As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Icon: Sophia, the Holy Wisdom

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, who proceeds from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching out mightily from end to end,
and sweetly arranging all things:
come to teach us the way of prudence.

O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go

This is a Russian icon based on Proverbs 9:1, which is inscribed across the top:
Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars:
In the center is Mary, holding Jesus, enthroned. Above her is God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (uncharacteristically presented as an old man and a dove). The rest of the icon is arranged in sevens:
  • Seven archangels are in the clouds with St. Michael directly to the left and St. Gabriel (holding a lily symbolic of the Annunciation) to the right.
  • Seven steps, each with a different virtue
    1. Glory
    2. Grace
    3. Humility
    4. Purity
    5. Love
    6. Hope
    7. Faith
  • Standing on the seven steps are seven men who are harder to identify. I think the ones to the left are Solomon (the wise king), Aaron (the first High Priest) and Moses (the lawgiver). The ones on the right probably represent the New Covenant, but I can't tell who they are.
  • There are seven pillars, each with a symbol. Of the ones I can identify:
  • What appears to be the Bible
  • The seven branched Menorah or candlestick from Revelation
  • Seven horns, probably from Revelation 8, although possibly from Joshua and the Battle of Jericho
  • Seven stars, probably from Revelation 1, 2 and 3 or from Amos 5:8
  • Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion,
    and turneth the shadow of death into the morning,
    and maketh the day dark with night:
    that calleth for the waters of the sea,
    and poureth them out upon the face of the earth:
    The LORD is his name.
  • Seven cups/bowls/vials of wrath from Revelation 15
  • Seven ears of corn from Genesis 41 (Joseph in Egypt)
It's a very interesting icon. I am told by Orthodox friends that it is rather Western (for instance, the representation of the Trinity) and rather late (19th c.) for an icon. Here is an icon of Christ as Holy Wisdom which is supposed to be based on an 18th c. Russian icon called "Holy Silence" (an odd name for "The Word of God"):

This is a 12th. c. drawing by Hildegard of Bingen of Holy Wisdom:

In this one, Wisdom is surrounded by the seven liberal arts; Grammatica, Rhetorica, Dialectica, Musica, Arithmica, Geometrica and Astronomica.  I would assume that the four figures below are the authors of the Gospels, but I'm not sure because they don't have the traditional animals attending them (man, ox, lion, eagle).  I also don't know who the two figures directly below Wisdom are, or what the three heads in her tiara are. 

 And, finally, a more "official" Russian icon of Holy Wisdom from the 14th c. Novgorod school. Note that, unlike the first one, Jesus and Mary are separate from the person of Wisdom.

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Anonymous Lisa P said...

Thank you for sharing the 19th c. Russian icon and the related ones.

Here is what I was able to make out about the Saints portrayed on the right side. From the center out:
1. Holy Prophet Isaiah, holding a scroll with the text "a Virgin shall conceive..."
2. can't discern
3. Probably Holy Prophet Ezekiel, holding a representation of the temple with the Gate Impassable.
4. Holy Prophet Daniel, holding an image of the mountain.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Rosemarie said...


Actually, the St. Hildegard image is Ecclesia - Mother Church - not Holy Wisdom. She did make pictures of Wisdom, but this isn't one of them.

In Jesu et Maria,

12:16 PM  
Blogger The Poor Blogger said...

Thanks, Rosemarie. I'll have to fix that later.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

I'm very sure these icons, or the female representation, is Sophia (Wisdom) The origin of the inspiration for these is Gnostic teachings. See the book "Gnosticism" "New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing"

7:45 PM  
Blogger Marie-Claire De Preval said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Marie-Claire De Preval said...

The two figures directly below Wisdom (Sophia) are Socrates and Plato, the three heads in her tiara are her daughters, Faith. Hope and Charity. Marie-Claire

11:09 AM  

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