The poets of the world often wrote about the wanderings of a pilgrim-spirit after death, comparing it with a butterfly or a six-winged angel or a bird. In the new novel that I’m writing, one of the characters seeks release from a life of suffering by fleeing the body in the form of an eagle.
The symbolism of icons is also something that will appear a lot in my new novel, as several pictures encountered by characters repeatedly throughout the novel begin to gather different layers of meaning the farther the novel progresses. Think The Goldfinch but…better (don’t get me started on that nonsense drivel that calls itself a novel. Anyway, here’s a translation of an interesting article about iconographic symbolism of the soul in Russian iconography.
How Iconographers Draw the Soul
The soul’s immateriality is most often depicted by drawing it as a bird in flight. The eagle symbolized the bravery of the flying spirit, the swan symbolized its purity, but the most often used visual symbol was the white dove, as a kind of “echo” of the Spirit-dove in the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism. There are many symbols of this inner reality of a human being, and all of them reveal something new and unexpected about human nature.
The Soul as Child
This iconographic symbol reveals the primordial purity of the soul that was lost in the fall, and that is increasingly lost as a person wallows in his life of sin more and more over the course of his lifetime. The most obvious example of this is Christ holding the soul of His mother in the form of a child. This is clearly significant, because Orthodox theology makes it clear that Mary was the only human being in history to not willingly commit a sin.
We also see the depiction of the human souls in general as a child.
In some icons of the final judgment, there is a section that is called “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” It shows the divine hand holding the souls of the saints (in the forms of children). Around them, angels and demons fight over the rest of humanity, while the saints are protected.
The Soul as a Bride
Russian wood-printers of the 18th century came up with a self-contained allegory of the soul hidden in a series of symbols. The pure soul, as expressed from a poem of that time, is like “a bedecked bride, brighter than the sun, and the moon is under her feed, while on her head is a royal crown.”
This icon is a literal illustration of the poem:
The elegant bride is in a crown, with a nimbus (purity) and wings, which symbolize her righteous life.
The sun and moon are widely-used symbols of Christ and the Mother of God, respectively.
But there are many other, no less cryptic, symbols in this painting. In the hands of the soul is a pitcher, from which she pours tears of repentance that extinguish the fire of her sinful passions and even cast down the devil himself. She is also holding a lion, the symbol of sins that are tamed by prayer and fasting. Here we also see a humbled serpent.
Two more interesting details. In her hands she holds a fruitful tree—the eternal symbol of life. The naked body sitting in the dark room is symbolic of a sinful soul. It serves as a striking anti-mirror image of the pure soul, reminding the viewer that either fate is possible for each human being.
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