It is one of my favorite shops on the strip: the type of place where you spot something new every time, and Laddie is a pleasure to hang out and chat with. As this statue was a bit of a mystery, Laddie was keeping it behind the counter. It struck me as Russian Orthodox in origin and style- especially since the hood and front piece of fabric resemble the garb of an Orthodox monk.
However, two things gave me pause:
- A person hardly comes across any Orthodox Christian antiques in this area. I found a fairly modern icon once in Owego but that’s been about it thus far. I would guess that this is because their use is so fundamentally tied to the liturgy, even when they’re kept at home, so people do not discard them so easily. Plus, there hasn’t been a recent break similar to “Vatican 2,” nor has there been as much mass-production of ephemera as with Roman Catholic pieces. (In contrast, there is another shop on the antique strip which regularly offers discarded scapulars (!) as well as jewelry made of dismantled rosaries, featuring the distinctive centerpieces (!!). The latter appear to my eye like some kind of cruel and grotesque sacrilegious spoils of war, but here we are in post/modernist hell.)
- The statue is a three-dimensional representation, which is very rare in Orthodoxy.
Still, I asked Laddie to hold onto it, and promised I’d solve the mystery after our trip to Maine. Imagine my surprise when on our way back, we were visiting the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. and saw these:
The accompanying text read:
“Four hundred years ago, Saint Nil was a monk in Krypetsk Monastery near Pskov in northern Russia. After ten years at the monastery, he asked God to lead him to a quieter place where he would not be constantly interrupted in his prayers. In 1528 he moved to Stolbensk in Lake Seliger and lived in a small cave on the island.
When a band of thieves came to the island, Saint Nil told them that all of his treasures were in the corner of his cave. They searched the cave and found only an icon of the Mother of God.
Saint Nil lived a life devoted to prayer and asceticism. He slept upright, supported only by two crutches, to continue praying at night. After his death, a church was constructed on the island and these wooden statues of Saint Nil became objects of veneration throughout Russia.”
I ended up calling Laddie from the road. I just could not wait. (Honestly, I couldn’t be a haggler and try to rip off a cool local dude, especially not when it came to a religious piece.) Long story short: he held on to the piece, I made a good offer, and now St. Nil sits on the table in our icon corner.
The symbols on his analavos are more visible on the museum pieces. The analavos is the garment that monks and nuns of a certain degree are given. I am considering the careful restoration of our St. Nil statue with regard to these symbols, using a photo of one of the statues from the Museum of Russian Icons.
On this particular statue here, which is in much better shape than ours, you can see examples of the markings on the Orthodox monastic habit:
The Cross on the hood, and on his chest: The “upright post and the traverse beam represent the stipes and the patibulum that formed ‘the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14) upon which ‘all day long He stretched forth His hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people’ (Isaiah 65:2; Romans 10:21).”
The plaque on top of the cross represents the “titulus, the ‘title’ (John 19:19-20) with ‘the superscription of His accusation’ (Mark 15:26)”…the plaque at the bottom represents the suppedaneum of Christ, “‘His footstool’ (Psalm 98:5). It is slanted because, according to one tradition, at the moment when ‘Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the spirit’ (Mark 15:37), he allowed a violent death spasm to convulse His legs, dislodging His footrest in such a manner that one end pointed upwards, indicating that the soul of the penitent thief, Saint Dismas, ‘the one on His right hand’ (Mark 15:27) would be ‘carried up into heaven’ (Luke 24:51), while the other end, pointed downwards, indicated that the soul of the impenitent thief, Gestas, ‘the other on His left’ (Mark 15:27), would ‘be thrust down to Hell’ (Luke 10:15), showing that all of us, ‘the evil and the good, the just and the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45) ‘are weighed in the balance’ (Ecclesiasticus 21:25) of the Cross of Christ.”
The reed represents the “‘hyssop’ (St. John 19:29) upon which was put ‘a sponge full of vinegar’ (St. Mark 15:36), which was then ‘put to His mouth’ (St. John 19:29) when in His ‘thirst they gave… [Him]…vinegar to drink’ (Psalm 68:21), Him of Whom it was said that ‘all…wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth’ (St. Luke 4:22).”
The lance represents the “spear [that] pierced His side”; “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (St. John 19:34) from Him Who “took one of…[Adam’s]…ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof (Genesis 2:21) and Who “washed us from our sins in His Own blood” (Apocalypse 1:5).”
The base upon which the cross stands represents “‘the place, which is called Calvary’ (Luke 23:33), or ‘Golgotha, that is to say, the Place of the Skull’ (Matthew 27:33), ‘where they crucified Him’ (John 19:18) Who ‘wrought salvation in the midst of the earth’ (Psalm 73:13).”
The skull and crossbones, for “‘the first man Adam,’ (I Corinthians 15:45), who by tradition ‘returned unto the ground’ (Genesis 3:19) at this very spot, the reason that this place of execution, ‘full of dead men’s bones’ (Matthew 23:27) became a place where ‘the last Adam was made a quickening spirit’ (I Corinthians 15:45).”
(Text: Mystagogy Resource Center)
There are usually many more letters/abbreviations on the analavos. The St. Nil statue includes ПР, which stands for Преподобный, or “Prepodobnuiy.” The direct translation is “most like,” with reference to Christ, although we tend to translate it as “venerable” in English. Beyond that, I am not sure of the other abbreviations on the statue.
For more information on representations of St. Nil, check out the always great Icons and Their Interpretation.
Big thanks to the kind and wonderful Laddie Vana of Old, Odd, & Unique in Binghamton, New York. We are honored and thankful to have this piece in our home.
Please enjoy: A Bulgarian Orthodox Hymn, regarding the Megaloschemos:
Cite this page:
Solomon, Alana. “Old, Odd, & Unique” Indeed: A Mystery Statue” Ortolana Studio. Ortolana Studio, 31 July 2018.
Icons and Their Interpretation
Museum of Russian Icons
Mystagogy Resource Center
Old, Odd, & Unique
Note: Two of the images here were found, uncredited, on a page which elicits much second-hand embarrassment in their bizarre claim that Orthodox Monks are “pre-religion” pagan magicians. Apparently this is on the basis of their looking spooky. Obviously I’m not going to link it here. If anyone has the correct credits, I welcome the information.