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

(Vatican Museums)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above the body is this inscription:

It reads:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα

It is a shortened version of this:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




This icon from Palekh — painted at the end of the 1700s-beginning of the 1800s — depicts one of the traditional appearances of the Arkhangel Mikhail/Archangel Michael.  We can tell which one it is not only from the form of the image — which shows an angel with sword drawn, standing before a kneeling man in armor and helmet — but also from the inscriptions.  The image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — God the Father in the clouds at upper left, is of course not present in all icons of the type.

The inscription by the angel reads: СВЯТЫЙ АРХИСТРАТИГЪ МИХАИЛЬ — Svyatuiy Arkhistratig Mikhail — “Holy Arkhistrategos Mikhail/Michael.”  Arkhistrategos (ἀρχιστράτηγος) is the Greek word — borrowed into Slavic — for “Chief Commander.”  It is given to Michael because he is considered the commander of the heavenly armies of angels.

The inscription by the kneeling soldier is:  СВЯТЫЙ ИСУСЪ НАВИНЪ — Svyatuiy Isus Navin — “Holy Jesus/Joshua [of] Nun.”  In Greek, the names Joshua and Jesus are the same, so this Isus Navin is the Old Testament Joshua, son of Nun — or in Greek, Ιησούς του Ναυή  — Iesous tou Naue.  Notice that the Palekh icon uses the Old Believer spelling for Jesus:  Isus, not the State Church spelling Iisus.

There is a long inscription at the base of the icon.  It is (with slight variation) the text of the Old Testament account (Joshua 5:13-15) describing the event depicted:

Иисусъ воззрев очима своима, виде человека стояща пред ним, и мечь его обнажен в руце его.  И рече ему Иисусъ, наш ли еси, или от сопостат наших? Он же рече ему: аз архистратиг силы Господни, ныне приидох семо. И Иисусъ паде лицем своим на землю и поклонися ему, и рече: господи, что повелеваеши твоему рабу? И рече архистратиг Господень: иззуй сапог с ногу твоею: место свято есть.

“Jesus/Joshua lifting his eyes, saw a man standing before him, and his sword drawn in his hand.  And Joshua said to him, are you for us or from our enemies?  He however said to him:  I am the Commander of the Powers [armies] of the Lord, now come here.  And Joshua fell on his face on the earth and did obeisance to him, and said, Lord, what do you command your servant?  And the Angel of the Lord said:  Take off the shoes from your feet; this place is holy.”

It is an easily recognizable image, no matter the style in which it is depicted.  Here is a Greek manuscript illustration of the same event:

Here is another icon —  an 18th century Yaroslavl example:

The little figure in the clouds at top Jesus as Immanuel.  The central main figure is the Archangel Mikhail/Michael, with Isus Navin/Joshua son of Nun kneeling beside him.  At upper left is the “Assembly” [Sobor] of the Archangel Michael.  At center right is the carrying of the Ark of the Covenant around the falling walls of Jericho, along with trumpeters.  This episode is associated with Michael through Joshua 5:13-14, etc.:

And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went to him, and said to him, Are you for us, or for our adversaries?

And he said, No; but as captain of the army of the Lord I am now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and worshiped, and said to him, What says my Lord to his servant?”

Though not named, the “captain of the army of the Lord” mentioned here is identified as the Archangel Michael in Eastern Orthodoxy.  This event is followed by the ordering of the Israelites to march around the walls of Jericho with the Ark and trumpets, and the falling of the walls when the trumpets were blown and the Israelites all shouted on the seventh day.

At lower right is another scene associated with the Archangel Michael — “The Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae.”  For a description of that, as well as of the “Assembly of the Archangel Michael,” see the site archives.



At the entrance to old Japanese Buddhist temples, there were often two guardian deities.  Here is a pair dating from the Kamakura Period (13th-early 14th century):

I always think of such guardian deities when I see the two angels painted at the entrance to Orthodox Churches in Slavic countries.  These are the “Ангелы Господни, записывающие имена входящих в храм” — the “Angels of the Lord, Recording the Names of Those Entering the Church.”

When both are found (sometimes there is only one), the angel on the left (in Slavic countries) of the entry is the Archangel Michael (Mikhail), as seen here in the Church of Simeon the God-receiver at the Zverin Monastery of Novgorod.:

He threateningly holds a sword in his right hand, and a scroll in his left.

In the Greek Painter’s Manual (Hermineia) of Dionysios of Fourna, we find this:

Inside the door of the temple, on the right, the Archangel Michael; He holds a sword and a scroll with these words:  ‘I am a soldier of God, and armed with a sword. Those who enter here with fear, I defend them, I guard them, I protect them and I observe them; But those who enter with an unclean heart, I strike them mercilessly with this sword.

Sometimes in Slavic Churches, Michael’s scroll reads:

Простираю меч мой на приходящих в чистый дом Божий с нечистыми сердцами.
“I extend my sword to those who enter the pure house of God with impure hearts.”
Again, in Slavic Churches, Gabriel (Gavriil) is commonly on the right side of the entrance, though Dionysios of Fourna writes:
On the left, Gabriel holds a scroll, and writes these words with a reed: ‘I write with this reed the internal disposition of those who enter here; I take good care of the good, but I cause the bad to perish promptly.'”
Here are much more recent versions of the two Archangels, as seen in the Church of St. Kirill in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Michael at left:
And Gabriel at right:
As mentioned earlier, some churches have only a single recording angel, who is sometimes simply known as the Ангел храма — Angel Khrama — “Angel of the Church.”  It is believed that this angel becomes the protector of a church when it is consecrated, and remains on duty there until the Second Coming.  Such an angel may be depicted as standing or sitting, recording on his scroll the names of those entering the church, so that he may give his report on them at the Last Judgment.
Now obviously there is a relationship here to the standard image of the Guardian Angel in icons, who follows each person through life, recording his deeds.  Sometimes the iconography of the two becomes mixed, particularly when the angel writing on a scroll is simply called Ангел со свитком/Angel so svitkom — “The Angel with a Scroll.”
An icon from the Blagovyeshchenie (Annunciation) Monastery in Murom shows an “Angel with a Scroll,” and the  title inscription identifies it as the angel seen in the vision of “Holy Father Ammon,”  who saw “the Angel of the Lord Sitting and Writing Names of Those Entering the Church of God.”
(Murom History and Art Museum)
This relates to the old tale that the Egyptian monk-priest Ammon was given the ability to see spiritual things.  Once during the Eucharist, he saw an angel near the altar who was writing down the names of those present, and crossing out the names of the absent monks.


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:


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:


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:



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.


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 finds 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.”

Here is a Russian icon of the subject from the Vologda region:

(Vologda Museum)

In this depiction, quite a number of the diggers are washed down the flood.

The inscription at the top reads:


— and then the rest of the inscription is damaged.

An inscription at the bottom has a date and signature:


The date — as you will know if you read my previous article on icon dates — is 1710.  Then we are told “Painted by the icon painter Ivan Grigorev, son of Markov.”

Here is a fresco of the type from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos:

The title inscription reads: