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 10:
“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.
Today’s icon offers a bit of a review. It is a common type — the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus — but its inscriptions offer the opportunity for practice, and perhaps a scrap or two of new information.
Let’s begin with the halo inscription. As you know, the Greek form of the halo inscription reads Ὁ ѠN — HO ON — meaning “The One Who Is” — a title of God found in Exodus 3:14. The letters are read top-left-right, as they usually also are in Bulgarian icons. Russian icons, however, commonly change the left letter from Ѡ to Slavic Ѿ — pronounced “ot” — which enables them to read the inscription left-top-right while giving it various fanciful interpretations. Some like the letters to represent the members of the Trinity, interpreting them as abbreviations for the Three-Hypostatic Godhood, represented in the letters as Ѿ (ot) for Ѿтеческий/Otecheskiy — “Of the Father’s”; О for Оум/Oum — “Mind”; and Н for Непостижимъ Сыин/Nepostizhim Suin — “Unfathomable Son.”
Still others read it as abbreviating От небес приидох — Они же Мя не познаша — На кресте распяша Ot nebes priidokh — Oni zhe mya ne poznasha — Na kreste raspyasha
“From heaven I came — They knew me not — On the cross I was crucified.”
You will of course recognize the common IC XC inscription above the halo as abbreviating Ἰησοῦς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos in Greek for “Jesus Christ,” and in Slavic as Iсус Христос/Isus Khristos in the earlier and Old Believer form, Iисус (Иисус) Христос/Iisus Khristos in the post-Nikon Russian State Church form that began to be used in Russia in the mid-1600s after the great schism.
Now let’s look at the main title inscription at the top:
It reads (missing or very small superscript letters are in brackets):
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ѠБРАЗ Г[ОСПО]ДА НАШЕГѠ IС[УС]А ХР[ИС]ТА NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ G[OSPO]DANASHE[GO] IS[US]AKHR[IS]TA
NOT-HAND-MADE IMAGE [of] LORD OF-US JESUS CHRIST
“THE ‘NOT MADE BY HANDS’ IMAGE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.”
There is an inscription in red near the base of the cloth which, though written very small here, is nonetheless a very common inscription on icons of this type:
It reads: С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ/SVYATUIY OUBRUS, meaning “HOLY CLOTH.”
Below that is a larger inscription in red, which, as we saw in a previous posting on this icon type, is much less common:
Some time ago there was a posting here on Greek abbreviations found on stone crosses, etc. Among them was this one:
ΘΕΟΥ ΘΕΑ ΘΕIΟΝ ΘΑΥΜΑ Theou Thea Theion Thauma “Vision of God — Divine Wonder”
The base inscription on this Russian icon of the “Not Made by Hands Image” is just the Church Slavic translation (BOZHIE VIDYENIE BOZHESTVENNOE CHUDO) of that Greek phrase, which we could also render as:
“The Vision of God — a Divine Miracle.”
Now we come to the last inscription at the base of the icon. It is sometimes, but not always, found with the “Bozhie Vidyenie ...” inscription just mentioned, likely because some painters used the same podlinnik tradition or models:
ХР[ИС]ТЕ Б[О]ЖЕ ИЖЕ НА ТЯ НАДЕЯИСЯ НЕ ОТЩЕТИТСЯ НИКОГДА ЖЕ KHRISTE BOZHE IZHE NA TYA NADYEYAISYA NE OTSHCHETITSYA NIKOGDA ZHE
It means loosely, “CHRIST GOD, WHO HOPES IN YOU WILL NEVER HAVE REGRET.”
Perhaps you have noticed that some icons of this type have the cloth alone, while others have it held by two angels. These are two different iconographic traditions. In this particular icon, though they are too small to see here, each angel has a title inscription. That at left identifies the angel as Архангел Михаил/Arkhangel Mikhail — “Archangel Michael; that at right identifies the angel as Архангел Гавриил/Arkhangel Gavriil — “Archangel Gabriel.”
Now I hope you remember that the saints in the outer border are generally not part of the icon type, but are chosen to be added by the person ordering the icon. Usually they are name saints for members of the family — and sometimes the Guardian Angel or or other saints favored for particular reasons are added. In this example they are all favored saints: They are Vlasiy and Flor (Blasius and Florus) at left, and Medost and Lavr (Modestus and Laurus) at right. Perhaps you recall that all of these saints have to do with the protection and health of livestock: Flor and Lavr for horses, and Vlasiy and Medost for cattle, oxen, and flocks.
So that’s it. Now you will be able to translate most inscriptions on other icons of this type. But be aware that there may be differences in the title inscriptions, as in the following example, a Nevyansk icon from the Urals region:
Let’s look more closely at the title inscription. It is a little longer than the first one because of the addition of three words:
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ѠБРАЗ Г[ОСПО]ДА БОГА I СПАСА НАШЕГО IСУСА ХРИСТА NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODA BOGA I SPASA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA
That BOGA I SPASA is the added words “God and Savior” in their grammatical “of” forms. So the whole inscription reads:
“‘NOT MADE BY HANDS’ IMAGE OF OUR LORD GOD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST.”
This icon two follows the tradition of depicting two angels holding the cloth, but where the first example identified the angels by name as Archangels Michael and Gabriel, this icon identifies them only as АНГЕЛИ ГОСПОДНИ/ANGЕLI GOSPODNI — “Angels of the Lord.”
This second icon also follows the less common tradition that uses both the “Bozhie vidyenie …” and “Khriste Bozhe izhe na tya …” inscriptions on this type.
Now, to finish up for today, we need only take a look at the inscription at the base of the second icon example:
Today we will take a look at an icon of Григорий Армянский/Grigoriy Armyanskiy — “Gregory of Armenia” (c. 239 or 257-331) — Also called Григорий Просветитель/Grigoriy Prosvetitel — “Gregory the Enlightener” or “Gregory the Illuminator.” He is traditionally considered not only the person who converted Armenia to Christianity, but also the first bishop of the Armenian Church, and consequently the patron saint of Armenia.
Gregory’s father Anak Partev (“Anak the Parthian”) murdered the King of Armenia, Khosrov. In revenge, the relatives of Khosrov killed as many of the murderer’s family as they could, but Gregory was taken away by his nanny to Cappadocia, and so survived the purge.
Gregory was educated as a Christian, and when he returned to Armenia, he managed to obtain a position in the palace of King Tiridates the Great. He got himself into a great deal of trouble, however, by opposing the traditional non-Christian religious rites of the palace, and refusing to make offerings to the goddess Anahita. Apparently the King also discovered that Gregory’s father had murdered the King’s own father.
In punishment, Tiridates had Gregory thrown into the prison pit called Khor Varap (“Deep Dungeon”), which was near the former old capital, Artashat. There he was very much left and forgotten for some 13 years. He would have starved, it is said, had it not been for a Christian widow who supposedly had a dream about Gregory, and so brought him bread, which she dropped into the pit each day.
In this icon, we see the walls of the city at left, and the widow woman with a loaf of bread she is dropping into the pit where Gregory reaches up to receive it. Though there are lions and vipers in the pit, they do not harm him (and the lions make a good symbolic connection between Gregory and the Old Testament tale of Daniel in the lions’ den).
The “Image Not Made by Hands” of Jesus is just an added element.
But what are those creatures to the right of the pit?
Well, the story is that Tiridates, after imprisoning Gregory, killed a Christian maiden named Rhipsime, who refused his advances, and he murdered other Christian nuns as well. As a result of his evil deeds he supposedly went mad, and being possessed by a devil, he turned into a wild boar. So the king is the strange, mad, boar-headed man we see at right, among other boars. This is reminiscent of the Old Testament tale of King Nebuchadnezzar, who was made to live like a wild beast as divine punishment.
The tale continues with the sister of the mad King, whose name was Khosrovidhukt, having dreams of the prisoner Gregory, in which an angel told her that Gregory could cure the King of his madness. When finally her story was believed, Gregory was taken from the pit and brought to the mad King, whom he cured. As a result, the King and his court were converted to Christianity, and it was made the state religion of Armenia — or so the traditional tale in Eastern Orthodoxy goes.
As is common with the stories of saints, they should not be taken too seriously as reliable history — but they provide the often colorful materials upon which Eastern Orthodox icons are based, and as in this case, one must know the traditional story to explain the iconography.
Today we will look at two icons relating incidents from the hagiographic tale of his life. They are both Old Believer icons from around the end of the 18th century.
Here is the first. It depicts a cutaway view of a church. Inside the Church, the liturgy is under way:
In the right foreground, we see a woman and a man — each with a halo to show they are saints — listening attentively. They are Mariya and Kyrill, the parents of Sergiy of Radonezh, who as a boy was originally named Bartholomew (Варфоломей/Barfolomey). But where is Sergiy himself in the icon? Well, he is in his mother Mariya’s womb.
The icon illustrates the story — related by Epiphaniy/Epiphanius the Wise — that Sergiy’s mother told a mysterious monk about an event that happened while Mariya was still pregnant. Supposedly when the parents were attending the liturgy before Sergiy’s birth, the boy cried out from the womb three times during the rite. Traditionally these three times were before the reading of the Gospel, during the “Cherubic Hymn,” and finally when the priest said “Святая святым/Svyataya svyatuim” — “Holy things to the holy.”
This crying out of the unborn child during the liturgy was understood by the parents to signify some unusual and extraordinary destiny for their child — who of course grew up to become one of Russia’s most famous saints.
The inscription on the icon reads:
“Venerable Sergiy in the Womb of the Mother during the Liturgy Cries Out Thrice.”
In the second icon, we see a man at left bringing his dying son in his arms into Sergiy’s monastery. Two monks look on. Then we see the man again at right, holding his now active son before the seated Sergiy of Radonezh. What is it all about? Well, to know that, we must know the story.
It is said that a very pious and devout man with only one child — a son — lived in the vicinity of Sergiy’s monastery. When his son became very ill and seemed threatened with death, the man took him in his arms and carried him to the monastery, sure that Sergiy would be able to help. Unfortunately, while he was standing there, begging Sergiy to pray for his son, the boy died. The father lost his last hope, and in great grief he left his dead son in Sergiy’s cell while going away to prepare for burial. While he was gone, Sergiy prayed over the boy.
When the father came back to retrieve the body for burial, he found his boy with the saint, alive. Overjoyed, he fell down before Sergiy, thanking him profusely for raising his son from the dead.
Sergiy, however, reproved him, saying he was deceiving himself, and that no one could raise the dead before the Day of Resurrection of all humans. He told the father that the boy had simply become chilled with the cold, and appeared to be dead. When he was left in the warmth of the saint’s cell, he became active again.
The man, however, was having none of it, and insisted that Sergiy’s prayers had resurrected his dead son. Sergiy forbade him to say this, warning him that if he made the event known, he would lose his son completely. The man promised not to tell, and returned home in great joy with his now living son. So how do we know all this, if the man did not talk? Well, remember the monks looking on in the icon? Supposedly the monks with Sergiy told the news — or at least so the story goes.
So was the boy in the story dead and resurrected by Sergiy, or was he simply, as Sergiy said, so chilled by cold that the boy only appeared to be dead, and came to life when warmed in Sergiy’s cell? Obviously the tale wants us to believe that in spite of his humble protestations, Sergiy resurrected the dead boy. And the painter of this icon obviously wanted observers to hold that view as well, because the inscription on the icon reads:
“Venerable Sergiy Resurrects the Dead Boy.”
In Eastern Orthodox hagiography, the lives of the saints are filled with such extravagant tales. These should not be taken as factual history, but rather as stories intended to impress the listener with the piety and sanctity and power of the saints. Among believers of those earlier days however, they were regarded as the “Gospel truth.”
A reader asked a question about an icon of the “Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple.” The example in question depicted not only Anna and Joachim — the parents of Mary in tradition — along with their child Mary and the priest to whom she is being presented, but it also had another girl in it — and without a halo. The question was, who is that unnamed girl?
Well, there is considerable variation in this. In some icons no added girl is shown. That is the type at its most basic. In others — as in this very late and “Westernized” example — there may be only one or two additional girls. Here one can be seen holding a candle behind Mary, with another nearby:
Some icons add even more girls, as in this example, which depicts three girls with hands crossed instead of holding candles:
And some add even more than three. The number is not fixed. And you will notice that in some the added girl or girls may be quite young, while in others they appear to be young women, as in this modern example:
What is their origin? Well, they are another of those apocryphal elements so common in Eastern Orthodox iconography. They are the maidens who, according to tradition, accompanied Mary from Nazareth to the Temple in Jerusalem. They are found in the Protoevangelion of James, apparently written some time in the second century and mentioned in the early third by Origin, who considered it recent and “dubious.” In short, it is pious fiction:
“And the child [Mary] was three years old, and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart
be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations.”
St. Theophylact, Archbishop of Bulgaria (c. 1055-1107), better known as Theophylact of Ochrid, was even more extravagant in his description:
“It was necessary that the Most Divine Maiden should enter the Temple in a manner befitting her. It would not have been suitable for the brilliant and costly pearl to be clothed in pauper’s rags; rather, royal clothing, which would serve to magnify and adorn her, was proper for the occasion.
When everything necessary had been prepared for the honorable and glorious entrance, the Virgin and those with her departed. Arriving in the city of Jerusalem after a three-day journey, Joachim and Anna proceeded to the Temple and brought into it the Living Temple of God, the three-year-old Maiden, the Most-Pure Virgin Mary. She was preceded by the choir of virgins carrying lighted candles. Saint Tarasius, Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote that Saint Anna said at that moment, “Begin the procession, O candle-bearing virgins, and go before me and the divine Maiden!”
So in iconography the “lamps” of the Protoevangelion are understood to be candles, and that is why in many icons of the “Entrance into the Temple,” Mary is accompanied by one or more girls or young women carrying lit candles (sometimes painters neglected to add the candles).
There you are. That explains the female “extras” in this icon type.