There are quite a number of traditionally paired saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography — Zosima and Savvatiy, Cosmas and Damian, Florus and Laurus, and so on.

Today I would like to briefly discuss another prominent pair of saints.  Their names in latinized form are Sergius and Bacchus.

Traditionally, Sergius and Bacchus were supposed to have been Roman soldiers and secret Christians martyred in the 4th century because they refused to sacrifice to the gods.  They were included in early accounts of martyrs, and popularly venerated as early as the 5th century.

Oddly enough, Sergius and Bacchus are best known today as “gay” icons, and some newly-painted images with that focus depict them in rather more intimate closeness than the majority of older icons.  This is due to a book written in the late 20th century that, with dubious scholarship, presented the premise that Sergius and Bacchus were a romantically homosexual couple.

Actually, though they have a centuries-long history of veneration in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Catholicism, to me the most interesting thing about Sergius and Bacchus is that they apparently never existed at all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia states “their existing Acts are not genuine,” which is a polite way of saying that the accounts of their lives and martyrdom are as historical as Pinocchio.  Eastern Orthodoxy, however, has never reviewed its vast list of saints to try to separate those who are “fake” from those who did exist, so there are quite a number of saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendars and icons today who did not exist at all.

Nonetheless, Sergius and Bacchus can still be put to some practical use in helping improve ability to read Greek icon inscriptions, so let’s take a look at some examples.

Here is a 16th-century fresco of the pair by Theophanes the Cretan, found in the Lavra of Athanasios on Mount Athos.  Note that each holds a cross, signifying martyrdom for the Christian faith.

The title inscriptions should be easy for you to read if you have been following my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions.

Here is the left inscription:


By now you should know that the three letters at upper left stand for Ο ΑΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — meaning “The Holy.”  Below that is the saint’s name, written partly to his left, partly to his right:  CΕΡΓΙΟς — Sergios.

And here is the right inscription:

We see the same Ho Hagios abbreviation at upper left, and below is the saint’s name:  ΒΑΚΧΟC — Bakkhos, which we usually see in its latinized form, Bacchus.  You will recall that the letter X (chi) in Greek has the rough, gutteral pronunciation of the last ch in the name of the composer Bach.

That was really easy, so here is something more challenging, the inscription from another Mount Athos fresco of the martyrdom of Sergius and Bacchus, this time by the 16th-century Cretan painter Tzortzis:

It is quite gruesome, as are many scenes of martyrdom in Eastern Orthodox iconography, so let’s concentrate on the title inscription at the top:

It reads:



If we separate the words in that, we get:

Martyrion Ton Hagion Sergiou Kai Bakkhou
Martyrdom of-the Holy Sergios and Bakkhos

As you can see, the word Hagios and names Sergios and Bakkhos take on different grammatical endings here.

You should know that the Greek word μαρτύριον (martyrion) originally meant a testimony, as in giving one’s testimony or witness; it gradually took on the looser meaning of “martyrdom” — being killed for one’s testimony or cause.





Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:


Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy). Now oddly enough, it was still commonly believed by many ordinary Russians — right into the early 20th century — that if a person suddenly committed some horrible deed, it was likely due to the influence of a devil.  Some no doubt still believe it.

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.


Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.


A reader asked about a Greek inscription.  It is on a 16th century fresco of the Old Testament Prophet Jonah from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted by the Cretan Tzortzis.  Somehow it feels very appropriate to talk about Jonah after an American presidential election that makes a great many of us feel as though we had been suddenly thrown into the sea and swallowed up by a monster.

Jonah, as almost everyone knows, is the fellow who was told by his god to go to the great city of Nineveh and prophesy there of the deity’s coming wrath.  Jonah did not like the job he was given, so he took a ship at Joppa, going away from Nineveh toward Tarshish.  While on this journey, a great storm arose.  The sailors cast lots (an old form of divination) to determine what had brought the storm upon them, and the result was that the lot fell on Jonah.  So to save themselves, the sailors tossed him into the stormy sea, where he was swallowed by what in Greek is called a κῆτος (ketos).  Ketos was a rather vague word that applied to any sea monster or huge fish.  Much later, people began to think of it as meaning a whale, which is why we usually speak of the tale of Jonah as “Jonah and the Whale.”   Spending three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster,  Jonah prayed to his god and repented for trying to run away.  The sea monster vomited him up, and he went to Ninevah to tell them their city would be overthrown because of its wickedness.

The image of Jonah being vomited up by the sea monster is one of the few later icon images that can be found also as a common motif in the pre-icon art of the early Christians, where it was apparently used as a symbol of salvation and resurrection.
Let’s take a look to see what can be made of the inscriptions on the fresco:
We see first that they are in Greek.  And there are two of them, one in the upper right-hand corner, which we may reasonably suspect is the “title” inscription for the image.  The other is on the scroll held by Jonah.  And we all know that in icons, scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” through which persons speak to the viewer.
Let’s look first at the upper right inscription.  We see that as in most older Greek icon inscriptions, the words are not separated as they would be in modern writings.

It is divided into three lines, which we can place together and transliterate:

If you have been reading past postings here on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the words Ἡ — He — the feminine form of “the.”  And you should recognize the word ΤΟΥ — tou — even though it is abbreviated, as “of the.”  And you might recognize the similarity of the letters ΠΡΟΦΗΤΟΥ — prophetou — to our English word “prophet.”  Notice that it begins with the joined letters Π (p) and  Ρ (r).  So let’s go on to divide the inscription into its individual words:

Literally translated, that is:

The (he) out (ek) of-the (tou) sea-monster (kutous=ketous) vomiting (anadosis) of-the (tou) prophet (prophetou) Jonah (Iona)

We can put it into normal English as:

“The Vomiting of the Prophet Jonah by the Sea Monster”

Or if we want to make it less blunt,

“The Sea Monster Expels the Prophet Jonah”
From previous  postings here, you should now be familiar with every ligature in this and the following scroll inscription:

Transliterated, it is:

There are some abbreviations, and I have supplied the missing letters in parentheses.

The inscription on the scroll is the words of Jonah as found in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, in Jonah 2:3:

Καὶ εἶπεν ᾿Εβόησα ἐν θλίψει μου πρὸς κύριον τὸν θεόν μου, καὶ εἰσήκουσέν μου· ἐκ κοιλίας ᾅδου κραυγῆς μου ἤκουσας φωνῆς μου.

Kai eipen Eboesa en thlipsei mou pros kurion ton theon mou, kai esiekousen mou
ek koilias hadou krauges mou ekousas phones mou.

And [he] said, I-cried in affliction of-me to [the] Lord the God of-me, and [he] hearkened [of] me; out of the belly of Hades cry of-me [he] heard voice of-me.

So we could translate the portion written on the scroll as:

I cried in my affliction to the Lord my God, and he hearkened to me.”

Now if we could only get out of the next four years as easily as Jonah got out of the sea monster in this old tale.