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Saint Nicholas and the Good Serpents

It was the Sunday before Christmas, the feast of the Holy Genealogy, the day we remember all of Christ’s ancestors. I was singing, as usual, and we were finishing up liturgy with the usual hymns.

There’s a normal flow of energy for cantors. The first 15 minutes are chaos, because we cover about 40 pages and two of the hymns change literally every day (the troparion and the kontakion).

Oh, and none of it is on the same page, so we usually have 4 fingers on different pages as improvised bookmarks.

Our book is nicknamed the Teal Terror for a reason.

We spend most of the singing effort before the homily. Things get easier after the homily. After communion, the cantor’s job is pretty simple: the last few hymns never change.

I’ve been cantering at this parish for 2 years, so after communion my voice was on autopilot and my attention was wandering.

My tiny church is adorned with icons everywhere, icons from the window to the wall, and some icon always catches my attention. This time, it was our icon of St. Nicholas on the iconostasion (the wall that separates the altar from the rest of the church).

Every eastern parish I’ve ever visited has St. Nicholas on the iconostasion, and for reasons unknown, he’s always the left-most icon on the wall. So it is at our church.

But as we finished liturgy this time, I noticed an unusual detail in our icon of St. Nicholas: he’s holding the bishop’s staff with the snakes on it (aka the Paterissa).

Me. I snapped this.

It immediately inspired me when I noticed this rare variant. The snakes on the Paterissa are my favorite Christian motif. I took a reference photo and knew I’d make some art later. Saints and snakes, and it’s Christmas time.

It’s so on-brand!

The Technical Details

So for the next week I stayed up late watching Skillshare videos on drawing techniques, and also drawing.

The original plan was to draw the Paterissa only, but the sketching of St. Nicholas was going great, and I wanted to practice drawing people. I rode the momentum until I basically did the full icon.

My bedtime was even later than normal while drawing this, and my “normal” is writing a PhD. I was up late, like, up past-the-witching-hour type late. Here’s the result, still in time for the Christmas Octave:

Me. I drew this.

I sketched the first layer in pencil. I painted the clothes with gouache, everything else is digital ink. It took 12 layers, meaning that I did a lot of the elements separately to make revisions easy.

The whole thing is done in Procreate, which I’ve had on my iPad since 2016, but I’m just starting to have a life again.

This is the first art project I’ve done since high school. I know it’s cool to hate technology because consumerism and Western decadence and whatever, but Procreate is so good it invalidates pretty much everything I learned about art in primary school, in the pre-tablet days.

Now I can actually spend my time on the art instead of preparing to do the art.

I love not having to physically mix anything, or wandering through a pencil set to find the colors I want. In school, it took so long just to get all the media in order, and mixed, and organize the guidance tools.

Now I just download digital brushes (I got 1200 brushes for $35) and palettes (100 of them included with the brushes), put in my wireless earbuds, pull up the new Che Ecru album (Cold Toronto) on YouTube Music, find a reference photo from my iCloud account, and go wild.

Yes, the philosophy driving Modernity sucks. I wish I wasn’t surrounded by Protestants who don’t get me and atheists who really don’t get me. But I don’t want to live in any time earlier than now.

Anyway, now that we’ve talked about the medium, let’s talk about the subject. Allow me to draw your attention to the snake-staff in particular.

Why Does a Bishop’s Staff Have Snakes on it?

People get scandalized by the snakes on the Paterissa. Primates have an instinctual fear of snakes, and many people associate snakes with evil because of the serpent in Eden.

But in this icon, the snakes are a sign of Saint Nicholas’ God-given authority as a bishop. Why is St. Nick hanging out with snakes?

The snakes on the Paterissa have their own name: The Serpents of Orthodoxy. My website/brand, The Orthodox Snake is a reference to The Serpents of Orthodoxy. I love snakes; I have a pet snake who I love, so I love this motif.

(My snake’s name is Sweet Potato, by the way. He’s an albino Ball Python. My priest has blessed him.)

Photo credit: me.

I took this one single-handed.

Me. I made this.

I can understand why people are shocked to see the saints with snakes. But the Serpents of Orthodoxy are as Christian as a creature can get. They’re an allusion to Moses’ snake-staff and the Bronze Serpent Nehushtan.

At the burning bush, God gives Moses a staff that can transform into a snake. (Ex 4:1–5) That snake-staff accompanied Moses for the rest of his life, aided him in many of his miracles, and eventually came to rest in the Ark of the Covenant. (Heb 9:4 + Num 17:8)

Everyone knows about the snake involved with sin, but everyone forgot the snake who supported God’s people through desperate times, the snake who God worked miracles through.

And it makes sense there’s a redemption arc there: snakes were intimately involved in the fall, but God, in His mercy to all creatures, redeemed snakes by giving them an intimate role in salvation history too.

God loves thematic parallels.

Now snakes can be living signs pointing towards Christ, as they are on the Paterissa.

Nobody brings up God’s mercy towards snakes, because 99% of people don’t care about snakes. But I do, so I can see God at work where other people aren’t looking.

Honestly, “redemption” and “becoming a living sign of God” is the story of all creation, so we could start with any other creature and end up in the same place: contemplating God’s mercy. But it’s snakes that do it for me.

The Serpents of Orthodoxy are also a reference to Nehushtan, the bronze serpent. Nehushtan healed any venomous bites suffered by the Israelites (Num 21:4).

Nehushtan was a foreshadow of Christ, as confirmed by Christ Himself during his debate with Nicodemus, recorded in John 3:14.

Again, God loves thematic parallels.

I could talk about Moses’ snake-staff or the Bronze Serpent for a long time, and I plan to do so in the future.

It’s totally on-brand, after all.

But this is just a short post about some art I made.

For now, here’s my tribute to Saint Nicholas and his friends, the Good Serpents.

Close up of this thing I made. I kinda dig the idea of Seraphim looking like Tarantuas. They’re supposed to be scary.


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