If you happened to be passing a window, and noticed that the glass was distorted with colorful blobs like oil on water — perhaps something like this…
what would you think? Probably simply that the pane was flawed and needed to be replaced. Not so in Russia. What was seen there in the glass window pictured in the photo above was this:
That is the icon painted “from” the window blobs. The blobs appeared — or at least were first noticed — on a window at the Church of the Martyr John the Warrior in Novokuznetsk, Siberia, in the year 2000.
Now as one can see, this is rather like a Rorschach test, in which what one sees in random ink blots depends on one’s personal psychological makeup. Where an ordinary person will see blobs of color or variations in shading — whether on a window, a water-stained wall, or a burnt tortilla, a believer with a medieval mindset will see a miracle. And that is what happened in this case. The blobs on the window were considered a miraculous appearance, and when three years later a believer in the city of Kemerov claimed to have had a vision relating that an icon was to be painted from the “image” on the window, it was done by an iconographer named Vladimir Shubenkin. And now that image is becoming increasingly popular in Russia as a new “miraculous” Marian icon known as the Чаша терпения/Chasha Terpeniya — “The Cup of Patience.”
It was even given an interpretation — that the icon represents the child Jesus being shown the “cup of suffering” representing his future Passion (arrest, torture, crucifixion and death), and so the child is to “drink the sins of humanity.”
Now to be fair, not everyone — even among Russian Orthodox clergy — accepts this new image at present as authentically “miraculous.” But many do, just as some Roman Catholic believers in the town of Rosenberg, near Houston, Texas, saw an appearance of an image of Mary in the pattern on the bricks of a rented house, visible when the porch light was turned on. That happened as recently as February of 2019, and local believers there have been gathering to pray before the supposedly “miraculous” image of Mary.
This kind of medieval mindset explains a great deal about the history of various”miraculous” icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, and the pre-scientific thinking that gave rise to them. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung would likely say that such people are “projecting” their inner fantasies onto the outer, quite ordinary reality of wall or glass window, so what they are seeing is not what is really there, but rather what is in their own internal imaginations, given outer form by random patterns. People have an innate tendency to place their own interpretations upon such patterns, as we see in the names and forms given star constellations from ancient times to the present.
If you are not interested in old icon painter’s manuals (podlinniki), prepare to be bored stiff. This posting is a look at, and a comparison of, two descriptions of a saint in two Russian podlinniki. It is likely to be of interest only to those who want to know more about painter’s manuals and to those who are learning to read them.
Here’s a quick comparison of entries from:
1: The late (1903) Bolshakov Podlinnik and
2: The 18th century Svodnuiy Podlinnik in the Filimonov redaction of 1874.
It is the first saint for the month of June:
Myesats Iiun’ imat’ dniy 30.
[The] month of June has days 30
“The month of June has 30 days.”
Svyatago muchenika Iustina filosofa, sredniy, rus, brada kozmina, plat’ okolo shei byel, riza lazor’ ispod kinovar’ z byelilom, rukoiu blagoslovlyaet, v lyevoy svitok.
“Of the holy martyr Justin [the] Philosopher; middle[-aged], [hair] rus, beard of Kosmas, scarf around neck white, robe blue, under cinnabar with white, hand blesses, in the left a scroll.”
It begins with Svyatago — “of the holy” — because this is the day of commemoration of Justin. Podlinnik entries for saints (and old Church calendar entries) generally begin thus, with the “of” form.
Justin has brada kozmina — the beard of Kosmas/Cosmas — the popular unmercenary saint of the common icon pair Kosmas and Damian. It simply means he is painted with a beard the same size and shape as Kosmas.
Rus as a hair color means that color typical of many Russians, which is dark blond-light brown.
The plat’ — “cloth” — generally meaning a scarf or shawl in the case of a male, depending on circumstances — is byel — “white.” And the white scarf is okolo shei — “about [the] neck.” If any of you have seen the translation of the Bolshakov Podlinnik that appeared some years back (1995) under the title An Icon Painter’s Notebook, you will notice that the translator of that book incorrectly read shei in this entry for Justin as “silk” rather than “neck,” and so made the line oddly read “… he has a cloth around of white silk” instead of the correct reading, “[the] scarf around [the] neck [is] white.”
You will recall that a riza is a robe in podlinnik usage, and in this entry it is lazor’, ispod kinovar z [s] byelilom — dark blue, under[-robe] cinnabar [red] with white. The best lazor’ was made from powdered lapis lazuli, and of course kinovar is the red to reddish-orange made from powdered mercury sulphide.
When an entry just says “[his] hand blesses,” it means the right hand. And then, as here, we are told what the left hand is holding — in this case a svitok — a scroll.
And here is the entry for Justin in the Svodnuiy Podlinnik:
You should be able to easily guess the meaning of the heading, even though spelling and form varies somewhat. And you should be able to read the first four words — “Of the holy martyr Justin the Philosopher.”
Then it tells us:
…bye v lyeto 5642
…”[he] was in the year 5642.
We can easily see that 5642 (written in Arabic instead of Cyrillic numerals here) is one of the old “from the Creation of the World” dates. Russian Orthodox thought (and some still do) that the world was created in the year 5,508 before the birth of Jesus. So to convert such a date as we find in the podlinnik to our modern dating system, we must subtract 5,508 from 5,642, which gives us the year 94 c.e. (Common Era). Modern accounts of Justin’s life tend to say he was born circa 100 c.e, so the date here is not too far from that.
The podlinnik goes on to tell us:
You already know that rus is the hair color — dark blond to light brown. Podobiem refers here to Justin’s “likeness” (подобие/podobie). We can understand it to mean he is “painted like this,” i.e. rus hair, etc.
It goes on to tell us: vlasui s ushei kratki
hairs to [the] ears short
— meaning his hair is short, down to the ears.
So we know thus far that Justin’s hair is dark blond-light brown, and that it is short, down to his ears, instead of the long hair we find on some icon saints.
It agrees with the Bolshakov Podlinnik in telling us his
brada aki Kozmina…
beard [is like] Kosmas…
okolo shei plat’ byeloy…
about [the] neck [is a] scarf white…
“about the neck is a white scarf…”
But it differs somewhat in saying that
v rukakh kniga
“in [the] hands [a] book”
You will recall that in the Bolshakov Podlinnik, he holds a scroll rather than a book.
The description finishes by telling us that Justin is dressed in a
riza lazorevaya, ispod svyetlokrasnaya.
“robe blue, under[-robe] bright-red.
Now if we look at old icons of Justin, we can sometimes find icons closely matching a podlinnik description, such as this 17th century example from a calendrical icon:
We see the light brown hair down to his ears, and his beard is not too far beyond the range of “like Kosmas.” He has a white scarf or shawl about his neck, and his outer robe is blue, while his under-robe is cinnabar red. He holds a scroll rather than a book.
Compare that with this 19th century example:
We can see some changes, such as a cross held in the right hand instead of blessing, and a book instead of a scroll in the other hand. We find also a the reversal of the garment colors, and the forms of the garments are more like the example given in the old Stroganov Podlinnik:
If we look further at old examples of Justin, we find even more variance from the two podlinnik descriptions. Here, for example, is a 16th century image of Justin painted by Theophanes of Crete:
The Greek inscription reads: Ho Hagios Iustinos ho Philosophos “[The] Holy Justin the Philosopher”
As you can see, there is no white scarf about the neck, no book or scroll in the left hand, and there is variation in the garments and their coloring, as well as a difference in the style of the hair.
What does all this tell us? Well, we should learn from it that a description in a given podlinnik may not be a precisely accurate description of all icons of a saint from all periods and places. One finds many variations. Even in old Russian painter’s manuals, one often finds after a description of a saint the words, “but elsewhere it is written…” — and then a differing description is given. So even the old podlinniks recognized that there were differences and disagreements as to how a given saint was to be painted.
In the previous posting, we looked at noted saints associated with the city of Murom, among them the father-sons triad of Prince Konstantin and his sons Mikhail and Feodor. They are easy to recognize, but be careful — because of the similarity of names and iconography — not to confuse them with this other father-sons triad, seen here in a 17th century Russian icon:
At the top is the very common image of Jesus called “Not Made by Hands. It is not part of the type itself. Below it is a large central figure in monastic garb, but without an identifying name inscription:
However, if we look closely at the two others in the icon, we can make out what remains of their name inscriptions.
Here is the one at left:
The writing is damaged and faded, but if you are really clever, you might be able to recognize it as an abbreviation for КНЯЗЬ ДАВИДЪ — KNYAZ’ DAVID — “Prince David.”
And here the the one at right:
Again, the inscription is not fully there, but nonetheless it can be deciphered as КНЯЗЬ КОНСТАНТИН — KNYAZ’ KONSTANTIN — “Prince Konstantin.”
Those two names tell us — if we did not already know — that the central figure without a title inscription must be the father of these two: КНЯЗЬ ФЕОДОР — KNYAZ’ FEODOR — “Prince Feodor/Theodore” of Smolensk and Yaroslavl.
Here is how to distinguish the Murom saints Konstantin, Mikhail and Feodor from the Yaroslavl saints Feodor, David and Konstantin if inscriptions are damaged or missing:
Icons with the father Feodor and the sons David and Konstantin depict the father robed as a monk, as we see in the icon above.
Icons with the father Konstantin and the sons Mikhail and Feodor depict the father robed as a prince, as we see on the left side of this central image from a larger Russian icon (the saints on the right, by the way, are Petr, Fevronia, and Iulianiya Lazarevskaya, also discussed in the previous posting).
In it, the father (Konstantin) and sons Mikhail and Feodor each wear the ornate outer cloak called a шуба/shuba, and each wears the fur-trimmed cap called a шапка/shapka. The damask-ornamented shuba and the shapka are standard garb for noble or royal Russian saints.
For a better perspective on these two father-sons triads, here is the basic information. We will take them in chronological order. First, a brief review of the father Konstantin and his sons:
I. Prince Konstantin of Murom was descended from Vladimir of Kyiv/Kiev — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus to Eastern Orthodox Christianity by edict.
When Konstantin was given authority over the city of Murom — which at that time was still not Christianized, he sent his son Mikhail to convert the people — so tradition says. The Muromites, however, killed Mikhail by throwing him down from the city walls, so Konstantin then took the city by armed power. The story is that the people eventually relented — influenced by seeing the “Murom” icon of Mary carried in Konstantin’s arms. His son Feodor aided in the spread of Christian belief in the Murom region.
II. Feodor of Smolensk and Yaroslavl — also known as Феодор Чёрный/Feodor Chornuiy — “Feodor the Black” — was born at the time of the Mongol invasions and died in 1298. He was originally the child Prince of Mozhaisk, but upon his marriage he also became Prince of Yaroslavl. From this first marriage, he had a son named Mikhail, who on the early death of his mother was raised by his grandmother, Princess Xenia.
This was the period of Mongol control. Feodor became allied with the Mongols in their military battles, and gained favor among them. But when he tried to return to Yaroslavl after three years with the Mongols, he was looked on as what today would be called a “collaborator,” and the people would not let him enter, saying, “This is the city of Xenia, and Mikhail is our prince.” Feodor then returned to the Mongols, and was so highly considered among them that he was allowed to marry the daughter of Khan Mengu-Timur of the Golden Horde. She became a baptized Christian under the name Anna, and with her Feodor had two more sons — David (died 1321) and Konstantin. These later sons are the ones who commonly appear with Feodor in Russian iconography.
Eventually, Feodor got word from Yaroslavl that his first son Mikhail had died. Feodor then returned to Yaroslavl, and became its prince. In 1299 he became very ill, and was carried near death to the Savior-Transfiguration Monastery, and there he took the monastic robe — which accounts for why he is depicted in a monk’s robe in iconography. This “last-minute” entry into monasticism was done by a number of Russian saints — a bit reminiscent of the deathbed baptism of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. His son David succeeded him as ruler of Yaroslavl. It is thought that his other son, Konstantin, had already died by that time.
So that is how to distinguish the two father-sons triads — the “Murom” triad of Konstantin, Mikhail and Feodor, and the “Yaroslavl” triad of Feodor, David and Konstantin.
Now that the distinction is clear (I hope!), we can move on to an interesting related icon — related to the Yaroslavl father-sons triad, that is.
Here is an icon from the last part of the 17th century:
We can use it to practice reading inscriptions.
Here is the image at top center:
Now the first thing we can tell about this icon is that in spite of its traditional appearance, this is a State Church icon, not an Old Believer icon. That is obvious from the abbreviation of the name of Jesus at top left: IИС for Иисус Христос/Iisus Khristos. The Old Believers would have spelled it in the old way — IC XC for the form Ісус Хрістос/Isus Khristos. You will recall that the change came about when Patriarch Nikon insisted on a reform of religious practices and spellings in the middle of the 17th century, and that caused the Old Believers to keep to the old ways, while the State Church adopted the changes and began its persecution of the Old Believers. So we see that change already in this icon inscription.
Just below the Iisus Khristos inscription, we see another:
Ц[А]РЬ Ц[А]РЕМ И Г[О]С[ПО]ДЬ Г[О]С[ПО]ДЕМЬ TSAR’ TSAREM I GOSPOD’ GOSPODEM’ “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS”
Now we can move to the main image. Usually the title of an icon type is at the top of the image in large letters, but in this example it is rather modestly beside the head of the main figure at left, and in small letters:
The triad at left is one you now know — Feodor, Konstantin, and David. You should have no trouble in reading their inscriptions:
You can see some abbreviation in the names Konstantin and David. The two sons in this example wear the damask shuba and robes, but their heads are bare, without the usual shapka — the fur-trimmed hat — on each. Their father Feodor wears the monastic garment he took at the “last minute,” when he became a monk just before his death.
Now we move to the right side of the icon:
At upper right we see the moon — ЛУНА/LUNA — just as we saw the sun –СОЛНЦЕ/SOLNTSE — on the far upper left, above Feodor.
You will recall that “good-believing” is the Slavic way of indicating that they are “Orthodox,” so благоверный/blagovyernuiy (the singular male form) is often simply translated as “Orthodox.”
Now we come to their names. The fellow at left is ВАСИЛИЙ/VASILIY, which you will recall is the Slavic form of Basil. The fellow at right is КОНСТАНТИН/KONSTANTIN, the Slavic form of Constantine. And of course he is a different Konstantin than the one in the triad at left.
Now all we need know is who these two fellows were.
Princes Vasiliy and Konstantin of Yaroslavl were brothers during the time of the Mongol/Tatar invasions. Vasiliy attempted to pacify the Mongol leader Batu Khan of the so-called “Golden Horde.” He fell ill in Vladimir, dying there in 1250. His younger brother Konstantin died in a battle against the Tatars in 1267. Some two and a half centuries later, their bodies were said to have been found incorrupt, which as you will recall, in popular Slavic belief can mean either a saint or a vampire, depending on circumstances. In this case, of course, they were considered to be saints, because their remains were believed to have been the cause of various “miracles.”
All of these “Yaroslavl Wonderworkers” are set against the background of the city of Yaroslavl.
This icon type is known as Муромская/Muromskaya — the “Of Murom” icon of Mary, or simply the “Murom” icon:
It is said that the original of this icon was brought in the early 12th century from Kyiv/Kiev to the city of Murom by Prince Konstantin of Murom, and it supposedly so impressed the non-Christian inhabitants when it was shown to them that they gave up their resistance against the authority of Constantine and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
The legends of this icon also relate that near the end of the 12th century, when Vasiliy was Bishop of Murom, rumors went about that he was not leading a holy life. The rumors were so bad that the people of the city planned to kill him. But when he heard of this, he asked the people to delay his death until the next morning. During the night he supposedly prayed before the Murom icon, and then he took the icon to the Oka River. There he spread out his mantle on the waters of the river, and stood on it with the icon. His mantle supposedly miraculously floated and upheld him, and a strong wind came that blew him against the current of the river, all the way to Old Ryazan (Старая Рязань/Staraya Ryazan). There he was well received by the people, but fearing the invasion of the Tatars (Mongols), he eventually took the icon with him to another place with a similar name — New Ryazan. And so the icon got the second part one often finds in its name — the Muromskaya-Ryazanskaya (Муромская-Рязанская) icon.
On some examples of the Murom icon, one may find its troparion written at the base:
Глас 4/”tone” 4
Днесь светло красуется град Муром, Today brightly rejoices the city of Murom,
яко зарю солнечную,
As the brightness of sunshine,
восприемши, Владычице, чудотворную Твою икону, having received, Lady, your wonderworking icon,
к нейже ныне мы притекающе и молящеся, to whom now we are resorting and praying,
Тебе взываем сице: to you calling thus:
О Пречудная Владычице Богородице, O most wonderful Lady, Birthgiver of God,
молися из Тебе воплощенному Христу Богу нашему, pray, to from you incarnate, Christ our God,
да избавит град сей и вся грады и страны христианския Let him save this city and all Christian cities and lands,
невредимы от всех навет вражиих unharmed from all slanderous enemies,
и спасет души наша, яко Милосерд. and save our souls, for he is merciful.
Now on to the main saints associated with Murom:
Prince Konstantin of Murom (died 1129) was descended from Vladimir of Kyiv/Kiev — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus to Eastern Orthodox Christianity by edict.
When Konstantin requested and was given authority over the city of Murom — which at that time was still not Christianized — he sent his son Mikhail to convert the people, so tradition says. The Muromites, however, killed Mikhail by throwing him down from the city walls, so Konstantin then took the city by armed power. The story is that the people eventually relented and decided to be baptized — influenced by seeing the “Murom” icon of Mary carried in Konstantin’s arms. His son Feodor is said to have aided in spreading Christian belief among the pagans, and so all three are generally found together on icons as saints.
Here is an icon depicting the city of Murom, and above it are two sets of saints, and kneeling below is another saint:
The group at left is Prince Konstantin and his sons Mikhail and Feodor.
At right is the noted husband-wife pair of Murom saints, Petr (Peter) and Fevronia.
Here are two panel icons of the latter pair:
There is a fanciful long tale about Petr and Fevronia, but in reality, the accounts of their lives are rather confused. No one is quite certain whether they were actually the husband and wife pair David And Evfrosiniya, who took the monastic names Petr and Fevronia, and died c. 1228, or whether they were the pair Petr and Evfrosiniya who ruled Murom in the 14th century.
In any case, this in brief is the popular tale of their lives:
It is said that the wife of Prince Pavel/Paul was visited and seduced by a serpent demon, whom others could only see as disguised in the form of Prince Paul. The wife finally told her husband what was happening, and he asked her to slyly get out of the demon how he could be killed. She found that the only person able to dispatch the serpent was Pavel’s brother, Petr (Pyotr/Peter). But when he did so, the blood spilled on his skin, and he broke out in terrible sores and rashes and scabs.
No one seemed to know what to do about this affliction until a servant of Peter came across a peasant girl in the Ryazan region named Fevronia, who claimed she could cure him. But to do this, she demanded a high price; she asked him to make her his wife.
Desperate for a cure, Petr agreed to marry Fevronia. But after she cured him, instead of proceeding with the marriage, he instead just sent her expensive gifts. However, he did not get away with that, because Fevronia refused the gifts, and Peter’s affliction returned, and again he suffered. So finally he married Fevronia, and was again cured.
When Pavel died, Peter and Fevronia ruled over Murom. The wealthy citizens — the boyars, were not happy to have a lowly peasant girl as their princess, and though the ordinary people were fond of her, the boyars demanded that Fevronia leave the city. As inducement for doing so, they offered her whatever wealth she wished to take with her. But Fevronia tricked them. The wealth she wished to take was her husband Petr.
The two left Murom, but the city without its Prince was in such strife that the townspeople asked the pair to return. They did so, and ruled well over Murom, until in old age they both took the monastic habit, and Peter took the name David, and Fevronia took the name Evfrosiniya. That accounts for why Petr and Fevronia are commonly depicted in monastic garb. Both supposedly died on the same day, and through the intervention of a miracle, were eventually buried in the same tomb.
If you would like to read more of the fairy-tale-like story of Peter and Fevronia, you will find a version of the folk tale here:
Well, that leaves us with only one remaining noted Murom saint to discuss. It is the chronologically later woman kneeling below Petr and Fevronia. She is Iulianiya Lazarevskaya.
Her story relates that Iulianiya/Juliania was born to a noble couple in the town of Ploshin in the 16th century. She was orphaned, and her grandmother took her to the city of Murom. After the grandmother died, Iulianiya, aged 12, was taken in by the grandmother’s daughter as part of her already large family.
Iulianiya was a pious — one might say unnaturally pious — girl. She preferred prayer and fasting to the entertainments other children enjoyed. She took a lot of ridicule for this, but persisted in her ways. She also became devoted to helping the needy.
At the age of 16, Iulianiya married, and continued her pious life and care of the poor and ill. Over the course of her life she had ten sons and three daughters, of whom seven died as infants, and later two more sons died.
Iulianiya, in her sorrow, wanted to enter a monastery, but had to remain with her husband to care for the remaining children.
On the death of her husband, Iulianiya only increased her efforts to live an ultra-pious life and to aid the poor. She constantly repeated the “Jesus Prayer,” even in her sleep. She is said to have once been saved from the attacks of demons by St. Nikolai/Nicholas, who appeared and chased them away with a club.
The country fell on hard times, and even Iulianiya did not have enough to eat, but still she did what she could to feed others. She died on January 10, 1604. Because of her constant care for the unfortunate, she became known as Праведная Иулиания Лазаревская, Милостивая/Pravednaya Iulianiya Lazarevskaya, Milostivaya — “Righteous Iulianiya of Lazarevo, the Merciful.”
So now you know about and can identify the “Murom saints” in icons — as well as the Muromskaya icon.
The more naturalistic depiction of his features as well as the position of the fingers of his right hand as it blesses tell us that this is a State Church icon, not one painted by the Old Believers. And in fact he would not be numbered among Old Believer saints, because he was not officially “glorified” (somewhat the Russian Orthodox equivalent of canonization) until 1861, and then only by the post-Schism State Church, whose authority was not accepted by the Old Believers. We know from all this that his icons will be from the latter part of the 19th century or later.
Tikhon (born Timofei in 1724) had a miserable, very poor and very difficult childhood, but later studied at the Novgorod Seminary. He became a monk in 1758, then a year later Rector of the Tver Seminary. He was made a bishop in 1761, at the age of 37, being first in Novgorod, then in Voronezh.
Now very interestingly, even though this was in the latter half of the 18th century, the people of Voronezh still celebrated an annual holiday in the late spring in honor of the deity Yarilo (Ярило) — a god of the return of spring, of growth of vegetation and fertility.
The holiday was observed in rather riotous fashion — and had been so carried on since the days before the arrival of Christianity. Now as one might imagine, Bishop Tikhon did not like this at all, and he showed up in the public square in the middle of the festivities, denouncing the celebration with such vehemence that the fun stopped, and that was the end of the Yarilo celebrations each year in Voronezh — at least according to the traditional story of Tikhon’s life.
Tikhon’s health declined, and he spent the years from 1767 until his death in 1783 at the Zadonsk Monastery, where he lived in a small stone house attached to the bell tower by the monastery gate. His health was likely not helped by his sleeping only four or five hours in the day, and his difficult lifestyle.
If accounts of his life are to be believed, he was a very humble person with a sincere care for the poor and suffering, visiting prisoners and donating his pension to charity. Supposedly he was telepathic, able to read people’s minds, and clairvoyance is also attributed to him, as it is said he predicted (in so many words) the later invasion of Russia and defeat of Napoleon. Whatever the truth may have been, Tikhon was credited in popular belief with the ability to work miracles.
Tikhon died on August 13, 1783. His relics — meaning his bodily remains — were said to be incorrupt (you will remember that in Russian folk belief, that indicated either a saint or a vampire), and in 1861 his official “glorification” as a saint took place.
Icons of Tikhon of Zadonsk are rather frequently encountered.
Today we will look briefly at a very uncommon icon type. It is related to those icons we have seen in previous postings, representing the Guardian Angel and a person at death; but this particular type is based upon a collection of prayers:
As you can see, it consists of lots of little scenes, each with a bit of text beneath it.
The title inscription should tell us what this is all about:
It is a bit fuzzy, but we can nonetheless read it. It says:
Изображение Канyна На Исход Души IZOBRAZHENIE KANUNA NA ISKHOD DUSHI
Though the writer has spelled Kanona as Kanuna, we nonetheless know what he meant, so we can easily translate the title as:
“REPRESENTATION OF THE CANON AT THE DEPARTURE OF THE SOUL”
So we know this icon represents a particular liturgical collection of funereal prayers relating to the departure of the soul from the body at death and its journey in the afterlife, as believed in Eastern Orthodox tradition.
This appears to be an Old Believer icon from the 19th century. It is not a type you are likely to encounter, but if you do, you will be able to recognize it now.
In earlier postings we looked at icons of Holy Wisdom depicted as a red-faced angel sitting upon a throne often supported by seven pillars. Today we will look at a 16th century Novgorod icon that again depicts Wisdom, but in a different manner.
Customarily, when looking at icons here, we look at the whole image first, then look more closely at various details. Today, however, we shall begin with details, which will enable you to understand the icon as a whole when seeing it.
Here is the first detail:
We see a circle with a robed figure in the center, holding a chalice in hand. Beside the head is a faint inscription reading:
Божия Сила Божия Премудрость Bozhiya Sila Boshiya Premudrost’
“Power of God — Wisdom of God”
In the red surrounding circle are the winged wheels that are the class of angel called “Thrones” — commonly found in icons of the Trinity. Also faintly visible in the red circle are representations of Seraphim and the symbols of the Four Evangelists — Man, Eagle, Lion, Ox:
In the darker, cloudy circle enclosing that, we see other angels, as well as a eucharistic container and an altar table.
Not only does the robed central figure have the “Thrones” underfoot — usually a sign of divinity — but also has an eight-pointed halo, another common sign of divinity, a symbol of the days of Creation with the Eight Day — the Day of Eternity. Below the seat on which Wisdom sits, we see seven slender supporting pillars. That takes us back to the fundamental text on which Wisdom icons are based. Proverbs 9:1:
“Wisdom has builded her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars.”
The illustration of the text continues:
“She hath killed her beasts…”
Those words are indicating by the two figures slaughtering two cattle beneath them.
“She has mingled her wine; she has also furnished her table.”
Here we see the wine and the table:
“She has sent forth her maidens: she cries upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wants understanding, she says to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.“
So in the detail above, we see all the people coming to receive the wine of wisdom. And “crying from the highest places of the city” is a crowned figure in the tower, holding a scroll:
He is King Solomon, the traditional author of the book of Proverbs. He is considered a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy. He holds a scroll that begins:
Premudrost’ sozda sebye kh[ra]m i outverdi…
“Wisdom built herself a temple and set up…”
So of course he is telling us — as in Proverbs 9:1 — that Wisdom built herself a temple and set it up on seven pillars.
You may recall that older Orthodox translations say — as here — khram/”temple,” which is also used in Slavic to mean “church.” Later translations use дом (dom), meaning “house.”
At right, above those coming for wine, we see a red circle of seraphim in which Mary is seated with Christ Immanuel, who is considered to be Wisdom:
Below her at right is a turbaned figure — Kozma/Cosmas of Maium — holding a scroll that has a variant version of an excerpt by him from the Canon of Holy Thursday:
Всепричинная подательница жизни безмерная мудрость Божия создала себе храм из чистой, не знавшей мужа Матери: ибо в храм телесный облекшийся славно прославился Христос Бог наш»
“The Cause of All, Giver of Life, the immeasurable Wisdom of God, created for himself a temple from the pure, husbandless Mother: for clothed in the temple of the body, gloriously has been glorified Christ our God.”
That illustrates Mary with Christ Immanuel above him — that the child Wisdom, through Mary, was clothed in the temple of a human body.
So that is the main part of the icon, which symbolizes not only the pre-existence but also the incarnation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom — and along with that it represents the Eucharistic sacrifice.
At the top of the icon, we see a seven-domed church:
The scenes beneath the smaller domes represent the Seven Ecumenical Councils, arranged chronologically from left to right:
At left is the Council of Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian controversy and the nature of Jesus. Beside it is the Council of Constantinople in 381:
Next come the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, and beside it the Council of Chalcedon in 451:
Following that are the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553, under Emperor Justinian, and beside that the Sixth, the Council of Constantinople in 681.
Last — on the far right — is the Seventh Ecumenical Council under Empress Irene and her son Constantine, in 787.
At the very top of the icon are circles with angels bearing scrolls, but the inscriptions are too small to read in the photo. Often these are interpreted as the gifts of the Spirit.
That should go far in enabling you to understand the whole icon: