RUSSIAN ICON INSCRIPTIONS: MORE ON READING VYAZ

Here is a Russian icon depicting a scene from the traditional life of the physician saint Panteleimon. Often an icon of a saint will have scenes from his life shown in little squares around the outer edges. Such an icon is termed с житем, s zhitem, meaning “with the life.” However, as here, sometimes individual “life” scenes were also painted as separate icons.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net/)

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net/)

The icon depicts the young Panteleimon, whose life, you may recall, was set in the late 3rd-early 4th century. According to his story, he was studying medicine under Euphrosinos, whom he accompanied to the royal court. There he came to the notice of the Emperor Maximian, who advised Euphrosinos to train the clever boy well so that he might eventually become the court physician. That is the scene shown here.

Of course later Panteleimon had trouble when he confessed to being a Christian, and so Maximian had him killed, making him a martyr.

Scholars of hagiography tell us that “his Acts are worthless,” meaning the story of Panteleimon’s life and miracles is completely unreliable, largely fiction. Of course we can recognize that for ourselves when we read in the account of his martyrdom that when he was beheaded, milk flowed from his neck and the olive tree to which he was tied bore fruit.

Nonetheless, his largely fictional story is probably based on a real martyrdom, because he has been venerated as a saint in the East since very early times.

Along with the other popular physician saints Kosmas and Damian, Panteleimon is known as an “unmercenary” physician because, it is said, he would heal people without charging for his services.

In old icons, we cannot always rely on titles to be precisely accurate. Most Russians of the time were illiterate, and painters sometimes made mistakes. One might find a saint given the wrong name, or a saint with the right name painted with the characteristics of a different saint. And of course there are lots of variations in spelling.

This icon of Panteleimon before the Emperor seems to have been given a title more appropriate to another scene in his life, as we shall see when we translate it:

As you see, it is a Vyaz (“linked”) inscription, condensed by pushing letters close together and by abbreviation.

For icon students just beginning to read inscriptions, once they have learned the Cyrillic alphabet in its Church Slavic form, the next problem they encounter is learning where one word ends and another begins — in short, separating an inscription into its component words. That is when a basic Church Slavic vocabulary comes in handy.

Let’s take a look at the inscription word by word. Here is the first:

zoetmulderpanteleimonzhitA

We see these letters Ч Ю Д О

The left upright stroke of the letter Ю shares the same upright stroke as the first letter, Ч. Together they form the word ЧЮДО, a variant spelling of the word CHUDO, meaning “wonder, miracle.” Church Slavic does not have a definite article (“the”) so we have to supply that when translating. So to begin with, we have “The Miracle ….”

The second word is:

The letters are arranged like this:

Тв
СГо

It abbreviates the word СВЯТАГО (SVYATAGO), though the writer has arranged it rather oddly. SVYATAGO means “of the holy.”

So far we have “THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY….”

Next comes

This word, only slightly abbreviated, is ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИКА (VELIKOMUCHENIKA). VELIKO– means “Great” and MUCHENIKA is just the word MUCHENIK (“martyr”) with a grammatical -a ending. So VELIKOMUCHENIKA means “[of] the Great-Martyr.”

Our translation so far has given us “THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT-MARTYR….”

The next word is

zoetmulderpanteleimonzhitD

ХРИСТОВА (KHRISTOVA). That is the “of” form (notice the -a ending) of the word KHRISTOS, “CHRIST.” Adding that to our translation, we now have:

“THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR OF CHRIST ….”

And finally comes his name:

ПОНТЕЛЕИМОНА

Though the writer has used an “O” as the second letter instead of the usual “A,” (such spelling variants are common in old icons) it is easy to see that this is the name PANTELEIMONA, again given the “of” ending -a. PANTELEIMON (from the Greek meaning “All-Merciful”) is one of the most popular Eastern Orthodox saints, because, as we have seen, in life he was said to be a physician and is believed by Eastern Orthodox to have great power to miraculously heal as a saint.

That gives us the complete main inscription:

“THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR OF CHRIST PANTELEIMON.”

All of those words are very basic Church Slavic icon vocabulary, which means you will see them repeated countless times in inscriptions, making them very easy to recognize and read. You probably noticed that we only translate some of the “-a” grammatical endings that mean “of.” That is because some of them merely reflect the first “of” in the sentence, a characteristic of Church Slavic. So in the sentence

CHUDO SVYATAGO VELIKOMUCHENIKA KHRISTOVA PANTELEIMONA, we translate SVYATAGO as “of the holy,” but the -a ending on VELIKOMUCHENIKA simply repeats that “of” sense without needing translation. But the -a in KHRISTOVA does need translation in English, while the -a on PANTELEIMONA is again merely a grammatical reflection of a previous “of,” so we leave it untranslated. One gets used to knowing which to translate and which to leave untranslated, and I am trying to make this very simple for beginning students, without using a lot of unnecessary grammatical terms.

Yet in spite of the main title at the top of this icon, the image does not show Panteleimon working a miracle. There is, however, another scene from his life in which he heals a paralyzed man in the presence of the Emperor, and it is likely the title to that scene that the painter has mistakenly added to this earlier scene in the life of the saint.

Let’s take a look at one more inscription, the title inscription written by the image of Panteleimon in the icon:

zoetmulderpanteleimonzhitF

It might be a little difficult to see, so I will repeat it in modern Cyrillic:

СТ В МУ ПОНТЕЛЕИМОНЪ (ST V MU PONTELEIMON’)

After reading the first inscription, that one should be really easy. THE “ST” abbreviates SVYATUIY, the regular male form of “HOLY” (you saw the “of” form of the same word in SVYATAGO in the main inscription). The “V” abbreviates VELIKO, “GREAT,” as in the main inscription, and MU abbreviates MUCHENIK, “MARTYR,” as you already saw. PONTELEIMON’ is again this writer’s spelling of PANTELEIMON. So the saint’s inscription reads:

“HOLY GREAT MARTYR PANTELEIMON,” or as we would usually say in English with the added definite article, “THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR PANTELEIMON.”

You might wish to to know that in the West, Panteleimon is often known as Pantaleon.

By the way, I am endlessly amazed that the number of readers of my site keeps growing.

David

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