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Konstantinos Adrianoupolitis

The Story of Daniel and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, Second half of 18th century, Icon, 63 x 48 cm, "Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, Athens, ΓΕ 3034, © 2020 Benaki Museum, Athens

Unknown artist

The Three Hebrews in the Furnace, c.250–300 CE, Fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Unknown artist, France

Censer depicting the Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace, c.1160–65, Cast brass, chiselled and gilded, h. 16 cm; d. 10.4 cm, Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille, A 82, Photo: Stéphane Maréchalle, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Faithful in the Flames

Comparative Commentary by

As in the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and Jonah in the belly of the ‘great fish’, the moral of this episode is simple: deliverance is at hand, for God spares those who keep the faith.

The narrative in Daniel 3 is, by contrast, elaborate. It gives us crowd scenes, a dialogic back and forth, ‘every kind of music’, a detailed description of clothing as well as of instrumentation, and a dramatic reversal of expectation. An artist approaching this story has much to go on.

That said, an artwork’s focus might be on narrative essentials alone, as in the wall painting in the third-century catacomb of Priscilla. There we see only the three young Hebrews in the flames, with a divine presence hovering just above them and offering protection. In the catacomb’s funerary context, the image goes to the heart of the matter: death does not have the last word. In the late-Byzantine icon, on the other hand, there is a welter, even a superfluity, of visual ‘information’. The icon writer takes an expansive view, a fuller account than the one given in Daniel 3. Rather than opening a window onto heaven, the icon illustrates and extends the text.

But what text are we working with? The Hebrew Bible, and the Protestant Scriptures that follow it, give the events of the story as seen from outside the flames, and in prose. By contrast, the Scriptures of the Orthodox (working from the Greek Septuagint) and Roman Catholics (drawing on the Latin Vulgate) take us inside the conflagration, and into poetry. Between Daniel 3:23 and 3:24 they offer a suite of verses with two psalms or odes that record the prayers of the young men in the flames. One, known as the ‘Prayer of Azariah’ (Abednego), is a penitential plea for deliverance (vv.24–45 LXX); the other, the in-unison ‘Song of the Three Jews’ (vv.51–90 LXX), blesses God, as in Psalm 148, for the manifold gifts of creation.

The Song is commonly identified by its opening word in the Latin, Benedicite. It became a fixture in liturgies both East and West, but is especially important in Orthodox churches, which not only commemorate the deliverance on a fixed feast day (17 December), but also use the Song both in evening offices throughout the year and in the liturgy of Holy Saturday. (There is also evidence of a late-medieval liturgical drama, a Service of the Furnace, observed in Hagia Sophia and elsewhere; Lingas 2010.)

All the works in this exhibition assume the expanded version of Daniel 3. For this reason, we can imagine that whenever the three Hebrews are shown in the prayer position they would have on their lips, ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever (Song of the Three Jews 29; Daniel 3:52 LXX). Some representations make this explicit by including the opening words of the Benedicite within the work, so that the text, regularly sung in church, comes easily to mind when venerating the picture or, in the case of the medieval censer, when using the object liturgically to sanctify. The upper border of the icon, for instance, reads:

In times past, the three children did not fall down and worship the golden image, the Persian idol, but chanted in the middle of the furnace: O God of our fathers, blessed are you.

The fourth ‘man’ in the iconography of Daniel 3 is identified both as ‘an angel of the Lord’ (Prayer of Azariah 26; Daniel 3:49 LXX) and ‘like the Son of God’ (Daniel 3:25 NRSV; v.92 LXX). He is pictured in various ways. In the catacombs, he is ‘like’ a dove and therefore more like the Holy Spirit than the Saviour. At the apex of the twelfth-century medieval censer, he is more obviously readable as an angel (even if missing his telltale wings)—although given his greater size, seated position, and facial expression, he also has more than a passing resemblance to Christ, who was often thought to be the fourth man in the furnace. In the icon we see a winged angel embracing the three Hebrews, whose halo bears a christological cross embedded faintly in gold—a reflection of the ‘Son of God’ he was often taken to be. In every case, the Daniel image suggests the joy of a divine rescue, as if each one, though silent, gives voice to the Benedicite refrain, ‘bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever’.

 

References

Lingas, Alexander. 2010. ‘Late Byzantine Cathedral Liturgy and the Service of the Furnace’, in Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, ed. by S. Gerstal and R. Nelson (Turnholt: Bepols), pp. 179–230

Next exhibition: Daniel 4 Next exhibition: Additions to the Book of Daniel: Susanna .