THE ARCHANGEL MICHAEL INSCRIPTIONS

Today, thanks to a reader question, we will take a look at a 14th century icon in the Byzantine Museum, Athens.  It represents the Archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies.

{Byzantine Museum, Athens – St. Michael: 14th century – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 12 2009)

The question asked was, what do the letters in the round mirror (depicted as a transparent sphere here) held by St. Michael mean?

Let’s look at them:

First, we need to know that the letters are Greek, which makes sense, given that it is a Byzantine icon.

The first letter — at the top — is Χ.  It stands for Χριστος — Khristos — “Christ.”
It would be easy to mistake the second letter, at left, for an Α.  But actually it is the letter Δ, which is often found written in this manner in old icons.  It stands for Δικαιος — Dikaios — meaning “Righteous.”
The third letter, at right, is Κ, for Κριτης — Krites — “Judge.”  It is related to our English words “critic” and criticism.”

All together, the letters abbreviate Χ(ριστός) Δ(ίκαιος) Κ(ριτής). — “Christ [the] Righteous Judge.”  It is an expression that recalls the words of John 7:24:

μὴ κρίνετε κατ’ ὄψιν, ἀλλὰ τὴν δικαίαν κρίσιν κρίνετε
Me krinete kat’ opsin, alla ten dikiaian krisin krinete
Not judge according-to appearance, but the rightous judgment judge
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

You may recall that  a variant of this phrase is often found as a Gospel text in Russian icons of Jesus as “Lord Almighty.”

Не на лица судите сынове человечестии, но праведен суд судите: им же бо судом судите, судят вам и в нюже меру мерите, возмерится вам.

“Judge not according to the appearance, sons of men, but judge righteous judgment.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged, and with what measure you measure, you shall be measured.”

There is also a title inscription on the Michael icon that we should examine.  It is divided into left and right parts:

At left:

Ὁ ΑΡΧ[ΩΝ]….
HO ARKHON
Ὁ ΜΕΓΑC
HO MEGAS

Notice how the the A and the P (R) are joined, and how the X (KH) in Arkhon is placed above, below a curved line indicating abbreviation.

At right:

…ΜΙΧΑ[Η]Λ
MIKHAEL
…ΤΑΞΙΑΡΧΗC
TAXIARKHIS

Notice that the Λ (L) in MIKHAEL is placed above the last two letters.

This title inscription is read with the first line jumping from the left to right side, as does the second, like this:

Ὁ ΑΡΧ(ΩΝ) ΜΙΧΑΗΛ Ὁ ΜΕΓΑC ΤΑΞΙΑΡΧΗC
HO ARKHON MIKHAEL HO MEGAS TAXIARKHES

“THE PRINCE MICHAEL THE GREAT COMMANDER”

That title recalls the Old Testament book of Daniel, 12:1, in the Septuagint Greek version:

Και ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ ἀναστήσεται Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἄρχων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ἑστηκὼς ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ λαοῦ σου·
“And in that time shall stand up Michael the great prince, that stands over the sons of your people.”

Thanks to the reader who asked this question, because it helps everyone to advance a bit in the study of icons.

THERMAL SPRINGS, CALCIUM CARBONATE, AND THE “MIRACLE OF THE ARCHANGEL MICHAEL AT KHONAE”

In modern Turkey — Asia Minor — there is a town called Honaz.  In pre-Islamic Byzantine days it was called Χῶναι — Khonai.  Very close by was the city of  Κολοσσαί — Kolossai, which is the place named in the New Testament’s Epistle to the Colossians.  Both were in the ancient region called Phrygia.

It is interesting that in the Epistle (its authorship, traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul, is uncertain), We find this in the King James Version of Colossians 2:18:

“Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels….”

Though the translation of that verse varies, the traditional understanding is that it refers to humans worshipping angels.  It is believed that the center of veneration of the Archangel Michael in the early days of Christianity was at Phrygia, where he was considered more as a healer than as a military patron.

The early angel veneration in Phrygia is interesting in regard to today’s icon type, known as “The Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonai” — ЧУДО АРХИСТРАТИГА МИХАИЛА В ХОНЕХ — Chudo Arkhistratiga Mikhaila v Khonekh — or in Greek Το εν Χώναις Θαύμα του Αρχάγγελου Μιχαήλ — To en Khonais Thauma tou Arkhangelou Mikhail — literally “The In Khonae Wonder of the Archangel Michael.”  It is also sometimes called “The Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Colossae.”  Here is a 12th century Byzantine example from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai:

According to tradition, the Evangelist John the Theologian supposedly visited the region in the beginning days of Christianity, and foretold that a miraculous spring would burst forth from the ground there, in honor of the Archangel Michael.  And later, that happened.

It is said that in the 4th century, when Christianity had only begun its takeover of the Roman Empire, a certain man of the city of Laodicaea had a daughter who was mute — who could not speak.  A man — some say the Archangel Michael — is said to have appeared to him in a dream, telling him his daughter would speak if she drank from the spring.  She did so and was no longer mute.

In gratitude the father and all the family were baptized, and in addition he had a church dedicated to Michael built at the healing spring.

Some 90 years later, a ten-year old Christian boy named Arkhippos (Άρχιππος) left home for the church at the spring, and became its sexton.  He lived a rigorous and self-mortifying life, living on wild plants, refusing to eat bread, and never bathing (obviously he did not agree with the saying that cleanliness is next to godliness).  He slept on sharp stones and thorny plants.

Now it happened supposedly, that as the years passed and Arkhippos grew up, the healing spring had become so locally famous, and the harsh piety of Arkhippos along with it, that the “pagans” in the region became jealous. They attacked Arkhippos and tried to ruin the spring, but a flame sprang up from it and frightened them off.  But they did not give up.

They next decided to get rid of the spring and Arkhippos at the same time.  Some distance to the left of the church (and the spring was on the left side of it too) there was a stream called the Khryssos.  The pagans diverted it so that it would flow down and flood the healing spring and the church.  But instead of flowing down into the spring on the left, the river instead flowed around the right side of the church, doing no harm.

Now the church and its spring happened to be on a piece of land that was bordered at some distance by two rivers — the Lykokastros and the Kouphos, one river on each side, making it like an island between them.  The pagans determined to collect the waters of the two rivers above the church, and then to open the dike so that the joined waters of the two rivers would rush down and wipe out the spring, the church, and Arkhippos.  They put a lot of labor into digging and delving, preparing their waterworks for the great flood.  Then they let the waters in their dam rise for ten days, and at midnight they released them.

They stood shouting excitedly as the flood of water rushed down on the church.  But Arkhippos heard all the shouting and the rushing of the water, and prayed these words from Psalm 93:3-5 (KJV numbering):

“The rivers have lifted up, O Lord, the rivers have lifted up their voices, at the voices of many waters: the billows of the sea are wonderful: the Lord is wonderful in high places. Your testimonies are made very sure: holiness becomes your house, O Lord, for ever.

Arkhippos, sheltering in the church, suddenly heard the voice of the Archangel Michael calling him by name and telling him to come outside the church to see what was about to happen.  Going out, he saw a pillar of flame from sky to earth.  There stood the Archangel Michael, who made the sign of the cross on a large rock, then struck it with his lance.  The rock split apart, opening a large fissure in the earth into which the floodwaters ran, without doing any harm to the church or its spring.

So that is the story.  Honaz/Khonae is in a region of thermal springs and calcium-laden pools, where the bedrock is calcium carbonate, which water dissolves over time, and opens underground caverns.  The present streams in the area are the Çürüksu (the former Lykos), which includes Karaçay and Honaz Creeks.  Its waters are so laden with calcium carbonate that its name means “rotten water” in Turkish.  So it seems likely that this tale is at least in part an “origin story” explaining the hydrological topography of the area through the religious equivalent of folklore.  And it is also an attempted explanation of the etymology of the place name, because a Χωνιών — Khonion,  in Greek, is a funnel, and the waters were supposedly funneled by Michael into the hole.

Here is a Russian icon pattern for the “Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae.”  It is a bit more detailed than one usually find in icons of this subject:

In the rocky hills at upper left and right, we see the pagans at work diverting the two rivers, one river on each side.  Down below, we see Arkhippos (Arkhipp in Slavic form) standing in front of his church, watching the Archangel Michael with his lance at left.  Michael is directing the floodwaters into a hole down which they swirl like water down a bathroom sink drain.  The artist has added a colorful and lively touch by showing one of the pagans swept headfirst down the flood and toward the hole.

If you look closely at the upper part of the church, you will see that this example has placed a small image of the Archangel Michael upon it, to show to whom it was dedicated.

The only inscriptions on this pattern identify the two main figures, МИХАИЛЪ — Mikhail/Michael at left, and at right Пр АРХИПП — Pr[epodobnuiy] Arkhipp, “Venerable Arkhippos.”

BORROWED ANGEL: A BULGARIAN FRESCO

The Rila Monastery is the most noted monastic center in Bulgaria.  It burned in 1833, but was then rebuilt between 1834 and 1862.  Its delightfully colorful frescos were completed in 1846.

Here is an interesting example: The inscription (you should be able to read the first three words if you have been following this blog) says, “Holy Archangel Michael Torments the Soul of the Rich Man.” On the image the spelling varies slightly, but we can read it as  С. Архангел Михаил мучит душу богатого — Svyatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail muchit dushu bogatogo.

Michael looks rather glorious in his flowing pastel garments.  But that he is in this scene at all is a bit odd, and it becomes even stranger when we take a look at an earlier painting (c. 1630s) by the Italian Catholic artist Guido Reni:

The main image of Michael in the Bulgarian fresco is obviously ultimately  derived from the earlier image by Reni.  Michael has been given some slight “Orthodox” touches and is simplified in painting technique, but it is the same form overall.

The Reni painting is loosely based on Revelation 12: 7-9 etc.:

7 “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

But in the Rila fresco, the fallen Satan and the Revelation reference is gone, and in their place is the dying Rich Man of the parable in Luke 12: 16:

And he [Jesus]  spoke a parable to them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room in which to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said to him, You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?

21 So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Where in Reni’s painting, Michael holds chains in his right hand, in the Rila fresco they are replaced by the little soul of the Rich Man, a half-naked figure clothed only in a loincloth. Michael holds the little soul by its hair.  And though Reni’s Michael has bare legs, the Rila example gives him rosy leggings, called ноговицы — nogovitsui in Russia.

And of course the entire background is different:  gone are the rocks and flames of the Reni painting, replaced by buildings and the Rich Man’s mourners and demons, one of whom holds a bag of money in one hand and a little scroll in the other, with the text “You are mine, O covetous one.”

An engraving mixing the Reni image of Michael with elements found in the Rila fresco was published in Venice in 1811.  Such engravings were a common means by which Western European religious art was transmitted to the Orthodox countries of the East, to Russia, the Balkans, and Greece.

There were also engravings of the subject from Mt. Athos as early as 1807, with an inscription linking the image to the parable of the Rich Man.  One such copper engraving, from 1858, was printed at the Monastery of Simonopetra on Mt. Athos in Greece:

The title  inscription is in Greek and Slavic.  The Greek reads much as the Slavic:

Ὁ ΑΡΧΑΓΓΕΛΟΣ ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΠΕΔΕΥΕΙ ΤΗΝ ΨΥΧΗΝ ΤΟΥ ΠΛΟΥΣΙΟΥ
HO ARKHANGELOS MIKHAEL PEDEUEI TEN PSYKHEN TOU PLOUSIOU
“The Archangel Michael Chastises the Soul of the Rich Man.”

Now you might think this borrowing of Western European Roman Catholic and Protestant religious imagery into Eastern Orthodox iconography might be very rare, if you are one of those with the delusion of a “pure” Eastern orthodox art.  But it was not.  In Russia and other “Orthodox” countries, and even on Mt. Athos, Western European designs were sometimes used as patterns for icons and frescos.

But now to the matter of how the Archangel Michael, who is not mentioned in the parable of the Rich Man as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, happened to end up in icons and frescos of that parable.

In Orthodox iconography, Michael came to be not only the leader of the heavenly armies, but also the one weighing souls at the Last Judgment, holding the scales that balance a man’s good deeds against the bad.  This latter concept was extended to the “weighing” of the deeds of a man at death, when the soul left the body.  So while in some iconography from the 16th to 19th century, Michael is shown in his armor and with his sword as he stands on the body of the dead man and “weighs” his deeds to determine the fate of the soul, this image also became transferred, in the early 19th century, to images based on the parable of the Rich Man, and that is the version we see in the Rila fresco, though in the Rila example the scales of the earlier form are gone.

In any case, images of Michael either standing on a “generic” dead figure or on the more specific body of the Rich Man were sometimes used on side doors of the iconostasis, primarily in the Balkans.

The theme also relates to Russian icons depicting the “Righteous Man and the Sinful Man,” showing the life and fate at death of a pious man as compared to that of his sinful counterpart.  The “death” portion is depicted in this Russian lubok, circa 1800.  At left is the death of the “Rightous Man.”  At right is the death of the “Sinful Man,” which one may compare with the type of The Archangel Michael tormenting the Rich Man.

TERRIBLE MICHAEL AND HIS FLYING RED HORSE

Today I would like to talk a bit about the icon of the Archangel Michael (Архангел Михаил –“Arkhangel Mikhail” ) as the angel of the Apocalypse. This type, which varies somewhat from example to example in title, in the number and arrangement of elements, and in inscriptions and their variations, is a mixture of images from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) and tradition concerning Michael.

Let’s take a look at an example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Church Slavic title at the top reads:
ГРОЗННЫЙ ШТРАШНЫЙ СИЛНЫЙ НЕБЕСНАГО ЦАРЯ ВОЕВОДА АРХИСТРАТИГ МИХАИЛЪ
Groznuiy Strashnuiy Silnuiy Nebesnago Tsarya Voedvoda Arkhistratig Mikhail

“TERRIBLE, DREADFUL, POWERFUL WARLORD OF THE HEAVENLY TSAR CHIEF-COMMANDER MICHAEL”

Michael is called in Greek the arkhistrategos (αρχιστρατηγός) — the “chief commander” of the armies of heaven. This title, or a Russianized variant, is sometimes written in Cyrillic letters on Russian icons, but one may also find Michael called by the Slavic equivalent, Voevoda (Воевода), meaning “warlord.” This example includes both titles.

The main elements are the Archangel Michael, usually red-faced, winged and crowned, riding across the skies on a winged red horse. Don’t ask why a winged angel also needs a winged horse; as in fairy tales, it is just the way it is.

A rainbow is over his head. A trumpet extends from his mouth. In one hand he holds a lance with which he strikes at the Devil (omitted in some examples), who has fallen below into an abyss in which we see the towers of a city overwhelmed by a great flood. In the same hand is a cross (omitted in some examples), and a censer swinging on a chain. In his other hand he holds the Gospels.

At upper left, on clouds, is an altar table with Jesus as Emmanuel behind it ( or the mature Jesus in some icons). On the altar is a cross, the book of the Gospels, and in some examples (not this one) a chalice.

What does it all mean?

The key lies in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, which Protestants call the Book of Revelation. In chapter 12 we find:

7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

So we know that this is an icon relating to the tales of the “end of the world” found in the Apocalypse. That is why, in the upper left hand, we find the altar, which is also called the “throne.” This image of the altar in the clouds is called in Greek the Hetimasia, in full, the “Preparation of the Throne.” What is it prepared for? The answer is judgment, the Last Judgment, the “Dreadful Judgment” as it is called in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Now let’s consider Michael himself. Why is his face red? Well, we have seen in previous articles that a red face in general indicates the presence of the fire of divinity. There is an icon of Mary with a red face, and there is also an icon of Jesus as “Holy Wisdom,” depicted as an angel with a red face. In Michael’s case, his red face is explained by the letters above his head in this example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In a modern Russian font they are:

С Д И С О П

They are obviously some kind of abbreviation, as we can tell from the little curved line of abbreviation found above each of the letters. And what they abbreviate is part of Hebrews 1:7:

(ТВОРЯИ АНГГЛЫ) СВОЯ ДУХИ И СЛУГИ СВОЯ ОГНЬ ПАЛЯЩЬ
Tvoryai angelui svoya dukhi i slugi svoya ogn’ palyashch’

Who makes his angels spirits and his servants a flame of fire

So Michael, as an angel serving God, is a fiery being. We have already seen this angels = fire equivalency in an icon type discussed earlier, the Angels of the Elements in the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary, which also has the same inscription from Hebrews 1:7.

What of the rainbow? It is taken from Revelation 10:1:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.

Why is a trumpet extending from Michael’s mouth? Well, there a several mentions in the apocalypse involving angels and trumpets. The iconography of this type adapts such images rather loosely.

ОТ ТРУБЫ ИЗЫДЕ ГЛАС ОБРАЗУЕ ПРИШЕСТВИЕ ВТОРОЕ ГОСПОДА НА ЗЕМЛЮ ГРОМУ И МОЛНИЮ
“From the trumpet came forth a voice signifying the second coming of the Lord — on earth thunder and lightning”

And what about the swinging censer? Its inscription is:
ИЗЫДЕ ОТ КАДИЛА БЛАГОУХАНИЕ ПО ВСЕ ВСЕЛЕНИЕ

“From the censer came forth a fragrance upon the whole world.

It alludes loosely to Revelation, chapter 8:

1. And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.

4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.

5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.

And by the Gospel Book is this:
ИЗЫДЕ СЛОВО БОЖИЕ ВО ВСЕЮ ВСЕЛЕНИУЮ

“The Word of God came forth into all the world [cosmos].”

That is a loose allusion to Revelation 14:6:

6 And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
7 Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

Looking at the Hetimasia in the upper left corner again, its inscription from Hebrews 1:8 is:
ПРЕСТОЛЪ ТВОИ БОЖЕ ВЪ ВЕКЪ ВЕКА
Prestol’ tvoi bozhe v’ vek’ veka

Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.

That comes from Hebrews 1:8:
Къ Сыну же: престолъ Твой Боже, въ вѣкъ вѣка: жезлъ правости, жезлъ Царствія Твоего.

“But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.”

By the abyss is this, from Psalm 9:6 (9:9 Slavic version- we see a variation on it at the base of the first icon shown above):

ВРАГУ ОСКУДЕША И ОРУЖИЕ ВКОНЕЦИ ГРАДЫ РАЗРУШИЛ ЕСИ ПОГИБЕ ПАМЯТЬ ЕГО С ШУМОМ
The swords of the enemy have failed utterly; and thou hast destroyed cities: their memorial has been destroyed with a noise.

The abyss in this icon type is filled with water (but not always). The city towers within it reflect two events: the Old Testament destruction by fire of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Michael, according to Eastern Orthodox tradition, was the chief commander, and also the destruction of Babylon in the Apocalypse, described in Revelation 18:21:

And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.

In this type we cannot expect precise correspondences between the imagery and biblical texts. Iconographers borrowed them quite loosely, and the mixing of these images has somewhat the surreal quality and lack of logic that one finds in dreams.

That, essentially, is what the icon of the Archangel Michael as heavenly warlord is: a kind of irrational, apocalyptic dream of destruction and the end of the world.

Finally, here is the type at its most basic.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The painter has used no inscriptions other than the title, which in this example is:
ОБРАЗ МИХАИЛА АРХАНГЕЛА — OBRAZ MIKHAILA ARKHANGELA –“IMAGE OF THE ARCHANGEL MICHAEL,” and over Christ the standard IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”

So, keeping in mind that individual examples have their own peculiarities, that is the general nature of the icon type of Michael as chief commander of the heavenly armies, or as I like to call it, “Terrible Michael and his Flying Red Horse.”