Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Quiz for Greek Scholars - Who Is The Figure Kneeling Before Melchizedek in this Icon?

A reader wrote to me recently asking me to identify the kneeling figure in the icon below. The two standing figures are Abraham on the left and Melchizedek on the right. The question he had was, who is the figure kneeling before Melchizedek? It originates from the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai, and is part of a catalog of color transparencies and slides stored at Princeton University which are part of the total documentation that was produced by the Michigan-Princeton-Alexandria Expeditions to Sinai in 1956, 1958, 1960, 1963, and 1965. These images document the icons at Sinai; the remainder of the photographic archive is stored at the University of Michigan.

In his note, he suggested that the vestments which the figure is wearing indicate that he is a bishop, and the text written above him appears to read Adelphostheos...“which I think is a Greek name (James Adelphos) used for James the Just, the first bishop of Jerusalem (which perhaps connects him to Melchizedek, the first priest of Jerusalem).”
I was no help to him whatsoever! I can’t read Greek, I didn’t recognize the icon and I don’t know anything about James the Just. I thought therefore, I would throw the question open to NLM readers. Any ideas?
I have an additional question of my own for you. Why would this figure be kneeling in front of Melchizedek? The attitude the figure adopts is such a deep prostration that my instincts tell me that this is one of worship, which is due to God alone. Am I overreacting here, do you think?
A number of possible explanations for this do occur to me:
First, worship is primarily an interior act. Clearly, there is deep respect here, but this prostration doesn’t necessarily indicate worship, so perhaps and I am simply misreading the posture. Our bishop is in fact venerating Melchizedek.
Second, perhaps James is not kneeling before Melchizedek, but before Christ, who is shown at the top of the icon. It would be easy for someone who wandered into any Catholic Church during Mass when the congregation was kneeling and didn’t understand what they were seeing to look at the assembly and seeing them kneeling en masse before the celebrant and interpret that as priest worship. There is a practical difficulty that the artist has to overcome here that might have pushed him into portraying the figure this way. If he was to paint the bishop kneeling before Christ, as portrayed, he would be kneeling so that the only view of him that we would have would be his rear end. This is not only undignified, it breaks the convention of iconography which says that all saints must be seen in full or three-quarter profile so that both eyes can be seen. In order to accommodate this, the iconographer, one might argue, has played with the perspective here, and shown the figure looking upwards as though Christ is above him and nearer to us than he is, so allowing the bishop to turn around and face us. A similar argument, incidentally, might apply to the gaze of the standing figures too.
Third, he is kneeling before Melchizedek, but only insofar as he recognizes him as in persona Christi.
Again, any thoughts on this? There might be a clue here (which again I am not able to interpret) in that the bishop is holding something. Again, I am not sure what this is. There is very little information about the original icon on the Princeton website.

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