Melchizedek Icon: The Story of the Mysterious King and High Priest
Religious icons represent highly revered works of art, depicting various Biblical plots, stories, and important Christian figures. Thus, besides the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – and the Blessed Mother, there is a variety of deeply worshipped saints, martyrs, and forefathers. One of the most mysterious and venerated personas from the Old Testament is the high priest and king Melchizedek. This article presents the vital background facts about this Biblical figure and the iconography of the Melchizedek icon.
Melchizedek, whose name in translation from Hebrew means “the king of righteousness,” is first mentioned in 2000 BC in the Book of Genesis. Although very little is known about him, he is believed to be the king of Salem, who brought bread and wine to meet Abraham as he triumphantly returned upon defeating the king of Northern Canaan, Chedorlaomer, and his allies. Melchizedek is also often called the high priest or “the priest of the highest God” and frequently portrayed in the most exquisite examples of Russian icons art.
The personality of this Old Testament ancestor is surrounded by mystery. Thus, Melchizedek had neither a father nor a mother or any known ancestor. No one even knew his real age and his origin. The king of Salem also did not belong to the chosen race of Abraham; yet, he was regarded as a priest of the true religion, so exalted that he later became the ideal of priesthood. Despite being such an enigmatic figure, the king of righteousness is genuinely revered by the believers, and so is St. Melchizedek icon.
There is another interesting fact about this Biblical persona. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Melchizedek, who suddenly appeared in the biblical narrative and just as suddenly disappeared, having no priestly lineage, is seen as a preimage of Jesus Christ.
The iconography of the Melchizedek icon
In the sacred paintings, we see the king of Salem as a gray-haired, long-bearded old man in the vestments of the Old Testament high priest. There is a crown on the head of Melchizedek, which once again reminds us of one of his titles – “the king.” He is wearing an ephod, a signature clothing of Jewish high priests, and boots. Sometimes, he is depicted holding a bread-filled vessel in his hands.
One of the earliest examples of the Melchizedek icon dating back to the 6th century was found in the mosaics of the San Vitale Church in Ravenna. As for the antique Russian icons, he was usually depicted among the Old Testament forefathers and prophets.