There is something very peculiar to be found in Nativity iconography in certain medieval Cappadocian Churches.

Here is a Nativity fresco from the north aisle of the Eski Gümüş Monastery complex — a monastery and church carved out of the rock in Niğde Province, Central Anatolia, Turkey.

(Courtesy of Asaf Braverman: asafbraverman.com/en)

Let’s examine the segments of the fresco.

In the center we see Mary reclining, her face turned away from the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger to her left.  Above Jesus are the traditional ass and ox.

Mary’s name inscription is abbreviated as  ΜΗΡ ΘΥ  for ΜΗΤΕΡ ΘΕΟΥ/Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”

The child Jesus has the usual IC XC abbreviation for Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.

Above the child Jesus, we see three attending angels, their hands covered as a sign of veneration:

Above the angel at right is their name inscription, written as ὉΙ ΑΝΓΓΕΛΥ/HOI ANGGELY — instead of the standard ὉΙ ΆΓΓΕΛΟΙ/HOI ANGELOI — “The Angels.”  Remember that in Greek, a double g (ΓΓ) is pronounced as “ng.”

At left we see the Three Magi approaching, depicted as young, middle-aged, and old.  They bear gifts in their hands, and above their heads, the name inscription is written as ὉΙ ΜΑΓΥ /HOI MAGY, instead of the standard ὉΙ ΜΑΓΟΙ/HOI MAGOI — “The Magi.”

Joseph sits below the Magi, looking rather gloomily thoughtful, as is customary:

At lower left, the midwife and her helper prepare to wash the newborn child Jesus.   The helper at right, pouring the water into the basin from a pitcher  — Salome — is commonly so named.  More unusual is the identification of the other woman in Cappadocian Nativity iconography.  She is identified in this fresco as Ἡ ΜΕΑ/HE MEA — in standard formἩ Μαῖα/He Μaia, meaning “The Midwife.”  In later Greek, the letters ai were pronounced as ay in “stay,” instead of the earlier ai as in “aisle.”  Some misinterpret the inscription as the personal name “Mea” instead of correctly as her descriptive title.   In the Protoevangelion of James and in Pseudo-Matthew, she is given the name Zelomi.

As with many things in Eastern Orthodoxy, this very old and traditional scene of the washing of the infant Jesus after his birth has become the cause of controversy, with some even painting the scene out of Nativity depictions.  The reason is that washing a newborn infant seems to imply a normal human birth, with all the messiness accompanying it.  There are those who feel that the birth of Jesus had none of this, so the “washing” scene is considered demeaning and “doctrinally incorrect.”  But as I have said many times, in the study of icons and iconography we pay attention to what painters actually depicted — not to what those with doctrinal interests feel they should have depicted.

Now we come to the most interesting part of the image.  We see at upper right an angel announcing the birth to the shepherds:

To the right of the angel is the identifying title for the whole composition, written here as Ἡ ΧΥ ΓΕΗΙCΗC/HE KH[RIST]OU GENISES instead of the standard Ἡ Χριστού Γέννησης/He Khristou Genneses — “The Birth of Christ.”

And here are the shepherds — three in number in this example:

Like the Magi, they are shown as being of three different ages — a boy at left, a young man at center, and an old man with a grey beard at right.

If we look closely, we can see their names.

Here is the boy:

He sits atop a hillock, playing a long transverse flute.  His name is CΑΤΟΡ/SATOR.

The fellow in the middle gestures upward toward the angel with his right hand.  His name is ΑΡΕΠΟΝ/AREPON.   His left hand is on the shoulder of the old man, who is named ΤΕΗΕΤΟΡ/TENETOR.

Now it is not difficult to recognize that these are words from the very old and supposedly magical “Sator Square”:


The last two names on the fresco have been Hellenized by the addition of the -n ending to Arepo and the -or ending to Tenet.

What is the Sator Square?  It is a mysterious ancient palindrome, traces of which pop up in regions as widely separated as Ethiopia and Northern Europe.  Here it is in its earlier and later arrangements:

R    O    T    A    S
O    P    E    R    A
T    E    N    E    T
A    R    E    P    O
S    A    T    O    R


S    A    T    O    R
A    R    E    P    O
T    E    N    E    T
O    P    E    R    A
R    O    T    A    S

Roman examples as early as 1st Century c.e. Pompeii have been found, which is a strong indicator that it may be of pre-Christian origin.

It is a palindrome — in fact the earliest double palindrome known — that can be read left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top.  It is generally thought to have been a magical formula of some kind, but no definite solution has yet been found to its significance, though various possibilities have been suggested. As we have seen, some connect it with pre-Christian beliefs, which would make sense, considering the age of the earliest known examples.   Others, however, think it is just a jumbled version of the first two words of the Christian Pater Noster — “Our Father” prayer.  I will not go into all the suppositions here, because there is abundant information available online.

Whatever the original significance may have been, it is known that it definitely had later use as a magical formula.  But just why we find evidence of it in Eastern Orthodox frescoes in Cappadocian churches remains puzzling.

Adding to the mystery is that in those churches, it is not used in its “block” form as the “Sator Square,” but rather as the names of shepherds present at the Nativity.

In the Eski Gümüş fresco, we saw that the boy shepherd Sator is playing a transverse flute.  In an outline illustration published in the Revue Archéologique (January-June 1965), pp. 101-102, Presses Universitaires de France), we find something similar:

(Revue Archéologique)

It is drawn after a fresco in the so-called Kokar Kilise — “Fragrant Church” — in the Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia.

On the left we see Salome pouring water, and opposite her, “He Mea” — the midwife washing the child Jesus, much as in the Eski Gümüş example.  But on the right, we find five shepherds instead of the three.  Four of them wear pointed hats.  But far more interesting is that the shepherds — two of which play end-blown flutes — have their name inscriptions above them.  They are, from left:


As you can see, aside from the added -e ending on Tenete, their names together comprise the complete Sator Square:

S    A    T    O    R
A    R    E    P    O
T    E    N    E    T    E
O    P    E    R    A
R    O    T    A    S

This odd “magical” naming of the Nativity shepherds in Cappadocian iconography seems to have taken place between the 9th and 12th centuries (the latter being the general dating of the Eski Gümüş Nativity).  At the Church of St. Eustathios in Göreme, there are again three shepherds named Sator, Arepo and Teneto[n?].  Additional Cappadocian examples of Nativity shepherds named from the Sator Square are known, but the  precise significance those names had for the iconographers of that period and region remains a mystery.

Many thanks to Asaf Braverman for kindly permitting me to use his photography done at the Eski Gümüş Monastery in 2008.

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