Christians of the 4th century did not like the Roman Emperor Julian. He was philosophically-minded, a student of Neo-Platonism, lived a somewhat ascetic life, and he was not averse to conversing with ordinary people. He tried to root out corruption in the Empire, and attempted to hold it together through the restoration of pre-Christian
“national” religious practices, though he regarded the stories of the gods as allegorical. He also promoted freedom of religion, declaring in an edict in 362 that all religions were to be equal before the law.
The Christians, however, had been rising in power since the legalization of Christianity under the emperor Constantine. They were definitely not supporters of freedom of religion. They considered the gods of the polytheists to be demonic. And they certainly did not want to give up having a “Christian” emperor (Constantius II, son of Constantine, preceded Julian) and instead have one who favored and promoted polytheism. So they rejoiced when in 363, on a military campaign against the Sassanids, Julian received a wound that ultimately killed him.
Because Julian had known Christianity from his boyhood, was quite familiar with the Bible and even once had been a reader (lector) in the Church, Christians disliked him all the more when he abandoned Christianity for neo-Platonic polytheism. They called him “Julian the Apostate.”
All of this is just a lead-in to help explain why an image of the fallen and wounded Julian is found in the iconography of a saint named Merkurios/Merkourios/Mercurius.
Merkurios is one of the warrior saints of the Eastern Church. He seems to have actually once existed, which cannot be said of all Christian saints. Beyond that, his story dissolves into fiction. Traditionally, he was a soldier from Caesarea in Cappadocia (now Kayseri in Turkey), and was martyred for refusing to ritually sacrifice to the gods in the year 250 c.e.
Here is an iimage of Merkurios from a wall painting in Ochrid, Macedonia, dating just before the beginning of the 14th century:
Let’s look at the title inscription:
If you read the earlier postings on how to read Greek icon inscriptions, this one should present no problems at all. At the left is the abbreviation
The Γ (g) is written above as a superscript letter that fits into the first word, and below the OA is a squiggle signifying the ος (-os) ending of that word. So we see it is just the standard old Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC, Ho Hagios, meaning “[the] HOLY,” and you will recall that Hagios is the word used to signify “saint.”
Next comes his name, which is divided into three lines:
“MERKOURIOS,” or as it is commonly written in its Latinized form, Mercurius.
There is a further inscription on the sword of Merkurios that connects it with the Archangel Michael. We will soon see why.
This first type of Merkurios, showing him standing clothed as a Roman warrior, is the type most commonly found. But there is a second type, found particularly in Coptic Christianity, that shows him mounted on a horse, somewhat as in icons of George the Dragonslayer. But instead of a dragon, there is a fatally-wounded man fallen (often with his horse) under Merkurios, and that man is the Emperor Julian.
Now if we stop to do a little historical math, we can see that Merkurios is said to have died in 250 c.e. The Emperor Julian died in 363 c.e. So we have a gap of 113 years between. Why, then is Merkurios depicted in icons killing Julian?
The answer lies in another of those fanciful stories common in the study of icons. But first let’s look at an example of the rather violent second type:
It depicts Merkurios killing Emperor Julian with a lance. At right is a bishop, easily identifiable as such by his garments, particularly the diamond-shaped epigonation worn at his waist. This bishop is St. Basil “the Great.” According to the tale, Basil heartily disliked the Emperor Julian and his “pagan” preferences. Basil went to pray on a mountain with other Christians, and while doing so saw a vision of Mary calling St. Merkurios to her, and telling him to go and kill Julian. So Christian tradition accounts for the death of Julian by saying a mysterious soldier appeared, stabbed Julian with his lance, then disappeared, and that soldier is supposed to be St. Merkurios, sent down from Heaven to do the violent deed.
In such a story we see the dark side of Christianity, and its intolerance, when in authority, of dissent.
The angel at upper right is the Archangel Michael, and that refers to another story explaining why Merkurios is shown with two swords. It relates that Merkurios was fighting as a Roman soldier against barbarians, when suddenly the Archangel Michael appeared and gave him a bright sword, telling him it would bring victory. So Merkurios fought with two swords, his own and the heavenly sword given him by Michael. And that is why in the Coptic Church, Merkurios is also known as Abu Seifein. Abu is Arabic for “father,” but it has a secondary connotation of a possessor of something. Seifein means “two swords,” so Merkurios is Abu Seifein, the “Father/Possesor of Two Swords.”
But he also has another name. When he was a boy, he was called Philopater, “Father-lover.” (Philo=love, Pater=father) — but it can also be translated as “loved by his father.”
Let’s take a look at his title inscription as shown on the Coptic icon above. And by the way, “Coptic” signifies the traditional Christian Church in Egypt, that of the “Copts,” that is, the Egyptians. But first you should know that the Coptic alphabet is based on the Greek, so while some letters will be familiar, others will not. Also, the Coptic language is the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language, though much mixed with Greek words:
The inscription, written in two lines, reads:
Even if you do not know any Coptic, you should be able to read most of this title inscription from what I have already told you about Merkurios. You can see the word AΓΙΟC, and you know that is HAGIOS, meaning “Holy, Saint”; next, though the word is divided between two lines, comes ΦΙΛΟΠΑΤΗΡ, and you know from what I have told you that PHILOPATER was the original given name of Merkurios. Sometimes the Copts call him simply “Saint Philopater.” And finally, though the “M” at its beginning is written in the Coptic manner, you should recognize, following Philopater, the name ΜΕΡΚΟΥΡΙΟC — MERKURIOS. As you have already seen in other Greek inscriptions, the “ou” sound, pronounced “oo” in English, is indicated by placing the Y letter atop the O.
I hope you noticed that there is still one little mystery left about the Coptic title inscription. Why do we find the letters ΠΙ right at the beginning before ΑΓΙΟC? That is easily explained: ΠΙ, pronounced “PEE” in English, is the definite masculine article in Coptic, or to put it simply, here it means “THE.” So it is used as HO would be in Greek. Instead of writing HO HAGIOS, “The Holy” as the Greek title of a male saint, the Copts write PI AGIOS before the name of a male saint. Hey — now you speak Coptic (well, at least one word of it).