In the Church of the”All-Powerful” Taxiarchs (Ναός των Παμμεγίστων Ταξιαρχών) at Milies (Μηλίες) on the Pelion Peninsula of Greece, there is an interesting fresco of a wheel that combines the zodiac with stages of human life, and is in a form reminiscent of the Rota Fortunae — the “Wheel of Fortune” so common in Medieval and Renaissance art of western Europe. Such a wheel in Eastern Orthodoxy is commonly called a Τροχός του Χρόνου/Trokhos tou Khronou — a “Wheel of Time.”
Does it remind you of anything? It should — but from quite a different context. We have seen this fellow holding out his cloth before — in icons of the “Descent of the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost. He is the crowned figure at the base:
In those icons, he represents Ὁ Κόσμος — Ho Kosmos — “The Cosmos,” meaning “The World.” Similarly, in Eastern Orthodox “wheel” images such as this one, he is Ὁ Μάταιος Κόσμος — Ho Mataios Kosmos — “The Vain World.”
If we expand our view outward, we find four human figures:
Clockwise, they are:
At the top: Spring (Έαρ/Ear), as a youth playing a stringed instrument. Next at right is Summer (Θέρος/Theros), a somewhat older hunter wearing a hat to protect him from the heat of the sun. Then at bottom comes Autumn (Φθινόπωρο/Phthinoporo), a shepherd with staff in hand. And finally at left we see Winter (Χυμών/Khymon), an old man warming himself by a fire.
Moving farther outward, we come to the ring of the Zodiac — the twelve signs of the Zodiac still commonly found today — Aries, Taurus, Gemini — and all the rest.
On the very outer rim — riding the wheel up to the top and down again — we find several human figures — rising to wealth and glory at the top, then falling down again:
In the Church of the Nativity in the village of Arbanasi, in Veliko Tarnovo, north-central Bulgaria, there is a similar zodiac fresco image — a “Wheel of Time” in which the cycle of human life is represented:
In traditional western European “Fortune” wheels, the wheel is usually turned by Fortuna herself — the Goddess of Fortune, as in this manuscript example:
In the Arbanasi example, however, the wheel is turned by ropes held by the two figures at the base, who represent “Day” (left) and “Night” (right).
In the center of the Arbanasi wheel, we find the sun instead of the “Vain World” of the Milies example:
The four nude figures around the sun are the Four Seasons, which we saw represented in more symbolic manner in the Milies wheel. In the ring next to them, we see the twelve zodiac signs, and in the outer ring are the twelve months of the year.
The figures attached to the outer rim of the wheel — those rising to the peak of human vigor and success, then falling again — represent human life and its vanity. And at the end of the cycle — having ridden the wheel of life up and down — they fall into the mouth of Hades at the base.
These zodiac/time wheels are not common in Eastern Orthodox iconography, but they are found in one variation or another occasionally — usually, as here — in the form of wall paintings in churches.
When seeing such a “Wheel of Time” — also called a Wheel of Life (Τροχός της Ζωής/Trokhos tes Zoes) — one cannot help thinking of those Tibetan images that also represent a wheel of life as the “Wheel of Becoming” (Bhavachakra) — in this case a wheel of rebirth:
By the way, if you are wondering what a Taxiarch/Taxiarkh is (as in the title of the Milies church), it is Greek for a military commander, and in iconography is commonly given to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel as leaders of the heavenly armies.