Orthodox America

  “The Unsleeping Eye”

THE ICON of Christ Emmanuel, the Infant Christ, which is entitled "The Unsleeping Eye" (Slavonic: Nedremanoe Oko), is not of ancient composition. First appearing in Russia, most probably in the Moscow region, around the end of the 15th century, it is characteristic of the period of transition which the Russian Church and Russian State were then entering.

      Unlike strictly defined devotional icons, portraying one figure or a group of figures in formal poses of benediction or veneration, The Unsleeping Eye "tells a story". But the story which it tells, at variance with the immediately recognizable themes of the festal icons of the Church, is not the account of an event of redemption history. The Unsleeping Eye is an icon which depicts neither a specific subject nor a specific action but, rather, a "state of being". This state of being is that of the All-Protective Vigilance of the Son of God.

The Unsleeping Eye is an icon of the Infant Christ. Its central field is occupied by an outsized figure of the reclining Child, flanked by the Holy Theotokos and the Archangel Michael. Trees and shrubbery fill out its lower and lateral border areas, while in its upper range is painted a representation of the Angel of the Passion hovering over the entire scene. [1] Biblical accounts of the Nativity and Childhood, in the books of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, give no direct indication of the meaning of this composition. Thus the need to search elsewhere for its sources, one of which is the collection of animal studies known throughout the Middle Ages as the Physiologus (the Naturalist).

       The Physiologus is an anonymous compilation most probably originating in Alexandria and dating perhaps from as early as the first half of the second century. Drawing upon contemporary zoological knowledge, as upon mythology, it presents in popular, allegorical terms a Christian view of the natural world. It is a later revision of this text, made in the 15th century and preserved in Leningrad, which may serve as a link to the composition of The Unsleeping Eye.

       When focusing upon the lion, the text enumerates three characteristics and then refers them, via Biblical quotations, to Christ. Of chief interest here is the second characteristic: When the lion sleeps, its eyes remain watchful. For as Solomon proclaims in the Song of Songs, I slept, but my heart was awake (5:2). And as David declares in the Psalms, Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep (120:.4). The lion is the standard of the Tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:9), from which Christ is descended through David (Matt. 1:1-17). Behold, the Book of Revelation echoes, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered... (5:5) [2] 

     The story of The Unsleeping Eye is set in an oasis, indicated in the composition by the greenery of its stylized palms. Yet in the Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew, dating from about the 8th or 9th century, one of the "Legends of the Child Jesus in Egypt" begins in the following way:

    Now on the third day of their journey, as they went on, it happened that blessed Mary was wearied by the too great heat of the sun in the desert, and seeing a palm-tree, she said to Joseph: 'I should like to rest a little in the shade of this tree.' And Joseph led her quickly to the palm and let her dismount from her animal. [3]

      It is generally accepted that the Gospel according to Saint Matthew confesses Christ as both the New Israel and the New Moses. In this sense, when noting the Flight into Egypt, Matthew applies to Christ the prophetic reference to Israel’s Exodus: Out of Egypt I called my son (Hosea 11:1; Matt. 2:15). But Christian tradition has always maintained that, in order to fulfill the promise made to Moses: Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and lo bring you lo the place which I have prepared (Exodus 23:20), none other than the Archangel Michael was charged.

      With these literary references, coupled to the allegory of the Physiologus, the story of The Unsleeping Eye may be told. 

       During their Return from Egypt to Israel after the death of Herod, on that long journey which would take them to a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled (Matt. 2:23), Joseph together with the Child and His Mother were led by the Angel of the Lord to an oasis to rest. For God has ordered that...Israel may walk ,safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command (Baruch 5:7 8). Thus, in the shade of the palms, a bedroll was spread for the Child to nap, under the guard of Michael. When, after a while, the Virgin herself went to watch over Him, she discovered that, though soundly asleep, His eyes remained open, in All-Protective Vigilance over the world which, by His Death on the Cross, foretold by the aerial figure of the Angel of the Passion, He would voluntarily redeem.

       In the Western Middle Ages, the Biblia Pauperum ingeniously affirms the redemptive nature of the Return from Egypt in its own literary way by linking the journey to the first vision of the Prophecy of Zechariah (1:7-17) and to its messianic promise: I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion. In an iconographic way some panels of The Unsleeping Eye unmistakably relate this messianic promise to the allegory of the Physiologus by the paraphrased inscription of Psalm 120:4, spoken by the Virgin to her Son: "Do not slumber, my Child, nor sleep, but keep Israel."

       Within the Orthodox Church, the mystical New Israel of those redeemed by Christ, the liturgical petition is chanted countless times: "Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace." The icon of The Unsleeping Eye, though compositionally innovative, nevertheless succeeds in conveying Christologically sound confirmation of that petition as heard, and fulfilled, by the all-Protective Vigilance of the Eternal Son of God.

Archpriest David Lesko

Duquesne, PA


[1.] This description is normative in the sense that individual panels of The Unsleeping Eye may combine the roles of the Archangel Michael and the Angel of the Passion in the figure of the former, while transforming the latter into the Angel of the Adoration. Such peculiarities, however, do not modify the interpretation of the composition as a whole. 

[2.] The Genesis verse is frequently employed as an inscription on the icon of The Slumber of the Christ Child, a composition not to be confused with that of The Unsleeping Eye, with which it forms a contrasting pair. A fine incorporation of the former into an entire iconographic scheme may be found on the 15th century Great Sakkos of Metropolitan Photios, illustrated in Pauline Johnstone, The Byzantine Tradition in Church Embroidery., Chicago, Argonuat Inc., 1967, plate 7. 

[3.] Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, English translation, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1963, vol I, p. 410.