in biblical times, humans had kings ruling over them, and so God the Father was visualized as a king sitting on his throne in heaven, which in those days was simply the sky.

Of course later religious thinkers “spiritualized” this notion to mean that humans were somehow in the “spiritual” likeness of God, but that is not what the text originally meant.  It meant simply that humans were given the same form God had.  And notice that Genesis says “Let US make man in OUR image.”  This was later given a Trinitarian interpretation, but it is likely that originally it was simply a leftover of the days when the Hebrews believed that there was more than one divine being in the sky, just as in the Babylonian creation myth, humans were created by the gods.  In Chapter 5 of Septuagint Genesis, we read:

αὕτη βίβλος γενέσεως ἀνθρώπων ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν θεὸς τὸν Αδαμ κατ’ εἰκόνα θεοῦ ἐποίησεν αὐτόν
ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτοὺς καὶ εὐλόγησεν αὐτούς καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῶν Αδαμ ᾗ ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς
ἔζησεν δὲ Αδαμ διακόσια καὶ τριάκοντα ἔτη καὶ ἐγέννησεν κατὰ τὴν ἰδέαν αὐτοῦ καὶ κατὰ τὴν εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Σηθ

“This is the book of the generation/origin of men in the day when God made Adam, after the image (eikona) of God he made him.
Male and female he made them and blessed them, and called his name Adam the day he made him.
And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot according to his form and according to his image (eikona), and called his name Seth.”

So “man” was made in the form/image of God, and Seth was in the form/image of his father Adam.  It meant simply the physical appearance, the physical likeness.  So the “image” of God (Greek eikona, Hebrew tselem) meant simply that Adam was made to look like God, and Seth, Adam’s son, was born looking like Adam.  It is not talking about abstractions such as a “spiritual image” that later were introduced into the matter. It means simply that God looked like Adam (a head, two arms, two legs, etc.) and Adam looked like God, just as Seth looked like Adam.

People are always trying to “update” biblical stories to make them seem more compatible with what we learn of the world, but really the mental world of the Bible and of Christianity in the days before the advancement of science was quite primitive and folkloric.  Until fairly recent times Russian believers held the date of Creation to be only a few thousand years ago, and no doubt some still do.

GRAIN GODDESS: THE SPORITEL’NITSA KHLEBOV TYPE

Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.