Do you remember Merkurios Abu-Seifein — Merkurios of the two swords, the one whom Mary, mother of Jesus supposedly sent to assassinate the Emperor Julian?

Well, in his traditional story the father of Merkurios had a couple of very interesting buddies. He made their acquaintance when they ate his own father, the grandfather of Merkurios/Mercurius. Now of course most saints — even before their conversion — do not go about eating people’s relatives, but these two were an unusual pair. We find them in Egyptian Christianity, as in this icon from the Museum of Coptic Art in Cairo, said to have been painted in the last quarter of the 18th century by Ibrahim al-Nassikh:

They appear also in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, which has a good account of them and how they met the father of Merkurios. Remember that St. Merkurios was also called Philopater. Here is how the story goes in Budge’s translation of the account for his day of commemoration — Hedar 25 — December 4th. The English of Budge is a bit archaic, but understandable nonetheless:

On this day became a martyr Philopator (which is being interpreted “lover of the Father”)
Mercurius, and this name also being interpreted is “servant of Jesus Christ.” This holy
man was a native of the city of ‘Asletes, which was also the city of his father, and his
grandfather who were born therein, and he was brought up in the city of Rome.

Now the occupation of his father, and grandfather, and his kinsmen was that of hunters of wild
beasts. One day they went out hunting, according to their custom, and they found two men
with the faces of dogs, and they ate his grandfather, and they also wanted to eat his father,
but the angel of the Lord prevented them from doing so. And the angel said unto them,
“Touch him not, for from him shall go forth good fruit.” Then the angel of the Lord
surrounded them with fire, and being in tribulation, the two Dog-faces came to the father
of Saint Mercurius, and they bowed low before him. And straightway God changed their
[savage] nature to one of gentleness, and they became like sheep and went with him to the

And after he had begotten the holy man Mercurius, and called his name “Philopator,”
the Dog-faces lived with them for many days, and then they became Christians; now the
ancestors of the holy man had been in days of old pagans. And when they received the gift
of Christian baptism, they called the father of the holy man “Noah,” and his mother
“Tabot,” and Philopator “Mercurius.”

And the Dog-faces, according to what the angel ofthe Lord said unto them when he appeared unto them, were in subjection to the holy man Mercurius, and his father. And when the king heard the story of the Dog-faces and how God had changed their savage natures, [he ordered his soldiers to bring in wild beasts]before the king, and the Dog-faces destroyed all the wild beasts, which the king broughtbefore them. When the king saw this he was afraid of them exceedingly, and he asked the father of Saint Mercurius to entreat God to remove from them their savage nature, and to
make them to possess the nature of men; and he asked God, and God changed their nature
and they became like men.

Then the king took the holy father Mercurius and appointed him governor and captain of the army, and these Dog-faces were subject unto him, and all the people were afraid of them. After this a certain wicked king rose up and he wished to make war upon another king, and the king sent his soldiers to entice those Dog-faces and to bring them to him. And that wicked king, who wished to make war on the king of the city wherein the father of Saint Mercurius lived, enticed them. And straightway he was angry at the Dog-faces, and he punished one of them, who became a martyr thereby, and the other fled.

When the father of Saint Mercurius returned to the city he sought for his
son and his mother and found them not. Now the king, having heard that the father of
Saint Mercurius was killed in battle, decided to take the mother of Saint Mercurius and
marry her. And one of the soldiers of the king knowing what the king intended to do, went
and told the mother of Saint Mercurius what the king had decided concerning her. When
she heard this she asked him to take [her] out secretly, and she went out with her son the
blessed Mercurius. And his father having sought for his wife and his son, and found them
not, knew not in the least what had become of them.

And the king was afraid because he thought that the Dog-faces lived with him, and that he would become angry and would turn them loose, and they would destroy all the city. And the king commanded his servants not to tell him that he intended to marry his wife.

After this war broke out against the king, and the father of Saint Mercurius went out to fight, and the king took him prisoner. Now by the Will of God the king of Rome was a Christian. And when he knew that the father of Saint Mercurius was a Christian, he spared him and did not kill him, and he made him governor of all the city of the Mardosaweyan. And by the Will of God Saint Mercurius
and his mother were in the city of Rome, and when his father came into the church the
mother of Saint Mercurius saw him and knew that he was her husband.

One day when they were sitting in the guest house the father of Mercurius and his soldiers rode out, and the mother of the blessed Mercurius dressed her son in the fine raiment which he used to
wear in the royal city, and commanded him to go and mount the horse of the governor, that
is to say of his father. And having mounted the governor’s horse, the soldiers seized him
and brought him before the governor, that is to say his father, who did not know that he
was his son, and he was angry with him. And the mother of Mercurius came to her
husband, now he did not know that she was his wife, and she said unto him, “We are
strangers, and when I knew that thou was a stranger I thought that my son might be with
thee”; and when he asked her questions and enquired concerning her journey she told him
that she was his wife.

And straightway he knew her and he knew his son Mercurius, and
he placed [him] in the church, and they lived there together. When the father and mother
of Saint Mercurius died, the king took him and made him governor of the city of the
Mardosaweyan in his father’s stead; and the one Dog-face that had remained with him up
to the time he was appointed governor, used to go forth with Mercurius in battle. When
they wanted to fight God used to restore to the Dog-face his original savage nature, and
there was none who could stand before him. And there were given to this Saint Mercurius
power, and great strength, and he was more renowned and more exalted than all the other
officers of the kingdom.

So you can add these two fellows to the ranks of dog-headed saints. Their names by tradition are given variously as Akhrax and Augani or Ahrauqas and Augani.

I hope you have realized by now how full of myth and legend Eastern Christianity is, whether Slavic, Greek, or in regions farther south. Christianity itself is largely based on myth, but that is something seldom told to the laity. It will, however, eventually become obvious to the serious student of the iconography of the Eastern Church.


Today’s icon depicts a very interesting fellow we have seen before — Christopher “Dog-head.” Yes, he is the saint who was believed to have the head of a dog, having come from a race of dog-headed men.

A university professor, who had made a name for himself locally as an “expert” on Russian icons in the absence of anyone who knew better, once criticized me in print many years ago for referring to “myth” in Russian Orthodoxy. I then presented him with the very obvious case of the prevalence of icons of Christopher “Dog-head,” to which he of course had no response, because Christopher is such an obvious example of myth in Eastern Orthodox iconography. But of course as you now know, much of what is presented as fact in Eastern Orthodoxy is actually merely tradition and legend and folklore. Eastern Orthodoxy is very slow in acknowledging that, but Christopher — being such a glaring example — is now no longer painted with a dog’s head in the icons of “State Church” Russian Orthodox painters, though he is of course still found in those of the conservative Old Believers, who maintain the old Russian iconographic traditions.

Though one might think it an early icon at first glance because of its similarity to the 17th century Stroganov style, it was actually painted by the Mstera/Mstyora iconographer Mikhail Iosipovich Kirikov (Михаил Иосифович Кириков) sometime between 1910 and 1920. Mikhail and his brother Vasiliy came from a family of icon painters. Mikhail began learning to paint icons at age 10. His brother Vasiliy later worked on the restoration of old icons, and cleaned overpainting from the famous Old Testament Trinity attributed to Andrey Rublev, revealing the original.

(Vladimir Art Museum)

The title inscription reads:


Christopher is dressed in warrior’s garments, with the image of Christ Emmanuel on his breast  He is armed with sword, shield, and lance, and stands on a demon he has subdued.


As is traditional in Russian iconography, the demon (chort) is depicted as very dark and blackish, with hair that stands high up on his head.

At the top of the icon, two “Angels of the Lord” present Christopher with the crown of victory.

You will find more about Christopher here:




First, let’s look at this icon of Grigoriy Dvoeslov (Григорий Двоеслов) — Gregory the Dialogist.  The abbreviated inscription on the icon tells us he was Papa Rimskiy —  Pope of Rome.  Now before you wonder why a Russian Orthodox icon is depicting a Roman Pope, remember that Gregory was Pope from 590 to 604, long before the 1054 Great Schism in Christianity that finally divided Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism in the West.  After that time, newly-canonized Roman Catholic saints were no longer added to the Eastern Orthodox lists.

  The icon — as the signature at bottom left tells us — is by Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev,  a Mstera/Mstyora-born painter who later moved to Moscow, like Osip Semyonovich Chirikov.  

(State Hermitage Museum)

If we look at icons by Dikarev and Chirikov, we can see similarities to the icon discussed today:



(Courtesy of

We can immediately know two things about it: First, the style is strongly influenced by that of the late 19th-early 20th century Mstera/Mstyora and Moscow painters Chirikov and Dikarev. We see that in the graduated coloring of the background sky, in the gold highlighting of the garment, and in the background buildings. Nonetheless, we can also easily tell from the manner in which the face is depicted (as well as the condition of the icon) that this image is modern — quite recent.

Another obvious clue telling us this is not an old icon is the saint depicted. She is, as the abbreviated title inscription tells us, Svyataya Blazhennaya Matrona — “Holy Blessed Matrona,” often better known as St. Matrona of Moscow or Blessed Eldress Matrona. Though she was born about 1881 (there is some uncertainty about her birthdate), she was not “glorified” (the Eastern Orthodox version of canonization) — not made an official saint — until 1999.

Matrona is an excellent example of the problems one always encounters when trying to sift fact from fiction in the lives of saints, because as you already know if you are long-time reader here, many of the saints venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy and depicted in icons never existed at all, and some who may have existed have biographies so heavily fictionalized that the historical person has been completely lost. In the absence of extensive evidence, it is often extremely difficult to separate what facts might exist about a saint’s life from the often extensive fiction embroidered over and through them.

A similar situation exists with Matrona.

Given that Matrona lived so recently, we know what she actually looked like, unlike the bulk of Eastern Orthodox saints, whose images are generally just imaginary (yes, even icons of Jesus fall into that category):

Matrona was born Матрона Дмитриевна Никонова / Matrona Dimitrievna Nikonova in the village of Sebino in the Tula Oblast (Province). She was blind from birth. Then at age 17, Matrona’s legs became paralyzed. Her life from 1925 was lived Moscow. Having constant trouble with the Soviet police, she moved from apartment to apartment. She died on the 2nd of May, 1952, and was interred in the Danilovsky Cemetery. Later, in the 1990s, her remains were transferred to the Intercession Monastery.

Nonetheless, in spite of her recent date. there is the same problem of separating fact from fiction in her life as we find with a great many saints from centuries earlier. The main source of Matrona’s story is an account written by Matrona’s neighbor in a communal apartment, Zinaida Zhdanova. The account is titled Сказание о житии блаженной старицы Матроны — The Tale of the LIfe of Blessed Eldress Matrona.

As the traditional story goes, Matrona was born to a very poor family. Her mother had decided before the birth to give the newborn child to an orphanage, but then she supposedly dreamed of a white bird with a human face and eyes closed. Seeing this as a sign, she decided to keep the infant. After birth it is said that the girl had a cross-shaped convex shape on her chest, and when she was taken to be baptized, a fragrant steam is said to have risen up over the font all the way to the ceiling. Remarkably, by the time she reached the age of seven or eight, Matrona was said to have the gift of unceasing prayer, of healing, and clairvoyancy — she gained the reputation of “miracle worker,” and visitors began arriving from near and far asking for her counsel and help.

Though blind, she is said to have been very fond of the icons, and took them down and played with them. One day she supposedly told her mother to go to the priest, and in his library on a certain shelf she would find a book with a picture of the the “Seeker of the Lost” icon. Matrona said an actual icon of this type should be painted. The local women managed to scrape together enough resources to pay for the painting, and an icon painter was engaged to do the job. The painter, however, kept hesitating in his task, unable to begin. Matrona told him that he must repent, because she somehow knew he had killed a man. So the painter repented, and the icon was completed.

Matrona then told the people a prayer service was to be held in a field. It was July and in the middle of a drought, but Matrona predicted that before the people returned home from the service, it would rain. So the new icon was brought in procession to the field with other religious banners. After the service, when the people were returning to Sebino, it suddenly began to rain.
Eventually, because of the persecution by her brothers, who were Communists and did not like all the visitors coming for “miracles,” Matrona moved to Moscow.

There are many more incidents in the tale of her life and supposed miracles. However, as one writer has said of Matrona’s life, “There is too much information, but there is almost no absolutely reliable information.”

What is certain is that Matrona has become an extremely popular saint in modern Russia, with thousands of people visiting her relics at the Intercession Convent in Moscow to pray for the saint’s assistance for a multitude of problems. All kinds of “Matrona” religious knickknacks are sold there, along with icons of her, and the gifts of visitors and the trade in such items has made the Convent and its abbess very wealthy.  Just as St. Xenia has become the “talisman” of the city of St. Petersburg, so Matrona has become the talisman of Moscow. It is said that visitors should bring flowers which are placed by the relics, then taken home and put with the icons as a blessing, or made into a tea to cure illness, or sewn into pillows.  Not surprisingly, there is a lot of folk superstition mixed in with the veneration of Matrona, and not all has “official” Church approval.

In the account of Matrona’s life, there was originally an incident in which the dictator and mass murderer Stalin came to visit her in 1941, to ask about the war.  Matrona supposedly blessed him for the defense of Moscow and predicted a Russian victory. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, holds that this somewhat embarrassing incident is just a legend, that it never actually happened, and it has been removed from “Church” versions of her life. There was, however, an icon painted of the reported incident that is often reproduced:


So again we are left with all kinds of stories about Matrona and the difficulty of knowing which are true and which are simply fiction.  The student of icons should always keep in mind that though the lives of the saints are helpful in determining why an icon was painted and what was believed about the person in the icon, they should not be uncritically accepted as reliable.


In Christianity the cross is everywhere, no matter whether in the Russian form or Latin form or other forms.  It seems very odd, then, that in the archeological evidence it is virtually absent from early Christian art until about the 4th and 5th centuries.  Many opine that even though the cross — because of the Crucifixion — was  a central part of Christian teaching, Christians were not in favor of advertising it visually because it was an instrument of shame and execution to ordinary Romans, a sign of criminals.  In fact one of the earliest depictions considered to be of the Crucifixion is a wall graffito apparently making fun of a Christian named Alexamenos, showing him worshiping a God who is crucified.  The graffito, found near the Palatine hill in Rome,  gives Jesus the head of an ass.  It may date to the beginning of the 3rd century.


There has been some talk that the earliest Christian representation of the Crucifixion is not found in graffiti or carvings or paintings, but rather in early Christian papyrus manuscripts of the Gospels.  Why do some think that? 

It is because of an abbreviation for the word cross (Greek stauros) found in some such early papyri.  Instead of writing the word out as CΤΑΥΡΟC, they instead abbreviate it as CTPON, but combine the letters T (tau) and P (rho). so that the circle of the rho is placed atop the tau.

There is speculation that this may have been done to represent the body of Jesus on the cross, the circle of the rho forming his head.  You can see what it looks like in this photo of Bodmer Papyrus 75, in the line giving “Luke” 14:27, where “cross” is found in the grammatical form CTAΥΡΟΗ/STAURON

ὅστις οὐ βαστάζει τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἔρχεται ὀπίσω μου, οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου μαθητής.
Hostis ou bastazei ton stauron autou kai erkhetai opiso mou, ou dunatai einai mou mathetes.

“Whoever does not carry his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”


These early papyri, however, were discovered in Egypt, which has soil dry enough to preserve ancient papyrus documents. That gives a possible alternate reason for the “crucified man” appearance of the so-called Staurogram abbreviation.

The monuments of ancient Egypt — which have lasted even to our own time — are filled with hieroglyphic symbols, and one of the most prominent of these is the ankh. “Ankh” in ancient Egyptian signified “to live” — life.

It is found in the common ancient Egyptian phrase Ankh em Pet — “Live in Heaven,” i.e. “Live forever.”

In the image below, for example, we see the Goddess Isis giving life to the nostrils of Queen Nefertari — one of the wives of Pharaoh Rameses the Great — through the symbol of the ankh:

The ankh — the “cross before the cross” — would have been a familiar symbol to early Egyptian Christians, who may have simply transferred the “life-giving” notion of the ankh from the ancient Egyptian religion to the written Gospel manuscript abbreviation for the cross. Whether the staurogram also was a kind of “stick figure” image of the crucified Jesus is open to question, but in the absence of clear evidence we are free to keep an open mind.

It is possible also that the papyri with the staurogram are not as early as previously thought. There is some speculation that instead of dating from 175-225 c.e., Papyrus 75 may be as late as the 4th century, because of its similarity of text to Codex Vaticanus, which would put the presence of the Staurogram in the same period as the known appearance of the cross in Christian art — but that too is speculation.


Do you remember when we looked at this multiple icon?

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

The five main icon types on it were explained in this previous posting:


Today, however, I want to discuss an odd little sidelight on the imagery of the central Crucifixion, specifically the image of the sun:


You will remember that in icons of the Crucifixion, it is very common to depict the sun dark and the moon red.

The sun is represented as darkened in keeping with the Synoptic Gospel accounts — but as we often find, they contain some surprises.

Scholars generally hold that Matthew and Luke are simply expanded and edited versions of the Gospel called “of Mark.” So here is what we find in the Synoptics regarding the darkened sun at the Crucifixion:

Mark 15:33
And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.

Matthew 27:45:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.

And if we look at “Luke,” we find this in 23:44-45:

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

So basically they all say much the same regarding the darkened sun. So what is the issue?

Well, it is this. The “earliest and best” manuscripts of “Luke” do not say “And the sun was darkened.” Instead, they say τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος / tou heliou eklipontons — “the sun was eclipsed

So why do later versions of Luke say καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ὁ ἥλιος / kai eskotisthe ho helios — “and the sun was darkened“?

It is because the eclipse mentioned at the Crucifixion in the “oldest and best” Greek manuscripts was an embarrassment to educated Christians. It was an obvious error. First, an eclipse of the sun does not last three hours. It lasts only a few minutes. Second, the Crucifixion supposedly took place at the time of Passover, when the moon is full. An eclipse happens on a new moon, not the full moon.

This reading of “Luke” so bothered the 3rd century theologian Origin that he asserted it was likely put into Luke by “secret enemies of the Church of Christ.”

We say then that Matthew and Mark have not stated that an eclipse occurred at
that time. Neither did Luke according to very many copies, which have, And it
was about the sixth hour, and a darkness came over the whole land until the ninth
hour; and the sun was darkened. In some copies however the words, And the sun
was darkened, do not occur, but, There was darkness over all the land, the sun
being eclipsed. Possibly some one in the desire to make the statement more plain
made bold to place, The sun being eclipsed, in the place of, And the sun was
darkened, believing that the darkness could not have happened except by reason
of an eclipse. Yet I rather believe that the secret enemies of the Church of Christ
have altered this phrase, making the darkness occur by reason of the sun being
‘eclipsed‘, so that the Gospels might be attacked with some show of reason,
through the devices of those who wished to attack them

Of course there is no evidence to support that supposition. It is quite obvious from the manuscript evidence that “the sun was eclipsed” was the earlier reading of that part of “Luke.”

Because it was an embarrassment, copyists began dropping the earlier reading, instead changing the words to kαὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ὁ ἥλιος / kai eskotisthe ho helios — “and the sun was darkened.” That change put Luke into harmony with the accounts in Mark and Matthew, which say nothing of an eclipse.

Most modern translations simply ignore the earlier reading and follow the altered text to keep it in harmony with “Mark” and “Matthew,” or else they translate the word that should be understood to signify “eclipse” simply as “for the sun stopped shining,” as the NIV does, to avoid the issue of the mistaken eclipse.

As for the Gospel called “of John,” it omits the matter entirely. In John there is no darkness over the land at the Crucifixion, no eclipse, no earthquake, no rending of the veil in the Temple.

Mention of an eclipse at the Crucifixion is also found in the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus):

And the centurion reported what had happened to the procurator. And when the procurator and his wife heard it, they were exceedingly grieved, and neither ate nor drank that day. And Pilate sent for the Jews, and said to them: Have you seen what has happened? And they say: There has been an eclipse of the sun in the usual way.”

In the apocryphal Letters of the 5th or 6th century writer pretending to be Dionysios the Areopagite, the writer claims he was a witness to the eclipse at the Crucifixion:

Say to him however, “What do you affirm concerning the eclipse, which took place at the time of the saving Cross?” For both of us at that time, at Heliopolis, being present, and standing together, saw the moon approaching the sun, to our surprise (for it was not appointed time for conjunction); and again, from the ninth hour to the evening, supernaturally placed back again into a line opposite the sun. And remind him also of something further. For he knows that we saw, to our surprise, the contact itself beginning from the East, and going towards the edge of the sun’s disc, then receding back, and again, both the contact and the re-clearing, not taking place from the same point, but from that diametrically opposite. So great are the supernatural things of that appointed time, and possible to Christ alone, the Cause of all, Who does great things and marvelous, of which there is not number.”

To the uneducated among classical Greeks and Romans, an eclipse was a dangerous omen. Richard C. Carrier writes:

“The majority of lunar and solar eclipses mentioned in ancient works are presented as
coinciding with wars, battles, or the deaths of prominent persons, and these
coincidences are by and large invented without reference to astronomical fact.” (Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire)

The Greek historian Plutarch (c. AD 46 – after AD 119 ) wrote that “men regard [the eclipse] as monstrous and as a sign sent from God portending some great misfortunes.”

That was not, however, the view of educated Romans, who regarded an eclipse as a natural phenomenon, not as a dangerous omen.

It is not surprising then that the anonymous writers of the Synoptic Gospels used both a long darkness and an eclipse to signify the world shaken by a cosmic event. In short, both were literary fictions designed for a specific purpose, not things that actually happened. It troubled later Christians greatly that there was no record of them outside the Gospels — but that is the nature of the Gospels. They are not to be taken as factual history any more than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, though it mentions verifiable historical persons and events, is to be mistaken for recording actual history. That was not the purpose of Tolstoy, nor was it the purpose of the Gospels.