Icon painting was and is a business. In Russia it was an immense business, but near the end of the 19th century it was seriously threatened by the introduction of printed icons, which were far less expensive than painted images. Those icons printed on tin that one sometimes still sees were from that period. Printing sent icon painting into a precipitous decline, and of course the finishing blow was given by transition from Tsarist absolutism to Communism.
The relative cheapness of printed icons compared to painted makes them still very popular among Eastern Orthodox today, and they have even spread into other denominations such as Catholic and Episcopalian. A chief characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy in the West, from the latter half of the 20th century onward, is the increasing prevalence of printed icons glued to “boards,” which vary from real boards to substitutes such as masonite. Icon prints on panels have become a staple of Eastern Orthodox gift shops, and are frequently found in Catholic and other denominational gift shops as well.
Icon prints are generally copies of old or recent painted icons, and are the logical outcome of a theory of icons in which the validity of an image depends not on the creativity of the painter but rather upon reasonable faithfulness to a prototype. Thus icon painting carried within its own theory the seeds of its own destruction. One painted icon can now be copied and reproduced in thousands or even millions of printed versions.
All of that is a lead-in to today’s discussion of a particular Greek Orthodox example of a painted original that has become a print on board.
A reader recently sent me a photo of this New Testament Trinity icon variant, asking for help in its interpretation. It is a printed copy of a (Macedonian) Greek Orthodox painting from a few decades ago.
As you see, the title inscription reads simply HE HAGIA TRIAS, “THE HOLY TRINITY.” Keep in mind that the little “apostrophe” just to the top left of a vowel (or above it in some cases) indicates that it is preceded (in the old pronunciation) by an “H” in transliteration, though in modern Greek it is silent. I am going to discuss the reading of Greek inscriptions a bit in this posting, for those students who are serious about learning to understand and interpret icons.
If you have been a regular reader of this site, you will recall that images of the Trinity consisting of the figures of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and of God the Father as an old man, which the Russians name “Lord Sabaoth,” are called “New Testament Trinity” icons to distinguish them from the “Old Testament Trinity” icon that depicts the Trinity as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre. New Testament Trinity icons are common throughout Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to the Balkans to Russia and beyond. They are found in churches, monasteries, and in private homes.
Today’s example is an interesting Greek variant of the New Testament Trinity type. The figure of God the Father, which, as mentioned, the Russians would call “Lord Sabaoth,” is here given the Greek title Palaios [ton] Hemeron, “The Ancient of Days.” He is also given a triangular halo, a symbol of the Trinity borrowed from western European religious art. So for the sake of convenience, we can call this example the “Ancient of Days” variant of the “New Testament Trinity” Type.
You should easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for Jesus Christ. So let’s look at the inscription on the dove:
It is TO HAGION PNEUMA, “THE HOLY SPIRIT.” Why is the word “the” HE in He Hagias Trias, but TO in To Hagion Pneuma? Because Trias is a feminine noun in Greek, and He is the feminine definite article. But Pneuma, “Spirit,” is a neuter noun in Greek, and To is the neuter definite article, just as Ho is the masculine definite article.
Look again at the odd triangle halo on God the Father. Within it the painter has given God the Father the HO ON abbreviation, generally found only in in the halo of Jesus; and the painter has placed the same HO ON abbreviation in the halo of the Holy Spirit represented as a dove, his intent being to show that all three persons of the Trinity are God, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
Here is the inscription on God the Father:
It is, again, HO PALAIOS HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS,” usually written as HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON” (literally “The Ancient of the days).” That title comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel, 7:21-22:
“I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them;
Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.”
The book of Daniel, by the way, is as scholars tell us (but which fundamentalists completely ignore) one of those with falsely attributed authorship, and was written considerably later than the period it purports to represent.
Notice how the painter has written the final -os on Palaios as what looks rather like an “at sign” (@) with a curving squiggle below:
That is very common in Greek icon inscriptions.
Let’s take a look at the text on the Gospels held by Jesus:
It is from John 14:23, the portion put in brackets below:
ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, [Ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ με τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσει, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ἀγαπήσει αὐτόν, καὶ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐλευσόμεθα καὶ μονὴν] παρ’ αὐτῷ ποιησόμεθα.
“[Jesus answered and said to him] If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him [and make] our home [with him].”
Notice how the word mou (of-me/my) is written, with an M to the left and to the right a symbol that looks like an o with a v on top of it. It is a common calligraphic way of writing the two letters ΟΥ (ου) combined as one:
Note also how the painter has written the word kai (meaning “and”) in full in one place, while in another he writes it in a shortened form like this:
Also to be noted is the way the painter joins the letters Η and Ρ (e and r) in the word “father,” pater/ΠΑΤΗΡ. like this:
And here is the inscription on the scroll held by God the Father:
Because we only see a few letters showing in the partially unrolled scroll, it might be a bit of a puzzle at first. Here are the letters we see:
τός (there’s that -os ending written with the “at sign-squiggle” again)
The painter has shown us only one whole word (the first one), and the rest of the letters are only parts of words. But here is the intended phrase, which comes from Matthew 3:17:
Οὗτός [ἐ]στιν [ὁ] υἱό[ς] [μου ὁ] ἀγ[απη]τός
Houtos estin ho huios mou ho agapetos
Literally, “THIS IS THE SON OF-ME THE BELOVED,” or as it is more commonly translated, “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON.”
And here is the “banner” inscription held by the angels. It is the phrase known as the Sanctus in the Roman Catholic mass, adapted from Isaiah 6:3, and used also in varying forms in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom and in the Liturgy of St. James. In Greek it is sometimes referred to as the “Hymn of Victory,” ἐπινίκιος ὕμνος, (Epinikios Hymnos).
Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
Hagios, hagios, hagios Kyrios Sabaoth pleres ho ouranos kai he ge tes doxes sou
“HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LORD SABAOTH – FULL [are] HEAVEN AND EARTH OF THE GLORY OF-YOU
Or less literally,
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LORD SABAOTH, HEAVEN AND EARTH ARE FULL OF YOUR GLORY”
Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ
“Holy holy holy Lord Saboth”
πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
“Full are heaven and earth of your glory.”
Note how the painter joines the letters T and H (t and e) in the word THC (τῆς/tes), meaning “of”:
Learning to recognize such joined letters (ligatures) is very important when learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.
As is common in icons of the New Testament Trinity, Jesus and God the Father are enthroned on Seraphim and below their feet are the round wheels with many eyes in them that are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”
Finally, it is worth mentioning again that there is a lot of bickering in modern Eastern Orthodoxy between factions who consider certain representations of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit “wrong,” and others who consider them legitimate, and there is even controversy over whether the “Ancient of Days” figure should be used to represent the Father or Jesus (as in Byzantine art). Those who favor the depiction as Jesus interpret the white-haired figure in Revelation 1:14 as being Jesus and the same as the figure in Daniel, while others disagree.
Here is a 12th century image of the “Ancient of Days” as Jesus, from the Church of St. Stephen in Kastoria, Greece:
The inscription writer has left no space between the words HO and PALAEOS (a variant spelling of PALAIOS), and for the final -s in PALEOS he has used a simple strong, downward stroke that looks nothing like the usual letter form.
Here is a fresco from the Monastery Patriarchate of Peć, in Kosovo, Serbia, which is above the narthex entrance door to the Church of the Holy Apostles.
If we look more closely, we see that it too depicts Jesus (titled this time in Slavic) as ВЕТХИ ДЕНМИ — Vetkhi Denmi — “Ancient of Days.”
In the quadrangular slava set into the round halo is the HO ON inscription — “He Who Is” — used in icons of Jesus, and in four circles at left and right are the letters I C X C, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.” In smaller white writing at both sides is the inscription СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ ИСПОЛНЬ НЕБО И ЗЕМЛЯ СЛАВЫ ТВОЕЯ — “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.” In Slavic practice it is called the Трисвятая песнь — Trisvyataya pesn” — “The Thrice-Holy Hymn.”
And here is a Byzantine page from the Cambridge University Library, again showing Jesus as the “Ancient of Days,” along with symbols of the Evangelists — Matthew as winged man, John as eagle, Mark as lion, and Luke as ox in this case. Note the similarity of the partially-rolled scroll in his hand to that in the hand of God The Father in today’s example:
The inscription on the page is divided not only between left and right sides, but the writer has also arranged it oddly. He has begun it at top left with HO, then moved to bottom left for PA-, to middle left for –LAI-, and to middle right of the first cluster for –OS. In the right-hand segment he began at top with TON, then moved to the bottom for HE-, to the middle left for –ME– and to middle right for the final –RON, but nonetheless it is just the standard “HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS” title.
Some say the Holy Spirit should only be shown as a dove in icons such as the descent of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, while others use the “dove” image, as in today’s example, in Trinity and other images. And of course there are those who say God the Father should not be represented at all in icons, in spite of the fact that it has been common Eastern Orthodox practice for centuries to do so.
Icon students should keep in mind that all of these little controversies are just theological bickering, and in the study of icons we pay attention not to what people say icon painters should have done, but to what they ACTUALLY DID. And icons of the Trinity represented as Jesus, the “dove” Holy Spirit, and God the Father as an old man have a history of many hundreds of years in Eastern Orthodoxy. So in the study of icons and their history, there is no “wrong” or “right” to images, there is only what was done at various periods and how it was understood by icon painters and those who venerated icons.