Today we will look at an early 13th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai:
Our concern will be with the text in the open Gospels:
It is (you probably recognize it) the most common Greek text for icons of the Pantokrator — that is, of Jesus shown as “The Almighty.”
At the beginning is a Greek cross. And it is followed by the unseparated words
ΕΓѠ ΕΙΜΙ — EGO EIMI — “I Am….”
Of course whenever you see that “I am” beginning on a Pantokrator Gospel inscription, you know it is most likely to be the most frequently-used text for Greek Pantokrator icons. Here it is in upper and lower case:
Ego eimi to phos tou kosmou ho akolouthon emoi ou me peripatese en te skotia, all[a] hexei to phos tes zoes
” I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
Let’s take a look at the second line:
It reads: ΤΟ ΦѠC ΤΟΥ ΚΟC[-ΜΟΥ] TO PHOS TOUKOS[-MOU] (the –MOU is in the next line):
“The Light of the World.”
Look at the ligature in the word TO (neuter form of “the”): it puts the “T” atop the “O.” And look also at the ligature following PHOS: It is the word TOU, meaning “of the,” but it combines three letters: T, O, and U, all joined from top to bottom to form the word pronounced as “too.”
We can see the variations used in writing by looking at the second use of TO PHOS in the inscription:
The T is placed on top of the O to form the definite article TO (“the), and the Φ is placed atop the ω, followed to the right by C to form the word PHOS — “light.”
Let’s look at one more ligature, used twice on the right side of the page:
It joins T and H, forming the word TH (τη) —TE — pronounced “tay” in ancient Greek, “tee” in modern Greek. By itself, it is the dative form of “the,” as in EΝ ΤΗ ΣΚΟΤΙΑ — En te skotia — “in the darkness,” as in “shall not walk in [the] darkness.”
So you see, it takes only a little bit of study to read a great many inscriptions on Pantokrator icons, even one over seven centuries old, because they are so repetitive.
The Russians, however, use a different favorite inscription:
Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́:
“Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And of course they use other texts as well, but that one is the most popular.
The Old Testament Book of Daniel is the source of several icons. It is an historical fiction (though presented as history) set in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 b.c.). It was actually written, scholars have determined, in the 2nd century b.c. It is partly in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic. The version used in Eastern Orthodoxy is longer than that of the Protestant Bible, including additions written in Greek: The Prayer of Azariah, Susannah, and Bel and the Dragon.
The Prayer of Azariah segment is inserted between Chapter 3:23 and 3:24 of Daniel. It includes the “Song of the Three Holy Youths,” which is used as part of an Eastern Orthodox canon sung during Matins, etc. The Susannah segment forms Chapter 13 of Daniel in Eastern Orthodox Bibles. It is widely known in Western art for the erotic scene of Susannah watched by the voyeuristic Elders while bathing. Bel and the Dragon forms Chapter 14 of Daniel in Eastern Orthodox Bibles (and yes, it really does feature a dragon).
Significantly Daniel, being a very late composition, is the only Old Testament book to give angels names, as do the so-called Apocrypha and the New Testament. It is in Daniel that we are first introduced to the angels Michael and Gabriel, very common figures in icons.
Briefly, the Book of Daniel relates the tale of an aristocratic Jewish young man taken captive during the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. Brought to the city of Babylon, he is made an official in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. He becomes well-known in the court because of his ability to interpret dreams, which he does both for Nebuchadnezzar and his successor Cyrus, King of Persia.
Through the wiles of his enemies, Daniel is thrown by the King into a den of lions, but because of his righteousness and faithfulness to the Jewish God, he survives. Daniel has divine and heavily symbolic visions of “future” events, and so he becomes noted as a prophet. In Russian iconography, Daniel is found in the Prophets’ Tier of the iconostasis in Russian Orthodox Churches.
The Book of Daniel also contains the well-known story of the Three Youths, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Jewish captives who were thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they would not worship his image.
Let’s begin by looking at a very early “pre-icon” period image from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, circa 300 c.e.:
It represents the “Three Youths,” or as they are better known in the West, the “Three Hebrew Children” in the fiery furnace. In early Christian art it seems to have been used as a symbol of deliverance from death, as were catacomb images of Daniel in the lions’ den. Not all early Christian images from the “symbolic” period survived in later icon art, and those that did are depicted somewhat differently.
Here is a Russian icon of the Three Youths:
The inscription on it reads:
ТРИ ОТРОКА В ПЕЩИ TRI OTROKA V PESHCHI
“[The] Three Youths in [the] Furnace”
Nebuchadnezzar is seated on his throne at right, and behind him is the image the Three Youths refused to worship. They stand unharmed in the fiery furnace, protected by an angel who is generally seen, in Eastern Orthodoxy, as Jesus. In some examples the halo of the angel has the three bars of the cross commonly found in the halo of Jesus.
In Greek iconography, the type is called Οι Άγιοι Τρεις Παίδες εν τη Καμίνω — Hoi Hagioi Treis Paides en te Kamino — “The Holy Three Boys in the Furnace.” And neither the Russians nor the Greeks use the Hebrew forms of their names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; instead, they are in Russian Анания, Азария и Мисаил — Ananiya, Azariya, and Misail — and in Greek Greek Ανανιας, Αζαριας, and Μισαηλ — Ananias, Azarias, and Misael.
Of course both Russian and Greek iconography includes the very old scene of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Here is a very “Westernized” Greek icon of the type, showing popular taste in icons in the 19th and early 20th century, far from the older “byzantine” manner:
The inscription on it reads: Ο ΠΡΟΦΗΤΗΣ ΔΑΝΙΗΛ — HO PROPHETES DANIEL — “The Prophet Daniel.” And the lions are rather charming.
There is also a very seldom-seen variant of the “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” type. It too is called Пророк Даниил во рву львином — Prorok Daniil vo rvu l’vionom — “The Prophet Daniel in the Den of Lions,” but it includes, as you can see, an unusual added element:
This 17th-century icon is from the side door of an iconostasis in a church on the Volga. Its imagery is taken from one of the texts added to the Book of Daniel, in this case the Chapter 14 segment, which Roman Catholics call “Bel and the Dragon”:
33 Now there was in Jewry a prophet, called Habbakuk, who had made pottage, and had broken bread in a bowl, and was going into the field, for to bring it to the reapers. 34 But the angel of the Lord said to Habbakuk, Go, carry the dinner that you have into Babylon to Daniel, who is in the lions’ den.
35 And Habbakuk said, Lord, I never saw Babylon; nor do I know where the den is. 36 Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown, and carried him by the hair of his head, and through the vehemency of hisspirit set him in Babylon above the den. 37 And Habbakuk cried, saying, O Daniel, Daniel, take the dinner which God has sent you.
38 And Daniel said, You have remembered me, O God: nor have you forsaken those who seek you and love you. 39 So Daniel arose, and ate: and the angel of the Lord set Habbakuk in his own place again immediately.
So that is what we see in this variant: Habbakuk, with his container of pottage, carried into Babylon by an angel, to give the food to Daniel. And Daniel in the den, with the submissive lions at his feet, is looking up at Habbakuk. At the very top, in heaven, is an image of Jesus in his youthful form, called Christ “Immanuel.”
This does not quite complete the number of types related to Daniel, but it is enough for now. So I will finish today with this very pleasant Russian image of Daniel (at right) painted in the more traditional manner, as he would be seen in the Prophets’ Tier of an iconostasis. The image at left is the Prophet Ezekiel:
Here is an image of one of the most traditionally popular saints in Russia — Paraskeva:
Her title is Svyataya Paraskeva Pyatnitsa. You already know (if you have been reading this site) that Svyataya is the feminine form of the word “Holy.” Paraskeva is the slavicized Greek Name Παρασκευή — pronounced Paraskevi in modern Greek. In Greece she is also known less formally as Paraskevoula, which accounts for those Greek ladies called Voula. In Greek, her name means “Friday.” When she was adopted by Russia, people did not know what it meant, so the secondary Russian name Pyatnitsa was added. Pyatnitsa also means “Friday.” So, odd as it seems, this is Paraskeva Pyatnitsa — Saint Friday-Friday.
It is traditional for her scroll to show the beginning words of the “Symbol of Faith” — the Nicene Creed:
Верую во единого Бога, Отца Вседержителя, Творца неба и земли…
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…
At first glance, there seems no reason why Paraskeva should have been so popular. Her name in Greek — Paraskevi — while it refers to Friday, is derived from the verb παρασκευάζω meaning “to get ready, to prepare.” It is used for the “Day of Preparation” in the New Testament — of preparation for the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday. So that is why it means also “Friday.” And significantly, according to the Gospels, Jesus was crucified on Friday. It is said that Paraskeva was given this name because she was born on a Friday, near Rome, in the 2nd century c.e.
This repetitious connection with Friday is the key to her popularity.
In early pre-Christian Russian lands, Friday was apparently a day sacred to the Slavic goddess Makosh (Макошь), just as our Friday was originally named in honor of the Nordic Goddess Freya. Makosh had authority over things important to women — marriage, childbirth, and particularly female occupations such as spinning and weaving. October 28th was considered the birthday of Paraskeva, and on that day, by folk tradition, women were not to spin or weave or wash linen or children, or go into water; otherwise they would be severely punished by the saint.
Now this connection of both Makosh and her double Paraskeva with the spinning of thread and its weaving is very significant. The goddess Makosh is said to have also had power over destiny, which associates her — through spinning — with the Greek Fates (Moirai) and the Scandinavian Norns, who spun and cut the threads of human life and fate. So that is why anything involving the making and weaving of thread is so important to Paraskeva. She was very powerful, and in fact an aspect of the ancient Mother Goddess under a Christian name, which is why Paraskeva, in popular Russian thought and folk belief, tended to blend into Mary, mother of Jesus, who was also a Mother Goddess figure in practice (though of course that would not be stated in official Church theology).
In keeping with this connection with human fate and time, Paraskeva is associated with twelve significant Fridays of the calendar year — the Twelve Paraskevas — days on which fasting is said to bring remarkable benefits to those honoring her. The list of Fridays is found in a document popular among the peasantry, and said to have been written by Pope Clement. It is called:
Поучение, иже во святых отца нашего Климента, папы Рымскаго о дванадесятницах — “The teaching which is according to our father Clement, Pope of Rome, about the Twelve Days,”
So fasting on all these special Fridays would supposedly protect the believer from, among other things, sudden death, execution, poverty, evil spirits, drowning, lightning and hail, from famine, and ultimately it was believed to ensure the salvation of the believer, stating that those who fast on the Friday before Epiphany would have their names written in the “Book of Life.” The peasants considered it wise not to discuss this document and its promises with the official clergy, who might be displeased by peasants having such an alternate route to Heaven.
It is not surprising that Paraskeva was also associated with the fertility of the fields and their watering by rain. In fact she is reminiscent of the germanic Earth Goddess Perchta, also known as Frau Holle, and in English as “Mother Hulda.” And like this goddess, she was not only associated with springs and water (in some places coins were cast into springs as offerings to her), but she also had a negative aspect.
The Germanic goddess Perchta, at her special time of year, would come into homes to make sure the women had been diligent in spinning. We have seen that Paraskeva also had this association with spinning. And again like Perchta, Paraskeva had two aspects — that of a beautiful and radiant young woman, but also that of an ugly old hag clothed in rags and dirt. And just as Perchta punished those who had not been dutiful in spinning, Paraskeva, as ragged old hag, would punish those who did not refrain from spinning on a day when it was prohibited. Among her worst punishments were diseases of the eyes and fingers, both of which severely affected one’s ability to spin and weave. And do not forget that in the old days, thread had to be spun by hand, and cloth had to be made by hand. For a peasant woman to lose this ability was disastrous.
In a previous posting I mentioned the семейная икона (semeinaya icona). In Russian, семейство (semeistvo) means “family”; so a семейная / semeinaya icon is a “family icon.” A family icon depicts the saints for whom the members of a family are named. When one comes across an icon with a gathering of saints that seem to have been put together for no obvious reason, it is most likely to be a “family” icon. Such an icon often includes the generic image of the “Guardian Angel,” but not always. Here is an example:
It depicts the martyr Khrisanf (Chrysanthos), Thomas Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Evfimiy (Euthemios), Patriarch Sofroniy (Sophronios) of Jerusalem, and the Martyr Daria, with Jesus blessing from the clouds above.
Remember to distinguish the “family” icon, from the патрональная икона — patronal’naya ikona — meaning the “patronal” icon. A “patronal” icon traditionally depicts a saint for whom an individual is named in baptism, his or her “patron saint” as we would say in the West. It is sometimes called an именная икона — immenaya ikona — a “name” icon, or a тезоименная икона — a “name-sake” icon. In modern Russian Orthodoxy an icon depicting a single saint may not always be one’s “name day” (also called “angel day) saint, but also possibly one chosen by an individual as a special protector. Here is an example of a patronal icon depicting the Martyr Sophia:
A tradition in the making of icons for Russian royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries was the painting of a patronal icon for a newborn child on a wooden panel cut to the length of the child, and painted with the child’s name saint. Such an icon is called a мерная икона — mernaya ikona “measure” icon. In modern Russia the practice has been revived for icons ordered by ordinary people.
In the latter part of the 19th century, lithographed icons on tin or on paper — such as this example — contributed to the decline of icon painting in Russia. The reason was obvious; printed icons were much cheaper than painted icons, and they did the job just as well, from a strictly utilitarian point of view.
The saint depicted here is Tikhon Kaluzhskiy — Tikhon of Kaluga:
His title in full is Преподобный Тихон Медынский Калужский чудотворец — “Venerable Tikhon of Meduin and Kaluga, Wonderworker.” Little information has come down about him. What there is says that he was a Russian saint of the 15th century. Said to have been born in Kiev, he went while still young to Moscow, where he became a monk. Later he went to live an ascetic life between the towns of Meduin and Kaluga, on the banks of the river Vepreika. There he took up residence in a hollow oak tree on land claimed by Prince Yaroslav Vladimirovich. One day the prince was out hunting, and happened to discover Tikhon living on his land. The Prince flew into a fury and tried to whip Tikhon, but was shocked to find the arm holding the whip had gone numb. He saw this as a divine sign, and after asking forgiveness, offered to donate money for the building of a monastery.
Just as Simeon Verkhoturskiy is recognized by his fishing pole and bucket, Tikhon of Kaluga is recognized by the hollow oak tree in which he lived. In the background one can see the Monastery he founded, the Dormition Monastery.
Tikhon is not the only saint who is said to have lived in a hollow tree (for example, the Bulgarian popular saint Ioann (John) of Rila is said to have done so), but when you see a Russian icon depicting a monk standing in a big hollow tree, it is very likely to be Tikhon.
In a previous posting, I discussed the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the muslim Turks, and how even before that time some painters had emigrated to Crete, beginning the Cretan School of icon painting. And I mentioned that even before the fall of the Cretan chief city of Candia to the Turks in 1669, some painters had already moved on to other places. Some went west to Italy. Others went north to the monastic settlements of Mount Athos, on the Northern Aegean Sea in Macedonia, bringing with them the influence of Italian painting models. And some went elsewhere.
So icon painting did not die out in the Greek Orthodox world with the Fall of Constantinople. Instead the trend was toward movement of icon painters away from the former urban centers and into more remote regions. And a further tendency, particularly after the conquest of Candia, was away from “lay” icon painters to more monastic icon painters, and also to a more limited clientele than was available to Cretan painters. So in this period, the painting of more stylistically conservative icons was centered in the already existing monastic settlements of Mount Athos in Macedonia, Meteora in central Greece, Ioannina in northwestern Greece, and other locales. Some painters from Crete moved as far as Jerusalem and the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai. But the major center of conservative Greek painting in this period was at Mount Athos, which in spite of the adoption of some “new” icon models from western Europe, continued to prefer a rather conservative and repetitive approach to icon painting, resulting in the kind of stagnation later deplored by many both in and outside the Eastern Orthodox realms.
Meanwhile, what was happening in the Slavic countries to the north?
Long before the fall of Byzantium, Greek Christianity was taken north and into Kievan Rus, where in 988 Prince Vladimir converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and also converted his people by edict (he did not bother to ask them). Greek icon painters came north and began training the Slavs, who over time developed distinctive regional styles in such places as Novgorod and Pskov. Native Russian saints such as Boris and Gleb began to appear in icons, and over time Russian painting looked less to Byzantium and more to the growing power of Moscow, which as mentioned previously, became the new center of Eastern Orthodoxy for Russians, particularly after Constantinople fell.
A major shift in Russian icon painting, which was conservative even while developing regional styles, took place in the middle of the 1600s, when Nikon, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, decided to force various changes that he considered reforms on the people. He ordered alterations made in texts and in rituals, to bring them more into line with what he saw as “correct” Greek usage. This caused tremendous dissension, because traditional Russians saw outward forms and usages as the manifestation of the “True Faith,” and so even such matters as changing the position of the fingers in blessing, or altering the spelling of the name of Jesus were seen as heresy, as abandoning the Orthodox belief handed down by their fathers. But Nikon would not relent, and so a great schism took place in Russian Orthodoxy, with Nikon’s State Church on one hand, and the traditionalist “Old Believers” on the other.
Even though the Old Believers wanted to maintain Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced in Russia, the State Church declared them раскольники — raskolniki — “schismatics.” And then the terrible persecutions of the Old Believers began by the State Church, using the powers of the Russian government as its punishing arm.
That did not, however, deter the Old Believers, who steadfastly kept to their views in spite of their chief spokesman, the Archpriest Avvakum, being murdered by the State Church.
The schism between State Church and Old Believers in the mid-1600s was just the first sign of a great change that affected Russian icon painting tremendously. By the later 1600s, State Church painters had become strongly influenced by western European religious art, and imperial patronage favored western styles as well. So where previously Russian icons had been very stylized and deliberately non-realistic, now the State Church favored a more realistic western approach, with Italian-looking saints and flowing draperies. The Old Believers, however, kept strictly to the old stylized manner of painting, though over time western elements crept into their icons as well, generally as more realistic background landscapes while the saints themselves continued to be stylized rather than realistic.
The result of all this was that by the 19th century, much of State Orthodox religious art in Russia looked very much like Italian religious painting, while the Old Believers preserved the conservative and stylized icon forms that tend to be thought of as typically Russian today.
Of course Russia was not the only Slavic country to adopt Eastern Orthodoxy, and with it icon painting. There was also Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania with its part-Romance, part-Slavic language. Though previously strongly influenced by Byzantine icon painting, after the fall of Constantinople the Balkan countries began to develop their own distinctive styles, in spite of Turkish domination and oppression. The tendency in the Balkans was for icon painting to continue in small and scattered workshops and monasteries rather than in the large cities where Turkish authority and dominance were most obvious. Denied both the freedom and the markets of Russian icon painters, neither the Balkans nor Greece, as a result of Turkish domination, ever developed the wide range of icon types that appeared in Russia, nor did the numbers of of icons produced in Greece and the Balkans ever reach the prodigious levels attained by the production of Russian icon painting workshops.
Keep in mind that Greece did not achieve recognized independence from the Ottoman Turks until 1832;
Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottomans in 1908;
Serbia did not achieve full independence from the Ottomans until 1898;
Romania declared its independence of the Ottomans in 1877, but did not fully achieve it until the defeat of the Turks in 1878.
Of course by the time that Greece and the Balkans achieved independence from centuries of domination by the muslim Turks, the world had moved on, and Eastern Orthodoxy, though still prevalent in Greece and the Balkans, no longer had the power it once had. There were little revivals of icon painting here and there, and attempts by conservative individuals such as Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) in Greece to revive earlier standards of icon painting. Kontoglou was influenced by the monastic works of Mount Athos and the pre-Cretan School frescos of Mistra, with a particular fondness for the painting of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), who though born in Crete, later lived and worked for a time as a monk at Mt. Athos; and also that of Frangos Katelanos, who worked at a number of the significant post-Byzantine sites, including Mount Athos, Meteora, Ioannina, Kastoria, etc. in the 1500s.
We see the influence of Kontoglou in many modern Greek Orthodox icons (particularly in the printed icons put out by Orthodox bookshops). Many of them represent the kind of icon painting I call the “Play-doh” style, because the hair and beards of the saints in such neo-Greek icons look like the thick strands of “clay” extruded through that popular child’s toy device, the “Play-Doh Fun Factory.” If you have seen them, you know what I mean.
In spite of such attempts at a neo-Byzantine styles, many recent and modern popular icons and icon prints in Greece and the Balkans represent the more realistic manner favored for so long in Western popular religious art, making many Orthodox icons very similar in style to the “prayer cards” with pictures of Italian-style saints one still finds in Roman Catholicism. Western converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, however, generally prefer more traditional styles, thinking them somehow “pure” while not realizing that Eastern Orthodox iconography has been influenced by European Catholic and Protestant religious art for centuries, whether in Russia, the Balkans or Greece. This influence extended even to such traditional monastic centers as Mount Athos, which, for example, used images from the woodcuts of the German Catholic, then Lutheran artist Albrecht Dürer.
Of course there are other icon painting regions that I have not even touched on in this brief and very generalized overview, for example there are the icons of the Egyptian Coptic Christians and the very distinctive icons of Ethiopia, as well as those of Georgia, Armenia, etc. But that will do for now.
It is just a reminder that the surest way to make yourself appear an uneducated novice in the study of icons is to use the inaccurate and inappropriate expression “write” in relation to icons. One does not “write” an icon (which should be obvious); one paints an icon.
I have explained why this rather silly usage arose — primarily in the United States — in a previous posting:
To make it very simple, it is a matter of linguistics. In old Greek, to create either a painting or a letter was to “write” (graphein) it. There was one word for both. That was true whether one painted an image of a god or a bird or an image of anything else.
That was the case also in old Russia. In Russian, pisat’ can mean both “to write” and “to paint.” So pisat’ means to write in letters, as in writing a letter or book; but it also means to paint, as in painting a picture of any kind. as we see in these two illustrations from a Russian-language site:
But in English we PAINT icons and we WRITE a letter. We have two distinct words for two different actions.
The common word in Russia for how one created an icon was pisat’, just as the word for creating the completely non-religious painting the boy is working on in the photo above is also pisat’. It is not specific to icons or religious paintings, but used for other kinds of paintings as well.
So when people mistakenly say “write” an icon in English, it is not a matter of church doctrine, but simply of difference in language and mistaken translation. That is why when the Cretan, Greek-speaking icon painter Andreas Ritzos (1421-1492) painted an icon of Mary for a customer in the Latin-using Catholic Church, he signed it in Latin, like this:
ANDREA RICO DE CANDIA PINXIT — “Andreas Ritzos of Candia Painted It.”
Note that he did not say SCRIPSIT — “Wrote It” — in Latin, even though he was a Greek-speaking icon painter. Any educated person would have known that to be a mistake in Latin — the wrong word to use. And it is a mistake also to say “write” an icon in English, because in English we paint an icon (or any painting) but we write a letter.
Similarly, when the Cretan icon painter Andreas Pavias painted an icon for a Greek-speaking customer, he wrote on it:
ΧΕΙΡ ΑΝΔΡΕΟΥ ΠΑΒΙΑ — Kheir Andreou Pavia — “The Hand of Andreas Pavias.”
But when he painted a Crucifixion for a Western customer, the signature on it was:
ANDREAS PAVIAS PINXIT DE CANDIA — “Andreas Pavias Painted It – of Candia.”
My point is that even Greek-speaking icon painters in one of the classic schools knew not to say “write” for paint when using a language that had distinct words for each. And English again, like most European languages, does have distinct words for each.
One would have thought this bad habit — the result of a linguistic error — would have disappeared years ago, but it still shows up on the Internet. It is as grating on the senses as hearing a politician say NOO-kya-ler for “nuclear.”