As you will know from those past postings, the inscription at the base of the cloth reads С[ВЯ]Т[ЫЙ] ОУБРУСЪ/SVYATUIY OUBRUS/OUBROUS/UBRUS — meaning “Holy Cloth/Towel.” There are variations in spelling, which is common in Russian icons.
When used as a primary image — which it very often was — the cloth is frequently held by angels, as in this example from the latter part of the 19th century:
My point in discussing it again today is simply to give you another title inscription variant to add to your Church Slavic vocabulary.
Here is the title inscription on the icon:
It is written very clearly, and only the last word is abbreviated. In full, it is:
In normal English, “The ‘Not Made by Hands’ Cloth of the Lord.” The “Not Made by Hands” part refers of course to the image on the cloth, not to the cloth itself. One does not often see it titled this way, but now when you do, you will recognize the variation.
You should be able to recognize all the other standard abbreviations found in this icon — the IC XC borrowed from the Greek Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ,” which in Russia is found as Исус Христос/Isus Khristos among the Old Believers and as Иисус Христос/Iisus Khristos in the State Orthodox Church. And by now you should know the Ὁ ѠΗ (ΗΟ ΟΝ) inscription commonly found in the halo of Jesus, meaning “The One Who Is” — the Septuagint translation of the title of God that is rendered in the King James Version of the Bible as “I Am That I Am” (Exodux 3:14).
It is important also to remember this abbreviation:
It is the letters А Г (A-G), which abbreviate Ангел Господень /Angel Gospoden’, meaning “Angel [of the] Lord.” It is an abbreviation found in countless icons with angels.
Finally, you probably noticed that this particular icon is a combination of traditional stylization and “Westernized” naturalism. It keeps the old form found in traditional painting, while using more natural folds to the cloth and robes, and more naturalistic coloring and color transitions, though still showing some of the more stylized traits of traditional painting.
Incidentally the expression “not made by hands” is also found in a different context the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 5:1:
Here it is in Church Slavic: Вемы бо, яко аще земная наша храмина тела разорится, создание от Бога имамы, храмину нерукотворену, вечну на небесех. Vemui bo, yako ashche zemnaya nasha khramina tela razoritsya, sozdanie ot Boga imamui, khraminu nerukotvorenu, vechny na nebesekh.
And in Greek: Οἴδαμεν γὰρ ὅτι ἐὰν ἡ ἐπίγειος ἡμῶν οἰκία τοῦ σκήνους καταλυθῇ, οἰκοδομὴν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἔχομεν, οἰκίαν ἀχειροποίητον αἰώνιον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. Oidamen gar hot ean he epigeios hemon oikia tou skenous kataluthe, oikodomen ek Theou ekhomen, oikian akheiropoieton aionion en tois ouranois.
“For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building from God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Now and then the student of icons will encounter examples with substantial amounts of text on the painted surface, which can be quite intimidating. Here is an icon which does not have an obvious title inscription, but is clearly centered around the large central figure:
We can tell from his garments that he is a bishop of some kind, but we do not yet know who he is. And then we are faced with the four substantial portions of written text.
When one encounters large segments of text on an icon that are not scroll inscriptions or “signature” inscriptions, the text most commonly falls into one of these categories: it may be a biblical text; it may be a liturgical text; as a sub-category of the latter, it may be an akathist or some other kind of hymn or prayer. Another major category of text relates the story of the icon. We have seen examples of this in the frequent Marian icons called “Unexpected Joy.” The text may also relate incidents from the traditional life of a saint. The problem for the student who is no expert on Church Slavic or Greek is in determining which of these it is most likely to be.
When faced with the challenge of such large portions of text, a good place to begin is to use common sense. In the case of this icon, the first thing we want to know is who the large saint shown in the center is. So the next step is to look at the text for anything resembling a saint’s name — because given his halo, he is obviously a saint.
Let’s start with the segment of text at upper left:
If we look quickly through it, we will soon discover that in the middle of the first line is the name Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. And when we reach the last line, we find at its beginning the same name — Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. So our logical hypothesis would be that the text is telling us something about a fellow named Niphont.
If we look at the lower left segment of text, we can expect — if we are right — to find the name repeated again somewhere:
Quickly scanning though the text, we find again near the end of the second line, a grammatical form of the name Niphont — in this case Нифонту/Niphontu; that tells us our hypothesis about the main saint being named Niphont is even more likely to be correct.
And if we move over to the beginning of the text segment next to it, we see this:
The second line begins with the words Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta — which we should recognize — even if our knowledge of Church Slavic is very basic — as “Venerable Nifont/Niphont”; and that makes us even more certain that our hypothesis identifying the main saint as Niphont is correct.
The next thing to do is to consider the context of the texts. If we look at the whole icon again, we can see that at both sides of the main saint are smaller secondary scenes. Given that the main figure on the icon is a saint, we would be justified in supposing that these secondary scenes depict events from the traditional life of that saint.
The scene at upper left depicts a saint kneeling before an icon of a haloed mother and child — which we may reasonably identify as a Marian icon — in a church:
The scene at lower left depicts the saint looking at a figure whom we can easily identify as Jesus by his physical appearance and the bars of the cross in his halo, standing in a mandorla of light. And we can see words coming from the mouth of Jesus, so he is obviously speaking to the saint:
At lower left in the icon we see a larger scene filled with saints of various kinds, along with angels:
We see in the midst of them a saint identified by the inscription in his halo as Nifont/Niphont (hey, our guess was right!) kneeling before a mandorla in which Jesus appears again, and to the left of Nifont is another mandorla in which stands a female figure we can reasonably assume to be Mary.
So now we have three scenes, which it would be logical at this point to conclude are scenes from the life of St. Nifont/Niphont.
Given that, it is also reasonable to conclude that the segments of text we find are likely telling us about events from the life of St. Nifont.
To explore that, let’s return to the first scene at upper left — the one with the man kneeling before the Marian icon:
And in the next scene, we see Jesus speaking to the man, and telling him something; so it looks like a vision the saint had at some point in his life:
And finally, there is that last scene, with saints and angels, Jesus and Mary, and Nifont kneeling in the midst of them.
Knowing all that, we have several clues to identifying the saint and the scenes. We already have determined his name is Nifont/Niphont, so the next step is to look through the lives of saints named Nifont to see which one has events that match those in the scenes. And we also know that this Niphont ended up as some kind of bishop, because we can tell that from his garments in the main image of him on the icon.
Well, to save you a lot of bother (and sometimes the identification of icons can require a lot of bother and many hours), there is a saint whose name is Niphont who was a bishop, and his traditional life describes events that match those in the scenes on this icon. His name is:
And lo and behold, in that name we find the same Prepodobnuiy Nifont (“Venerable Niphont) that we found in a grammatical form in the text as Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta; and we also see he has the secondary title of Episkop/Bishop. And that certainly fits with what we first determined from the garments of the main, central figure on the icon. This Niphont is also sometimes called Niphont of Constantia, a city on the island of Cyprus. He is listed as a Fourth-century saint who lived in the time of Constantine I.
Now on to how the scenes on the icon fit with events in the traditional life of Niphont:
Once Niphont went to church, and there he prayed before an icon of Mary in a very humble and contrite manner. When he looked at the icon, it returned his glance with a kind and gentle look. He went away feeling comforted. And on another occasion, he was on his way to the same church when he saw a man doing something sinful, and he criticized the man in his mind. Then, when he entered the church and was again before the icon of Mary, he saw her looking at him in a disapproving manner and turning away from him because of his judgmental attitude toward another human. So of course he repented, and as these stories go, Mary in the icon again turned toward him with a kind and gentle gaze.
Well, that takes care of the first scene from the life of Niphont.
But what about an appearance of Jesus to Niphont? Well, according to his hagiography, Niphont did have encounters with Jesus, who not only appeared to Niphont as alive in his icon — a repeat of the “living” icon of Mary — (notice the icon of Jesus in the background in the second scene at left) but also gave Niphon a long and extensive vision of the happenings to come in the Last Judgment. And in that vision Niphont is kissed by Jesus, who promises to favor those believers who call on the name of Niphont. He also makes a promise to come to Niphont at the bishop’s time of death and receive Niphont’s soul in his hands.
Well, if we look at the large text segment below that scene on the icon we find — if we know a bit of Church Slavic — that it refers to promises made by Jesus “to his beloved угодник/ugodnik blessed Niphont. An ugodnik in religious usage is one who endeavors to please God — a saintly, pious person. And it is also said in this text segment that when Niphont dies, Jesus will come “with ranks of angels” and receive the soul of Niphont in his own hands, and will give him rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (you will recall the icon type called the “Bosom of Abraham). So we can see that this generally corresponds with the second scene. And at the end of this segment, we see something else that corresponds with the icon scene:
“And the Lord blessed him, and said, Миръ ти рабе мой Нифонте. And he departed for Heaven.” Those words I have put in bold type — Mir ti rabe moy Niphonte — meaning “Peace be unto you my servant Niphon” — are exactly the words coming from the mouth of Jesus in the painted scene.
Now for the more elaborate, saint-filled scene at right. Let’s look at it again:
Well, as we have seen, in the traditional story Jesus promised Niphont to be present at his death with ranks of angels. And the tale of Niphont adds that St. Athanasios/Athanasius was also present. We see him robed and crowned as a bishop at lower right. Also in the crowd were apostles, martyrs, Mary, as well as other kinds of saints. So that accounts for the figures we see in the scene above. Perhaps you also notice that Jesus is holding what appears to be an infant clothed in white in his right hand. That is identified by the abbreviation Д Н (D N) as the “Soul [душа/dusha] of Niphont.”
So there you have it. We know who the saint is, and we know what the scenes from his life represent.
We should also know a bit about the traditional vita (“life”) of Niphont, keeping in mind that such hagiographic tales are commonly heavily fictionalized and not reliable as history. They served as admonitory and entertaining tales for believers.
The tale of Niphont is no exception. Scholars commonly date the vita of Niphont as late as the eighth to eleventh centuries, with the preference generally for the latter.
He was said to have been from the city of Plagion in Paphlagonia, a region on the Black Sea. At age eight he was sent to Constantinople to be educated. Initially all went well, but as he neared and entered his teens, his behavior began to change. He proceeded to lead a lively and colorful life, going to entertainments, singing in theatres, enjoying an over-abundance of food and drink. Niphont was also given to ανδρομανια — andromania — which is a fancy term for saying he was crazy about other males and intimate relations with them — so a kind of homosexual.
Now Eastern Orthodoxy traditionally has not looked kindly on homosexuality, and of course in early times when Church doctrine was formed, there was no real understanding of it as a natural variation in human behavior. So then it was seen as something to repress and deny, which can and did sometimes lead to all kinds of peculiar psychological results, and repression is precisely what Niphont — feeling guilty — did. He turned to beating and slapping himself to try to weaken temptation, bruising and harming his body in the process.
He is said to have once met a friend, who looked at him long in an odd way. When Niphont asked him why, the friend replied that Niphont’s face was black, like that of an Ethiopian. This supposedly was interpreted by Niphont as revealing his own sinful condition.
Niphont blamed his temptations on devils, and began to do his best to live an ascetic life. During his life of struggles with his temptation, he had visions of devils and angels, and as we have seen, of Mary and of Jesus. Finally — when he had grown old — he was made Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus — but he died not long after.
Now rather appropriately for an icon of an ascetic, we find some interesting figures used as border saints.
At upper left is “Holy Andrey, Fool for Christ’s Sake”:
At lower left is “Holy Vasiliy/Basil, Holy Fool of Moscow”:
At upper right is “Holy Feodor/Theodore, Fool for Christ’s Sake” (of Novgorod).
And finally, at lower right we see the monastic saint “Venerable Ephrim Sirin/Ephrem the Syrian.”
All of these saints — the three “Holy Fools” and Ephrem of Syria — were all noted for ascetic lives.
If you have been a diligent student of the postings on this site, you should be able to identify everything in this multiple icon. A multiple icon is an icon with several separate types placed together on a single panel. This example has four main types, a smaller central type, and of course the saints used as border images.
If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:
The inscription reads
СВЯТЫЙ НИКОЛА ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ SVYATUIY NIKOLA CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”
Aside from the inscription, one can tell from the facial characteristics (form, hair, beard), the costume, and from the accompanying figures of Jesus at left and Mary at right that this is an image representing St. Nikolai/Nikola/Nicholas of Myra. You will recall that Jesus is giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels, and Mary is presenting him with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion). If you notice that Nicholas is not shown full-face, but rather as though turning from the left, you may remember that such a Nicholas — though often with a harsher expression than here — is called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — and was thought to ward off evil.
Now you will have read in a previous posting that “Nicholas the Turner” is an icon type that appeared among the Old Believers in the 18th century, so that tells us something important about this icon too; and what it tells us is confirmed by the hand. As you see, the fingers are held in the blessing position used by the Old Believers, and that confirms that this is an Old Believer icon.
Of course you know that the MP ΘY letters in two circles at the top abbreviate the Greek words Meter Theou — which are common on Russian icons of Mary.
From the title inscription, we can tell that this is identified as the
ЗНАМЕНИЕ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ ZNAMENIE PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
the “‘SIGN’ MOST-HOLY GOD-BIRTHGIVER”
or in normal English,
The “‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God.”
And of course that is Jesus in the circle on her breast.
You may recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous “palladium” icons, considered to be city protectors, and that its legendary history says it saved the citizens of the great trading city of Novgorod in the northwest of Russia from the invading Suzdalians.
The inscription identifies this Marian icon type as the
It is sometimes also translated loosely as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.” It is important to remember, however, that this type is not the only Marian icon type to be found under that title.
Next comes a New Testament Scene that is also an annual Eastern Orthodox Church commemoration:
If you are familiar with the New Testament, you can probably identify it without the inscription below. Here is that inscription:
ОУСЕКНОВЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНЫЯ ГЛАВЫ СВЯАТАГО IОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧА USEKNOVENIE CHESTNUIYA GLAVUI SVYATAGO IOANNA PREDTECHA
“CUTTING-OFF [of the] HONORABLE HEAD [of] HOLY JOHN [the] FORERUNNER.”
And that is what the scene depicts: the execution of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and the presentation of his head to Salome.
Such an icon type was particularly important to Old Believers because it called to mind the terrible persecution they suffered under the State Orthodox Church.
In the center of the icon we find the image of — as the red title inscription tells us here — the
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ОБРАЗ ГОСПОДЕНЬ NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODEN’
“NOT-MADE-BY-HANDS IMAGE [of the] LORD”
It is the image traditionally considered the “first icon” in Eastern Orthodoxy, because the old legend that developed over time said that Jesus once pressed a wet towel to his face, and his image was miraculously imprinted on it. It is the “Abgar” image sent by tradition from Jesus to King Abgar of Edessa.
You will notice the other inscriptions written on the cloth — first the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and below the face, this inscription:
СВЯТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ SVYATUIY UBRUS
So in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Holy Cloth” is the cloth after Jesus supposedly transferred the image of his face to it.
Finally, there are four border saints in this icon:
First comes the
In ordinary English, the “Guardian Angel.” It is important to know that this is a generic figure who represents the Guardian Angel supposedly assigned to each person — It is often found as a border image, but is also found as an icon type on its own. He holds a sword in one hand and a cross in the other:
The others are:
2. St. Alexandra;
Such border saints as these three are generally found in icons as the “angel” saints of the members of the family for whom the icon was painted — the saints after whom each person was named.
A purchaser — in this case an Old Believer — could choose the icon types to be represented on such a multiple icon, and of course could tell the painter the names of his family members to include in the border, represented there by their “name” saints. And again, the “Guardian Angel” served as the generic figure representing each angel assigned individually to protect a family member.
Now you will find all this information — including a longer discussion of each main type shown — in the site archives.
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:
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:
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.
Here is a pleasant 19th century Deisis set, which traditionally consists of a central icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty,” an icon of Mary approaching from the left, and one of John the Forerunner approaching at right:
Jesus has the common inscription from Matthew:
“Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):
Прiидите ко мнѣ́ вси труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́ Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui
Mary, however, has an uncommon inscription for a Deisis panel:
It is the beginning of the text known in the West as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55):
Величит душа моя Господа и возрадовася дух [мои] о Бозе Спасе моем. яко при(зре на смирение рабы своея…)
Velichit dusha moya Gospoda i vozradovasya dukh moi o Boze Space moem. Iako prizre na smirenie rabui svoeya…
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…”
And here is the John the Forerunner panel:
The scroll of John is a bit odd too, because it uses John 1:29, but stops at the beginning letters of the usual “Behold the Lamb of God” text:
[Во утрий же] виде Иоанн Иисуса грядуща к себе и глагола: се, Аг[нец Божий, вземляй грехи мира]
“[And in the morning] John saw Jesus coming to him and said, behold the La[mb of God who takes away the sins of the world].”
One often sees individual side panels from Deisis sets that have lost their accompanying two panels.
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.
In the previous posting, we looked at noted saints associated with the city of Murom, among them the father-sons triad of Prince Konstantin and his sons Mikhail and Feodor. They are easy to recognize, but be careful — because of the similarity of names and iconography — not to confuse them with this other father-sons triad, seen here in a 17th century Russian icon:
At the top is the very common image of Jesus called “Not Made by Hands. It is not part of the type itself. Below it is a large central figure in monastic garb, but without an identifying name inscription:
However, if we look closely at the two others in the icon, we can make out what remains of their name inscriptions.
Here is the one at left:
The writing is damaged and faded, but if you are really clever, you might be able to recognize it as an abbreviation for КНЯЗЬ ДАВИДЪ — KNYAZ’ DAVID — “Prince David.”
And here the the one at right:
Again, the inscription is not fully there, but nonetheless it can be deciphered as КНЯЗЬ КОНСТАНТИН — KNYAZ’ KONSTANTIN — “Prince Konstantin.”
Those two names tell us — if we did not already know — that the central figure without a title inscription must be the father of these two: КНЯЗЬ ФЕОДОР — KNYAZ’ FEODOR — “Prince Feodor/Theodore” of Smolensk and Yaroslavl.
Here is how to distinguish the Murom saints Konstantin, Mikhail and Feodor from the Yaroslavl saints Feodor, David and Konstantin if inscriptions are damaged or missing:
Icons with the father Feodor and the sons David and Konstantin depict the father robed as a monk, as we see in the icon above.
Icons with the father Konstantin and the sons Mikhail and Feodor depict the father robed as a prince, as we see on the left side of this central image from a larger Russian icon (the saints on the right, by the way, are Petr, Fevronia, and Iulianiya Lazarevskaya, also discussed in the previous posting).
In it, the father (Konstantin) and sons Mikhail and Feodor each wear the ornate outer cloak called a шуба/shuba, and each wears the fur-trimmed cap called a шапка/shapka. The damask-ornamented shuba and the shapka are standard garb for noble or royal Russian saints.
For a better perspective on these two father-sons triads, here is the basic information. We will take them in chronological order. First, a brief review of the father Konstantin and his sons:
I. Prince Konstantin of Murom was descended from Vladimir of Kyiv/Kiev — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus to Eastern Orthodox Christianity by edict.
When Konstantin was given authority over the city of Murom — which at that time was still not Christianized, he sent his son Mikhail to convert the people — so tradition says. The Muromites, however, killed Mikhail by throwing him down from the city walls, so Konstantin then took the city by armed power. The story is that the people eventually relented — influenced by seeing the “Murom” icon of Mary carried in Konstantin’s arms. His son Feodor aided in the spread of Christian belief in the Murom region.
II. Feodor of Smolensk and Yaroslavl — also known as Феодор Чёрный/Feodor Chornuiy — “Feodor the Black” — was born at the time of the Mongol invasions and died in 1298. He was originally the child Prince of Mozhaisk, but upon his marriage he also became Prince of Yaroslavl. From this first marriage, he had a son named Mikhail, who on the early death of his mother was raised by his grandmother, Princess Xenia.
This was the period of Mongol control. Feodor became allied with the Mongols in their military battles, and gained favor among them. But when he tried to return to Yaroslavl after three years with the Mongols, he was looked on as what today would be called a “collaborator,” and the people would not let him enter, saying, “This is the city of Xenia, and Mikhail is our prince.” Feodor then returned to the Mongols, and was so highly considered among them that he was allowed to marry the daughter of Khan Mengu-Timur of the Golden Horde. She became a baptized Christian under the name Anna, and with her Feodor had two more sons — David (died 1321) and Konstantin. These later sons are the ones who commonly appear with Feodor in Russian iconography.
Eventually, Feodor got word from Yaroslavl that his first son Mikhail had died. Feodor then returned to Yaroslavl, and became its prince. In 1299 he became very ill, and was carried near death to the Savior-Transfiguration Monastery, and there he took the monastic robe — which accounts for why he is depicted in a monk’s robe in iconography. This “last-minute” entry into monasticism was done by a number of Russian saints — a bit reminiscent of the deathbed baptism of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. His son David succeeded him as ruler of Yaroslavl. It is thought that his other son, Konstantin, had already died by that time.
So that is how to distinguish the two father-sons triads — the “Murom” triad of Konstantin, Mikhail and Feodor, and the “Yaroslavl” triad of Feodor, David and Konstantin.
Now that the distinction is clear (I hope!), we can move on to an interesting related icon — related to the Yaroslavl father-sons triad, that is.
Here is an icon from the last part of the 17th century:
We can use it to practice reading inscriptions.
Here is the image at top center:
Now the first thing we can tell about this icon is that in spite of its traditional appearance, this is a State Church icon, not an Old Believer icon. That is obvious from the abbreviation of the name of Jesus at top left: IИС for Иисус Христос/Iisus Khristos. The Old Believers would have spelled it in the old way — IC XC for the form Ісус Хрістос/Isus Khristos. You will recall that the change came about when Patriarch Nikon insisted on a reform of religious practices and spellings in the middle of the 17th century, and that caused the Old Believers to keep to the old ways, while the State Church adopted the changes and began its persecution of the Old Believers. So we see that change already in this icon inscription.
Just below the Iisus Khristos inscription, we see another:
Ц[А]РЬ Ц[А]РЕМ И Г[О]С[ПО]ДЬ Г[О]С[ПО]ДЕМЬ TSAR’ TSAREM I GOSPOD’ GOSPODEM’ “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS”
Now we can move to the main image. Usually the title of an icon type is at the top of the image in large letters, but in this example it is rather modestly beside the head of the main figure at left, and in small letters:
The triad at left is one you now know — Feodor, Konstantin, and David. You should have no trouble in reading their inscriptions:
You can see some abbreviation in the names Konstantin and David. The two sons in this example wear the damask shuba and robes, but their heads are bare, without the usual shapka — the fur-trimmed hat — on each. Their father Feodor wears the monastic garment he took at the “last minute,” when he became a monk just before his death.
Now we move to the right side of the icon:
At upper right we see the moon — ЛУНА/LUNA — just as we saw the sun –СОЛНЦЕ/SOLNTSE — on the far upper left, above Feodor.
You will recall that “good-believing” is the Slavic way of indicating that they are “Orthodox,” so благоверный/blagovyernuiy (the singular male form) is often simply translated as “Orthodox.”
Now we come to their names. The fellow at left is ВАСИЛИЙ/VASILIY, which you will recall is the Slavic form of Basil. The fellow at right is КОНСТАНТИН/KONSTANTIN, the Slavic form of Constantine. And of course he is a different Konstantin than the one in the triad at left.
Now all we need know is who these two fellows were.
Princes Vasiliy and Konstantin of Yaroslavl were brothers during the time of the Mongol/Tatar invasions. Vasiliy attempted to pacify the Mongol leader Batu Khan of the so-called “Golden Horde.” He fell ill in Vladimir, dying there in 1250. His younger brother Konstantin died in a battle against the Tatars in 1267. Some two and a half centuries later, their bodies were said to have been found incorrupt, which as you will recall, in popular Slavic belief can mean either a saint or a vampire, depending on circumstances. In this case, of course, they were considered to be saints, because their remains were believed to have been the cause of various “miracles.”
All of these “Yaroslavl Wonderworkers” are set against the background of the city of Yaroslavl.