Here is a 14th century fresco from Vysokie Dechani, in Serbia:
The visible inscription says only МОЛЕНИЕ/MOLENIE — “Prayer.” and below that we see the common title inscription identifying the woman as ΜΡ ΘΥ — Meter Theou — Greek for “Mother of God,” i.e. Mary.
So this fresco depicts “The Prayer of the Mother of God” — Mary praying — but what is the story behind it?
It comes from the legendary tale of her “Dormition” — which means “Falling Asleep” — that is, her death. Earliest Christianity left no tradition about what became of Mary. It was not until the 5th century that stories giving varying accounts of her death began to appear.
The tradition in iconography relates that one day Mary went to Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and prayed that her soul might be taken from her body so that she might see her son again. The angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that her wish was to be granted: she would die in three days.
So that is what we see in this fresco from Dechani — the “Prayer of the Mother of God on the Mount of Olives.” This example does not show the angel (some do) — just a hand blessing from Heaven.
Now you may notice the stylized trees are all bent in Mary’s direction. That is because tradition says that when Mary said her prayer on the Mount of Olives, the trees bowed to her in reverence (we also find the motif of “bowing trees” in icons of Irene Chrysovolantou).
It is not surprising that we seldom see this subject on its own. Usually it is depicted as one of the scenes in detailed icons of the Dormition, such as this 17th century Russian example from Yaroslavl:
The image of the “Prayer of the Mother of God on the Mount of Olives” (Моление Богоматери на Елеонской горе/Molenie Bogomateri na Eleonskoy Gore) is the second scene from the left in the bottom row. Though small in the photo, we can see that it nonetheless has the same basic elements as the Dechani fresco.
You may recall the words often used to frighten and discipline misbehaving school children — “It is going on your permanent record.” Well, it was not only teachers who used this threat. It has long been practiced in Eastern Orthodox iconography as well.
Today we will look at an icon type more often found in fresco than in painted panel form Here is a rare example of the latter:
It obviously depicts two angels holding scrolls, but to find out who they are, we must read the title inscription at the top:
ѠБРАЗ АНГЕЛА ВХОДЯЩИХЪ И IСХОДЯЩИХЪ OBRAZ ANGELA VKHODYASHCHIKH” I ISKHODYASHCHIKH
“IMAGE OF THE ANGEL [of those] ENTERING AND [those] LEAVING.”
You may recall that some time ago we looked at frescos of the angel or angels painted at the entrance to Russian churches, who record the names of those entering the church:
Well, this icon is another and smaller version of that. Though sometimes the standing angel at the left is called Michael (and he may also carry a sword), and the (usually seated) angel at the right Gabriel, in other examples they may be anonymous, as are the angels in this painted panel example.
In it, we see the recording angels that note down the names and disposition of those who enter and those who leave the church — whether they are present, and whether they enter in a reverent manner, and whether they leave earlier than appropriate.
As you see, each angel in the icon holds a scroll, but instead of simply listing names, the scrolls in this example bear pious inscriptions.
Here is the angel at left:
His scroll reads (I am putting it in the modern Russian font):
Радуйтеся и веселитеся, яко мзда ваша мн[ога на небесех].
Raduitesya i veselitesya, yako mzda vasha mn[oga na nebesekh].
It is the first words of Matthew 5:12:
“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”
Here is the angel on the right:
He has a pen in hand, and he has written:
It is the beginning of Psalm 33:1 (Psalm 32:1 in Western numbering):
Радуйтеся, пра[веднии, о Господе: правым подобает похвала]. Raduitesya, pra[vednii, o Gospode: pravuim podobaet pokhvala].
“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.”
The motif of an angel with a scroll is called — sensibly enough — Ангел со свитком/Angel so svitkom — “The Angel with a Scroll.”
An icon from the Blagovyeshchenie (Annunciation) Monastery in Murom shows an “Angel with a Scroll,” and the title inscription identifies it as the angel seen in the vision of “Holy Father Ammon,” who saw “the Angel of the Lord Sitting and Writing Names of Those Entering the Church of God.”
This relates to the old tale that the Egyptian monk-priest Ammon was given the ability to see spiritual things. Once during the Eucharist, he saw an angel near the altar who was writing down the names of those present, and crossing out the names of the absent monks.
The scroll of the Murom angel reads:
“The Angel of the Lord Writes Down the Names of Those Entering the Church of the Lord ….”
Sometimes the inscription is a bit longer:
Ангел Господень написует имена входящыя в церковь Господню со страхом, и с верою.
ANGEL GOSPODEN’ NAPISUET IMENA VKHODYASHCHUIYA V TSERKOV’ GOSPODNIU SO STRAKHOM I S VEROIU.
“The Angel of the Lord writes down the names of those entering the Church of the Lord with Fear and with belief.”
As mentioned in my earlier posting, a single recording angel is sometimes simply known as the Ангел храма — Angel Khrama — “Angel of the Church.” It is believed that this angel becomes the protector of a church when it is consecrated, and remains on duty there until the Second Coming — even, it is said, if the church is destroyed. Such an angel may be depicted as standing or sitting, recording on his scroll the names of those entering the church, noting those absent or late or leaving early, so that he may give his report on them at the Last Judgment.
It is written in the Spiritual Meadow that Abba Leontios — the priest of the coenobitic Monastery of St. Theodosios — reported:
“Once on Sunday I came to church to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. On entering the temple, I saw an angel standing at the right side of the throne [the altar]. Horrified, I retired to my cell. And there came a voice to me: ‘Since this throne was consecrated, I am commanded to be with it all the time.'”
Now obviously there is a relationship here to the standard image of the Guardian Angel in icons, who follows each person through life, recording his deeds. Sometimes the iconography of the two becomes mixed, particularly when the angel writing on a scroll is simply called “The Angel with a Scroll.”