The Menaion Icons and Their Meaning for the Russian People
“A reading of Chetyi-Minei became my favorite reading… This reading revealed to me the meaning of life” – Leo Tolstoy, “A Confession” (vol. 23, p. 52)
Not so long ago, when looking at the icons in the museum, I drew attention to the signature: “The July Menaion.” The entire icon was densely littered with the images of saints, but its plot eluded my understanding. What came to mind instead were several passages from Russian literature, all dedicated to the so-called Menaion icons (Minei in Russian) that were used by our ancestors in everyday life. So what do these icons look like, and what does this concept mean for the religious consciousness of the Russian people?
The word “Menaion” comes from the Old Slavonic word “минíа” and from the Greek word μηνιαῖος (miniaíos), which means “lasting for a month.” The Menaion icon or the “All Saints” icon is a special type of icons, containing images of all saints venerated in a particular month. The surface of the icon is divided into many horizontal parts, each with the images of certain feasts and saints following each other according to the liturgical calendar of the church. The Menaion icon may depict feasts and saints for one or three months. There are also Yearly Menaion icons depicting all the major saints venerated in Russia. Some of them consist of two folding panels and are called diptychs.
The plots of the Menaion icons were based on the theological works collected by Macarius, the Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia, in the 1520s-1530s. For more than twenty years, he had been collecting all the most significant spiritual books existed at the time – “all Chetyi-Minei in the Russian land.” The word “chetyi” can be translated from Old Slavonic as “readable.” By the middle of the century, Macarius completed his work with the creation of 12 large volumes of the Great Menaion Reader or Great Chetyi-Minei, which included monthly hagiographies of venerated in Russia saints and all the spiritual and fiction literature related to them. Chetyi-Minei also included uniform church regulations, charters, and stories “good for the soul.” Many unique ancient Russian literary works survived only because they were included in this collection of books. The Great Menaion Reader became a kind of binding for the Russian people, giving birth and development to a whole new culture and traditions in oral folklore, arts, and icon painting techniques based on the lives of venerated saints.
In fact, the Menaion icon is an illustration depicting the lives of saints known in Russia since the second half of the 10th century. At the time, ordinary Russian people had low literacy skills, and it was very hard to find religious books so that hagiographical and Menaion icons were the most accessible way for people of all social classes and ages to learn and understand the stories in the Great Menaion Reader. Besides, the Menaion icon also served as a calendar, reminding people of the patron saint for every day of the month, which was especially useful when choosing the name for the newborn or expressing gratitude for miraculous healing. Overall, the Menaion tradition – iconographic and hagiographical – united the Russian people in a single vision of faith and way of good living, giving them models and standards of moral and ethical values.