On reading this poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), one cannot help but be struck by the great contrast with the present American administration.  It could have been written specifically for the dismal situation in which we now find ourselves.  It reminds us of values and ideals many Americans seem to have forgotten or to have discarded in favor of base emotions and personal gain.  For “God” we can easily substitute a plea to the national conscience, and to “men” we must of course add “women”:


God, give us men!
A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office can not buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor; men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty, and in private thinking;
For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land and waiting Justice sleeps.

Read the daily news, and you will see endless examples of wrong ruling the land and justice sleeping.  A great deal, not only for the United States but for the planet, is at stake in the upcoming election.  One can only hope that those who voted in the disastrous administration we have had these last four years will come to their senses and return to the highest ideals held forth by the best and brightest souls this country has produced over the years.  Then perhaps the country can begin to climb out of the dark slough into which it has fallen.





A reader asked me about a supposed “wonderworking” icon of Mary that is generally little known in the West, but quite famous in its Middle Eastern region.  Many tales have been told about it along with a good deal of nonsense and contradictory information.  Nonetheless it is set an an interesting historical and cultural matrix.

It is the Saydnaya/Saidnaya icon, also called the Shagoura (“Famous”) icon.  As is common with notable icons of Mary, it is said to have been “painted by St. Luke,” which of course is nonsense, but it is the standard way of trying to impute ancient venerability and sanctity to a Marian icon.  Other sources place its creation in the 9th century, or more loosely in “Byzantine times.” There is an account saying the icon was originally from Constantinople, and was obtained in Jerusalem by the Abbess of Saydnaya, and a variant saying a man brought it, as requested, from Jerusalem to the convent, and on the way there it began to reveal its miraculous nature.  And the tale becomes far more fantastic:

“…at Saydnaya the icon began to grow flesh from the breasts to the navel, emitting from the breasts an oil-like liquid that would heal the sick”


Because of its location on the way to Palestine,  and because of the icon — housed in the Church of the Virgin — the Saydnaya Convent has been an important pilgrimage site for many centuries.  It was visited both by Christians and at times even by Muslims.  There the icon forms the center portion of a silver-clad triptych, which in turn is set into a painted icon.  And the whole is protected behind a metal grille.

The icon depicts Mary enthroned, with Christ Emmanuel seated on her lap.  Above them are the Apostles Peter at left and Paul at right.

The icon is kept under the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate.  It is found at the church at the Saydnaya Monastery/Convent a little over 15 miles north of Damascus, in Syria.  the convent and its church — which lie on Mount Qalamoun —  are at the village of Saydnaya/Saidnaya, which is today also unfortunately the site of an extremely brutal  high security prison where torture is practiced under the Assad regime.

Though there were originally monks at the monastery, it is said they abandoned it in early Ottoman times, leaving it to the nuns.

The resemblance of the –naya suffix in Saydnaya to titles of Slavic icons such as Kazanskaya and Vladimirskaya (“of Kazan,” “of Vladimir”) is purely coincidental.  In Syriac — which is a form of the Aramaic said to have been spoken by Jesus — -naya is a suffix used to indicate a place name.  And because the word sayd has to do with hunting, and because there was in ancient times a temple in the region dedicated to the Phoenician god of hunting, Saydoum, the name perhaps just originally meant a “hunting place.”  In Arabic, sayyida means “Lady,” so the name Saydnaya could also be understood to mean the “Place of the Lady” — i.e. Mary.  Note that in the literature there are many variations in the spelling of Saydnaya.

The convent itself is of great interest historically, because not only is it said to be one of the most ancient monasteries, but its legend also relates that it was founded by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, though there is no historical evidence to support that claim.    An old tale relates the story of its founding.

Supposedly, Emperor Justinian was hunting chasing a gazelle on Mount Qalamoun.  He pursued it until it stopped at a spring on a rocky hill, where the gazelle suddenly became a brightly shining image of Mary.  Justinian then heard a voice telling him, “No, you shall not kill me, Justinian, but you shall build a church for me here on this rock” (لا لن تقتلني يا جوستنيان ولكنك ستشيد لي كنيسة هنا على هذا الصخر).  Those words form the text on the scroll held by Mary in the mosaic at the Saydnaya Convent shown above.

Later, Mary is said to have appeared to the Emperor in a dream, showing him the plans for the construction of the monastery.

The most fantastic stories are told about this icon, right up to the present day.  One shared on many conservative Orthodox sites relates how a childless Saudi Muslim vacationing  with his wife in Syria, went — on the advice of their hired limousine driver — to the Convent with his wife.  The driver had told them that eating a bit of the wick of the lamp that burned before the icon at the convent would enable one to ask a favor of Mary — in this case that the wife might become pregnant.  Supposedly the man promised thousands of dollars to the driver and even more to the convent if his wife was to conceive as the result.  The story relates that the wife did conceive and bore a son, and so the man went back to Syria to keep his promise of paying the money.

He called the same driver as previously to pick him up in Damascus, and when the driver did so, he was accompanied by two friends.  The man was not driven to the convent, but instead off to an isolated place, where the men stole his money and killed him, cutting the body up and putting it into the trunk of the car.  But while driving on to where they intended to hide the remains, the car broke down.  It happened that a passer-by stopped and offered to help them.  They refused his help, but on leaving, he noticed blood coming out of the trunk.  He called the police.  When the police arrived and opened the trunk, the Saudi stepped out of it alive and well.  He said that Mary had been stitching his body together, and had just finished sewing his head back on.  The marks of the stitching were still visible.

Seeing the man they had dismembered alive and well, the three who had killed and robbed him went mad, and were taken away to an asylum.  Supposedly the man who was stitched back together gave some $800,000 to the convent in gratitude, and he and his family — who were Muslims — became Christian.

Now such a wild tale is exactly the kind of thing one would expect to find in medieval hagiography — books such as the Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine — but to find them spread in all seriousness by Eastern Orthodox sites on the Internet in the 21st century just shows how little the naive credulousness of many “religious” people has changed.

There is an interesting historical account of the Saydnaya Convent and its famous icon given in the article “Convergences of Oriental Christian, Muslim, and Frankish Worshippers: the Case of Saydnaya and the Knights Templar,” by Benjamin Z. Kedar.  It is found in the book The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity, edited by Zsolt Hunyadi and Jozsef Laszlovzky.





Here is a Greek fresco out of context.  The problem, then, is in identifying its subject.

We can see there is a ruler or authority of some kind at left, recognizable as such by the crown; and there is a saint at right, so identified by his halo.  But there are many icon scenes in which one saint or another stands before an authority of some kind.  How do we know which scene this is?

Well, as you see, there is a title in Greek at the top of the image.  If you know Greek — even a little — you will quickly be able to identify the scene.

Let’s look at the inscription:


If you are a beginning student of icons, you will at least known how to read the letters, even if you may not recognize all the words.  You learned long ago on this site that every serious student of icons must know the Church Slavic and Greek alphabets, which are essential to the ability to read even the most basic inscriptions.  So if you have not done that yet, do it now.  It is not difficult, and does not take long.  There is always a link to both alphabets at the top of the blog page.

Assuming you have learned those alphabets, you can put your knowledge of Greek letters to use on this inscription.  Here it is again.  A good idea is to begin by transliterating it:


A difficulty here — and a common one in Greek inscriptions — is that there are not always clear spaces separating the words.  But in spite of that, you should see something familiar in the word ΙѠCΗΦ / IOSIF.  It is a major clue to identifying this image, because it is the Greek form of the name JOSEPH.

That means we know there is a Joseph in the image, and we know he is standing before an authority.  That gets us a bit farther.

This is where a basic Greek vocabulary is handy.  In the second line of the inscription, we see this:


You may recall that TO is the neuter form of “the” in Greek, and TOU means “of/of the.”  Further, the IV (or in a more standard font IY) has a little mark of abbreviation above it.

It looks like the Roman number IV, but remember this inscription is Greek.  And in Greek, IV — or in a more usual Greek font IY — is an abbreviation for ΙΗCΟΥ /IESOU — the “of” form of “Jesus” (Ἰησοῦς/Iesous).  So now we know the image has something to do with a Joseph, and something to do with Jesus.

Well, if you know the Bible — which you really must as a student of icons — you will recall that a Joseph of Arimathea is said to have gone before Pontius Pilate to request the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion.  And if we look at the inscription again, we can see in it the word CѠΜΑ/SOMA, meaning “body,” in the second line — so we can be reasonably confident that what we see in this image is Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate.  And if we translate the inscription completely, that is precisely what it says:

Requests Joseph the   body     of    Jesus

In normal English,
“Joseph requests the body of Jesus.”

The iconography of Joseph never became firmly settled, so he is sometimes found in icons as an old man, sometimes as middle-aged — and the colors of his garments vary from example to example as well.

The most interesting thing for me about Joseph is the group of legends relating that after the Resurrection he traveled to ancient Britain, to what is now Glastonbury.  There he is said to have rested from his travels on Wearyall Hill, where he planted his staff in the ground.  The staff grew and became the famous Glastonbury Thorn, which bloomed each year at Christmas.  At Glastonbury he was said to have built the first church of woven stakes and branches (wattle) and founded the first monastery in Britain.  Further, he is said to have brought the Grail with him to Glastonbury, and that connects him to the tales of King Arthur.  Arthur was said been buried in the Isle of Avalon, which was Glastonbury in the days when it was a region of islands and marshes.  Of course there is no solid historical foundation to all this, but it makes for a very colorful story.

If you enjoy such legends, you could hardly do better than to read the classic novel (it is for young people but very interesting for adults as well) The Hidden Treasure of Glaston, written by Eleanore M. Jewett.  It weaves the old legends into a fascinating tale through the adventures of a lame boy taken to live at the Glastonbury monastery in the England of 1171.


Here is a very pleasant 16th century Greek fresco of  the “Jacob’s Ladder” scene from the Old Testament, at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos.  The story is related in Genesis 28:

And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.  And he came upon a certain place, and stayed there all night, because the sun had set; and he took stones of that place, and placed them as his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

The simple title of the image is written in Greek at the top:

Ἡ Κλίµαξ του Ιακώβ
He Klimax tou Iakob
“The Ladder of Jacob.”


We see Jacob asleep at left, dreaming of the ladder:

But why, at the top of the ladder, do we see a circular image symbolizing heaven, and Mary holding Jesus as Emmanuel in it?

Well, it all has to do with the symbolism Eastern Orthodoxy places on events in some Old Testament stories.  Though this tale originally had nothing whatsoever to do with the later symbolism attached to it, nonetheless, Jacob’s ladder has become associated in Eastern Orthodox theology with the incarnation of Jesus through Mary.

That is why in the Akathist hymn to Mary, we find these words addressed to her:  “Hail, heavenly ladder by which God descended.”  So Mary is seen as the heavenly ladder by which Jesus (considered to be God in Eastern Orthodoxy) descended to earth when he was incarnate in her womb.