EVEN MORE ON LIGATURES IN GREEK ICON INSCRIPTIONS

Here is a rather long posting that will likely severely bore anyone who is not interested in learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.  But it is a helpful posting for those peculiar souls who do want to learn that rather esoteric skill.  In any case, it is something any serious student of icons should know.

A reader asked about inscriptions on icons of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.  That gave me a good excuse to talk a bit more about ligatures in Greek icon inscriptions.  “Ligature,” in writing, is the linking or joining of letters together.  When icon students first encounter ligatures, they find them mystifying and confusing, but really the principle is quite simple once one knows what to look for.

First, let’s take a look at the main portion of an example of such an icon type in this fresco from Mt. Athos:

Here is what Mary is saying to Jesus in the inscription:

kurieeisu

Let’s look a little closer:

It begins with an abbreviation:  ΚΕ.  But notice the horizontal line above the two letters.  Do you remember that such a line (sometimes curved, but still horizontal) indicates an abbreviation?  Here, the two letters abbreviate ΚΥΡΙΕ (Kyrie).  You may recall that ΚΥΡΙΟC (Kyrios) is the Greek word for “Lord.”  KYRIE is just another form of it — the form used in addressing someone — in talking to them directly.   So here KYRIE also means”Lord” (but see below).

Now in a previous “lesson,” I told you that when encountering unfamiliar inscriptions, one should look at the visual context, at what is in the image.  And here the context is the biblical story of Mary talking to Jesus after his resurrection.  So all we need ask is, where in that context does she address him as “Lord?”  We must also remember that Kyrie is the standard respectful way for a woman to address a male in Greek — which is why the King James version of the Bible sometimes translates it as “Sir.”  So again, where in this context does Mary address Jesus as “Lord” or “Sir?”  We find it in the Gospel called “of John,” Chapter 20, verse 15:

Jesus says to her, Woman, why weep you? whom seek you? She, supposing him to be the gardener, says to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

The next step, of course, is to take a look at the same verse in a Greek New Testament, so that we can verify that we have chosen correctly:

ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΗ ΙΗCΟΥC ΓΥΝΑΙ ΤΙ ΚΛΑΙΕΙC; ΤΙΝΑ ΖΗΤΕΙC; ΕΚΕΙΝΗ ΔΟΚΟΥCΑ ΟΤΙ Ο ΚΗΠΟΥΡΟC ΕCΤΙΝ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ ΚΥΡΙΕ ΕΙ CΥ ΕΒΑCΤΑCΑC ΑΥΤΟΝ ΕΙΠΕ ΜΟΙ ΠΟΥ ΕΘΗΚΑC ΑΥΤΟΝ ΚΑΓΩ ΑΥΤΟΝ ΑΡΩ

Now, let’s compare that with the inscription on the icon:

Here’s where we run into the ligature issue.  We already know that the first two letters, KE, abbbreviate KYRIE — “Lord”/”Sir.”  that means, if we have the chosen the correct text, the next two letters should be EI in Greek.  But in the actual icon inscription, the third symbol does not look like any recognizable letter at all.  The reason is that it is a ligature, a joined letter.  We find it it two places in the inscription:

The first occurance is somewhat marred by a crack in the painting surface, but the second, almost just below the first, is quite clear.  It looks rather like the number nine.  But the rounded part to the left is the “E” portion of the ligature, and the vertical line is the “I.”  So we can be reasonably certain that we have the correct text, because the third and fourth letters in the inscription are EI, meaning “if.”

The next two Greek letters in the inscription look like CV:

C in Greek is “s” in English.  And the V is actually just a way of writing the Greek letter Y, which in lower case is υ.  So the word in Greek is CY, which we can transliterate as SY or sy.  Sy is Greek for “you.”

Up to this point we have:

Lord/Sir if you…

The next word in the inscription is not complete:

 

It has one ligature, the fourth symbol.  That is a combination of C and T in Greek.  So it reads  EBACTAC — Ebastas.  But the word is shortened.  It is really EBACTACAC — Ebastasas, meaning “carried off”

The next word is also missing its ending:

The first symbol is a ligature of a and u, so the three letters shown are aut, which if written in full would be auton, meaning “him.”

Next come these words, all pushed together, as is often common in Greek inscriptions:

eipemoi

The first letter is the ligature of e and i that we have already seen.  With the next two letters, it makes the word ΕΙΠΕ — EIPE–, meaning “tell.”  That is followed by the word MOI, meaning “me.”  And the final word in the line has a common ligature of the letters O and Y, with the Y placed atop the O.  So it is the word ΠΟΥ — POU –, meaning “where.”

So now we have:

“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him, tell me where…”

Then comes:

ethek

The first four letters are ΕΘΗΚ — ethek, but the writer has left off the ending.  The whole word would be ΕΘΗΚΑC — ethekas — meaning “[you] have laid.”  That is followed by the abbreviation for AUTON (AVT) that we have already seen, and so we know AUTON means “him.”  The last four letters form the combined word KAΓω — KAGO –, and the two words put together to make it are ΚΑΙ ΕΓω, kai ego, meaning “and I.”

Adding that to what we already have, it gives us:

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I...”

Then come the last words of Mary’s little speech:

Here the word AYTON — auton, which we saw earlier in its shortened form, is spelled out in full.  You will recall it means “him.”  Next comes a ligature, the letters A and P (R) joined, so the last word is ARω — ARO, meaning ” [I] will take away.”

So the inscription, in our rather literal translation so far, is

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I him will take away.

If we put that into more normal English order, we get,

Sir, if you carried him off, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

Now keep in mind that you did not have to know the entire inscription to know what it was.  You determined that from the first few words, seen in the context of the image shown — Mary kneeling before the resurrected Jesus.  Then all you had to do was to find those few words in the Greek text of the New Testament where the story of Mary before the resurrected Jesus is told.  Using that process enables one to recognize a great many inscriptions without knowing the entire vocabulary of the text at first glance.

We can see how useful that is if we look at another icon of the same type, also with a Greek inscription:

If we look at what Mary is saying to Jesus in this example, we find it to be:

It is very much the same as the inscription in the first example, with only slight differences in writing.  And the one word separated at the bottom is easy.  In Greek letters it is ΡΑΒΒΟΥΝΗ — RABBOUNI — an Aramaic word that means loosely “My Master/Teacher.”  That, according to the Gospel called “of John,” was the exclamation of Mary to Jesus when she finally recognized him.

Just for completeness, let’s deal with the other inscriptions one is likely to find on icons of this type.  First, there is the identifying inscription above Mary:

Picture 089

Picture 089

As you might guess, it just reads:

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΜΑΡΙΑ Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — HE HAGIA MARIA HE MAGDALINE

You probably noticed that the HAGIA is abbreviated.  In the name “Mary,” the A and Ρ (R) are joined, and the HE (H) is linked to the M in Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — “the Magdalene.”

And of course the title as a whole means “THE HOLY MARY THE MAGDALENE.”

There is also an inscription found in this type that you should already recognize from a previous posting.  For it, we will go back to this example in the first image:

The inscription is just above the empty grave of Jesus (with the graveclothes lying in it):

Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΤΑΦΟC — HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “The Holy Sepulchre.”

Let’s also look back at that first image to see what Jesus is saying to Mary:

memou

The IC at the top is of course just the standard abbreviation for “Jesus.”  But the inscription below it has the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene:

ΜΗ ΜΟΥ ΑΠΤΟΥ  — ΜE MOU APTOU  — “ME NOT TOUCH”

In normal English that is “TOUCH ME NOT,” or more modern, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.”  That accounts for the common Latin title often given these images in the West, Noli Me Tangere, which is just the translation of Me Mou Aptou.

I hope you noticed that the letters ΜΗ are joined in a ligature, as are ΟΥ in the word ΜΟΥ, and there is another ligature joining the letters Π and Τ in ΑΠΤΟΥ.

Finally, let’s take a look at the title inscription of the whole image at the very top of the first example.  It is cut off in the photo, but we can fill in what is missing:

memouaptitle

Η ΜΕΤΑ ΤΗΝ ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ ΠΡΟC ΤΗ ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ[Ν] ΜΑΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ  ΣωΤΗΡΟΣ ΕΜΦΑΝΙΑ

HE META TEN EGERSEN PROS TE MAGDALINE[N] MARIA TOU SOTEROS EMPHANIA
The After the Resurrection to the Magdalene Mary of the Savior Appearance

In normal English,

“THE APPEARANCE OF THE SAVIOR TO MARY MAGDALENE AFTER THE RESURRECTION”

One will often find little variations in Greek spelling (as in ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ / ΕΓΕΡCΙΝ in the above example), but usually they are not severe enough to cause confusion.

You may also wish to know that this ME MOU APTOU icon type of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is another of those borrowings into Eastern Orthodox art from Western Catholic art, from the time when Venice controlled the island of Crete, and the icon painters there worked to supply both Greek Orthodox and Western Catholic markets for paintings.  You may have also noticed that Mary Magdalene’s head is bare in these icons, which is a little unusual, given that most women have their heads covered in icons.  But it is usual for Mary’s hair to be seen in these particular type, because the image was borrowed very closely from Western examples — and in the West, Mary Magdalene is often seen with head uncovered.

 

 

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THE “TREE HOUSE” OF DAVID OF THESSALONIKI

Here is an icon pattern from the Russian Stroganov Podlinnik   Today’s focus is on the fellow in the tree, shown in this example from the month of June:

davidsolunskiy

The inscription above him — written in the handwriting style of the late 16th-early 17th century — reads:

ПР[Е]П[О]Д[O]БНАГО ОЦА НАШЕГО Д[А]В[И]ДА ИЖЕ В СЕЛУНИ СЕД РЯСА ВОХРА З БЕЛИЛОМ

PREPODOBNAGO OTSA NASHEGO DAVIDA IZHE V SELUNI
VENERABLE        FATHER   OUR        DAVID   who-is  In THESSALONIKI

RYASA VOKHRA Z BELILOM
HABIT  IN OCHRE WITH WHITE

ИЖЕ = IZHE is a Church Slavic word found often in the old painters’ manuals and in the calendar of saints.  It means approximately “which/who is,” “the one which is” or “the one who is.”  It often distinguishes saints by the place traditionally associated with them.  When used of saints in this manner,  it means loosely “the one in…”  In today’s case, this David, to distinguish him from others, is “the one in Thessaloniki.

So all together, it means:

Our Venerable Father David, the one in Thessaloniki;
Grey, habit in ochre with white.

The first part of the text identifies the saint:  David of Thessaloniki.   The second part tells how to paint him: Grey (hair and beard), and his monastic habit ochre with white.

Being of Thessaloniki, David is one of the many Greek saints celebrated in Russian Orthodoxy as well.  Here is a Greek icon of him:

davidthessaloniki

Being in red, the inscription above the saint is a bit difficult to make out, but it looks to be much the same as the usual inscription for him in Greek icons: O όσιος Δαβίδ ο εν Θεσσαλονίκη — in old pronunciation, Ho Hosios Dabid, ho en Thessaloniki, but in modern Greek, O Osios David o en Thessaloniki.  You will recall that Hosios/Osios is the title used for a monastic male saint in Greek.

The icon shows David sitting in his almond tree residence, and a non-saint kneeling at right.  We know he is not a saint because he has no halo.

At left is seated a crowned figure identified by another red inscription, partly abbreviated as:

Ο ΠΡΟΦ ΔΑΒΙΔ
Ο Προφήτης Δαβίδ
Ho Prophetes Dabid/O Prophetes David
THE PROPHET DAVID

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the King David of the Old Testament is commonly titled as “Prophet.”  In this Greek icon, King David holds a scroll reading:

δικαιος ως φοινιξ ανθησει ωσει κεδρος

That is an excerpt from Psalm 92:12 (91:13 Septuagint):
δίκαιος ὡς φοῖνιξ ἀνθήσει, ὡσεὶ ἡ κέδρος ἡ ἐν τῷ Λιβάνῳ πληθυνθήσεται.
The righteous shall flourish as a palm-tree: he shall be increased as the cedar in Lebanon.

Remember that in icons, people speak through their scrolls, like in cartoon bubbles.  So King David is saying that David of Thessaloniki is one of the righteous, and of course the mention of two kinds of trees relates to David of Thessaloniki living in a tree.

The figure shown in the clouds above is of course Jesus.

So much for the linguistic and symbolic aspect of these images.  But just who was David of Thessaloniki, and why did he live in a tree?

Well, you know from earlier postings about the odd kind of saint called a “stylite,” one who lives on a pillar.  The term for tree-dwelling saints is “dendrite.”  So David of Thessaloniki is a dendrite.

To make a long story short, David is said to have been an ascetic monk living roughly between 450-550 c.e.  He was thought to have come to Thessaloniki in Greece from Mesopotamia.  He entered the monastery of Saints Theodore and Merkourios.  While there, he somehow got it into his head that the thing to do was to make his dwelling up in the branches of the almond tree that grew beside the monastery church.  He thought that if he did that, he would somehow learn God’s will for him.  So he lived in the tree in the heat of summer and cold of winter for three years.  After that time, an angel appeared to him, saying that God had heard his prayers, but that it was time for David to climb down and live in a monastic cell like other monks.  Because of his eccentric asceticism, David gained a local reputation as a holy man and healer, and was visited by many people seeking his help.

For some reason, these stories tend to leave out details such as how the fellow living in the tree managed the sanitary necessities of being a human, but then such things are seldom mentioned in hagiography.

Greek icons of David of Thessaloniki often have him holding a scroll upon which is written:

Μοναχός εστιν αληθώς ο μηδέν έχων εν τω παρόντι βίω ει μη μόνον τον Χριστόν.

It means loosely:

“The true monk is one who in this life has nothing but Christ.”

 

SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT: THE “PLANT SAINTS” OF OLGA VOLCHKOVA

In early Russia, it was not the custom to paint persons other than Bible figures and saints.  And of course those were painted in the traditional stylized manner.  When the painting of secular portraits first began to be accepted in the 16th century, they were done with the same techniques and stylization used in painting religious icons, as in this portrait of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible.”  So the techniques of icon painting, it was found, could be put to other use.

ivangrozn

When the Communists took control of Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century and made painting religious icons impractical, the workers in the noted icon-painting village of Palekh turned instead to painting scenes of fairy tales and foklore, again using techniques learned in icon painting.

I was recently quite surprised to find that a very talented young woman in my part of the country has come up with her own very innovative use of the methods of the icon painting tradition.  Her name is Olga Volchkova.  Olga was born in Russia, and studied at the Tver Art School, at the Tver Icon Painting School, and also studied oil restoration at the Grabar Institute.  And in her words, she has “canonized plants” — has given them anthropomorphic form, extolling their virtues (and occasionally, dangers) in the form of saints.

I was happy to receive Olga’s permission to show some of her work here.  All photos are copyrighted by Olga Volchkova.

Here is her manifestation of the Saffron Flower:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is “St. Calla Lily”:

(Couresty of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is her “Holy Spirit of Herbs”:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

This is her stylized depiction of the poisonous flower Aconite:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is “Black Tulip”:

Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)

Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

This is her visual ode to the potato.  She says the little fellow at the top, where one usually finds “Lord Sabaoth” in conventional icons, is the “Potato God.”

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is “St. Cyani” the Bachelor Button (Centaurea cyanus); note the bicycle in the background:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

This is a more conventional saint, Crispin.  You may recall that according to tradition, he was a shoemaker, the patron saint of cobblers:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

And finally, here is St. Watermelon.  Note the seed decoration around his neck:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

As you can see from these examples, there is much that a creative artist can do with the skills used for icon painting.  No doubt some conservatives may wish to take offense at the playful “canonizing” of plants, but to them I would say, “Get a sense of humor.”  One could do worse than to recall in visual form all that plants do for us.

To see more of Olga’s unique “plant icons,” go to her site: http://www.olgalaxy.com

 

IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: MORE ON THE MYRRH-BEARING WOMEN ICON

In a previous posting, I discussed the icon type known as the “Myrrh-bearing Women” (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/traffic-lights-at-the-tomb-the-myrrh-bearing-women/).  There we looked at a Russian example, and encountered some of the discrepancies among New Testament accounts of the Resurrection.

It is generally believed that the Gospel called “of Mark” was the first to be written, and that both that called “of Matthew” and that “of Luke” were merely edited expansions of the text of Mark.  It is noteworthy that Mark has no birth story of Jesus and no story of resurrection appearances of Jesus, both of which were added to the beginning and end of “Matthew” and “Luke.” The post-resurrection appearance of Jesus now found in Mark 16 (after verse 8) was added later. The Gospel called “of John” has no birth story, but it does have a resurrection account, and just as Matthew and Luke differ from one another significantly in telling their tales, so does John differ from both.  All of the resurrection stories in the Gospels have substantial discrepancies.

That brings us back to the icon of the “Myrrh-bearing Women,” the image of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus early Eastern morning and finding that his body was not there.  As we saw in the previous posting, the Gospel accounts differ on just who came to the tomb and why.

Let’s look at a fresco of the Myrrh-Bearing Women from the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos in Greece:

myrrh-bearingwomendionysioumathos

In it we see two women bearing vessels of myrrh, and at the right two angels.  The Gospels disagree on the number present.  The painter here seems to have gone with “Matthew” for the number of women (“Mary and the other Mary”) and with Luke and John for the number of angels (Matthew has only one).   We see the empty tomb with the linen graveclothes in it, and below are the unconscious Roman soldiers who, according to “Matthew,” were set to guard the tomb (the other Gospel accounts have no soldiers).

The common inscription usually found on Greek icons of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” is simply Αἱ Μυροφόροι in Greek — Hai Myrophoroi — pronounced “ay mee-ro-FOR-ee” in modern Greek.  It means simply “The Myrrh-bearers.”  But in the Dionysiou fresco, we do not see that title.  Instead, we find this inscription:

myrophdionysinsc

It reads:

ΙΔΕΟΤο  ΠΟΣ         ΟΠοΥΕΚΑΤοΟΚΣ

As you can see, we find linked letters used.  We see a “τ” atop an “o,” and a “v” atop an “o.”  Those linkages give us “to” and “ou.”  And we also find an abbreviated word, KC for ΚΥΡΙΟC  So we can transliterate the inscription as:

IDE HO TOPOS HOPOU EKATO ΗO KYRIOS

Remember that if you see an inscription you have not encountered before, look for any familiar words.  You know TOPOS from the English word “topography.”  Topos means “place” in Greek.  And if you read my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the common word HO as the masculine form of “the.”  And the last word KYRIOS you should know means “Lord.”  So we can understand this much:

IDE THE PLACE HOPOU EKATO THE LORD

Now if you are familiar with the New Testament — as every student of icons should be — even this small translated amount, when connected with the illustration of the empty tomb, should remind you of the words of the angel to the women in the Gospel of Matthew, 28:6:

…see the place where the Lord lay.

And in fact that is what the inscription means.  In the Greek New Testament it is found as:

Δεῦτε, ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο ὁ κύριος.
Deuter, idete    ton topon hpou   ekeito  ho kurios
Come, see      the   place  where lay      the Lord

In the Dionysiou fresco, there is also a small inscription just above the tomb:

It reads:

Ο ΑΓΙΟς ΤΑΦΟC

The Α (a) and Γ(g) are linked together, and the ς (s) is placed below the O.

Transliterated, it reads:

HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “THE HOLY SEPULCHRE.”

A taphos is a grave, sepulchre, or tomb.

Now very interestingly, if we look at the different Gospel accounts of what the angel (or angels) at the tomb supposedly said to the women, we get an insight into how the writers of Matthew and Luke  altered the original Markan speech.  Let’s examine them:

MARK 16:

You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, the crucified.  He is risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.

MATTHEW 28:

For I know that Jesus, the crucified, you seek; he is not here, for he is risen, as he said.  Come see the place where he lay.  And go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.  And behold, he goes before you into Galilee.  There you will see him.  Behold, I have told you.

LUKE 24:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here but is risen.  Remember how he spoke to you, being still in Galilee, saying the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men…

What in Mark is a prediction made by Jesus that they would see him in Galilee becomes in Matthew a prediction made by the angel that they would see Jesus in Galilee, and in Luke it is changed even more drastically to become something that Jesus predicted in Galilee of his crucifixion!

Why would Luke want to change this statement that the disciples were to see the risen Jesus in Galilee to something quite different that Jesus had formerly said in Galilee?  The answer is simple, but surprising to those who do not read the Bible carefully.  In Matthew, the disciples go to Galilee after the resurrection and see the risen Jesus there.  But in Luke, the disciples do not go to Galilee.  Instead, Luke has Jesus appear to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus that same day, and again on that same day, he appears to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Luke has no appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, so he had to eliminate the prediction found in Mark and Matthew, and he did so by changing it to a prediction Jesus made in Galilee that he would be crucified.

It becomes quite obvious, then, that the writers of the Gospels used the materials they had for their own purposes, altering them as they saw fit.  “Gospel truth” is not the same as historical truth.  So when reading the Bible, as in reading the hagiographic accounts of saints’ lives, it is always wise to keep in mind the saying of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess:  “It ain’t necessarily so.”

GOING UP? ICONS OF THE ASCENSION

Today we will take a look at the the  “Ascension” type, called Voznesenie in Russia, and in Greek icons He Analepsis Η ΑΝΑΛΗΨΙC.
In the Bible, we find Ascension narratives only in the Gospel attributed to Luke and in the book of Acts.  Both are rather minimal.  There is also a very brief mention in the Gospel called “of Mark,” but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is a later addition.

Here is a pleasant late Russian example of the Ascension type painted in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Church Slavic inscription reads ВОЗНЕСЕНИЕ ГОСПОДНЕ — Voznesenie Gospodne — “Ascension of the Lord.”

At both sides are Twelve Apostles, identified by inscription as “Apostles of the Lord.”  And in the center, as is common in “Ascension” icons, stands Mary.

Above is Jesus, rising into heaven in a circle of light carried by two angels.  Note that Jesus sits on a rainbow.  That element (not mentioned in the Gospels) comes from two main sources, the first being the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 1:

26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The second source is the book of Revelation, the “Apocalypse of John”:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

What we see in this icon, then, is not the usual Western European depiction of a standing Jesus slowly rising into the clouds, but rather a depiction of Jesus raised up to the heavenly throne on which he sits and is said to come in judgment.

Here is an earlier image of the Ascension found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, usually dated to the 6th century, though the book as a whole may be a composite volume of more than one date.  This depiction borrows elements from Ezekiel and from the Revelation:

In it, Jesus is not seated but standing, and there is no rainbow.  There are six “standard” angels (four above, two beside Mary).  Two hold the oval in which Jesus stands, two approach Jesus with wreaths of victory, and two look toward the apostles. But just below Jesus, we see a creature with four faces, wings filled with eyes, and wheels at both sides.  This too comes from Ezekiel 1 and from the Revelation 4.  The four heads, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, symbolize the four Evangelists Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.  The wheels, in Eastern Orthodox theology, are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

If you look carefully to upper left and right of the image, you will see the moon and the sun depicted as living beings.  Here is the moon:

And here the sun:

If we look at the group of Apostles, we see there are twelve.  As the Gospels relate, at the time of the Ascension there were only eleven, Judas having betrayed Jesus and committed suicide.  But the Rabbula image and many later examples of the Ascension add Paul as a twelfth apostle in the type (the twelfth was actually Matthias, chosen after the Ascension and not depicted in it).  Of course the presence of Paul is an anachronism, but Eastern Orthodoxy likes to see the Ascension icon as also an image of the Church, and so we see Mary at center (also considered an image of the Church on her own), as well as those apostles later considered the two chief apostolic founders of the Church, Peter and Paul.

Here is a much later Russian example that has neither rainbow nor the symbols of the Evangelists nor “Thrones” nor Paul.  It is influenced not only by Western and less anachronistic depictions of the Ascension, but also shows the increased realism favored by the State Church in later times.  Here the three chief figures at bottom are Mary, the Apostle Peter at left, and the Apostle John at right:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is another Russian example, this time again painted in the traditional “stylized” manner, with much attention given to the hill from which Jesus is rising:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Ascension type is found not only as a separate icon, but also in icons showing the Resurrection and major Church festivals.

Now the interesting thing about Ascension icons is that they perpetuate right into modern times the ancient, pre-scientific notion of a universe that has humans living on a flat earth above which is a solid firmament, and above that firmament is not only a sea but also the throne of God.  “Heaven” in traditional Jewish and Christian belief was the sky, so of course when Jesus ascends, he ascends into the sky.  Now, however, thanks to science, we know that the firmament is not a solid dome, that there is no sea above it, and no throne room of God up there, where he sits like an ancient king.  Consequently, many modern Christians, in an attempt to adapt, have begun thinking of Heaven not as the sky, but as somehow in a separate dimension.  That view, however, is not in keeping with the Ascension icons nor with biblical accounts.  But early Christians, not knowing that the earth was round, and not knowing that the earth is only a tiny particle in an immense universe, thought that all Jesus had to do to reach Heaven was to go up.  Of course “up” would take one in multiple and different directions of space, depending on where and when on the globe one went up, as the earth revolves in its path around the sun.  And we know that one can go light years (the distance light travels in a year) in any direction and not find a physical Heaven as described in the Old and New Testaments.  All this provides major problems for today’s “literalist” Christians, which is why they tend not to think about the matter.