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