SOMEONE BEFORE SOMEBODY

Here is a Greek fresco out of context.  The problem, then, is in identifying its subject.

We can see there is a ruler or authority of some kind at left, recognizable as such by the crown; and there is a saint at right, so identified by his halo.  But there are many icon scenes in which one saint or another stands before an authority of some kind.  How do we know which scene this is?

Well, as you see, there is a title in Greek at the top of the image.  If you know Greek — even a little — you will quickly be able to identify the scene.

Let’s look at the inscription:

ΗΤΗCΑΤΟ ΙѠCΗΦ
ΤΟCѠΜΑΤΟΥ ΙV

If you are a beginning student of icons, you will at least known how to read the letters, even if you may not recognize all the words.  You learned long ago on this site that every serious student of icons must know the Church Slavic and Greek alphabets, which are essential to the ability to read even the most basic inscriptions.  So if you have not done that yet, do it now.  It is not difficult, and does not take long.  There is always a link to both alphabets at the top of the blog page.

Assuming you have learned those alphabets, you can put your knowledge of Greek letters to use on this inscription.  Here it is again.  A good idea is to begin by transliterating it:

ΗΤΗCΑΤΟ ΙѠCΗΦ  /  ETESATO IOSIF
ΤΟ CѠΜΑΤΟΥ ΙV    /  TO SOMATOU IV

A difficulty here — and a common one in Greek inscriptions — is that there are not always clear spaces separating the words.  But in spite of that, you should see something familiar in the word ΙѠCΗΦ / IOSIF.  It is a major clue to identifying this image, because it is the Greek form of the name JOSEPH.

That means we know there is a Joseph in the image, and we know he is standing before an authority.  That gets us a bit farther.

This is where a basic Greek vocabulary is handy.  In the second line of the inscription, we see this:

ΤΟ CѠΜΑΤΟΥ ΙV
TO SOMATOU IV

You may recall that TO is the neuter form of “the” in Greek, and TOU means “of/of the.”  Further, the IV (or in a more standard font IY) has a little mark of abbreviation above it.


It looks like the Roman number IV, but remember this inscription is Greek.  And in Greek, IV — or in a more usual Greek font IY — is an abbreviation for ΙΗCΟΥ /IESOU — the “of” form of “Jesus” (Ἰησοῦς/Iesous).  So now we know the image has something to do with a Joseph, and something to do with Jesus.

Well, if you know the Bible — which you really must as a student of icons — you will recall that a Joseph of Arimathea is said to have gone before Pontius Pilate to request the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion.  And if we look at the inscription again, we can see in it the word CѠΜΑ/SOMA, meaning “body,” in the second line — so we can be reasonably confident that what we see in this image is Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate.  And if we translate the inscription completely, that is precisely what it says:

ΗΤΗCΑΤΟ ΙѠCΗΦ ΤΟ CѠΜΑ ΤΟΥ ΙΗCΟV/
ETESATO IOSIF TO SOMA TOU ΙΕSΟU
Requests Joseph the   body     of    Jesus

In normal English,
“Joseph requests the body of Jesus.”

The iconography of Joseph never became firmly settled, so he is sometimes found in icons as an old man, sometimes as middle-aged — and the colors of his garments vary from example to example as well.

The most interesting thing for me about Joseph is the group of legends relating that after the Resurrection he traveled to ancient Britain, to what is now Glastonbury.  There he is said to have rested from his travels on Wearyall Hill, where he planted his staff in the ground.  The staff grew and became the famous Glastonbury Thorn, which bloomed each year at Christmas.  At Glastonbury he was said to have built the first church of woven stakes and branches (wattle) and founded the first monastery in Britain.  Further, he is said to have brought the Grail with him to Glastonbury, and that connects him to the tales of King Arthur.  Arthur was said been buried in the Isle of Avalon, which was Glastonbury in the days when it was a region of islands and marshes.  Of course there is no solid historical foundation to all this, but it makes for a very colorful story.

If you enjoy such legends, you could hardly do better than to read the classic novel (it is for young people but very interesting for adults as well) The Hidden Treasure of Glaston, written by Eleanore M. Jewett.  It weaves the old legends into a fascinating tale through the adventures of a lame boy taken to live at the Glastonbury monastery in the England of 1171.

THE TOP OF THE LADDER

Here is a very pleasant 16th century Greek fresco of  the “Jacob’s Ladder” scene from the Old Testament, at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos.  The story is related in Genesis 28:

And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.  And he came upon a certain place, and stayed there all night, because the sun had set; and he took stones of that place, and placed them as his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

The simple title of the image is written in Greek at the top:

Ἡ Κλίµαξ του Ιακώβ
He Klimax tou Iakob
“The Ladder of Jacob.”

 

We see Jacob asleep at left, dreaming of the ladder:

But why, at the top of the ladder, do we see a circular image symbolizing heaven, and Mary holding Jesus as Emmanuel in it?

Well, it all has to do with the symbolism Eastern Orthodoxy places on events in some Old Testament stories.  Though this tale originally had nothing whatsoever to do with the later symbolism attached to it, nonetheless, Jacob’s ladder has become associated in Eastern Orthodox theology with the incarnation of Jesus through Mary.

That is why in the Akathist hymn to Mary, we find these words addressed to her:  “Hail, heavenly ladder by which God descended.”  So Mary is seen as the heavenly ladder by which Jesus (considered to be God in Eastern Orthodoxy) descended to earth when he was incarnate in her womb.

MORE THAN YOU PROBABLY WANT TO KNOW

Today’s icon offers a bit of a review.  It is a common type — the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus — but its inscriptions offer the opportunity for practice, and perhaps a scrap or two of new information.

(Private Collection)

Let’s begin with the halo inscription.  As you know, the Greek form of the halo inscription reads Ὁ ѠN — HO ON — meaning “The One Who Is” — a title of God found in Exodus 3:14.  The letters are read top-left-right, as they usually also are in Bulgarian icons.  Russian icons, however, commonly change the left letter from Ѡ to Slavic  Ѿ  — pronounced “ot” — which enables them to read the inscription left-top-right while giving it various fanciful interpretations.  Some like the letters to represent the members of the Trinity, interpreting them as abbreviations for the Three-Hypostatic Godhood, represented in the letters as  Ѿ (ot) for Ѿтеческий/Otecheskiy — “Of the Father’s”; О for Оум/Oum — “Mind”; and  Н for Непостижимъ Сыин/Nepostizhim Suin — “Unfathomable Son.”

Still others read it as abbreviating
От небес приидох — Они же Мя не познаша — На кресте распяша
Ot nebes priidokh — Oni zhe mya ne poznasha — Na kreste raspyasha
“From heaven I came — They knew me not — On the cross I was crucified.”

You will of course recognize the common IC  XC  inscription above the halo as abbreviating Ἰησοῦς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos in Greek for “Jesus Christ,” and in Slavic as Iсус Христос/Isus Khristos in the earlier and Old Believer form, Iисус (Иисус) Христос/Iisus Khristos in the post-Nikon Russian State Church form that began to be used in Russia in the mid-1600s after the great schism.

Now let’s look at the main title inscription at the top:


It reads (missing or very small superscript letters are in brackets):
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ѠБРАЗ Г[ОСПО]ДА НАШЕГѠ IС[УС]А ХР[ИС]ТА
NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ G[OSPO]DA NASHE[GO] IS[US]A KHR[IS]TA
NOT-HAND-MADE        IMAGE  [of] LORD   OF-US            JESUS   CHRIST
“THE ‘NOT MADE BY HANDS’  IMAGE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.”

There is an inscription in red near the base of the cloth which, though written very small here, is nonetheless a very common inscription on icons of this type:


It reads:  С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ/SVYATUIY OUBRUS, meaning “HOLY CLOTH.”

Below that is a larger inscription in red, which, as we saw in a previous posting on this icon type, is much less common:


БОЖIЕ ВИДЕНIЕ БОЖЕСТВЕННОЕ ЧЮДО
BOZHIE VIDYENIE BOZHESTVENNOE CHIUDO (CHUDO)

You may recall that former explanation:

Some time ago there was a posting here on Greek abbreviations found on stone crosses, etc.  Among them was this one:

ΘΘΘΘ
ΘΕΟΥ ΘΕΑ ΘΕIΟΝ ΘΑΥΜΑ
Theou Thea Theion Thauma
“Vision of God — Divine Wonder”

The base inscription on this Russian icon of the “Not Made by Hands Image” is just the Church Slavic translation (BOZHIE VIDYENIE BOZHESTVENNOE CHUDO)  of that Greek phrase, which we could also render as:
“The Vision of God — a Divine Miracle.”

Now we come to the last inscription at the base of the icon.  It is sometimes, but not always, found with the “Bozhie Vidyenie ...” inscription just mentioned, likely because some painters used the same podlinnik tradition or models:


ХР[ИС]ТЕ Б[О]ЖЕ ИЖЕ НА ТЯ НАДЕЯИСЯ НЕ ОТЩЕТИТСЯ НИКОГДА ЖЕ
KHRISTE BOZHE IZHE NA TYA NADYEYAISYA NE OTSHCHETITSYA NIKOGDA ZHE

It means loosely, “CHRIST GOD, WHO HOPES IN YOU WILL NEVER HAVE REGRET.”

Perhaps you have noticed that some icons of this type have the cloth alone, while others have it held by two angels.  These are two different iconographic traditions.  In this particular icon, though they are too small to see here, each angel has a title inscription.  That at left identifies the angel as Архангел Михаил/Arkhangel Mikhail — “Archangel Michael; that at right identifies the angel as Архангел Гавриил/Arkhangel Gavriil — “Archangel Gabriel.”

Now I hope you remember that the saints in the outer border are generally not part of the icon type, but are chosen to be added by the person ordering the icon.  Usually they are name saints for members of the family — and sometimes the Guardian Angel or or other saints favored for particular reasons are added.  In this example they are all favored saints:  They are Vlasiy and Flor (Blasius and Florus) at left, and Medost and Lavr (Modestus and Laurus) at right.  Perhaps you recall that all of these saints have to do with the protection and health of livestock:  Flor and Lavr for horses, and Vlasiy and Medost for cattle, oxen, and flocks.

So that’s it.  Now you will be able to translate most inscriptions on other icons of this type.  But be aware that there may be differences in the title inscriptions, as in the following example, a Nevyansk icon from the Urals region:


Let’s look more closely at the title inscription.  It is a little longer than the first one because of the addition of three words:


НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ѠБРАЗ Г[ОСПО]ДА БОГА I СПАСА НАШЕГО IСУСА ХРИСТА
NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODA BOGA I SPASA NASHEGO ISUSA KHRISTA

That BOGA I SPASA is the added words “God and Savior” in their grammatical “of” forms.  So the whole inscription reads:
“‘NOT MADE BY HANDS’ IMAGE OF OUR LORD GOD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST.”

This icon two follows the tradition of depicting two angels holding the cloth, but where the first example identified the angels by name as Archangels Michael and Gabriel, this icon identifies them only as АНГЕЛИ ГОСПОДНИ/ANGЕLI GOSPODNI — “Angels of the Lord.”

This second icon also follows the less common tradition that uses both the “Bozhie vidyenie …” and “Khriste Bozhe izhe na tya …” inscriptions on this type.

Now, to finish up for today, we need only take a look at the inscription at the base of the second icon example:

It tells us that the icon was painted in the year


ЗТЛД

Now if  you remember your Cyrillic letters used as numbers (and if you do not, see
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/what-year-is-it-…on-russian-icons/

— you will know that the letter numbers translate as:
7334 — the year 7334 by the old system of dating.

To put that into modern dating, you will remember that we need these elements:

7334 (the old date on the icon, which is the year after the Russian Orthodox date of Creation — in this case the 7, 334th year after Creation.

5508 (The traditional Russian Orthodox date of the Creation of the world, that is 5508 years before the supposed birth date of Jesus)

So we use this formula:
Old date
minus date of Creation
equals modern date.

Or, to do the math,

7334
– 5508
= 1826

And that is the date of the icon:  the year 1826 by our modern calendar.

The date inscription further tells us that the icon was painted Месаца Генваря/Mesatsa Genvarya — “in the month of January,” and Въ ГI День/V ГI Den’ — “On the 13th Day.”

And that is your review for today.

RUNNING WILD

Today we will take a look at an icon of Григорий Армянский/Grigoriy Armyanskiy — “Gregory of Armenia” (c. 239 or 257-331) — Also called Григорий Просветитель/Grigoriy Prosvetitel — “Gregory the Enlightener” or “Gregory the Illuminator.”  He is traditionally considered not only the person who converted Armenia to Christianity, but also the first bishop of the Armenian Church, and consequently the patron saint of Armenia.

Gregory’s father Anak Partev (“Anak the Parthian”) murdered the King of Armenia, Khosrov.  In revenge, the relatives of Khosrov killed as many of the murderer’s family as they could, but Gregory was taken away by his nanny to Cappadocia, and so survived the purge.

Gregory was educated as a Christian, and when he returned to Armenia, he managed to obtain a position in the palace of King Tiridates the Great.  He got himself into a great deal of trouble, however, by opposing the traditional non-Christian religious rites of the palace, and refusing to make offerings to the goddess Anahita.  Apparently the King also discovered that Gregory’s father had murdered the King’s own father.

In punishment, Tiridates had Gregory thrown into the prison pit called Khor Varap (“Deep Dungeon”), which was near the former old capital, Artashat.  There he was very much left and forgotten for some 13 years.  He would have starved, it is said, had it not been for a Christian widow who supposedly had a dream about Gregory, and so brought him bread, which she dropped into the pit each day.

In this icon, we see the walls of the city at left, and the widow woman with a loaf of bread she is dropping into the pit where Gregory reaches up to receive it.  Though there are lions and vipers in the pit, they do not harm him (and the lions make a good symbolic connection between Gregory and the Old Testament tale of Daniel in the lions’ den).

The “Image Not Made by Hands” of Jesus is just an added element.

But what are those creatures to the right of the pit?


Well, the story is that Tiridates, after imprisoning Gregory, killed a Christian maiden named Rhipsime, who refused his advances, and he murdered other Christian nuns as well.  As a result of his evil deeds he supposedly went mad, and being possessed by a devil, he turned into a wild boar.  So the king is the strange, mad, boar-headed man we see at right, among other boars.  This is reminiscent of the Old Testament tale of King Nebuchadnezzar, who was made to live like a wild beast as divine punishment.

The tale continues with the sister of the mad King, whose name was Khosrovidhukt, having dreams of the prisoner Gregory, in which an angel told her that Gregory could cure the King of his madness.  When finally her story was believed, Gregory was taken from the pit and brought to the mad King, whom he cured.  As a result, the King and his court were converted to Christianity, and it was made the state religion of Armenia — or so the traditional tale in Eastern Orthodoxy goes.

As is common with the stories of saints, they should not be taken too seriously as reliable history — but they provide the often colorful materials upon which Eastern Orthodox icons are based, and as in this case, one must know the traditional story to explain the iconography.