This icon type is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It celebrates the victory in the 8th century of those (the Iconophiles) who advocated the making and veneration of Christian icons over those who did not (the Iconoclasts). Historically speaking however, the icon represents the popular adage that it is the winners who write history. Today I would like to take a quick look at the history of Christian art as it relates to icons. But first, let’s take a look at the icon itself. This example is from the 14th century:

The central part of the image is a depiction of the Hodegitria icon supported by two angels, depicting Mary as “Shower of the Way,” which was considered a very important icon in Byzantium and another of those icons said (mistakenly) to have been painted by St. Luke.  In Russia it is called the Путеводительница/Putevoditel’nitsa.

The crowned figures at left are the Byzantine iconophile Empress Theodora and her son Michael III, as well as various iconophile saints. Not all the saint titles are clear in this image, but later examples of the type usually include such figures as Methodius the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Bishop of Synnada, Tarasius Bishop of Constantinople, St. Theodosia, Venerable Ioannikos, Theodore Studite, Theodore Graptus, and Stephen the New.

The embroidered ornamental cloth hanging just below the icon is called a podea (ποδέα) in Greek, and in Russian a pelena (пелена).

Now to the history of the development of the icon out of the Christian image.

Here is a rough and quick chronology of the appearance and development of Christian art:

Contrary to traditional Eastern Orthodox belief, icons do not go back to the earliest days of the Church.  They were a later and gradual development only officially adopted centuries after the first Christians.  In examining this history, we must distinguish between images (art) and icons (venerated images).

3rd century (200s): The first recognizably Christian art appears in motifs borrowed from common non-Christian art and appropriated for Christian use, as well as in simple depictions of some Old and New Testament subjects.

Examples are found on oil lamps, in Roman burial catacombs, and in the house church at Dura Europos in Syria. Depictions of persons use generic features common to Roman art of that period.

4th century (300s): This century — particularly the latter half of the 4th century — is a crucial period that laid the foundations for the eventual change in attitude from art image to venerated icon.  In 313 Christianity is legalized in the Roman Empire by Constantine and Licinius through the Edict of Milan. Elaborate churches are built under imperial patronage. The first individualizing portrait images of Jesus, Mary, and other saints and martyrs appear and art becomes gradually more sophisticated and elaborate.  We see the beginnings of images of saints being regarded as not only commemorative, but also protective.

Basil of Caesarea, in speaking of images of the Emperor, says that the honor given an imperial image passes to its prototype (the Emperor). With the veneration of the Christian martyrs in the catacombs, the cult of relics begins as healing and intercessory powers are attributed to body parts of dead saints and items that had contact with their bodies. Relics spread throughout the empire, often placed in elaborate containers (reliquaries).  From 381-395 Theodosius begins and extends a ban on traditional non-Christian religious practices in public, closes and destroys “pagan” temples, and extinguishes many non-Christian traditional practices to eliminate “paganism” in favor of Christianity. In this century the halo, adopted from non-Christian use, first appears in Christian art, as do wings on angels, another adoption from non-Christian art. The cross in simple form appears, gradually replacing the chi-rho monogram as the century proceeds.

5th century (400s): The crucifixion first appears in Christian art near the beginning of the century.

6th century (500s): Relic images — three of the so-called “Not made by hands” images of Jesus — first come to prominence as having apotropaic (averting harm) and palladium (city protector) functions.  It is in the 6th century that religious images first are found in church use, though generally still not permitted.

7th century (600s): Ex voto painted (etc.) images of saints are created in thanks for answered prayers.

The notion of the icon as conduit from believer to saint develops by the latter part of the century as images are absorbed into the healing/intercessory functions of the existing cult of relics, thus becoming “icons.”

8th century: The veneration and understanding of icons — the theology of icons — is first codified in Eastern Orthodoxy. The earlier “honor to the prototype” concept of Basil regarding images of the emperor is now applied — in a new context — to icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints by John of Damascus and others. The Iconoclasts openly oppose the making and veneration of icons, rightly viewing image veneration as an innovation counter to the traditions of the church. The Iconoclasts are victorious for a time, having Imperial support, but with reign change that victory vanishes, and the views of the Iconophiles ultimately prevail.

So that is the evolution of the icon made brief.

This does not mean there were absolutely no images honored as Christian religious figures before the 6th century, but it does mean that this is the “mainstream” course of development. We have evidence of Christian images being treated in icon-like fashion first on the outer fringes of Christianity where it blended into “paganism,” such as the image of Christ said to have been kept in syncretistic fashion by Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 AD)) together with other images of Orpheus, Appollonius of Tyana, and Abraham; We also have in the Apocryphal Acts of John (dating uncertain, usually in the 150-250 range) a condemnation of the creation of such images and the honoring of them with lights and decorations. Where there is condemnation there is use to some extent, but to repeat, this use is first documented in the fringe realm between “paganism” and Christianity.

What all of this means for practical purposes is that the icon as it was regarded in the Eastern Orthodox Church from the 8th century onward did not really exist openly as such in the mainstream church until the latter part of the 600s, and its theology was not codified until the 700s, when those who refused to venerate icons were cursed (anathematized) in the official declarations of the Church. Thus the practice of icon making and veneration preceded the “official” doctrine made to justify the practice.

This chronology, incidentally, is not intended to determine whether the making and veneration of icons is “right” or “wrong,” from any ethical perspective, because art history only deals with what was and is, and does not involve itself in such judgments. It is obvious, however, that from the perspective of Christian traditional usage, icons were a late innovation in the mainstream church, as the Iconoclasts declared.

Art historians consider the first Christian art just an aspect of Roman art of the time, and the elaboration of Christian art under Emperor Constantine a continuation in Christian dress of more classical aspects of Roman art. My own view is that the making and veneration of painted religious images practiced in pre-Christian Roman society never really died out with the victory of Christianity, but continued on the fringes and in private; after the Edict of Milan and the condemnation of public “pagan” religious practice under Theodosius, the making and veneration of images gradually filtered into the mainstream church through the vast numbers of new “pagan” converts, though keeping largely in the shadows and not finding full and official acceptance until after the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century.

If you are interested in the origin of icons, you may wish to read these related postings:


In a previous posting, I touched briefly on the interesting icon type known as Sophia, Wisdom of God. Here is one rendering:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It depicts a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.  That angel is Sophia, Wisdom of God.  It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom.  The red color represents the fire of divinity.  If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus.  But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom.  You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) on the other, is a variant of the “Deisis” type (the other two approaching figures are “Holy Apostle John the Theologian” at left and John Chrysostom at right). The starry bands at top represent heaven, in which sits “Lord Savaof” (Sabaoth), God the Father depicted as an old man. This rendering varies from the norm in that the painter has placed the seven pillars in the background, instead of depicting them as small uprights supporting the throne.

Here is another example of the type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The title inscription on this example reads:
Obraz Sophia Premudrosti Slovo Bozhiya
“[The] Image of Sophia, Wisdom Word of God”

Notice the seven pillars upon which the throne is placed.  These represent the seven pillars upon which Wisdom built her house in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs (see below).  Again, Christ is shown in his “angel” form as Wisdom, and shown again in his usual form in the circle just above.  At the top is the Hetoimasia ( Ετοιμασίᾳ) the “Preparation” — a Greek term used for the depiction of the altar as a symbol of the divine throne prepared for the second coming of Jesus.

This “enthroned angel” image of Sophia, Wisdom of God is known as the “Novgorod” type, because it first appeared in the northern trading city of Novgorod in the 15th century. It is also the most commonly-seen image of Sophia.

There is, however, another and rather more complex “Sophia, Wisdom of God” type, the so-called “Kyiv” Sophia. It is a slightly variable type, but the description given here should take you far in understanding and recognizing it. It is noteworthy that the “Kyiv” type is customarily painted in the Westerized manner that began to be adopted in Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century.

Here is the Sophia, Wisdom of God “Kievskaya”:

The “Kiev” type is noted for its groups of sevens, though some versions of the image skimp on these, using fewer elements. But here is what the full type generally comprises:

Like the “Novgorod” image, it has its basis in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs in the Septuagint version, which gives us the first “seven.”


The image depicts a circular temple, and around the base of its dome is written Proverbs 9:1 in Greek:


Here it is in mixed case:

Η σοφια ωκοδομησεν εαυτη οικον και υπηρεισεν στυλους επτα (unaccented)
Η σοφία ᾠκοδόμησεν ἑαυτῇ οἶκον καὶ ὑπήρεισε στύλους ἑπτά (accented)
He Sophia okodomesen heaute oikon kai hypereise stylous hepta (transliteration, old style)

It is also generally written around the dome base in its Church Slavic version:

Premudrost sozda sebe dom/khram i utverdi stolpov sedm

Both mean: Wisdom (Premudrost) has built (sozda) herself (sebe) a house (dom)/temple (khram) and (i) set up (utverdi) pillars (stolpov ) seven (sedm). Some texts use dom’ (ДОМЪ; house) while others use Khram’ (ХРАМЪ; temple).

At the top is Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) represented as a bearded old man, often with a triangular halo (a late adoption into Orthodox iconography) signifying the Trinity; He is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and his breath extends to the central image of Mary. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father, but in Roman Catholicism from the Father and the Son. This (the so-called Filioque phrase “…and from the Son”) was an issue of contention in the schism that finally separated the two segments of Christianity in the mutual cursings (anathemas) and excommunications the two divisions laid on one another in 1054.

A double scroll often beside God the Father may read:
Az utverdiv stolpui eya
“I have set its pillars”
It is taken from Psalm 74:3 (75:3 in KJV numbering).


They are shown with their symbols, which may vary from icon to icon:
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a vessel of medicaments, Gabriel with a blossoming lily, Selaphiel with hands crossed in prayer, Yegudiel with a crown (in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers (roses) on a white cloth.

(Courtesy of Heutink Ikonen: https://www.heutinkikonen.nl/)


Depicted on the seven pillars are noted items mentioned in sevens from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation); and depicted with accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, the latter coming from Isaiah 11:2-3:

“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God.”

In Church Slavic it reads (Russian font):

И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…

They usually are, from left to right:

1. A book with seven seals; (“The Gift of Wisdom”);
Revelation 5:5: “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

2. A seven-branched candlestick; (“The Gift of Understanding”);
Revelation 1:12: “And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks…

3. Seven eyes; (“The Gift of Counsel”);
Revelation 5:6: “...and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

4. Seven trumpets; (“The Gift of Strength”);
Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

5. A hand with seven stars (“The Gift of Knowledge”);
Revelation 1:16: “And he had in his right hand seven stars…

6. Seven golden vials; (“The Gift of Piety/Godliness”)
Revelation 15:7: “And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.”

7. Seven thunders; (The Gift of the Fear of God”).
Revelation 10:3; “…and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

In the center of the temple Mary stands on a crescent moon; twelve stars are in her halo, representing both the twelve apostles (New Testament) and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Old Testament); the image is taken from Revelation 12:1:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…

Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and her arms are outstretched in the ancient posture of prayer. It is the importance given to Mary in this image, as well as its usual classification among Marian icons, that has led to some confusion. Some mistake Mary for Wisdom, when traditionally Jesus, who is visually only a small part of this image, is Wisdom. In Roman Catholicism, Mary was looked on as being Wisdom, but this view was not the traditional view of Eastern Orthodoxy; however Catholicism — particularly from the latter part of the 17th century and in some respects even earlier — had an influence on Orthodox iconography, and Kiev was subject to that influence.

At Mary’s sides are seven Old Testament figures: Moses with the tablets of the Law, Aaron the first priest with a blossoming rod, King David with the Ark of the Covenant, the Prophet Isaiah with a scroll showing the text of Isaiah 7:14, beginning “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son…” (Се Дева во чреве приимет и родит СынаSe Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit Suina), the Prophet Jeremiah with a rod, the Prophet Ezekiel with closed doors, and the Prophet Daniel with the stone not cut by hands.

It is noteworthy that these figures are connected with what are considered in Eastern Orthodoxy prefigurations of Mary:

Moses, who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed, used as a prefiguration of Mary holding Jesus within her womb. But here he holds the tablets of the Law, and a scroll that says of Mary, Радуйся, скрижале Божия, на ней же перстом Отчим написася слово Божие — Raduisya, skrizhale Bozhiya, na nei zhe perstom Otchim napisasya slovo Bozhie — “Rejoice, Tablets of God, on which the finger of the father has written the Word of God.” Thus the Law tablets become the prefiguration of Mary as the “tablets” on which Jesus was written, i.e. was incarnated in Christian belief.

Aaron with his blossoming rod: Numbers 17:8: “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” This prefigures Mary giving birth to Jesus.

King David with the Ark of the Covenant: Mary is considered the Ark of the New Testament Covenant, containing Jesus as the Ark of the Old Testament contained the Law — the Old Covenant.

Isaiah 7:14 in Christian tradition is applied to the birth of Jesus from a virgin (though the Hebrew text of Isaiah merely says “young woman” and has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus).

Jeremiah with his rod of almond tree: Jeremiah 1:11: “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree.” This relates to the rod of Aaron.

Ezekiel with closed doors: Ezekiel 44:2: “Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” That is a symbol of the virgin birth and of Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine held by both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics).

Daniel with the uncut stone: Daniel 2:34 “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.” (Again, a symbol of virginity).


There are seven steps leading to the temple (which represents the Church, as well as Mary as the “house” of Jesus) — СЕДМИЮ ВОЗХОДОВЪ ВОЗХОЖДЕНИЕ ЕЯ — “The Seven Steps of Her Ascent.”  From bottom to top they are:

1. Vera: Faith
2. Nadezhda; Hope
3. Liubov; Love
4. Chistota; Purity
5. Smirenie; Humility
6. Blagodat‘ Blessing/Grace
7. Slava; Glory

Ezekiel, chapter 40:6, speaking of the Temple area, reads in the Septuagint version, “And he entered by seven steps into the gate that looks eastward…”; seven steps are mentioned again in 40:22 and 40:26.


Look at this Russian icon:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

Even without the inscription, it is immediately identifiable to an informed student of icons, because the scene is so distinctive. Nonetheless, let’s look at the title inscription. Here it is in a modern Russian font:




Do not be concerned with little differences in spelling from example to example.  In Greek the type is often called Οι Άγιοι Τεσσαράκοντα μάρτυρες — Hoi Hagioi Tessarakonta Martyres — “The Holy Forty Martyrs,” or simply “The Holy Forty Martyrs.”

So, this icon depicts The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Martyred at the Sebaste Lake, or simply the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste” as they are commonly called. According to their story, the 4th century ruler Licinius wanted to rid his army of Christians. In Armenia, a military commander named Agricolaus was unhappy with forty soldiers, all Christians, who refused to sacrifice to the Gods. This was a major issue in those days, because refusal to sacrifice not only made Romans think the Christians were atheists, but also that they were revolutionaries, because traditionally it was the Gods who were the support of the State.

As punishment, the forty soldiers were led, in winter, out onto a frozen lake and made to remain there through the night unless they gave in and made the appropriate sacrifice. An inviting bathhouse was fired up on the shore with warm water. As the night proceeded, one soldier could not take the intense cold any longer, so decided to make the sacrifice, and went to the bathhouse. According to tradition, he fell down dead as soon as he stepped through the entrance.

Later in the night the soldiers still suffering on the icy lake supposedly had a vision. There was a light from heaven, and the water of the lake suddenly turned warm and melted the ice.

All guards were asleep except for one, who looked out on the lake and saw 39 crowns appear in the sky over the heads of the martyrs. He woke up the other guards and told them that he had decided to become a Christian, and he then went into the lake with the other martyrs.

It is said that the martyrs encouraged one another by saying (Greek):

Δριμύς ο χειμών, αλλά γλυκύς ο παράδεισος
Drimys ho kheimon, alla glykys ho paradeisos
“Bitter is the winter, but Paradise is sweet.”

When morning came and the martyrs in the lake were found still alive, they were taken from the lake, their legs were broken, and then they were piled onto a cart and taken away and burned.

Of course this is just a brief summary, and there are many more of the typical frills in the full story that one finds in the accounts of saints. Such elaborations make it very difficult to determine what in such tales may have an historical basis and what is just the fantasizing of the hagiographers (those who write stories of saints). As I have written in previous postings, some saints are entirely fictional, and some lives are a mixture of history and fiction in varying ratio and percentage.

As for this particular icon, it is painted in the old style maintained by the Old Believers (in opposition to the Westernized style adopted by the State Church). Usually one finds the forty martyrs in white trousers, but here the painter has added a bit of visual interest by giving some of the “undies” pastel colors.

We can see the soldier who gave up and went into the bathouse on the left, and we see the guard kneeling in the foreground who has decided to become a Christian and join the martyrs. In the clouds above, Jesus blesses them and sends down the crowns of martyrdom.

The building at left and the hills at right are typical of the traditional scenery of icons. In Russia such a building is called a “palace,” so the backgrounds of icons are commonly “hills and palaces,” or as we would say, “hills and buildings.” And of course both are stylized.

Here is a detail to show you how hills were painted in the traditional manner as it had developed by the 19th century:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

One can easily see that first a hill is painted in its base color, then the “steps” of the hill are formed by overpainting in the same color lightened with white, and finished with white highlights.

The lake water is indicated by simply painting swirling, concentric, thin white lines over the darker background color. And the clouds are formed in the snail-like fashion typical of the Old Believer painters in the region of the “three villages,” Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui.


I have mentioned in previous postings how important it is to be able to read icon titles, in particular the titles used to identify each saint. This often makes the difference between identifying a saint in an icon or leaving the saint anonymous.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The saint depicted above is Ὁ ἉΓΙΟΣ ΝΙΚΟΛΑΟΣ in upper case, Ὁ Ἁγιος Νικολαος in mixed upper and lower; he is a very common saint, and his inscription should be easy to read for those who have been following the articles on reading Greek icon inscriptions posted here previously.

First comes the title: Ὁ Ἁγιος
Then comes the saint’s name: Νικολαος

Notice that Ἁγιος (Hagios) is abbreviated, and that the -ος (-os) at the end of the name Nikolaos is formed by writing the “o,” then adding the final “s” as a snake-like squiggle attached to the “o.” Nikolaos is just the Greek form of Nicholas. And of course the name Nikolaos is divided, with the Νι- to the left of the halo, and the -κολαος at the right. Such division of names and words to fit the space is very common in icons.

Today I would like to take a look at some of the titles and secondary titles commonly found in the inscriptions identifying saints in Greek icons. These can come in very handy, so anyone who wants to learn to read icon titles in Greek should become familiar with them. I will likely add more as time passes.

First, I want to remind you that the definite articles (the words for “the”) are very significant in the case of saints, so remember them. They are:

Ὁ ὁ : It is pronounced “HO” in old Greek, “O” in modern Greek. It is used for a male. So when you see “HO” at the beginning of the title, you know the saint is male. I have shown it in both upper and lower case letters.

Ἡ ἡ : It is pronounced “HAY” in old Greek, “EE” in modern Greek. By the way, the little curved mark you see above both ὁ and ἡ just indicates that the vowel is preceded by an unwritten “h” sound, which is dropped in modern Greek pronunciation.

I should also tell you that in Greek words, the “straight” accent mark (not the mark that indicates an “h” sound) in a word indicates stress in modern Greek pronunciation. That means, for example, that in the word

ὁ Ἀρχιδιάκονος,

the stress in the second word is on the fourth syllable, like this: ar-khi-di-A-konos. You need not remember where the stress goes in saying the word unless you want to try to impress your friends and neighbors, who will probably just want you to shut up or say something sensible for a change. But if you are like me, you will want to know that little fact anyway.

So let’s begin.

First come the two most important titles that precede the name of a saint; they are:

Ὁ Ἅγιος : Ho Hagios: It means “The Holy,” or we can loosely translate it as “Saint”; it is used for MALE saints.
Ἡ Ἁγία : He Hagia: It means “The Holy,” and is used for FEMALE saints.

Sometimes, instead of Ὁ Ἅγιος (Ho Hagios), we will find instead this:

Ὁ Ὅσιος: Ho Hosios: It loosely means “pure” or “pious,” but the important thing to remember is that it is used for MONASTIC saints; so a “Hosios Loukas” is a Loukas (“Luke”) who was a monk.

Similarly its female equivalent is

Ἡ Ὅσία: He Hosia: Used to identify a FEMALE monastic, a nun.

Those are the two most important Greek saint titles to remember. Almost every saint you see will have the name preceded by either Hagios/Hagia or Hosios/Hosia.

Now on to a few more primary and secondary saint titles (I have transliterated them “old style”:

ὁ Μάρτυρας: Ho Martyras; this means a martyr, and you know it is male by the “HO” in front of it.
ἡ Μάρτυς: He Martys: this is a female martyr.
οἱ Μάρτυρες: Hoi Martyres; “martyrs,” used for more than one; In modern Greek οἱ is pronounced “ee.”
ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς: He Megalomartys; a female Great Martyr.
ὁ Νεομάρτυρας: Ho Neomartyras; a male New Martyr.
ἡ Νεομάρτυς: He Neomartys; a female New Martyr.
ὁ Ἱερομάρτυρας: Ho Hieromartyras; a (male) Priest-Martyr.
ὁ Ὁσιομάρτυρας: Ho Hosiomartyras; a (male) Monk-Martyr.
ἡ Παρθενομάρτυς: Ho Parthenomartys; a (female) Virgin Martyr.
ὁ Πρωτομάρτυρας: Ho Protomartyras; a (male) First Martyr.
ἡ Παρθένος: He Parthenos; a female Virgin.
ὁ Ἐπίσκοπος: Ho episkopos; a bishop.
ὁ Ἀρχιεπίσκοπος: Ho Arkhiepiskopos; an archbishop.
ὁ Ἀρχιδιάκονος: Ho Arkhidiakonos; an archdeacon.
ὁ Διάκονος: Ho diakonos; a deacon.
ὁ Ὁμολογητής: Ho Homologetes; a Confessor.
ὁ Μοναχός: Ho Monakhos; a Monk.
ὁ ἀσκητὴς: Ho Asketes; an Ascetic or Hermit.
Ὁ Προφήτης: Ho Prophetes; a male Prophet.
Ἡ Προφήτιδα: He Prophetida; a female Prophet.
ὁ Ἀπόστολος: Ho Apostolos; a (male) Apostle.
ὁ Ἱσαπόστολος: Ho Isapostolos; a male saint “Equal to the Apostles.”
ὁ Θαυματουργὸς: Ho Thaumatourgos; a male Wonderworker, “thaumaturge.”
ἡ Θαυματουργos: He Thaumatourgos; a female Wonderworker.
ὁ Πρεσβύτερος: Ho Presbyteros; a Presbyter, Elder.
ὁ Δίκαιος: Ho Dikaios; “The Righteous,” used for male Old Testament “saints.”
ὁ Ἀνάργυρος: Ho Anargyros; “Without Silver,” meaning “Unmercenary,” used for saints who did not charge money for services.
ὁ Νέος: Ho Neos; “The New,” used to distinguish a later male saint with the same name as an earlier saint.
ἡ νέα: He Nea: “The New,” used to distinguish a later female saint with the same name as an earlier saint.
ὁ νεώτερος: Ho Neoteros; “The Younger.”
ὁ διὰ Χριστὸν Σαλός: Ho dia Khriston Salos, literally “The Through-Christ Fool,” a “Fool for Christ,” a “Holy Fool.”
ὁ Μέγας: Ho Megas; “the Great.”
ὁ Ἔγκλειστος: Ho Engkleistos; literally “the Enclosed,” meaning “The Recluse.”
ὁ Ζωγράφος: Ho Zographos; “The Painter” (used for icon painters, as is the following);
ὁ εἰκονογράφος: Ho Eikonographos; “The Image/Icon Painter.”
ὁ Στρατηλάτης: Ho Stratelates; “The General/Commander.”
ὁ Ἐρημίτης: Ho Eremites; “The Eremite,” “The Hermit.”

Well, that’s sufficient for today. There are of course a few more primary saint titles, and quite a number of secondary ones, but we shall work more on those another time (really, don’t you have anything else to do?).


The 12th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (“all-ruler”/”almighty”) in the Cathedral of Cefalu in Sicily was made by artists brought from Constantinople, which accounts for its high quality. But given that some readers have shown an interest in more postings on reading Greek inscriptions (much to my amazement or amusement or both), today we will take a look only at the Gospel book held by Jesus in that image. Here it is:

This example differs from most Byzantine examples in that, having been made for a “Latin” Norman cathedral in Sicily, the Gospel book has a bilingual text. The left page has the text in Greek, the right in Latin.

Let’s look at the Greek side. What can we learn from it?

Notice that it depicts a run-on text with no divisions between words. This is the old way of writing Greek, and it is even used in New Testament manuscripts, which at times leads to some uncertainty about where one sentence ends and another begins. How does one deal with reading such a text in icon art?

The easiest way for beginners is just to begin at the beginning, transliterating the letters, until a recognizable word forms.

I will put the first part of the text into the modern Greek font:


If we begin transliterating (see why learning the Greek alphabet is so important?) we get:


This is where knowing a very basic vocabulary of Greek comes in handy. If one has that basic vocabulary, it will not be difficult to recognize, at the beginning, the word EGO, meaning “I.” So now we know where the first word ends.

That means the second word begins with the next E, so again our basic vocabulary tells us that it is the word EIMI, meaning “AM.”

The next word is really easy because it is so common. It is TO (with a long “o”). It is the definite article meaning “the” that is used with a neuter noun.

Easy so far. We already have three words: EGO EIMI TO, meaning “I AM THE.”

Here is where a knowledge of the Bible comes in. There are a number of texts in the New Testament in which Jesus says “I AM THE” this or that. But which one is this text? The next word should tell us.

It is PHOS, which you already know from such English words as “phosphorescent” and “phosphorus.” PHOS means “light.”

So now we have EGO EIMI TO PHOS — “I AM THE LIGHT.” And if we use our knowledge of the New Testament, which most people with a knowledge of English literature have, the rest is child’s play, because we know Jesus is saying “I AM THE LIGHT” and that well-known saying continues with “OF THE WORLD.”

If we look at the Greek text, we can verify that. The next word after PHOS is TOU, which is another very common word in Greek. It means “OF” or “OF THE” and is used with a masculine or neuter noun. In this case it is masculine, because the next word is KOSMOU.

Now it is important to know that you don’t have to pay serious attention to the talk of masculine, neuter or feminine nouns, because if you just know what the word means, that is generally enough in the most common Greek icon inscriptions. So, knowing that, let’s continue by seeing what we have up to this point:


Well, just by speaking English you know the last word, but not in the form used here. You know it in the form Cosmos/Kosmos, meaning loosely “world.” The KOSMOU form is used because it follows TOU –“OF THE.” When TOU is used, it changes the form of the following word by altering the ending from -OS to -OU. You will see the same thing happen in other inscriptions with the common word Ο ΘΕΟΣ [H]O THEOS, meaning [the] GOD; when THEOS is preceded by TOU — “OF THE” — it becomes ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ –TOU THEOU — “OF GOD.”

But really we have already solved this inscription with the first four words. We recognize it as a text from the Gospel attributed to John, Chapter 8, verse 12. Here it is with all the words separated, in a modern Greek font:




Of course the grammar in the third line above, the rather literal translation, is not English grammar, but we know already that the text means in grammatical English:


Now the important thing to remember is that you do not need to know all the grammar to precisely translate the whole text. You don’t even have to know all the Greek words in the text in this case. You already know what it says if you are familiar with the New Testament in English. And if you are not, it does not take long to learn the standard texts used on the Gospel book when painted in icons of Jesus. So either way, it is not a difficult matter. Today’s inscription is found in very large numbers of Greek icons of Jesus (as well as in Russian icons, though in Church Slavic in that case). So learn one such basic inscription and you can read many icons.

Only a couple more things, and that will be it for this posting. Did you notice the last four words in the Greek text? Here they are again:


You know now that TO PHOS means “THE LIGHT,” but what about TES ZOES? Well, “TES” is just the feminine form of a word you already know, TOU, meaning “OF [the]” when used with a masculine or neuter noun. Here TES is used because the following word is a feminine noun in Greek — ZOES. You will remember that when an inscription says “OF THE” with a masculine or neuter noun, its form is “TOU.” So “TES” means the same thing with a feminine noun. And you already know the meaning of ZOES, though again, you are not familiar with it in that form. You probably know it as the name ZOE, meaning “LIFE.”

Just as the masculine THEOS (“God”) changes to THEOU when preceded by TOU, so ZOE changes to ZOES when preceded by TES.

So we know now that




or as we normally say in English,


And again, remember that you do not have to learn lots of Greek grammar to read basic Greek icon inscriptions. I am explaining some of it here so you will know the reasons behind it, but really all you have to remember are such simple things as that both TOU and TES mean OF [the], with the “the” in brackets used when it is more normal in English to do so.

Now you probably know enough to read something slighty new, like this:


If you read this whole article, you already know the words in it, and you know what they mean. Just follow the “begin at the beginning by transliterating” rule, and you will quickly be able to divide the text into these words:


And you will easily be able to read them as:


And by the way, the Latin text on the right-side page of the Gospel book, which we need not go into, just gives us, as already mentioned, the same text as the Greek. It begins:


I AM [the] LIGHT [of the] WORLD.

But as we do not commonly find Latin in Greek or Slavic icons, we need not explore it here.

Finally, just an added note about this blog:

I am quite surprised that the readership here keeps steadily growing (what is wrong with you people?). The study of icons as an aspect of art history is a rather esoteric subject; but there seem to be numbers of others out there afflicted with a curiosity about such peculiar things, just as I was. In any case, I welcome you all.

Happy translating!