Though there is a lot of writing on it, there is no real title inscription. But we know from the printed example seen earlier that it is called
СОБОРЪ СВЯТЫХЪ СЕМИ АРХАНГЕЛОВЪ SOBOR SVYATUIKH SEMI ARKHANGELOV “[The] ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY SEVEN ARCHANGELS.”
At the very top is a circular image of the “New Testament Trinity,” with Jesus at left, God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) at right, and the Holy Spirit as a dove above.
The inscription beside it — taken from the “Symbol of Faith,” that is, the Nicene Creed — reads:
И возшедшаго на небеса, и седяща одесную Отца. I vozshedshago na nebesa, i sedyashcha odesnuiu Otsa.
“And [he] ascended to Heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.”
Seeing the rest of the writing on the icon, we might think it is a prayer or liturgical text, but when we begin to read it, we find it is primarily a description of each archangel and what he is holding. Let’s look at the inscription at upper left:
СВЯТЫЙ ЕГУДИИЛЪ В ДЕСНИЦЕ И СВЧТЫЙ УРИИЛЪ В ДЕСНИЦЕ ДЕРЖАМУЩЕ ВЕНЕЦ ЗЛАТЫ ВЪ ШУЙЩЪ МЕЧЬ ОБНАЖЕН
From past reading here, you should easily be able to translate
as “Holy Yegudiel” and “Holy Uriel” — the names of the two archangels at upper left. The text goes on to say that respectively, they are holding (ДЕРЖАМУЩЕ) in (В) the right hand (ДЕСНИЦЕ) a crown (ВЕНЕЦ) that is golden (ЗЛАТЫ), and in the left (ШУЙЩЪ/шуйце) a sword (МЕЧЬ) that is drawn/bare (ОБНАЖЕН).
And if we look at the image, we see that Yegudiel is in fact holding a golden crown, and Uriel next to him is holding a drawn sword:
The inscriptions are essentially descriptions of the archangels and their symbols much like those found in the Nastol’naya Kniga (настольная книга ) — the clerical handbook used by Russian Orthodox priests — though with a few additions. Let’s look at that *simpler version, but in an order fitting the arrangement of archangels on this particular icon:
Egudiil/Yegudiel is holding a golden crown in his right hand, and in the left a scourge of three red or black cords. Uriil/Uriel, in the raised right hand, a bare sword at chest level, in the lower left hand a flame of fire.
Selafiil/Selaphiel, in prayer, looks down, hands folded on his chest. Barakhiil/Barakhiel has on his cloth a lot of pink flowers.
Gavriil/Gabriel with a “Paradise branch” brought to him by the Blessed Virgin, or with a luminous lantern in his right hand and a mirror of jasper in the left.
Mikhail/Michael tramples the Devil with his feet, in his left hand holds a green date branch, and in his right a spear with a white banner (sometimes a flaming sword) on which a scarlet cross is inscribed.
Rafail/Raphael holds a vessel with healing medicines in the left hand, and his right leads Tobias, who carries the fish.
Now we can see that this icon does not always or accurately include every symbol mentioned in that text, but such variations are common.
You have perhaps guessed that this “Assembly of the Holy Seven Archangels” image is an alternate icon type for the Church festival celebrated as the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and Other Bodiless Powers (for the other type see: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/the-council-of-the-archangel-michael/). And you will recall that both the Greek Synaxis (Σύναξις)and the Slavic Sobor (Собор) mean “Assembly,” “Gathering.”
*For those interested, here is the original text in the Nastol’naya Kniga:
На иконах Архангелы изображаются в соответствии с родом их служения:
Михаил — попирает ногами диавола, в левой руке держит зеленую финиковую ветвь, в правой — копье с белой хоругвью (иногда пламенный меч), на которой начертан червленый крест. Гавриил — с райской ветвью, принесенной им Пресвятой Деве, или со светящимся фонарем в правой руке и зеркалом из ясписа—-
в левой. Рафаил — держит сосуд с целительными снадобьями в левой
руке, а правой ведет Товию, несущего рыбу.
9-Й ДЕНЬ 257
Уриил — в поднятой правой руке — обнаженный меч на уров- не груди, в опущенной левой руке — «пламень огненный».
Селафиил — в молитвенном положении, смотрящий вниз, руки сложены на груди.
Иегудиил — в деснице держит золотой венец, в шуйце — бич из трех красных (или черных) вервий.
Варахиил — на его одежде множество розовых цветов. Иеремиил — держит в руке весы.
In a previous posting, I touched briefly on the interesting icon type known as Sophia, Wisdom of God. Here is one rendering:
It depicts a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image. That angel is Sophia, Wisdom of God. It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom. The red color represents the fire of divinity. If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus. But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom. You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) on the other, is a variant of the “Deisis” type (the other two approaching figures are “Holy Apostle John the Theologian” at left and John Chrysostom at right). The starry bands at top represent heaven, in which sits “Lord Savaof” (Sabaoth), God the Father depicted as an old man. This rendering varies from the norm in that the painter has placed the seven pillars in the background, instead of depicting them as small uprights supporting the throne.
Here is another example of the type:
The title inscription on this example reads:
ОБРАЗ СОФИЯ ПРЕМУДРОСТИ СЛОВО БОЖИЯ — Obraz Sophia Premudrosti Slovo Bozhiya “[The] Image of Sophia, Wisdom Word of God”
Notice the seven pillars upon which the throne is placed. These represent the seven pillars upon which Wisdom built her house in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs (see below). Again, Christ is shown in his “angel” form as Wisdom, and shown again in his usual form in the circle just above. At the top is the Hetoimasia ( Ετοιμασίᾳ ) the “Preparation” — a Greek term used for the depiction of the altar as a symbol of the divine throne prepared for the second coming of Jesus.
This “enthroned angel” image of Sophia, Wisdom of God is known as the “Novgorod” type, because it first appeared in the northern trading city of Novgorod in the 15th century. It is also the most commonly-seen image of Sophia.
There is, however, another and rather more complex “Sophia, Wisdom of God” type, the so-called “Kiev” Sophia. It is a slightly variable type, but the description given here should take you far in understanding and recognizing it. It is noteworthy that the “Kiev” type is customarily painted in the Westerized manner that began to be adopted in Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century.
Here is the Sophia, Wisdom of God “Kievskaya”:
The “Kiev” type is noted for its groups of sevens, though some versions of the image skimp on these, using fewer elements. But here is what the full type generally comprises:
Like the “Novgorod” image, it has its basis in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs in the Septuagint version, which gives us the first “seven.”
The image depicts a circular temple, and around the base of its dome is written Proverbs 9:1 in Greek:
Η ΣΟΦΙΑ ΩΚΟΔΟΜΗΣΕΝ ΟΙΚΟΝ ΚΑΙ ΥΠΗΡΕΙΣΕΝ ΣΤΥΛΟΥΣ ΕΠΤΑ
Here it is in mixed case:
Η σοφια ωκοδομησεν εαυτη οικον και υπηρεισεν στυλους επτα (unaccented)
Η σοφία ᾠκοδόμησεν ἑαυτῇ οἶκον καὶ ὑπήρεισε στύλους ἑπτά (accented) He Sophia okodomesen heaute oikon kai hypereise stylous hepta (transliteration, old style)
It is also generally written around the dome base in its Church Slavic version:
ПРЕМУДРОСТЬ СОЗДА СЕБЕ ДОМЪ/ХРАМЪ И УТВЕРДИ СТОЛПОВЪ СЕДМЬ
Premudrost sozda sebe dom/khram i utverdi stolpov sedm
Both mean: Wisdom (Premudrost) has built (sozda) herself (sebe) a house (dom)/temple (khram) and (i) set up (utverdi) pillars (stolpov ) seven (sedm). Some texts use dom’ (ДОМЪ; house) while others use Khram’ (ХРАМЪ; temple).
At the top is Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) represented as a bearded old man, often with a triangular halo (a late adoption into Orthodox iconography) signifying the Trinity; He is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and his breath extends to the central image of Mary. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father, but in Roman Catholicism from the Father and the Son. This (the so-called Filioque (“…and from the Son”) was an issue of contention in the schism that finally separated the two segments of Christianity in the mutual cursings (anathemas) and excommunications the two divisions laid on one another in 1054.
A double scroll often beside God the Father may read:
АЗЪ УТВЕРДИВЪ СТОЛПЫ ЕЯ Az utverdiv stolpui eya
“I have set its pillars”
It is taken from Psalm 74:3 (75:3 in KJV numbering).
They are shown with their symbols, which may vary from icon to icon:
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a vessel of medicaments, Gabriel with a blossoming lily, Selaphiel with hands crossed in prayer, Yegudiel with a crown (in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers (roses) on a white cloth.
SEVEN SEVENFOLD SYMBOLS FROM THE APOCALYPSE:
Depicted on the seven pillars are noted items mentioned in sevens from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation); and depicted with accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, the latter coming from Isaiah 11:2-3:
“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God.”
In Church Slavic it reads (Russian font):
И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…
They usually are, from left to right:
1. A book with seven seals; (“The Gift of Wisdom”);
Revelation 5:5: “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.”
2. A seven-branched candlestick; (“The Gift of Understanding”);
Revelation 1:12: “And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks…”
3. Seven eyes; (“The Gift of Counsel”);
Revelation 5:6: “...and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”
4. Seven trumpets; (“The Gift of Strength”);
Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.”
5. A hand with seven stars (“The Gift of Knowledge”);
Revelation 1:16: “And he had in his right hand seven stars…”
6. Seven golden vials; (“The Gift of Piety/Godliness”)
Revelation 15:7: “And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.”
7. Seven thunders; (The Gift of the Fear of God”).
Revelation 10:3; “…and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.”
In the center of the temple Mary stands on a crescent moon; twelve stars are in her halo, representing both the twelve apostles (New Testament) and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Old Testament); the image is taken from Revelation 12:1:
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…”
Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and her arms are outstretched in the ancient posture of prayer. It is the importance given to Mary in this image, as well as its usual classification among Marian icons, that has led to some confusion. Some mistake Mary for Wisdom, when traditionally Jesus, who is visually only a small part of this image, is Wisdom. In Roman Catholicism, Mary was looked on as being Wisdom, but this view was not the traditional view of Eastern Orthodoxy; however Catholicism — particularly from the latter part of the 17th century and in some respects even earlier — had an influence on Orthodox iconography, and Kiev was subject to that influence.
SEVEN OLD TESTAMENT PERSONS:
At Mary’s sides are seven Old Testament figures: Moses with the tablets of the Law, Aaron the first priest with a blossoming rod, King David with the Ark of the Covenant, the Prophet Isaiah with a scroll showing the text of Isaiah 7:14, beginning “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son…” (Се Дева во чреве приимет и родит Сына – Se Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit Suina), the Prophet Jeremiah with a rod, the Prophet Ezekiel with closed doors, and the Prophet Daniel with the stone not cut by hands.
It is noteworthy that these figures are connected with what are considered in Eastern Orthodoxy prefigurations of Mary:
Moses, who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed, used as a prefiguration of Mary holding Jesus within her womb. But here he holds the tablets of the Law, and a scroll that says of Mary, Радуйся, скрижале Божия, на ней же перстом Отчим написася слово Божие — Raduisya, skrizhale Bozhiya, na nei zhe perstom Otchim napisasya slovo Bozhie — “Rejoice, Tablets of God, on which the finger of the father has written the Word of God.” Thus the Law tablets become the prefiguration of Mary as the “tablets” on which Jesus was written, i.e. was incarnated in Christian belief.
Aaron with his blossoming rod: Numbers 17:8: “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” This prefigures Mary giving birth to Jesus.
King David with the Ark of the Covenant: Mary is considered the Ark of the New Testament Covenant, containing Jesus as the Ark of the Old Testament contained the Law — the Old Covenant.
Isaiah 7:14 in Christian tradition is applied to the birth of Jesus from a virgin (though the Hebrew text of Isaiah merely says “young woman” and has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus).
Jeremiah with his rod of almond tree: Jeremiah 1:11: “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree.” This relates to the rod of Aaron.
Ezekiel with closed doors: Ezekiel 44:2: “Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” That is a symbol of the virgin birth and of Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine held by both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics).
Daniel with the uncut stone: Daniel 2:34 “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.” (Again, a symbol of virginity).
There are seven steps leading to the temple (which represents the Church, as well as Mary as the “house” of Jesus) — СЕДМИЮ ВОЗХОДОВЪ ВОЗХОЖДЕНИЕ ЕЯ — “The Seven Steps of Her Ascent.” From bottom to top they are:
Ezekiel, chapter 40:6, speaking of the Temple area, reads in the Septuagint version, “And he entered by seven steps into the gate that looks eastward…”; seven steps are mentioned again in 40:22 and 40:26.
As I wrote earlier, if one wishes to understand icons, one must learn to read them — at least the basic and most common inscriptions. This must seem a tremendous task to the beginner, but that is a serious misconception. Learning to read common icon inscriptions is actually very easy precisely because they are so common. That means they are also very repetitive, so a little study gives great rewards far out of proportion to the little effort involved.
There are essentially two languages used in most icon inscriptions one is likely to encounter: First, Church Slavic on Russian icons; second, Greek on Greek icons.
Church Slavic traditionally holds the place in the Russian Orthodoxy that Latin formerly held in Roman Catholicism: it is a language used in “Church” matters, but not the same language people speak in their everyday lives. So in traditional Russian Orthodoxy, Church Slavic is the language used both in the rites of the Russian Church and in inscribing icons. It is important to note that it is neither what is called Old Slavonic, nor is it modern Russian, but rather something between the two. A modern Russian can understand it only with some difficulty, which is why many Russians have trouble reading a Bible written in Church Slavic, but no trouble reading one written in modern Russian.
The Greek language traditionally used in inscribing Greek icons is an old form like that of the New Testament manuscripts. Modern Greek is somewhat different, but not so different that a speaker of modern Greek cannot read — again with some difficulty — the old Greek text of the New Testament.
So for the sake of simplicity, we can say that the language of Russian icons is Church Slavic, and the language of Greek icons is old Greek. I have deliberately been a bit vague about what “old Greek” is, because Greek went through several stages of transformation from ancient Classical Greek to modern Greek as spoken by people in their daily lives.
I will not include everything one needs to know about inscriptions in this posting, but I hope to expand on what is included here over time, in further postings.
First I want to discuss Russian icons. I do this because Russian icons are those one is most likely to encounter, given that they were painted in such huge numbers. And also I must admit to a certain favoritism, regarding Russian icon painting as the real flowering of the icon painting tradition.
So let’s begin by looking a a Russian icon:
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
Though the inscriptions on this icon are not clear enough to be easily read in the photo, we can nonetheless use this as an example for learning about icon inscriptions, which on this image are written in red.
First, note that there is an inscription at the very top, in the center of the border area. The border — at either top or bottom — is the usual place for the title of the icon as a whole, or the title of the main image on an icon. In this case it is Tsar Tsarem —The King of Kings. That is a title applied to Christ in icons showing him crowned and seated on a throne as Tsar — as Emperor or “King.” The Russian and Church Slavic title “Tsar,” by the way, comes from the Latin word Caesar.
That takes care of the overall icon title. But if we look at the figures below, we see (though faintly in this photo) that each has a title above his or her head. In the case of the female figure on the left, which is Mary, the title is usually МР θУ, M R TH U, which abbreviates Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God” in Greek. Interestingly, this Greek title is customary on Russian icons of Mary, favored over the Russian translation Bogomater. So it is one of the exceptions to the general rule that Russian icons are inscribed in Church Slavic. But the figure on the right is John the Forerunner — usually with that title, Svatuiy Ioann Predtecha, written over his head. The two angels are the Svayatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail (the Holy Archangel Michael) and the Svyatuiy Arkhangel Gavriil (the Holy Archangel Gabriel). You will recall that Svyatuiy is the standard title for a saint. It means literally “Holy.”
So now we have covered the two basic kinds of general icon inscriptions — the overall title of the icon, and the individual names of the saints depicted. Often, however, we will see additional inscriptions. On some, it may be writing on a scroll held by a saint. On others, as in this example, it will be something else. In this case it is on the two discs held by the two angels. The one on the left reads ΙС; the one on the right reads ХС; together — I S KH S –They abbreviate Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ,” which abbreviation is often written the same in both old Greek and in Church Slavic. On State Church icons of the middle of the 17th century onward, one will find this abbreviation given as IHC XC — IIS KHS — adding an additional letter to “Jesus” as part of the change in the Russian liturgical books essentially forced on the Russian Church by the Patriarch Nikon, its head at that time. Nikon’s “reforms” led to the separation of the Old Believers, who kept to the old forms and rites and detested such changes. It is important to note that the Old Believers were terribly persecuted by the State Church — the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, by means of the Russian State, which acted as its punishing arm. Many of them died rather than give up what they considered to be the true faith and practice handed down to them by their forefathers.
But getting back to the matter of inscriptions, we have now covered all of them present in this icon, and we have seen the general pattern followed by inscriptions on Russian icons — the overall title, the secondary names of the saints pictured, and the tertiary additional inscriptions.
To complete the picture, I should tell you that Christ in this icon is robed like a bishop, wearing the traditional stole with crosses around his neck. Images with Christ enthroned in the center with Mary on the left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) on the right are usually called a Deisis, meaning “Beseeching” in Greek. The Deisis depicts Mary and John interceding on behalf of humans with Christ, imploring (fervently asking) him to be merciful. Russians pronounced it “Deisus.”
However, note that in this example Mary wears a crown, which is absent in the standard Deisis. That is why this particular form is often called “The Queen Stood at Your Right” (Predsta Tsaritsa Odesnuyu Tebe). That is an Old Testament excerpt from Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Church Slavic Bible): “Upon your right the Queen did Stand in Gold of Ophir.” Sometimes in this “Queen” variant, both the crowned Mary and John the Forerunner are shown winged, like angels. Also noteworthy is that in some versions Jesus wears a bishop’s crown (mitre) rather than the crown of an emperor or tsar.
Now we have covered almost everything, but should also note that Jesus holds a long sceptre and the book of the Gospels, which in this example is closed. And finally, in the three bars of the cross that almost always are visible in the halo of Jesus in Russian icons, we see the letters O ΩΝ (Ho On with the “o” pronounced like the o in “lo,” but written on most Russian icons in a Slavicized form, as in this photo, instead of the modern Greek form). It means “The One (Ho) Who Is (On),” the name of God revealed to Moses in the Old Testament, translated in the King James version as “I Am That I Am.” That is to indicate that, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox belief, Christ is also God.
I will also caution you that in addition to these two main languages for icon inscriptions, one may also find occasional additional inscriptions — generally added notes rather than main inscriptions — written in “modern” Russian on Russian icons, and additional inscriptions in more modern Greek on Greek icons. In the case of Russian icons such inscriptions often say when and for whom an icon was painted, or why it might have been given as a donation, or perhaps indicating some other event commemorated.
If you are a beginning student of the art of icons, do not forget to learn the Cyrillic alphabet so that you may decipher the originals of these inscriptions on Russian icons. And you will also need to know the Greek alphabet for Greek icons. There are little variations in the manner in which both Cyrillic and Greek letters are written on icons, and I will try to deal with those in future articles. And also in future articles, I will devote more time to Greek icons and how to read them.
I do not want to end this posting without mentioning that among the icons produced by other countries in which Eastern Orthodoxy is found, there are the icons of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The old examples may have inscriptions in Cyrillic script, but more recent Romanian icons are generally inscribed in Roman letters (Romanian is predominantly a “Latin” language with Slavic influence, in contrast with Russian, which is Slavic). Perhaps I will have more to say about Romanian icons in articles to come. They are seldom seen outside of Romania in comparison to Russian icons, and when they are seen it is often in the “folk” form, which was as reverse paintings on glass, set into in a wooden frame.