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:
EGO EIMI TO PHOS TOU KOSMOU
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:
ΕΓΩ ΕΙΜΙ ΤΟ ΦΩΣ ΤΟΥ ΚΟΣΜΟΥ Ο ΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΩΝ ΕΜΟΙ ΟΥ ΜΗ ΠΕΡΙΠΑΤΗΣΗ ΕΝ ΤΗ ΣΚΟΤΙΑ ΑΛΛ ΕΞΕΙ ΤΟ ΦΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΖΩΗΣ
EGO EIMI TO PHOS TOU KOSMOU HO AKOLOUTHON EMOI OU MI PERIPATESI EN TE SKOTIA ALL EXEI TO PHOS TES ZOES.
I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD THE one-FOLLOWING ME NOT NO shall-be-walking IN [the] DARKNESS BUT SHALL-HAVE THE LIGHT OF LIFE
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:
I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD; HE WHO FOLLOWS ME SHALL NOT WALK IN DARKNESS, BUT SHALL HAVE THE LIGHT OF LIFE.
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:
ΤΟ ΦΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΖΩΗΣ
TO PHOS TES ZOES
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
TO PHOS TES ZOES
THE LIGHT OF [the] LIFE,
or as we normally say in English,
THE LIGHT OF LIFE.
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:
ΤΟ ΦΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ
TO PHOS TOU THEOU
And you will easily be able to read them as:
THE LIGHT OF GOD.
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:
EGO SUM LUX MUNDI
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.