The Soldiers and The Fiery Furnace

Detail of The Fiery Furnace icon from the Conestoga Iconographic Studio, 2021.

With the angel and the youths depicted in The Fiery Furnace, all that was left was the rendering of the soldiers in the bottom third of the icon. And, it was here that I think the vision inspired by St. Basil’s commentary on the nature of fire in consumption and illumination really took form.

The Soldiers’ Place

In the account given in the Book of Daniel, we read,

“He (King Nebuchadnezzar) commanded the strongest men that were in his army to bind the feet of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the furnace of burning fire … Now the king’s servants that had cast them in, ceased not to heat the furnace with brimstone, and tow, and pitch, and dry sticks, and the flame mounted up above the furnace nine and forty cubits (roughly 75 feet or 23 meters): And it broke forth, and burnt such of the Chaldeans (the soldiers) as it found near the furnace.

Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, The Book of Daniel, 3:20, 46-48.

In my research, I found that the soldiers are only present about half of the time and that their depiction is perhaps the most significant source of variation in icons from many different places and times. It seems to me that it’s in these variations that many iconographers reveal the different ways that the soldier’s place is interpreted in the story of the Fiery Furnace.

In an extremely naturalistic version, such as the one painted by the Greek Adrianoupolitis Konstantinos in the 18th century, we can see the torment due to those in what I can only suppose was a foretaste of Hell:

The Story of Daniel and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace (detail) by Adrianoupolitis Konstantinos.

In a 16th century example from an Arab source, soldiers in the icon appear as torturers. One can’t help but think that a parallel is being drawn between the soldiers and their pitch folks with the depictions of demons tormenting those in the Hell:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (detail) by an anonymous iconographer.

Rendering the Soldiers

As the drawing of the soldiers for the studio’s Fiery Furnace icon began, it was clear to me that neither of these approaches would suffice. Konstantinos’ naturalistic depiction of the soldiers was too sensational for the studio’s style, and the pitchforks in the Arab icon illustrated their role as torturers in the story, but that wasn’t the appropriate emphasis for the icon being made.

The answer came in considering this icon’s connection with icons of the Transfiguration of Christ. In this icon, Sts. Peter, James, and John experience the light of Christ’s glory, and they are overwhelmed by it. They are depicted in a tumbling, falling, or cowering position as Christ reveals himself and the world in holiness. Inspired by the saints of the transfiguration, I began to sketch out the soldiers crouching and balled up upon themselves and found it worked well. At this time, the soldiers also lost their helmets and armour in the cartoon’s drawing as the emphasis on their role seemed more as a foil to the three young men than about their specific employment.

Later, when it came time to choose the icon’s palette, the Transfiguration of Christ also inspired the icon of the Fiery Furnace further. One of the details that I love in the Transfiguration icon is that in the best examples, all three saints are brightly dressed in their own uniquely colourful clothing. This participates in the traditional Catholic, Anglicans, and Orthodox understanding that being a saint is ultimately as unique a calling as each of us. Sainthood finds its roots in living as we truly are, which is as individual as every person ever born. St. Catherine of Siena puts it like this, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!” (quoted by Pope John Paul II on January 4th, 2001). C.S. Lewis writes in his book, Mere Christianity, from the same perspective, but brings with his words the distinction of those who surrender to Christ and those who do not: 

“Sameness is to be found among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p 190.

This “gloriously different” understanding informed the painting of the soldier’s robes and the three young men. In surrendering to God, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are depicted in robes distinct—each painted with one of my favourite pigment colours (a red jasper from Lake Superior’s shores, green malachite deposits in Agawa Bay and blue indigo ground here in Conestoga). In their unwillingness to surrender, the soldiers are uniformly painted in the Burnt Eby Ochre (made here in our village for hundreds of years). This juxtaposition, even in the icon’s colour, is a final instance of the iconographic theology that informs this icon of The Fiery Furnace.

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