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.