From past posting here, you are already familiar with the standard Deisis icon type depicting Jesus enthroned in the center, with Mary approaching him on the left and John the Forerunner on the right — showing the heavenly court. And of course there is the variant in which Mary is robed like a Queen, commonly called Predsta Tsaritsa odesnuyu Tebe — The “Queen Stands at your Right,” after Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Slavic Bible) There is also the extended Deisis, which adds more saints to the basic form. And you will perhaps recall the “Savior with Bystanders” Deisis that is sometimes called “The Week,” (though it is not the usual type by that name).
There is also the “Trinity” Deisis. In this variant, the central figure of Jesus is replaced by the “New Testament Trinity” image — Jesus seated at left, God the Father as an old man at right, and the Holy Spirit as a dove between them.
Here, however, is an example of a less common Trinity variant in which the “New Testament Trinity” is replaced by the Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” (or “Paternity”) image — showing God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) as an old man seated on a throne, with Christ Immanuel (Jesus in child or youth form) seated on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove before the Father’s chest.
God the Father holds the orb of authority, and has the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) as his halo, signifying the Eighth Day — the Day of Eternity. We see Mary in royal robes at left, and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) also crowned, standing at right. Beside Mary is the Archangel Michael, and the Archangel Gabriel stands by John. The two little monks at the foot of the throne are commonly the founders of the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea in northern Russia, Zosim (Zosima) at left, and Savvatiy (Sabbatius) at right. You may recall that they are also the patrons of beekeeping.
Let’s take a look at the title inscription (slightly enhanced):
Words are abbreviated, but with missing letters added, it reads (in modern font):
ОБРАЗ ПРЕСВЯАТЫЯ ТРОИЦА ОЦА И СЫНА И СВЯТАГО ДУХА OBRAZ PRESVYATUIYA TROITSA OTSA I SUINA I SVYATAGO DUKHA
“[The] Image of the Most Holy Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
If you add this knowledge to what you have learned from previous “Deisis” postings on this site, you should now have a very good grasp of the basic type and its variations.
Here is a Marian icon, still with its discolored varnish:
I hope you recognize it as the left panel from a three-panel Deisis set of icons. As you will recall, the central icon in such a set is the image of the “Lord Almighty,” and the right panel is John the Forerunner, or John the Baptist as he is called in the West.
The image shows Mary approaching Jesus, acting as go-between in praying for the world (and in the mind of the believer, approaching Jesus with the prayers of the person praying before the icon).
We should take a look at her scroll in this type, because it has a common inscription that you should add to your repertoire of standard texts. It reads (put into modern Cyrillic):
Владыко Многомилостиве, Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне и Боже Мой, Vladuiko Mnogomilostive, Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine I Bozhe Moi, “Master -most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, Son and God of-me, приклони ко Мне ухо Твое, ибо аз молю за мир. prikloni ko Mne ykho Tvoe, ibo az moliu za mir. bend to me ear of-you, for I pray for [the] world.”
In normal English,
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, My Son and my God, incline your ear to me, for I pray for the world.”
You can see that several words are abbreviated in the icon text, as is common. This “left panel” type of Mary is of course just a smaller form of her image in the more detailed Desis icon found in a church iconostasis (the big icon screen separating congregation from altar in Russian Orthodox Churches). But this type is also very closely related to the image of Mary in the type known as the Bogoliubskaya: There are several Bogoliubskaya variants, depending on figures added to the right of Mary. In the example shown here, there are several saints associated with Moscow, such as the four Metropolitans of Moscow Petr (Peter), Alexiy, Iona (Jonah), and Filipp (Philip) as well as the Holy Fool Alexiy, Man of God.
Added at the top are the two popular saints and patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus) The “Moscow” saints give this Bogoliubskaya variant the secondary name “Moskovskaya” — “Of Moscow.” So this is the “Moscow” variant of the Bogoliubskaya type. But look at Mary’s scroll. It begins exactly the same as the Marian “left panel” icon, only in this example it is shortened for reasons of space, and every word except mnogolostivе is abbreviated:
Владыко Многомилостивый, Господи Иисусе Христ[е]…
“Master most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ….
If we look at the right panel from this Deisis set, we find it is the standard type of John the Forerunner:
John is holding a scroll with one of the two most common texts used not only in this right-panel type but also in icons of John in general. It is:
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”
The other common text for John is “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
As you see, John is pointing at the child Jesus lying in the liturgical vessel, representing the “Lamb” — the piece of bread considered to be the “body of Christ” in the Eastern Orthodox Eucharist.
Finally, let’s take a look at the central Deisis panel, which is the “Lord Almighty,” Jesus seen as ruler in the heavenly court:
Now we might expect the text on his book to be the most common “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):
Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́ Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui
Obviously, however, this example does not have that most frequent text. It cannot be, because the text on this icon is prefaced with the words
Речé Госпóдь свои́мъ ученикóмъ … Reche Gospod’ svoim” ychenikom” …
Spoke [the] Lord [to] of-him disciples…
“The Lord said to his disciples…”
And then it quotes the text of Matthew 11:27:
Вся́ мнѣ́ преданá сýть Отцéмъ мои́мъ: и никтóж[е знáетъ Сы́на, тóкмо Отéцъ]…. Vsya mnye predana sut’ Otsem” moim” : i niktozh [e znaet” Suina, tokmo Otets”…]
All [to] me handed-over is [by] Father of-me: and no one [ knows the Son but the Father…] “All things have been committed to me by my Father: and no one [knows the Son except the Father…]
So this particular icon of the “Lord Almighty” uses the verse just preceding the most common text used on the Russian type.
As an added note, a reader asked me why Russian icons, as in this example, put a little T above the letter that in a Greek icon would be the standard letter omega (ω) in the customary Ho On (ὁ ὢν = “The One Who Is”) inscription on “Jesus” icons.
The Russians have come up with all sorts of fanciful explanations for this, saying the three letters abbreviate this or that Church Slavic phrase. Some priests even tell children that the T is the “cross atop the crown of Christ” — the omega roughly forming the “crown.” But the real answer is apparently that a few centuries ago, Russian iconographers did not commonly understand Greek, so when they saw the accented omega in ὢν on a correctly inscribed icon, they just replaced it (apparently beginning in the early 1400s) with the Slavic letter that had a little T mark above it, which happens to be the abbreviation for the word ot (“from”) in Church Slavic:
And the miswriting was perpetuated in countless copies. From the ordinary Russian point of view, if that was the way it was passed down, that was the way it should be. A fundamentalist Protestant likes to respond to religious questions with “It’s in the Bible.” A traditional Russian Orthodox believer would respond, “That’s the way our fathers handed it down to us.”
You might not yet have noticed another little difference between the inscriptions on the Greek Pantokrator halo and the Russian Gospod’ Vsederzhitel (“Lord Almighty”) halo. While the three letters in the three bars of the cross are read from left to top to right in Greek icons, in Russian icons they are generally moved so that the O is at the top, the OT is at left, and the N is at right.
Now you have an easy, rule-of-thumb way of distinguishing Russian icons of Jesus from Greek. But of course the text in the open book is another obvious tip-off.
Today we will take another quick look at how to approach interpreting an icon. For that exercise, we will use this image:
The first step is of course to look at the whole icon, noticing what looks familiar and what does not. If you have been reading all the postings here, about two-thirds of this icon will already be familiar.
The second step is to look at and translate the inscriptions. That too should present no great difficulty if you have been reading this site.
Let’s begin with the top three images. You should already know that the image of Jesus in the center, with Mary at left and John the Forerunner (the “Baptist”) at right comprises a grouping known as the Deisis (from the Greek for “beseeching); the Russian term is just a variant of that, Deisus. The Deisis represents Jesus enthroned like an emperor in his heavenly court, with petitioners approaching at left and right to ask favors of him — in this case favors on behalf of humanity.
Now for the top inscriptions:
At left is the usual four-letter Greek abbreviation MP ΘΥ for Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God,” the standard identifying inscription for Mary in both Russian and Greek icons. You will notice that it is right above the image of Mary.
Next is the inscription over Jesus. it reads ГДЬ ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ. By now, you should recognize the first three letters as abbreviating the Church Slavic word GOSPOD’, meaning “Lord.” ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ — VSEDERZHITEL’ — means “Almighty,” the equivalent of the Greek Pantokrator. So we can translate this as “The Lord Almighy,” which is the standard title for icons of Jesus seen as he is here, blessing with one hand and holding the Gospels in the other.
The inscription at upper right reads: СТ ИОАНН ПРЕ. CT abbreviates SVYATUIY, meaning “Holy/Saint.” IOANN is “John.” And ПРЕ abbreviates PREDTECHA, meaning someone who goes before, a “forerunner.” So this is “Holy John the Forerunner.”
At lower left is СТ КОЗМА БЕЗСРЕБР and at right СТ ДОМИАНЪ БЕЗРЕ. I mention them together because, if you have been reading recent postings, you will know they generally belong together. The inscription at left, in full, is Svyatuiy Kozma Bezsrebrenik, and that at right is Svyatuiy Domian Bezsrebrenik. Bezsrebrenik, I hope you recall, means “without silver,” usually translated loosely into English as “unmercenary.” So these two are the pair of physician saints Kosma and Domian, Cosmas and Damian.
That leaves only the lower central image, which is quite interesting. The letters above the saint’s head are quite small, but they read НИКИТА ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК — Nikita Velikomuchenik. Usually the second word precedes the name, but in this icon it follows. Nikita is the saint’s given name, and Velikomuchenik means “Great (veliko-) Martyr (muchenik). So this is the Great Martyr Nikita.
The strange, greyish figure to his left has no halo, so we know he is not a saint. But what is he? Well, such figures with tail, long beard, and hair swept upward are the Russian way of depicting a devil. Often they are painted darker than here. And though it is rather difficult to see in this image, Nikita is holding a chain in his right hand as he grasps the devil’s beard with his left.
What does it mean? To know that, we have to know both the “official” story of Nikita (called Nicetas in the West) and the folk story.
It is said that Nikita was born into a wealthy family of the Gothic people who lived near the Danube River in the 4th century, in what is now Romania. He was baptized by Bishop Theophilus, said to have been a participant in the First Ecumenical Council. An intertribal war broke out, and Nikita became a soldier on the Christian side, that of the leader Fritigern. Their opponent was the leader Athanaric.
Fritigern’s forces defeated Athanaric, and Christianity was further spread among the Goths by Wulfila (Ulfilas), an Arian bishop who created a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible into Gothic, an early Germanic language. Nikita also worked to spread Christianity and convert others to that belief. Given that both Wulfila and Fritigern were Arian Christians (not believing Jesus to be equal to God the Father) who did not accept the Nicene Creed, it appears that Nikita was also an Arian Christian, though of course that was downplayed when his cult was adopted into Eastern Orthodoxy. Some even think Nikita was ordained an Arian priest.
Over time, however, Athanaric regained power, massed forces and returned to attack and persecute the Christian Goths. Nikita was captured and tortured, and finally thrown into a fire (some say burnt at the stake in Moldavia in 378). In E. Orthodox tradition, he is said to have been martyred on September 15th in 372 (there is considerable difference in sources for dates in Nikita’s life and death). His relics were taken to Mopsuestia in Cilicia. After his cult of veneration spread, some of his relics were later sent to Constantinople, and some to Decani Monastery in Serbia, which still claims to have his “incorruptible” hand.
Now as to the tale of Nikita beating the devil, that is not part of the “canonical” story of Nikita. It is instead a product of the Byzantine Middle Ages that was adopted into Eastern Orthodox iconography. By this account, Nikita was actually the son of the Roman Emperor Maximilian. Persecuted by his father for holding the Christian faith, Nikita was severely tortured and cast into a prison for three years. While there, the Devil appeared to Nikita and tried to tempt him. But Nikita stepped on the Devil’s neck, and, broke his chains, and began beating the Devil with them. Then, called before the Emperor for questioning, he took the Devil with him to show the Emperor what he had been really worshiping. He also raised a couple of people from the dead, but Maximilian was still not convinced. Then his Queen and the people rose against the Emperor, and Nikita managed to baptize a huge number of people.
Because of this legend, in Slavic popular belief Nikita became Никита Бесогон — Nikita Besogon — “NIkita the Devil-beater,” and he became a very important saint because of his presumed power to drive away devils. Cast metal images of him, worn around the neck, were very popular.
Here is another example of Nikita beating the Devil:
The title inscription reads:
АГ ВЕ МУ НIИКИТА
It abbreviates: ΑΓΙΟC ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК НИКИТА [H]AGIOS VELIKOMUCHENIK NIKITA
“Hagios” (Holy/Saint) is the Greek equivalent of the Slavic Svatuiy. One often finds it used in Russian icons. The remainder of the inscription is Church Slavic, and all together it reads:
“[THE] HOLY GREAT-MARTYR NIKITA”
Interestingly, the Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, as part of his changes in the Church, declared that there was no “Devil-beater,” and that the name should not be connected with St. Nikita the Goth. However, the Old Believers saw this as just another deceit of the Devil, and they adopted the image of Nikita the Devil-beater as another sign of their “pure” faith, and so this type was preserved among the Old Believers right up to the present day.
Knowing that, let’s consider the icon pictured above again. We can see that not only is it painted in the stylized manner rather than the “Westernized” manner of the State Church, but the blessing hands of both Jesus and John the Forerunner show the fingers in the position used by and characteristic of the Old Believers, with the first finger straight up, the second finger slightly bent, and the thumb touching the bent last two fingers.
So, we see that:
1. The icon is in the stylized manner favored by Old Believers;
2. The icon uses the Old Believer finger position for the blessing hand;
3. The icon uses an iconography of Nikita preserved by the Old Believers as a sign of their “true belief” in contrast to the State Church.
All of those things tell us that is an icon painted by an Old Believer, not by a State Church painter.
Further, we should consider why the person ordering this icon would have asked for these particular figures to be painted on it. With the Deisis, the patron would have before him Jesus to receive his prayers; but also he would have the most important intercessors for humans, Mary and John the Baptist, to convince Jesus to answer his prayers. Then he would also have, to deal with any physical problems or illnesses, the two very important physician saints, Kozma and Domian (Damian). And finally, to keep away the powers of evil, he would have the most noted driver-away of devils, Nikita the Devil-beater. So to the Old Believer, this icon would have been a very good insurance policy for the difficulties of life.
Incidentally, you may sometimes see Nikita Besogon called Никита Чертогон — Nikita Chertogon (pronounced Chortogon); Chort is just the Russian term for “devil.” Both mean essentially the same thing — Nikita “Devil-beater.”
The Russian female music group Pussy Riot got in the news (and in considerable trouble) in 2012 by staging a protest prayer to Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin (a request with considerable validity, given Putin’s subsequent actions). Video clips were shown on the major news networks, and it was reported along with the video of the event that the young women “danced on the altar” in the Spasskiy Cathedral (Cathedral of Christ the Savior) in Moscow.
It was a reporting error, and I wonder how many news sources bothered to correct it. Anyone familiar with the layout of Russian Orthodox churches could see from the video that though the group did make their protest in the church, it was in front of the large icon screen, not behind it, where the altar is always to be found.
Because this was obvious in the video coverage of the event, it was rather careless reporting, but it did show how unfamiliar the media were with Russian Orthodoxy. In a Protestant church, the raised area in the front is where one finds the pulpit in evangelical churches, and often both the pulpit and altar in such denominations as Lutheran and Episcopal. But in Russian Orthodox churches, that is where one finds the large screen inset with many icons — the иконостас — ikonostas — as Russians call it.
The word is adapted from Greek, in which it means simply “icon stand,” and that is what an iconostasis (the usual spelling used in English) is — just a large and wide wooden framework into which rows of icons are set. In a small church it is small, but in a large church the iconostasis can be very large and high. In Western terms, it separates the congregation in the nave from the altar, being placed in the sanctuary and forming a wall behind which the altar is hidden from the congregation by the Royal Doors.
Not only is the iconostasis found in Russian Orthodox churches, but also on icons. In its icon form, the iconostasis may be painted on a single wooden panel, or it may be painted on multiple panels that may all fold together for easy transport and use in travel or “field.”
To get an idea of the arrangement of an iconostasis, let’s look at an example painted as an icon:
We are looking at a cut-away view of a Russian church. That is why we see the domes of the church at the top, though they are of course not part of the icon screen (nor are the added saints in the outermost borders and corners). But below the domes we see the screen itself, divided into rows or ranks (row is ряд (ryad) and rank is чин (chin). I will spare you a pun about iconostases with multiple chins.
So beginning just below the domes, the sixth and highest row of icons we see comprises scenes from the Passion of Jesus. These are not found in all iconostases.
In the next row down, the fifth, we begin a look at the biblical history of the “plan of salvation”; so here is the sequence followed from that point:
Fifth row: праотеческий (praotecheskiy): A praotets is a forefather, and so this is the row of the “forefathers,” the patriarchs of the Old Testament from Adam to Moses. In the very center one finds a Trinity icon. Some examples use the Old Testament Trinity type showing the Trinity as three angels, others use the New Testament Trinity, with God the Father depicted as an old man, Jesus either as the youth Emmanuel or as the mature Christ, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.
Fourth row: пророческий (prorocheskiy): A prorok is a prophet, so this is the row of the prophets, who in Eastern Orthodoxy are seen as predictors of the role of Mary and of Jesus. In the center is usually a Marian icon showing the Znamenie Mother of God, or as it is generally called in English, the “Sign” Mother of God, but in some examples it is replaced by a different (but generally similar) icon, such as the Pecherskaya Mother of God.
Third row: праздничный (prazdnichnuiy): A prazdnik is a festival, so this row depicts major church festivals from the Birth of Christ to the Elevation of the Cross.
Second row: деисусный (deisusnuiy) : The Deisus or “Deisis” is the icon type showing Christ on his throne in the heavenly court, with rows of supplicant saints approaching from both sides.
Here is an icon of the Martyr Lavr (Laurus) from the Deisis chin.
First and lowest row: местного (mestnogo): Mesto means “place,” (often called the “local” rank in English) so this row shows various icons favored by a particular church in a given locale, consequently these vary. Nonetheless, in the center one always finds the “Tsar Doors” that give entrance to the altar hidden behind them. Above the Tsar Doors is an icon of the Тайная вечеря (Tainaya Vechera) — the “Mystic Supper,” which is the name given in Eastern Orthodoxy to what in the West is called “The Last Supper.” The Tsar Doors themselves are ornamented with icons, which, from top to bottom, are:
1. The Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right;
2. Icons of the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Sometimes these are replaced by two icons of the creators of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom.
To the left of the Tsar Doors one customarily finds an icon of Mary, and to the right an icon of Jesus. To the right of Jesus is found the icon that depicts the church’s namesake icon or “temple icon” (храмовая икона —khramovaya ikona); for example, a Transfiguration icon shows that the church in which it is found is named for the Transfiguration, etc. In the icon shown above, the “temple icon” is the Dormition of the Mother of God.
The number of icons in the “Place” or local row varies according to the size of the church. There is a second door found on the left side in this row that is called the “Northern” Door, and another on the opposite side called the “Southern” Door. These secondary or “deacons'” doors are usually ornamented with icons of deacons or of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. In some iconostases they are merely curtained doors.
Of course the number of ranks and type of icons present in an iconostasis will vary depending on the size and nature of the screen. A very large iconostasis may follow the description just given rather closely, but a church may also have an abbreviated and far less elaborate icon screen.
Here is an example of a portable iconostasis:
Here is another portable iconostasis:
The high icon screen is a creation of Russian Orthodoxy; in Greek Orthodox churches the icon screen was and is typically much lower. And of course even a very small Russian Orthodox Church will have room only for a rather low screen with barely a handful of icons, but in a large cathedral the iconostasis may seem gigantic, giving somewhat the grand impression one gets in large Spanish Catholic churches by the carved, gilt, and image-set reredos behind the altar.
The Spasskiy Cathedral in Moscow, in which the Pussy Riot protest took place, has an icon screen of particularly unusual form, appearing somewhat like an icon-decked, eight-sided temple placed within the large building.
The Cathedral was built originally to commemorate the saving of Russia from the armies of Napoleon. Stalin had it destroyed, and for a time the site was a public swimming pool; but with the fall of Communism it was rebuilt and was consecrated again in August of 2000. It was notably the site of the “glorification,” that is, the official recognition as saints, of the last imperial Russian family –Tsar Nicholas II and his wife and daughters. An Orthodox priest once commented to me on hearing of Nicholas spoken of as a saint, “How can they say a man who had a mistress is a saint?” No doubt those who know the history of Nicholas and his disastrous incompetence as Tsar would have similar views.
So when Pussy Riot made their protest against Putin in the cathedral, they chose a site significant in Russian history and significant also for making an elaborate statement about the post-Soviet re-establishment of the traditional alliance of Orthodox Church and State and the power of religion-backed autocracy in Russia. They paid for it by being sent to prison, which serves only to confirm their view of Putin.
In a previous posting I discussed the icon type known generally as the New Testament Trinity. Here is an example of the basic type:
It depicts the three persons of the Trinity seated in heaven. Jesus is at left, and to the right is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) depicted, as was common, as an old man with a white beard. Above them is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In a ring around them are cherubim and seraphim, and in the outer points are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.
There is a slightly more detailed type that, while utitilizing the same basic image, adds to it Mary at the left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at the right, approaching the Trinity on behalf of mankind. This makes the New Testament Trinity into a kind of Deisis variant.
The image below is an example of that. The inscription painted at the top gives it the rather grand title, “IMAGE OF THE THREE-HYPOSTATIC GODHOOD.” The royal orb at center, surmounted by a cross, symbolizes divine rule over the world. So we can see that when we look at New Testament Trinity icons, we are supposed to be seeing the heavenly court, which believers pictured very much in the likeness of the earthly court of a Byzantine Emperor or a Russian Tsar, with supplicants approaching to ask favors.
There is an even more complex and interesting type of the New Testament Trinity that is popularly called the New Testament Trinity “AMONG THE POWERS.” What are these powers? They are the various ranks of angels, also found in the heavenly court, who are also referred to as the “Bodiless Powers,” because unlike humans, their forms are not material.
In the example below, we see angels (at top) and archangels (at the sides), as well as cherubim and seraphim and the odd kind of angel called “Thrones,” which are seen at the feet of the Trinity. The “Thrones” are those odd, winged wheels.
The archangels bear the symbols commonly associated with each. If you look closely at the angel just to the left of Mary, you will see that he has a small boy with him, and the boy holds a fish. That angel is the Archangel Raphael, and the boy with him is Tobias, from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, which tells the peculiar folk tale of how Raphael told the boy Tobias to catch a fish and to remove its organs, which turn out, when burnt, to be able to drive out demons.
Here is another example of the New Testament Trinity “Among the Powers.” This example adds a few saints to the angels at the top.
We also see Raphael and Tobias again, and Tobias still has his large fish, better seen in this detail:
At the lower left is a Guardian Angel leading the small figure of a girl before God (it is a boy in some examples). This is a generic figure representing the soul of the Christian believer, and is here given the title, “The Righteous Soul” (Dusha Pravednaia). There is also an angel at lower right with a boy. Customarily this boy has no halo, and represents the “Sinful Soul” (Dusha Greshnaya) being led before God by the generic figure of the Angel Khranitel, the Guardian Angel who watches over each Christian person in Eastern Orthodox belief.
Here is another example — a 19th century icon from a workshop in the Urals. It again bears the title “Image of the Three-Hypostatic Godhood, Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (ОБРАЗ ТРIИПОСТАСНАГО БОЖЕСТВА ОЦА И СЫНА И СВЯТАГО ДУХА — Obraz Triipostasnago Bozhestva Otsa i Suina i Svyatago Dukha).
This example puts strong emphasis on the Archangels, their names and actions in its inscriptions. In these more detailed “Three-Hypostatic Godhood” versions, one often finds a Church Slavic text in a rather baroque-looking cartouche at the bottom (as in the above icon), reading:
Отца Безначальна, Сына Собезначальна, Духа Соприсносущна, / Божество Едино, / херувимски славословити дерзающе, глаголем: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш, молитвами всех святых Твоих помилуй нас.
“Beginningless Father, co-beginningless Son, co-eternal Spirit, one Godhood, we glorify in the manner of the Cherubim, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God; through the prayers of all saints have mercy on us.”
It is from a Hymn to the Trinity (a Трои́чен — Troichen), tone 3:
Троице Единосущная и Нераздельная, / Единице Триипостасная и Соприсносущная, / Тебе, яко Богу, Ангельскую песнь вопием: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш:
Слава: Отца Безначальна, Сына Собезначальна, Духа Соприсносущна, / Божество Едино, / херувимски славословити дерзающе, глаголем: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш, молитвами всех святых Твоих помилуй нас.
“O Trinity, of one essence and undivided, three-hypostatic and co-eternal Unity, to you as God we sing the Angelic hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God.
Glory: Beginningless Father, co-beginningless Son, co-eternal Spirit, one Godhood, we glorify in the manner of the Cherubim, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God; through the prayers of all saints have mercy on us.”
In a future posting I may talk more about the ranks of angels, their textual origins, and their role in icons. But for now, if you have read this posting you will be able to recognize the New Testament Trinity type and its variants.
Just one final word: Why is it called the New Testament Trinity? That is to distinguish it from the Old Testament Trinity type, which shows the three persons of the Trinity represented as the three angels who visited the Patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre as recorded in the Old Testament. The Greeks call that type the “Hospitality of Abraham.”
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.