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Author`s name Michael Simpson

The Vernicle Icon and the Way to the Promised Land

In his Letter to bishop of Tver Feodor (1347) Archbishop of Novgorod Vasily Kalika wrote:  The place of the holy paradise was found by Novgorodian Moislav and his son Jakob. They were on three boats. One of the boats sunk after long wanderings, the other two were driven by wind for quite a long and brought to a high mountain. And on that mountain they saw the image of Deisis, painted with wonderful azure and decorated beyond measure, as if made not by human hands, but by grace of God. And on that place there was luminous light that cannot be described by human words. There is luminous light in that place, and its firmament is not accessible to people, they can reach only the paradise mountains. (Letter of Archbishop of Novgorod Vasily to Bishop of Tver Feodor, 14th - mid.15th century).

 Similar to the temple veil and iconostasis of the church the paradisial Deisis closed the entrance to the Holy of Holies of paradise:  And they ordered one of their companions to ascend the mountain with a mast-ladder to see where this light comes from and who sings with exultant voices; and it came to pass that as soon as he ascended the mountain he flung his arms up and laughing rushed from his companions towards the singing. They were very surprised and sent another one having strictly ordered him to turn back and tell them what was happening on the mountain. But he did the same - he did not return to his friends, but ran from them with great joy. They were filled with fear and started to ponder telling themselves:  Even if our death is there we wish to know about the radiance of this place. And they sent the third to the mountain and tied a rope to his leg. He wanted to do the same: he flung his arms up and rushed having forgotten in his joy about the rope on his leg. They pulled him down with the rope, but he turned out to be dead.

 His teaching about the way to paradise Archbishop Vasily sets out in the allegorical form, which was traditional for the mystical theology. In his parable about Novgorodian pilgrims Moislav is Moses who brought his people through the sea to Mount Sinai. On the top of the mountain the Lord revealed to Moses the image of temple representing the mystery of creation of the universe and the paradise garden. Jacob is a biblical patriarch who saw in his dream a ladder between the heaven and the earth and who called the place of this vision  House of God.  Place of the holy paradise  is interpreted by the archbishop of Novgorod as the image of an orthodox church (N.K.Goleizovsky,  Letter about paradise  and Russian-Byzantine relations in the middle of the 14th century, Iskusstvoznanie, 2/01, Moscow, 2001).

 The pilgrims who crossed the waters and started to ascend the mountain were allowed to contemplate the image not made by hands. St. John Damascene wrote:  Now the law and all its ordinances were a foreshadowing of the image in the future, that is, of our worship. And our worship is an image of the eternal reward. As to the thing itself, the heavenly Jerusalem, it is invisible and immaterial (John Damascene, Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, SPb., 2001). Symbolizing the main stages of the way to the promised land the structure of the Old Testament temples and New Testament churches includes waters (copper sea and mosaics seas and rivers that decorated the floors of Byzantine churches), the mountain (steps to the Holy of Holies and the ambon), Deisis (the veil and the iconostatis) and paradise (the Holy of Holies and the altar).

 The Holy Scriptures determines the relation of the image to the Prototype. The veil woven by the Mother of God, that represented the Body of Christ, was torn apart at the moment of the Saviour s death on the cross (Mt.27:51; Mr.15:38; Lk.23:45). The epistle to the Jews teaches that Christ opened the way to paradise through the veil, i.e. through His Flesh and Blood (Heb.10:19-20). The clothes that retained the image of Christ - Mandilion, Veronika, and Shroud - have become the greatest halidom of the New Testament church.

 Indication to the Vernicle Icon is the heart of Archbishop Vasily s parable that emphasizes the indissoluble connection of churches, icons, sacraments and church rites with their spiritual prototypes. Azure colour of the paradisial Deisis is the colour of mandorla oval in the Orthodox iconography. Deisis, made not by human hands, but by grace of God  might comprise the Vernicle Image of the Saviour as the central icon.  The prototypes of the parable about paradise were the churches of Novgorod land. In the churches of the Russian North, which were from of old under jurisdiction of the Novgorod Archdiocese, the icons of the Vernicle Saviour were placed in the centre of the Deisis (E.S.Smirnova, Two examples of decoration of iconostasis rows in the North, Medieval Russia, M., 1976). In the Petrozavodsk Art Museum there is an icon of the 17th-18th century from village Pelkula in the Western Karelia that decorated the altar wall of a small church and served for Deisis and Feast rows of iconostasis.

 Varying from traditional Deisises the image of Christ that takes the central place in the Deisis row was rendered by a picture of the Saviour on the sudarium. E.S.Smirnova gives an interesting evidence of northern scriber books with precise lists of icons in the churches:  On the Vidlitsa River there is Gory (Mountains - Russian) village with the St. Peter and Paul church. In the church on the place of Deisis on the transoms there is the Vernicle image of our Lord Jesus Christ made in paint.  E.S.Smirnova explains the peculiarity of northern Deisises by the inheritance of Novgorod culture:  The researchers studied the works of northern art to reconstruct the earlier stages in the history of Russian iconostasis. V.N.Lazarev mentioned the icon from the Vytegorsk cemetery church, where Vernicle Saviour  is depicted in the centre, and on His sides there are the Theotokos, John the Forerunner and two stylites. So if the iconostasis row from Pelkula retains ancient traces, where should we search for their beginnings? The old Novgorod stratum of northern culture comes to mind. Once Karelia was a part of the Novgorod land.  Probably, the peculiarity of the northern church art noticed by the art researchers can be an illustration to the Letter about paradise written by the Novgorodian archbishop.

 In Byzantine and ancient Russian churches the Vernicle icon of Christ is placed over the altar apse of the church or over the Royal (paradise) gates of iconostasis and played its part in the topics of the Annunciation or the Eucharist (see Sharon Gerstel, Wonderworking Mandilion. The Vernicle Image of the Saviour in the Byzantine iconographic programmes. Herbert L. Kessler, Spiritual Seeing: Picturing God s Invisibility in Medieval Art, Philadelphia, 2000 ).  The Vernicle Image of the Saviour occurs in the iconography of Heavenly Jerusalem represented as the temple-city in the Russian illustrated manuscripts (Revelation of John the Theologian in the world book tradition, Moscow, 1995, page 96). In the miniature of the Illustrated Apocalypse with commentaries of Andrew of Caesarea (18th century) from E.E.Egorov's collection the Vernicle image is connected with pictures of Christ and the Theotokos, indicating the Holy of Holies and representing the veil and iconostasis.

 In the Orthodox tradition the Vernicle Image, the Old Testament veil and the Deisis of the altar wall are interchangeable and are important symbols of the divine incarnation.  The order of blessing or sanctification of Katapetamsa or Deisis for all the icons put on their right place in the church, contained in the prayer-book by Metropolitan Peter Mogila, published in Kiev in 1646, identifies the veil(katapetamsa ) with the Deisis and the iconostasis. In the interpretation of St.Cyrill of Alexandria the veil was the image of Christ visible in the glory of God for those in the holy tabernacle, that is in the Church (St.Cyrill of Alexandria, On Adoration in Spirit and in Truth, book 10).

  Letter about paradise testifies that the way to the promised land lies through the orthodox church where one learns to stand before the face of God. The Vernicle image of the Saviour has made the veil, which separates us from the heavenly Holy of Holies, transparent for our prayerful contemplation.

Photo 1 - Deisis, a Russian icon of the 16th century.
Photo 2 - The Vernicle Image of the Saviour in Heavenly Jerusalem,
Illustrated Apocalypse with commentaries of Andrew of Caesarea, the 18th
century (E.E.Egorov's collection)

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