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:
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 Πρόδρομος — HO HAGIOS IOANNES HO PRODROMOS — “THE HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”
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:
ПОЛОЖЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНАГО ПОЯСЯ ПРЕЧИСТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ В ХАЛКОПРAТIИ POLOZENIE CHESTNAGO POYASYA PRECHISTUIYA BOGORODITSUI V KHALKOPRATIY
“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:
СIИ МЕЧЬИЕ ОУСЕКАТЕЛЬ ГРЕХОМЬ
“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:
It bears the title:
ΙΕCΟΥΣ ΧΡΙCΤΟΣ Ό ΕΚΔΙΚΗΤΗC Iesous Khristos ho Ekdiketes
“Jesus Christ The Avenger.”
The text on the book he holds is from Isaiah 45:21-22:
Here is a fresco in the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece. It depicts a well-known scene from the Gospel called “of John” (20:24-29):
At the top, we see the title:
or in full,
Ἡ ΨΗΛΆΦΗCΙC ΤΟΥ ΘΟΜΆ HE PSELAPHESIS TOU THOMA
“The Touching of Thomas,”
or as it would better be rendered in English,
“The Touching by Thomas.”
In Russian examples, it is often called Уверение Фомы Uverenie Fomui
“[The] Assuring of Thomas.”
or Уверование Фомы Uverovanie Fomui
“[The] Belief of Thomas.”
The account in “John” says that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, and it continues:
“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
The other disciples therefore said to him, We have seen the Lord [Greek ton kyrion]. But he said to them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be to you.
Then says he to Thomas, Reach here your finger, and look at my hands; and reach here your hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
And Thomas answered and said to him, My Lord and my God.
Jesus says to him, Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.“
It is noteworthy that this story of Thomas not believing the resurrection of Jesus until he touches the wounds inflicted by the crucifixion is not found in any other Gospel. It is unique to John. That tells us the writer of John — whoever he was — had a particular theological interest in showing that Jesus — though risen — had a physical body. There were other Christian groups at the time who believed that Jesus had no physical body, but only appeared to possess one. Early Christianity was not monolithic, but consisted of a number of different Christian communities with differing beliefs. The fixing of Christian teaching into “universally binding” dogmatic creeds came later, and was the result of the desire to eliminate such disagreements.
Now interestingly, this declaration of Thomas to Jesus, calling him “My Lord and my God, has been a focus of endless controversy through the history of Christianity. Some groups said it means that Thomas is here identifying Jesus as God himself. Others said it cannot possibly mean that, given other statements about Jesus in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible.
The controversy is still going on within Christianity today.
While “John” obviously had a very high view of the nature and person of Jesus — much more blatantly so than the other gospels, he basically repeats the Hellenistic notion found also in Philo of Alexandria, that Jesus is in reality the Logos –– the Word, or better, the Reason, of the hidden God who functions in the world through the Logos as his emanation, using the Logos as his means of interacting with the world and with humankind — and even of creating “all things.” So as Philo wrote, this Logos was a “second God.” Students of classical Greek religion will recognize in this a more developed form of the same notion found in the tale of the origin of the Goddess Athena — the Goddess of Wisdom and intelligence (i.e “reason”) — who was born when she sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus, fully armed.
There was always much controversy in early Christianity over precisely in what sense Jesus was divine — whether he was actually the God, or divine in a somewhat lesser sense. But controversy and bickering over doctrine has existed in Christianity from its very beginning. In the writings of Paul — considered to be the earliest in the New Testament, we find Paul disagreeing with Peter and the Jerusalem Church, and in Galatians we even find the irritable Paul saying of other Christians with whom he disagreed on one point,
“Would that those who are stirring you up would castrate themselves.” ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμᾶς.
The arguing never stopped. The Christian writer Origin quoted Celsus, the 2nd century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity, who said of the Christian groups of his time (Contra Celsum, 64):
You may hear, he says, all those who differ so widely, and who assail each other in their disputes with the most shameless language, uttering the words, ‘The world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.’
Regarding the declaration of Thomas — “My Lord and my God” — those Christians who believed Jesus is God interpreted it as being addressed directly to Jesus by Thomas — Thomas declaring that Jesus is both Lord and God.
Some, however, had and have a different interpretation. In fact they have many different explanations of why this cannot possibly mean what it appears to mean — and cannot seem to settle on any one explanation as the definitive answer. Sometimes they say it is just an exclamation, and not an address to Jesus as God; they appeal to the context, to other quotes in the Gospels that seem to indicate Jesus is not the God; or they say that perhaps it is an archaic manner of speaking no longer understood; some even use the excuse of Greek grammar, claiming that if Thomas had been directly addressing Jesus, he would have used the vocative case — that instead of saying
Ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou
He would have said instead,
Kyrie mou kai thee mou
Interestingly we find the same grammatical construction found in John — only with “Lord” and “Jesus” reversed in order — in the Septuagint Greek Bible used by the early Christians, in Psalm 34:23:
“Awake, Lord, and attend to my judgment, my God and my Lord, [even] to my cause.”
In Greek the text of “John” is:
ἀπεκρίθη Θωμᾶς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ὁ κύριός μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου. apekrithe Thomas kai eipen auto: Ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou
“Answered Thomas and said to him: The Lord of me and the God of me.”
Or, as we would put it in normal English,
“Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.”
Of course there is a vocative Kyrie found at the very beginning of the sentence in which the parallel construction is found in the Psalm:
My point in discussing these esoteric matters is not to defend any side of the question here, but rather to point out that historically, there was never doctrinal agreement among various Christian groups from the very beginning of Christianity, not even on such a matter as who precisely, Jesus was — whether man, spirit, angel, a lesser god or the God.
When the matter came to a head in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, and was put to a church council — the so-called “First Ecumenical Council,” the Council of Nicea — Constantine seems not to have much cared which opinion carried the day, as long as it stopped bickering Christians from creating divisions among the people of his empire. It did not.
So historically in Christianity, there was and is still the question of just what John actually meant by having Thomas declare to Jesus “My Lord and my God.” Many early Christians were subordinationists, believing that though Jesus was God, nonetheless, because he was begotten by the Father — or in other terms was an emanation of the hidden God — he was on a secondary and subordinate level to God the Father. One even finds such an argument made in the Gospel of John (14:28):
You have heard how I said to you, I go away, and come again to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice, because I said, I go to the Father: for my Father is greater than I.
My reason for discussing all of this is not to intentionally bore you, but to point out some of the problems inherent in Christian history. It is quite obvious that, given the full history of Christian doctrinal disagreement from the beginnings to now — disagreements obvious even in the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts — that one can hardly successfully argue — as many fundamentalists attempt — for an inerrant Bible. The frequent ambiguities of the component documents have contributed greatly to the ongoing differences among Christians as to just what was meant by this or that biblical writer. And keep in mind that disagreements among Christians preceded the assembling of the various books of the New Testament, together with those of the Old Testament, into a Christian Bible.
Martin Luther got the Protestant Reformation underway with the principle of Sola scriptura — “Scripture alone” as the deciding authority in determining doctrine. But as he quickly found, “Scripture” still requires interpretation, and others who disagreed with Luther’s interpretations began popping up almost immediately.
Christianity had earlier attempted (or at least the political and religious hierarchy had attempted) to solve the problem by saying that the determining authority as to what any part of the Bible means is the Church and Church tradition, which is the view of Roman Catholicism. Eastern Orthodoxy has a similar approach; that the Church created the Bible, and the Church — through the writings of the Church Fathers and tradition — is the only authority in interpreting it. Of course there are great numbers of other Christian groups who did and do disagree.
It all reminds one of Mark Twain’s remark:
“Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them.”
A reader kindly shared this image of a Greek engraving from 1859 — an icon of the “Akathist Hymn.” It is a lengthy hymn in praise of Mary, and lines from it are often found in Eastern Orthodox iconography.
There are many Akathists to this or that saint or icon, but the original Akathist — the most famous one to Mary — is that attributed by tradition to Romanos the Melodist in the 7th century, though actually no one really knows who wrote it. Ακαθιστος/Akathistos means literally “Not (a-) seated (-kathistos), meaning the congregation was expected to stand while it was recited or sung.
Let’s look at the title inscription at the top:
Ὁ ΑΚΑΘΙΣΤΟΣ ὙΜΝΟΣ ΤΗΣ ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΑΕΙΠΑΡΘΕΝΟΥ ΜΑΡΙΑΣ HO AKATHISTOS HYMNOS TES THEOTOKOU KAI AEIPARTHENOU MARIAS
“THE AKATHIST HYMN OF THE THEOTOKOS AND EVER-VIRGIN MARIA.”
“Theotokos,” you will recall, is the title given Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy, meaning loosely “Birth-giver of God” — (Θεος/Theos = “God,” τοκος/tokos = childbirth).
In the outer borders we see the beginning kontakion of the hymn given in Greek (left)
and Church Slavic (right)
It is the phrase often found in iconography:
Τῇ ὑπερμάχῷ στρατηγῷ τὰ νικητήρια…
Взбранной Воеводе победительная …
“To you, invincible commander …”
An Akathist print or icon generally illustrates the “houses” (Greek oikoi) — of the hymn — the strophes that “tell the story,” beginning with the Annunciation. The inscription at the top of each segment identifies it in both Greek and Church Slavic on this print, for example the first has the inscriptions:
Ἄγγελος πρωτοστάτης Ангел предстатель
“An archangel (was sent from heaven)…”
There are of course painted icons of the Akathist, and it is common for them –as well as for Akathist prints — to have the oikoi — the “houses” — surrounding a larger central image of Mary. Just which image is used varies from icon to icon. In Greek examples, it is common for the central image to be the “Unfading Flower” type of Mary, and it is sometimes found in Russian images as well, though other Marian icon types may replace it in other examples, such as the “Unburnt Thornbush,” etc. etc. By the way, when you see the word Ikos in Greek Orthodox liturgical texts, it is just the later Greek pronunciation of oikos — “house.”
Here is a Church Slavic inscribed Akathist print from near the end of the 19th century, very much like the earlier Greek example:
The figures in circles around the central “Unfading Flower” image of Mary in this example are the prophets who supposedly foretold Mary. We have seen them before in icons of the “Praise of the Mother of God.” Both the “Unfading Flower” and “Praise of the Mother of God” icons were discussed in earlier postings (see site archives).
Here, for reference, is the Akathist Hymn in English, in Greek, and in Church Slavic. In the Greek version, the first letter of each “house” — in order — together form the Greek Alphabet.
To you, O Theotokos [“Birth-giver of God], invincible Champion, your city [or “we your people”], in thanksgiving ascribes the victory for the deliverance from sufferings. And having your might unassailable, free us from all dangers, so that we may cry unto you:
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
An Archangel was sent from Heaven to cry ‘Rejoice!’ to the Theotokos. And seeing You, O Lord, taking bodily form, he stood in awe, and with his bodiless voice cried aloud to her such things as these:
Rejoice, you through whom joy shall shine forth. Rejoice, you through whom the curse will vanish.
Rejoice, the Restoration of fallen Adam. Rejoice, the Redemption of the tears of Eve.
Rejoice, O Height beyond human logic. Rejoice, O depth invisible even to the eyes of Angels.
Rejoice, for you are the King’s throne. Rejoice, you bear Him, Who bears the universe.
Rejoice, O Star revealing the Sun. Rejoice, O Womb of divine Incarnation.
Rejoice, you through whom creation is renewed. Rejoice, you through whom the Creator is born a Babe.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Beholding herself in purity, the holy one courageously said to Gabriel: Your strange voice seems almost unbelievable to my soul; for how do you speak of birth-giving without seed? And she cried aloud:
Seeking to know the incomprehensible knowledge, the Virgin cried to him who ministered to her: How may a Son be born from a virginal womb? Tell me! To her he answered in fear, yet crying thus:
Rejoice, O seer of the ineffable Will. Rejoice, O surety of those praying in silence.
Rejoice, you the Preface of Christ’s miracles. Rejoice, you the Pinnacle of His commandments.
Rejoice, O heavenly Ladder, by which God descended. Rejoice, O Bridge leading those from earth to Heaven.
Rejoice, O Miracle, much marveled of Angels. Rejoice, O trauma, much dirged of demons.
Rejoice, you who ineffably gave birth to the Light. Rejoice, you who revealed the mystery to none.
Rejoice, O knowledge superseding the wise. Rejoice, You who enlighten the minds of the faithful.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride
The power of the Most High then overshadowed the Virgin, that she might conceive; and her fruitful womb He made a fertile meadow for all those desiring to reap salvation, as they chant:
Carrying God in her womb, the Virgin hastened to Elizabeth, whose unborn babe forthwith recognizing Mary’s salutation rejoiced, and with leaps as it were with songs, he cried out to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, O branch of the unwithering Vine. Rejoice, O Land yielding the untainted Fruit.
Rejoice, O Husbandry of the merciful Husbandman. Rejoice, O birthgiver to the Planter of our life.
Rejoice, O Field bearing abundant compassion. Rejoice, O Table laden with an abundance of mercies.
Rejoice, for you make the meadow produce contentment. Rejoice, for you prepare a haven for souls.
Rejoice, acceptable Incense of intercession. Rejoice, Oblation for all the world.
Rejoice, Favour of God to mortals. Rejoice, Access of mortals to God.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Having doubtful thoughts, the righteous Joseph was troubled; for he suspected a secret union as he beheld you unwed, O blameless one; but when he learned of your conception through the Holy Spirit, he cried:
On hearing the Angels praising the incarnate presence of Christ, the shepherds hastened as to a Shepherd, and beholding Him as a spotless Lamb pastured in Mary’s womb, her they hymned and said:
Rejoice, Mother of the Lamb and Shepherd. Rejoice, Fold of the rational sheep.
Rejoice, O Defense against invisible foes. Rejoice, Opener of the gates of Paradise.
Rejoice, for the things of Heaven rejoice with the earth. Rejoice, the things of earth join chorus with the Heavens.
Rejoice, never-silent Voice of the Apostles. Rejoice, never-conquered Courage of the Martyrs.
Rejoice, firm Support of the Faith. Rejoice, shining Token of grace.
Rejoice, you through whom Hades was laid bare. Rejoice, you through whom we are clothed with glory.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Beholding the Godward-pointing Star, the Magi followed its radiance; and holding it as a lantern, they sought through it the mighty King. And having approached the Unreachable, they rejoiced and cried to Him:
The sons of the Chaldees saw in the hands of the Virgin Him Who by His hand fashioned man; and sensing Him as Lord, even though He had taken the form of a servant, they hastened with gifts to do homage, and they cried out to her who is blessed:
Rejoice, Mother of the never-setting Star. Rejoice, Dawn of the mystic Day.
Rejoice, you who have quenched the fiery furnace of error. Rejoice, you who enlighten the initiates of the Trinity.
Rejoice, you who have removed the inhuman tyrant from power. Rejoice, you who have shown Christ, the man-befriending Lord.
Rejoice, you who have redeemed us from the pagan religion. Rejoice, you who have rescued us from the works of mire.
Rejoice, you who ceased the worship of fire. Rejoice, you who saves us from the flames of passions.
Rejoice, Guide of the faithful to chastity. Rejoice, O Delight of all generations.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant:
Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons.
Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols.
Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life.
Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud.
Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy.
Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
When Symeon was prepared to leave from this age of deception, You were presented to him as a newborn Babe, but he recognized You as perfect God. Wherefore, he marveled at Your ineffable wisdom, chanting:
New was the Creation which the Creator showed to us His creatures when He sprang forth from the seedless womb; and He preserved it incorrupt, even as it was, that we, seeing this Miracle, may praise her and say:
Rejoice, Flower of incorruption. Rejoice, Crown of self-restraint.
Rejoice, O shining Token of Resurrection. Rejoice, you whom reflects the life of the Angels.
Rejoice, Tree of delectable Fruit that nourishes the faithful. Rejoice, well-shaded Tree under which many find shelter.
Rejoice you who bears the Guide of those astray. Rejoice, you who gives birth to the Redeemer of captives.
Rejoice, Intercession before the righteous Judge. Rejoice, Forgiveness for many transgressors.
Rejoice, Robe of confidence for those bare of courage. Rejoice, Tenderness conquering all desire.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Seeing a strange childbirth, let us estrange ourselves from the world by transporting our minds to Heaven; to this end the Most High God appeared on earth a lowly man, that He might draw to the heights those who cry out to Him:
The Infinite Word was wholly present with those on earth, yet never absent from those in Heaven; for this was a divine condescension and not a mere change of place; and His birth was from a Virgin chosen of God, who heard such words as these:
Rejoice, Land of the Uncontained God. Rejoice, Gate of the sacred mystery.
Rejoice, doubted Rumor of the faithless. Rejoice, undoubted Pride of the faithful.
Rejoice, all-holy Chariot of Him Who is above the Cherubim. Rejoice, most excellent Dwelling-place of Him Who is above the Seraphim.
Rejoice, you who conducts the opposites of unity. Rejoice, you who has woven maidenhood into motherhood.
Rejoice, you through whom transgression is annulled. Rejoice, you through whom Paradise is open.
Rejoice, Key of the Kingdom of Christ. Rejoice, Hope of eternal blessings.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride
All angel-kind was amazed by the great deed of Your Incarnation; for they saw the inaccessible God as Man accessible to all, dwelling among us and hearing from all:
Orators most eloquent do we behold mute as fish before you, O Theotokos; for they are at loss to explain how you could remain a virgin and yet give birth. But as for us, marveling at this mystery, we cry with faith:
Rejoice, Vessel of the Wisdom of God. Rejoice, Treasury of His providence.
Rejoice, you who prove the philosophers fools. Rejoice, you who prove the logicians illogical.
Rejoice, for the subtle debaters are confounded. Rejoice, for the inventors of myths are faded away.
Rejoice, you who break the webs of the Athenians. Rejoice, you who fill the nets of the Fishermen.
Rejoice, you who draw us from the depths of ignorance. Rejoice, you who enlighten many with knowledge.
Rejoice, Raft for those who desire to be saved. Rejoice, Haven for those who fare on the sea of life.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Wishing to save the world, to this end did the Ruler of all come of His own will; and though as God He is the Shepherd, for us He appeared as a Man like us; for by this likeness He called those of like kind, yet as God He hears:
You are a fortress protecting all virgins, O Theotokos and Virgin; for the Master of heaven and earth prepared you, O Immaculate One, and dwelt in your womb, and taught all to cry out to you:
Rejoice, Pillar of virginity. Rejoice, Gate of salvation.
Rejoice, Leader of spiritual restoration. Rejoice, Bestower of divine goodness.
Rejoice, for you regenerated those conceived in shame. Rejoice, for you gave guidance to the thoughtless.
Rejoice, you who abolished the corrupter of hearts. Rejoice, you who gave birth to the Sower of chastity.
Rejoice, bridal Chamber of a seedless marriage. Rejoice, you who joined the faithful to the Lord.
Rejoice, fair Nursing-mother of virgins. Rejoice, bridal Escort of holy souls.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Defeated is every hymn that strives to pay homage to the multitude of Your many compassions; for even should we offer You, O holy King, odes of praise numberless as the sands, we should still have done nothing worthy of what You have given to us who cry to You:
As a brilliant beacon-light shining to those in darkness do we behold the holy Virgin; for she kindles the celestial Light and leads all to divine knowledge; she illuminates our minds with radiance and is honoured by these our cries:
Rejoice, Ray of the spiritual Sun. Rejoice, Beam of the innermost Splendour.
Rejoice, Lightning, enlightening our souls. Rejoice, Thunder, striking down the enemy.
Rejoice, for you caused the many-starred Light to dawn. Rejoice, for you caused the ever-flowing River to gush forth.
Rejoice, you who depict the image of the Font. Rejoice, you who wash away the stain of sin.
Rejoice, Laver purifying conscience. Rejoice, Wine-bowl over-filled with joy.
Rejoice, sweet-scented Fragrance of Christ. Rejoice, Life of mystic festival.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride
Wishing to bestow His grace, He that forgives the ancient debts of all mankind came of His own will to dwell among those who departed from His favour; and tearing up writ of indebtedness, He hears from all:
Whilst praising your Offspring, we all praise you, O Theotokos, as a living temple; for the Lord, Who holds all things in His hand, dwelt in your womb, and He sanctified and glorified you, and taught all to cry to you:
Rejoice, Tabernacle of God the Word. Rejoice, Holy one, holier than the Holies.
Rejoice, Ark made golden by the Spirit. Rejoice, inexhaustible Treasury of Life.
Rejoice, precious Diadem of godly kings. Rejoice, venerable Boast of faithful priests.
Rejoice, unshakeable Tower of the Church. Rejoice, impregnable fortress of the Kingdom.
Rejoice, you through whom trophies are raised up. Rejoice, you whom enemies are cast down.
Rejoice, Healing of my flesh. Rejoice, Salvation of my soul.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Kontakion 13 [this text is often found in Marian iconography]
O all-hymned Mother, worthy of all praise, who brought forth the Word, the Holiest of all Saints, as you receive this our offering, rescue us all from every calamity, and deliver from future torment those who cry with one voice:
Eikos 1 (repeated)
An Archangel was sent from Heaven to cry: Rejoice! to the Theotokos. And beholding You, O Lord, taking bodily form, he stood in awe, and with his bodiless voice he cried aloud to her such things as these:
Rejoice, you through whom joy shall shine. Rejoice, you the Redemption of the tears of Eve.
Rejoice, Height hard to climb for human thought. Rejoice, Depth hard to explore even for the eyes of Angels.
Rejoice, for you are the Throne of the King. Rejoice, for you sustained the Sustainer of all.
Rejoice, Star that causes the Sun to appear. Rejoice, Womb of the divine Incarnation.
Rejoice, you through whom creation is renewed. Rejoice, you whom the Creator is born a Babe.
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride
Kontakion 1 (repeated)
Unto you, O Theotokos, invincible Champion, your City, in thanksgiving ascribes the victory for the deliverance from sufferings. And having your might unassailable, free us from all dangers, so that we may cry unto you:Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
Взбранной Воеводе победительная, яко избавльшеся от злых, благодарственная восписуем Ти раби Твои, Богородице; но яко имущая державу непобедимую, от всяких нас бед свободи, да зовем Ти: радуйся, Невесто Неневестная.
Ангел предстатель с небесе послан бысть рещи Богородице: радуйся, и со безплотным гласом воплощаема Тя зря, Господи, ужасашеся и стояше, зовый к Ней таковая: Радуйся, Еюже рaдocть возсияет; радуйся, Еюже клятва изчезнет. Радуйся, падшаго Адама воззвание; радуйся, слез Евиных избавление. Радуйся, высото неудобовосходимая человеческими помыслы; радуйся, глубино неудобозримая и ангельскима очима. Радуйся, яко еси Царево седалище; радуйся, яко носиши Носящаго вся. Радуйся, Звездо, являющая Солнце; радуйся, утробо Божественнаго воплощения. Радуйся, Еюже обновляется тварь; радуйся, Еюже покланяемся Творцу. Радуйся, Невесто Неневестная.
Видящи Святая Себе в чистоте, глаголет Гавриилу дерзостно: преславное твоего гласа неудобоприятельно души Моей является: безсеменнаго бо зачатия рождество како глаголеши, зовый: Аллилуиа.
Разум недоразумеваемый разумети Дева ищущи, возопи к служащему: из боку чисту, Сыну како есть родитися мощно, рцы Ми? К Нейже он рече со страхом, обаче зовый сице: Радуйся, совета неизреченнаго Таиннице; радуйся, молчания просящих веро. Радуйся, чудес Христовых начало; радуйся, велений Его главизно. Радуйся, лествице небесная, Еюже сниде Бог; радуйся, мосте, преводяй сущих от земли на небо. Радуйся, Ангелов многословущее чудо; радуйся, бесов многоплачевное поражение. Радуйся, Свет неизреченно родившая; радуйся, еже како, ни единаго же научившая. Радуйся, премудрых превосходящая разум; радуйся, верных озаряющая смыслы. Радуйся, Невесто Неневестная.
Сила Вышняго осени тогда к зачатию Браконеискусную, и благоплодная Тоя ложесна, яко село показа сладкое, всем хотящим жати спасение, всегда пети сице: Аллилуиа.
Имущи Богоприятную Дева утробу, востече ко Елисавети: младенец же оноя абие познав Сея целование, радовашеся, и играньми яко песньми вопияше к Богородице: Радуйся, отрасли неувядаемыя розго; радуйся, Плода безсмертнаго стяжание. Радуйся, Делателя делающая Человеколюбца; радуйся, Садителя жизни нашея рождшая. Радуйся, ниво, растящая гобзование щедрот; радуйся, трапезо, носящая обилие очищения. Радуйся, яко рай пищный процветаеши; радуйся, яко пристанище душам готовиши. Радуйся, приятное молитвы кадило; радуйся, всего мира очищение. Радуйся, Божие к смертным благоволение; радуйся, смертных к Богу дерзновение. Радуйся, Невесто Неневестная.
Бурю внутрь имея помышлений сумнительных, целомудренный Иосиф смятеся, к Тебе зря небрачней, и бракоокрадованную помышляя, Непорочная; уведев же Твое зачатие от Духа Свята, рече: Аллилуиа.
Here is an image of — as the title inscription says –Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΑ — He Hagia Aikaterina — “The Holy Catherine.”
At left is Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa/”The Mountain of Moses”. At the base, Moses with his flock sees the “Unburnt Thornbush,” the bush that burned but was not consumed, which in Eastern Orthodoxy is considered a prefiguration of Mary. That is why she is shown here in the same form as in the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of God icon type.
At the top of the mountain, Moses is seen again, receiving the tablets of the law from God the Father.
But what does Catherine have to do with all this? If we look on the right side of the icon, we see a body being placed atop a nearby mountain by angels. This is Mount Catherine (Jebel Katerina), some two miles from Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa). And of course in the foreground we see Catherine herself, sitting among books, with one hand holding the cross of martyrdom and the other not only placed on her symbol — the wheel — but also holding a palm of victory.
The answer to why Catherine is depicted with images of Mount Sinai is of course that there is a very old monastery at a mountain that came to be named in the first Christian centuries as the Old Testament Sinai, though where Sinai was originally, no one seems to know for certain. And the reason it is called the Monastery of St. Catherine is the legend (taken as fact in Eastern Orthodox tradition) that the body of St. Catherine was carried by angels from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to the top of Mount St. Catherine, where her relics were supposedly later found.
The Monastery of St. Catherine (Μονὴ τῆς Ἁγίας Αἰκατερίνης/Mone tes Hagias Aikaterines) was not always known by that name — in fact the cult of St. Catherine did not get under way until the 9th century, and only became popular in Western Europe in the 11th. The monastery was built in the 6th century (c. 545) at the command of Emperor Justinian, so tradition goes — around an earlier chapel of the Burning Bush (the “Unburnt Thornbush,”) supposedly built by St. Helena in 327 c.e. The monastery’s official name is the “Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai (Ιερά Μονή του Θεοβαδίστου Όρους Σινά/Hiera Mone tou Theobadistou Orous Sina).
Now we have seen that the veneration of St. Catherine of Alexandria did not become popular until the 9th century, which is rather odd, considering that she is supposed to have been a Christian martyr of the 4th century.
According to her hagiography, Catherine was well educated — trained in philosophy and quite learned. Many men wanted to marry her, but she said she would only marry someone who was her superior in many ways — including knowledge.
She is said to have converted to Christianity. During the persecution by Maximian, she spoke out in favor of Christianity, and tradition says the Emperor had her debate with 50 of the most learned men, but she defeated them all, and they became Christians.
The Emperor — unhappy about this — sent Catherine to be martyred on a spiked wheel, but an angel broke the instrument of torture. Seeing this, the Emperor’s wife and some 200 soldiers were converted, and the Emperor then had them beheaded. In an additional effort to get Catherine to renounce her faith, the Emperor proposed marriage, but she refused him. Finally he had her beheaded.
As we have seen, this tale continues with angels carrying the body of Catherine from Alexandria to Sinai. There is much more to the story, but those are the essentials.
As we have seen many times, some of the saints venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy never existed at all, so we are right to be suspicious when a supposed 4th-century saint only becomes popular in the 9th century. Though there is a Catherine mentioned in a 7th century Syrian liturgical text, the basic tale of her martyrdom first appeared in a menologion of Emperor Basil II (died 886).
So where did the notion of an Alexandrian female philosopher martyr, learned and pure of heart, come from? Modern scholarship tends to the theory that St. Catherine is merely a Christianized version of a learned female philosopher who really existed, and is reputed to have been both very beautiful and a lifelong virgin — the Alexandrian Hypatia. The big difference, however, is that the noted and respected Neoplatonist teacher and philosopher Hypatia — gracious, tolerant, and extremely intelligent — was not a Christian martyr, but rather was martyred by fanatical Christian monks in the year 415. They were said to have been incited in their murder of Hypatia by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (Patriarch of Alexandria from 412-444) — who later was venerated as an Orthodox (and Catholic) saint. The mob — led by a lector named Peter — pulled Hypatia from her chariot, cut her to pieces, and burned the remains.
So it appears that a real, non-Christian female philosopher murdered in Alexandria by a Christian mob eventually became transformed and distorted into the Christian St. Catherine, much as the story of the early life of the Buddha was eventually distorted into the tale of a Christian saint and prince of India named Ioasaph/Josaphat. That is hagiography for you. It is helpful in interpreting icons, but should never be regarded as factual history in the absence of real evidence.
You may recall that we have seen the combination of Moses at Mount Sinai, the “Burning Bush” and the body of Catherine being placed atop a mountain before, in an icon of the “Ladder of Divine Ascent”: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/ladder-of-divine-ascent/
In that example, however, both Moses and the body of Catherine were depicted on the same mountain.
You will recall from an earlier posting that in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Evangelist John is commonly called John the Theologian. Icons of him are very common, and so is the text one usually finds on the book he holds, whether written in Greek or in Church Slavic.
Here is a Greek example from the end of the 14th century:
Here is a closer view of the text:
It is slightly worn, but we can easily emend it:
You will note the common abbreviations:
ΘC with a horizontal line above it for ΘΕΟC/Theos, “god.”
ΘΝ with a horizontal line above it for ΘΕΟΝ/Theon, “God” in the accusative form.
This is such a common text in icons and so frequently used a phrase in Christianity that everyone interested in icons should know it in Greek, at least as it is found in John 1:1-5. The portion used in the above icon text is in bold type here:
En arkhe en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton Theon, kai theos en ho logos. Houtos en en arkhe pros to Theon. Panta di autou egeneto kai khoris autou egeneto oude hen. Ho gegonen en auto zoe en, kai he zoe en to phos ton anthropon. Kai to phos en te skotia phainei, ka he skotia auto ou katelaben.
“In [the] beginning was the Word/Reason, and the Word/Reason was with [the] God, and god was the Word/Reason. All through him came-to-be, and without him nothing came-to-be that has become. In him life was [or, depending on punctuation, ‘That which came to be in him was life’], and [the] life was the light of [the] men. And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness has not overcome/taken/understood it.”
Huge amounts of ink have flowed through history on both the proper translation and the interpretation of this. “Logos” — ordinarily translated as “Word,” was actually a common term in Greek philosophy, used more in the sense of “Reason” as the reasoned order behind the universe. Philo of Alexandria — influenced by Greek philosophy — used it to refer to the divine Reason of God — an emanation of the invisible and hidden God through which he acts in the material universe — a “second god,” as Philo called it/him. This is the usage adopted in the Gospel called “of John,” saying essentially that this Reason was in the beginning, it was with God, and it was theos — that is, god by nature — divine. Theos indicates here the nature of the Logos, just as we would say of a person, “He is man, not animal.” In the same sense the Logos is god by nature. The Greek is deliberately ambiguous, to indicate a distinction of this Logos from the hidden God.
Of course this grammatical ambiguity has resulted in endless theological bickering over the centuries as to precisely in what sense Jesus as Logos is theos, — and it continues to this day among Christian denominations.
Fortunately, all we need worry about is learning to recognize this common inscription on the book held in icons of John.