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:
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:
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…”
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:
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:
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:
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.