I’ve recently travelled back to some of the ancient Russian centres of icon-painting: Moscow, Rostov, Yaroslavl and Vladimir. As Communism destroyed many of the churches and monasteries in these places, there was a real danger that the icons themselves would be lost. In order to protect them, a large number of them were taken from the churches, declared national treasures and ended up being preserved in local museums. Entire iconostases (icon screens), huge frescoes, ancient miracle-working icons known and beloved by the whole nation, icons by St Andrey Rubliov, Dionisios or Theophan the Greek are now gathered in these museums and galleries. I thought perhaps I should write a few lines about one or two of them, as a way to bring you with me as I continue to travel.
The first one that caught my attention is a very rare icon from Yaroslavl, representing Sophia (Holy Wisdom). We all heard something about sophiology (it’s one of those words we all know, but no one can explain), but very few of us have actually seen an icon of Sophia. Apparently, as I learnt from an explaining note in the museum, there are a several types of icons dedicated to Sophia, just as there are several types dedicated to the Mother of God or Christ. This one is a seventeenth century icon from the Church of Prophet Elijah in Yaroslavl and is currently kept in the museum of the Yaroslavl Kremlin. This particular composition is known as the Novgorod type of sophianic icons. Its first version dates to the fifteenth century and is found in the Church of Sophia in Novgorod.
Apart from the rich visual symbolism, the icon also includes selected texts from the Scriptures relevant to its theme. Quotes from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians are joined by texts from Old Testament texts, such as the Wisdom of Solomon or the Book of Prophet Isaiah. Interestingly, and something I particularly love, along these Scriptural references the icon-painter also included texts from church services.
I like that because it underlines two central Orthodox ideas. First, it shows the unity of thought and belief among these sacred texts regardless of the context in which they were written. Secondly, it demonstrates that the revealing action of the Holy Spirit is not restricted to a certain age or time, but goes on through the centuries. Despite our sinfulness, the Holy Spirit continues to reveal Christ to our world.
At the centre of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a sceptre.
To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.
Behind them follow St John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.
Above the fiery Angel of Wisdom there is a complete representation of Christ in Glory.
Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in his left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.
For comparison, I include one more version of the icon. Despite its simpler composition, it still follows the same pattern and includes most of the same elements. This icon is also from Yaroslavl, but from the museum inside the Metropolitan Palace.