A GOD BY ANY OTHER NAME: ILYA AND VLASIY

I have said before that the polytheism of the pre-Christian world did not disappear with the arrival of Christianity; it was simply transformed. The pantheon of the old gods was replaced by the “pantheon” of God the Father, Jesus, Mary, the angels and the saints. Where people once turned to this or that lesser deity for help with such things as illness and crops, they now turned to Christian saints.

In the Slavic world, two very important pre-Christian gods were Perun and Veles. Perun was a sky god associated with thunder, lightning, and fire. Veles was a lower earth god associated with herds and flocks.

Now, as one might imagine, both of these things were very important to the average person concerned about his crops and his flocks.

So what happened when Christianity was imposed on such people? They looked for replacements. Here is an icon of the Prophet Elia/Ilya (at left) and of St. Vlasiy, called “Blaise” in the West:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net)

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

Christianity has the Prophet Elijah, called Ilya in the Slavic world. In the Old Testament story, Ilya was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. His day of celebration came late in July, a time when peasants were very concerned about the effects of weather on their crops. So the characteristics of the thunder god Perun were simply transferred to the Prophet Elijah, who was believed to roll across the heavens in his fiery wagon, making the sound of thunder, which is why in Serbia he is called Sveti Ilija Gromovnik — ” Holy Elijah the Thunderer.” Now you know why there are so many icons of Elijah. When the images of the old gods were done away with, their place was taken by icons. So polytheism did not die out with the arrival of Christianity; it just put on different clothes.

In some places, even the “blood” sacrifices to the old gods survive in the veneration of Elijah. In the Balkans, for example, there is a tradition for a family to kill the oldest rooster each year on Ilinden –Ilya’s Day; and also a ram or bull is killed and boiled so that Ilya will not withhold rain for the crops.

The old rival of Perun in the Slavic pantheon was the god Veles/Volos. When Christianity was introduced (one could say “imposed”), it was not difficult to find a counterpart for Veles in the ranks of saints, because one particular saint had a very similar-sounding name — Vlasiy (Vlasios in Greek, Vlas in Bulgarian). It did not matter that hagiography related that Vlasiy had been a bishop at Sebaste (now Sivas in Turkey) in the late 3rd-early 4th century. There was a legend that he healed wild animals, and that, combined with his name, made him the new Veles, protector of herds and flocks. That is why an icon of Vlasiy was often hung in the shed where livestock was kept. His day of commemoration was in February.

VIRGINS TO THE LEFT, VIRGINS TO THE RIGHT, AND SOME BORING TERMINOLOGY

The Akathist was originally a 6th-century hymn to Mary — in Greek — attributed to Romanos the Melodist. The word is from the Greek a- meaning “not” and -kathistos, meaning “seated.” So an akathistos or akathist is a hymn sung while “not seated,” that is, while standing.

But there are other akathists as well, addressed to “sacred” persons, liturgical events, and even to Mary as manifested in various icons.

Akathists are divided into thirteen poetic segments, each consisting of a kontakion (Slavic kondak) and an oikos (ikos in the Slavic form). I mention the terms because they appear frequently in Marian icon inscriptions. In the same context, you will also want to know the term troparion (Slavic tropar), which is a short hymn form. When you see a troparion on a Russian icon, it will usually be identified at its beginning with the word tropar, followed by the word glas (“voice”), meaning the tone in which it is sung. There are eight tones used in Eastern Orthodox liturgical singing. “Voice” or “tone” here really means mode, in the musical sense. A mode in Eastern Orthodox singing is a base note with the melody built around it, following a defined set of scale steps. For the base note, think of the “drone” pipe on bagpipes that continually plays the same note while the melody is built up around it. There is more to the eight-tone mode system, but that is all we need for our purposes.

Now personally, I find even this much about the kontakion, ikos, and troparion pretty boring, but it is very helpful when trying to read and identify icons, so students of iconography should know the minimal basics I have just given. More is not necessary unless you plan to study Byzantine or Slavic liturgical music.

Now to today’s very uncommon icon type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We see Mary standing at the century in a oval of light. Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and in her hands she holds out a cloth –her veil — very much as she does in another icon type called the Pokrov or “Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

Behind her is what appears to be a curved wall, with a turret at each end. At left is a group of nuns, and at right another group of females.

What does all this mean? It is explained by the inscription at top and bottom, identified by its first word as an ikos, and by the following number as “10.” It is Ikos 10 from the “original” akathist to Mary, called the “Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God.”

Икосъ 10.
Стена еси девамъ, Богородице Дево, и всемъ къ Тебе прибегающымъ: ибо небесе и земли Творецъ устрои Тя, Пречистая, вселься во утробе Твоей, и вся приглашати Тебе научивъ:
Радуйся, столпе девства:
радуйся, дверь спасенія.
Радуйся, начальнице мысленнаго назданія:
радуйся, подательнице Божественныя благости.
Радуйся, Ты бо обновила еси зачатыя студно:
радуйся, Ты бо наказала еси окраденныя умомъ.

You are a wall to virgins, O Virgin Mother of God, and to all who flee to you; for heaven and earth’s Maker prepared you, Most Pure One, dwelt in your womb, and taught all to call to you:
Rejoice, pillar of virginity:
Rejoice, gate of salvation!
Rejoice, leader of mental formation:
Rejoice, giver of divine good!
Rejoice, for you did renew those conceived in shame:
Rejoice, for you gave wisdom to those robbed of their reason.

There is more, but that is all the writer of the icon inscription had room for. There are slight variations in the text of the Akathist as found on this image, but that is to be expected when comparing Old Believer inscriptions with those used by the State Church, whose Bible translations and liturgical books vary slightly in translation from those of the Old Believers.

So, what we see in this icon type is Mary holding out her veil of protection, somewhat as in the Pokrov image, but instead of the other details of that type we have instead a wall behind her symbolizing Mary as “Wall to Virgins,” meaning the protector of virgins, and that accounts for the crowd of nuns at left and the crowd of maidens at right — the “virgins.” The sun and moon are added merely as decorative elements, but you will recall also the description of Mary as the “Apocalyptic Woman” standing on the moon and clothed with the sun — so there is a hint of that in their inclusion here.

This icon type, “You Are a Wall to Virgins” (Стена еси девамъ/Stena esi devam) is seldom found separately, but in icons representing the Akathist, and in other icons of Mary “с акафистом” (s akafistom) — that is, “with the Akathist,” it is included in the border scenes depicting the kontakia and oikoi (“houses”) of that hymn. In some examples Mary is shown without Christ Immanuel on her breast and without the veil in her hands.

Though the word стена (“stena”) means literally “wall,” those translating the Akathist often prefer the more florid “bulwark,” so for short one may call this icon type either literally the “Wall to Virgins” or more loosely the “Bulwark of Virgins,”

THE MYSTERIOUS TSAREVICH DMITRIY

The history of Russia, like many political histories, has its dark moments and intrigues as “byzantine” as anything in Byzantium. One of the best-known involves the mysterious death of Dmitriy, the youngest son of the tsar known as Ivan Groznuiy, “Ivan the Terrible.”

Upon the death of Tsar Ivan, his son Feodor ascended the throne. But the real power was held by Boris Godunov, Feodor’s brother-in-law. Feodor was weak, sickly, and not mentally competent to be Tsar, though he was said to be very pious.

All of this meant that upon Feodor’s death, he being childless, the next Tsar would be Boris Godunov — except for the obstacle of the younger son of Ivan, Dmitriy, born in 1582.

In 1584 Boris Godunov had Dmitriy and his mother and her brothers packed off to the city of Uglich. In 1591 Dmitriy was dead of a stab wound at the age of eight, and his mother accused Boris Godunov of having sent men to assassinate her son. She was forced to enter a convent and become a nun.

All of this led to much turmoil and confusion.

Just what happened is still unknown. Some believe Boris Godunov did in fact have Dmitriy assassinated so that no son of Ivan could possibly block Godunov’s ascent to the throne. Other historians believe the story that Dmitriy was playing with a knife, and wounded himself during an epileptic seizure. Yet a third story, and one that contributed to a period of great political disturbance called the “Time of Troubles,” said that Dmitriy had managed to escape his assassins. This is the reason why imposters were put forth by Polish factions, claiming the right of such a “false Dmitriy.” to the throne.

Mysteries, assassinations, disappearances — it all sounds like 21st-century Russian politics.

In any case, for Russian Orthodoxy, Dmitriy became a martyred saint.

Here is an icon painted in the Western manner used by the State Church in later years:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

At left is the “Good-believing Prince Roman [of Uglich]”. Roman was a 13th-century prince who ruled Uglich and was said to be both pious and devoted to the welfare of the people.

“The Holy Good-believing Tsarevich Dmitriy” stands at right, with the cross of martyrdom in his right hand and the knife that was the instrument of his death in his left. He is also called Dmitriy of Uglich

So in this icon, we have two princely saints associated with the city of Uglich. In the clouds above, Christ, holding the Gospels, looks down upon them.

PRINCE-SAINTS FROM THE MONGOL YOKE PERIOD

The 13th century was a very difficult time for the principalities of Kievan Rus’ due to the Mongol invasion, when villages and towns were burned and looted and large numbers of people killed. The princes of that time were thus put in the position of either trying to appease the Tatars or of fighting against them. The land went under Tatar control for over two centuries, with the principalities becoming vassal states, except for Novgorod and Pskov in the northwest, which remained independent.

sackofsuzdal

Today we will take a look at a very pleasant Russian icon (from a private collection) depicting royal saints of this period:

(Courtesy of Hans Plasse)

(Courtesy of Hans Plasse)

At left are the images “святого благоверного князя Феодора Смоленского (Черного) и его чад Давида и Константина” — “of the holy good-believing prince Feodor of Smolensk (‘The Black’) and his sons David and Konstantin.” “Good-believing,” or as it is often translated, “True-believing,” means that they were faithful to Eastern Orthodox belief:

feoddavkonst

Feodor Rostislavich was son of the prince of Smolensk. After his father’s death his brothers took the more choice regions, while he was left with Mozhaisk. Nonetheless, through marriage he became prince of Yaroslavl, and engaged in military campaigns for the Tatars of the “Golden Horde,” the western part of the Mongol Empire that had its head in the Sarai on the lower Volga River. He even married the daughter of the Khan Mengu-Timir. He had a previous son, Mikhail, under an earlier wife who died, but with his new wife he had two sons, David And Konstantin. In September of 1299 Feodor became ill, and asked to be made a monk so he might die as one. That is why in the icon he is wearing a monastic cowl (skhima), even though his life had been spent as a warrior and prince. He was succeeded by his son David, Konstantin having apparently died earlier.

At right are two other princes of Yaroslavl, Vasiliy (Basil) and Konstantin (Constantine, not the same as Konstantin son of Feodor):

Their father Vsevolod had been killed fighting the Tatars, who remained a problem first for the older brother Vasiliy, and after his death in 1249 for the younger brother Konstantin, who was killed while fighting the Tatars in 1257.

Royal figures in icons are recognized by their robes, which are usually heavily ornamented, often with damask designs and (as here) borders of white dots as pearls. Look also for the shuba, the fur-trimmed outer cloak-coat seen here on David, Konstantin, Vasiliy, and the other Konstantin. Sometimes royal saints wear metal crowns, but for Russian royalty, often the fur shapka like that worn by Prince David in this icon.

At the top of this example, the Old Testament Trinity is depicted in clouds.

The gold leafed background of this icon has been worn away over time (not uncommon), and with it the inscriptions, leaving the underlying gesso visible. But all the saints are nonetheless recognizable by their iconographic forms. The dark little holes visible in the halos of the saints show that they were once covered by nailed-on metal halos, added as a sign of veneration. That too is common in icons of the 17th century.

THE FRUSTRATIONS OF THE “ONLY BEGOTTEN SON”

Today we will look at the icon type called the “Only-Begotten Son.”

It is based upon a hymn found in the liturgy of John Chrysostom, as well as in that of Basil the Great and elsewhere; it is found at the end of the Second Antiphon:

Единородный Сыне и Слове Божий, безсмертен Сый,
и изволивый спасения нашего ради воплотитися от Святыя Богородицы и Приснодевы Марии,
непреложно вочеловечивыйся,
распныйся же Христе Боже,
смертию смерть поправый,
Един Сый Святыя Троицы,
спрославляемый Отцу и Святому Духу, спаси нас.

Only-Begotten Son and Word of God immortal,
And the one willingly for our salvation incarnate of the Holy Birthgiver of God and Ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man,
And was crucified — Christ God,
Trampling down death by death,
Who are one of the Holy Trinity,
Glorified with the Father and Holy Spirit, save us.

The “Only-Begotten Son” type is frustrating for icon students because, though it is easily recognizable, it varies considerably from icon to icon in the elements included.

Let’s begin by looking at an example that gives us the basic image:

edrodsui

In the center is a New Testament Trinity variant. You will recall that the New Testament Trinity shows God the Father as an old man called “Lord Sabaoth,” as well as the Holy Spirit as a dove, and Jesus. The difference in this version is that Jesus is depicted as Christ Immanuel, Christ shown as a child or boy (in this it is akin to the Otechestvo, the “Fatherhood” type). He is in a ring of cherubim (in general cherubim are blue) and seated on seraphim (usually red). In one hand he holds an open scroll with the inscription “Only-Begotten Son and Word of God.”

edinordet2

Sometimes the scroll contains a different text, one of which is based on the Gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-3:

And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God” — (И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… — I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…).

But sometimes Christ simply holds a rolled scroll without a text.

In the other hand he holds a disk with the symbols of the Four Evangelists: an eagle for John, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and a winged man for Matthew:

Edinordet1.

At left and right are flying angels. Below, we see the icon type of Mary and Jesus that is called “Weep Not For Me, Mother,” based upon Irmos, Ode 9 for the Canon of Holy Saturday:

Не рыдай Мене, Мати, зрящи во гробе, Его же во чреве без семене зачала еси Сына: востану бо и прославлюся, и вознесу со славою непрестанно, яко Бог, верою и любовию Тя величающия

“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing in the tomb the son conceived in the womb without seed. For I shall arise and be glorified and shall exalt with eternal glory, as God, those who magnifiy you in praise and love.”

edinodet3

It depicts the Eastern Orthodox version of the Pietà, in this case Mary holding the body of her son, shown waist-length and upright in the tomb.

So that is the main image in “Only-Begotten Son” icons, making it easily recognized.

Now let’s move on to a more complex version:

440518-4

Here we have the usual central image of Lord Sabaoth, Holy Spirit, and Son, but the two upper angels at left and right are now holding disks aloft; that on the left contains a seraph, that on the right a cherub. In some examples the angels instead hold up the sun at left and the moon at right, both with faces.

At far left and right we see buildings. In that on the left, an “Angel of the Lord” (sometimes identified as the Archangel Gabriel) stands with a golden chalice in hand. This is said by some to represent the Heavenly Jerusalem, though it generally simply represents the “Church”:

The building at right and its angel (sometimes identified as Michael) is said to represent the Temple of Wisdom, the house that Wisdom (Christ) built as mentioned in the book of Proverbs.:

That is more obvious in examples showing Mary seated within it, with Christ Immanuel (“Wisdom”) in a mandorla on her breast (compare with the “Kiev Sophia” variant of the “Sophia, Wisdom of God” image). In some examples we see Mary standing in the building instead of seated, and in others we see the Znamenie (“Sign”) image of Mary, depicting her only to the waist, with the child Christ on her breast. The angel may hold a disk with the IC abbreviation for “Jesus” on it.

Some examples reverse the buildings, putting the “Temple of Wisdom” at left, and the “Church” at right.

At lower left is a cross, and atop it sits Jesus clothed as a warrior with a sword, symbolizing his victory over death:

Just below him is an angel subduing and binding Satan; other demons, some looking at the victorious Christ, flee into Hell, often depicted as the open jaws of a huge monster. Some examples also include an image of the standard crucifixion just above Christ on the cross as warrior.

On the lower right side, we see a winged seraph holding a sword (sometimes identified as a cherub), symbolizing the angel with a sword who guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve fell, bringing death into the world. Just below him a pale figure identified as Death rides a lion out of a dark cave, trampling human bodies beneath him:

Sometimes they are clothed in white shrouds. Death wears a quiver at times filled with arrows, sometimes with other weapons of death, as in this example. Death is depicted as a corpse, sometimes as a skeleton, and he holds a scythe. Carrion birds (like the black raven flying above) and animals feed on the fallen bodies.

So that is the “Only-Begotten Son.” Keep in mind the great variation from image to image.

Here is a particularly fine example, with some interesting differences. Note that it has not only the usual New Testament Trinity – Immanuel representation, but above it also the Old Testament Trinity, showing the three persons as the angels that appeared to the Patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in Genesis:

edinorosuin

Also, the character of the building at left as the “Church” is made more obvious by showing it with an interior altar on which, in a diskos, lies Christ depicted as “Agnets Bozhiy,” “The Lamb of God,” a symbol of the Eucharist. And to the left of it stand the “Three Hierarchs” — Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian.

The building at right is the “Temple of Wisdom,” in which we see Mary seated with Christ Immanuel on her breast.

Do not be surprised to find additional variations and changes from icon to icon of this “Only-Begotten Son” type. But now you know the basics and main variations to be found, so that should make it less frustrating and intimidating in the future.

PUTTING OUT THE FIRE: THE “PURE SOUL” ICON TYPE

There is an uncommon but rather interesting icon type called Чистая Душа — Chistaya Dusha (or Dusha Chistaya), meaning “The Pure Soul.”  Here is an example from the 17th century:

We get a better idea of its nature if we look at the same subject in a different medium, this time in tempera on paper, from the end of the 18th-beginning of the 19th century (from the collection of the Russian State HIstorical Museum)

The typical inscription at right reads:

“The Pure Soul stands like a bride ornamented, having on her head a royal crown, the moon beneath her feet; a prayer goes forth from her mouth, rising like a flame to heaven.  The lion is bound with fasting, the dragon/serpent tamed with humility.  Tears put out the burning flames — the falling Devil cannot endure her goodness.”

The text on some examples specifies that the Devil falls to earth “like a cat.”

The white figure sitting gloomily in darkness (a dark cave) at right is, by contrast, identified as the Greshnaya Dusha, “The Sinful Soul.”

So the “Pure Soul” is subduing sinful passions through her  prayer, tears, humility, and fasting.  In accounts of Russian Orthodox spirituality, such as those of the monastics and startsy — the mystical ascetics — tears are seen as a very significant sign of piety and spiritual development, the “gift of tears.” In the image, the tears are poured from the vessel held by the “Pure Soul” onto the flames of passion and sinful impulses, extinguishing them.

Some examples, like the first image above, show Christ as “Lord Almighty” in heaven at the top of the image.  To his right is the Guardian Angel, and to his left stands the Pure Soul, offering her prayers.  So we see this this icon type also has undertones of the Deisis image in which Mary appears, crowned and dressed like a Queen, to the right of Jesus — the type called “The Queen Stands at your Right.”

“Pure Soul” images commonly include a depiction of the sun, which, together with the crowned woman standing on the moon, points us to its textual origin.  It is based upon the “Apocalyptic Woman” in the book of Revelation ( the Apocalypse), chapter 12:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…”

Obviously, however, the Pure Soul image deviates from that text, and it appears to have been derived from  depictions of Mary as the Apocalyptic Woman.  That accounts for it sometimes being classified as a “Mother of God” image.  The Apocalyptic Woman also represents the Church, thus the transition to understanding the figure crowned and standing on the moon as “The Pure Soul.”  This allegorical type seems to have entered Russian iconography in the latter half of the 16th century, and was later generally found among the Old Believers.

THREE OLD MEN ON A PARK BENCH: THE PATRIARCHS IN PARADISE

Here is a rather unsophisticated Russian rendering of a seldom-seen icon type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The title inscription identifies it as ОБРАЗЪ СВЯТЫХЪ ПРАОТЕТЗЪ — Obraz’ Svyatykh’ Praotets’. Obraz means “image”; Svyatykh/Svyatuikh means “of the Holy” in its plural form; and Praotets’ here means “Forefathers,” but in English we would customarily say “Patriarchs.”

Who are they? The identifying inscriptions in their halos tell us. From left to right they are Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob, the Old Testament figures whose stories are related in the book of Genesis. Abraham was the ancestral patriarch, and his son was Isaac, and Isaac’s son was Jacob.

This icon shows the three as old men sitting on a bench in Paradise (represented as a garden as indicated by the trees in the background), holding infant children in their arms, with more children behind them. This example has two infants per patriarch, while other examples may show only one in each “bosom.”

Well, that is obvious, but beyond that, what is the meaning of this icon?

It actually has its origin in the New Testament parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, as given in Luke 16. Here is the pertinent segment, which begins at Luke 16:19:

There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full of sores,
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
But Abraham said, Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented.
And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from here to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, who would come from there.

This description of Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom” is the reason for the infants held in the arms (bosoms) of the Patriarchs; they represent souls of the righteous, as does the crowd of children in the background. In iconography it is not unusual to see the soul represented as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. Symbolically this crowd of righteous clothed in white is made up of spiritual “children” — descendants of Abraham.

In the upper background is a river of fire; that represents the region of torment separated from Paradise, in which the Rich Man was suffering in flames and asking for even a fingertip wet with water to cool his tongue, as he looked across into Paradise at Abraham and Isaac.

To finish this particular example, we see God the Father as “Lord Sabaoth” in a circle at the top, and in the side borders are name-saint of members of the family that originally owned this icon. At left is Venerable nun Evdokia (Eudocia), and at right the very popular female martyr Paraskovi (Parasceva).

In iconography the parable of “The Poor Man and the Rich Man” in Luke is sometimes depicted more literally, in which case only the Patriarch Abraham is seen in Paradise, holding Lazarus “in his bosom.”