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The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace


Kathleen Corrigan

Among the Early Byzantine icons preserved at Mt. Sinai four strips of wood fastened to the panel with nails. This
is one fairly small panel (35.5 x 49.6 cm) depicting the frame contains an inscription running across the top
Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace (colorplate xiv). and down the right, and then down the left and across
One could argue that this is a somewhat unusual subject the bottom. The text, which is only partially preserved,
for an icon; among the early panels, it is the only one to is an excerpt from Daniel 3:4950. The following is the
depict a scene from the Old Testament (though there are inscription as read and reconstructed by Weitzmann:
a few images of standing prophets). The rest of the icons
are either New Testament scenes or images of Christ, the Top: r
Virgin, or various Christian saints to whom the faithful 3 I I T
could address their prayers. The subject of the Three Right: [ I T
Hebrews in the Furnace, generally associated with the ]
theme of salvation, most often appears in a funerary Left: [T
context, especially during the third and fourth cen- T I]
turies. However, the subject was still very popular in
some areas (especially Coptic Egypt) in the seventh cen-
tury when this icon was probably produced, and by 1
A catalog of works through the fifth century is provided in
then it had taken on a number of additional meanings C. Carletti, I tre giovani Ebrei di Babilonia nellarte Chrisiana an-
and associations that make it a more obvious choice for tica, Quaderni di Vetera Christianorum 9 (Brescia, 1975).
a devotional image. A look at the development of the But see the detailed review by Marguerite Rassart-Debergh,
iconography of this scene and at the various contexts in Les trois Hbreux dans la fournaise dans lart palochr-
tien. Iconographie, Byzantion 48 (1978): 43055. There is a
which it was used will help us understand the possible
more detailed catalog by Hans Reinhard Seeliger, Plai
meanings of this icon. It will also offer some evidence mrturew. Die Drei Jnglinge im Feuerofe als Typos in der
concerning its place of origin. Finally, Kurt Weitzmanns sptantiken Kunst, Liturgie und patristischen Literature, in
suggestion that the Hebrew youths are wearing a gar- Liturgie und Dichtung. Ein interdisziplinres Kompendium II
ment that is part of the monastic habit needs further (St. Ottilien, 1983), 257334. See also Kathleen M. Irwin, The
clarification and an exploration of what this might add Liturgical and Theological Correlations in the Associations of
to the meaning of the icon. Representations of the Three Hebrews and the Magi in the
Christian Art of Late Antiquity (PhD diss., Graduate Theo-
Though the representation of the Three Hebrews is a
logical Union, 1985), catalog, 25689. Coptic and Nubian
much-studied topic in Early Christian iconography,1 the
examples are collected in M. Rassart-Debergh, Les trois He-
Sinai icon itself has not received any detailed treatment. breux dans la fournaise en Egypte et en Nubie chrtienne,
In his corpus of early Sinai icons, Weitzmann described Rivista degli studi orientali 58 (1984): 14151, and Gertrud J. M.
its basic features and suggested a seventh century date van Loon, The Gate of Heaven: Wall Paintings with Old Testament
and a Palestinian origin (icon B.31). Weitzmann also Scenes in the Altar Room and the Hurus of Coptic Churches, Uit-
noted the presence of grooves that would have accom- gaven van het Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Insti-
modated a lid to cover the image, a feature he also tuut te Istanbul 85 (Istanbul, 1999).
K. Weitzmann, The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai: The
found in two other Sinai icons.2 This and the relatively
Icons (Princeton, N.J., 1976), 56. The others fitted for lids are
small size suggest that the icon was for personal devo- B.10 and B.15. In The Clash of Gods, rev. ed. (Princeton, N.J.,
tion. 1999), 181, Thomas Mathews points out that an Egyptian
As is the case with many of the early icons at Mt. panel of Isis and Suchos has this same feature.
Sinai, the Three Hebrews icon has a frame consisting of 3
Weitzmann omitted this word.
92 Kathleen Corrigan

Bottom: () []

In the color photograph published by Weitzmann, no

text is visible on the right vertical portion of the frame.
The same is true for the left vertical portion, though
Weitzmann records having seen the first two words,
from which he reconstructs this section as the flame of Fig. 1 Fragment of a sarcophagus lid.
the fire from the furnace. But since the bottom section Rome, Camposanto Teutonico
begins with the last syllable of the word furnace and
then the words as if a dewy breeze were whistling position, most often within a brick rectangular furnace,
through it, it is possible that the inscription skips from but sometimes just surrounded by flames. These images
flame to and made the middle of the furnace. There are generally understood to convey ideas of salvation
is also room on the bottom part of the frame for an and resurrection, appearing as they often do with other
additional phrase. Given this, the following reading is images of divine intervention such as Noah, Daniel, or
possible: Jonah.
It was pointed out long ago that the use of Old Testa-
But the angel of the Lord came down into the ment models of salvation in Early Christian art parallels
furnace with Azariah and his companions, and the petitions found in Jewish and Christian prayers for
made the furnace as if a dewy breeze were whistling the dead, the Commendatio animae, in which the peti-
through it. And the fire did not touch them at all. tioner asks for the delivery of the soul of the deceased,
just as God had delivered Jonah or Daniel. The dating of
The verses from which the inscription is excerpted are the Christian prayers has been debated, but they seem
part of a section contained only in the Greek versions of to go back in some form to the third century.6 The glass
Daniel (and versions derived from it) and comprising cup found in Podgoritza (Doclea) and attributed to the
the Prayer of Azariah (vv. 2445) and the Song of the
Three Young Men (vv. 5190), connected by a brief
descriptive narrative (verses 4650). The ordeal of the 4
The text of the Septuagint reads:
three Hebrew youths is recounted in detail in the pre- O de ggelow kurou sugkatbh ma tow per tn Azaran
ceding sections of Daniel 3. Hananiah, Mishael, and efiw tn kminon ki jetnaje tn flga to porw k tw
Azariah (in Babylonian: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed- kamnou ka pohsen t mson tw kamnou w pnema dr-
nego) served in the administration of King Nebuchad- sou diasurzon ka ox cato atn t kavlou t mr ki
ok lmhsen od parhnxlmsen atow. [But the angel of
nezzar. When they refused to worship a colossal statue
the Lord came down into the furnace with Azariah and his
the king had set up, they were punished by being companions, and extinguished the flame of fire from the fur-
thrown into a flaming furnace. As he looked into the fur- nace, and made the middle of the furnace as if a dewy breeze
nace, Nebuchadnezzar was surprised to see a fourth were whistling through it. The fire did not touch them at all
man standing in the fire with them. He was moved to and did not hurt or bother them.] Translation from John J.
release the youths and they emerged from the furnace Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Min-
unscathed. Amazed, Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed his neapolis, 1993), 196.
F. W. Deichmann, G. Bovini, and H. Brandenburg, Repertorium
acceptance of their God and promoted the three youths
der Christlich-Antiken Sarkophage, Band 1. Rom und Ostia (Wies
to a higher office.
baden, 1967), no. 894, taf. 142. Deichmann dates this to the last
The earliest representations of the three Hebrews are third of the third century.
to be found in the funerary art of the late third and 6
See the detailed discussion in Catherine Brown Tkacz, The Key
fourth centuries: in catacombs, on sarcophagi, and on to the Brescia Casket: Typology and the Early Christian Imagina-
gold glass (fig. 1).5 Most of these represent the youths tion, Collection des Etudes Augustiniennes, Srie Antiquit
ordeal in the furnace and usually include the fourth 165 (Paris, 2001), chap. 4, and in Seeliger, Plai mtuej,
figure, either a man as mentioned in Daniel 3:25, or an 294334. See also A. van den Hoek and J. J. Herrmann, Cel-
sus Competing Heroes: Jonah, Daniel, and Their Rivals, in
angel as in Daniel 3:49. The young men are usually
Poussires de christianisme et de judasme antiques. Etudes runies
shown wearing Persian garb, including the so-called en lhonneur de Jean-Daniel Kaestli et Eric Junod, ed. A. Frey and
Phrygian cap, a short tunic and trousers, and usually a R. Gounelle, Publications de lInstitut romand des sciences
cape fastened at the breast with a circular brooch. They bibliques 5 (Lausanne, 2007), 30739. I thank the authors for
stand next to one another with hands raised in the orant the offprint and for drawing my attention to this article.
The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace 93

angel and his cross staff are important elements in the

composition, one could say that the emphasis is on the
steadfastness of the youths in facing their ordeal. In
their role as martyrs they provide a focus for the
viewers contemplation.
This, in fact, was a very common way of looking at
the story of the three Hebrew youths. As Robin Jensen
points out, many Early Christian writers, going back to
the late first century, cited them as models for Christians
in times of persecution, especially because their suffer-
ing derived from their refusal to worship false gods. She
notes that Cyprian found the dignity of the youths
martyrdom in no way diminished merely because they
emerged unscathed.8 It is no surprise, therefore, that
the three Hebrew youths are mentioned in many saints
One such example is from the Coptic life of St. Victor,
who was martyred during the reign of Diocletian. He
was the son of Romanus, one of Diocletians caesars, but
had been raised as a Christian and had given up his
Fig. 2 Podgoritza (Doclea) glass cup. worldly goods and lived as an ascetic. When Victor re-
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum fused to worship the statues set up by Diocletian, he
was subjected to several forms of torture. When he was
fourth century includes among the scenes decorating its on the rack, the archangel Michael appeared to Victor,
border the stories of Jonah, Daniel in the lions den, and promising to be with him and to deliver him. He also
the three Hebrew youths (fig. 2). The images are accom- told Victor that he would be remembered along with the
panied by Latin inscriptions which, as several scholars three holy children, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael. Later,
have shown, precisely parallel petitions from the Com- when Victor was thrown into the furnace of the public
mendatio animae: Daniel from the den of lions, the baths of Rakote (Alexandria) and stood praying to God
three boys from the fiery furnace.7 in the midst of the fire, at that very moment the holy
The Sinai icon differs from these earlier representa- Archangel Michael came down from heaven, and went
tions of the subject. It is not, as in the catacombs or sar- into the furnace of the bath, and spread out his holy gar-
cophagi, included among a series of images of similar ment over Apa Victor, and he caused the flame of fire to
meaning, thereby allowing the viewer to be reassured become like the dew at the first hour of the day.10
by the lineup of exemplars who were faithful to God Images of the three Hebrew youths also appear on
and rewarded accordingly. The Sinai icon is a unique works of art associated with the cult of saints. They oc-
object. There is no furnace; the three youths are pushed
up to the foreground, filling the space of the panel.
Though he makes contact with them, the angel does not Tkacz, The Key to the Brescia Casket, 12426. See also P. Corby
Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New
inhabit their space; as Weitzmann noticed, the angel
York, 1994), 28486.
stands on a different ground line and is not surrounded 8
Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 82, citing Cyprian,
by the circles of fire that engulf the three youths. This is, Epistle 61.2.
therefore, not a visualization of what Daniel 3:25 reports 9
Three Hebrews, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. A. P.
Nebuchadnezzar saw in the furnace. Rather, it repre- Kazhdan et al., (New York, 1991), 3:2081. A few examples are
sents the angels intervention as recounted in Daniel given in Seeliger, Plai mrturew, 299301, and also in H.
3:4650 and excerpted in the inscription. At the same Delehaye, Les Passions des Martyrs et les Genres litteraire (Brus-
time, however, there is no attempt to represent the sels, 1921), 290.
The Martyrdom of Saint Victor the General, trans. E A. Wal-
dewy breeze the angel created to counteract the heat
lis Budge, in Coptic Martyrdoms in the Dialect of Upper Egypt,
of the fire. Instead we see the moment before this when ed. Budge (London, 1914), 27476. This and other examples
the three youths are still subject to the flames that swirl from the Coptic tradition are discussed in J. Muyser, Le culte
around them, but they nevertheless register no reaction des trois saints jeunes gens chez les Coptes, Les Cahiers coptes
in their static bodies and placid faces. Thus, while the 6 (1954): 1731.
94 Kathleen Corrigan

cur on several small silver boxes that are thought to tion of having them laid over St. Daniels grave near
have functioned as reliquaries and have been dated to Constantinople, as the holy man had requested. This
the late fourth or early fifth century: the San Nazaro reli- was accomplished by the Patriarch Euphemius (49096)
quary box found under the high altar of San Nazaro in after Daniels death in 493.12
Milan; the box found near Thessalonike and now Evidence for the existence of a shrine in Babylon is
housed in the Archaeological Museum there; the oval provided by several texts. One is the Greek Romance of
Capsella di Brivio in the Louvre, which was found in Macarius the Roman, which tells of three monks from a
northern Italy. On two of these containers, the three monastery in Mesopotamia who set out on a journey to
Hebrews in the furnace is one among several scenes of find paradise. Along the way they stopped in Ctesiphon
the type that one finds in the catacombs or on sar- and visited the remains of the three holy children.13 An
cophagi or gold glass. On the Thessalonike box, for ex- interesting story preserved in both Armenian and Geor-
ample, the three Hebrews are combined with Daniel in gian also includes information about the finding of the
the lions den, Moses receiving the law, and the Traditio relics of the saints. During the reign of the Persian king
Legis (fig. 3).11 Vahram (42138), there were mysterious cures taking
place in the house of a Jew built on the site of Neb-
uchadnezzars palace. These were investigated by a Jew
who had converted to Christianity and found to be due
to the presence of the remains of the three Hebrews. An
abbot named Antony and his deacon Silas came to try to
locate and take the relics. After some difficulties this
was accomplished, and a martyrium was built at
Antonys monastery to house the relics. Thereafter,
many miracles are attributed to the relics in the mar-

On the boxes and their function, see Ruth E. Leader-Newby,
Silver and Society in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, 2004), 97110.
For the San Nazaro box, see Jeffrey Spier, ed., Picturing the
Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, exhibition catalog, Kimbell Art
Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (New Haven, Conn., 2007), 259
63; and for the Capsella di Brivio, Milano capitale dellImpero
Fig. 3 Silver reliquary box. Thessaloniki, romano (Milan, 1990), 286402 d.c.
Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies of St. Daniel
Museum of Byzantine Culture
the Stylite, St. Theodore of Sykeon and St. John the Almsgiver,
trans. Elizabeth Dawes, intro. and notes by Norman H.
Although these examples show that the role of the Baynes (London, 1948). See Daniel the Stylite, in Oxford Dic-
three Hebrews as models for Christian martyrs proba- tionary of Byzantium, 1:585, where it is noted that the Life has
bly inspired the use of their image on objects associated been regarded as contemporary by one scholar, and by an-
with the cult of saints, one cannot necessarily say that other as ca. 600. Other than the Life of Daniel the Stylite, there
these images of the three Hebrews would have func- is no mention of a cult or church dedicated to the Three He-
brews in Constantinople in this early period, though later
tioned as devotional images in a way similar to the Sinai
they appear in the Typicon of Hagia Sophia and in the
icon, and so do not really provide any sort of precedent
Synaxarion for December 17.
for the icon. Rather than providing a generalized model 13
The story is mentioned and an excerpt of the Greek text is
for Christian martyrdom, the three Hebrews on the icon given in G. Garitte, LInvention gorgienne des trois enfants
are themselves the specific focus of veneration. de Babylone, Le Muson 72 (1959): 70. The date of the Ro-
By the fifth century, however, the three Hebrew mance of Macarius the Roman is uncertain; the fifth or sixth
youths did have a cult devoted to them. There are century has been proposed. See Makarios of Rome, Oxford
accounts of the translation of their relics in Greek, Cop- Dictionary of Byzantium, 2:127071.
Garitte, LInvention gorgienne des trois enfants de Baby-
tic, Armenian, and Georgian, and mentions of martyria
lone, 7273, 9495. See also G. Garitte, Le texte armnien de
dedicated to them in Ctesiphon and Alexandria. Ac- lInvention des trois enfants de Babylone, Le Muson 74
cording to the Life of Daniel the Stylite (40993), the (1961): 91108. These texts are mentioned in M. von Esbroeck,
relics of the three holy children were brought from Three Hebrews, The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz S. Atiya
Babylon by the emperor Leo I (45774) with the inten- (New York, 1991), 7:225759.
The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace 95

Enlargement 141%

Fig. 4 Wall painting from Wadi Sarga. London, British Museum, EA 73139

There are two stories concerning the building of a ber of votive images of them from this period. Probably
martyrium for the relics of the three Hebrews in Alexan- the best known is the section of a wall painting from the
dria. The first is a Coptic sermon said to have been monastery at Wadi Sarga, Egypt, now preserved in the
delivered by Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria British Museum, and usually dated to the sixth century
(385412), in the martyrium he built for them, on a day (figs. 45). The painting actually consists of two parts:
commemorating both the memory of the three children the central portion containing the image of the three
and the founding of the martyrium. The sermon relates Hebrews and the angel, done in reddish outline, and the
the journey of Theophiluss envoy, John Colobos, to surrounding area comprising five standing figures and
Babylonia to obtain the relics of the three children, who three small busts. The surrounding figures are thought
play a very active role in the drama. They appear to to have been added to the original composition of just
Theophilus, their faces resplendent like the sun, ac- the three Hebrews.17 Inscriptions in the central painting
companied by the archangel Michael and wearing royal identify the angel and Azarias, and a longer inscription
garments of linen and hyacinth, golden belts at their beneath their feet seemingly connects the three He-
waists, and silk hats on their heads. They show John the
furnace in which they suffered, now turned to crystal, 15
Sermon on the Three Children of Babylon, Homlies coptes de
and their place of burial a cave where couches of gold
la Vaticane II, Coptic text and translation by Henri de Vis,
had been provided for them. They refuse, however, to Cahiers de la Bibliothque Copte 6 (Louvain, 1990), 129.
let John take any relics away but promise nevertheless 16
Garitte, LInvention gorgienne des trois enfants de Baby-
to be present in the martyrium in Alexandria.15 In a lone, 70, with reference to the Acts of Cyrus and John (BHG3
Greek source, the Acts of Cyrus and John, it is a later Pa- 469).
triarch of Alexandria, Apollinarus (55170), who is cred- O. M. Dalton, A Coptic Wall-Painting from Wadi Sarga,
ited with building the martyrium, in this case to house Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 3 (1916): 3537; van Loon, The
Gate of Heaven, 168, 17071. See also the entry Wall Painting
an actual relic: a hand from one of the three Hebrew
of the Martyrdom at the British Museum Web site, british-
youths brought back from Babylon.16 Dalton notes that there is nothing known of the
Given this evidence of the development of a cult de- sixty martyrs of Asyut; he also suggests that the monks
voted to the three Hebrew youths in the fifth and sixth Hourkene (Origen) and Mena are the dedicators of the work
centuries, it is interesting to note the existence of a num- or commemorated by it.
96 Kathleen Corrigan

(Dayr Apa Jeremiah) at Saqqara, generally dated to the

sixth or seventh century, but no longer extant (fig. 6).19
Here the three orant youths are shown lined up very
closely together (more so than on the icon), dressed very
similarly to the three youths on the icon. Just as in the
icon, the angel appears at the left in a slightly crouched
position holding in his right hand a long staff topped
with a cross a common motif among the Egyptian ex-

Fig. 5 Detail of fig. 4.

brews with local martyrs and patrons: The threescore

martyrs of Asyut (Siut); their day the twelfth of Mekheir.
Hourkene the little, my brother Mena the little. Jesus
Christ. The figures in the surrounding area are identi-
fied by inscriptions: the two large figures as Cosmas and
Damian, the three smaller figures as Anthemos, Leon-
tios and Euprepios, their brethren, while the bust fig-
ures are not identified. According to the Arabic and
Fig. 6 Drawing of wall painting
Coptic versions of the lives of Sts. Cosmas and Damian,
from the Monastery of St. Jeremiah, Saqqara
Anthemos, Leontios, and Euprepios were brothers of
Cosmas and Damian. All suffered persecution under 18
This is summarized in Michel van Esbroeck, La diffusion ori-
Diocletian and were thrown into a fire in the middle of entale de la lgende des saints Cosme et Damien, in Ha-
the theater of Antioch. They were protected by the giographie, Cultures et Socits IVe XIIe sicles. Actes du Colloque
archangel Michael but ultimately died as martyrs. Their organis Nanterre et Paris (25 Mai 1979) (Paris, 1981), 6566.
mother, Theodote, was executed, and the future martyr 19
See van Loon, The Gate of Heaven, and M. Rassart-Debergh,
Victor (mentioned above) had the courage to bury the La dcoration picturale du monastre de Saqqara. Essai de
martyrs. The text also reports a series of miracles attrib- reconstitution, Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Per-
tinentia 9 (1981): 9124, esp. 4851, with photographs of the
uted to the martyrs.18
painting in situ at the time of the excavation. The original
Thus, whether we consider the three Hebrews paint-
publication is J. E. Quibell, Excavations at Saqqara (19061907)
ing from Wadi Sarga on its own or with the surrounding (Cairo, 1908), pl. 60 and 67. The image of the three Hebrews
figures, the image presents the three Hebrews as saintly appeared in cell F, in a building just to the north of the main
martyrs to whom prayers can be addressed, and at the church, on the east wall just to the right of a small apse con-
same time offers them as models for Christian martyrs taining representations of the Maiestas Domini and the Virgin
from both the Early Christian period and more contem- and child flanked by angels, saints, and monastic figures.
porary times. With the possible reference to donors, the It appears in the Wadi Sarga wall painting, and also in a sixth-
or seventh-century limestone relief in the Coptic museum in
image acts as a votive offering on behalf of members of
Cairo, which may have been set into the wall of a church or
the community. monastery and functioned as a votive. See van Loon, The Gate
A second example from Egypt provides the closest of Heaven, 168; there is a color reproduction in G. Gabra and
comparison for our icon in terms of composition. This is M. Eaton-Krauss, The Treasures of Coptic Art in the Coptic Mu-
a wall painting from the Monastery of St. Jeremiah seum and Churches of Old Cairo (Cairo, 2007), plate 70.
The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace 97

A further, very rich avenue for interpretation is

opened up by Weitzmanns observation concerning the
clothing worn by the three youths in the Sinai icon,
namely what he refers to as the monastic schema.22 By
this he means the narrow vertical piece of reddish
brown cloth covering part of the chest and abdomen of
the three youths. It can be seen most clearly on the cen-
tral figure, where it hangs down in front over the short
white tunic and is overlapped at the waist by a belt. As
far as I have been able to determine, this motif does not
appear in any earlier or contemporary representations
of the three Hebrews. Its presence here suggests that the
icon was made for a monastic audience, providing us
with a focus for the interpretation of the image.
There is ample evidence that the three Hebrew
youths, and especially their trial by fire in Nebuchad-
nezzars furnace, were seen as a model for the purifying
suffering the monk needed to endure in order to attain
his spiritual goals. Because of their youthful innocence
and their refusal to partake of the rich cuisine available
at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, the three youths were
also seen as models of abstinence.23

Fig. 7 Murano Diptych. Ravenna, Museo Nazionale In the Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Medieval Antiquities
in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites
(Washington, D.C., 1972), 3536, K. Weitzmann suggested
Syria-Palestine, and in his entry on the Three Hebrews icon,
The use of the cross staff in the Sinai icon and in these he relates the icon to the Murano diptych and thus attributes
Egyptian examples might suggest that the icon is also of the icon to Palestine as well. Constantinople is suggested by
Egyptian origin. The fact that the closest comparison in John Lowden in The Word Made Visible: The Exterior of the
composition is from Egypt would seem to support this. Early Christian Book as Visual Argument, in The Early Chris-
Another close comparison for the icon is the small scene tian Book, ed. William E. Klingshirn and Linda Safran (Wash-
ington, D.C., 2007, 43). An Egyptian origin is supported by
of the three Hebrews on the so-called Murano Diptych
Rassart-Debergh, Les trois Hbreux dans la fournaise en
in Ravenna (fig. 7). Here the three youths are lined up Egypte et en Nubie chrtienne, 144, and by L. Martini and C.
next to one another, with no furnace, while the angel Rizzardi, Avori Bizantini e Medievali nel Museo Nazionale di
with the cross staff stands at the left. This ivory is gen- Ravenna (Ravenna, 1990), 6265, with brief review of the other
erally dated to the sixth century, and a number of schol- opinions on localization. There are also some pre-Iconoclastic
ars have argued for an Egyptian origin, mainly on the wall paintings (apparently votive panels) of the subject in
basis of style. The iconographic similarity of the Murano Cappadocia, but these are not similar in composition to the
Sinai icon. On the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, see Nicole
three Hebrews image to the other Egyptian examples
Thierry, Haut Moyen-Age en Cappadoce, Les Eglises de la Rgion
discussed here offers additional support for this attri-
de Cavusin (Paris, 1994), 2:307, fig. 91 and pl. 161c. Thierry
bution.21 dates this fresco to the seventh century. For the Church of
Regardless of where one wants to localize the icon, St. John the Baptist, see Nicole Thierry, Haut Moyen-Age en
the above textual and visual evidence provides a con- Cappadoce (Paris, 1983), 1:9395 and plates 28c, 28d, and 29.
text for understanding the use of the three Hebrews in Thierry dates the fresco to the second half of the sixth or be-
the furnace as a subject for an icon painting. The three ginning of the seventh century, while Catherine Jolivet-Lvy,
youths were not just models of suffering, perseverance, in Les glises byzantines de Cappadoce, le programme icono-
graphique de labside et de ses abords, Editions du CNRS (Paris,
and deliverance, but also saints in their own right, with
1991), 23 would date it to anywhere between the seventh and
relics, churches, and a cult devoted to them. As such, ninth centuries.
they could be expected to hear and respond to the 22
Weitzmann, Monastery of St. Catherine: Icons, 56.
prayers a viewer of the Sinai icon might address to 23
Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, 197n29, citing Ter-
them. tullian.
98 Kathleen Corrigan

While the presence of the monastic garment leads us the thin straps of the analabos (sometimes referred to as
to look at connections between the story of the three He- a scapular) are also visible looping down over the
brews and the monks struggle, we must also ask why thighs. Interestingly, the special cave-dwelling, penitent
this specific garment was chosen. Are there some par- monks whom John Climacus discusses in chapter 5 of
ticular associations or meanings attached to this gar- his treatise are shown in the Vatican manuscript without
ment that will add to our understanding of the icon? the analabos, and their lack of a cloak allows us to see
Several monastic or ecclesiastical authors for exam- that the scapular is clearly connected to a hood (fig.
ple, John Cassian, Evagrius, and Germanos offer in- 8b).26 This koukoullion/scapular is worn by monks in
terpretations of particular monastic garments. How- several ninth-century manuscripts, that is, the Sacra
ever, it is difficult to make use of this information unless Parallela (Paris, Bibl. nat. gr. 923), the Khludov Psalter
we can be clear which garment the three youths are (Moscow, Historical Museum cod. 129), and the Homi-
wearing, and this is not as straightforward as one might lies of Gregory Nazianzen (Milan, Ambrosiana, E.49
suppose. Textual references to specific garments are not 50). In the Sacra Parallela, fol. 208r, a full-length portrait
easy to match up with the preserved representations of of John of Damascus provides a clear representation of
monks. Terminology for particular garments is not used this garment (fig. 9).27 In the Khludov Psalter, a man
consistently, especially among the different regions and identified by inscription as a martyr is shown naked ex-
cultures (Greek, Coptic, Syro-Palestinian). Unfortu- cept for the scapular (though here a hood is not visible)
nately, there are very few preserved representations of and belt, and with blood pouring from numerous
monks from the pre-Iconoclastic period, and as far as I wounds (fig. 10).28 This would seem to connect the gar-
know, there are no pre-Iconoclastic representations of ment specifically with suffering. The image is probably
monks wearing this garment. to be connected to Psalm 24:12, Who is the man that
Though Weitzmann identified the garment worn by fears the Lord? He shall instruct him in the way which
the three Hebrew youths as the schema, this term is more he has chosen (i.e., the monastic life).
often used to describe the monastic habit in general, or, Though there are other names associated with this
beginning probably in the ninth century, to differentiate garment, we are probably safe in thinking of it as the
between levels of monastic status mikron schema and koukoullion.29 This seems to be what Germanos is de-
mega schema. During the time our icon was probably
produced, the term schema apparently was not used to
describe the garment the three youths are wearing. 24
See P. Oppenheim, Das Mnchskleid im Christlichen Altertum
The most comprehensive studies of monastic gar- (Freiburg, 1931); K. C. Inneme, Ecclesiastical Dress in the Me-
ments of this period are those by Philippus Oppenheim dieval Near East (Leiden, 1992); see also J. Patrich, Sabas, Leader
(in 1931) and, more recently, Karel Inneme (in 1992).24 of Palestinian Monasticism, a Comparative Study in Eastern
Monasticism, Fourth to Seventh Century (Washington, D.C.,
Both have suggested that during the Early Christian
1995), 21020; S. Torallas Tovar, The Terminology of Egypt-
period monks of Egypt and Palestine wore a sort of ian Monastic Garments, in Material Culture and Well-Being in
short mantle with open sides and an attached hood. Byzantium (4001453), ed. M. Grnbart, E. Kislinger, A.
This garment was referred to as the kukullus or koukoul- Muthesius, and D. Ch. Stathakopoulos (Vienna, 2007), 21924;
lion, a term that in many cases, especially later, was used and s.v. Costume, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.
for just the hood. They further suggest that the mantle Oppenheim, Das Mnchskleid im Christlichen Altertum, 15052,
portion of this garment is what eventually developed and fig. 19; Inneme, Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near
East, 118, 122, 132, fig. 9, pl. 56.1.
into the scapular. When and under what circumstances 26
J. R. Martin, The Illustration of the Heavenly Ladder of John Cli-
the separation of hood from mantle took place is not
macus (Princeton, N.J., 1954), figs. 105 and 86.
clear. When this garment is belted at the waist with the 27
K. Weitzmann, The Miniatures of the Sacra Parallela, Parisinus
girdle or zone, it looks as it does in our icon. Graecus 923 (Princeton, N.J., 1979), color plate. For the Milan
The examples Oppenheim and Inneme cite to illus- Gregory, see A. Grabar, Les miniatures du Grgoire de Nazianze
trate this are all later Syriac or Western examples.25 de lAmbrosienne (Paris, 1943), pl. 12 and 67.
However, there are also close comparisons in Middle- M. V. Scepkina, Miniatjury Khludovskoi Psaltiri (Moscow, 1977).
Byzantine representations of monks. In an eleventh-cen- The other relevant representations of monks appear on folios
30v, 35r, and 116r. A representation of the three Hebrew
tury manuscript of the Heavenly Ladder of John Clima-
youths in the furnace appears on fol. 160v of the Khludov
cus (Vatican gr. 394), the monks are generally shown Psalter. They wear costumes very similar to those worn by the
wearing this garment over their tunics and under their youths on the icon, but without the scapular.
cloaks (figs. 8ab). It is clear that the vertical flap hangs 29
Inneme, Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East, 110. In-
down in both the front and the back. In many instances neme mentions the Coptic birros and fork. Also, the
The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace 99

Enlargement 125%

Fig. 8a Monks, from the Heavenly Ladder

of John Climacus. Vatican City,
Biblioteca Vaticana, ms. gr. 394, fol. 74r

Fig. 9 Portrait of John of Damascus,

from the Sacra Parallela. Paris, Bibliothque nationale
de France, ms. gr. 923, fol. 208r
Fig. 8b Cave-dwelling monks, from the Heavenly Ladder
of John Climacus. Vatican City,
Biblioteca Vaticana, ms. gr. 394, fol. 43r cence of the monk.31 The koukoullion is appropriate,
therefore, for capturing the youthful innocence of the
three Hebrews. On the other hand, Germanoss connec-
scribing in his On the Divine Liturgy from the first half of tion between this garment and the crucifixion, cited
the eighth century: The cowl [koukoullia] is in accor- above, marks it as a symbol of suffering. This is rein-
dance with the words of the apostle: The world is cru- forced by the images in the Byzantine manuscripts of
cified to me, and I to the world (Gal. 6:14). The purple penitent monks and the suffering monk-martyr in the
and white embroidery and crosses which decorate it Khludov Psalter.
represent the blood and water flowing from the side of Germanos also refers to the monastic habit as an-
Christ, and the loosely unfolding mantle recalls the gelic. This is not surprising given the connections that
winged angels. Thus the schema [here meaning the commonly were drawn between monks and angels,
whole habit] is called angelic.30 The loosely unfolding
mantle Germanos mentions would presumably be the
ninth-century Life of St. Theodora of Thessalonike reports that
vertical panels of the koukoullion. It should also be noted
St. Theodora sometimes used to raise up her scapular
that the three Hebrew youths in the Sinai icon are [epomis] and carry such things in it. Life of St. Theodora of
clearly wearing a belt at the waist. It is not certain Thessalonike (81292), trans. Alice-Mary Talbot, in Holy Women
whether this is meant to be the monastic girdle or, an ar- of Byzantium, ed. Alice-Mary Talbot (Washington, D.C., 1996),
ticle of secular dress since the three youths are often 184 and n. 123. Innemealso notes that the scapular has almost
shown wearing some sort of belt. disappeared today in eastern monasticism: Nowadays it is
There exist many different interpretations for the var- called schema (since when is unknown to us), a cause of con-
fusion for many authors, as the Coptic church uses this name
ious monastic garments. One fairly constant theme
for the analabos (Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East,
among commentators is that the koukoullion is made of 123).
fabric without hair (i.e., not a sheepskin like the melote, 30
St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Divine Liturgy, trans. P.
or cloak), and therefore is more like the garments worn Meyendorff (Crestwood, N.Y., 1984), 6971.
by children. As such, it is a symbol of the childlike inno- 31
Inneme, Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East, 9394.
100 Kathleen Corrigan

and the often-expressed goal of monks to join the ranks

of the angels. Legend has it that the two Egyptian
founders of monasticism, Anthony and Pachomius, each
received instructions about the design of the monastic
habit from an angel who appeared to him.32 This close
connection between monks and angels parallels that
between the angel and the three Hebrews. Both the
monks and the three Hebrews saw the angel often
specifically identified as the archangel Michael as their
personal guardian.33 As mentioned above, the ascetic
and martyr St. Victor was comforted by Michael during
his ordeal and Michael compared him to the three
Hebrew youths.
So how would a monk have experienced the Sinai
icon of the three Hebrews? As he slid open the lid and
peered into the fiery furnace, he would have seen the
three figures who were held up to him as models of
endurance. Looking at the icon in his cell, which was
referred to in the Apophthegmata Patrum as the furnace
of Babylon in which the three children saw the Son of
God,34 he could imagine himself standing alongside
his companions in the fiery environment. Fig. 10 Martyr, from the Khludov Psalter.
But what was the purpose of this engulfing fire? Moscow, State Historical Museum, cod. 129, fol. 22v
The monk might have thought of it as described by
John Climacus, the seventh century abbot of the Mt.
Sinai monastery, in his work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Ananias as delivering his own monastic habit, just as
Michael did for Antony and Pachomius.
To keep a regular watch over the heart is one thing; However, one also wonders to what extent the
to guard the heart by means of the mind is another, monastic viewer would have experienced this image
for the mind is the ruler and high priest offering primarily as a model of suffering. Did he see the three
spiritual sacrifices to Christ. When heavens holy Hebrew children as suffering bodily in the flames of the
fire lays hold of the former, it burns them because furnace? The text of Daniel (and probably the inscrip-
they still lack purification. This is what one of those tion on the icon) states that the fire did not touch them
endowed with the title of Theologian tells us. at all. As noted above, Cyprian felt obliged to defend
(Greg. Naz. Or. 21,2). But as for the latter, it enlight- their status as martyrs even though they did not die in
ens them in proportion to the perfection they have the furnace. Perhaps to some extent the icon was also a
achieved. It is one and the same fire that is called site of refuge for the monk. Commenting on the Apoph-
that which consumes (cf. Heb. 12:29) and that thegmata Patrum, William Harmless notes how common
which illuminates (cf. John 1:9). Hence the reason it was for an abbot repeatedly to direct his monks to
why some emerge from prayer as from a blazing
furnace and as though having been relieved 32
of all material defilements. Others come forth as 33
In an encomium on St. Michael by Theodosius, patriarch of
if they were resplendent with light and clothed Alexandria (53566), the three Hebrews are quoted as saying
in a garment of joy and of humility.35 that St. Michael was the one who saved them from the fiery
furnace. See Muyser, Le Culte des Trois Saints Jeunes Gens
To step into the fire with his three youthful companions chez les Coptes, 21.
was to engage in a process of purification, to strive for Apophthegmata Patrum: The Greek Systematic Collection, 7.46, Les
Apophtegmes des Pres: Collection systmatique, ed. and trans.
spiritual perfection as an athlete of Christ, to be worthy
Jean-Claude Guy, (Paris, 1993), 1:376, as cited in William
to wear the garment of joy and humility that the three Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of
Hebrews wear a garment that connects the monk to Early Monasticism (Oxford, 2004), 228.
Christs suffering and symbolizes his own. The monk 35
John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. C. Luibheid
might even imagine the angel who touches the robe of and N. Russell (New York, 1982), 280.
The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace 101

return to their cells, the solitary center of their solitary minder that his angelic habit promised protection as
lives. Life in the cell could be excruciating, a place of well as suffering.
loneliness, temptation, boredom.36 The icon offers the
monk companionship in his loneliness, the aid of a vis-
iting angel who can transform his furnace-like cell as if
a dewy breeze were whistling through it, and a re- 36
Harmless, Desert Christians, 228.1.