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.

ANOTHER “WOUNDED” ICON: THE ANDRONIKOV IMAGE

There are some Marian icons that one recognizes easily and immediately (if one is generally familiar with Marian icons), and one of these is the “Andronikov” icon — Андрониковская — Andronikovskaya, also called the  Греческая- Андроникова — Grecheskaya-Andronikova — the “‘Greek’-Andronikov” image.

Here is a typical example, which though lithographed, is nonetheless an old presentation icon from about 1900, set into a silver and also velvet frame.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Russian examples of this icon commonly date from the latter 19th-early 20th century.  It is recognized easily by the distinctive crown worn by Mary, and by the slight inclination of her head to the right.

At the bottom of the image was a knife case containing a bone-handled steel knife, said to have been used by a Turk in attacking the image, causing a cut on the neck which bled; the wound is visible in copies of the image.  This notion of an icon bleeding when cut is one of the standard old motifs we encounter in these often fanciful origin stories, which again reflects how icons were traditionally regarded in pre-modern thinking — as persons that could move about on their own volition and even bleed.

It is said that the original icon (yes, it is another of those wishfully but falsely attributed to the hand of St. Luke) was a family icon of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1297-1341).  He is said to have given it to a monastery on the peninsula of Monemvasia, which was in the southern Greek region then called Morea, but more classically known as the Peleponnese.

In 1821 when the Ottoman Turks attacked Greece, the head of the monastery fled with the icon to the city of Patras.  He bequeathed the icon to a relative who happened to be the Russian Consul General, N. I Vlassopoulos.  The Consul General’s son, A. N. Vlassopoulos, sent the icon in 1839 to Odessa and on to the Emperor of Russia, Nikolai Pavlovich (Nicholas I, ruled 1825-1855). For almost thirty years it was in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, then several years in the Trinity Cathedral, and in 1877 it was taken to the Kazan Convent near the town of Vuishny Volochok, in Tver Province.  There it was placed in a special kiot (icon case) in the monastery church.  A special gathering of pilgrims used to be held before it three times a year.

In 1984 the Andronikov icon was stolen, and its whereabouts remain unknown.

The Greek inscription on the image begins Η ΚΥΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΝΔΡΟΝΙΚΟΥ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΟΡΟΣ  — He Kyria tou andronikou autokratoros …  “The Lady of Andronikos, Autocrat…,” referring to Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos, the donor to the Monemvasia monastery (the icon is sometimes also known as the “Monemvasia” icon). Αυτοκρατορος — Autokratoros — “autocrat” was the title used by Byzantine emperors, somewhat the equivalent of the Latin Imperator — “Emperor.”

WHEN DID CHRISTIAN ICONS BEGIN?

This icon type is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It celebrates the victory in the 8th century of those (the Iconophiles) who advocated the making and veneration of Christian icons over those who did not (the Iconoclasts). Historically speaking, however the icon represents the popular adage that it is the winners who write history. Today I would like to take a quick look at the history of Christian art as it relates to icons. But first, let’s take a look at the icon itself. This example is from the 14th century:

The central part of the image is a depiction of the Hodegitria icon supported by two angels, depicting Mary as “Shower of the Way,” which was considered a very important icon in Byzantium and another of those icons said (mistakenly) to have been painted by St. Luke.

The crowned figures at left are the Byzantine iconophile Empress Theodora and her son Michael III, as well as various iconophile saints. Not all the saint titles are clear in this image, but later examples of the type usually include such figures as Methodius the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Bishop of Synnada, Tarasius Bishop of Constantinople, St. Theodosia, Venerable Ioannikos, Theodore Studite, Theodore Graptus, and Stephen the New.

The embroidered ornamental cloth hanging just below the icon is called a podea (ποδέα) in Greek, and in Russian a pelena (пелена).

Now to the history of the development of the icon out of the Christian image.

Here is a rough and quick chronology of the appearance and development of Christian art:

Contrary to traditional Eastern Orthodox belief, icons do not go back to the earliest days of the Church.  They were a later and gradual development only officially adopted centuries after the first Christians.  In examining this history, we must distinguish between images (art) and icons (venerated images).

3rd century (200s): The first recognizably Christian art appears in motifs borrowed from common non-Christian art and appropriated for Christian use, as well as in simple depictions of some Old and New Testament subjects.

Examples are found on oil lamps, in Roman burial catacombs, and in the house church at Dura Europos in Syria. Depictions of persons use generic features common to Roman art of that period.

4th century (300s): In 313 Christianity is legalized in the Roman Empire by Constantine and Licinius through the Edict of Milan. Elaborate churches are built under imperial patronage. The first individualizing portrait images of Jesus, Mary, and other saints and martyrs appear and art becomes gradually more sophisticated and elaborate.

Basil of Caesarea, in speaking of images of the Emperor, says that the honor given an imperial image passes to its prototype (the Emperor). With the veneration of the Christian martyrs in the catacombs, the cult of relics begins as healing and intercessory powers are attributed to body parts of dead saints and items that had contact with their bodies. Relics spread throughout the empire, often placed in elaborate containers (reliquaries).
From 381-395 Theodosius begins and extends a ban on traditional non-Christian religious practices in public, closes and destroys “pagan” temples, and extinguishes many non-Christian traditional practices to eliminate “paganism” in favor of Christianity. In this century the halo, adopted from non-Christian use, first appears in Christian art, as do wings on angels, another adoption from non-Christian art. The cross in simple form appears, gradually replacing the chi-rho monogram as the century proceeds.

5th century (400s): The crucifixion first appears in Christian art near the beginning of the century.

6th century (500s) Relic images — three of the so-called Not made by hands” images of Jesus — first come to prominence as having apotropaic (averting harm) and palladium (city protector) functions.  It is in the 6th century that religious images first are found in church use, though generally still not permitted.

7th century (600s): Ex voto painted (etc.) images of saints are created in thanks for answered prayers.

The notion of the icon as conduit from believer to saint develops by the latter part of the century as images are absorbed into the healing/intercessory functions of the existing cult of relics, thus becoming “icons.”

8th century: The veneration and understanding of icons — the theology of icons — is first codified in Eastern Orthodoxy. The earlier “honor to the prototype” concept of Basil regarding images of the emperor is now applied to icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints by John of Damascus and others. The Iconoclasts openly oppose the making and veneration of icons, rightly viewing image veneration as an innovation counter to the traditions of the church. The Iconoclasts are victorious for a time, having Imperial support, but with reign change that victory vanishes, and the views of the Iconophiles ultimately prevail.

So that is the evolution of the icon made brief.

This does not mean there were absolutely no images honored as Christian religious figures before the 6th century, but it does mean that this is the “mainstream” course of development. We have evidence of Christian images being treated in icon-like fashion first on the outer fringes of Christianity where it blended into “paganism,” such as the image of Christ said to have been kept in syncretistic fashion by Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 AD)) together with other images of Orpheus, Appollonius of Tyana, and Abraham; We also have in the Apocryphal Acts of John (dating uncertain, usually in the 150-250 range) a condemnation of the creation such images and the honoring of them with lights and decorations. Where there is condemnation there is use to some extent, but to repeat, this use is first documented in the fringe realm between “paganism” and Christianity.

What all of this means for practical purposes is that the icon as it was regarded in the Eastern Orthodox Church from the 8th century onwards did not really exist openly as such in the mainstream church until the latter part of the 600s, and its theology was not codified until the 700s, when those who refused to venerate icons were cursed (anathematized) in the official declarations of the Church. Thus the practice of icon making and veneration preceded the “official” doctrine made to justify the practice.

This chronology, incidentally, is not intended to determine whether the making and veneration of icons is “right” or “wrong,” from any ethical perspective, because art history only deals with what was and is, and does not involve itself in such judgments. It is obvious, however, that from the perspective of Christian traditional usage, icons were a late innovation in the mainstream church, as the Iconoclasts declared.

Art historians consider the first Christian art just an aspect of Roman art of the time, and the elaboration of Christian art under Emperor Constantine a continuation in Christian dress of more classical aspects of Roman art. My own view is that the making and veneration of painted religious images practiced in pre-Christian Roman society never really died out with the victory of Christianity, but continued on the fringes and in private; after the Edict of Milan and the condemnation of public “pagan” religious practice under Theodosius, the making and veneration of images gradually filtered into the mainstream church through the vast numbers of new “pagan” converts, though keeping largely in the shadows and not finding full and official acceptance until after the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century.