You will often read that icons are not signed, that a painter was expected to be humble, just a tool for recreating sacred objects. But historically we know that painters were often not too humble to sign their works. Though we find that very old icons generally are not signed, nonetheless there are signed icons both from the Byzantine period and after the fall of Constantinople, for example the series of icons signed by the Georgian monk Ioannes Tohabi, whose works (generally dated to the late 11th-early 12th century) are found at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. Further, there are Sinai icons ascribed to the iconographer Peter, and signed Δε[ησις] Πετρου ζογραφου (Deisis Petrou Zographou) “The prayer of Peter the iconographer.” For more information see the article The Artist’s Signature in Byzantium: Six Icons by Ioannes Tohabi in Sinai Monastery (11th-12th Century) by Maria Lidova in Opera Nomina Historiae; Giornale di cultura artistica, 1, 2009. In the late byzantine period and following centuries we find (among others) signed Cretan, Serbian, and Russian icons. By the time we get to the 19th century, signed icons were not at all uncommon. It is not only human nature to want some kind of recognition for accomplishment, but it is also a kind of advertisement for others who might want to find an icon painter they like. In any case, there were signed icons, and pictured here is a Russian example, which has its inscription on the reverse. Many, however, were signed on the front of the icon, often along with date of completion and any other appropriate information.
The icon shown above has this signature inscription: ПИСАЛЪ СIЮ ИКОНОУ М. ИВ. ДИКАРЕВЪ — PISAL SIIU IKONOU M. IV. DIKAREV: “Painted this icon M. IV. Dikarev,” which of course means “M. Iv. Dikarev painted this icon.” That refers to Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev (pronounced “Dee-car-yov”), who was actually a painter from Mstyora/Mstera, one of the cluster of three famous icon villages in Russia: Mstera, Palekh, and Kholui. Of these three Palekh was most noted for quality. A number of Dikarev icons are known from the last quarter of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th. He set up a workshop in Moscow.
But my point in this posting focuses neither on Dikarev nor on this icon in particular; rather it is that numbers of icons were signed, and such signed icons are not rare.
As mentioned earlier, the Greeks sometimes signed icons, a practice that became very common with time. On Greek icons one may find either the word Χειρ — Kheir — meaning “The hand [of]…” or else Δια Χειρος — Dia kheiros… — meaning “Through the hand [of]…”; each of these will be followed by the name of the painter. Usually such an inscription is somewhere at the bottom of a Greek icon. So one finds inscriptions such as “The hand of so-and-so” or “Through the hand of so-and-so,” and again, one finds Greek signature inscriptions beginning Δεησις… or Δεησις του… (“The prayer of…”). Frangos Katelanos, an iconographer of the 16th century, signed one of his works
ΧΕΙΡ ΕΥΤΕΛΕCΤΑΤΟΥ ΦΡΑΓΓΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΚΑΤΕΛΛΑΝΟΥ ΕΚ ΘΗΒΩΝ ΤΗC ΒΟΙΩΤΙΑC Kheir Eutelestatou Frangou tou Katellanou ek Thebon Tes Boiotias
“The Worthless Hand of Frangos Katelanos from Thebes of Boeotia.”
I should not finish this without mentioning that in the icon pictured here, the three saints are, from left, the Unmercenary physician Panteleimon, the monk Gennadiy of Kostroma, and the martyr Trifon/Triphon. Panteleimon holds his customary medicine box and spoon; Gennadiy wears his monk’s robe; and Trifon holds his traditional bird that stems partly from the story that he was once a gooseherd, and partly from the Russian legend in which St. Trifon appeared in a dream, riding a white horse and holding the bird — originally a falcon in the tale. So just as Panteleimon is the patron saint of physicians, Trifon is the patron of birds and geese and those who raise them.
Those who have been reading this site for a while will recognize the smaller image at the top of the icon as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus on a cloth. Some painters used this in preference to the image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — God the Father painted as an old man.
The icon depicted here is Slavic, not Greek. That is obvious from the inscription, which is in abbreviated form (note those horizontal squiggles above words that indicate abbreviation four times here?). The letters in it, transliterated, are:
In full it would read BOGOIAVLENIE GOSPODNE. If you look at the letters ГДНЕ — GDNE — on the right, you will notice a tiny letter “c” above them. That is the Cyrillic letter for “S,” and its presence below the abbreviation line indicates that it is to be inserted into the abbreviation. What I transliterate as “IA” here is the single letter that looks like an “A” with an extra little vertical line in the middle. That gives us a “YA” sound. So BOGOIAVLENIE, which we can also transliterate as BOGOYAVLENIE means literally “GOD-APPEARANCE.” BOG = GOD, YAVLENIE = APPEARANCE. Yavlenie is the same term used in Russian icon lore for the “Appearance” of a supposedly miraculous icon of Mary — the time when it is first noticed. GOSPODNE, from GOSPOD (Lord), means “of the Lord,” so this icon title reads in full “THE GOD-APPEARANCE OF THE LORD.”
The BOGOYAVLENIE — THE GOD-APPEARANCE — shows Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River, which was followed by the beginning of his ministry. This is the time when Jesus is acknowledged by a voice from heaven as the Son of God, along with the descent upon Jesus of the Holy Spirit — and of course given that Jesus is God in Eastern Orthodox belief, that accounts for the name; all three persons of the Trinity manifest here. The Greek term for the event is the Theophany, which also means “God-Appearance”: Theos = God, phaneia = appearance.
If you have been keeping up on postings here, you will immediately recognize the shorter IC XC abbreviations as signifying Iesous Khristos — Jesus Christ.
As noted, this icon obviously depicts the Baptism of Jesus, and in fact the Greeks generally just title it Η ΒΑΠΤΙCΙC — HE BAPTISIS — “THE BAPTISM.”
I have already mentioned that the image shown here is Slavic, rather than Greek, but there are elements in it found commonly in Greek versions of this type. The standard Russian image will show John the Forerunner (Ioann Predtecha) — who is John the Baptist –standing on the left bank of the river facing Christ; Christ will be in the water, nude though always without genitals (sometimes he wears a towel); three angels on the right bank incline toward him, reverently holding the cloths over their hands that are a sign of touching something sacred in E. Orthodoxy (no angels are mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the baptism); the Holy spirit is shown above in the form of a dove.
But what differs significantly in this particular icon is the presence of the odd little figures in the river. This shows the painter was heavily influenced by a Greek model. These riverine figures are survivals from the pre-Christian belief in minor deities and spirits of nature that are seen in early Roman and Greek art. That on the left is an old man holding a jug from which water flows. He is the spirit — we can say the god — of the Jordan River. Today an E. Orthodox believer would probably simply say he “symbolizes” the Jordan, but given that we see the Jordan, there is hardly any need for a symbol.
The other figure is a crowned woman who is Thalassa (in Greek) — the Sea. She rides on a sea creature. In the E. Orthodox liturgy for the celebration of the Theophany, the priest quotes lines excerpted from Psalm 114:
“When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. The sea saw it and fled; Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs. What ailed you, O you sea, that you fled? You Jordan, that you were driven back? You mountains, that you skipped like rams; and you little hills, like lambs? Tremble, you earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; whch turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”
Of course “The sea saw it and fled” refers to the parting of the waters of the Red Sea in the tale of the Israelites leaving Egypt in the book of Exodus; “The Jordan fled” refers to the similar tale in the book of Joshua that the Jordan River parted to let the Israelites cross it. (It is very common in E. Orthodoxy for Old Testament quotes to be re-applied to New Testament situations and persons).
Other Greek examples of this type may show more fish in the water for decorative purposes, or even two flat stones forming an X-like cross at the feet of Jesus, with the heads of snakes rising up. This comes from Psalm 74:13:
“You did divide the sea by your strength: you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.”
An example of this icon type given in the Ekphrasis of Photios Kontoglou — the best example of a Greek painter’s manual one can find, though also comparatively recent — shows Thalassa holding an old-fashioned sailing ship in one hand, and the Jordan River with a very large crab on his head. If you don’t know who Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) was, I should tell you that he is the person largely responsible for the revival of the so called “Byzantine” style in Greek icon painting. His Εκφρασις της Ορθοδοξου Εικονογραφιας —Ekphrasis tes Orthodoxou Eikonographias — The Expression/Description of Orthodox Iconography — is the best work available on Greek iconography in general, much better than the older and unillustrated Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna. But unfortunately it is not available in English. In connection with Kontoglou, you may wish to note the comparatively recent trend in Greek Orthodoxy for a return to the older style of painting, which is really a mid-to-late 20th century phenomenon.
Note the extreme stylization — the abstraction — of the background in this icon. The banks of the Jordan are shown as rocky hills, and the Jordan itself is vertical. One cannot help thinking that the odd triangle shapes repeated in the formation of the hills, along with the multiple little circles, may have some “Freudian” significance; they really do remind one of the female torso and breasts. But then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
It is interesting to note how the painter has used a single line extending from Christ’s left leg all the way up his body to loop left below the chest, forming a kind of extended question mark that makes a pleasant abstraction.
In any case, the Bogoyavlenie or Theophany is one of the major church festivals in Eastern Orthodoxy, and so there are countless icons of this subject, whether Russian or Greek. The Theophany is celebrated on January 6th, which Westerners may recognize as the Festival of the Epiphany. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is the day of the Blessing of the Waters, which is a chilly event in Russia. There, after the waters are blessed, it is a tradition to break or cut a hole in the river ice and to bathe in the near-freezing water, which is considered “holy” at this time. The Russian priest dips a cross into the water; the Greek priest (where the waters are considerably warmer) throws a cross into the water, which people jump in to retrieve.
Because of calendar differences, the Theophany is celebrated on January 19th (Julian Calendar) in Russia. It is interesting to compare the image at the top of the page with this later Russian example from the 19th century:
You will notice that though the figures of John, Jesus, and the angels are still stylized, the background is now very different. That is the influence of western European realism. So even though the trees and ground and river are painted very simply, they do not even approach the degree of abstraction found in early examples. Compare that image with another icon, which though also late, nonetheless presents the Baptism, both figures and background, in a very stylized, abstract manner. It thus maintains the artistic approach of the early examples of this type, while nonetheless revealing the differences in techniques of abstraction that developed over time in Russian icon painting.
By the way, I always enjoy hearing from readers who might find this site of some interest or use. Just post a comment, which will remain private unless you ask that it be posted. Up to now I have kept comments private — they go only to me. But if reader preference turns out to be for public comments, I can take that into account in the future.
Here is more information to enable the student to begin reading Greek icon inscriptions. This does not make for thrilling reading, but it is essential for those who seriously want to understand icons.
You already know one of the most common Greek inscriptions because it is also used in Russian icons: IC XC. Those are the letters abbreviating Ιησους Χριστος — ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — IESOUS KHRISTOS — JESUS CHRIST. They are found (logically) on icons depicting Jesus.
The other inscription you already know from the posting on Russian inscriptions is MP ΘΥ abbreviating Μητηρ θεου — ΜΗΤΗΡ ΘΕΟΥ — METER THEOU — MOTHER OF GOD. Meter in Greek is “mother,” and Theos is “God.” When it is written as “theou,” it means “of God” — thus “Mother of God.” That inscription is found on icons of Mary. Remember that the horizontal squiggle (which I have not included here) is written above letters to mark them as abbreviations.
The other very common inscription found on Marian icons is ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΣ — Θεοτοκος “Theotokos,” meaning “Birth-giver of God.” In Eastern Orthodox belief, Mary gave birth to God as Jesus. This title was hugely controversial in early Christendom, and caused great theological conflicts, but those favoring calling Mary essentially “Mother of God” won out. Winning factions in Orthodox theological conflicts often had the most power and political support, not necessarily the best argument.
We saw in the previous posting that the generic term for a male saint in Greek is ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS, and that the generic term for a female saint is ΑΓΙΑ — HAGIA. Both mean literally “holy,” but we usually translate them into English as “saint,” which comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy.”
There are, however, different kinds of saints, and some categories of these are distinguished by their own titles. For example, if we are looking at an icon of a saint who has the title ΟΣΙΟΣ — HOSIOS instead of HAGIOS, then we know we are looking at a monastic saint, a monk of some kind, and he will likely be wearing a monk’s garb. Given that there are different saints having the same name, the title Hosios will distinguish one who was a monk from one who was not.
By now you should be able to easily read the inscription on the first image pictured below: HO HAGIOS ANDREAS — “Saint Andrew.” Remember that in icon inscriptions, the letter “S”, which is Σ (sigma) in Greek, is often written as C. Notice how the I (iota) in HAGIOS has been fitted in just below the crossbar of the Γ (gamma). Linking of two letters like this in icon inscriptions is very common.
Now look at the second icon image below. It illustrates some of the oddities of Greek icon inscriptions. First, the triangular arrangement of the letters ΟΓΑ may mystify you until you realize that it is just an abbreviation of the word ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS — meaning “Saint,” with the “g’ in Hagios placed above the letters O (for “ho”) and A, beginning the word “Hagios. Once you know that, you can read it on every icon in which it is abbreviated like this.
Now look at the word below it. It is ΙΟΥCΤΙΝΟC — IOUSTINOS, which is Greek for the name “Justin.” Notice, however, that the Y (which looks like a V here) is placed right atop a very angular, diamond-shaped O. And that next odd-looking letter is just a T with the preceding C (alternate form of Σ) made much smaller and attached just below the left side of the crossbar on the T.
On the right side, what looks like one word on the first line is really two, and it continues onto the two lines below. It is Ο ΦΙΛΟCΟΦΟC — HO PHILOSOPHOS. You already know that HO (the O) means “the.” And Philosophos means “philosopher.” So this is O HAGIOS IUSTINOS HO PHILOSOPHOS — literally “The holy Justin the Philosopher.” This is the person generally known in the West as Justin Martyr, which is why he holds a cross in his right hand, as is customary for martyrs in icon painting.
Note how the last C (in Greek) of Philosophos is written smaller and at an angle just below the rest of the word, with a little ornamental squiggle attached to its base — but once you know it is just C (Σ-sigma), it is easy to recognize in other icons, even when that ornamental squiggle is longer.If you learn bit by bit like this, you can soon read huge numbers of titles of saints in Greek icons. It is not difficult, and you do not have to learn the entire Greek language to do it, because, as with Russian icons, these titles are very repetitive. So a little learning goes a long way.
To read Greek icon inscriptions, one must learn the Greek alphabet, which is easy and requires only a little time. The sound of the letter is more important to the reader of icons than its name. Here is the Greek alphabet with its sounds (approximations). For some letters I give the “old” generally-accepted pronunciation as well as the “new” modern Greek pronunciation, which one may ignore unless one is learning modern Greek.
Αα = A as in ah
Ββ = B Old: B as in boy; New: V as in very
Γγ = G Old: G as in go; New: G as in go, sometimes Y as in yard
Δδ = D Old: D as in dark; New: Th as in this
Εε = E as in epic
Ζζ = Z as in zone
Ηη = E Old: e as in epic (or like a in mate); New: Ee as in peel
Θθ = Th as in thick
Ιι = I ee as in meet
Κκ + K as in kin
Λλ = L as in lamp
Μμ = M as in mill
Νν = N as in no
Ξξ = X as in dixie
Οο = O Old: O as in not; New: O as in post
Ππ = P as in past
Ρρ = R as in (Spanish) Rosa
Σσς S as in sack. σ is used within a word, ς as the last letter of a word
(Σ is commonly written as C on old icons)
Ττ = T as in time
Υυ = Y Old: German umlaut ü as in über ; New: ee as in peel
Φφ Ph as in phone
Χχ = Ch as in (German) Bach
Ψψ = Ps as in tips
Ωω = O as in pole
Ω as a capital letter is often written as a large ω on old icons.
Those are the basic letters. It is important to note that what looks like an apostrophe in English, when used in Greek over a vowel, indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced (old system) with an “h” before it. All you really need to know of Greek accent marks is found in the words ὁ φίλος, ho philos, meaning “the friend.” The apostrophe-like accent above the o gives it the added “h” sound, and the accent above the i in philos indicates that the first syllable is stressed. Modern Greek ignores the rough breathing (the initial “h” sound), but in writing about icon inscriptions it is usually kept in transliteration.
Those who want to go beyond that brief introduction to the Greek alphabet will find plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet.
What one does not often find elsewhere is information on the peculiarities of Greek icon inscriptions. Among these is the practice of abbreviation, generally indicated by a long, curving horizontal line over the word that looks somewhat like an extended tilde (~) in Spanish. That tells us letters have been omitted in writing. The other important peculiarity is ligature — the joining of letters that are not ordinarily joined. One letter may be attached to the next, for example an A may be joined to an N, or a T may be placed atop an o, etc. The alert student will quickly become accustomed to these.
Now we can move on to actual inscriptions.
The most common word in Greek inscriptions is ἉΓΙΟC (ΑΓΙΟΣ) – HAGIOS, meaning “holy.” It is the Greek word used for “saint.” So an inscription above the head of a saint that reads Ὁ ἉΓΙΟΣ ΟΝΟΥΦΡΙΟΣ — HO HAGIOS ONOUPHRIOS — means literally THE HOLY ONOUPHRIOS, which we can just shorten in translation to “Saint ONOUPHRIOS.” Often when Greek saints’ names are put into English the Latin form is used, so you may see this name translated as “Saint Onuphrius.” — the “-os” Greek ending often changes to the “-us” Latin ending. The “ou” combination is pronounced like “oo” in “moon.” And remember that on old icons, the letter Σ –“s” — is generally written as C, as in the last letter of the name of Saint Onouphrios on the icon at the bottom of this posting.
Things change only slighty when a saint is female. The “HO” becomes “HE,” as in Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΔΡΟΣΙΣ — HE HAGIA DROSIS — THE HOLY DROSIS –“Saint Drosis.” So HO HAGIOS is used for a male saint, HE HAGIA for a female saint.
Another useful word to add to your beginning vocabulary is ΤΟΥ — TOU — which means “of” or “of the” in Greek. So an inscription like Ἡ ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ –HE PHILOXENIA TOU ABRAAM — contains two words you already know. The first is Ἡ, the feminine word for “the.” The second is “TOY” meaning of. So if I tell you that Philoxenia means “hospitality” and Abraam is just the Greek form of Abraham, you know immediately that this inscription reads “The Hospitality of Abraham,” which is the Greek name for the icon type the Russians call “The Old Testament Trinity,” the appearance of the three Angels to the Patriarch Abraham in the book of Genesis. And you may wish to know that in the word Philoxenia, the accent is on the last “i.”
That is enough for right now. In the near future I will add more on the essential Greek icon inscriptions you need to know to gain a knowledge of the basics of reading Greek icons.