Today’s posting is brief.  It is here primarily to answer a question from a reader, and it is likely that others have the same question.  So here goes.

You are probably all familiar with the usual icons of the Annunciation — the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, telling her she is to bear a son.  Here is a 14th century Byzantine example, showing the usual elements.  It is standard to have Gabriel at left, and Mary at right.  Most of the Annunciation icons one sees, in spite of small variations in detail, just have the two persons.

(Skoplje Museum)


In some Russian and Greek icons of the 15th to 17th centuries, however, we find an added person.  Here, for example, we see it in a Novgorod icon of the 16th century:

There she is– the “extra” person at lower right, seated below Mary.  Here is a larger view:

If you look just to the right of her hands, you can see a vertical rod with round knobs at intervals.  It is a device used in spinning, and that is what this person is doing.  Though it is difficult to see, she is holding a thread in her left hand, attached to a spindle in her right hand.  She is an anonymous sluzhanka, as she would be called in Russia — a serving maid.  You can see she has no halo.

Such a pre- spinning wheel device (but it was still in use in rural areas in relatively modern times) is called a прялка/pryalka in Russian.  A small mass of tow (unspun flax fibers) was placed on a holder atop the rod.  The rod itself was fixed at the base into a long, flat, horizontal board, on which the spinner sat.  She pulled the tow with her left hand, and as it was twisted into thread, it was wound on the spindle.  Many later pryalki (plural form) had heavily decorated tops to hold the tow.  You see examples of various kinds in this photo taken from an article by Elena Svetoyarova (

By the way, tow used to be a common word in English, but now that most people have lost touch with the old crafts of spinning and weaving at home, it is seldom used.  It was the source of the term “towhead”, often used for a child with very light flaxen hair.  Perhaps you recall the pleasant French piano composition by Debussy — “La fille aux cheveux de lin” — “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

If we look closely at the image of Mary in this icon, we see that she too holds a thread that passes through her hands to the spool seen at left, but in her case, the thread is red:

You may recall the apocryphal tradition that Mary was chosen to weave the veil for the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here is another Russian example from the 16th century.  It too includes the sluzhanka as an “extra” person.

(Andrei Rublev Central Museum of Early Russian Culture and Art)

And there again is that tall, knobbly rod used in spinning, just to the right of the maid.

So now you know.  The answer is nothing mysterious, just the addition of an icon “extra” in the scene.  As you may recall from a previous posting, I like to compare the persons — such as this sluzhanka — who are occasionally found in icons, to “extras” in a movie — those persons who are in a scene, but have no name or credit — just as an icon “extra” generally is given no name or title.





As I have mentioned previously, the prophets can be a real pain for students of icons.  The problem is not in identifying them.  That is usually easy.  It is in their scroll inscriptions.

The podlinniki — the manuals of icon painting — give descriptions of how prophets are to be painted, and they also generally give scroll inscriptions for each.  One would think that would make the matter easy, but it does not.  The podlinnik instructions for prophets’ scroll inscriptions are frequently not the inscriptions we encounter on actual icons of them, so one never knows what inscription might be used on an old icon for a given prophet.  That is where the difficulty lies.

The best one can do then — aside from being familiar with the podlinnik inscriptions — is to take each icon case by case, and that is not always easy, particularly if a scroll inscription is damaged or fragmentary.

Nonetheless, let’s have a go at an example:

Here is a 16th century fresco of a prophet from the Dionysiou Monastery at Mt. Athos:

As usual, he is easy to identify by his title inscription:


He is the prophet ΜΑΛΑΧΙΑC / MALAKHIAS — the Greek form of Malachi.

Now we come to his scroll inscription:

As is common in old inscriptions, there are some abbreviations and some ligatures — joined letters.

It begins with these words:

The first letter is I; the second letter that looks like an A in Roman lettering is actually one way of writing a D (Δ) in Greek.  And the third letter is a combination of two letters —  ΟΥ — OU in English — with the O below and the Y on top.  So all together, they make the Greek word

ΙΔΟΥ — Idou — meaning “Behold.”

The second word — a bit worn in the inscription — is ΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ/ERKHETAI, meaning (he/she/it) “comes.”  It begins on the first line and ends on the second.

Then we find the first abbreviation:

It is a Κ and C  — K and S in English — and that little horizontal curved line above is, you may recall, the sign of abbreviation.  Those two letters together signify the word ΚΥΡΙΟC/KURIOS, meaning “Lord.”

And then comes a real give-away word:

The first three letters of the word are squeezed into the end of the line:

ΠΑΝ — with the A smaller and a small N written above it.

Then comes T and O, with the O written beneath the T.  Then comes the end of the word:

All together, they spell a very common icon word: ΠΑΝΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ/PANTOKRATOR — meaning “Almighty.”  Remember that the ω here is the same letter as Ω in the modern Greek alphabet, and it is pronounced the same as the letter O.

Thus far we have IDOU ERKHETAI KURIOS PANTOKRATOR — which is easy to translate as:
“Behold, comes [the] Lord Almighty…”

And if you are clever (you must be, if you are reading this peculiar blog site), you will then suspect that it is likely to be something written in the Old Testament book of Malachi.  So the next step — given that the inscription is in Greek — is to look for those words in the Septuagint Greek version of the book of Malachi.

And behold, what we find there in Malachi 3:1-2 is:

ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ …

Idou erkhetai legei kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

It reads just the same as the icon scroll text except for the third word λέγει/legei, meaning “[he] says.”

If we put it into English, we get this:

“Behold, he is coming, says the Lord Almighty.  And who will endure the day of his coming?”

So, if we remove the word legei/”says” from the text in the book of Malachi, we will have the text on the icon scroll:

Idou erkhetai kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

Behold comes Lord Almighty and who will-endure the day coming-of his

Or in normal English,

“Behold the Lord Almighy comes, and who will endure the day of his coming?”

It is not uncommon to find that the writers of icon scrolls vary a text slightly, as has been done here by removing one word.

You may recall that this abbreviation in the latter part of the inscription  — a K with a diagonal stroke at right bottom …

… is the word και/kai, meaning “and.”

And you should also remember this ligature — the one that looks rather like a 9 in English:

It is the joined letters ει/ei, and in the inscription we find it in the word

ὑπομενεῖ / hupomenei — meaning “endure,” and also at the beginning of the word

εἰσόδου /eisodou — meaning “entrance,” or more loosely, “coming.”

If you recall the two similar ligatures

— which joins A and N,


— which joins A and U —

that should take care of the scroll inscription — except to note, as mentioned at the beginning, that it is not the scroll inscription given — for example — in the Greek painter’s manual known as the Hermeneia of Dionysios of Fourna:

According to that manual, his inscription should be:

Tade legei Kurios:
apo anatolon heliou kai eos dusmon to onoma mou

“Thus says the Lord:
‘From the rising of the sun and until setting my name …'”

That is a fragment from Malachi 1:11.

Now having gone through all that, you might pause and ask yourself what on earth you are doing here wasting your time with all this esoteric stuff about translating Greek icon inscriptions. Well, if you are a regular reader of this site, it is a rather hopeless question.  People are what they are, and some find themselves interested in and curious about the strangest and most useless things.  So don’t worry.  Don’t bore your neighbors with it, and you will be fine.  Just continue to act normal in public.






The title got your attention, did it not?  Well, it is not as interesting as it sounds.  Symeon is Symeon Metaphrastes, the noted 10th century compiler of the Greek Menologion, which gives “lives” of the Eastern Orthodox saints in ten volumes.  He was not a critical writer, but rather unquestioningly accepted his sources as he found them, one reason why there is so much nonsense in the Orthodox lives of the saints.  Scholars assert that some of the lives in the collection were added after Symeon.

The “Lesbian” is an apparently fictional saint (though regarded as genuine in Eastern Orthodoxy) whose tale is recorded in the Greek Menologion, apparently re-worked there from an earlier account written about 920 c.e. by Niketas Magistros.   She is  ὉΣΙΑ ΘΕΟΚΤΙΣΤΗ Ἡ ΛΕΣΒΙΑ/HOSIA THEOKTISTE HE LESBIA — Theoktiste the Lesbian, but “Lesbian” is used here in its original sense, meaning simply someone from the Isle of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean Sea.

Her story in brief is this:

She was born in Mithymna (Methymna) on Lesbos, but was orphaned early in life, and given to a monastery, where she was happy and pious in the monastic life.  In 846 c.e. at age 18 she went to visit her sister in another village on the Feast of the Resurrection.  The night after she arrived, Muslim pirates took all the people of the village — Theoktiste included — captive, and sailed off southward with them to the then mostly deserted Isle of Paros, where they intended to sort them by value for eventual sale as slaves.  Theoktiste somehow managed to escape, and spent the next 35 years on Paros, living as a pious and ascetic hermitess, with her dwelling being an old church dedicated to Mary — The Church of the All-Holy One of the Hundred Gates (Παναγία η Ἑκατονταπυλιανή Panagia he Hekatontapyliani)

Eventually a group of hunters came to the island, and one of them entered the church.  There he saw a strange figure in a corner near the altar.  The figure spoke, telling him not to approach, because she was ashamed to be seen as a nude woman.  He offered his cloak, and dressing herself in it, she came all grey and shriveled out into the light, and began to tell her story.  Then she asked the man to bring her a bit of the “Presanctified Gifts” — portions of the Eucharistic bread and wine — if he were to visit the island again in that year.  He eventually came back to the island, bringing the Eucharistic portions she had requested.  She received and consumed them in tears.  He left to do some hunting on the island, and on returning, he found Theoktista had died.  He dug a shallow grave, but on burying her, he cut off one of her hands to take as a holy relic.  Then he boarded and sailed away.  But when the morning came, he and his companions were shocked to find the ship seemed not to have moved at all,  but was still off the shore of Paros, and he decided this was a divine way of telling him the hand was not to leave the island.  He returned the hand to the body in the grave, and the ship sailed off with no further trouble.  While on the voyage, he told his story to his shipmates, and they all insisted on returning to Paros to venerate the relics of Theoktiste.  But when they arrived, her body was nowhere to be found.  Church tradition gives the year of her death as 881 c.e.

Now it is not hard to see that there are elements in this story that seem suspiciously reminiscent of the tale of of the desert ascetic St. Mary of Egypt.

You will recall that in that other tale, the Elder Zosima goes out into the desert and finds there a naked and grey-haired ascetic woman who is Mary of Egypt.  He gives her his cloak, and she comes to him and they talk.  She tells her story  in which she had gone by ship to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  She tries to go into a church there, but a mysterious force will not let her enter.  She repents and then is able to enter the church.

Mary asks Zosima to bring her some of the Eucharistic bread and wine a year from the time of their meeting.  She takes the Eucharist, and asks him to come again the following year.  When he returns a year later, he finds only her dead body.  He buries the body with the aid of a lion, who digs the grave with his claws.

So all these elements are common to both the tale of Mary of Egypt and the tale of Theoktiste the Lesbian:

The finding of an ascetic, grey-haired woman in a deserted place;
The giving of the cloak and the telling of the story of her life;
The presence of a ship in the tale;
A journey involving a Church feast (one the Exaltation of the Cross, the other the Resurrection);
A mysterious force that will not permit something to be done until there is repentance (in one case Mary unable to enter a church, in the other a ship unable to get away from the island);
The request by the ascetic female for portions of Eucharistic bread and wine to be delivered within a year’s time;
The finding of the body of the saint, and its burial by the discoverer of the ascetic female.

It is generally held by scholars that the tale of St. Theoktiste was simply a borrowing of the story of Mary of Egypt, updated by changing its setting to the Greek Isles and the time of the Saracen raids.

If one goes to the Hekatontapyliani Church on Paros, one still finds there a depression the marble floor that is identified as the “footprint of St. Theoktiste.”

The icons one is likely to encounter of Symeon Metaphrastes tend to be both uncommon and recent, and his iconography is often confused with that of another Symeon — Symeon the New Theologian, whose icons are more common.

Icons of Theoktiste are also generally recent, like this example with a Greek inscription identifying the rather “Goth”-like figure as Ἡ ὉΣΙΑ ΘΕΟΚΤΙΣΤΗ Ἡ ΛΕΣΒΙΑ/He Hosia Theoktiste he Lesbia.  You will recall that Hosia is the title used for a female monastic saint.



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.



Part of the fun of icons is in trying to translate some of the roughly or oddly written inscriptions.

Here, for example, is a Greek-inscribed icon you will recognize as John the Forerunner — John the Baptist.  Greek icons of John often have a “wild and wooly” appearance, almost like a combination of primitive art and more abstract art:

(Courtesy of

But it is his scroll that interests us today:

The texts used on John’s scroll in icons are usually quite limited, so one might guess at what it says, but it is best to be able to read it, though some of the spelling is phonetic rather than standard.  Also, it is a little worn, but nonetheless we can make out what was intended.  Here is what it looks like:








Well, with a little imagination, we can tell that the painter’s intention was a standard inscription:

Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawn near.”

The painter did some (for us) odd things, for example using OI where we would expect I or H in Greek, but that is easily explained — all three have the same  “ee” sound in later Greek, so again, he was just writing phonetically.

The title inscription is a bit odd in its arrangement.  We see it in the upper left-hand corner:

It is meant to be read from lower left to upper left to upper right.

At lower left we have


The bottom letter above is not quite clear in the inscription, but nonetheless we can easily see that the inscription is to be understood as  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — “The Holy…”

The name Ιωάννης/Ioannes/John at top left is abbreviated to only two letters — Ιω.

When we get to his title at upper right, we see the beginning Ὁ/Ho/”The” followed by a very elaborate ligature intended to represent — when joined to the ΟC/os ending, the word Πρόδρομος/Prodromos/ “Forerunner.”

So we see that the title intended by the abbreviations and fancy ligature is Ὁ Άγιος Ιωάννης ο ΠρόδρομοςHO HAGIOS IOANNES HO PRODROMOS — “THE HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”

From earlier postings here on John, you will already know why he is shown with wings.  If you don’t remember, or if you are new here, you will find the answer in this posting:



Here is a 16th century fresco image from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

As you see, it has no inscription.  If you are clever, you might recognize the traditional depictions of the apostles Peter and Paul in the foreground, but beyond that this image may mystify you.  Who is the little fellow at upper left, and what is he holding?  Well, it is another one of those relic stories so common in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The little fellow in the sky at upper left is the Apostle Thomas.  According to one variant of tradition, when the time came for Mary, mother of Jesus, to die, she requested to see the Twelve Apostles.  All of them arrived — brought on clouds in the sky — except Thomas, who was busy preaching in far-off India.  Thomas was only able to set off three days after her “dormition,” her “falling asleep,” the euphemistic term for her death.

Now it happened that while Thomas was on his way to Mary’s death — riding his “cloud taxi” — Mary had ascended to heaven.  She appeared to Thomas and dropped her belt down to him.

When Thomas arrived at the tomb, he showed the belt the ascended Mary had given him to the other apostles.  And that is what we see in this Athos fresco — Thomas, having arrived in his cloud at left, holds out the belt of Mary, showing it to the other apostles.  Mary’s closed tomb is in the foreground.  And of course the tale continues that when the apostles opened the tomb, it was empty — verifying the tale of Thomas that Mary had ascended to heaven.

In other variants of the tale, Thomas was already at the tomb of Mary when she dropped her belt down to him from heaven.  And yet another variant merely says the belt was given to two widows in Jerusalem before Mary’s “dormition.”

Now interestingly, the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos claims to have the belt Mary gave to Thomas.  But one need not go that far.  The Italian town of Prato — just a bit north of Florence — also has what is claimed to be the belt Mary gave to Thomas, kept in the Cathedral.  That is, unless you prefer to see as authentic the segment of the belt said to be kept by the Syriac Orthodox Church at the Church of the Holy Belt in Homs, Syria.  Other places have also claimed to have the relic.  But as we know, relics were a big business in byzantine and medieval times, able to draw many pilgrims and their money to whatever place claimed to own them.  And the enterprising market easily provided what the customer wanted, in the days before carbon dating and DNA testing.

In any case, the belt was supposedly taken to Constantinople in the 5th century, and this Russian icon depicts its placing in the Church of the Khalkoprateia there.  The vyaz inscription at the top says:


“Placing of the Honorable Belt of the Most Pure Mother of God in the Khalkoprateia.”

Later it was supposedly taken to Mount Athos, where one part of it was said to be kept in a cross and the other part in a reliquary (kibotos).

Now as one can tell, these old traditions are confused and contradictory, and certainly should not be taken as literal history, but rather seen as a part of all the fables and tales of commonly false relics that were a standard part of Christian belief and devotion — whether in the “Orthodox” East or Catholic West — in earlier times.

Here is a 16th century painting by the Venetian artist Palma il Vecchio (c. 1480-1528) — Palma the Elder –, showing a “Western” version of the legend of the giving of the belt of Mary (or if you prefer a fancier term, the “Holy Cincture”).  It used to be called the “Holy Girdle,” but the pictures that raised in the mind were too peculiar for that term to be used in modern times.





The Bible is full of paradoxes and discrepancies, which has contributed to the very large number of Christian denominations with their varying interpretations.  On one hand we find the words put into the mouth of Jesus in Matthew 26:32:

“Then Jesus said to him, Put up again your sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

And yet in he is recorded as saying in Matthew 10:34:

“Do not think that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

And in Luke 22:36, he even advises any of his disciples not having a sword to sell his garment and buy one:

“Then he said to them, But now, he that has a purse, let him take it, and likewise his bag: and he that has no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”

In Ephesians 6:7 we find:

“And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

And in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Given these (and there are more) biblical connections between the sword and Jesus — who is also known as the “Word” — we find this unusual depiction — a 14th century fresco at the Vysoki Dechani Monastery in Kosovo, Serbia:
Let’s look at what can be read of the inscription from the photo:

After the faded first line, it appears to say:


“This Sword [is the] Cutter of Sins.”

It is difficult to discern just what was in the mind of the originator of this image, but given the volatile politics of the region, it would be easy for an ordinary person to get the impression that it justifies religious violence, which is a very dangerous possibility.

Even the image as a fresco was unusual, and it was not adopted as a standard icon type, so we do not find old painted icons of it.   Some contemporary painters, nonetheless, are making new icons of it — though they may add a different inscription, such as this one, which as we have seen, comes from Hebrews 4:12:

Живо бо слово Божие и действенно, и острейше паче всякаго меча обоюду остра, [и проходящее даже до разделения души же и духа, членов же и мозгов, и судително помышлением и мыслем сердечным.]

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, [piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” ]

Given the problematic ambiguity of representing Jesus with a sword, it seems odd that anyone would want to revive such an image.  There is, however, this recent and different Greek-inscribed example, also showing Jesus with a sword:

ὀ εκδικητηςa.jpg

It bears the title:

Iesous Khristos ho Ekdiketes

“Jesus Christ The Avenger.”

The text on the book he holds is from Isaiah 45:21-22:

… δίκαιος καὶ σωτὴρ οὐκ ἔστιν πάρεξ ἐμοῦ. 22 ἐπιστράφητε ἐπ᾿ ἐμὲ καὶ σωθήσεσθε, οἱ ἀπ᾿ ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς· ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ Θεός, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλος.

“… a just one and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and you shall be saved, you from the end of the earth: I am God, and there is no other.”

Sadly, in the history of the “Abrahamic” belief systems, religion and violence are seldom far apart.