At the entrance to old Japanese Budhist 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 Kiyev, 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.


Today we will look at an icon type that, while sometimes found as an element in other icons, is also seen on its own.

Here is an example of its frequent use as part of an icon of the Страшный Суд — Strashnuiy Sud in a Balkan fresco — the “Terrible Judgment,” which in the West is generally called the “Last Judgment” or the “Second Coming.”

Let’s looks more closely at the central portion relevant to today’s discussion.

At left and right are two angels.  That on the left, with the “M” above his head, is Mikhail/Michael.  That on the right with the “Г” is Gavriil/Gabriel.

In the center is a table on which is a cushion and a book, and behind it a cross flanked by the symbols of the Passion of Jesus, the spear at left, and the reed with a sponge at right.  On the little footstool below the table is a footstool on which are the four nails used to crucify Jesus.

Atop the cushion on the larger table is a dove that oddly enough bears the cruciform halo peculiar to Jesus, and confirming that, we see the abbreviation IC XC just above it — signifying Isus Khrista (Iesous Khristos in Greek) — “Jesus Christ.”  The dove’s feet rest on the Book of the Gospels.  Ordinarily in this type, the dove represents the Holy Spirit, but the painter of this icon seems to have not quite grasped that, so gave it the cruciform halo and inscription abbreviation for Jesus.  The dove can be understood as the presence of the Holy Spirit as paraclete with the Church until the return of Jesus — his representative in a sense. There is also a cloth (sometimes obviously a garment) as the mantle of Jesus — frequently in royal purple,

Parts of this composition have a double meaning.  The large table is both a throne and an altar (prestol — the Slavic word for an Orthodox altar — means “throne.”  The book on it is both the Gospel book commonly found on Orthodox altars, but it also represents the book of Revelation 5:1:

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.

And it also represents the presence of Jesus.

The identifying inscription of this composition is just below the main crossbar:


Note that in the actual inscription, the “E” in the first word is written with the old Slavic letter pronounced “ye”:

The final IE in the second word is written as the old Slavic compound letter pronounced “IE” (ee-ay):

We will use the more standardized form УГОТОВАНИЕ ПРЕСТОЛА — Ugotovanie Prestola. Ugotovanie means “preparation, making ready”; Prestola is the “of” form of Prestol, meaning “throne.”  So this type is called “The Preparation of the Throne.”

In Psalm 88:15 of the Church Slavic Bible (89:14 KJV), we find:
Прáвда и судьбá уготóванiе престóла тво­егó: ми́лость и и́стина предъи́детѣ предъ лицéмъ тво­и́мъ.
Pravda i sudba ugotovanie prestola tvoego; milost i istina predeidete pred’ litsem’ tvoim’
“Justice and judgment are the preparation of your throne; mercy and truth shall go before your face.”

And in Slavic Psalm 9:8-9 (9:7-8 KJV):
И Госпóдь во вѣ́къ пребывáетъ, уготóва на сýдъ престóлъ свóй: и тóй суди́ти и́мать вселéн­нѣй въ прáвду, суди́ти и́мать лю́демъ въ правотѣ́.
And the Lord forever endures, he has prepared his throne for judgment:  and he will judge the  world in justice, the peoples in uprightness.

Here is a very basic form of the type:

The title inscription above it reads (the two sides join together):


That is a rather phonetic variant of the correct spelling:

He Hetoimasia
“The Preparation.”

In modern Greek the title is pronounced “Ee et-ee-ma-SEE-ah.

Here is a slightly more detailed mosaic version:

note the addition of what appears to be the crown of thorns to the axis of the cross.  In other examples it is a laurel wreath of victory.  The spelling used here is yet another variant:


In this fresco version from the monastery of Dečani, the “Preparation” has become a throne carried by angels:

There is a Gospel book lying on the cloth on the throne, and all together the image forms a kind of Deisis variant, with Mary approaching at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right.  The two figures below are sometimes found in “Preparation” images.  They are Adam and Eve, and should not be confused with Mary and John the Forerunner.  If you look at the first image in this posting, you will again see Adam (at left) and Eve (at right) below the angels.

If we look more closely at the image, we can read its inscription:

It is:

or as we more normally find it in Russian literature,

Второ Пришествие
Vtoro Prishestvie
“Second Coming”

It means, of course, the second coming of Jesus, and the angels are bringing out the throne to prepare it for the Last Judgment.  Here the Gospel book on the garment represents the presence of Jesus, and the crown on the cross is a laurel wreath.

In the example found at the Church of Saint Paul “Outside the Walls”  (San Paulo fuori le muri), we see yet more variation:

Looking more closely, we find that the laurel wreath generally found on the cross is here placed on its own stand to the left of the spear, and at right beside the sponge on a reed, we see a Eucharistic symbol — the chalice.  It holds three nails of the crucifixion (instead of four as found in the earlier example).  In some versions this chalice becomes a two-handled vessel placed on the footstool, and it may or may not have the nails within it.  Being a Roman church, in this mosaic the scrolls held by the angels are in Latin.  That at right reads GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO (“Glory to God on High”) and that at left “ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS (“And on earth peace to men.”)

The use of an unoccupied throne as the symbol of a ruler is very ancient, and long predates Christianity.


This icon depicts fourteen scenes from the pre-Crucifixion “Passion” (Stradanie) of Jesus:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.Russianicons.net)

Though it does not bear an overall title, the little inscriptions by each image identify the various scenes.  As is common in icons, one begins at the upper left corner, moves right, then back to the left side and across again.  Let’s get a quick overview of the images:

Here, “the Jews consult to kill Jesus Christ”:

Here Judas (at left) betrays Jesus to the Jews for 30 pieces of silver:

Here Mary (standing before the other two Marys) implores Jesus “Not to enter Jerusalem”:

Jesus delivers his mother into the keeping of Mary and Martha:

Here is the “Mystic Supper” — the “Last Supper” of Jesus with his disciples:

Here is the “Washing of the Feet” — Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  Note that Judas, just to the left of the kneeling Jesus, has no halo because of his betrayal of Jesus, in this and other scenes:

Here Judas receives his 30 pieces of silver and informs on Jesus to the Jews:

Here is the “Prayer of the Cup,” the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:

Here Jesus tells his sleepy disciples to watch and pray:

Here Judas comes with the soldiers who are to arrest Jesus:

Here Judas gives the kiss that identifies and betrays Jesus to the soldiers:

Here the soldiers take the identified Jesus, as Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus:

Here the soldiers bring Jesus before the Archpriest Annas:

Here Annas questions Jesus as Peter denies knowing him three times:

Having done that, let’s focus on one particular fellow in this visual narrative:  Judas.  He is the little guy at left in this image, without a beard.  We see his name written above is head:  IЮДА — IOUDA — “Judas.”

Here he sits at the table of the “Last Supper”:

Judas is easily identifiable at the table, because he has NO HALO; and again, his name is written above his head.  He sits in the foreground between Peter at right, and Bartholomew at left.

Now there is something significant to note in this little image.  You will often hear it said (and read in books) that saints in icons are never shown in a complete side profile.  Well, you can see for yourself, from this image, that it is not always true.  We here see saints Bartholomew, Peter, and Andrew in full side profile.

Now oddly enough, Judas not only causes trouble for Jesus in the story of the passion, but he also has caused, and still causes, a good deal of trouble for biblical scholars, because he is something of a confusing mystery.

Some believe that Judas had no historical reality, but was a fictional creation in early Christian writing.  Why might one believe that?

You may recall that in 66 c.e there was a major revolt of the Jewish people against the Roman authorities at Jerusalem.  This began the Roman-Jewish war, which last from 66 until 73 c.e.   Near the beginning of this revolt, the Romans plundered the Temple in Jerusalem, which only incited further rebellion, and Jewish rebels not only defeated a Roman military legion but also slaughtered some 6,000 Romans.  The matter came to an end with the taking of Jerusalem by Titus Flavius (son of Emperor Vespasian) in 70 c.e. and the destruction of the Jewish Temple, and the last resistance was wiped out at the fortress of Masada in 73 c.e.

Needless to say, Jews were not popular among Romans during this time.  And early Christianity — which was just getting under way — was not yet clearly distinguished from the other segments of belief and antagonistic factions among the Jews.  After the destruction of the Temple, Christians differed from other Jews in believing that the reason for that destruction was the refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah;  non-Jesus-accepting Jews, on the other hand, believed the reason was failure to observe the Torah.

How does all this relate to Judas?  Well, the name Ιουδα — Iouda — (Judas) given the betrayer of Jesus in the New Testament — is just the Greek spelling of the Hebrew name Yehudah — Judah.  In short, a “Jew” (Yehudi) is one from the Tribe of Judah — and the Jews in general are Yehudim (plural form).  So the name “Judas” can be understood to be representative of the Jewish people as a whole in the New Testament — so goes the theory, which posits that this was an early Christian way of taking the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Romans and putting it on “the Jews,” from whom the Christians now wanted to distance themselves.

The earliest Christian writings in the New Testament are those of Paul.  And in all his writing, Paul never mentions that Jesus was betrayed by someone named Judas.  In fact he nowhere says that Jesus was specifically “betrayed.”  In the King James Version, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:23:

“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread…”

The Greek word translated “betrayed” by the KJV translators in the 17th century, however, is παρεδίδετο (paradideto), which means “handed over,” rather than specifically “betrayed.”  So Paul — the earliest Christian writer — never mentions Judas, nor does he say specifically “betrayed.”

The theory, then, is that “Mark,” (actually the anonymous writer of the Gospel we call “of Mark) when writing after Paul, decided to introduce a character into the story of Jesus who not only betrayed him, but who could be understood as a representative of the Jewish people as a whole (“Judah”) — again, to take the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Romans, and put it on the Jews.  This decision, so the theory goes, was the New Testament root of the Antisemitism that has caused so much trouble over the last two millennia.

There is much more to this theory, which includes reference to Old Testament texts that look to have provided details of the “betrayal by Judas” story, including the thirty pieces of silver — but I will leave further investigation to those interested in this matter.  It takes us too far afield from iconography.

And speaking of iconography, where else do we find Judas in Eastern Orthodox icons?  We find images of his hanging of himself (actually, Matthew 27:3-8 says he hanged himself, while Acts 1:16-19 says he fell in a field and split himself open) in monastic frescos such as this one from the Gelati Monastery in Georgia (the country, not the state):

The other icon type in which we find Judas, you may recall, is that of the “Terrible Judgment,” which shows the naked Judas sitting in the lap of Satan in Hell:

Often he is shown — as here — still with his bag of silver still in his hand:


Here is a rather long posting that will likely severely bore anyone who is not interested in learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.  But it is a helpful posting for those peculiar souls who do want to learn that rather esoteric skill.  In any case, it is something any serious student of icons should know.

A reader asked about inscriptions on icons of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.  That gave me a good excuse to talk a bit more about ligatures in Greek icon inscriptions.  “Ligature,” in writing, is the linking or joining of letters together.  When icon students first encounter ligatures, they find them mystifying and confusing, but really the principle is quite simple once one knows what to look for.

First, let’s take a look at the main portion of an example of such an icon type in this fresco from Mt. Athos:

Here is what Mary is saying to Jesus in the inscription:


Let’s look a little closer:

It begins with an abbreviation:  ΚΕ.  But notice the horizontal line above the two letters.  Do you remember that such a line (sometimes curved, but still horizontal) indicates an abbreviation?  Here, the two letters abbreviate ΚΥΡΙΕ (Kyrie).  You may recall that ΚΥΡΙΟC (Kyrios) is the Greek word for “Lord.”  KYRIE is just another form of it — the form used in addressing someone — in talking to them directly.   So here KYRIE also means”Lord” (but see below).

Now in a previous “lesson,” I told you that when encountering unfamiliar inscriptions, one should look at the visual context, at what is in the image.  And here the context is the biblical story of Mary talking to Jesus after his resurrection.  So all we need ask is, where in that context does she address him as “Lord?”  We must also remember that Kyrie is the standard respectful way for a woman to address a male in Greek — which is why the King James version of the Bible sometimes translates it as “Sir.”  So again, where in this context does Mary address Jesus as “Lord” or “Sir?”  We find it in the Gospel called “of John,” Chapter 20, verse 15:

Jesus says to her, Woman, why weep you? whom seek you? She, supposing him to be the gardener, says to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

The next step, of course, is to take a look at the same verse in a Greek New Testament, so that we can verify that we have chosen correctly:


Now, let’s compare that with the inscription on the icon:

Here’s where we run into the ligature issue.  We already know that the first two letters, KE, abbbreviate KYRIE — “Lord”/”Sir.”  that means, if we have the chosen the correct text, the next two letters should be EI in Greek.  But in the actual icon inscription, the third symbol does not look like any recognizable letter at all.  The reason is that it is a ligature, a joined letter.  We find it it two places in the inscription:

The first occurance is somewhat marred by a crack in the painting surface, but the second, almost just below the first, is quite clear.  It looks rather like the number nine.  But the rounded part to the left is the “E” portion of the ligature, and the vertical line is the “I.”  So we can be reasonably certain that we have the correct text, because the third and fourth letters in the inscription are EI, meaning “if.”

The next two Greek letters in the inscription look like CV:

C in Greek is “s” in English.  And the V is actually just a way of writing the Greek letter Y, which in lower case is υ.  So the word in Greek is CY, which we can transliterate as SY or sy.  Sy is Greek for “you.”

Up to this point we have:

Lord/Sir if you…

The next word in the inscription is not complete:


It has one ligature, the fourth symbol.  That is a combination of C and T in Greek.  So it reads  EBACTAC — Ebastas.  But the word is shortened.  It is really EBACTACAC — Ebastasas, meaning “carried off”

The next word is also missing its ending:

The first symbol is a ligature of a and u, so the three letters shown are aut, which if written in full would be auton, meaning “him.”

Next come these words, all pushed together, as is often common in Greek inscriptions:


The first letter is the ligature of e and i that we have already seen.  With the next two letters, it makes the word ΕΙΠΕ — EIPE–, meaning “tell.”  That is followed by the word MOI, meaning “me.”  And the final word in the line has a common ligature of the letters O and Y, with the Y placed atop the O.  So it is the word ΠΟΥ — POU –, meaning “where.”

So now we have:

“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him, tell me where…”

Then comes:


The first four letters are ΕΘΗΚ — ethek, but the writer has left off the ending.  The whole word would be ΕΘΗΚΑC — ethekas — meaning “[you] have laid.”  That is followed by the abbreviation for AUTON (AVT) that we have already seen, and so we know AUTON means “him.”  The last four letters form the combined word KAΓω — KAGO –, and the two words put together to make it are ΚΑΙ ΕΓω, kai ego, meaning “and I.”

Adding that to what we already have, it gives us:

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I...”

Then come the last words of Mary’s little speech:

Here the word AYTON — auton, which we saw earlier in its shortened form, is spelled out in full.  You will recall it means “him.”  Next comes a ligature, the letters A and P (R) joined, so the last word is ARω — ARO, meaning ” [I] will take away.”

So the inscription, in our rather literal translation so far, is

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I him will take away.

If we put that into more normal English order, we get,

Sir, if you carried him off, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

Now keep in mind that you did not have to know the entire inscription to know what it was.  You determined that from the first few words, seen in the context of the image shown — Mary kneeling before the resurrected Jesus.  Then all you had to do was to find those few words in the Greek text of the New Testament where the story of Mary before the resurrected Jesus is told.  Using that process enables one to recognize a great many inscriptions without knowing the entire vocabulary of the text at first glance.

We can see how useful that is if we look at another icon of the same type, also with a Greek inscription:

If we look at what Mary is saying to Jesus in this example, we find it to be:

It is very much the same as the inscription in the first example, with only slight differences in writing.  And the one word separated at the bottom is easy.  In Greek letters it is ΡΑΒΒΟΥΝΗ — RABBOUNI — an Aramaic word that means loosely “My Master/Teacher.”  That, according to the Gospel called “of John,” was the exclamation of Mary to Jesus when she finally recognized him.

Just for completeness, let’s deal with the other inscriptions one is likely to find on icons of this type.  First, there is the identifying inscription above Mary:

Picture 089

Picture 089

As you might guess, it just reads:


You probably noticed that the HAGIA is abbreviated.  In the name “Mary,” the A and Ρ (R) are joined, and the HE (H) is linked to the M in Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — “the Magdalene.”

And of course the title as a whole means “THE HOLY MARY THE MAGDALENE.”

There is also an inscription found in this type that you should already recognize from a previous posting.  For it, we will go back to this example in the first image:

The inscription is just above the empty grave of Jesus (with the graveclothes lying in it):

Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΤΑΦΟC — HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “The Holy Sepulchre.”

Let’s also look back at that first image to see what Jesus is saying to Mary:


The IC at the top is of course just the standard abbreviation for “Jesus.”  But the inscription below it has the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene:


In normal English that is “TOUCH ME NOT,” or more modern, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.”  That accounts for the common Latin title often given these images in the West, Noli Me Tangere, which is just the translation of Me Mou Aptou.

I hope you noticed that the letters ΜΗ are joined in a ligature, as are ΟΥ in the word ΜΟΥ, and there is another ligature joining the letters Π and Τ in ΑΠΤΟΥ.

Finally, let’s take a look at the title inscription of the whole image at the very top of the first example.  It is cut off in the photo, but we can fill in what is missing:



The After the Resurrection to the Magdalene Mary of the Savior Appearance

In normal English,


One will often find little variations in Greek spelling (as in ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ / ΕΓΕΡCΙΝ in the above example), but usually they are not severe enough to cause confusion.

You may also wish to know that this ME MOU APTOU icon type of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is another of those borrowings into Eastern Orthodox art from Western Catholic art, from the time when Venice controlled the island of Crete, and the icon painters there worked to supply both Greek Orthodox and Western Catholic markets for paintings.  You may have also noticed that Mary Magdalene’s head is bare in these icons, which is a little unusual, given that most women have their heads covered in icons.  But it is usual for Mary’s hair to be seen in these particular type, because the image was borrowed very closely from Western examples — and in the West, Mary Magdalene is often seen with head uncovered.