Every now and then, someone asks me about the letters sometimes seen on Greek icons of Nicholas of Myra — specifically on his omophorion, the stole bishops wear about the neck.
Let’s look more closely:
They can be quite mystifying, but the mystery is easy to solve.
First, the most common are those seen on the right in the image above. They should be read in this order:
Τhey abbreviate the Greek words
Φως Χριστού ΦαίνειΠάσι
Phos Khristou Phainei Pasi
“The light (PHos) of Christ (KHristou ) Shines (PHainei) on all (Pasi )
“The Light of Christ Shines Upon All.”
You may also see the last word in Greek as Πάσιν/pasin, with the same meaning.
During the weekdays of Lent, the Eucharistic liturgy — that is, the one in which the bread and wine are consecrated — is not used. Instead the evening liturgy used is called the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.” When communion is given during this vespers liturgy, the “gifts” used — that is, the bread and wine — were previously consecrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of the preceding Sunday. That is why they are called “presanctified gifts.”
Now at one point in that Vespers communion liturgy, the priest looks at the icon of Christ and says:
Φώς Χριστού… Phos Khristou…
“The light of Christ…”
Then he turns to the congregation and says:
“…shines upon all.”
So that is the origin of the ΦΧΦΠ.
Another abbreviation is also sometimes seen on the omophorion, as in the image on this page. It is:
You may have already guessed that the IC is for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.” You will of course remember that on Greek icons the older form of “S” is C and the newer form Σ.
You might at first be puzzled by the N K, until you recall the very common cross abbreviation:
IC XC NIKA
“Iesous Khristos Nika”
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”
And that is what the N K on the omophorion stands for: N[I]K[A] — “[he] Conquers.”
If we were playing a “who is it” game, and I said to you, “Warrior saint, dragonslayer, saved princess,” you would probably answer “St. George.” There is, however, another saint in icons who fits that description. We would call him Theodore in English, though the Russians call him Feodor and the Greeks Theodoros.
In his “Lives of the Saints,” Dmitriy Rostovskiy (who was himself declared a saint) identified the dragonslayer Theodore as Theodore Stratelates (meaning “General”); but there is another warrior saint Theodore called Theodore Tiron (“Recruit”). Here is a fresco from the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria depicting both:
Let’s look a bit closer. Here is Theodore Tiron:
If you are a long time reader here, you should be easily able to read the title inscription as: SVYATUIY FEODOR TIRON — “Holy Theodore Tiron.”
Tiron is just the transliterated Greek word Τήρων, meaning “Recruit.”
Here is the other one:
SVYATUIY FEODOR STRATILAT — “Holy Theodore [the] General.” Again, Stratilat is just a Slavicization of the Greek Στρατηλάτης, meaning “General.” So this Theodore has a higher rank than the first:
The consensus of scholars, however, is that the second and higher ranked Theodore — Theodore Stratelates — Theodore the General — never existed, but is another of those fictional saints created in error. He was mistakenly duplicated from Theodore Tiron, but given a higher rank.
The Bolshakov Podlinnik describes them like this:
Here is Theodore Stratelates, on February 9th:
“Of holy Martyr Feodor Stratilat, rus hair like George, beard of Nikita the Martyr, in armor, robe cinnabar with white, cloak white, in the left hand a shield, on the head a reddish-purple helmet highlighted with cinnabar, in the hand a cross.”
Then, on February 17th, we have Theodore Tiron:
“Of the Holy Great Martyr Feodor Tiron, rus (light brown/dark blond), hair on the head curly, beard the length of Florus, in armor, armor all checkered gold, outer [robe] cinnabar, under armor green, leggings purplish black, in the right hand a cross, and in the left a sword.”
Now we can easily see these descriptions do not fully match the Bulgarian depictions, but painters in different places often used other colors, so do not expect the Bolshakov Podlinnik to accurately describe all saints as they were depicted by different painters.
(Prepare yourself; get cup of tea and a cookie or twenty, because this is mind-numbingly long)
In the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodoxy, there are five pre-Lent Sundays, followed by five Lent Sundays. There is an iconographic image associated with each.
The pre-Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography are;
FIFTH SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF ZACCHAEUS:
Here is a 14th century Serbian Fresco showing Jesus and his disciples at left, and at right Zaccheus up a tree.
Here is the title inscription:
Х[РИСТО]С ПРИЗИВАЕТЬ ЗАКХЕИ ОТ СИКОМОРIЕ KHRISTOS PRIZIVAET ZAKKHEI OT SIKOMORIE
“Christ calls Zacchaeus out of the Sycamore.”
I have transliterated the Church Slavic inscription using a modern Russian font, but note that the original uses the old symbol for ot (meaning “out of,” “from”), which looks like a Greek omega with a small T atop it — in other words, a combination of o and t:
And in the word Sikomorie/Sycamore, it uses that same “omega” symbol — minus the T — for the letter o.
The story of the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus — a staple of Sunday School classes for little children — is found in Luke 19:1-10:
1 And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.
2 And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, who was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
3And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.
4 And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
5And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said to him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at your house.
6 And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
7 And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.
8 And Zacchaeus stood, and said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
9 And Jesus said to him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
10For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
4TH SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE:
Here is another 14th century Serbian fresco, the image for this Sunday:
The title inscription, which is rather difficult to see in this illustration, reads:
ПРИТЧА О МИТАРИ И ФАРИСЕЙ PRITCHA O MITARI I PHARISEI “[The] Parable of [the] Publican and [the] Pharisee.”
If you are wondering what all those brackets are about, remember that Church Slavic — like Russian, has no definite or indefinite articles — no “the” or “a,” so we have to supply them for good English.
The short words above the two figures are just abbreviations of “Pharisee” (Фарисей; the central figure at left) and “Publican” (Митар; the central figure at right).
Note that the icon is really divided into two halves, and we see two images of the Publican and two of the Pharisee. At left the proud Pharisee is praying and thanking God that he is not like that miserable Publican, toward whom he gestures with his left hand. Below him is the Publican, shown humbly striking his breast with both fists.
In the right half of the icon we see the Publican, represented as the righteous one of the two by the halo that is now given him. Notice the ray of heavenly light extending to his head. Below him is the Pharisee, skulking out of the Temple with no halo — a sign of his divine rejection because of his pride.
In the upper portion of the image, we see the long reddish cloth hanging from building to building. This is the velum — the old standard symbol telling us the scene is taking place in an interior. At the center of the image is the temple altar, shown in the form of an Orthodox Church altar.
The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is found in Luke 18:10-14:
10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
Perhaps you noted the similarity between the prayer of the Publican and the “Jesus Prayer” repeated over and over in Russian Orthodoxy: Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне Божий, помилуй мя, грешного. Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine Bozhiy, pomiluy mya,greshnogo
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF THE PRODIGAL SON:
Ιcons of the Prodigal Son vary in their details and complexity. Here is a modern page showing one Greek example:
The incriptions above the two figures in the foreground are:
Left: ὁάσωτος ὑιός — ho asotos huios — “the prodigal son”
In modern Greek, it is pronounced “o asotos eeos.”
Right: ὁφιλόστοργος Πατήρ — ho philostorgos Pater — “the loving father”
At upper left the Prodigal Son is shown sitting depressed and hungry among the pigs, and at right we see him leaving the pigs and walking back to his home.
The rather lengthy and well-known story of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32. I won’t repeat it here.
Note the signature in the lower right corner of the image. It reads:
If you are a long-time reader here (I keep saying that, don’t I!), you will not only be able to read that inscription on your own, but you will also recognize the name Photis Kontoglou (Φώτης Κόντογλου, 1895-19650). He is noted for his 20th-century revival and adaptation of earlier iconographic styles and the creation of a new “retro” movement in modern Greek icon painting, which had a wide influence.
2ND SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF THE LAST JUDGMENT:
Another name for this day is “Meatfare Sunday,” because it is the last day on which believers can eat meat before Lent.
The icon for this Sunday is the Страшный суд — Strashnuiy Sud — “Terrible Judgment” as the Russians call it, representing the judging of all the living and dead at the second coming of Jesus. Here is a 15th century example from Novgorod:
1ST SUNDAY BEFORE: CHEESEFARE SUNDAY/EXPULSION OF ADAM AND EVE FROM PARADISE:
The icon for this day (as you might have guessed from the heading) is the “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise”/Изгнание Адама и Евы из Рая/Izgnanie Adama i Evui iz Raya. The tale is found in Genesis 3:22-24.
Here is a 17th century Russian example — a fresco from the portal of the Church of Nicholas Nadeina in Yaroslavl (in case you are wondering where the Nadeina comes from, it derives from the name of the wealthy merchant who paid for its construction — Епифаний Свешников/Epiphaniy Sveshnikov, who was nicknamed Надей/Nadey. The church was so called to distinguish it from other St. Nicholas Churches in that city.
It depicts Adam and Eve exiting through the gate of Paradise, and an angel making sure they leave and do not return. This image is often found in combination with other scenes relating to Adam and Eve.
The rather odd English name of this Sunday derives from the Church practice of making this the last day on which believers are allowed to eat dairy products such as cheese (as well as eggs) before the beginning of the Lenten fasting (they are already fasting from meat). The Russian name for this day is Масленичная неделя/Maslenichnaya Nedelya — “Butter Sunday,” and the week before Lent is celebrated as Мaсленица — Maslenitsa — from the Russian word for “butter” (масло/maslo). Maslenitsa is a very old Slavic celebration dating to pre-Christian times, when it was the festival welcoming the sun and the beginning of spring. The standard Russian food for Maslenitsa is блины/blinui/bliny — the little round thin pancakes made of flour, eggs, milk and butter or oil. Their round shape represented the sun.
Another popular Russian name for this Sunday is Прощёное Воскресенье — Proshchonoe Voskresen’e — “Forgiveness Sunday.”
The Greeks call Cheesefare Sunday Κυριακή Της Τυροφάγου — Kyriake Tes Tyrophagou — “Sunday of Cheese-eating.”
Now we move onto the The Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography. They are:
1ST SUNDAY: THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY:
This celebrates the triumph in the year 843 c.e. of those who favored the making and veneration of icons (the Iconophiles) over those who decried it as an unchristian survival of paganism (the Iconoclasts). The main figures in the icon are the byzantine Empress Theodora, shown crowned at left, with her son Michael III. In the center is the Hodegitria (“Way-shower”) icon. To its right stand the Patriarch of Constantinople, Methodios, and Bishop Theodoros.
2ND SUNDAY: ST. GREGORY PALAMAS:
As one might expect from the name, this Sunday commemorates Gregory Palamas (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς/Gregorios Palamas, c. 1296 – 1359). Gregory was an Athonite monk and prominent defender of Hesychasm — the meditative practice in Eastern Orthodoxy — and its theology. He later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and was glorified as a saint in 1368. Here is a 15th century Greek icon of him:
The inscription is rather worn, but still legible. The top line is read from the left to right sides, and the remainder also from left to right. Here is the left side:
At the top is the partly-obliterated Ὁ Άγιος/Ho Hagios/”The Holy,” followed by a word divided into two parts — Αρχιεπί-σκοπος/Arkhiepiskopos/”Archbishop.”
And here is the right:
At top is the name Γρηγόριος/Gregorios/”Gregory,” followed by two divided words. The first is Θεσσαλονί-κης/Thessalonikes/”of-Thessaloniki, and the second is Ὁ Παλα-μάς/Ho Palamas/”the Palamas.”
If we put them together as they are meant to be read, we get:
Ὁ Άγιος Γρηγόριος Αρχιεπίσκοπος Θεσσαλονίκης Ὁ Παλαμάς Ho Hagios Gregorios Arkhiepiskopos Thessalonikes Ho Palamas “The Holy Gregory, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, (the) Palamas”
It may seem peculiar that there is a major Sunday commemoration just for Gregory; the thinking behind it is that the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the Iconophiles over the Iconoclasts (considered “heretics” in Eastern Orthodoxy), and Gregory’s triumph over those opposing the practice of Hesychasm similarly was another victory of what came to be considered Orthodoxy over opposing doctrines.
3RD SUNDAY: THE VENERATION OF THE CROSS:
There are two icons generally associated with this day. The first is the same as that for the Major church feast called the “Elevation of the Cross.” Here is a 19th century Russian example:
The Inscription at the top reads:
ВОЗДВИЖЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНАГО КРЕСТА ГОСПОДНЯ
VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA GOSPODNYA
“Elevation of the Honorable Cross of the Lord.”
The icon depicts the raising of the cross on which Jesus was crucified for the veneration of the people of Jerusalem. St. Helena — mother of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized and supported Christianity in the Roman Empire — according to legend discovered the cross of Jesus buried in Jerusalem in 326 c.e. In the icon Helena stands at left, and on the left side of the cross is Bishop Makariy/Makarios/Macarius of Jerusalem, and on the other side another bishop.
The second icon associated with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross is the type generally called simply ПОКЛОНЕНИЕ КРЕСТА — POKLONENIE KRESTA — “Veneration of the Cross.” Here is a 12th century Russian example.
It depicts the empty cross ornamented with a wreath, standing on Golgotha with the skull of Adam visible within the hill. At left is the sun, and at right the moon. The Archangel Michael is at left, holding the spear of the crucifixion, and at right is the Archangel Gabriel, holding the sponge on a reed. In the sky above are six-winged cherubim at the sides, and at each side of the upper bar of the cross are seraphim bearing ripida — the ceremonial fans used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.
The liturgical phrase associated with the Veneration of the Cross (and found on countless Crucifixion icons) is:
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО И СВЯАТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ
KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLONAEMSYA VLADIKO I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM
“We bow before your cross, Master, and praise your holy resurrection.”
4TH SUNDAY: JOHN OF THE LADDER:
This day commemorates the 6th-7th century monk and writer Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος/Ioannes tes Klimakos/John of the Ladder. The Russians call him Иоанн Лествичник/Ioann Lestvichnik/John the Ladder-guy. He is discussed — along with the icon of the “Ladder of John Klimakos” — in this previous posting: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/
This commemoration celebrates the effort and virtue needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here is a 13th century icon of John Klimakos from the St. Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, where he was abbot:
The title inscription is easy; it reads:
Ὁ ἉγιοςἸωάννης ὁ τῆς Κλίμακος Ho Hagios Ioannes ho tes Klimakos
“The Holy John the [one of the] Ladder”
5TH SUNDAY: MARY OF EGYPT:
Mary of Egypt is one of the most common figures in Russian icons. Traditionally, she was a desert ascetic living in the wilds in the region of the Jordan River. She and her iconography are discussed in this previous posting:
Here is a 12th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai:
It represents an allegory of the spiritual ascent of monks. The image is derived from a book written by Ioannes tes Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος) — John of the Ladder. He is also called Ιωάννης ο Σιναϊτης/Ioannes ho Sinaites — “John the Sinaite.” Almost nothing certain is known about him, not even his precise dates. He is said to have died in 649 at age 80. His standard life says he became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai. His book is called Ἡ Κλῖμαξ/He Klimax — The Ladder, also Ἡ Κλίμαξ Θείας ανόδου — The Ladder of Divine Ascent. First intended for monks as an instruction book in ascetic virtues, it eventually became a popular book of religious counsel in Eastern Orthodoxy. In Slavic it is called Лествица/Lestvitsa, and John himself is Иоанн Лествичник/Ioann Lestvichnik.
It is not hard to guess where the inspiration for this subject came from. In Genesis 28:10-12, we find the story of Jacob’s Ladder:
“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for 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 angels on the ladder in the biblical story are replaced in this icon by monks climbing or falling, while the icon angels are just onlookers.
Now the Ladder as a book has 30 chapters, each corresponding to a rung on the ladder in the icon. As you see, the icon ladder has 30 rungs. So this icon depicts monks using the moral steps prescribed in the Ladder in order to ascend to heaven. Some them fail to keep those standards, and are pulled off the ladder and down by demons, shown here as winged black figures. These failed monks fall into the mouth of a dark head at the bottom, representing Hades. Those who make it all the way meet Jesus, shown at top right.
Here is the first fellow to make it to the top in the icon:
He is identified by the Greek inscription (the first two words are heavily abbreviated) above him as:
Ὁ άγιος Ιωάννης τις (της) Κλί-
μακος, Ho Hagios Ioannes tes Klimakos
“The Holy John of-the Ladder”
Next up the ladder — and just below John, is this fellow:
His inscription identifies him as:
Ὁ Άγιος Αντώνιος Αρχιεπί-
σκοπος Ηο Hagios Antonios Arkhiepiskopos “The Holy Antonios, Archbishop.”
Some scholars assume that this Archbishop Antonios was likely the abbot of the Monastery at the time when the icon was painted, following John of the Ladder both in succession and up the Ladder — but that is not certain.
A group of monks at lower right contemplate the lesson provided by the ladder. The first among them — at left — is interpreted in many examples of the type as John himself, looking toward his ladder, and often holding a scroll:
Here is an interesting later Greek example of the type:
It adds many interesting little details:
Jesus at the top end of the ladder holds a scroll:
It is Matthew 11:28:
Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι, κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς.
“Come to me, all you are labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest.”
On the top of Mount Sinai at left, we see
Ἡ ΚΟΙΜΕCΙC ΤΗC ἉΓΙΑ ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΗ HE KOIMESIS TES HAGIA AIKATERINE
“The Dormition of the Holy Catherine.”
Below that is Mary shown with Christ Emmanuel in the Burning Bush, here bearing the title Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΒΑΤΟC — HE HAGIA BATOS — “The Holy Bush.”
Just below the Burning Bush is a kneeling figure identified by inscription as:
Ὁ ΠΡΟΦΗΤΗΣ ΜΟΗCΗC — HO PROPHETES MOISES — “The Prophet Moses.”
This scene of Mary within the Burning Bush and Moses kneeling before it is an icon type in itself; it is the usual Greek way of depicting the Burning Bush as a prefiguration of Mary’s bearing of Jesus; just as the Old Testament bush burned but was not consumed, so Mary is considered in Eastern Orthodoxy to have been filled with the fire of divinity, but not consumed thereby. In Greek this type may be titled Ἡ φλεγόμενη και μη κατακαιόμενη βάτος — He Phlegomene kai Me Katakaiomene Batos — “The Burning and Not Consumed Bush,” or it may be called simply — as here — Ἡ Ἡαγια βατος — He Hagia Batos — “The Holy Bush.” Russians preferred a different image to show this — the often complex icon type called Неопалимая Купина — Neopalimaya Kupina — the “Unburnt Thornbush.”
Below that we find this scene of a hooded angel talking to a man:
The inscription is the words of the angel to Pakhomios, and it reads:
ΕΝ ΤΟΥΤΟ ΤѠ CΧΗΜΑΤΙ CѠΘΗCΕΤΑΙ ΠΑCΑ CΑΡΞ Ѡ ΠΑΧΟΜΙΕ EN TOUTO TO SKHIMATI SOTHESETAI PASA SARX O PAKHOMIE
In this the skhima shall-be-saved all flesh O Pakhomios
Or in more normal English,
“In this skhima shall all flesh be saved, O Pakhomios.” The skhima, you will recall is the habit/garment of an Eastern Orthodox monk.
So that scene is the icon type called “The Vision of Pakhomios.”
In the lower right corner of the icon we see a demon pitchforking one of the fallen monks into Hades at left, and to the right of that stands John of the Ladder himself, gesturing toward the ladder and holding a scroll in his hand that reads:
For simplicity, we may call icons of this type “The Ladder of John Klimakos.” Russian examples generally call it (with some variation) Видение преподобного Иоанна Лествичника — Videnie prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika — “The Vision of Venerable John of the Ladder.” Russian examples vary in detail and complexity, but we shall examine those another day.
Its gold inscription at the top is worn and faint, which often happens with gold inscriptions, because they are easily worn away over time. Nonetheless this is a Sretenie (Сретение ) icon, but not the icon type we usually find under that name. We are already familiar with the word Sretenie — meaning “Meeting.” We have seen it used to describe the many icons of the “Meeting” of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple by the aged Simeon and the Prophetess Anna. That is its most common use in icons.
However the icon we are examining today is a different Sretenie — a different meeting. This one is the “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon.” The earliest-known existing examples of this type date to the 16th century.
The story associated with it is this:
In the year 1395, the Mongol invader Tamerlane (Timur) and his armies were approaching Moscow. The people were terrified, certain that he intended to loot and pillage the city. The Great Prince of Moscow at that time — Vasiliy I Dmitrievich — sent urgently to the city of Vladimir, asking that the supposedly miracle-working icon of the Vladimir Mother of God be brought to Moscow to protect the city.
Now you will remember that since Byzantine times — in a tradition going back even to the pre-Christian world — there were images believed to have the power to protect cities. Such an image is called a palladium. In Russian Orthodoxy, the Vladimir icon was such a palladium icon.
The stories relate that at the request of Vasiliy, the Vladimir palladium was sent on its way to Moscow. It is said that it took ten days for the icon to make the journey, and along the road people fell to their knees, praying “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuiu — “Mother of God, save the Russian land.” When it reached Moscow, all the people of the city came out to greet it.
The legend says that at the time when the icon was met in Moscow, Tamerlane was asleep and dreaming in his tent. He dreamed he saw a high mountain, and descending saints with golden wands. In the air above it was a brilliantly-shining woman, surrounded by sword-bearing angels. When he woke and consulted his advisors, they told him it was not wise to continue, because the woman was God’s Mother, intercessor for the Russians.
Tamerlane did turn his forces back, and Moscow was not invaded. Historians say that Tamerlane had his own reasons for not going farther. The people of Moscow, however, attributed his withdrawal to the icon, which only increased the esteem in which it was held. A monastery called the Sretenskiy Monastery (after Sretenie) was eventually built on the site where the “meeting” of the Vladimir icon is said to have taken place.
Remember that in Russian tradition, icons of Mary were treated as though they were living persons. So that is what we see in today’s icon — the formal meeting and greeting of the icon. We see the Patriarch of Moscow Kiprian with his omophorion (bishop’s stole) and bishop’s crown standing to the right of the image, and beside him is Great Prince Vasiliy I Dmitrievich.
If we look more closely at the depiction of the Vladimir icon, we can see the ornamental cloth — the veil called a pelena (пелена) hanging below it. In Greek it is called a podea (ποδέα). This one is decorated with a “Golgotha Cross,” (Голгофский Крест/Golgofskiy Krest) which is one of the most common decorations used on such a cloth. The Golgotha Cross — which is found on many Russian Orthodox religious objects — depicts the cross standing on a hill, with the spear and sponge on a reed at the sides, and the skull of Adam below.
Here is a typical Golgotha Cross:
You will find all the abbreviations explained in my earlier postings on Russian crosses, found in the site archive.
If we look at the “hills and palaces” — the stylized mountains and buildings in this icon, they exhibit well the typical style of painting used in 17th century Russian iconography:
The “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon” is celebrated annually in Russian Orthodoxy on August 26th.
Now interestingly, there is another but seldom-seen icon type relating to Tamerlane called the Eletskaya-Argamachenskaya (Елецкая Аргамаченская). When Tamerlane came into the region near Moscow, he took the city of Elets (pronounced Yelets), some 221 miles from Moscow. You will recall the legend that Tamerlane had a dream of a shining woman and angels, and that prevented him from going to invade Moscow. A similar tale — apparently just based on the first — developed to explain why Timur left Elets.
It is said that on August 26th, 1395, Timur was camped and sleeping on Argamach Mountain. Mary appeared to him in a dream, in very much the same manner as that told about the supposed deliverance of Moscow from invasion. This icon type was first painted in 1735. Here is an example:
We see Mary appearing in the clouds, surrounded by an army of angels. At lower right are the tents in the camp of Timur.
This icon type should not be confused with the more common Eletskaya type — the Eletskaya Chernigovskaya — that is said to have “appeared” in 1060.
As you know, people often write to me asking for help with the identification of icons. One such recent request involved this image:
It is a late Russian icon, and if you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the subject as Svyatuiy Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker — that is, St. Nicholas of Myra, who was believed to be a miracle worker. Nicholas was extremely popular in Russia, and countless icons of this type were painted. In this example we see the usual elements — the circle enclosing Jesus at left, giving Nicholas his Gospel book, and that of Mary at right, bestowing the bishop’s stole (omophorion) on Nicholas.
I particularly want to take a look at the Church Slavic text held by Nicholas, because it is the most common text used on his icons. As students of icons you should learn to recognize it, because it will enable you to translate a great many icons of Nikolai/Nicholas. Here it is:
VO VREMYA ONO STA ISUS NA MESTE RAVNE I NAROD OUCHENIK EGO I MNOZHESTVO MNOGO LIUDEI OT VSEYA IOUDEI I [I]EROUSALIMA [I] PO[MORIYA TYRSKA I SIDONSKA….]
“At that time Jesus stood on a level place and the group of his disciples and a multitude of many people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon….”
The King James version gives it as: “And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon….“
It is quite a “busy” icon, with so many things happening that it reminds me of an assignment my high school art teacher once gave — to draw “many people doing many things.”
First, we need to know what it represents. For that we can look at the title inscription. It is rather long, so here it is in two parts:
And here is the last part:
Though the inscription appears faint does not stand out sharply, nonetheless it reads:
Ἡ ΚΟΙΜΕCΙC ΤΟΥ ὉCΙΟΥ Π[ΑΤ]Ρ[O]C ἩΜΩΝ CΑ[B]ΒΑ ΤΟΥ ΙΓΙΑCΜΕΝΟΥ (ἡγιασμένου)
HE KOIMESIS TOU HOSIOU PATERAS HIMON SAVVA TOU ἹGIASMENOU (Egiasmenou)
“THE DORMITION OF THE VENERABLE FATHER OF-US SAVVA THE SANCTIFIED”
In normal English,
“The Dormition of Our Venerable Father Sabbas the Sanctified.”
We are accustomed to seeing the Greek word του as meaning “of,” or “of the,” but here it has more the sense of “the one.”
So this is a “Dormition” icon, but not the most common one, which is the Dormition of Mary. This one is the Dormition of St. Sabbas/Savva the Sanctified, a prominent early monastic leader in the area of Jerusalem.
This image is essentially a copy of an earlier icon of the same type, an example of which is known from the 15th century.
In the foreground of the icon we see the liturgical service taking place at the bier on which the body of Sabbas lies, with an icon of Jesus resting on his chest. One monk bends over to kiss Sabbas, while others stand all around.
The rest of the icon is essentially explained by the image of the monk just above the Dormition gathering. He holds a semantron, which you will recall is the long wooden board beaten with a mallet, and acting as a kind of loud but dull-sounding gong to call monks to assemble. So this fellow is going about beating his semantron to call the monks we see scattered over the remainder of the icon to come to the Dormition service of Sabbas:
We see some of the monks busy with various occupations. Here they are weaving baskets, which Sabbas himself is said to have done. Note the icon on the cave wall:
Here another monk is carving wooden spoons:
And here are monks as scribes writing books:
Near the top of the image, a monk sends provisions up to a stylite (pillar-dweller), using a woven basket on a rope, as another monk in his cave looks on:
We see various scenes of monks on their way to the Dormition service. Here, by the semantron bearer, is a monk carrying an elderly monk on his back:
Here two younger monks carry an old monk on a litter:
Here is an old monk riding on a lion to get to the service. A lion features in the hagiography of Sabbas, as well as in that of other monastic saints:
This one rides a donkey, while the fellow next to him is fishing:
Images in the icon are quite out of proportion, but that is just the old method of getting lots of things into an image without worrying about “real” perspective. Notice that the body of water in the foreground has ships and birds on it, but both are the same size!
A number of creatures such as rabbits, a deer, birds, and so on have been included to add visual interest to the image, something the Cretan iconographers picked up from Italian art of the period, which helped to soften and enliven icons painted or influenced by the Cretan painters.
In the sky above, we see some black demons flying at right…
But at left we see an angel bearing the soul of Sabbas heavenward, in the form of an infant:
In earlier examples of the type, the figure to the left of the angel is generally interpreted as Christ Emmanuel, to whom the angel is bringing the soul of Sabbas — as in this 15th century detail:
The painter of the icon we are examining today, however, may not have clearly understood his model, because he makes the figure look rather like a personification of the sun:
As for Sabbas himself, he is said to have been a precociously pious 5th century Cappadocian boy who entered a monastery at the age of eight. In Jerusalem he was a disciple of St. Euthymios, and eventually he founded the Mar Saba Monastery — quite a famous one that is generally seen on “map icons” of Jerusalem and its surrounding pious attractions. There are all sorts of miraculous tales told about him, and interesting accounts of the monastery.
The Mar Saba Monastery, by the way, is the place where the biblical scholar and historian Morton Smith said he discovered a copy of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria in 1958, describing a “secret” Gospel of Mark that was only for certain advanced Christians, and not to be revealed to all. Here is a photo of the Mar Saba letter:
Now as you can imagine, this caused great controversy in the world of biblical scholarship, with some accusing Smith of a hoax, while others regarded the text as authentic, revealing a previously unknown side to early Christianity. To this day the matter remains unsettled.