Well, it finally happened. I opened my blog site to write a couple of days ago, and found the WordPress format had changed. And I discovered — to my horror — that my old computer could not deal with the new format. That meant I could no longer post these endless, tiresome messages about icons, unless I coughed up the cash to buy a new computer with the new software my old computer and software cold no longer handle.

The result is that I reluctantly and with great sorrow opened my wallet, and after the moths had flown out, I took enough money to buy a new computer yesterday, so now I can post on this blog site again. Yes, that means you will have to endure even more postings on Icons and Their Interpretation.

Given that the computer I am typing this on (while reclining, a first ever for me with a computer) is my first laptop, you are likely to see some oddly-formatted postings for a while. And I am going to have to find how to use images on this new software — which is why there is no new photo at all in this posting — and such photos are essential to an icon blog. I hope to quickly learn how to add photos before my next posting (the laptop software functions differently than my now unusable desktop).

So, today’s posting is a very basic trial run on my new laptop, minus new photos for now. So don’t worry. Eventually things will get even worse.


(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a quick summary of some of the most common icon myths. All are explained further by past postings in the archives.

Are the statements in bold type accurate?

  1. The first Christians painted and used icons.

    No. There is no evidence that the first Christians painted or used icons for veneration. Though there is archeological and literary evidence of Christian art around the beginning of the the 3rd century, there is no evidence for the painting and use of venerated icons as they later became known in Christianity.

2. There are icons of Mary painted by St. Luke.

No. There is no evidence that any icon of Mary attributed to Luke dates to the 1st century. All are later, most much later. And of course there is no evidence that Luke or any other Christian of New Testament times painted or used icons.

3. Icons are “written,” not painted.

No. That mistake is the result of a misunderstanding of language. In Greek and in Russian, the words for “paint’ and “write” were the same. The same word was used for both, and context determined which was meant. In English, however, we have distinct words for “write” and “paint,” so in English, icons are painted, not “written.” Saying to “write” an icon is a mistake new immigrants might make, but not once they learned correct English.

4. Icons are “windows to heaven.”

No. They are windows only into how a particular religion and culture chose to depict its traditional religious figures.

5. Icons depict saints accurately.

No. Most of the images of saints depicted in icons are entirely imaginary and often simply generic images distinguished only by the style and color of hair, the presence, absence or shape of beards, And the kind and color of garments worn. So when people venerate — for example — an icon of St. John (by tradition apostle, evangelist, and theologian), they are venerating an imaginary image of John that became standardized in painting at some point in history. Even the depictions of Jesus and Mary are imaginary.

6. “Stylized” icons — that is, icons depicting saints with stylized rather than realistic features and proportions — were always the way icons were painted in Eastern Orthodoxy.

No. Stylization of figures in icons is a tradition that developed over time in Eastern Orthodoxy, but was not always used. In Russian icons, for example, stylization was common prior to the separation of the State Church and the “Old Believers” in the middle of the 17th century, but after that, the State Church began using more and more realism in the painting of icons. The Old Believers were, in general, the preservers of stylization in icon painting after the 17th century. Most people do not realize that a great many of the stylized icons they consider so characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy today were actually painted by Old Believers who considered the State Orthodox Church (the “Russian Orthodox Church”) to be heretical.

7. Icon painters never signed their completed icons.

No. Many icons — even some going back centuries — were signed by the painter, both in Greek icon painting and in Russian. There are countless examples of old signed icons.

8. Icons were never painted for money.

No. Icon painting developed into a big business. For example, there was a vigorous trade in icons painted by Cretan icon painters and sold to buyers in the Venetian Republic. Icon painting in Russia was a huge business, and prices were charged according to the size, complexity, and quality of the icon.

9. The saints and events painted in icons were real and historical.

No. Some saints actually existed and some never existed. Even in the case of historical saints, their lives and actions are often partly, heavily, or even entirely fictionalized. Some icon saints — like St. Joasaph/Josaphat, were actually borrowed from non-Christian traditions, in that particular case from the life of the Buddha. The events depicted in icons are often as fictional as fairy and folk tales.

10. All icon depictions of Mary — including those on so-called “wonder-working” icons — originated in Eastern Orthodoxy.

No. A number of Marian icons — including some classified as “wonder-working” — were actually borrowed from the Roman Catholic tradition. And many icons in general were painted after models copied from Western European Catholic or Protestant religious engravings.


Today we will look at a fresco of the Prophet Malachi, painted in 1546 at the Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos:

First, let’s look at the name inscription:

At left we see these Greek letters joined in a decorative rather than logical abbreviation:


They abbreviate

And that of course means “Prophet.”

On the right side we see his name:



Now on to his scroll text.  As you will recall, there are three basic kinds of scroll texts used for Prophets.  A straight biblical quotation (often just an incomplete excerpt), a biblical quotation with an introductory phrase, and finally a text that is neither of those.  Malachi’s scroll is the first kind — a straight biblical quotation:

It is taken from Malachi 3:19 (KJV numbering, 4:1 Septuagint numbering):
… ἰδοὺ ἡμέρα Κυρίου ἔρχεται καιομένη ὡς κλίβανος καὶ φλέξει αὐτούς …
idou hemera Kyriou erkhetai kaiomene hos klibanos kai phlexei autous
“… behold, the day of the Lord is coming, burning like an oven, and it shall consume them ….”

Well isn’t that cheerful?  Did it inspire you and brighten your day? Good old biblical doom and gloom.  The Bible was always predicting death and destruction, and even the end of the world.  And regarding that, Jesus supposedly said this in Revelation 22:12:

 “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”

Quickly?  Well, that was some 2,000 years ago, so obviously that prediction did not work out.  Jesus never came back — something many fundamentalistic Christian groups studiously ignore as they still wait for a “Second Coming.”  But if we look at that quote in Greek, we can at least learn something from it other than a major failed prophecy:

 Ἰδοὺ ἔρχομαι ταχύ, καὶ ὁ μισθός μου μετ’ ἐμοῦ, ἀποδοῦναι ἑκάστῳ ὡς τὸ ἔργον.
Idou erkhomai takhu, kai ho misthos mou met’ emou, apodounai hekasto hos to ergon.

Remember the word ΙΔΟΥ/ἰδοὺ/idou, meaning “behold,” from Malachi’s scroll —  because it comes up a lot in biblical texts on scrolls. And you saw it in the failed “Second Coming” prediction in Revelation 22:12 as well.  And did you notice in that Revelation quote another word similar to one on Malachi’s scroll?  It is erkhomai /”I come” — and on the Malachi scroll it is in the third person: erkhetai /”He/she/it comes.”

By now you should also know well the word KYRIOY/Κυρίου/Kyriou on Malachi’s scroll — the “of” form of  ΚΥΡΙΟC/Kyrios — “Lord.”  And so Kyriou means “of the Lord.”  We often find that in scroll texts as well.

Thus endeth the lesson for the day.  Have a snack and a nice cup of something warm.


Here is a Russian icon of the Prophet Joel — the same fellow I talked about in the previous posting — only in that one he spoke Greek.

If you compare his face here with the face in the Greek fresco of the previous posting, you would not know it is the same person — but that is not unusual with icons.  As I frequently say, depictions such as that of Joel are completely imaginary anyway — they were just “made up” at some point, and then began to be standardized.

But again, I want to focus on the scroll inscription.  I repeat that the Prophets are a pain, because the student of icons never knows just what will be the inscription for a given Prophet.  Of course there are the inscriptions given in painter’s manuals, but those are very often not those we find on actual icons.

In any case, the scroll text in this example is beautifully written.  And it is a “straight” biblical quote.  It comes from Joel 2:29-30.  Here is the original text:

Ибо на рабы Моя и на рабыни Моя во дни оны излию от Духа Моего: и дам чудеса на небеси и на земли, кровь и огнь и курение дыма:

Ibo na rabui moya i na rabuini moya vo dni onui izliiu ot Dukha moego i dam chudesa na nebesi i na zemli krov’ i ogn’ i kurenie duima.

Rather literally, it is:

Also on my servants and my female-servants on that day I shall pour out from my Spirit, and I will give wonders in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and pillars of smoke.

Or as the King James Bible puts it,

29 And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. 30 And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.

The scroll text of Joel here, however, only uses a portion of that.  Just this part:

Излию от Духа моего: и дам чудеса …
izliiu ot Dukha moego i dam chudesa …
“I shall pour out my Spirit and show miracles….”

For comparison, here is another Russian icon of Joel:

(Arkhangel Museum/Архангельский музей изобразительных искусств)

The inscription is not exactly the same as in the first icon above, but it is not too far removed.  It comes from the beginning of Joel 2:28:

И будетъ посемъ, и излию от Духа моего на всяку плоть
I budet” posem”, i isliiu ot Dukha moego na vsyaku plot’
And it shall be afterward, and I shall pour out my Spirit on all flesh.

As the KJV has it,

28 And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh;

However, perhaps you noticed that this is one of those scroll texts using an introductory phrase before the biblical quote.  Here that phrase is:

Glagolet” Gospod’ …
“The Lord Says …”

Or as the KJV would have it, “Thus saith the Lord….”

So the scroll text on this icon reads:

Глаголетъ Господь И будетъ посемъ, и излию от Духа ..
Glagolet” Gospod’ i budet’ posem” i izliiu ot Dykha …
“The Lord says, ‘And it shall be afterward that I shall pour out my Spirit …'”

I hope you noticed that some of the words were abbreviated on the scroll, though I have given them in full here.

Good grief.  Aren’t you bored to death with all this yet?  Why aren’t you tearing your hair out and running screaming into the streets shouting “No more!  No more! Please, no more!”  I mean, after all, I am giving you translations of Church Slavic, which has got to be one of the most useless languages in the world, and not even spoken any more except in the Slavic liturgy and Church books, and other old literature.  You could be reading something far more entertaining, and here I am, being your enabler in this strange pursuit.  Oh, well, it takes all kinds of people to make a world, I suppose.


Today we will look at a fresco of the Prophet Joel, painted in 1547 in the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos by Tzortzis Phouka:

Notice how simply it is painted.  The face is just a few strokes of flesh coloring — lightly highlighted — over the darker base color.  Similarly, the hair consists of quick strokes of grey, highlighted with white, and outlined with black.

What I really want to focus on, however, is the scroll text in Greek:

Sometimes the texts held by Prophets are straight biblical quotes, sometimes biblical quotes with an introductory phrase, and sometimes they are not biblical quotes at all.  As I said in a previous posting, the Prophets are a pain, because one never knows what scroll inscription will be used.

Today’s scroll is an example of the second type — the biblical text with an introductory phrase.

Let’s look at what the text says.  As is common, it uses some abbreviations.  The quote itself is from Joel 2:23:

Καὶ τὰ τέκνα Σιών, χαίρετε καὶ εὐφραίνεσθε ἐπὶ τῷ Κυρίῳ Θεῷ ὑμῶν …
Kai ta tekna Sion, khairete kai euphrainesthe epi to Kurio Theo humon …
“And the children of Zion, rejoice and be glad in the Lord your God …”

However, the writer of the scroll has eliminated the first kai/”and,” replacing it with this introductory phrase:

Τάδε λέγει Κύριος …
Tade legei Kyrios …
“Thus says the Lord …

Notice the third letter in the first line which looks like a capital A in English but in Greek it is the letter Δδ — “D.”  And in the second line, note the common abbreviation KC for ΚΥΡΙΟC/Kyrios — “Lord.”  You will also find two abbreviations in the second line from the bottom, for Kyrio (a grammatical form of Kyrios) and for Theo (a grammatical from of Theos — “God.”

In the last line of the scroll, the writer has also apparently mistakenly written  ἡμῶν/hemon (“our”) for ὑμῶν/humon (“your”), which is the Septuagint reading.

So all together, the inscription on this scroll reads (corrected):

Τάδε λέγει Κύριος τὰ τέκνα Σιών, χαίρετε καὶ εὐφραίνεσθε ἐπὶ τῷ Κυρίῳ Θεῷ ὑμῶν…

Tade legei Kurios ta tekna Sion, khairete kai euphrainesthe epi to Kyrio Theo humon …

“Thus says the Lord:  ‘Children of Zion, rejoice and be glad in the Lord your God …'”



What does this handsome young fellow have in common with the Archangel Michael?

(Vatican Museums)

When Christianity displaced the old Greco-Roman gods, Michael eventually took over the duties of the fellow above — the god Hermes/Mercury — as the conductor of the soul into the afterlife.  The term for such a person is psychopomp, from the Greek ψυχοπομπός/psychopompós, meaning “soul guide.” So both Hermes and Michael are psychopomps.  And before Hermes, there was Anubis and Wepwawet in Egypt, who performed similar functions.  So the names change, but the notion continues.

I hope you remember the previous discussion of the Arkhistrategos Michael and the two variants when there is a person beneath him.

On the one hand, it may be the Devil, whose form may range from human-appearing to human with “bat wings” etc., to a monstrous appearance, as in this 18th century Russian “State Church” icon:

On the other hand, the person beneath Michael may be a dying or dead man, bringing us back to Michael’s role as psychopomp, as in this Greek-inscribed example from the 17th century:

(Museum of the Greek Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, Venice)

Michael stands on a male body, its eyes closed in death:

Above the body is this inscription:

It reads:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα

It is a shortened version of this:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα, φρήξετε πάντες αδελφοί το πικρόν ποτήριον του θανάτου

Frexon psukhe mou ta oromena, frexete pantes adelphoi to pikron poterion tou thanatou

“Tremble, my soul, at the sight, tremble all, brothers, at the bitter cup of death.”

If we look at Michael’s upraised left hand, we can see that he holds the soul of the dead man in the form of an infant wrapped in what the King James Bible calls “swaddling clothes.”  It comes from the old practice of binding infants in strips of cloth to restrain their movements and calm them — a practice that largely fell out of use in Europe in the 17th century.  In icons it is common to depict the soul of the dead as a new-born infant.

We see the same depiction of the soul as infant in icons of the Dormition, in which it is the soul of Mary.

For the previous discussion of Michael and the person beneath him as the “soul of the rich man,” go to this posting:


And what is done with the soul?  Well, in a practice that goes all the way back to the religion of ancient Egypt, Michael weighs the soul of the dead to see if its good deeds outweigh the bad — and that determines its fate in the afterlife, whether Heaven or Hades/Hell — as in this recent depiction:

Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Here — on an old Egyptian papyrus — is a depiction of Anubis weighing the heart of the dead person, to decide the fate of the person in the afterlife:

And here is a western European depiction of Michael weighing souls at the Last Judgment — a detail from the Beune altarpiece, by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464):