Thursday, January 24, 2008

Alexander Boguslawski: Seraph in Bosom of "Christ the Blessed Silence"

Detail, Christ the Blessed Silence
Russian, circa 1700 (30.7 x 27 cm)
(Image from The Temple Gallery)

Two blog-days ago, I posted the entire icon of which the above image is a detail, and for ease of comparison, here is the full icon, albeit much reduced in size:

As previously noted, Brandon Watson (who blogs at Siris) drew my attention to this Russian Orthodox icon some days ago when I was blogging about various depictions of Christ as a winged figure in Western art.

I noticed that the icon depicted a seraph held in the bosom of Christ, and in my response to Brandon, I called his attention to the seraph and wondered if it were an allusion to the story of St. Francis receiving the stigmata from a six-winged 'Christ' in that puzzling vision, where Christ, a seraph, and the soul of St. Francis appear to coincide in identity -- a baffling vision to which I devoted several blog entries.

Brandon doubted an allusion to St. Francis, and I myself had thought the possibility remote but wanted at least to air it.

Just to be certain that this was not such an allusion to St. Francis, and also to learn more about the icon, I emailed an expert, Professor Alexander Boguslawski, who had noticed (and commented on) an earlier post of mine on Andrei Rublev's icon of The Old Testament Trinity, for I had cited Boguslawski's analysis of that icon in my blog entry.

Before sending the email to Professor Boguslawski, I posted my query in a reply to the comment that he had posted on Rublev's icon:
By the way, if you have time, perhaps you could explain this icon showing a winged Christ the Blessed Silence with what appears to be a seraph in his bosom.

When I saw this, I wondered if there were some allusion to the winged 'Christ' of St. Francis's vision when he received the stigmata, for 'Christ' took the form of a seraph there (though such a Catholic allusion would be unexpected in an Orthodox painting).
I then sent Professor Boguslawski the mentioned email, just to make sure that he was aware of my query:
Greetings from Jeffery Hodges (aka Gypsy Scholar). I was pleased to hear from you in the comment to my blog post on Rublev. I left a reply there, and also a query, directing you to my most-recent blog entry. I'm curious about the six-winged seraph in the bosom of a winged Christ (in the form of the Blessed Silence). What does the seraph signify? If you take a look at the blog entry (and some of its links), you'll understand my query.
Here is his reply, which he posted as a comment to my blog entry of two days ago on this seraph in Christ's bosom:
I can answer some of the questions you posed, but, unfortunately, not all... The seraphim is definitely not an allusion to St. Francis, even though St. Francis did have a vision of a seraphim! The icon from the Temple Gallery seems to be absolutely unique; I looked through my extensive book collection and through the Russian Orthodox sites and found not even one similar icon of the Holy Silence. On all icons, the angelic figure is shown with hands crossed at the bosom. So why the seraphim at this particular icon? The only possible explanation I can think of would be that the author of this icon wanted to stress the closeness of the seraphim to God.

The God-loving six-winged SERAPHIM stand closer than all before their Creator and Maker, as the prophet Isaiah saw, saying: "And the seraphim stood around Him, each having six wings" (Isaiah 6:2). They are fire-like since they stand before That One of Whom it is written: "For our God is a consuming fire." (Heb. 12:29); "His throne was a flame of fire" (Dan 7:9); "the appearance of the Lord was like a blazing fire" (Ex. 24:17). Standing before such glory, the seraphim are fire-like, as it said: "Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire" (Ps. 103:4). They are aflame with love for God and kindle others to such love, as I shown by their very name, for "seraphim" in the Hebrew language means: "flaming".

Icons of Holy Silence (Blessed Silence) were most popular among the Old Believers, but they, as dedicated traditionalists, would not accept any significant change in iconography. Therefore, the question why the seraphim was included in this icon remains unanswered... I wonder whether Richard Temple realized what kind of a unique work he had in his gallery.

I hope all this helps. Looking forward to finding more about this and other icons.
That the icon was "absolutely unique" thrilled me -- in an intellectual way -- and I replied:
[T]hank you for your reply to my query about the seraph in this icon.

I looked more closely at the icon at Richard Temple's website, and since the site allows close-ups of details, I was able to see the seraph more clearly. Although the figure is clearly a seraph, given the six wings, it seems to have no body and looks more like an image of the sun -- which would connect to the Hebrew meaning of "seraph" as "flaming."

This looks like a topic for an article, but I lack the expertise in icons. Perhaps you will write something?

Meanwhile, I'll post your comment as a blog entry, for this is informative stuff.
And today's is that 'promised' blog entry. Perhaps some reader who knows the explanation to this puzzling image of the the seraph in Christ's bosom will take the time to lead us through the labyrinth to the answer.

UPDATE: Concerning the seraph's lack of a body, Professor Boguslawski informs me that "In Russian tradition, seraphim are always represented this way (they can be larger in size)," so my speculation about a possible resemblence to the "sun" is perhaps way off target.

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