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.


There are quite a number of traditionally paired saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography — Zosima and Savvatiy, Cosmas and Damian, Florus and Laurus, and so on.

Today I would like to briefly discuss another prominent pair of saints.  Their names in latinized form are Sergius and Bacchus.

Traditionally, Sergius and Bacchus were supposed to have been Roman soldiers and secret Christians martyred in the 4th century because they refused to sacrifice to the gods.  They were included in early accounts of martyrs, and popularly venerated as early as the 5th century.

Oddly enough, Sergius and Bacchus are best known today as “gay” icons, and some newly-painted images with that focus depict them in rather more intimate closeness than the majority of older icons.  This is due to a book written in the late 20th century that, with dubious scholarship, presented the premise that Sergius and Bacchus were a romantically homosexual couple.

Actually, though they have a centuries-long history of veneration in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Catholicism, to me the most interesting thing about Sergius and Bacchus is that they apparently never existed at all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia states “their existing Acts are not genuine,” which is a polite way of saying that the accounts of their lives and martyrdom are as historical as Pinocchio.  Eastern Orthodoxy, however, has never reviewed its vast list of saints to try to separate those who are “fake” from those who did exist, so there are quite a number of saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendars and icons today who did not exist at all.

Nonetheless, Sergius and Bacchus can still be put to some practical use in helping improve ability to read Greek icon inscriptions, so let’s take a look at some examples.

Here is a 16th-century fresco of the pair by Theophanes the Cretan, found in the Lavra of Athanasios on Mount Athos.  Note that each holds a cross, signifying martyrdom for the Christian faith.

The title inscriptions should be easy for you to read if you have been following my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions.

Here is the left inscription:


By now you should know that the three letters at upper left stand for Ο ΑΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — meaning “The Holy.”  Below that is the saint’s name, written partly to his left, partly to his right:  CΕΡΓΙΟς — Sergios.

And here is the right inscription:

We see the same Ho Hagios abbreviation at upper left, and below is the saint’s name:  ΒΑΚΧΟC — Bakkhos, which we usually see in its latinized form, Bacchus.  You will recall that the letter X (chi) in Greek has the rough, gutteral pronunciation of the last ch in the name of the composer Bach.

That was really easy, so here is something more challenging, the inscription from another Mount Athos fresco of the martyrdom of Sergius and Bacchus, this time by the 16th-century Cretan painter Tzortzis:

It is quite gruesome, as are many scenes of martyrdom in Eastern Orthodox iconography, so let’s concentrate on the title inscription at the top:

It reads:



If we separate the words in that, we get:

Martyrion Ton Hagion Sergiou Kai Bakkhou
Martyrdom of-the Holy Sergios and Bakkhos

As you can see, the word Hagios and names Sergios and Bakkhos take on different grammatical endings here.

You should know that the Greek word μαρτύριον (martyrion) originally meant a testimony, as in giving one’s testimony or witness; it gradually took on the looser meaning of “martyrdom” — being killed for one’s testimony or cause.





A reader asked about a Greek inscription.  It is on a 16th century fresco of the Old Testament Prophet Jonah from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted by the Cretan Tzortzis.  Somehow it feels very appropriate to talk about Jonah after an American presidential election that makes a great many of us feel as though we had been suddenly thrown into the sea and swallowed up by a monster.

Jonah, as almost everyone knows, is the fellow who was told by his god to go to the great city of Nineveh and prophesy there of the deity’s coming wrath.  Jonah did not like the job he was given, so he took a ship at Joppa, going away from Nineveh toward Tarshish.  While on this journey, a great storm arose.  The sailors cast lots (an old form of divination) to determine what had brought the storm upon them, and the result was that the lot fell on Jonah.  So to save themselves, the sailors tossed him into the stormy sea, where he was swallowed by what in Greek is called a κῆτος (ketos).  Ketos was a rather vague word that applied to any sea monster or huge fish.  Much later, people began to think of it as meaning a whale, which is why we usually speak of the tale of Jonah as “Jonah and the Whale.”   Spending three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster,  Jonah prayed to his god and repented for trying to run away.  The sea monster vomited him up, and he went to Ninevah to tell them their city would be overthrown because of its wickedness.

The image of Jonah being vomited up by the sea monster is one of the few later icon images that can be found also as a common motif in the pre-icon art of the early Christians, where it was apparently used as a symbol of salvation and resurrection.  It is found both in painted form (as in the catacombs) and in the round, as in this 3rd century example in marble:
Let’s take a look to see what can be made of the inscriptions on the fresco:
We see first that they are in Greek.  And there are two of them, one in the upper right-hand corner, which we may reasonably suspect is the “title” inscription for the image.  The other is on the scroll held by Jonah.  And we all know that in icons, scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” through which persons speak to the viewer.
Let’s look first at the upper right inscription.  We see that as in most older Greek icon inscriptions, the words are not separated as they would be in modern writings.

It is divided into three lines, which we can place together and transliterate:

If you have been reading past postings here on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the words Ἡ — He — the feminine form of “the.”  And you should recognize the word ΤΟΥ — tou — even though it is abbreviated, as “of the.”  And you might recognize the similarity of the letters ΠΡΟΦΗΤΟΥ — prophetou — to our English word “prophet.”  Notice that it begins with the joined letters Π (p) and  Ρ (r).  So let’s go on to divide the inscription into its individual words:

Literally translated, that is:

The (he) out (ek) of-the (tou) sea-monster (kutous=ketous) vomiting (anadosis) of-the (tou) prophet (prophetou) Jonah (Iona)

We can put it into normal English as:

“The Vomiting of the Prophet Jonah by the Sea Monster”

Or if we want to make it less blunt,

“The Sea Monster Expels the Prophet Jonah”
From previous  postings here, you should now be familiar with every ligature in this and the following scroll inscription:

Transliterated, it is:

There are some abbreviations, and I have supplied the missing letters in parentheses.

The inscription on the scroll is the words of Jonah as found in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, in Jonah 2:3:

Καὶ εἶπεν ᾿Εβόησα ἐν θλίψει μου πρὸς κύριον τὸν θεόν μου, καὶ εἰσήκουσέν μου· ἐκ κοιλίας ᾅδου κραυγῆς μου ἤκουσας φωνῆς μου.

Kai eipen Eboesa en thlipsei mou pros kurion ton theon mou, kai esiekousen mou
ek koilias hadou krauges mou ekousas phones mou.

And [he] said, I-cried in affliction of-me to [the] Lord the God of-me, and [he] hearkened [of] me; out of the belly of Hades cry of-me [he] heard voice of-me.

So we could translate the portion written on the scroll as:

I cried in my affliction to the Lord my God, and he hearkened to me.”

Now if we could only get out of the next four years as easily as Jonah got out of the sea monster in this old tale.



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.”


Today we will take a look at the the  “Ascension” type, called Voznesenie in Russia, and in Greek icons He Analepsis Η ΑΝΑΛΗΨΙC.
In the Bible, we find Ascension narratives only in the Gospel attributed to Luke and in the book of Acts.  Both are rather minimal.  There is also a very brief mention in the Gospel called “of Mark,” but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is a later addition.

Here is a pleasant late Russian example of the Ascension type painted in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of

The Church Slavic inscription reads ВОЗНЕСЕНИЕ ГОСПОДНЕ — Voznesenie Gospodne — “Ascension of the Lord.”

At both sides are Twelve Apostles, identified by inscription as “Apostles of the Lord.”  And in the center, as is common in “Ascension” icons, stands Mary.

Above is Jesus, rising into heaven in a circle of light carried by two angels.  Note that Jesus sits on a rainbow.  That element (not mentioned in the Gospels) comes from two main sources, the first being the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 1:

26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The second source is the book of Revelation, the “Apocalypse of John”:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

What we see in this icon, then, is not the usual Western European depiction of a standing Jesus slowly rising into the clouds, but rather a depiction of Jesus raised up to the heavenly throne on which he sits and is said to come in judgment.

Here is an earlier image of the Ascension found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, usually dated to the 6th century, though the book as a whole may be a composite volume of more than one date.  This depiction borrows elements from Ezekiel and from the Revelation:

In it, Jesus is not seated but standing, and there is no rainbow.  There are six “standard” angels (four above, two beside Mary).  Two hold the oval in which Jesus stands, two approach Jesus with wreaths of victory, and two look toward the apostles. But just below Jesus, we see a creature with four faces, wings filled with eyes, and wheels at both sides.  This too comes from Ezekiel 1 and from the Revelation 4.  The four heads, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, symbolize the four Evangelists Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.  The wheels, in Eastern Orthodox theology, are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

If you look carefully to upper left and right of the image, you will see the moon and the sun depicted as living beings.  Here is the moon:

And here the sun:

If we look at the group of Apostles, we see there are twelve.  As the Gospels relate, at the time of the Ascension there were only eleven, Judas having betrayed Jesus and committed suicide.  But the Rabbula image and many later examples of the Ascension add Paul as a twelfth apostle in the type (the twelfth was actually Matthias, chosen after the Ascension and not depicted in it).  Of course the presence of Paul is an anachronism, but Eastern Orthodoxy likes to see the Ascension icon as also an image of the Church, and so we see Mary at center (also considered an image of the Church on her own), as well as those apostles later considered the two chief apostolic founders of the Church, Peter and Paul.

Here is a much later Russian example that has neither rainbow nor the symbols of the Evangelists nor “Thrones” nor Paul.  It is influenced not only by Western and less anachronistic depictions of the Ascension, but also shows the increased realism favored by the State Church in later times.  Here the three chief figures at bottom are Mary, the Apostle Peter at left, and the Apostle John at right:

(Courtesy of

Here is another Russian example, this time again painted in the traditional “stylized” manner, with much attention given to the hill from which Jesus is rising:

(Courtesy of

The Ascension type is found not only as a separate icon, but also in icons showing the Resurrection and major Church festivals.

Now the interesting thing about Ascension icons is that they perpetuate right into modern times the ancient, pre-scientific notion of a universe that has humans living on a flat earth above which is a solid firmament, and above that firmament is not only a sea but also the throne of God.  “Heaven” in traditional Jewish and Christian belief was the sky, so of course when Jesus ascends, he ascends into the sky.  Now, however, thanks to science, we know that the firmament is not a solid dome, that there is no sea above it, and no throne room of God up there, where he sits like an ancient king.  Consequently, many modern Christians, in an attempt to adapt, have begun thinking of Heaven not as the sky, but as somehow in a separate dimension.  That view, however, is not in keeping with the Ascension icons nor with biblical accounts.  But early Christians, not knowing that the earth was round, and not knowing that the earth is only a tiny particle in an immense universe, thought that all Jesus had to do to reach Heaven was to go up.  Of course “up” would take one in multiple and different directions of space, depending on where and when on the globe one went up, as the earth revolves in its path around the sun.  And we know that one can go light years (the distance light travels in a year) in any direction and not find a physical Heaven as described in the Old and New Testaments.  All this provides major problems for today’s “literalist” Christians, which is why they tend not to think about the matter.