THE MYSTERIOUS LETTERS ON THE NICHOLAS OMOPHORION

Every now and then, someone asks me about the letters sometimes seen on Greek icons of Nicholas of Myra — specifically on his omophorion, the stole bishops wear about the neck.

Let’s look more closely:

They can be quite mystifying, but the mystery is easy to solve.

First, the most common are those seen on the right in the image above.  They should be read in this order:

Φ Χ
Φ Π

Τhey abbreviate the Greek words

Φ[ΩΣ] Χ[ΡΙΣΤΟΥ]
Φ[ΑΙΝΕΙ] Π[ΑΣΙ]

In full,

Φως Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι
Phos Khristou Phainei Pasi
“The light (PHos) of Christ (KHristou ) Shines (PHainei) on all (Pasi )

“The Light of Christ Shines Upon All.”

You may also see the last word in Greek as Πάσιν/pasin, with the same meaning.

During the weekdays of Lent, the Eucharistic liturgy — that is, the one in which the bread and wine are consecrated — is not used.  Instead the evening liturgy used is called the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.”  When communion is given during this vespers liturgy, the “gifts” used — that is, the bread and wine — were previously consecrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of the preceding Sunday.  That is why they are called “presanctified gifts.”

Now at one point in that Vespers communion liturgy, the priest looks at the icon of Christ and says:

Φώς Χριστού…
Phos Khristou
“The light of Christ…”

Then he turns to the congregation and says:

…φαίνει πάσι
phainei pasi.”
“…shines upon all.”

So that is the origin of the  ΦΧΦΠ.

Another abbreviation is also sometimes seen on the omophorion, as in the image on this page.  It is:

IC XC
N K

You may have already guessed that the IC is for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”  You will of course remember that on Greek icons the older form of “S” is C and the newer form Σ.

You might at first be puzzled by the N K, until you recall the very common cross abbreviation:

IC XC NIKA
Iesous Khristos Nika
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”

And that is what the N K on the omophorion stands for:  N[I]K[A] — “[he] Conquers.”

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THEODORE GETS A PROMOTION

If we were playing a “who is it” game, and I said to you, “Warrior saint, dragonslayer, saved princess,” you would probably answer “St. George.”  There is, however, another saint in icons who fits that description.  We would call him Theodore in English, though the Russians call him Feodor and the Greeks Theodoros.

In his “Lives of the Saints,” Dmitriy Rostovskiy (who was himself declared a saint) identified the dragonslayer Theodore as Theodore Stratelates (meaning “General”); but there is another warrior saint Theodore called Theodore Tiron (“Recruit”).  Here is a fresco from the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria depicting both:

(Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov )

Let’s look a bit closer.  Here is Theodore Tiron:

If you are a long time reader here, you should be easily able to read the title inscription as:
SVYATUIY FEODOR TIRON — “Holy Theodore Tiron.”

Tiron is just the transliterated Greek word Τήρων, meaning “Recruit.” 

Here is the other one:

SVYATUIY FEODOR STRATILAT — “Holy Theodore [the] General.”  Again, Stratilat is just a Slavicization of the Greek Στρατηλάτης, meaning “General.”  So this Theodore has a higher rank than the first:

The consensus of scholars, however, is that the second and higher ranked Theodore — Theodore Stratelates — Theodore the General — never existed, but is another of those fictional saints created in error.  He was mistakenly duplicated from Theodore Tiron, but given a higher rank.

The Bolshakov Podlinnik describes them like this:

Here is Theodore Stratelates, on February 9th:

Of holy Martyr Feodor Stratilat, rus hair like George, beard of Nikita the Martyr, in armor, robe cinnabar with white, cloak white, in the left hand a shield, on the head a reddish-purple helmet highlighted with cinnabar, in the hand a cross.

Then, on February 17th, we have Theodore Tiron:

Of the Holy Great Martyr Feodor Tiron, rus (light brown/dark blond), hair on the head curly, beard the length of Florus, in armor, armor all checkered gold, outer [robe] cinnabar, under armor green, leggings purplish black, in the right hand a cross, and in the left a sword.

Now we can easily see these descriptions do not fully match the Bulgarian depictions, but painters in different places often used other colors, so do not expect the Bolshakov Podlinnik to accurately describe all saints as they were depicted by different painters.