When we think of Greek Eucharistic icons, we commonly think first of the standard type called Ο ΜΥΣΤΙΚΟΣ ΔΕΙΠΝΟΣ, Ho Mystikos Deipnos, — “The Mystic Supper.” It represents the institution of the Eucharist, what Protestants commonly call “The Lord’s Supper,” the same event depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” painting. It shows Jesus seated at a table with his apostles.
There are, however, other Greek Eucharistic types. There is the elaborate ΘΕΙΑ ΛΕΙΤΟΥΡΓΙΑ (Theia Leitourgia), “Divine Liturgy,” which shows the liturgy being celebrated in heaven by Christ robed as a bishop, though with bare head; look for standing angels as identifying elements in this type. Instead of being seated at a table, Jesus stands, and is generally depicted twice.
There is also the similar Η ΘΕΙΑ ΚΟΙΝΩΝΙΑ (He Theia Koinonia) “Holy Communion” type, which we generally call “The Communion of the Apostles.” It too depicts Christ standing at an altar, giving communion to the apostles, who approach from left and right. Again Christ is shown twice, at left in the so-called metalepsis of the wine, and at right in the so-called metadosis of the bread. This represents Christ giving the communion in and to the Church on earth.
I will probably discuss those latter two types in a future posting.
Today, however, we are going to look at an uncommon allegorical icon of the Eucharist that is apparently borrowed from a Western prototype. It shows Christ with blood spurting from his side into a chalice at left, and on the right his fingers rest on the eucharistic bread, which is stamped with the word NIKA, meaning “He conquers”:
The chalice and bread are the chalice of wine and loaf of bread used in the Eucharist rite, which Eastern Orthodoxy considers to be also the blood and body of Christ (a notion that relates it to the mystery religions popular in the Roman Empire at the time of Christianity’s founding).
Here is the inscription on the banner below Jesus:
ΛΑΒΕΤΑΙ ΦΑΓΕΤΑΙ ΤΟΥΤΟ ΕCΤΙ ΤΟ CΟΜΑ ΜΟΥ
ΠΙΕΤΑΙ ΕΞ ΑΥΤΟΥ ΠΑΝΤΕC TOYTO ECTI TO AIMA MOY
Labetai phagetai touto esti to soma mou
Pietai ex autou pantes touto esti to [h]aima mou
“Take, eat, this is the body of-me
Drink of it all [of you], this is the blood of-me”
The inscription is borrowed from Matthew 26:26-28:
Ἐσθιόντων δὲ αὐτῶν λαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἄρτον καὶ εὐλογήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ δοὺς τοῖς μαθηταῖς εἶπεν,
Λάβετε φάγετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου.
καὶ λαβὼν ποτήριον καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων,
Πίετε ἐξ αὐτοῦ πάντες, τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessing, he broke it and gave it his disciples, saying:
‘Take, eat, this is my body’;
And taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying:
‘Drink of it all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the remission of sins.‘”
You perhaps noticed that the calligrapher arranged the words of the inscription in an odd way. Here is how he did it (in transliteration):
LABE TAI PHAGE TAI TOU TOESTI TOSOMAMOU
PIE TAI E XAU TOU PAN TES TOU TOESTI TOAI
Compare that with how it should be read:
LABETAI PHAGETAI TOUTO ESTI[N] TO SOMA MOU
PIETAI EX AUTOU PANTES TOUTO ESTI[N] TO [H]AIMA MOU
You can see that the calligrapher has used some ligatures, which you must learn to recognize if you want to read Greek icon inscriptions.
First, he has joined the letters S and T in this form:
Next, he joins the Greek Y (u) and O like this, placing the Y atop the O:
He also joins the A and N (as in the word pantes, meaning “all”):
Be sure to notice the very little mark that looks like an apostrophe above the first letter A in the word [H]AIMA, meaning “blood”:
When it is written like a crescent with the opening facing the right, as it is here, it signifies what was called the “rough” breathing in ancient Greek. It means simply that you add an “h” to the beginning of the word if you want to pronounce it as in ancient Greek. In later Greek, however (including icon inscriptions), that “h” was no longer pronounced; it was silent. But the Greeks still often wrote it in, as in this inscription, though frequently it is omitted on upper case letters.
Notice also that the calligrapher has written the word “this” — TOYTO (touto)– in two ways; in one he writes it without a ligature:
But the second time he writes the same word with the ligature combining the O and Y (u):
Finally, just a reminder that it is very common in Greek inscriptions to see “S” written as C. That is how it is written in today’s example. But later Greek icons may instead use the form Σ. When written in lower case letters, “s” at the beginning or within a word is written as σ; but at the end of a word it becomes ς.