Today I want to talk about icons of the Dormition, Uspenie in Slavic, Koimesis in Greek. It means “Falling Asleep.” The Dormition icon represents the death of Mary, mother of Jesus. We have already seen that many icons incorporate apocryphal elements. The Dormition type is based entirely on such “pseudepigraphal” writings, or to avoid the euphemism, writings forged under the names of noted figures in Christian history.
Here is an elaborate version of the Dormition:
In the center is Mary lying on a bier. In the sky above we see the Apostles arriving on clouds moved by angels, to be present at her death:
And then we see them after arrival, standing around her bier. So they are represented twice in the icon, to show two stages of time.
Directly above Mary stands Jesus, who holds Mary’s soul, depicted as an infant because she was just born into Heaven, on his left arm. Above Jesus is a red, winged angel of the cherubim rank.
The fellow whose head is visible at lower right in the image above is Dionysius the Areopagite. He wears the stole of a bishop, and often shown also are Timothy (the one known to the Apostle Paul) and Hierotheus. Some examples also include James, while other examples include saints of later periods.
In the clouds at the top, we see two angels waiting on the other side of the opened doors of Heaven. Their hands are covered with cloths, which is a sign of veneration for a sacred object or person:
Just below Mary’s bier is a man with his hands reaching upward. This, according to the old story, is Athonios (Iephonias in Greek examples), a Jew jealous of the honor shown Mary, who tried to push over the bier but was prevented from doing so by an angel with a sword, who cuts of Athonias’ hands. In this example his hands have not yet been cut off. In some examples, however, his hands are shown severed from his arms. This is an example of the anti-Semitism that one sometimes finds in Christian history and in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize that the story of the Dormition is nowhere found in it. It actually comes from extra-biblical spurious writings, primarily represented by the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that is usually dated to the 6th century, though some would date it earlier (and which of course uses the name of the Apostle John to give a semblance of veracity). However Epiphanius of Salamis, who died c. 403, wrote in his Panarion 79:11, that nothing certain was known of the death of Mary, quite in contrast to the later, elaborate tale of the Dormition, in which we find the account of why and how the Apostles were brought to witness Mary’s death:
And she prayed, saying: My Lord Jesus Christ, who did deign through your supreme goodness to be born of me, hear my voice, and send me your apostle John, in order that, seeing him, I may partake of joy; and send me also the rest of Thy apostles, both those who have already gone to you, and those in the world that now is, in whatever country they may be, through your holy commandment, in order that, having beheld them, I may bless your name much to be praised; for I am confident that you hear your servant in everything.
And while she was praying, I John came, the Holy Spirit having snatched me up by a cloud from Ephesus, and set me in the place where the mother of my Lord was lying… And the three virgins came and worshipped… And the holy mother of God answered and said to me: The Jews have sworn that after I have died they will burn my body. And I answered and said to her: Your holy and precious body will by no means see corruption…
And the Holy Spirit said to the apostles: Let all of you together, having come by the clouds from the ends of the world, be assembled to holy Bethlehem by a whirlwind, on account of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; Peter from Rome, Paul from Tiberia, Thomas from hither India, James from Jerusalem. Andrew, Peter’s brother, and Philip, Luke, and Simon the Cananaean, and Thaddaeus who had fallen asleep, were raised by the Holy Spirit out of their tombs; to whom the Holy Spirit said: Do not think that it is now the resurrection; but on this account you have risen out of your tombs, that you may go to give greeting to the honour and wonder-working of the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because the day of her departure is at hand, of her going up into the heavens. And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.
Now obviously this is not an historical event. It is mythmaking, a part of the ever-increasing veneration of Mary that occurred in the Church after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine and the influx into the Church of large numbers of pagans, accustomed to a mother goddess, who found in Mary a replacement. The earliest written example of Marian veneration is found on a damaged papyrus that dates no earlier than the 4th century to the second half of the 3rd century, and comes, not surprisingly, from Egypt, where formerly the Goddess Isis was very prominent, whose worship also spread into Rome:
The emended Greek version of the prayer (I have added an interlinear translation) reads:
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν Beneath your
καταφεύγομεν We flee for refuge
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν O Birth-giver-of-God; our
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ- petitions do not
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει despise in need
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου but from peril
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς deliver us
μόνη ἁγνὴ Only Pure [One]
μόνη εὐλογημένη. Only Blessed [One]
There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first, like that above, shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.
The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is found both in icons of the major Church festivals and, as we have seen, as a separate icon type.
A widespread, popular apocryphal tale of Mary descending into Hades before she ascended to Heaven came into Russia from the Byzantine Greek world, via Bulgaria. In it, Mary goes to the Mount of Olives and calls the Archangel Michael to take her down to Hades so she might see the torments sinful Christians were suffering there. Michael then acts as her guide through Hades (“Hell”), and shows her its various regions and gruesome tortures, much as Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil. The difference is that Mary then beseeches God to be merciful, but he only relents to a certain degree, holding off the tortures of the condemned to give them a rest between Easter and All Saints Day (or Good Thursday through Pentecost– accounts vary) Oddly, it is specifically mentioned that Mary refuses to intercede for “the unbelieving Jews” in Hades, which no doubt contributed to the unfortunate antisemitism that so often appears in Slavic countries. It is likely that Dante got the idea for his guided tour through Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven via this apocryphal tale as brought to Italy by Bulgarian Manicheans. The tale of Mary’s descent to Hades is mentioned in Dostoevskiy’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.
Just a quick note first to say that I am pleased so many people are finding this site both of interest and usefully instructive.
In a previous posting, I mentioned the rather disingenuous comment passed around the Internet that Eastern Orthodox believers pray “in the presence of icons” rather than “to icons.” And I discussed the actual old attitude toward icons thus:
“In short, the traditional attitude toward icons — the attitude actually held by Eastern Orthodox believers, not theoreticians or converts — was that icons behaved like living creatures — and so they were treated as such. That is why a believer would pray before such an icon, as though talking to a person, and that is why it is often said that believers would pray to an icon, because that is precisely what they did. One can see from this that the feeble notion that Eastern Orthodox believers merely pray “in the presence of” icons is, from an historical point of view, both very misleading and quite inaccurate. To discover the real situation one must go to what was actually said and written about such icons and how they were regarded by the ordinary believers of past centuries.”
An excellent example of this traditional belief is the account of the icon type known as the “Unexpected Joy” icon of Mary, which you see here. this type was very popular in the 19th century. The origin story of this icon type is found in The Dew-wet Fleece, by Bishop (and E. Orthodox saint) Dimitriy Rostovskiy (1651-1709).
A standard element of this icon type is an “icon within an icon,” the image of Mary holding the Christ Child that is seen hanging at right on a wall within a room. And before that icon a man is kneeling.
The inscription below the “icon in the icon” tells the origin story of this type, which is one of a great many known as “miracle-working” icons.
“A certain “lawless” man had a daily rule to pray to the most holy Mother of God with the words of the Archangel’s greeting” [the words of Gabriel to Mary in the Annunciation].
Well, according to the story, which, like a fairy tale, is set in no definite time or place, this fellow kneeling before the icon was an habitual lawbreaker. He was just about to leave his home to perform more dastardly deeds when, as was his custom, he paused to pray before the icon of Mary, and was astonished and horrified to see that the images in the icon were “alive” and moved and spoke to him. Wounds on the hands and feet of the Child were bleeding, and the thief, seeing that, spoke to the living image of Mary in his icon, saying, “O Mistress, who did this?”
Mary replied to him, “You and other sinners, with your sins, have crucified my son anew.”
The words of this dialogue are seen written in the lines extending from Mary’s mouth to the kneeling “lawless man,” and from the man’s mouth to Mary, like an early version of the cartoon bubble.
Of course this miracle resulted in the repentance of the thief, and the whole strange event was to him an unexpected joy, thus the title of the icon.
An additional detail shown here, but not always present in examples of this type, is the third line of words extending from the mouth of the Child to the man. Jesus is saying to him, “Now your sins are forgiven you.”
This particular example of the type shows the incised and gilt backgrounds often favored in icons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And of course the style of painting is Westernized.
For comparison, here is another example of the same icon type, painted in a less Westernized manner:
Now of course this is not to say that every icon in every home, church, and monastery was believed to “come alive” and move and talk. But it is very important in understanding icons to know that it was common belief that every icon had the potential of such “miraculous” behavior, and one did not know when and where it would manifest. And of course that is why icons that were believed to have been miraculous in some way were copied endlessly, and some of the copies themselves entered the standard hagiography as being chudotvornaya — “wonder-working” — in turn.
Most people who encounter icons do not realize that they are the product of a mindset that is very much like that of ordinary people in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Eastern Orthodox Russia in particular, in which illiteracy was common very late (estimated at 80% under Tsar Nicholas II) — was still largely medieval in thinking right into the beginning of the 20th century. When one reads all the stories of miraculous appearances of icons and the strange doings of some Eastern Orthodox saints, it is well to remember that what Geoffrey Blainey writes in his Short History of Christianity (page 162) was still applicable in Russia centuries after the Middle Ages had passed in Western Europe:
“In the twenty-first century most people in the western world show instant respect for concepts that seem to have a rational foundation, though some of these concepts are later disproved. In contrast most medieval people tended to marvel at myths, mysteries and rumours, and instantly assured themselves they were true.”
The icon of the Blessed Silence Savior (Spas Blagoe Molchanie) is one of only a few types in which Christ is represented in the form of an angel. The most notable other example is Christ as “Sophia, Wisdom of God” — but the latter will be a topic for another day.
Here is a 19th century Russian version of the Blessed Silence image. We can see that Christ is given the same red face one finds in images of Sophia, Wisdom of God. When looking at examples of the Blessed Savior type, one finds variations in the depiction from example to example. In some Christ is bareheaded; in others, as in this icon, he wears the crown of a bishop, to show that he is both Great High Priest and Tsar Tsarem (King of Kings). It is common for the written title on the image to be the standard Spas Blagoe Molchanie (literally
“Savior Blessed Silence”), but on this particular example we find instead ISUS BLAGOE MOLCHANIE — “JESUS THE BLESSED SILENCE.” The spelling of Isus tells us that this is an Old Believer icon, not the product of the State Orthodox Church that forced a revision of the spelling. The “Blessed Silence” type was particularly popular among Old Believers. The type is earliest found in Greece and the Balkans in the 14th-15th century, and appears in Russia in the late 15th-early 16th century.
The key to understanding this icon is the scroll the angel bears, which reads “You are the God of Peace, Father of Mercies, the Angel of Great Counsel” That is taken from Irmos 5 from the Liturgy of the Nativity:
O God of peace and Father of mercies Thou has sent to us the Angel of Great Counsel who grants us peace. So we are guided to the light of the knowledge of God. Waking early from the night we praise Thee, O Lover of men.
Бог сый мира, Отец щедрот, великаго совета Твоего Ангела, мир подавающа, послал еси нам. Тем богоразумия к свету наставльшеся, от нощи утренююще, славословим Тя, Человеколюбче.
Now we need to ask why this image should be associated with the Nativity (Christmas). It is because, in Christian tradition, the words of Isaiah 9:6 in the Old Testament are applied to the birth of Jesus:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
That will still leave us puzzled, however, unless we know that this common translation as found in the King James Bible reflects the Hebrew text as it was known in the 17th century, but it does not reflect Isaiah as it was known to early Christians who knew the biblical texts not in Hebrew, but rather in Greek — the version now called the Septuagint. In Greek, Isaiah 9:6 reads somewhat differently:
For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder, and his name is called the Messenger of Great Counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him. His government shall be great, and of his peace there is no end:
We can see that the two texts have substantially different readings. That is not uncommon. There are all kinds of variations from manuscript to manuscript of the Bible, and the Septuagint often has readings that are not found in translations made from the Hebrew Masoretic text. But what we really want to notice are these words:
…his name is called the Messenger of Great Counsel.”
Those of you who have read my article on icons of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) will recall that he is often represented with the wings of an angel, and the reason for that is the Greek word for messenger — used to describe John in the Gospel called “of Mark” — can also mean “angel.” We have two distinct words in English: messenger and angel. But in Greek, there is only one word with both meanings: αγγελος —angelos. Knowing that, we will now know that in the Septuagint translation given above, the name “Messenger of Great Counsel” (Mεγαλης βουλης αγγελος) may also be understood to mean “Angel of Great Counsel.” So there you have it. That tells us why the Nativity Irmos speaks of Jesus as the Angel of Great Counsel,” and that also tells us why Jesus is depicted in this icon as an angel.
That is the essence of the matter, but it goes far beyond that. Notice, for example, that Jesus as Angel has not the usual halo with a cross in it found in most of his other icons; instead his halo is the “eight-pointed slava,” the eight-pointed “glory” that signifies the six days of Creation with the seventh day of rest plus the eighth day, the Day of Eternity. The Day of Eternity signifies that which preceded the Creation and which follows it. So Christ as Angel is also understood as an eternal figure, the Logos (Word/Reason) of God, who according to the old creed, was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” that is, the Father gave birth to the son in eternity, and that son is Christ, the Angel of Great Counsel. So when we think of the Blessed Silence icon as a Nativity image, we should think both of the birth of the Logos from God in Eternity and of the birth of the Christ Child in time.
The Blessed Silence icon is not only a Nativity-related icon, it is also a Passion-related image. It has this in common with another icon type of a winged Christ as the “Crucified Seraph.” In Isaiah 53, we find the “Suffering Servant” passages that Christians associate with the crucifixion of Jesus. Particularly applicable here is Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
So Christ was silent. And Christ the Angel of Great Counsel is the Son begotten in the Silence of Eternity. That “silence” association is one that makes this particular icon type popular with the hesychasts, those who practice an Eastern Orthodox form of meditation by repetition that is somewhat akin (if more dogmatic) to the Pure Land traditions of Chinese Buddhism. Hesychia (ἡσυχία) is Greek for “silence, quiet.”
Another text from Isaiah applied to this Blessed Silence type is 42:2:
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.
But getting back to the thinking behind the iconography, there is no need to try to rationalize it. It makes no sense at all, really, except within its own framework, but that is the case with theology. It is of use in studying icons not because of any literal truth to it, but because it enables us to understand why icons are painted as they are.
But there is an even deeper level to this icon that takes us back past Christianity and into the Hebrew religious mind and its notions of deity. Many Christians will hold that Jesus first appears in the New Testament, even though they will say (if they are traditionalists) that he was predicted in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. But in Eastern Orthodoxy — the branch of Christianity that eventually produced icons — Jesus is also found in the Old Testament, but under different names. For example, as we have seen in our discussion of the Old Testament Trinity icon, Jesus was believed to appear in the Old Testament as the “Angel of the Lord” And, of course Eastern Orthodoxy holds that it was Jesus as the Word — the Logos in Greek — who created the world — or to be more specific, that God “created the world through him.” So Christ as Logos was pre-existent, meaning he existed, in E. Orthodox belief, before the creation of the world, and the world was created through him. That is why, in many old Russian icons of the Creation, we see Jesus doing the creating rather than God the Father (many, however, show the Father creating).
One could go on and on discussing this icon and its symbolism and associations, but rather than rattling on too long, I will just mention that there was “in the air” at the time when Christianity first arose, the notion among Jews that there was not just one god. Jews such as Philo of Alexandria recognized this. There was the “Father,” but there was also a “second god,” a “son” who was his Logos. Margaret Barker, a remarkably brilliant scholar, has written extensively on the notion of this “second god,” who appears in the Old Testament As Yahweh and as the “Angel of the Lord.” This all connects back to early Hebrew polytheistic notions, particularly the concept that the Old Testament El Elyon was a heavenly deity who presided over a court of “sons of God,” and when the nations were apportioned out to these sons of God, the son called Yahweh was made God over Israel. That is why, Barker holds, early Christians held Jesus to be “Lord,” which is simply another way of saying they held Jesus to be Yahweh, the God of Israel. This notion gradually became confused as Christianity developed until Yahweh was understood to be the “Father” instead of El Elyon, and Christ then was considered the son of Yahweh instead of being Yahweh himself.
But that is an extensive subject, and though well worth reading about, it is best done in Margaret Barker’s own books. I recommend particularly her volume The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Westminster John Knox Press). And anyone seriously interested in the development of E. Orthodox notions of Christ as Logos and angel should become familiar with the writings of Philo of Alexandria on the topic of the Logos and its relation to the “primary” God.
But back to the icon. I want to show you another image — a variant of the same Blessed Silence” type:
This second image gives some idea of the variations possible within an iconographic type (there are even more in other images). Most obviously, instead of being shown in the same manner as the angel in Sophia, Wisdom of God (which we saw in the first example), this icon depicts the Blessed Silence as Christ Immanuel, that is, Christ shown in the form of a child. That emphasizes the “Nativity” connection, the notion that this icon is both Christ as the Word/Logos born of the Father from Eternity, but also Christ born on earth of Mary. It is also worth noting that the painter of this icon has given him not only the eight-pointed slava/halo appropriate to the type, but has superimposed that over the standard “cross and HO ON” halo found on ordinary icons of Jesus. That is rather unusual.
An even more unusual example of the Blessed Silence type is this:
There are two uncommon things about this icon. First, the Blessed Silence Savior holds the cross, spear and sponge of the Crucifixion. Second, the inscription on the scroll is the beginning of John 5:25:
Аминь, аминь глаголю вам, яко грядет час и ныне есть, егда мертвии услышат глас Сына Божия, и услышавше оживут.
“Amen, Amen, I say to you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.”
In many examples the scroll reads:
Дух Господень на Мне: его же ради помаза Мя благовестити нищым, посла Мя исцелити сокрушенныя сердцем, проповедати плененным отпущение и слепым прозрение, отпустити сокрушенные во отраду, проповедати лето Господне приятно.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
Some examples of the “Blessed Silence” type, as we have seen, use texts other than that most common one. For example, I saw one having a scroll with this text, the beginning of a long liturgical hymn/chant based loosely on Isaiah 8:8-9, etc.:
С нами Бог. Разумейте, языцы, и покаряйтеся, яко с нами Бог.
Услышите даже до последних земли:
“God is with us. Know, nations, and submit, for God is with us. Hear, even unto the ends of the earth.”
Later in that same hymn, the “Angel of Great Counsel” is mentioned — taken from Isaiah 9:6.
There are three winged cherubim depicted on the icon pictured above. Customarily seraphim are red, while cherubim are blue, however it is not unusual to find the colors reversed, with blue seraphim and red cherubim. Some examples of the Blessed Silence type include a single seraph on the bosom of the Angel of Great Counsel. This associates him not only with the highest realms of divinity (the seraphim are in the first rank of angelic beings in the presence of God), but also connects the icon, through the multiple associations one finds in icon symbology, with the Seraph who purified the lips of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah with a fiery coal from the altar — a prefiguration of the fire of divinity that entered Mary as Christ Immanuel was incarnate within her. This sense of a divine, fiery nature is associated with the seraphim, as [pseudo-] Dionysius the Areopagite tells us in his Celestial Hierarchies:
The name Seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness. (Celestial Hierarchies of Dionysius the Areopagite, translation copyright Shrine of Wisdom).
And by the way, when you see a seraph or a cherub depicted in Russian icons, the Hebrew plural forms — seraphim and cherubim — are used even when there is obviously only one. So in Russian icons one sees a “seraphim” not a “seraph,” even though technically the latter singular form would be correct usage.
In other rather rare examples of the type, one finds a key suspended from the hands of the Angel. This evokes what is spoken of Jesus in Revelation (the Apocalypse) 3:7:
These things says he that is holy, he that is true, he that has the key of David, he that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens.”
The Greek equivalent of the Russian Blagoe Molchanie is painted somewhat differently, though it too depicts a winged Jesus. It is titled Ο Μεγάλης Βουλής Άγγελος –– Ho Megales Voules Angelos — “The Angel of Great Counsel” — and is more likely to be found as a fresco than a portable icon. It may bear as inscription part of John 8:42:
“For a child is born to us, and a son given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder, and his name is called Messenger/Angel of Great Counsel, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Potentate, Prince of Peace, Father of the Age to Come. For I will bring peace upon the princes and health to him.
Some Greek versions depict the Angel of Great Counsel as an older but still generally youthful Jesus — commonly beardless.
As always, there is much more one could say about the Blessed Silence icon type, but one has to stop somewhere. Follow any thread in the study of icons, and it will lead you to countless different subjects, all of which are connected by that thread. But I shall try to limit myself in these postings.
I will, however, impose a bit further on those of my readers who are serious students of icons by presenting one more related icon — related in the sense that it shows God the Father from whom the Son was born in Eternity, according to the thought behind these types in E. Orthodox icon painting.
Here is the important segment of an icon identified by the slavic inscription at both sides of the top as SVYATUIY GOSPOD’ SAVAOF — “HOLY LORD SABAOTH.” “Lord Sabaoth” is the standard representation of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox iconography.
(Image courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
Now you will find all kinds of “true believers” (usually Western converts to E. Orthodoxy) who will tell you that to depict God the Father as an old man with a beard is heretical. The fact, however, is that icons of God the Father were quite common in Eastern Orthodoxy, and have been for many hundreds of years. When such E. Orthodox fundamentalists begin such quibbles, I just refer them to the Kursk Root Icon, which is considered a miracle-working icon in Eastern Orthodoxy — particularly by the fundamentalists — and that usually shuts them up — because why would a heretical image (there is a little “Lord Sabaoth” image right at the top of the Kursk-Root) be on a miracle-working icon? That presents them with a puzzle for which they have no ready answer. You will read that the images of God the Father and the Old Testament prophets were added to the Kursk Root icon when it was brought to Moscow in 1597, but that changes nothing; no account says the icon stopped “working miracles” post 1597, after the addition of the supposedly “heretical” depiction. It is even recorded that the famous St. Seraphim of Sarov was healed as a boy by kissing the theoretically “hereticalized” Kursk Root image in the latter half of the 18th century. It just shows how completely “orthodox” the image of God the Father was considered to be by the end of the 1500s, and how the addition of the image of God the Father was not considered “un-Orthodox” in general belief and practice — even the belief and practice of St. Seraphim, who died in 1833.
So do not concern yourself with such dogmatic quibbles. As a student of icons, always look at what the icon painters really painted, not at what some modern “more Orthodox than thou” convert says they should have painted. It is always best to work from reality rather than fantasy.
But back to this very interesting icon of God the Father. I have said that icons of God the Father are common (more as elements in other icon types than as icons in themselves), but this particular representation is not common, because of its emphasis on the Father and because of its interesting inscription in the circle. Ordinarily we would term this icon type a “New Testament Trinity,” because it shows God the Father as Lord Sabaoth, God the Son as Christ Immanuel, and in the little circle, the Holy Spirit as a dove (that is another fundamentalist doctrinal quibble, but we shall leave them to their quibbling). Note that both the Father and the Holy Spirit are given the same eight-pointed slava that is found in the icon of the Blessed Silence. As we have seen, it represents existence from Eternity, and that is why it is used with persons of the Trinity, though on Christ usually only when his “from eternity” aspect is emphasized. The painter of this icon has given a pleasant little touch by putting stars in the Father’s slava.
But the important connection I want to make here with the Blessed Silence type is found in that interesting inscription in the circle. It is understood to be God the Father speaking:
IZ CHREVA PREZHDE DEN’NITSUI ROZHDIKHTYA — “FROM THE WOMB BEFORE THE MORNING STAR BEGOT.”
That comes ultimately from Psalm 110:3 (109:3 in the Slavic Bible), but again we have a difference in textual readings. In the Hebrew version translated in the King James Bible, we find:
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
That is no help with this type; but if we look at the Septuagint version, which is the version used by early Greek-speaking Christians, we find this:
With thee is dominion in the day of thy power, in the splendours of thy saints: I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning.
The word translated “morning” here is εωσφορου in Greek, a form of eosphoros, which actually means “morning-bringer”; it is the name for the morning star, which accounts for why we find “before the morning star” in the Slavic inscription.
So, this icon of Lord Saboth, Christ Immanuel, and the Holy Spirit can also be seen as a Nativity icon, particularly when emphasized by the Slavic Inscription, which we can loosely understand to mean “I begot you from my womb before the morning star.” Yes, that is God the Father talking. So males do not have a womb? Well, I told you not to look for rational sense. This is all a system of symbols and theological connections, and this inscription is intended to point out that Jesus was mysteriously born of God the Father before the creation of the world, according to the teachings of Eastern Orthodoxy. And that is what connects this “Lord Sabaoth” icon with that of the Blessed Silence.
Do not even begin to think that I have said all that can be said of either icon type. But space and time are limited, and so, no doubt is the patience of even serious students of icons.
Here is more information to enable the student to begin reading Greek icon inscriptions. This does not make for thrilling reading, but it is essential for those who seriously want to understand icons.
You already know one of the most common Greek inscriptions because it is also used in Russian icons: IC XC. Those are the letters abbreviating Ιησους Χριστος — ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — IESOUS KHRISTOS — JESUS CHRIST. They are found (logically) on icons depicting Jesus.
The other inscription you already know from the posting on Russian inscriptions is MP ΘΥ abbreviating Μητηρ θεου — ΜΗΤΗΡ ΘΕΟΥ — METER THEOU — MOTHER OF GOD. Meter in Greek is “mother,” and Theos is “God.” When it is written as “theou,” it means “of God” — thus “Mother of God.” That inscription is found on icons of Mary. Remember that the horizontal squiggle (which I have not included here) is written above letters to mark them as abbreviations.
The other very common inscription found on Marian icons is ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΣ — Θεοτοκος —Theotokos, meaning “Birth-giver of God.” In Eastern Orthodox belief, Mary gave birth to God as Jesus. This title was hugely controversial in early Christendom, and caused great theological conflicts, but those favoring calling Mary essentially “Mother of God” won out. Winning factions in Orthodox theological conflicts often had the most power and political support, not necessarily the best argument.
We saw in the previous posting that the generic term for a male saint in Greek is ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS, and that the generic term for a female saint is ΑΓΙΑ — HAGIA. Both mean literally “holy,” but we usually translate them into English as “saint,” which comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy.”
There are, however, different kinds of saints, and some categories of these are distinguished by their own titles. For example, if we are looking at an icon of a saint who has the title ΟΣΙΟΣ — HOSIOS instead of HAGIOS, then we know we are looking at a monastic saint, a monk of some kind, and he will likely be wearing a monk’s garb. Given that there are different saints having the same name, the title Hosios may distinguish one who was a monk from one who was not.
Remember that in old Greek icon inscriptions, the letter “S”, which is Σ (sigma) in Greek, is often written as C.
Now look at the icon image below. It illustrates some of the oddities of Greek icon inscriptions. First, the triangular arrangement of the letters ΟΓΑ may mystify you until you realize that it is just an abbreviation of the word ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS — meaning “Saint,” with the “g’ in Hagios placed above the letters O (for “ho”) and A, beginning the word Hagios. Once you know that, you can read it on every icon in which it is abbreviated like this.
Now look at the word below it. It is ΙΟΥCΤΙΝΟC — IOUSTINOS, which is Greek for the name “Justin.” Notice, however, that the Y (which looks like a V here) is placed right atop a very angular, diamond-shaped O. And that next odd-looking letter is just a T with the preceding C (alternate form of Σ) made much smaller and attached just below the left side of the crossbar on the T.
On the right side, what looks like one word on the first line is really two, and it continues onto the two lines below. It is Ο ΦΙΛΟCΟΦΟC — HO PHILOSOPHOS. You already know that HO (the O) means “the.” And Philosophos means “philosopher.” So this is HO HAGIOS IUSTINOS HO PHILOSOPHOS — literally “The holy Justin the Philosopher.” This is the person generally known in the West as Justin Martyr, which is why he holds a cross in his right hand, as is customary for martyrs in icon painting.
Note how the last C (in Greek) of Philosophos is written smaller and at an angle just below the rest of the word, with a little ornamental squiggle attached to its base — but once you know it is just C (Σ-sigma), it is easy to recognize in other icons, even when that ornamental squiggle is longer.If you learn bit by bit like this, you can soon read huge numbers of titles of saints in Greek icons. It is not difficult, and you do not have to learn the entire Greek language to do it, because, as with Russian icons, these titles are very repetitive. So a little learning goes a long way.
There is a standard iconography in Russian Crucifixion icons, and it is important for the student to understand it, because the Crucifixion is one of the most common types one will encounter.
The Crucifixion is often found both in painted icons on wooden panels and in brass castings such as the one depicted here — a “blessing” cross.
We will examine it from top to bottom:
At the very top is the image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — which is God the Father depicted as an old man with a white beard. Here he is shown raising his right hand in blessing. Immediately below Lord Sabaoth is the Dukh Svyatuiy — the Holy Spirit shown in the form of a dove. On the crosses of one sect of “priestless” Old Believers, the image of Lord Sabaoth is replaced by the Image “Not Made by Hands” — the Obraz Nerukotvornnuiy — the Image of Christ on a cloth, with the inscription Svyatuiy Ubrus‘ — “The Holy Cloth.”
On both sides of the Holy Spirit, but slightly lower, is an angel. They bear the inscription Angeli Gospodi — Angels of the Lord. Each has his hands covered with a cloth, a practice that shows reverence.
Then one often finds the inscription Tsar Slavui — “King of Glory” — referring to Christ.
On a sign at the center of the crossbeam just above Christ’s head, we see the superscription borrowed from the biblical account: I N TS I — which abbreviates the Church Slavic words for “Jesus (I) of Nazareth (N), King (TS) of the Jews (I) — Isus Nazoryanin’ Tsar Iudeiskiy.
Just below that, the halo of Christ has the standard three bars of the cross visible in it, with the inscription HO ON — “The One Who Is” — the equivalent of the King James Old Testament title of God, “I Am That I Am.”
Just above the crossbeam of the cross we usually see the stretched-out inscription IC SN’ B ZH I XC. The IC and XC are read first, followed by the rest. All together it reads Isous Khristos Suin Bozhiy — “Jesus Christ [the] Son of God.”
At the left end of the crossbeam is a round circle with a human face. This is the Sun (Solntse). It is commonly depicted as dark in color on painted icons. On the opposite end of the crossbeam is another circle with a face, colored red in painted icons. This is the Moon (Luna). On painted icons, one often finds the explanatory description of these two: “The Sun darkens, the Moon Becomes as Blood.” That is an apocalyptic image from the Bible, taken from Acts 2:20: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come” (King James version). The same image is found in the Apocalypse of John (Revelation 6:12): “And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” Both excerpts are inspired by the words of the Book of Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:31): “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.”
Below the outstretched arms of Christ is another long inscription, taken from the Russian Orthodox liturgy: “We Honor Your Cross, Lord, and Praise Your Holy Resurrection (Krestou Tvoemu Poklonyaemsya Vladuiko i Svyatoe Voskresenie Tvoe Slavim). I have loosely translated ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ — “poklonyaemsya” here as “honor,” but it literally means “bow before.” In modern Cyrillic letters the inscription looks like this:
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ ВЛАДЫКО И СВЯТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМ
Next, we must notice that there are two long lines ascending, one on each side of the lower body of Christ. The one on the left has a point at its top. It is the spear with which the body of Christ was pierced. It is identified by the single letter K, for Kopie — “spear.” The other is a long reed bearing a sponge at its top. This is the sponge with which Christ was given vinegar to drink. It is identified by the single letter T for Trost’— “reed.”
Just above the slanted short beam to which Christ’s feet are nailed is the inscription NI KA. This forms the Greek word NIKA, meaning “He [Christ] Conquers.” Some Old Believers have their own interpretation, making the inscription Slavic rather than Greek: N I K A – Nas Iskupi Kroviu Adamova — “Save Us with the Blood of Adam.”
The slanted footbeam itself is notable because of the traditional folk interpretation that it slants up toward Christ’s right hand, indicating the ascent of believers to heaven, and it slants down from his left hand, indicating the descent of non-believers to Hell.
Just beyond both sides of the footbeam we usually see towers and other buildings, representing the walled city of Jerusalem. Sometimes, in place of or in addition to these, we see representations of Mary, mother of Jesus at the left, with her standard title MP ΘΥ (Meter Theou — “Mother of God” — a Greek title — and on the right Svyatuiy Apostol Ioann — “The Holy Apostle John.” In painted icons these two are generally shown full-figure, along with other saints such as “Holy Longinus the Centurion” (Svyatuiy Login Sotnik/Святый Логин Сотник), whose name comes from apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works such as the Gospel of Nicodemus rather than from the Bible. Login appears to have been a completely fictional saint created from the Greek word λόγχῃ (longkhē) — meaning “spear” — used in the Gospel attributed to John for the spear used by an anonymous soldier to pierce the side of Jesus at the crucifixion. The soldier became combined with mentions of a centurion from other Gospels, and the legend developed until the anonymous soldier was transformed into a centurion and given the name Loginos/Λογινος or Longinos/Λογγίνος in Greek. The Old Believers prefer the Login/Логин spelling, while the Russian Orthodox State Church prefers the spelling Лонгин/Longin.
At the very base of the central crossbeam we find these letters:
They abbreviate the words Mesto Lobnoe Rai Buist, meaning “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.” Some Old Believers give the letters R B a different interpretation: Rab Bozhiy — “Servant of God.”
Just under the base of the cross is a little opening in the ground containing a skull and bones (often a skull with two bones that form a sideways X). This skull is identified by the letters G A as Golova Adama — “The skull of Adam.” In icon tradition, Adam — the first-created man — was buried precisely on the site where the Crucifixion later took place. And when Christ was crucified there was an earthquake, and the ground opened just below the cross, revealing Adam’s skull.
The very last thing one needs to know about the standard inscriptions is that usually at the bottom of the cross one will also find the letters G G for Gora Golgofui — “The Hill of Golgotha” — identifying the place where Christ was crucified.
However, brass crosses such as the one in the photo often have an inscription on the reverse side, though some have only ornamentation. The most common inscription is part or all of the Exapostilarion of the Elevation of the Cross:
Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei — [The] Cross [is] Protector of All the World Krest’ Krasota Tserkovnaya — [The] Cross [is the] Beauty of the Church Krest’ Tsarem’ Derzhava — [The] Cross [is the] Might of Kings Krest’ Vyernuim’ Utyverzhdenie [The] Cross [is the] Comfort of the Believers
This has variations, one of which changes the last two lines to:
Some examples merely add those last to lines to what came before, like this (in Cyrillic letters):
КРЕСТЪ ХРАНИТЕЛЬ ВСЕЙ ВСЕЛЕННЕЙ
КРЕСТЪ КРАСОТА ЦЕРКОВНАЯ
КРЕСТЪ ЦАРЕМЪ ДЕРЖАВА
КРЕСТЪ ВЕРНЫМЪ УТВЕРЖДЕНIЕ
КРЕСТЪ АНГЕЛОМЪ СЛАВА
КРЕСТЪ БЕСОМЪ ЯЗВА
On the reverse of some crosses, there is sometimes a long additional inscription either following the Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei text, or else found on its own. It begins “The Lord said,” and what follows that is taken from the Account of the Second Coming, by Palladios the Monk — a document popular among the Old Believers. It may also have the longer title Слово о втором Пришествии Христове о Страшном суде и будущей муке и о умилеии души. It reads: ‘For I suffered, waiting for your repentance and turning to me from your evil; before my Terrible Judgment I have shown you many ways to salvation…'” and it continues, saying, “For your sake I suffered…” and goes on to detail how “for your sake” he took on flesh, labored, was cursed and spat upon, was crucified, placed in the tomb, descended to Hades, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and finishes up with a caution about the place “prepared for the Devil and his angels.” This brief summary of the longer text, along with the text itself in Church Slavic, should enable you to recognize it. Look for the words Рече Господь — Reche Gospod’ — “The Lord said…” at the beginning, and for the repetition throughout it of the phrase Вас ради — Vas radi — “For your sake…” Here is the Slavic text:
Рече Господь Аз же терпя, ожидах покаяния вашего и обращения ко мне от зол ваших, зане прежде моего суда страшного многи показах вам пути ко спасению, и образ дах вам собою, милуя вас добре. Вас ради в плоть облекохся, и вас ради труждахся, вас ради алчен бых, желая вашего спасения, вас ради связан от беззаконных, бых, вас ради поруган бых, вас ради заплеван бых, вас ради заланиту ударен бых, вас ради на крест вознесен бых, вас ради гвоздия приях в руку и в ногу мою, вас ради тростию биен бых, вас ради оцта и желчи вкусих, и вас ради копием прободен бых вребра моя, вас ради смерть приях, вас ради во гроб положен бых, вас ради в ад снидох и изведох вы оттуду от тьмы на свет и паки воскресох, показуя вам воскресение от мертвых, и на небеса вознесохся, и вас ради послах Дух Святый в мир на апостолы моя, и послах я проповедати царствие мое, и дах Дух Святый в сердца ваша и поставих вам учители великие, и премудрые книжники, и нарекох вас сынове моя и братию, вы же не тако послушаете Мене, но сотвористе волю диаволю и ангел его, и ныне от идите от Мене, злии делатели неправды, в место, уготованное диаволу и ангелом его, не хощу же вас видети николиже.
While I am at it, I might as well throw in a couple of alternate inscriptions common on the backs of some large or small cast metal crosses:
Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…
ДА ВОСКРЕСЕНЕТЪ БОГЪ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТЪ ОТЪ ЛИЦА ЕГО ВСИ НЕНАВИДЯЩЕЙ ЕГО…
“Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomu Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”
Such inscriptions added to the believer’s sense that the cross was a powerful “supernatural” talisman that could drive away evil — the same sense that we find in Western horror stories in which the cross wards off vampires.
An inscription sometimes found on small crosses is Спаси и сохрани — Spasi i Sokhrani – “Save and Protect.”
And finally — I promise this is the last inscription for this article — one often finds on the reverse of silver crosses worn by priests (in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century) these words from I Timothy 4:12: “Be you an example to the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (Obraz budi vyernuim’ slovom’, zhitiem’, liuboviu, vyeroiu, chistotoiu“). This was good advice, because at that time there was considerable controversy over misbehavior by Russian Orthodox priests, a good number of whom were given to extorting money from the poor for religious services and/or given to drunkenness. On such crosses, one also finds this abbreviation on the back:
That stands for Nikolai II — Tsar Nicholas II. With that is “Year 1896” (in Cyrillic letter-numbers), and “May, 14[th] day.” That is the date on which Tsar Nicholas II decreed that such a silver pectoral cross was to be given to all priests.
I suppose I should not finish without telling you that some cast brass crosses intended to be displayed in the homes of believers (also sometimes in churches) — and again particularly popular among the Old Believers — had additional scenes added to them. The number of such added scenes varies, and commonly those added are representations of major church festivals, etc. In the example shown below, these added scenes are, from top left:
1. The Entry into Jerusalem; 2. The Resurrection of Christ; 3. The Ascension of Christ; 4. The Presentation [of Christ] in the Temple; 5. The Old Testament Trinity. This example also shows, as the figures standing by the cross, not only Mary, Mother of Jesus and the Apostle John, but also Mary Magdalene (Svyataya Maria Magdalini) and the Centurion Longinus. (Svyatuiy Login). Some brass examples add several rods atop the image, with images of seraphim at the upper ends.
You will note that this particular example of a brass house cross has colored enamel added to the surface. This was a common practice, and having a bit of enamel fired onto the brass during its making added just a bit to the price, both for the original buyer and often for the purchaser (the collector) of such old items today. Brass crosses and other brass icons were commonly cast in sand molds.
Well, now you know far more about crucifixion icons than practically anyone would ever want to know. You are a sudden expert in the matter, knowing what millions do not know. But it probably won’t make you a dime. It is just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, something with which the more curious among us (such as myself, and you, reader, if you have managed to get this far) are afflicted.
If you are the kind of person who wants to know even more about Russian cross inscriptions, you will want to also read this posting: