A reader sent me this image of a recent Greek Marian icon of the Glykophilousa (“Sweetly-Loving”) type — along with a question:

He asked not about the type of the icon, but about the inscription found in the border of Mary’s garment, as seen here:

I have to admit it puzzled me at first (it shouldn’t have) — until I realized it is to be read all in a sequence, like this:


Now as you know, in icon inscriptions Greek words are commonly run together, with no spaces between them.  But if we add the appropriate spaces, we get this:


And what is that?  Well, it is only a fragment of a longer phrase:

Παρέστη ἡ Βασίλισσα ἐκ δεξιῶν σου, ἐν ἱματισμῷ, διαχρύσω, περιβεβλημένη, πεποικιλμένη …

Pareste he Vasilissa ek dexion sou, en himatismo, diakhruso, peribeblemene, pepoikilmene …

It comes from Psalm 44:10 in the Septuagint Greek version (Psalm 45:9 KJV):

“The queen stood at your right in garments woven with gold, in various [colors].”

Now you may recall that we already know that phrase from the common title of a certain form of Deisis image found in Russian iconography:

It depicts Mary standing at the right hand of Jesus, crowned and in royal robes.  It is called “Predsta Tsaritsa” — “The Queen did Stand” — and again it comes from Psalm 44:10 — though in Church Slavic here rather than Greek.

Now of course that phrase from the Psalms originally had nothing whatsoever to do with Mary, but Eastern Orthodoxy commonly applies it to her; so when we see “The Queen Stood at Your Right,” we know it is a Marian reference, and we know it signifies Mary standing at the right hand of Jesus.

That is why we find it also as the inscription on the left side of this modern Greek icon type (in very garish neon colors) called Παναγία Βασίλισσα/Panagia Vasilissa — the “All-Holy Queen.”  Near as I can find, it seems to have been painted by a woman in Athens, Greece, named Eleni Dadi (Ελένη Ντάση):

Παρέστη ἡ βασίλισσα ἐκ δεξιῶν σου ἐν ἱματισμῷ διαχρύσῳ περιβεβλημένη, πεποικιλμένη.
Pareste he basilissa ek dexion sou en himatismo diakhruso peribeblemene, pepoikilmene.

“The queen stood at your right in garments woven with gold, in various [colors].”

If we look more closely at the garments of the Panagia Vasilissa, we again see part of Psalm 44 — in this case from 44:14 (45:13 KJV) — written in the golden border just above the fringe:

Πᾶσα ἡ δόξα τῆς θυγατρὸς τοῦ βασιλέως ἔσωθεν, ἐν κροσσωτοῖς χρυσοῖς περιβεβλημένη, πεποικιλμένη.
Pasa he doxa tes thugatros tou basileos esothen, en krossotois khrusois
peribeblemene, pepoikilmene.

… “All the glory of the daughter of the King is within, clothed in golden fringe, in many colors.”

And on the right side of the icon, we find the beginning of Psalm 44:12 (45:11 KJV):

Καὶ ἐπιθυμήσει ὁ βασιλεὺς τοῦ κάλλους σου,  [ὅτι αὐτός ἐστι Κύριός σου] …
Kai epithumesei ho basileus tou kallous sou, [hoti autos esti Kurios sou] …

“And the King has desired your beauty, [for he is your Lord].”

The King is of course Jesus — though when the Old Testament phrase is applied to Jesus and his mother, it sounds rather incestuous.  That is one of the hazards of re-applying Old Testament quotes to uses for which they were never intended.







Here is a Greek fresco out of context.  The problem, then, is in identifying its subject.

We can see there is a ruler or authority of some kind at left, recognizable as such by the crown; and there is a saint at right, so identified by his halo.  But there are many icon scenes in which one saint or another stands before an authority of some kind.  How do we know which scene this is?

Well, as you see, there is a title in Greek at the top of the image.  If you know Greek — even a little — you will quickly be able to identify the scene.

Let’s look at the inscription:


If you are a beginning student of icons, you will at least known how to read the letters, even if you may not recognize all the words.  You learned long ago on this site that every serious student of icons must know the Church Slavic and Greek alphabets, which are essential to the ability to read even the most basic inscriptions.  So if you have not done that yet, do it now.  It is not difficult, and does not take long.  There is always a link to both alphabets at the top of the blog page.

Assuming you have learned those alphabets, you can put your knowledge of Greek letters to use on this inscription.  Here it is again.  A good idea is to begin by transliterating it:


A difficulty here — and a common one in Greek inscriptions — is that there are not always clear spaces separating the words.  But in spite of that, you should see something familiar in the word ΙѠCΗΦ / IOSIF.  It is a major clue to identifying this image, because it is the Greek form of the name JOSEPH.

That means we know there is a Joseph in the image, and we know he is standing before an authority.  That gets us a bit farther.

This is where a basic Greek vocabulary is handy.  In the second line of the inscription, we see this:


You may recall that TO is the neuter form of “the” in Greek, and TOU means “of/of the.”  Further, the IV (or in a more standard font IY) has a little mark of abbreviation above it.

It looks like the Roman number IV, but remember this inscription is Greek.  And in Greek, IV — or in a more usual Greek font IY — is an abbreviation for ΙΗCΟΥ /IESOU — the “of” form of “Jesus” (Ἰησοῦς/Iesous).  So now we know the image has something to do with a Joseph, and something to do with Jesus.

Well, if you know the Bible — which you really must as a student of icons — you will recall that a Joseph of Arimathea is said to have gone before Pontius Pilate to request the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion.  And if we look at the inscription again, we can see in it the word CѠΜΑ/SOMA, meaning “body,” in the second line — so we can be reasonably confident that what we see in this image is Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate.  And if we translate the inscription completely, that is precisely what it says:

Requests Joseph the   body     of    Jesus

In normal English,
“Joseph requests the body of Jesus.”

The iconography of Joseph never became firmly settled, so he is sometimes found in icons as an old man, sometimes as middle-aged — and the colors of his garments vary from example to example as well.

The most interesting thing for me about Joseph is the group of legends relating that after the Resurrection he traveled to ancient Britain, to what is now Glastonbury.  There he is said to have rested from his travels on Wearyall Hill, where he planted his staff in the ground.  The staff grew and became the famous Glastonbury Thorn, which bloomed each year at Christmas.  At Glastonbury he was said to have built the first church of woven stakes and branches (wattle) and founded the first monastery in Britain.  Further, he is said to have brought the Grail with him to Glastonbury, and that connects him to the tales of King Arthur.  Arthur was said been buried in the Isle of Avalon, which was Glastonbury in the days when it was a region of islands and marshes.  Of course there is no solid historical foundation to all this, but it makes for a very colorful story.

If you enjoy such legends, you could hardly do better than to read the classic novel (it is for young people but very interesting for adults as well) The Hidden Treasure of Glaston, written by Eleanore M. Jewett.  It weaves the old legends into a fascinating tale through the adventures of a lame boy taken to live at the Glastonbury monastery in the England of 1171.


Here is an interesting 16th century image from the Greek-speaking area that not only shrinks geography but also combines elements of two different biblical events:

You may have guessed the main subject:  Jesus stilling the storm on the sea of Galilee.

In the manner characteristic of icons, we see progressive action — the movement of time — depicted by showing the same character twice, in two different positions.  It is a technique I like to call “static animation.”  In this case it is Jesus who is duplicated.

We see him first asleep in the stern of the boat:

We find that described in Mark 4:35-38:

And he said to them on that day — evening having come:  Let us pass over to the other side.  And having dismissed the crowd, they took him with them, since he was in the boat.  And other boats were with him.

And there occurred a violent storm of wind, and the waves were coming into the boat, so that already the boat is being filled.

And he was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.  And they awaken him and say to him:  Teacher, do you not care that we perish?

And then we see what Jesus does in response, found in Mark 4:39-41:

And he rose, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea: Silence, be still.  And the wind abated, and there was a great calm.

And he said to them:  Why are you afraid?  Do you still not have faith?

And they were afraid with a great fear, and were saying to each other:  Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Now the most interesting thing about this depiction of Jesus stilling the storm is a detail that is rather difficult to see, but if we observe closely the direction in which Jesus is looking and gesturing, we can discern it:

There he is, at the upper left side of the sea:  a black demon holding a long horn through which he blows a great wind that causes the storm on the sea of Galilee.  It is an interesting touch not actually found in the Gospels.

Now the “Sea” of Galilee is not really a sea, but rather a lake.  Nonetheless, local weather conditions can raise dangerous winds, and it is said that six-foot waves may occasionally occur during severe storms.

You are no doubt able to recognize the second major element in this depiction.  It is the separate though subsequent incident we see part of at right.  In the Gospel called “of Mark,” after the storm on the Sea of Galilee and its stilling, Jesus and his disciples arrive at the shore of the “country of the Gadarenes,” the setting for the tale of the man with the unclean spirit, found in Mark 5.  You may recall that in it, Jesus casts demons out of the man and they enter into a nearby herd of swine.  The possessed swine then run violently down a steep place into the Sea of Galilee, where they drown.  I have previously discussed the confusion we find in this geographical location and its associated story in detail (see https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/places-numbers-and-pigs/).

So that is what we see at right — the demons riding the swine down into the water:

Here is a very similar image — a fresco, also 16th century –from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos.  It is not as visually effective as the first example, nor does it have the swine-riding demons:

The little fellow causing the storm with his wind horn at upper left — in fact he is generally just identified as “the wind” — is not as blackly demonic looking either — in fact here he looks more like just a minor “wind” deity left over from pre-Christian days:

Before we leave this subject, we should take a look at the Greek title inscription on the image:

It is:


In full — and in standard spelling, it would be:


“[The] Christ Commanding the Sea.”





If you have been reading here for some time, you will easily recognize this as an icon of “John the Forerunner,” who is more commonly called John the Baptist outside Eastern Orthodoxy (though sometimes within it as well).

His iconography in this example is rather typical, but here is a quick review:

John is shown clothed in a hair garment, with a cloth wrap over it.  He stands in a stylized wilderness.  At lower left we see an axe and a tree, which represents Matthew 3:10:

And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

John is winged, in keeping with the double meaning of the word angelos in Greek; it can mean both messenger, and also an angel as a messenger of God.  Also, in Eastern Orthodoxy John is often called a “heavenly man and earthly angel.”

Jesus blesses John from heaven, at upper right.

At lower right we see John’s head in a salver, signifying his manner of death according to the Gospels.

Now let’s take a look at what is different — and new to us in this icon.  It is the long Greek inscription on his scroll, which is not that we usually find on icons of John, but one less common:

His scroll text — addressed to Jesus — is this (with some variation in spelling):

Οράς οία πάσχουσιν, ω Θεού Λόγε, οι πταισμάτων έλεγχοι των βδελυκτέων. Έλεγχον και γαρ μη φέρων ο Ηρώδης,τέτμηκεν, ιδού, την εμήν κάραν, Σώτερ.

Here is a loose translation:

“You see how suffer, O Word of God, those who reprove the wrongs of the abominable.  For not bearing reproof, behold, Herod cut off my head, Savior.”

So with his severed head in front of him, he is telling Jesus, “You see how people who reprimand the wrongdoings of the wicked suffer.  Because he could not endure my criticism — look, Savior! — Herod cut off my head.”

Now there are a number of odd things about John.  Among them is that he is mentioned in the Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, though that account disagrees with those in the canonical Gospels.  Josephus says Herod had John executed because of John’s influence over crowds of people and thus raised the possibility of a rebellion.  The Gospels say John was killed because he condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who was already married, and so as a woman could not legally marry Herod by Jewish law.  There also appears to be a discrepancy in the dating of John, who in Josephus seems to have been killed after the death of Jesus, while in the Gospels his death comes nearer the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.  However, there is some disagreement among scholars over the precise placement of John in the chronology of Josephus.

Most notable is that the account of John the Baptist in Josephus does not in any way connect him with Jesus.



Today we will look at the iconography of one of the saints of the island of Crete:

(Byantine and Christian Museum, Athens)

In the center we see the large image of the saint himself.  If it once had his title, it is worn away.  But we see it abbreviated in another similar icon of the same fellow:

We see:


abbreviating  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC/Ho Hagios — “The Holy”;

And we see

It has a mark of abbreviation above it.  It abbreviates ΙѠΑΝΝΗC/Ioannes — “John”:

And finally, divided into two parts at the sides of his head, we find:

Ὁ ΕΡΗ               ΜΙΤΗC   — Ho Eremites — “The Hermit.

If we put it all together, we get:



Because he was a monk, John is often titled Όσιος Ιωάννης ο Ερημίτης/Hosios Ioannes ho Eremites.  You will recall that Hosios is the Greek equivalent of the Russian Prepodobnuiy; it signifies a male monastic.

You may have recognized that the Greek word ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC/Eremites is already found in English as “eremite,” and in fact our English word “hermit” comes ultimately from the Greek eremites, which in turn is derived from Greek ἔρημος/eremos — meaning a deserted, wild place.  It is the word used in the New Testament for the “desert” where John the Forerunner/Baptist preached.  So an eremite or hermit was originally one who went out to live in wild, uninhabited places — like the Judean desert, or the Nitrian Desert in Egypt.

The icon of John the Hermit tells the hagiographic tale of his life in condensed form.  We will look at elements of this tale taken from two similar icons.  Remember that these lives of the saints are not literal history, but rather tales to inspire and entertain believers — so they are often a mixture of history and fanciful fiction — and sometimes entirely fiction.

The tale tells us that in the year 1600 (others say it may have been even some two centuries earlier) 36 monastics came with John from Egypt to lead ascetic lives on the island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea.  There they made such a local impression that they were joined by 39 more — this time Cypriots.  By this time, things were so lively around them that they wanted to find a quieter place to live a monastic life.  First they tried going to Antalya in Asia Minor (now in Turkey), but again they were pestered by lots of religious “groupies.”  Nonetheless, another 24 monastics joined them, so now they were, all together, 99 monks.  They decided that number was enough, and would not accept more, because they considered Jesus to the the 100th member of their community — a nice round number.

To find a quieter place for their ascetic lifestyle, they got on a ship and headed for the island of Crete, but the weather was bad and the sea rough, so they only managed to make it to the island of Gavdos, which is about 26 miles south of Crete.   There they stayed only for 24 days, and then set off again, sailing to Crete.

When they got there, they discovered that John was missing.  According to the tale, he had fallen asleep on Gavdos, and so missed the boat when all the others got on board to sail for Crete.

When they found John was gone, they went to the beach and waited there for him.  And John was supposedly able to miraculously put his mantle on the sea, and using his staff as a mast, he stepped onto the cloth and sailed across the waters to join the other monks on Crete.

That is what we see in this part of the icon.  At the top is the ship.  Below it, John stands at right on the island of Gavdos.  Another monk stands on the shore of Crete, opposite him.  And then below that we see John sailing across the sea from Gavdos to Crete on his cloth mantle:

Below  that, we find the old monks all gathered together, and above them is a Greek inscription identifying them as ῾Η Σύναξις τῶν Γερόντων/He Synaxis ton Geronton — “The Assembly of the Elders.”

The remainder of scenes on the left side of the icon deal with the death of John.

The monks, having arrived on Crete, lived in caves.  John eventually went off to find a place by himself.

So he left the 98 other “Fathers,” and went to Akrotiri on Crete.  There he managed to live in a cave he found for many years.

It is said that John prayed so much on his knees that at last he had trouble standing, and would crawl about on all fours.  It happened that one day when he was out gathering greens for food, a hunter passing by with his bow and arrows mistook John crawling in the bushes for a beast, and shot him with an arrow.

He begged and received John’s forgiveness.

John is said to have breathed his last in his cave, and in the icon we see his koimesis/”dormition” there — his death, with an angel on each side of his body.

Here is the second of the two icons of John the Hermit, which as you can see, is much the same as the first.

There is a particularly peculiar element in John’s hagiography.  He is supposed to have made an agreement with the other 98 monks that when one of them died, they would all die.  And it is said that when the hunter who accidentally killed John went to inform the other monks of John’s death, he found that they had already died at the time when John died.