GREEK ICON INSCRIPTIONS: ANOTHER STEP FORWARD

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.

Monastery of Hosios Loukas
Justin the Philosopher, icon by Theophanes the...
                                                  Andrew
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