In the study of icons, one soon finds that the two most important things are type and title. The “type” is the “pattern” of the scene or person(s) depicted, and the title identifies that scene or person(s).
Title inscriptions are particularly important in identifying individual saints. Many saints look very much alike, and without a title inscription it is often very difficult to identify them.
You may recall that the modern Greek iconographic revival of the “Βyzantine” style of icon painting began with Photios/Photis Kontoglou (1895-1965). He considered the work of the Cretan icon painters in the years after the fall of Constantinople (1483) to be the high point in Greek iconography, so he took them as the model for his revival style. Modern Greek iconography is heavily reliant on the manner developed by the school of Kontoglou, and one can see it in the models chosen for the many printed icons sold in modern Orthodox gift shops.
Today we will look at an iconographic sketch by Rallis Kopsides (Ράλλης Κοψίδης — 1929-2010), who was a student of Kontoglou. This design is so much like the work of Kontoglou that if it were not signed, one could easily mistake it for his work.
In very traditional fashion, it depicts the Egyptian ascetic Sisoe/Sisoes: The title inscription is on the right: It reads in transliteration: HO ABBAS SISOES pro tou taphou tou Megalou Alexandrou “THE FATHER/ABBOT SISOES before the tomb of the Great Alexander.” Yes, that is Alexander the Great.
If we look in the lower right-hand corner, we can see the signature of the artist: It reads: δια χειρος Ραλλη κοψιδη εκ θρακης dia kheiros Ralli Kopside ek Thrakes “Through/by the hand of Ralles Kopsides of Thrace”
We also see a date given in Greek letter-numerals: 1958.
This type of “Sisoe Before the Tomb of the Great Alexander” is more often seen in frescos than in panel paintings, and more often in the Greek regions than in Russia.
To see how very conservative the style of this sketch by Kopsides is, we can look at a much earlier example of the same type, depicted on the wall of the St. John the Theologian chapel near the Moni Panagia Mavriotissa Monastery at Kastoria, Macedonia, Greece. It dates to 1552:
Because this scene is just one part of several different images on the wall, one might mistake the first word at top left as part of its title, but actually that is the title for the saint just out of the image to the left — St. Merkurios, a warrior saint. The inscription on the depiction of Sisoe is this:
If we ignore the Merkurios inscription for the next-door saint, It reads:
Ὁ ὉCΙΟC CΙCΟΗC
If you have been reading the lessons here on reading icon inscriptions, that should be easy for you. Transliterated it is
HO HOSIOS SISOES
You know that O (Ὁ) is pronounced “ho” in classical pronunciation, and “o” in modern pronunciation. It is just the masculine form of “the.”
ὉCΙΟC (ὉΣΙΟΣ/ Ὁσιος in modern Greek) is “Hosios” in classical pronunciation, “Osios” in modern. It means literally “pious/righteous/holy” but it is the title used specifically for monks in Greek iconography. In Russia it is replaced by prepodobnuiy. The English loose equivalent is “Venerable.”
The longer inscription at left, explaining the scene, varies somewhat from example to example, but the information is generally very much the same as in the Kopsides example. I don’t expect you to read it, but you probably want to know what it means if you are at all curious:
It means, essentially,
“Sisoes, the great among ascetics, before the tomb of the king of the Hellenes [Greeks] Alexander, who formerly shone with glory, trembles at the inconstancy of time and the passing of glory, tearfully, behold, he cries:
“Seeing you, O tomb, I weep tears from my heart, and lament the common debt of man; how then shall I bear this? Ay! — Ay! — Death, who can escape you?”
Σισώης ο Μέγας εν Ασκηταίς έμπροσθεν του τάφου του βασιλέως των Ελλήνων Αλεξάνδρου, του πάλαι λάμψαντος εν δόξει φρίττει και το άστατον του καιρού και της δόξης της προσκαίρου λυπηθείς, ιδού κλαίει.
‘Ορών σε τάφε δειλιώ σου την θέαν και καρδιοστάλακτον δάκρυον χέω, χρέος το κοινόφλητον εις νουν λαμβάνων, πως ουν μέλλω, διελθείν περας τοιούτον. Αι, αι θάνατε τις δύναται φυγείν σε;
The story behind this image is that the Egyptian ascetic monk Shishoy/Sisoes/Sisoe visited the tomb of Alexander in Egypt in the 5th century. Oddly, we have no early manuscript on which this story is based. Images of Sisoe (died 429 c.e.) at the tomb of Alexander only begin to appear in Greek iconography some years after the fall of Constantinople (1453). How the story arose, no one knows, but there is apparently no trace of it until some thousand years after the time of Sisoe. Early accounts do say that the body of Alexander was eventually laid to rest in Alexandria in Egypt, but what became of it no one seems to know.
The point of this icon type, however remains — that death is universal, glory transient, and not even the greatest of kings can escape the passage of time, let alone ordinary humans.
Most examples of the type show only one skeleton or desicated body lying in a tomb –that of Alexander. But the example in the St. John chapel shows three bodies, which some interpret as demonstrating that all are equal in death.