In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark and the two expanded versions of Mark called Matthew and Luke) we find an odd tale and some peculiar variations:

Mark 5:1-2
They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. When He [Jesus] got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,

Matt 8:28
When He [Jesus] came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way.

Luke 8:26-7
Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. And when He [Jesus] came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city who was possessed with demons;

The first problem we encounter is that “Mark” says it happened in the country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus met one possessed man.

Matthew, however, says it was the country of the Gadarenes, where Jesus met two possessed men.

Luke retains Mark’s  “country of the Gerasenes,” and one possessed man again.

Now if Jesus had just landed by boat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he could not possibly have been — as Mark says and Luke follows him — in the “country of the Gerasenes,” because Gerasa (modern Jerash) is considerably farther from the Sea of Galilee than Gadara — over 30 miles away.  The writer of Matthew seems to have recognized this error, and to have attempted to correct it by naming the place of the encounter as the land of the Gadarenes.  Gadara (modern Umm Qais), is a little over 6 miles from the Sea of Galilee.

The distance from the sea is important not only because of where Jesus landed, but also because of what happens in the story.  As Mark relates, when Jesus cast the demons out of the man,

Now there was there near the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.  And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.

And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.

So the place of the encounter has to be where a herd of swine/pigs can run down a steep place into the sea.

Some decided that the supposed miracle must have been at a place called Kursi (Κυρσοί/Kursoi),  not far from ancient Hippus, because that is the only area where one can find a “steep place” (κρημνός/kremnos — “cliff,” “precipice”) above the sea, descending toward the lake shore. There was once a 5th-century Byzantine church there.  The problem, however, is that it is considerably north of Gadara, and much farther up the shore of the Sea of Galilee, though still much closer to the Sea than Gadara.

The theologian Origen (c. 184 – c. 253 ), who traveled through the region, had this to say:

“In the matter of proper names the Greek copies [manuscript copies of the Gospels] are often incorrect, and in the Gospels one might be misled by their authority. The transaction about the swine, which were driven down a steep place by the demons and drowned in the sea, is said to have taken place in the country of the Gerasenes. Now, Gerasa is a town of Arabia, and has near it neither sea nor lake. And the Evangelists would not have made a statement so obviously and demonstrably false; for they were men who informed themselves carefully of all matters connected with Judæa. But in a few copies we have found, into the country of the Gadarenes; and, on this reading, it is to be stated that Gadara is a town of Judæa, in the neighborhood of which are the well-known hot springs, and that there is no lake there with overhanging banks, nor any sea. But Gergesa, from which the name Gergesenes is taken, is an old town in the neighborhood of the lake now called Tiberias, and on the edge of it there is a steep place abutting on the lake, from which it is pointed out that the swine were cast down by the demons. Now, the meaning of Gergesa is dwelling of the casters-out [Origen is apparently wrong here], and it contains a prophetic reference to the conduct towards the Savior of the citizens of those places, who besought Him to depart out of their coasts.” (Commentary on John 6.40-41)

So Origin considers both Gerasa and Gadara errors, and introduces yet a third possibility — Gergesa, the “land of the Gergesenes.”

These are the kinds of problems one encounters with the Biblical accounts.

It is possible that the whole story of the possessed man and the pigs is simply an allegory having to do with the occupying Romans.  In Mark, Jesus says to the demon possessing the one man,

“Come out of the man, you unclean spirit.”

Then Jesus asks the possessing demon his name, and he answers strangely:

My name is Legion: for we are many.”
Λεγιὼν ὄνομά μοι, ὅτι πολλοί ἐσμεν·
Legion onoma moi, hoti polloi esmen

Now a “legion” was the term at that time for a unit of about 5,000 Roman soldiers.  There was a Roman legion called Tenth Fretensis that played a major role in the first Jewish Roman war (66-73), and its symbol was the boar (wild pig). It was the Tenth Fretensis that destroyed the monastery at Qumran, near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were eventually discovered.  It participated in the Siege of Jerusalem, camping on the Mount of Olives.

Regarding Matthew’s two demoniacs in place of Mark and Luke’s one demoniac, we already know that Matthew liked to double Mark’s numbers; for example, not only does he double the number of demoniacs here, but he also doubles the number of blind men healed (Matthew 20:29-30 compared with Mark 10:46).

In any case, the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox commemoration of the event —  placed on the 5th Sunday After Pentecost — generally depicts two possessed men — going with Matthew’s doubling — and tends to ignore or gloss over the discrepancy in location.  One does, however, sometimes find only one demoniac depicted, as in this Bible illustration:


Here is a rather standard depiction in a modern sketch by Photis Kontoglou.

The inscription reads:

At the base we see several miniaturized pigs ridden into the waters of the Sea by demons.

The Kontoglou image is much the same as  — indeed, appears to be based upon — this earlier 14th century Slavic-inscribed fresco from Vysokie Dechany (Serbia) of the scene, with the title reading “Christ Heals the Two Demon-possessed.”


Here is Jesus with his disciples at left:


And here the two possessed men at right:


And here are the pig-riding devils:






A reader recently asked about the “middle” division of angels.  Perhaps that is something others wish to know too, so I may as well review the whole topic.

In icons, there are three divisions of angels, and each has three ranks of angel.  All together form the nine choirs/orders of angels.  Here they are, in descending rank:

First Choir/Order (Slavic лик/lik, plural лики/liki, Greek: τάγμα/tagma, plural τάγματα/tagmata):

Seraphim (Slavic: серафимы — Greek: σεραφὶμ); six wings
Cherubim (Slavic: херувимы — Greek χερουβὶμ); four wings
Thrones (Slavic: престолы — Greek θρόνοι); winged rings/wheels, with eyes in the wings.

Second Choir:

Dominions (Slavic: господства — Greek κυριότητες)
Virtues (Slavic: силы — Greek δυνάμεις)
Powers (Slavic: власти — Greek ἐξουσίαι )

Third Choir:

Principalities (Slavic: начальства (начала) — Greek ἀρχαὶ)
Archangels (архангелы — Greek ἀρχάγγελοι)
Angels (ангелы — Greek ἄγγελοι)

Here is an 18th century icon (showing some Western influence, as you may notice).  It depicts various angelic appearances in the border images, and as the title in the text block tells us, the nine ranks of angels as the central image:

First, let’s dispose of the angelic appearances in the border, which include:

  1.  The Appearance to Moses;
  2.  The Vision of Daniel;
  3.   Appearance of the Trinity to Abraham;
  4.   Prophecy of Ezekiel;
  5.   Appearance of Michael to Joshua Son of Nun (Isus Navin);
  6.   Penalty of King David;
  7.   Michael troubles the pool (of Siloam);
  8.   Jacob Wrestles with the Angel;
  9.  Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae;
  10.  Dispute over the body of Moses;
  11.  Archangel Michael frees Peter from prison;
  12.   The Angel appears to the women at the tomb of Jesus;
  13.   The Angel leads a soul to Paradise;
  14.   Archangel Michael appears to Pakhomios
  15.   The saving of the Hebrew Youths from the Fire
  16.   Archangel Michael blocks the path of Balaam.

That — along with the image of a church at the bottom — completes the “angelic” border images.

As you know from a previous posting, the large central image at the top is the Coronation of Mary — a type borrowed into Eastern Orthodox iconography from Roman Catholic art.  The “triangle” halo on God the Father is also a Western borrowing.

Here are the central ranks of angels:

The symbols held by the various ranks of angels differ from example to example.  In the icon above, we see that the “thrones” are  depicted as normal angels, but holding a throne as their symbol (though in other icons, they are shown as winged wheels).  The Seraphim hold their hands in an attitude of prayer and adoration.  The Cherubim hold open books.  The Dominions hold scepters The Virtues hold mirrors.  The Powers hold spears/lances. The Principalities hold crowns.  The Archangels hold scales.  And the Angels hold souls in the form of infants.

The icon pattern below — titled “Image of the Holy Nine Ranks of Angels”  is somewhat different:

Here the Seraphim are shown as six winged, the Cherubim as four winged, the Thrones are dressed as bishops, the Dominions hold censers and mirrors, the Virtues are depicted as warriors with swords, the Powers are crowned and hold scepters, the Principalities hold staffs, the archangels merely gesture, and the Angels hold scrolls and books.

In addition, the nine Archangels are shown again with their names in a ring around the central image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father), Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as a dove, arranged in the “Fatherhood” (Paternity) icon type, called in Slavic Otechestvo.

In the icon below — ОБРАЗ ДЕВЯТИ ЧИНОВ АНГЕЛЬСКИХ/OBRAZ DEVYATI CHINOV ANGEL’SKIKH — “IMAGE OF THE NINE RANKS OF ANGELS” — with the Archangel Michael as the central image, we see the ranks arranged somewhat differently:

From top to bottom at left, we see Cherubim, Angels, Dominions, and Guardian Angels:

From top to bottom at right, we see Seraphim, Virtues, Thrones and Principalities:

At top center, we see the Archangels in the usual “Sobor” (Assembly/Council) form:

So we can see this icon has substituted “Guardian Angels” for the “Powers” Rank.

That is a brief summary for reference of the types and ranks of angels in Eastern Orthodox iconography.



I watch the statistics on this site from day to day, and am always surprised by how many people read it (I suppose I could remove the cause, but not the symptom).  The number of followers seems to keep rising, with even more new people recently.

I am also frequently puzzled, because I can see how many people read certain postings from day to day.  Some days a large number of people will read one or another posting from the archives — apparently all coming here due to some kind of discussion involving that posting — taking place on another site somewhere — but just what that discussion is and precisely where it takes place is generally a mystery to me.

I also generally know nothing about the majority of subscribers, because many like to subscribe with the minimum of personal information.  Because some do contact me, I know there are art restorers, museum staff, dealers in old icons, artists, and quite a miscellaneous grouping of others among the now many readers of this site.  I always appreciate getting a note from new readers, telling me a bit about them and why they are reading such an esoteric site as this (recognizing your problem is the first step toward overcoming it).

I am quite an informal fellow, so no one need feel shy about leaving me a message now and then.

Now back to the usual topic.  Here is an 18th century icon from the Prophets Tier of an iconostasis at Kizhi, Russia:

If we look at the title inscription, we can see that the writer got a bit grand by writing the Greek word Hagios, meaning “Holy” (but in Cyrillic letters), instead of the usual Slavic Svyatuiy (and it is abbreviated).  The next word is Slavic — the abbreviated word Prorok, meaning “Prophet.”  And you should have no trouble, if you are a long-time reader here, in transliterating the third word — the prophet’s name — as Iezekiil — Ezekiel in English.  So the title inscription reads:

Hagios Prorok Iezekiil
“Holy Prophet Ezekiel.”

As you can see, Ezekiel is pointing to an image of a door.  And if we look at his scroll, we see it reads:


In the book of Ezekiel, we find this at 44:1-2:

Then he brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary that looks eastward; and it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no one shall pass through it; for the Lord God of Israel shall enter by it, and it shall be shut.

That gate is the “door” in the icon inscription.  In some Slavic translations, we find instead the word врата/vrata, meaning “gate/gates.”

Though it originally had nothing at all to do with a Marian interpretation, Eastern Orthodoxy developed the notion that this excerpt from Ezekiel was a prophecy and prefiguration of the supposed virgin birth of Jesus.  Mary as a virgin is seen as the “closed door/gate” shut and not opened, through which Jesus was born.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 390 c.e.) wrote:

Who is this gate, if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity.”

We often find this “Closed Door/Gate” title of Mary in Eastern Orthodox writings.  So that is why we see a door in the icon of the Prophet Ezekiel.


The sixth Sunday after Easter, in the Eastern Orthodox Calendar, commemorates the rather lengthy story found in John 9 — the healing of the man born blind.  It seems to be a long allegory in nature, finishing up with the implied lesson:

Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind‘”

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, ‘Are we also blind?’

Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

In the story, Jesus, passing by, sees a man born blind.  His disciples ask him a question that has troubled interpreters ever since:

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

For such a question even to be asked, there had to be a belief among some that the soul can exist before birth — before it is united with the body — and that the soul can “sin,” which then may affect the body at birth.

We find this notion in the apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon (8:19-20):

παῖς δὲ ἤμην εὐφυὴς ψυχῆς τε ἔλαχον ἀγαθῆς,
μᾶλλον δὲ ἀγαθὸς ὢν ἦλθον εἰς σῶμα ἀμίαντον.

For I was a clever child, and had a good spirit.
Rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled.

We already know from his “Logos” doctrine that the writer of John shared some Hellenistic notions with Philo of Alexandria.  One of Philo’s concepts was the pre-existence of souls.  We find it, for example, in his On the Confusion of Tongues, XII:

For this reason all the wise men mentioned in the books of Moses are represented as sojourners, for their souls are sent down from heaven upon earth as to a colony; and on account of their fondness for contemplation, and their love of learning, they are accustomed to migrate to the terrestrial nature.

We find the notion also in Josephus, for example in his War of the Jews 8:5:

The bodies of all men are indeed mortal, and are created out of corruptible matter; but the soul is ever immortal, and is a portion of the divinity that inhabits our bodies.

Josephus attributes that view to the Essenes (2:8:)

For their doctrine is this: That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtle air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward.”

In any case, in the account given in John, Jesus says that the man was born blind neither due to his own sins nor those of his parents, but rather “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  In other words, he is blind so that Jesus can use him to demonstrate the power of God.

Jesus uses a rather odd healing method here.  He mixes his own spit with earth, rubs the wet clay mixture onto the blind man’s eyes, then tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam.  The man does so, then returns, able now to see. Similarly,  In Mark 8:23 Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida by spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on him.  In Mark 7:32-35 he heals a deaf man, and also cures his speech impediment by spitting on his tongue.

A rather typical example of the icon type for the Sunday of the Healing of the Blind Man — Κυριακή του τυφλού/Kyriake tou typhlou — is this one, from the 16th century and the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece:

The inscription is not difficult:

If we fill out the abbreviation and separate the words, it reads:

Ho Khristos Iomenos Ton Typhlon
“Christ Heals the Blind [man]”

At left we see Jesus applying the wet clay to the blind man’s eyes:

And at right we see the blind man gaining his sight as he washes the clay from his eyes in the Pool of Siloam:

Note that the pool is represented in the form of a cruciform well, much as we see the well often depicted in icons of the Samaritan “Woman at the Well” story, commemorated on the Sunday preceding this one.  In icons we often find this cross shape used for wells and pools, of course for symbolic reasons.

This icon type of Jesus healing the blind man completes the group of six Pascal (post-Easter) Sundays in the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar.  The icon type following this one in that now completed liturgical sequence is that of the Ascension of Jesus.


The fifth Sunday after Easter (“Pascha”) — called the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman (Κυριακὴ τῆς Σαμαρείτιδος/Kyriake tes Samareitidos) — commemorates the Gospel tale of Jesus conversing with the “Woman at the Well.”

The story is found only in the gospel called “of John” (chapter four), though of course no one knows who wrote it.  The earliest manuscripts are anonymous.

The story does, however, illustrate the characteristic tendency of that Gospel to give Jesus long theological speeches, quite unlike the other Gospels.  In “Mark,” for example, Jesus carefully keeps his status a secret, not wanting who he is to be revealed.  But in the story of the Woman at the Well, we find this exchange:

λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή· Οἶδα ὅτι Μεσσίας ἔρχεται, ὁ λεγόμενος χριστός· ὅταν ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, ἀναγγελεῖ ἡμῖν ἅπαντα.

λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι.

The woman says to him, ‘We know that the Messiah will come, the one called Christ.  When he comes, he will tell us all.’

Jesus says to her, ‘I am, the one speaking to you.‘”

He means of course “I am he, I am the Messiah.”  So we see that John’s view of Jesus is quite different than that of the Markan gospel.  While in Mark his status is secret, in John it is boldly open.

The imagery of the Samaritan Woman is quite early, appearing in the 4th century catacombs on the Via Latina in Rome.  There is an earlier and rather crude image of a woman at a well in the mid-3rd century house church at Dura Europos in Asia Minor, but its identification is uncertain.  While some consider it to be the Woman at the Well (shown alone, without Jesus), others identify it as Mary (mother-to-be of Jesus) at the well — part of the apocryphal Annunciation story.

In the catacomb painting — still early Christian art by nature rather than formal “icon” art — Jesus appears typically as a short-haired, beardless generic young man.

By the time we get to the 6th century mosaic at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna,  depicting the same story, Jesus has become more formal and hieratic.  Still beardless, here he has shoulder-length hair and the characteristic cross halo we find on later images of him.

As the iconography develops over the years, it does not change much.  Additional figures of disciples may be added, and we find also many examples in which the originally round well takes on an obviously cruciform shape, as here:

Aside from the original story of the Woman at the Well in John 4:1-39, Eastern Orthodox Byzantine tradition gives her a rather lengthy and elaborate fictionalized biography that has her later dying as a martyr under Nero in Rome, a typical hagiographic account.  She is given the name Φωτεινή — Photeini/Photini in Greek and Фотина — Photina in Slavic (Svetlana in Russian translation).  You will recall that Mary Magdalene is given the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles”  — used for those believed to have equaled the Apostles in their spreading of the Christian message.  The Samaritan “Woman at the Well” is also given that title, not only because of her apocryphal life as an evangelist, which is said to have taken her as far as Carthage in Africa before martyrdom in Rome, but also because of the story related in John that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did’” (John 4:39).  Her “life” in church tradition also gives her five named sisters (Anatola, Kyriake, Phota, Photis, Paraskeva) and two sons , Joses and Photeinos (also supposedly given the name Victor by Jesus).


Two postings back, I discussed the prevalence of slavery in the New Testament and its survival in Christianity (see  Today we will look at an interesting related issue.  Be cautioned — this requires careful reading, because it can be rather confusing — a confusion that is reflected in iconography.

There is an icon type depicting the healing story found in Matthew 8:5-13:

In it, a Roman centurion (we see him with Jesus in the above image) comes to request healing for his παῖς/pais:

“[Jesus] Having entered into Capernaum, there came to him a centurion [ἑκατόνταρχος/hekatontarkhos], beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my pais [παῖς] is lying in the house paralyzed, terribly tormented.’  And he [Jesus] says to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’

But the centurion, answering him, said, ‘Lord [Kyrie], I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only speak the word and my pais will be healed.  For even I — a man — am under authority.  I have under me soldiers, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to that one, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulos] Do this! and he does it.’   Jesus hearing him was amazed, and said to those following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.'”

Now the question is, what did the Centurion in the story mean by pais?  The usual English translation will say (euphemistically) that the pais here is his servant, however that is not at all clear from the context.  Indeed, when the Centurion is telling Jesus how he just gives a command and is obeyed by his soldiers, he adds that all he has to do is say to his slave (doulos) “Do this!” and the slave does it.  Now again, in most English translations, both pais and doulos are commonly and euphemistically translated as “servant.”

A doulos, however, is not a servant as we understand the term.  A doulos is quite literally a slave, and the legal property of his owner.  Pais, however, can mean a child, a boy; it can also be a term used for a male slave (just as slave owners in the American South used the term “boy” when referring to a male slave, with the appellation surviving even in post-slavery times as an implied disrespectful deprecation in the southern United States when used for men of African descent).  A pais may even signify the male sex partner of the slave owner (those who favor this interpretation point out that in New Testament times, centurions were not allowed to marry, though of course some had female sex partners).

So, was the pais of the Centurion in “Matthew” his son?  Was he asking Jesus to heal his boy?  Or was he asking him to heal his slave, and if so, why does he use pais in one place, and doulos in another, as though he is speaking of two different persons?  I will leave the “male sex partner” possibility for others to ponder.

In any case, how is it that most English translations  — given this uncertainty — render pais here as “servant” and not “boy”?

The answer is that the translators go to the parallel story in the gospel called “Of Luke.”  As you know, “Mark” is considered to be the first gospel written of the New Testament four, and both “Matthew” and “Luke” are expanded, edited versions of Mark, adding additional material (notably birth and resurrection appearance stories at beginning and end, as well as other material in the main body of the text).

Mark, however, has no tale of a centurion coming to Jesus and asking for healing.  But there is a version of the story in “Luke” 7:1-10:

“And when he [Jesus] had finished all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum.  And a certain slave [doulos] of a centurion was ill, about to die, who was precious to him.

And hearing about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, begging him to come cure his slave [doulon].  And coming to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, ‘Worthy is he to whom he will grant this, for he loves our nation, and built a synagogue for us.’  And Jesus went with them.

And when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  Therefore I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.  But say the word, and my pais shall be healed.  For I a man am appointed under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to another, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulo] Do this! and he does it.’

And having heard these things, Jesus was amazed by him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I did not even find such faith in Israel.'”

Now obviously this is just a variation on the same story, though in Luke’s version, the Centurion does not himself come to Jesus, but instead sends Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come.   But in the Lukan version (unlike “Matthew”) it is quite clear that the Centurion’s doulos and his pais are one and the same person — his slave.  And that is why translators, reading Luke, make the Centurion’s pais in Matthew his “servant” and not his boy (though as we have seen, doulos really means “slave.”

We have, however, also seen that there are differences in the two stories, and so we cannot know for certain that the pais in Matthew was the Centurion’s slave and not his own son.

In fact the matter is only further confused if we take a look at another story, found in the gospel “Of John,” 4:46-54:

“So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he had made the water wine.  And there was a certain royal official [βασιλικὸς/basilikos], whose son [υἱὸς/huios] was ill in Capernaum.

He, hearing that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, asked that he would come down and heal his son, for he was about to die.  Jesus therefore said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.’

The royal official [basiliskos] says to him, ‘Lord [Kyrie], come down before my child [παιδίον/paidion] dies.’

Jesus says to him, ‘Go, your son [υἱός/huios] lives.’

The story continues for a few more lines, but that is the essence of it.

Now it seems this tale in “John” is just another variant of the same tale told in Matthew and Luke.  The Centurion becomes a “royal official,” and the pais of Matthew  becomes quite clearly the “son” of the official in John.  In fact when the official asks Jesus to come before his son dies, he uses the word παιδίον/paidion, which is just a diminutive form of παῖς/pais.

So that leaves us still not knowing what “Matthew” intended the pais of the Centurion to be, though it may well have been his son, as in John, and not his slave.  Luke makes it quite clear that in his story, the pais is a slave.  But in John, the official’s paidion is quite clearly his huios, his son.

Now, those brave and patient souls among you who have read all of that, will now know the confusion that lies behind the presence of two quite different images in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  We have already seen the first, which shows the Centurion beseeching Jesus to heal his pais, which is generally interpreted to be his slave by the admixture of Luke’s version of the story with that of Matthew.

John’s story, however, results in quite a different icon type, in which the Centurion (not just “royal official”) has Jesus heal his son.

Here is an example from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

We see Jesus and his disciples at left, and the Centurion at right, beside the bed on which his son lies.

The Greek inscription reads:

Ὁ Χριστός ιώµενος τον ὑιον του εκατοντάρχου
Ho Khristos iomenos ton huion tou [h]ekatontarkhou

“Christ Healing the Son of the Centurion.”

Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, Matthew’s tale of the healing of the Centurion’s “servant” is read on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  John’s tale of the Royal Official’s (“Nobleman’s”) son is read on Monday of the 3rd week In Pascha.  They are treated as two quite separate “miracles.” But in practice — including in iconography — they are often confused, as we see from the Dionysiou fresco, in which we find the Centurion (not “royal official/nobleman”) of Matthew and Luke, but the Centurion’s son (from the Gospel of John) is the one being healed, not his slave.

If your head is spinning after all that, relax, sit down, have a nice hot cup of herbal tea.



In the Church of the”All-Powerful” Taxiarchs (Ναός των Παμμεγίστων Ταξιαρχών)  at Milies (Μηλίες) on the Pelion Peninsula of Greece, there is an interesting fresco of a wheel that combines the zodiac with stages of human life, and is in a form reminiscent of the Rota Fortunae — the “Wheel of Fortune” so common in Medieval and Renaissance art of western Europe.  Such a wheel in Eastern Orthodoxy is commonly called a Τροχός του Χρόνου/Trokhos tou Khronou — a “Wheel of Time.”

Does it remind you of anything?  It should — but from quite a different context.  We have seen this fellow holding out his cloth before — in icons of the “Descent of the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost. He is the crowned figure at the base:

In those icons, he represents Ὁ Κόσμος — Ho Kosmos — “The Cosmos,” meaning “The World.”  Similarly, in Eastern Orthodox “wheel” images such as this one, he is Ὁ Μάταιος Κόσμος — Ho Mataios Kosmos — “The Vain World.”

If we expand our view outward, we find four human figures:

Clockwise, they are:

At the top:  Spring (Έαρ/Ear), as a youth playing a stringed instrument.  Next at right is Summer (Θέρος/Theros), a somewhat older hunter wearing a hat to protect him from the heat of the sun.  Then at bottom comes Autumn (Φθινόπωρο/Phthinoporo), a shepherd with staff in hand.  And finally at left we see Winter (Χυμών/Khymon), an old man warming himself by a fire.

Moving farther outward, we come to the ring of the Zodiac — the twelve signs of the Zodiac still commonly found today — Aries, Taurus, Gemini — and all the rest.

On the very outer rim — riding the wheel up to the top and down again — we find several human figures — rising to wealth and glory at the top, then falling down again:

In the Church of the Nativity in the village of Arbanasi, in Veliko Tarnovo, north-central Bulgaria, there is a similar zodiac fresco image — a “Wheel of Time” in which the cycle of human life is represented:

In traditional western European “Fortune” wheels, the wheel is usually turned by Fortuna herself — the Goddess of Fortune, as in this manuscript example:

In the Arbanasi example, however, the wheel is turned by ropes held by the two figures at the base, who represent “Day” (left) and “Night” (right).

In the center of the Arbanasi wheel, we find the sun instead of the “Vain World” of the Milies example:

The four nude figures around the sun are the Four Seasons, which we saw represented in more symbolic manner in the Milies wheel.  In the ring next to them, we see the twelve zodiac signs, and in the outer ring are the twelve months of the year.

The figures attached to the outer rim of the wheel — those rising to the peak of human vigor and success, then falling again — represent human life and its vanity.  And at the end of the cycle — having ridden the wheel of life up and down — they fall into the mouth of Hades at the base.

These zodiac/time wheels are not common in Eastern Orthodox iconography, but they are found in one variation or another occasionally — usually, as here — in the form of wall paintings in churches.

When seeing such a “Wheel of Time” — also called a Wheel of Life (Τροχός της Ζωής/Trokhos tes Zoes) — one cannot help thinking of those Tibetan images that also represent a wheel of life as the “Wheel of Becoming” (Bhavachakra) — in this case a wheel of rebirth:

By the way, if you are wondering what a Taxiarch/Taxiarkh is (as in the title of the Milies church), it is Greek for a military commander, and in iconography is commonly given to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel as leaders of the heavenly armies.