ICON CALLIGRAPHY: MORE PRACTICE IN DECIPHERING VYAZ’

Today I would like to talk a little more about Vyaz’ (Вязь). that “condensed” form of ornamental writing used for titles on countless icons. It means simply “joined” or “tied,” and that is because letters are pushed closely together or joined to another on the same upright stem instead of being entirely separate.

Vyaz’ has many variations, but in all the basics remain the same: an inscription is condensed by the reduction in size of some letters and by the abbreviation of some words.

Here is a very nice example, the title inscription on an icon of the “Unburnt Thornbush.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Let’s look a little more closely:

vyazclipneokup

When we look carefully, we can see that the inscription consists of five words. Let’s separate them to make deciphering easier:

This is the first word, OBRAZ, meaning “Image.” Notice that in Church Slavic script, the letter that is O in modern Russian font is written like the Greek letter Omega, which looks something like an English “W.”

obrazvyaz

In a modern Russian font, it would look like this: ОБРАЗ. Notice how the Р (“R” in English) is reduced in size so it can fit in the upper hollow between the Б (“B”) and the А, and the З (“Z”), rather than being placed at the end, is instead written above the preceding three letters as much smaller superscription.

Next comes the word NEOPALIMUIYA, meaning “Unburnt” — НЕОПАЛИМЫЯ. In the written example, the letter represented in the modern Russian font as Я (“YA) is written more like an “I” joined to an “A” in English.

neopalimuiyavyaz

Following that is the word KUPINUI, meaning “Thornbush” — КУПИНЫ. Notice that the Slavic У, which is the sound “oo” as in “moon” phonetically, is written like an O surmounted by a Y.

kupinuivyaz

And then comes the first of two words identifying this as a Marian icon — PRESVYATUIYA, meaning “Most Holy” — ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ. Notice that not all the letters are included; it is abbreviated:

presvyantuiyavyaz

And finally the word BOGORODITSUI, meaning literally “Birthgiver of God,” but generally loosely translated as “Mother of God” — БОГОРОДИЦЫ. Notice that the Д (D) is written above in smaller form instead of being in the body of the word, and that the word as a whole is heavily abbreviated, with several letters entirely omitted, but nonetheless to be supplied by the reader.

bogoroditsuivyaz

All together, we get:

OBRAZ NEOPALIMUIYA KUPINUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI. You may be accustomed to seeing the letter Ы transliterated as “Y” instead of as “UI,” as I tend to do informally.

So, let’s look again in informal transliteration:

OBRAZ NEOPALIMUIYA KUPINUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI.

Did you notice that the endings of the words following OBRAZ indicate that grammatically, one should insert an “OF” when translating? That is why in English, the title is “IMAGE OF THE UNBURNT THORNBUSH MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.”

As you can see, Vyaz’ is not difficult once one learns to distinguish individual letters, but of course one must also learn a little basic Church Slavic vocabulary to understand what the words mean. That is not difficult. You will see the words “Image,” “Most-Holy,” and “Mother of God” repeated over and over again in titles, if you look at large numbers of icons, and so you will always know what they mean. Icon inscriptions, as I frequently emphasize, are very repetitive, so a little study gives great results.

David

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