ALBANIAN IKON ?
This unique and rustic
ikon was bought in 1994 on the Greek island of Corfu
for the sum of $300.
No provenance was given by the dealer, nor indeed any
interpretation of its intriguing subject.
In fairly good condition,
it was painted on a small wooden board, somewhat cracked
and bowed, and looking like a piece of old, thick shelving.
some enquiries on my return home I found that this ikon was
almost certainly not from a church, but was an unusual example
of a domestic ikon depicting the fifth century Saint Simeon
Stylites on his column, Saint Stylianos holding a child, and
the legendary second century Saint Onouphrios (Humphrey), who
lived in the desert for forty years 'clad only in his hair'.
Saint Simeon Stylites (or 'The Elder') is quite well known in
the West - if only from Luis Buñuel's famous film Simon of
the Desert. He spent many years on an increasingly higher
column or pillar in a vain attempt to escape ever more from
the World - which in his case was largely the adulation of followers.
He is sometimes depicted on ikons with other Stylite saints
such as Daniel and Alipius, or the other Simeon "of
the Wonderful Mountain".
The central figure is the main purpose of the ikon. Stylianos
was an ascetic from Paphlagonia who was confused with the Stylite
Saint Alipius, and was credited with conferring fertility to
barren couples. On his right Saint Simeon Stylites stands -
partly because the epithet Stylites is similar to, and reinforces,
Stylianos, and partly because he was considered a powerful intercessor.
However, Saint Onouphrios (Onuphrius, Onufrios) is present in
order to make the ikon really powerful and further reinforce
the power of the legendary Stylianos - for Saint Onouphrios
is credited with promising - just before he was carried up into
heaven - that all pure prayers addressed through him would be
answered. He was famously "clad only in his own hair", because
it was considered very meritorious and holy to have a beard
that would cover the genitals, thus doing away with the need
for clothing, a source of vanity. He was also credited with
subsisting entirely on dates which fell from the palm under
which he lived. A date and camel-milk diet is indeed very nourishing.
Onouphrios, celebrated throughout the northern Mediterranean
- even as far west as Sardinia - had an important shrine in
Berat in southern Albania.
Thus it is possible that this unprovenanced ikon came from Albania
with refugees who, since 1991, have paid large sums in cash
or in kind to be landed by night on the island of Corfu only
a couple of miles off the Albanian coast. It is unlikely to
come from "Northern Epirus" which used to be southern
Albania before it was seized and ethnically cleansed by the
Greeks in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The year after it was
brought to Ireland it was stolen - perhaps not for the first
time in its history, and its whereabouts remains unknown.
The cult of
St Onuphrius was popular throughout Christendom, East and West,
in the Middle Ages, initially with monks, and then in general.
St. Onuphrius (also known as Onouphrius of Egypt, Onuphrius,
Onofrio, Onofre, Humphrey and Onuphrius the Great) died
around 400 CE.
When Abbot Saint
Paphnutius was trying to discern whether the eremitical life
was for him, he met Onuphrius, who had been a hermit for 70
years in the desert beyond Thebais in Upper Egypt. Paphnutius
was affrighted at the Saint's appearance, seeing him covered
with hair and leaves like a wild beast. (Thus he is the patron
saint of weavers.)
him that he had been a monk in an austere monastery of 100 monks
near Thebes but, having felt called to imitate Saint John the
Baptist, had left to follow the eremitical life. He related
that he had struggled for many years against grievous temptations,
but by perseverance overcame them. Paphnutius was amazed when
food miraculously appeared for their evening meal. Otherwise,
Onuphrius lived on the fruits of a date palm-tree that grew
near his cell.
The abbot spent
the night with the hermit. The next morning Onuphrius told Paphnutius
that the Lord had told him he, Onuphrius, was soon to die and
Paphnutius had been sent by the Lord to bury him. This indeed
came to pass, and Paphnutius buried the saint in a cave or rocky
cleft. Although he desired afterwards to remain in the Saint's
cave, as soon as he had buried him, the cave fell in and the
palm tree which had furnished the Saint with dates withered
and died, indicating that it was the will of God that Paphnutius
return to his monastery and make Saint Onuphrius known to all.
For a riveting
translation of the Life of Saint Onuphrius see:
Saints Onuphrius, Makarius of Egypt, and Peter of Athos
The motif of
Three Bearded Men occurs also in Islamic Persian art.
The Island of Men with Long Beards -
an Iranian manuscript illustration of a story from The Thousand
Nights and a Night,
derived from the Persian but incorporating Indian elements.
The inscription at the top is in Farsi, and requires translation.