Today we will look at the iconography of one of the saints of the island of Crete:
In the center we see the large image of the saint himself. If it once had his title, it is worn away. But we see it abbreviated in another similar icon of the same fellow:
abbreviating Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC/Ho Hagios — “The Holy”;
And we see
It has a mark of abbreviation above it. It abbreviates ΙѠΑΝΝΗC/Ioannes — “John”:
And finally, divided into two parts at the sides of his head, we find:
Ὁ ΕΡΗ ΜΙΤΗC — Ho Eremites — “The Hermit.“
If we put it all together, we get:
Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC ΙѠΑΝΝΗC Ὁ ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC
HO HAGIOS IOANNES HO EREMITES
“[The] HOLY JOHN THE HERMIT.”
Because he was a monk, John is often titled Όσιος Ιωάννης ο Ερημίτης/Hosios Ioannes ho Eremites. You will recall that Hosios is the Greek equivalent of the Russian Prepodobnuiy; it signifies a male monastic.
You may have recognized that the Greek word ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC/Eremites is already found in English as “eremite,” and in fact our English word “hermit” comes ultimately from the Greek eremites, which in turn is derived from Greek ἔρημος/eremos — meaning a deserted, wild place. It is the word used in the New Testament for the “desert” where John the Forerunner/Baptist preached. So an eremite or hermit was originally one who went out to live in wild, uninhabited places — like the Judean desert, or the Nitrian Desert in Egypt.
The icon of John the Hermit tells the hagiographic tale of his life in condensed form. We will look at elements of this tale taken from two similar icons. Remember that these lives of the saints are not literal history, but rather tales to inspire and entertain believers — so they are often a mixture of history and fanciful fiction — and sometimes entirely fiction.
The tale tells us that in the year 1600 (others say it may have been even some two centuries earlier) 36 monastics came with John from Egypt to lead ascetic lives on the island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea. There they made such a local impression that they were joined by 39 more — this time Cypriots. By this time, things were so lively around them that they wanted to find a quieter place to live a monastic life. First they tried going to Antalya in Asia Minor (now in Turkey), but again they were pestered by lots of religious “groupies.” Nonetheless, another 24 monastics joined them, so now they were, all together, 99 monks. They decided that number was enough, and would not accept more, because they considered Jesus to the the 100th member of their community — a nice round number.
To find a quieter place for their ascetic lifestyle, they got on a ship and headed for the island of Crete, but the weather was bad and the sea rough, so they only managed to make it to the island of Gavdos, which is about 26 miles south of Crete. There they stayed only for 24 days, and then set off again, sailing to Crete.
When they got there, they discovered that John was missing. According to the tale, he had fallen asleep on Gavdos, and so missed the boat when all the others got on board to sail for Crete.
When they found John was gone, they went to the beach and waited there for him. And John was supposedly able to miraculously put his mantle on the sea, and using his staff as a mast, he stepped onto the cloth and sailed across the waters to join the other monks on Crete.
That is what we see in this part of the icon. At the top is the ship. Below it, John stands at right on the island of Gavdos. Another monk stands on the shore of Crete, opposite him. And then below that we see John sailing across the sea from Gavdos to Crete on his cloth mantle:
Below that, we find the old monks all gathered together, and above them is a Greek inscription identifying them as ῾Η Σύναξις τῶν Γερόντων/He Synaxis ton Geronton — “The Assembly of the Elders.”
The remainder of scenes on the left side of the icon deal with the death of John.
The monks, having arrived on Crete, lived in caves. John eventually went off to find a place by himself.
It is said that John prayed so much on his knees that at last he had trouble standing, and would crawl about on all fours. It happened that one day when he was out gathering greens for food, a hunter passing by with his bow and arrows mistook John crawling in the bushes for a beast, and shot him with an arrow.
He begged and received John’s forgiveness.
John is said to have breathed his last in his cave, and in the icon we see his koimesis/”dormition” there — his death, with an angel on each side of his body.
Here is the second of the two icons of John the Hermit, which as you can see, is much the same as the first.
There is a particularly peculiar element in John’s hagiography. He is supposed to have made an agreement with the other 98 monks that when one of them died, they would all die. And it is said that when the hunter who accidentally killed John went to inform the other monks of John’s death, he found that they had already died at the time when John died.