Today, thanks to a reader question, we will take a look at a 14th century icon in the Byzantine Museum, Athens.  It represents the Archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies.

{Byzantine Museum, Athens – St. Michael: 14th century – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 12 2009)

The question asked was, what do the letters in the round mirror (depicted as a transparent sphere here) held by St. Michael mean?

Let’s look at them:

First, we need to know that the letters are Greek, which makes sense, given that it is a Byzantine icon.

The first letter — at the top — is Χ.  It stands for Χριστος — Khristos — “Christ.”
It would be easy to mistake the second letter, at left, for an Α.  But actually it is the letter Δ, which is often found written in this manner in old icons.  It stands for Δικαιος — Dikaios — meaning “Righteous.”
The third letter, at right, is Κ, for Κριτης — Krites — “Judge.”  It is related to our English words “critic” and criticism.”

All together, the letters abbreviate Χ(ριστός) Δ(ίκαιος) Κ(ριτής). — “Christ [the] Righteous Judge.”  It is an expression that recalls the words of John 7:24:

μὴ κρίνετε κατ’ ὄψιν, ἀλλὰ τὴν δικαίαν κρίσιν κρίνετε
Me krinete kat’ opsin, alla ten dikiaian krisin krinete
Not judge according-to appearance, but the rightous judgment judge
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

You may recall that  a variant of this phrase is often found as a Gospel text in Russian icons of Jesus as “Lord Almighty.”

Не на лица судите сынове человечестии, но праведен суд судите: им же бо судом судите, судят вам и в нюже меру мерите, возмерится вам.

“Judge not according to the appearance, sons of men, but judge righteous judgment.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged, and with what measure you measure, you shall be measured.”

There is also a title inscription on the Michael icon that we should examine.  It is divided into left and right parts:

At left:


Notice how the the A and the P (R) are joined, and how the X (KH) in Arkhon is placed above, below a curved line indicating abbreviation.

At right:


Notice that the Λ (L) in MIKHAEL is placed above the last two letters.

This title inscription is read with the first line jumping from the left to right side, as does the second, like this:



That title recalls the Old Testament book of Daniel, 12:1, in the Septuagint Greek version:

Και ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ ἀναστήσεται Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἄρχων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ἑστηκὼς ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ λαοῦ σου·
“And in that time shall stand up Michael the great prince, that stands over the sons of your people.”

Thanks to the reader who asked this question, because it helps everyone to advance a bit in the study of icons.


Today we will look at a fresco painted in 1527 at the Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, at Meteora in Greece.  Here is an image:

We can see its positioning here, on the upper right-hand wall:

Perhaps you recognize some of the other large images.  To the left of the doorway, we see the “second entry” into Paradise, with Peter at the door, and the Repentant Thief inside, and a soul sitting in the “bosom of Abraham” in the Paradise Garden.  Above the doorway and to its right is a large image of the “Terrible Judgment” — the “Last Judgment.”  But we want to consider the smaller image on the upper left side of the right-hand wall.

Perhaps you have already recognized the depiction.  It is identified by the title inscription at the top:

It reads:


As is common in Greek inscriptions, the words run together.  We can separate them as:


Ho en Kana Gamos
“The in Cana Marriage”

In normal English,
“The Wedding at Cana.”

It depicts the incident recorded in the Gospel called “of John,” 2:1-11:

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:   And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.  And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus says to him, They have no wine.  Jesus says to her, Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour is not yet come.

His mother says to the servants, Whatever he says to you, do it.  And there were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.

Jesus says to them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.  And he says to them, Draw out now, and take it to the governor of the feast. And they took it.

When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not from where it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and says to him, Every man at the beginning does set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but you have kept the good wine until now.

This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

At left we see Jesus and Mary, identified by their usual inscriptions (abbreviated here) — Meter Theou (“Mother of God”) for Mary, and Iesous Khristos for Jesus, who has the cross in his halo.

To their right, we see a servant filling a jug with the water that is to be miraculously made into wine:

So that is the basic image.  But what is going on at the right side?

The painter has blended the edge of one event into another.  The scene at right is actually a part of a larger type depicting the “Temptation of Jesus” in the wilderness, which chronologically happens right after his baptism by John.

The Gospel called “of Mark” (1:12-13) tells us bluntly and briefly:

And immediately the spirit drives him into the wilderness.  And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

The Greek text says literally,
Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον.
“And immediately the Spirit casts him out (ekballei) into the wilderness.”  Ekballei is the same term used for the casting out of demons.

Luke and Matthew, however, embroider the event considerably, and that is what we see in this depiction.  Here is Matthew’s account covering the portions we see in the fresco (the second we see only in part):

Matthew 4:1-7:

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

2 And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward hungry.

3 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If you are the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”

That is what we see here:  the Devil is telling Jesus to turn the stones into bread:

4 “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

Then the devil takes him up into the holy city, and sets him on a pinnacle of the temple,

And says to him, If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning you: and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you dash your foot against a stone.

Jesus said uto him, It is written again, You shalt not tempt the Lord your God.”

The portion of the image we can see, however, shows only the Devil pointing to the ground.  Jesus is out of the image and to the right, standing higher up on the Jerusalem temple.

You may recall that according to the biblical story, the Devil also tempted Jesus by taking him to a high mountain and offering to give him all the kingdoms of the world.  We find that in the continued Matthew account:

Again, the devil takes him up into an exceeding high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

And says to him, All these things will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.

10 Then says Jesus to him, Get you away, Satan: for it is written, You shalt worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.

In this Russian example of the “Temptation,” (a kleimo (“border image”) from an icon of “The Lord Almighty” enthroned, painted in 1682), we see all three of the temptations:

The large image in the foreground shows the Devil (note the tail!) tempting Jesus to make stones into bread.  At upper right, he takes Jesus to a pinnacle of the Temple and tells him to cast himself down so angels may save him.  And at upper left, he takes him to a high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world.

Take a close look at the name abbreviation by the head of Jesus in the foreground:

It appears to read IИС ХС for  IИСУС ХРИСТОС.  That extra И in the name of Jesus — making it Iisus Khristos — is the reformed spelling used by the State Church after the Old Believers split off from the State Church   The Old Believers continued to spell the name of Jesus Isus, while the State Church added another letter, making it Iisus.  Oddly, however, the background images of Jesus in this example still have the old IC XC form.


In a previous posting, we looked at a fresco at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted by the Cretan iconographer Tzortzis Phouka.  Today we will examine another of his works from the same place, and the year 1547.  In Greek and Russian iconography, there are a number of types called the “Vision” of this or that person.  There is the “Vision of Pakhomios,” the “Vision of Tarasiy,” etc. etc.  Today’s example is another of those “vision” types.  It is commonly called “The Vision of St. Peter of Alexandria.”  This type began appearing in churches in the 13th century, though an illustration of it (combining the vision with Peter’s martyrdom) is known from as early as c. 1000, in the Menologion of Basil II, and another illustration is the miniature found in the late 11th-early twelfth century liturgical scroll from the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

First, let’s look at the Greek inscriptions:

We can tell from his garments that the fellow at left is a bishop.  His identifying inscription reads:


You will notice in the inscription several ligatures (joined letters) that we have seen here in previous discussion of Greek ligatures.

The next inscription is a bit more tricky.  Peter is speaking, and what he says is:


It is a question:  “Who tore your garment, Savior?”

The phrase is found in Vespers for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, written as

Τίς σου τόν χιτώνα Σώτερ διείλεν.
Peter is asking the question of the little guy in the skimpy clothes at upper right.  We can easily identify who this little fellow is from his inscription:
IC XC  — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”
So the little figure is Jesus, and he answers the question of Peter by saying,
The small figure with the turban cowering below the feet of the diminutive Jesus is identified by inscription as

Now this is one of those icons having to do with the history of Eastern Orthodox dogma, and the bitter interclerical battle over whether Jesus is God and equal to God the Father, and of the “same substance,” which resulted in the declaration of the First Nicene Council that Jesus is fully God, equal to the Father, “of the same substance.”  However the text upon which this icon is based is another of those fictionalized accounts of saints’ lives, in this case the Acts of Peter of Alexandria.  The relevant portion deals with the answer of Peter to clerics who came to him, asking that Arius be reinstated in the Church:

“For in this night, while I was solemnly pouring forth my prayers to God, there stood by me a boy of about twelve years, the brightness of whose face I could not endure, for this whole cell in which we stand was radiant with a great light. He was clothed with a linen tunic divided into two parts, from the neck to the feet, and holding in his two hands the rents of the tunic, he applied them to his breast to cover his nudity. At this vision I was stupefied with astonishment. And when boldness of speech was given to me, I exclaimed: Lord, who has rent your tunic? Then said he, Arius has rent it, and by all means beware of receiving him into communion; behold, tomorrow they will come to entreat you for him. See, therefore, that you be not persuaded to acquiesce: nay, rather lay your commands upon Achillas and Alexander the priests, who after your translation will rule my Church, not by any means to receive him. You shall very quickly fulfill the lot of the martyr.”

The general idea is that Arius “tore the garment of the Church,” that is, he caused a schism in the Church — the “body of Christ” — by his disagreement with those who believed Jesus to be fully God and equal to the Father, and so Arius was not be be allowed back in the Church.

Peter was Bishop of Alexandria in the early 4th century, and was the person who excommunicated Arius over doctrinal differences in 311 regarding the nature and divinity of Jesus.  Peter was executed on orders from the Emperor Maximian.

Oddly enough, given its subject matter, the type “Vision of St. Peter of Alexandria” became associated with the Eucharistic Liturgy.  That is likely due to the semi-nude image of the 12-year-old Jesus in the “Vision,” reminiscent of the image of the Child Christ lying on the diskos (paten) as the “Lamb of God,” the Eucharistic bread that Eastern Orthodox believe is the body of Jesus.

Here is a 14th century example of the type, from the Gračanica Monastery, Serbia



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.




Here is an icon pattern from the Russian Stroganov Podlinnik   Today’s focus is on the fellow in the tree, shown in this example from the month of June:


The inscription above him — written in the handwriting style of the late 16th-early 17th century — reads:




ИЖЕ = IZHE is a Church Slavic word found often in the old painters’ manuals and in the calendar of saints.  It means approximately “which/who is,” “the one which is” or “the one who is.”  It often distinguishes saints by the place traditionally associated with them.  When used of saints in this manner,  it means loosely “the one in…”  In today’s case, this David, to distinguish him from others, is “the one in Thessaloniki.

So all together, it means:

Our Venerable Father David, the one in Thessaloniki;
Grey, habit in ochre with white.

The first part of the text identifies the saint:  David of Thessaloniki.   The second part tells how to paint him: Grey (hair and beard), and his monastic habit ochre with white.

Being of Thessaloniki, David is one of the many Greek saints celebrated in Russian Orthodoxy as well.  Here is a Greek icon of him:


Being in red, the inscription above the saint is a bit difficult to make out, but it looks to be much the same as the usual inscription for him in Greek icons: O όσιος Δαβίδ ο εν Θεσσαλονίκη — in old pronunciation, Ho Hosios Dabid, ho en Thessaloniki, but in modern Greek, O Osios David o en Thessaloniki.  You will recall that Hosios/Osios is the title used for a monastic male saint in Greek.

The icon shows David sitting in his almond tree residence, and a non-saint kneeling at right.  We know he is not a saint because he has no halo.

At left is seated a crowned figure identified by another red inscription, partly abbreviated as:

Ο Προφήτης Δαβίδ
Ho Prophetes Dabid/O Prophetes David

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the King David of the Old Testament is commonly titled as “Prophet.”  In this Greek icon, King David holds a scroll reading:

δικαιος ως φοινιξ ανθησει ωσει κεδρος

That is an excerpt from Psalm 92:12 (91:13 Septuagint):
δίκαιος ὡς φοῖνιξ ἀνθήσει, ὡσεὶ ἡ κέδρος ἡ ἐν τῷ Λιβάνῳ πληθυνθήσεται.
The righteous shall flourish as a palm-tree: he shall be increased as the cedar in Lebanon.

Remember that in icons, people speak through their scrolls, like in cartoon bubbles.  So King David is saying that David of Thessaloniki is one of the righteous, and of course the mention of two kinds of trees relates to David of Thessaloniki living in a tree.

The figure shown in the clouds above is of course Jesus.

So much for the linguistic and symbolic aspect of these images.  But just who was David of Thessaloniki, and why did he live in a tree?

Well, you know from earlier postings about the odd kind of saint called a “stylite,” one who lives on a pillar.  The term for tree-dwelling saints is “dendrite.”  So David of Thessaloniki is a dendrite.

To make a long story short, David is said to have been an ascetic monk living roughly between 450-550 c.e.  He was thought to have come to Thessaloniki in Greece from Mesopotamia.  He entered the monastery of Saints Theodore and Merkourios.  While there, he somehow got it into his head that the thing to do was to make his dwelling up in the branches of the almond tree that grew beside the monastery church.  He thought that if he did that, he would somehow learn God’s will for him.  So he lived in the tree in the heat of summer and cold of winter for three years.  After that time, an angel appeared to him, saying that God had heard his prayers, but that it was time for David to climb down and live in a monastic cell like other monks.  Because of his eccentric asceticism, David gained a local reputation as a holy man and healer, and was visited by many people seeking his help.

For some reason, these stories tend to leave out details such as how the fellow living in the tree managed the sanitary necessities of being a human, but then such things are seldom mentioned in hagiography.

Greek icons of David of Thessaloniki often have him holding a scroll upon which is written:

Μοναχός εστιν αληθώς ο μηδέν έχων εν τω παρόντι βίω ει μη μόνον τον Χριστόν.

It means loosely:

“The true monk is one who in this life has nothing but Christ.”



In a previous posting, I discussed the icon type known as the “Myrrh-bearing Women” (  There we looked at a Russian example, and encountered some of the discrepancies among New Testament accounts of the Resurrection.

It is generally believed that the Gospel called “of Mark” was the first to be written, and that both that called “of Matthew” and that “of Luke” were merely edited expansions of the text of Mark.  It is noteworthy that Mark has no birth story of Jesus and no story of resurrection appearances of Jesus, both of which were added to the beginning and end of “Matthew” and “Luke.” The post-resurrection appearance of Jesus now found in Mark 16 (after verse 8) was added later. The Gospel called “of John” has no birth story, but it does have a resurrection account, and just as Matthew and Luke differ from one another significantly in telling their tales, so does John differ from both.  All of the resurrection stories in the Gospels have substantial discrepancies.

That brings us back to the icon of the “Myrrh-bearing Women,” the image of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus early Eastern morning and finding that his body was not there.  As we saw in the previous posting, the Gospel accounts differ on just who came to the tomb and why.

Let’s look at a fresco of the Myrrh-Bearing Women from the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos in Greece:


In it we see two women bearing vessels of myrrh, and at the right two angels.  The Gospels disagree on the number present.  The painter here seems to have gone with “Matthew” for the number of women (“Mary and the other Mary”) and with Luke and John for the number of angels (Matthew has only one).   We see the empty tomb with the linen graveclothes in it, and below are the unconscious Roman soldiers who, according to “Matthew,” were set to guard the tomb (the other Gospel accounts have no soldiers).

The common inscription usually found on Greek icons of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” is simply Αἱ Μυροφόροι in Greek — Hai Myrophoroi — pronounced “ay mee-ro-FOR-ee” in modern Greek.  It means simply “The Myrrh-bearers.”  But in the Dionysiou fresco, we do not see that title.  Instead, we find this inscription:


It reads:


As you can see, we find linked letters used.  We see a “τ” atop an “o,” and a “v” atop an “o.”  Those linkages give us “to” and “ou.”  And we also find an abbreviated word, KC for ΚΥΡΙΟC  So we can transliterate the inscription as:


Remember that if you see an inscription you have not encountered before, look for any familiar words.  You know TOPOS from the English word “topography.”  Topos means “place” in Greek.  And if you read my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the common word HO as the masculine form of “the.”  And the last word KYRIOS you should know means “Lord.”  So we can understand this much:


Now if you are familiar with the New Testament — as every student of icons should be — even this small translated amount, when connected with the illustration of the empty tomb, should remind you of the words of the angel to the women in the Gospel of Matthew, 28:6:

…see the place where the Lord lay.

And in fact that is what the inscription means.  In the Greek New Testament it is found as:

Δεῦτε, ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο ὁ κύριος.
Deuter, idete    ton topon hpou   ekeito  ho kurios
Come, see      the   place  where lay      the Lord

In the Dionysiou fresco, there is also a small inscription just above the tomb:

It reads:


The Α (a) and Γ(g) are linked together, and the ς (s) is placed below the O.

Transliterated, it reads:


A taphos is a grave, sepulchre, or tomb.

Now very interestingly, if we look at the different Gospel accounts of what the angel (or angels) at the tomb supposedly said to the women, we get an insight into how the writers of Matthew and Luke  altered the original Markan speech.  Let’s examine them:

MARK 16:

You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, the crucified.  He is risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.


For I know that Jesus, the crucified, you seek; he is not here, for he is risen, as he said.  Come see the place where he lay.  And go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.  And behold, he goes before you into Galilee.  There you will see him.  Behold, I have told you.

LUKE 24:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here but is risen.  Remember how he spoke to you, being still in Galilee, saying the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men…

What in Mark is a prediction made by Jesus that they would see him in Galilee becomes in Matthew a prediction made by the angel that they would see Jesus in Galilee, and in Luke it is changed even more drastically to become something that Jesus predicted in Galilee of his crucifixion!

Why would Luke want to change this statement that the disciples were to see the risen Jesus in Galilee to something quite different that Jesus had formerly said in Galilee?  The answer is simple, but surprising to those who do not read the Bible carefully.  In Matthew, the disciples go to Galilee after the resurrection and see the risen Jesus there.  But in Luke, the disciples do not go to Galilee.  Instead, Luke has Jesus appear to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus that same day, and again on that same day, he appears to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Luke has no appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, so he had to eliminate the prediction found in Mark and Matthew, and he did so by changing it to a prediction Jesus made in Galilee that he would be crucified.

It becomes quite obvious, then, that the writers of the Gospels used the materials they had for their own purposes, altering them as they saw fit.  “Gospel truth” is not the same as historical truth.  So when reading the Bible, as in reading the hagiographic accounts of saints’ lives, it is always wise to keep in mind the saying of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess:  “It ain’t necessarily so.”


What does one do on encountering icon types one has not seen previously and cannot immediately identify?  Well, there is hope.

To find what steps to take, let’s look at a couple of adjoining frescos from the 11th century Church of St. George at Staro Nagoričane in Macedonia.  They were painted during a renovation in the early 14th century.  And by the way, the letter č in Nagoričane is pronounced as “ch.”


There are two problems with these images for the student of icons.  First, they are not a common subject for panel icons (though not unknown).  Second, the title inscriptions are in Greek.  What can be done?  Let’s take a closer look at the left-hand image:


The first step is to closely examine the depiction.  We see Jesus at left (identified by his cross halo and the IC XC Greek abbreviation of “Jesus Christ”).  But notice that his hands are bound, and the rope is held by the man to his right.  And farther right is a seated figure, obviously some kind of authority.

The next step is to look at the inscription for any familiar words at all.  For the beginning student, these will be limited.


As is common in old inscriptions, the words all run together.  But let’s transliterate it:



We can recognize the definite article H, meaning “the,” at the beginning.

The second word is ΠΑΡΑ (para).  In greek it means “beside,” “before,” “by.”

Then comes the word ΤΟΥ (tou), meaning “of,” “of the.”

Anyone familiar with the Bible should recognize what comes next.  It is a name:  KAIAPHA. This is the Caiaphas of the Gospels.  That is a huge clue, because we know the scene must have something to do with Jesus and with Caiaphas.  And given that Jesus is bound and standing before Caiaphas, it can only be this, from the Passion story:

Matthew 26:57:

And they that had laid hold on Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled.

We find it also in John 18:24:

Now Annas had sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest.

We see the word ΚΑΤΑ, which means “according to,” “down,” and “against.”

It is followed by the abbreviation for Christ in Greek, ΧΥ — for Khristou — “Christ.”

The final word is ΕΞΕΤΑCΙC (exetasis), meaning “examination.”

So if we separate out all these words, we get:


He Para tou Kaiapha kata Khristou Exetasis

Meaning roughly:
The by (the) Caiaphas against Christ examination

Or as we would say it in normal English,

“The Examination of Christ by/before Caiaphas”

Here is the right-hand image:


We see that Jesus is bound in this image also, and at right is another authority figure (as we can tell from his important chair).  And given that we already have determined that the left-hand image is Jesus before Caiaphas, we may rightly assume that this image is somehow related.

If we look at the inscription, we find this, which we can put through the same process:



He Para tou Anna kata Khristou Krisis
The by (the) Annas against Christ Judgment

Or in normal English,

“The Judgment of Christ by/before Annas”

That comes from John 18:13:

And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year. Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.

We find the fellow shown tearing open his robes in this excerpt from Matthew 26:59-66 (King James Version):

Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses, And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.

So what we see in these two fresco images is a mixture of elements from the story of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, as taken from the four Gospels.

That was not too difficult, was it?