These icons derive their meanings through typology, the understanding that Christ's life and other events described in the New Testament are foreshadowed in the events and images of the Old Testament. A traveling icon pairs the Madonna and Child with Abraham's vision of the Holy Trinity. A set of drawings juxtaposes the fall of man in the garden of Eden with the redemption of humanity in the Crucifixion of Christ. This image is also seen in a liturgical crucifix.
Russian. Nineteenth Century.
The richly decorated front of this traveling icon hints at some of the glories contained within it. At the top is a small engraved cross with seven grape leaves stemming from it in an intricate vine motif, referring to John 15:5:
The back is identical in design, but with a hook with which the icon can be hung around the neck. The icon opens to reveal two circular reliefs carved in cherry wood. The upper depicts the crowned Virgin Mary, with the blessing Christ child sitting on her lap, completely contained within her. The Greek inscription of her halo identifies her as Maria Theotokos, the "bearer of God." The background is made up of the swirling wings of four angels. Christ's halo identifies him as "He who is." The bottom relief is labeled "The Trinity," and depicts the moment when three angels visit Abraham and Sarah:
This passage poses difficulties because, although it emphatically states "three men" and "them," the three are labeled and addresses as one, the Lord. These problems are resolved, however, when he incident is recognized as embodying the mystery of the Trinity. It is usually agreed that Christ is the angel in the middle; the angel on the left represents God the Father; and the angel on the right is the Holy Spirit. The two icon reliefs are related, since, as Bishop Theophanus the Recluse eloquently stated, "Behind the veil of Christ's flesh, Christians behold the Triune god." This composition of this miniature Trinity reflects earlier examples, as required by religious authority. The Council of the Hundred Chapters decreed in 1551 how the Trinity was to be portrayed:
Yet the beloved and authoritative composition of the fourteenth-century Moscow master Rublev is actually much sparser, consisting only of the three angels, the tree at Mamre, and Abraham's house. The inclusion of Abraham and Sarah, in the Greek tradition, emphasizes their gestures of greeting and hospitality. the gracious treatment of guests is particularly appropriate in an image which was intended to accompany the wearer while traveling. This relief may serve to remind us that even when the appearance of images is so closely determined by tradition, there is still room for individual choices by the iconographer and the worshiper.
Adam and Eve
Allegheny College Collection No. 499
Allegheny College Collection No. 500
This set of drawings depicts the fall of humanity in the image of Adam and Eve and humanity's redemption through the Crucifixion of Christ, the Second Adam. After their disobedience in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve clutch at leaves to hide their shame, while the cursed serpent crawls in the dust at their feet. God (depicted as Christ with a cruciform halo) gives an article of clothing to Adam similar to the one Eve already holds in her hand. Although it illustrates a Biblical passage (Gen 3:21), this image is somewhat unusual, reminding us that Orthodox Christianity considers Adam and Eve somewhat differently than does Western Christianity. Since Adam and Eve were created in a state of innocent simplicity, they did not fall from absolute perfection and knowledge into absolute depravity. Rather, although they must leave Paradise for a world of mortality and sin, Adam and Eve are still made in the likeness of God and thus possess free will and capability of right action; in fact, they are the first to be pulled out of Hell by Christ's Resurrection. The clothing that they now wear represents their mortal flesh and the veils of matter separating them from the direct knowledge of God.
In the Incarnation, Christ takes on this mortal flesh and unites it to his divinity. Again in contrast to western practice, this image does not focus on the pain of the crucifixion, but rather on the frail, human Christ suffering in the hands of human tormentors. The empty cross, dominating the center of the image, suggests ultimate triumph, while the two thieves shown below embody the choices open to all Christians: to deny or to believe.
Although the original purpose for this cross is unknown, similar pieces could be worn around the necks or at the waists of Orthodox priests, as ornamentation during the religious services. Although the general shape of the piece is that of the Western cross, the relief is true to the Orthodox with the addition of the third bar. This bar is a reminder of the two robbers that hung on the crosses alongside Christ; one repented and went to heaven, while the other was damned to Hell. Inscriptions on the reverse indicate that the piece at one time contained the relics of six saints: the Apostle Barnabas, Gregory of Decapolis, James the Persian, the Holy Nun Mary, Alexis, and another unidentified male. These were most likely tiny fragments of bones wrapped tightly in many layers of cloth and pressed into very small sections created in the hollow interior. The belied of the Orthodox is that the body and the soul are resurrected and transfigured, as a whole resulted in a reverence for the tangible remains of saints. The grace that once dwelled in their live bodies is believed to remain after death and to serve as a link to the divine. Relics are also thought to generate healing power.
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This page has been researched and compiled by Brian Ayer, with additional research provided by the original exhibition catalog text by Stephanie McCabe and Janine Confer.