Unless you are very interested in learning to read Church Slavic icon inscriptions (the kind of inscriptions found on most old Russian icons) you will probably want to overlook today’s posting. You will likely be bored to tears. And if you do find you have enough curiosity to read on, perhaps even all the way through, well, as psychologists say, recognizing your problem is the first step to overcoming it. I am blameless.
Here is a Russian icon of the physician saint Panteleimon:
I have already discussed Panteleimon in a previous posting. So my reason for showing this particular example is not the saint himself, but rather the long border inscription. It is useful in learning how to approach an unfamiliar Church Slavic inscription. This inscription is not easy for beginners, but that is the point; its difficulty enables me to tell you how to approach such a puzzle.
First you will want to know that most full-border icon inscriptions begin at upper left, then are read to the right, down the right side, and across the bottom from left to right (unless the bottom inscription is upside-down), and finally the left side is read from bottom to top. There are variations on this scheme, but even then the inscription usually begins at upper left.
Knowing that, we can put the whole border inscription together as it would commonly be read:
In attempting to translate this, we face the common difficulties found in Church Slavic inscriptions. First, there are the individual peculiarities of calligraphic style. Second, as is usual, all the words in the inscription run together, with no space between them to tell us where one word ends and another begins.
The key to solving such little mysteries is this:
1. First, start at the beginning and look over the whole inscription from that point
2. Look for any familiar words anywhere in the inscription.
If we follow that advice, we will begin at the upper left hand corner:
I hope by now you have learned to read the Church Slavic alphabet. If you have not, you will find yourself of little use in reading icons. So we begin by transliterating the first part of the inscription. I will put it into modern Cyrillic letters:
Now into the Roman alphabet:
The first letter of the first word, P (“R” in English) is in red. If we transliterate the first four letters, we get
That is a very useful word to know. it means “spoke,” as in “he spoke.” It should be part of your basic inscription vocabulary.
Next comes a word you already know, though you may not know that you know it at first, because it is abbreviated. It is, transliterated:
That abbreviates GOSPOD’, meaning “Lord” or “The Lord” (remember that Church Slavic has no separate word for “the”).
So now we have two words:
Church Slavic word order is not the same as English. Here the verb RECHE (“spoke”) comes before the person doing the speaking, GOSPOD’. So the meaning of RECHE GOSPOD’ is “The Lord Spoke.”
The word following GOSPOD’ is missing one letter, which I will add. The word is
An uchenik is a disciple. UCHENIKOM not only tells us that there is more than one disciple by its ending, but it also tells us that it is the object of the verb “spoke.” It means
The next word is SVOIM: that means “his.” So in the word order of Church Slavic, we now have:
RECHE GOSPOD’ UCHENIKOM SVOIM
SPOKE [the] LORD [to] DISCIPLES HIS
We would say in English, “The Lord spoke to his disciples.”
The next word is also an abbreviation:
In modern Cyrillic it is
The last letter in the original that looks like “I” followed by “a” is actually a single sound, “YA.” So we can transliterate the abbreviated word as
But we must know what it abbreviates. It is the word
It means “saying.”
So now we know what the first five words of the inscription are:
RECHE GOSPOD’ UCHENIKOM SVOIM” GLAGOLYA
“THE LORD SPOKE TO HIS DISCIPLES, SAYING….”
Now that may not seem like much, given the length of the border inscription, but it is of tremendous help in determining what the rest of the unfamiliar inscription says. Because it begins with “The Lord spoke to his disciples, saying…” we know it must be something Jesus said. And of course what Jesus said is found in the New Testament, so we know that the inscription as a whole is likely to be found somewhere in the New Testament.
This is where knowledge of the Bible comes in handy. There are many places in the New Testament where Jesus speaks to his disciples, saying something. But what is that something here? To find out, we return to step two of the translation key, which is to look for any familiar words anywhere in the inscription.
You might, for example, recognize this word in the right border:
It is ВЛАСТЬ, transliterated as VLAST’. It means “power.” So we know that “The Lord” (meaning Jesus) spoke to his disciples, and what he said had something to do with “power.”
The next step is simply to look up everywhere Jesus said something to his disciples about power. And if we look it up first in an English Bible, that will give us the book, chapter and verse. We can then use that to go to the same book, chapter and verse in the Church Slavic New Testament (these are available from the United Bible Societies and elsewhere).
Going through those two steps, we find this first in English:
Matthew 28:18-20 (King James Version)
18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
So now we have a chapter and verse to look up in the Church Slavic version. The beginning is not literally the same as in our five-word icon inscription beginning, but it has much the same meaning, Jesus speaking to his disciples. Going to the Slavic Matthew (Matfei), we find:
И ПРИСТУПЛЬ ИИСУСЪ РЕЧЕ ИМЪ ГЛАГОЛЯ
ДАДЕСЯ МИ ВСЯКА ВЛАСТЬ НА НЕБЕСИ И НА ЗЕМЛИ
ШЕДШЕ БО НАУЧИТЕ ВСЯ ЯЗЫКИ КРЕСТЯЩЕ ИХЪ ВО ИМЯ ОЦА И СЫНА И СВЯТАГО ДУХА
УЧАЩЕ ИХЪ БЛЮСТИ ВСЯ ЕЛИКА ЗАПОВЕДАХЪ ВАМЪ
Now we just compare that, word by word, with the icon border inscription. The result is that we find this is in fact what the inscription is saying, though the icon version begins with “AND THE LORD SPOKE TO HIS DISCIPLES, SAYING…” instead of “AND COMING NEAR, JESUS SPOKE TO THEM, SAYING….” Nonetheless, what Jesus said to his disciples is there and the same in both in the icon inscription and in the Church Slavic New Testament account in Matthew 28-20. If we are careful, we can even see that the icon inscription ends at the top of the left-hand border with the broken-off word
meaning “[I] commanded.”
So the mystery is solved. The whole icon border inscription can now be recognized and translated, and it says:
“JESUS SPOKE TO HIS DISCIPLES, SAYING, ALL POWER IS GIVEN TO ME IN HEAVEN AND IN EARTH; GO THEREFORE AND MAKE DISCIPLES OF ALL NATIONS, BAPTIZING THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY GHOST, TEACHING THEM TO OBSERVE ALL THAT I HAVE COMMANDED….”
This process may seem rather tedious, and it often is, but hey, who said that anything beyond the most common inscriptions would be easy? No one asked you to become interested in icons, did they?
Perhaps you would like to take up Chinese vegetarian cooking instead.