BLESSED ARE THE CHEESEMAKERS: THE ICONOGRAPHY OF MAMAS (NO, NOT MOTHERS)

We have previously seen a lion associated with St. Gerasimos/Gerasim in icons. Today we will take a look at a Greek icon of St. Mamas, whose iconography also includes a lion. In Russia he is called Mamant.

The painter does not seem to have been troubled that he made the the head wildly out of proportion with the body.

Let’s take a look at the inscriptions. First, there is the title inscription of the saint:

mamasdet

It is separated into three widely-spaced parts. Beginning at upper left, it reads:

ΟΑΓ — That abbreviates Ο ΑΓΙΟC —HO HAGIOS— “The Holy.”

ΜΑΜΑC — That is the saint’s name, MAMAS

Ο ΘΑΥΜΑΤΟΥΡΓΟC — HO THAUMATOURGOS — “The Wonderworker.”

So put together, the title inscription reads:

HO HAGIOS MAMAS HO THAUMATOURGOS — “[THE] HOLY MAMAS THE WONDERWORKER”

Second, there is the inscription on the hand from Heaven at upper right:

ΧEΙΡ ΚΥ — That abbreviates ΧΕΙΡ ΚYRIOY — KHEIR KYRIOU — “THE HAND OF THE LORD.”

mamasdet2

It is helpful to know, as part of basic Greek icon reading vocabulary, that KURIOS means “Lord,” and KURIOU means “of the Lord.”

Now that you know icon titles are often abbreviated with parts separated, you should be able to easily read the title inscription on this fresco of Mamas from the Dokheiariou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece:

Yes, it reads H]O [H]A[GI]OS MAMAS — “[THE] HOLY MAMAS.” The “-GI-” in Hagios is written above the letters OA, and the -OS ending is written below.

In both of these images, Mamas carries a sheep as he rides on the lion’s back.

Anyone familiar with the old Russian podlinniki — the painters’ manuals — knows that the description of Mamas/Mamant comes almost at the beginning, because his day of commemoration is September 2, and the old Russian Church Year began on September 1st. But who, exactly, according to the hagiography upon which icons are based, was he?

First we must keep in mind that, as in the case of many old saints, his story is highly fantasized; it is quite variable, and unreliable as history. His category as a saint is Martyros in Greek, and in Slavic it is Muchenik — “Martyr”:

That of course, is what is depicted in the image above; the martyrdom of Mamas.

Let’s look closer at the inscription:

It reads:
ΜΑΡΤΥΡΙΟΝ ΤΟΥ = MARTURION TOU
ΑΓΙΟΥ ΜΑΜΑ[Ν] = HAGIOU MAMA]N]-
ΤΟC = -TOS

MARTYRION TOU AGIOU MAMANTOS, meaning “MARTYRDOM OF THE HOLY MAMAS.”

Did you notice that like the word KURIOS (Lord), the word AGIOS changes its form when it is used with the word TOU, meaning “of”? “The Holy” (for a male) is HO HAGIOS; but “of the Holy” becomes TOU AGIOU

But back to his largely fictionalized and variously-told life story:

Mamas was a boy born in Paphlagonia. His parents, Theodotos and Rufina, lived in Gangra, and were Christians imprisoned in Caesarea for their faith. Both died in prison, but the mother managed to give birth to Mamas before her death.

Mamas was taken and raised by a rich Christian widow named Ammia. His name is said to be derived from his calling her “Mama” (actually, Mamas was a rather common name in those days). The boy Mamas became an evangelizer among the people, converting them to Christianity. That brought him to the attention of the authorities, and he was arrested and tortured under the persecution of the Emperor Aurelian. An attempt was made to drown him, but he was rescued by an angel, who told him to live on a mountain. There he befriended wild goats and deer, and survived on goat milk and doe milk, from which he also made cheese that he distributed to the poor. He lived the life of a shepherd.

Eventually, however, a group of soldiers came to where he was living. He gave them milk to drink and told them who he was. He was arrested and tortured and thrown to wild beasts in the arena, but the beasts became peaceful and would not harm him. His death finally came at age 15 when he was stabbed with a trident — some say by a pagan priest, in 275 c.e., and that while wounded, he managed to get to a cave, where he died.

The “lion” motif appeared in later accounts of his life, and it is variable. Some say that while living on the mountain, he was called before a judge for not paying taxes. On the way, a sheep chased by a lion ran across his path. Mamas saved the sheep and the lion became docile, allowing Mamas to ride him to court, carrying the sheep. Mamas gave the sheep to the judge, who forgave him his non-payment of taxes (which accounts for Mamas being the patron saint of tax evaders). Others say that after the soldiers found him, he told them he would meet them in Caesarea, and arrived riding on a lion. In either case the lion-riding motif, which in his iconography dates to at least the 6th century, is obviously as fictional as that of the slaying of the dragon by St. George.

From the sources, it can easily be seen that the story of the saint varies in a confused manner in the time, arrangement, place, and nature of events in his life, depending on which source one consults, but that is not unusual in the legends of saints.

In the Church Calendar, Mamas is called Mamas of Caesarea, but that is not the Caesarea of the Gospels. Instead it is the city of Kayseri in modern-day Turkey. Nonetheless, the people of the island of Cyprus have quite a different tradition that takes Mamas out of the 3rd century and puts him on Cyprus in the 12th, saying he lived as a hermit in a cave near the town of Morphou. Mamas is particularly popular on Cyprus, being considered something of a national patron, and there are some 60 Cypriot churches dedicated to him. His earliest churches appeared in Cappadocia.

Mamas is also considered the patron of shepherds, sheep and goats, etc. He is sometimes depicted simply as a martyr holding a cross or a palm branch, but his most appealing icons are those that show him riding the lion, with a sheep at one hand and a shepherd’s staff in the other.

By the way, for anyone who did not catch the reference in the title, it is to the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian. In the movie, Jesus is giving his Sermon on the Mount, and people far back in the crowd cannot clearly hear what he is saying. When Jesus gets to “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the dialogue of these people goes like this:

“What was that?”

“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.'”

“Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”

“Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

Here endeth the lesson.

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