Today we will look at a 13th century fresco from the cupola of the Boyana Church just outside of Sophia, in Bulgaria.
Of course we are already quite familiar with these “Lord Almighty” (Greek: Pantokrator) images, which are extremely common. This one, however, has a rather different Slavic inscription on the book.
Ordinarily, the book held by Jesus is the Gospels, and usually one of the standard Gospel texts is written on it. That is not what we find here.
Let’s look more closely:
When we put spaces between the words, we find it reads:
Видите, видите, яко азъ есмь Богъ и нѣсть иного развѣ мене Vidite, vidite, yako az esm’ Bog i nest’ inogo razvye mene “See, See, that I am God, and there is no other besides me.”
It is a variation on the words found in Deuteronomy 32:39 in the Old Testament:
Видите, видите, яко Аз есмь, и несть Бог разве Мене: Аз убию и жити сотворю. Vidite, vidite, yako Az esm’, i nest’ Bog razve mene: Az ubiiu i zhiti sotvoriu.
“See, see, that I am, and there is no God besides me: I kill and create life.”
Similarly, in Isaiah 45:21 we read:
Аз Бог, и несть иного разве Мене Az Bog, i nest’ inogo razve Mene
“I am God, and there is no other besides me.”
Today we will look at a Russian icon of nine saints. It offers a good opportunity for practicing the reading of title inscriptions in Church Slavic. Inscriptions on old icons are often abbreviated, and also frequently damaged by time. That means the student of icons should become familiar enough with titles and names to be able to fill in what may be missing in the inscription as written on an icon. But again, this is not as difficult as it sounds at first, because names and titles are very repetitive.
Fortunately, each saint in this icon still has most of his title inscription. Those in the top row have titles written in the upper border, and those in the bottom row have them in the halo.
Let’s examine them one by one, beginning at top left:
First, we see that he is dressed in the skhima — the robe of a monastic.
His inscription begins with the three-letter abbreviation at the top:
You should recognize the П р (Pr) as the beginning letters of Prepodobnuiy, the common title of a monastic, usually rendered in English as “Venerable,” though it really means “Most like” — most like Christ that is, or like Adam before the Fall. The д above the two letters is the “d” in Prepodobnuiy.
Next comes his actual name:
And finally comes the “locator” part of his title that tells us which Antoniy he is — that is, the place with which he is associated. The first letter is partly missing, but from the rest we can easily restore it:
If we put it all together, we see that this monastic is Prepodobnuiy Antoniy Siyskiy — Venerable Antoniy Siyskiy, or if we want to anglicize it, Venerable Anthony of Siya. Antoniy (1479–1556) founded the Antonievo-Siyskiy Monastery on the Siya River, in what is now Arkhangelsk province in northern Russia. You may recognize the “Siyskiy” part from the title from the name of the well-known illustrated painters’ manual, the Siya Icon Painting Manual (Сийский иконописный подлинник/Siyskiy ikonopisnuiy podlinnik)
From this point on, I will just transliterate the I in Church Slavic by the И used for it in the modern Russian font.
To his right is a fellow dressed in the garments of a bishop:
His title begins:
The first abbreviation is of course the very common Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy/Saint.” Note that the Slavic t is written very small to the right of the C (S), and the partial crossbar of it curves back and above the C, to indicate abbreviation.
It does not take effort to read this line as Svyatuiy Arkhiepiskop — “Holy Archbishop.”
The second line gives us first his name:
Then comes his “locator”:
“OF SERBIA.” You will recall from previous postings that the -ago ending indicates the “of” form of a word, so that is why we translate this as “Of Serbia.” Sava of Serbia, who died in 1236, was the first archbishop of the “independent” Serbian Orthodox Church. Such an independent regional church is referred to by the adjective autocephalous, meaning literally, “self-headed,” — that is, under its own ecclesiastical authority. For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was formerly under the authority of the “Patriarch of Russia and all Rus,” is now autocephalous — self-ruling and independent, under the title “The Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”
The next fellow is also dressed as a bishop:
We see that same Ct (St) abbreviation at the beginning, for Svyatuiy — “Holy.” That is followed by ЕПИСКОПЪ/EPISKOP”, meaning “Bishop.” Just think of the English word “episcopal,” which comes from the same Greek root as this Slavic form.
Next come his name:
That is followed by his “locator” title:
The -skiy ending is another way of telling us that a person is from a certain place, and this fellow is from Perm, so he is Permskiy.
Assembling all the words, we get Svyatuiy Episkop Stefan Permskiy, “Holy Bishop Stefan/Stephen [of] Perm.” Stefan of Perm (1340–1396) was the first bishop of Perm, near the Urals.
We can see that the fellow holding the scroll at far right is also dressed as a monastic:
And as we might expect, his title also begins with the letters Prd, which as you already know abbreviate Prepodobnuiy/”Venerable.”
Next comes his name:
And at the end comes his “locator” title, partly obliterated by a scratch (this kind of thing is common in old icons) and abbreviated, but we can nonetheless read it as:
So this fellow is Venerable Makariy Zheltovodskiy, or anglicized, “Venerable Macarius of Yellow Waters” [Lake]. You may also sometimes find his title given in longer form as Преподобный Макарий Унженский Желтоводский Чудотворец/Venerable “Makariy Unzhenskiy [‘of Unzha’] Zheltovodskiy Wonderworker.” He lived circa 1399-1444, and was the founder of monasteries on the Volga River.
Now we move to the first fellow at left in the bottom row.
The beginning of his inscription has been partly obliterated by time, but from what we have already seen, we can easily amend the first word to the Prd we already know, for Prepodobnuiy — “Venerable.”
Next comes his name, and though the beginning letters are damaged, we can easily emend it as:
After that comes his abbreviated “locator” title:
So this fellow is Venerable Dimitriy Prilutskiy, or anglicized, Venerable Demetrius of Priluki. He was a 14th century monastic founder in the Vologda area.
To the right of Dimitriy is this person:
His title is given as:
С[ВЯТЫЙ] ЕВФИМИЙ МИТРОПОЛИТ НОВОГОРО[ДСКИЙ] SVYATUIY EVFIMIY MITROPOLIT NOVOGORODSKIY “HOLY EVFIMIY/EUTHEMIUS METROPOLITAN OF NOVGOROD”
Evfimiy was a 15th century cleric noted for his reconstruction of many old churches. He died in 1458.
The brackets indicate letters left out in the abbreviation or difficult to see because they are tiny superscripts.
Now we come to the angel. He is easy to identify, even though some letters are gone from his title:
Nikita died in 1108, and was reputed to be a “wonderworker.”
Now we come to the last figure:
ПР[ЕПО]Д[ОБНЫЙ] САВА ВИШЕРСКАГО PREPODOBNUIY SAVA VISHERSKAGO
“VENERABLE SAVA OF VISHERSK.”
From his inscription we can see how very important the “locator” portion of a title is in accurately identifying a saint, because as noted in this icon, there is more than one Sava — and in fact there are often multiple saints with the same name. So we need the “locator” title to tell just which Sava this fellow is — and we see he is Sava of Vishersk, not Sava of Serbia or some other Sava (often anglicized as Sabbas). Sava (generally spelled Савва/Savva) of Vishersk was the very ascetic founder of a monastery on the Vishera River. He died in 1460.
Now you have had some helpful practice in reading and translating Church Slavic titles of saints in Russian icons. If you have been reading here from the beginning, you should be able to translate the titles on a great many saints with ease.
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.”
Today we will look at two Russian icons that were once the side panels on a three-panel Deisis set. As you know, the icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty” would have been the central icon, with Mary approaching him at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right. They are painted very much in the old and traditional manner:
Deisis icons reflect a royal court in which the ruler sits enthroned, and petitioners come to him with requests.
If we look more closely at the panel of John, you will find — if you are a long-time reader here — that you can easily translate his scroll:
The common inscription can quickly be recognized by its first two Church Slavic words — АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ/AZ VIDEKH — “I saw…” You will recall that it continues “…and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God, who takes [away the sins of the world].”
The scroll held by Mary bears a very common text given her in Deisis icons, though sometimes we find variants.
VLADIKO MNOGOMILOSTIVE GOSPODI ISUSE KHRISTE SUINE MOI PRIKLONI UKHO…
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, my son, incline [your] ear….”
So Mary is asking Jesus to bend his ear to her and hear her petition on behalf of humans.
A владико/vladiko is a master or ruler. In Eastern Orthodoxy, one often finds the term vladiko or vladika used when addressing a bishop.
These two Deisis panels are attributed to vicinity of Syzran/Suizran (Сызрань), a town on the Volga River, which was a center for traditional icon painting by Old Believers in the 19th century. The Old Believers seem to have been in the region from the latter part of the 18th century. In the year 1878, it was noted that between Simbirsk and Syzran there were 14 parishes of “State Church” believers, but 29 parishes of raskolniki — “Schismatics,” the deprecatory State term for Old Believers.
In this map of a segment of the Volga, we see Syzran at left, and Samara (Самара) at right:
In the second half of the 19th century, there were said to be at least 70 icon painting masters and establishments doing a flourishing business in the Syzran area. The majority of them were Поморцы-Беспоповцы/Pomortsui-Bespopovtsui — that is, members of the Old Believer sect called “priestless” Pomortsui/Pomortsy. They elected lay persons to conduct their services instead of priests. In spite of this, their high-quality icons were commissioned not only by their own sect, but by others as well — including members of the State Church. That does not mean, however, that there were no religious conflicts between the State Church and those holding other beliefs in Syzran.
One characteristic often found in Syzran icons is a kovcheg/ark with a wide and dark luzga — the bevel separating the ark from the outer border. The luzga was often painted with gold or silver floral, etc. ornament, as we see in this detail from the “Mary” panel:
Syzran icon painting flourished from the late 18th to early 29th century.
Though there is a lot of writing on it, there is no real title inscription. But we know from the printed example seen earlier that it is called
СОБОРЪ СВЯТЫХЪ СЕМИ АРХАНГЕЛОВЪ SOBOR SVYATUIKH SEMI ARKHANGELOV “[The] ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY SEVEN ARCHANGELS.”
At the very top is a circular image of the “New Testament Trinity,” with Jesus at left, God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) at right, and the Holy Spirit as a dove above.
The inscription beside it — taken from the “Symbol of Faith,” that is, the Nicene Creed — reads:
И возшедшаго на небеса, и седяща одесную Отца. I vozshedshago na nebesa, i sedyashcha odesnuiu Otsa.
“And [he] ascended to Heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.”
Seeing the rest of the writing on the icon, we might think it is a prayer or liturgical text, but when we begin to read it, we find it is primarily a description of each archangel and what he is holding. Let’s look at the inscription at upper left:
СВЯТЫЙ ЕГУДИИЛЪ В ДЕСНИЦЕ И СВЧТЫЙ УРИИЛЪ В ДЕСНИЦЕ ДЕРЖАМУЩЕ ВЕНЕЦ ЗЛАТЫ ВЪ ШУЙЩЪ МЕЧЬ ОБНАЖЕН
From past reading here, you should easily be able to translate
as “Holy Yegudiel” and “Holy Uriel” — the names of the two archangels at upper left. The text goes on to say that respectively, they are holding (ДЕРЖАМУЩЕ) in (В) the right hand (ДЕСНИЦЕ) a crown (ВЕНЕЦ) that is golden (ЗЛАТЫ), and in the left (ШУЙЩЪ/шуйце) a sword (МЕЧЬ) that is drawn/bare (ОБНАЖЕН).
And if we look at the image, we see that Yegudiel is in fact holding a golden crown, and Uriel next to him is holding a drawn sword:
The inscriptions are essentially descriptions of the archangels and their symbols much like those found in the Nastol’naya Kniga (настольная книга ) — the clerical handbook used by Russian Orthodox priests — though with a few additions. Let’s look at that *simpler version, but in an order fitting the arrangement of archangels on this particular icon:
Egudiil/Yegudiel is holding a golden crown in his right hand, and in the left a scourge of three red or black cords. Uriil/Uriel, in the raised right hand, a bare sword at chest level, in the lower left hand a flame of fire.
Selafiil/Selaphiel, in prayer, looks down, hands folded on his chest. Barakhiil/Barakhiel has on his cloth a lot of pink flowers.
Gavriil/Gabriel with a “Paradise branch” brought to him by the Blessed Virgin, or with a luminous lantern in his right hand and a mirror of jasper in the left.
Mikhail/Michael tramples the Devil with his feet, in his left hand holds a green date branch, and in his right a spear with a white banner (sometimes a flaming sword) on which a scarlet cross is inscribed.
Rafail/Raphael holds a vessel with healing medicines in the left hand, and his right leads Tobias, who carries the fish.
Now we can see that this icon does not always or accurately include every symbol mentioned in that text, but such variations are common.
You have perhaps guessed that this “Assembly of the Holy Seven Archangels” image is an alternate icon type for the Church festival celebrated as the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and Other Bodiless Powers (for the other type see: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/the-council-of-the-archangel-michael/). And you will recall that both the Greek Synaxis (Σύναξις)and the Slavic Sobor (Собор) mean “Assembly,” “Gathering.”
*For those interested, here is the original text in the Nastol’naya Kniga:
На иконах Архангелы изображаются в соответствии с родом их служения:
Михаил — попирает ногами диавола, в левой руке держит зеленую финиковую ветвь, в правой — копье с белой хоругвью (иногда пламенный меч), на которой начертан червленый крест. Гавриил — с райской ветвью, принесенной им Пресвятой Деве, или со светящимся фонарем в правой руке и зеркалом из ясписа—-
в левой. Рафаил — держит сосуд с целительными снадобьями в левой
руке, а правой ведет Товию, несущего рыбу.
9-Й ДЕНЬ 257
Уриил — в поднятой правой руке — обнаженный меч на уров- не груди, в опущенной левой руке — «пламень огненный».
Селафиил — в молитвенном положении, смотрящий вниз, руки сложены на груди.
Иегудиил — в деснице держит золотой венец, в шуйце — бич из трех красных (или черных) вервий.
Варахиил — на его одежде множество розовых цветов. Иеремиил — держит в руке весы.
Here is a Russian icon of Ioann Zlatoust — John the “Golden-mouthed,” better known as John Chrysostom:
We are today primarily interested in the text on the book he holds:
Here it is, with the portion seen on the book in bold type:
Вы есте соль земли: аще же соль обуяет, чим осолится? Ни во чтоже будет ктому, точию да и-[зсыпана будет вон и попираема человеки.]
It is the text of Matthew 5:13:
“You are the salt of the earth. If however the salt loses its strength, how shall it be salted? It will then be good for nothing but to be t[hrown out and trampled by men.]”
Perhaps you noticed some slight spelling variations in the text. These are common in old inscriptions.
Now why should this text be included on an icon of John Chrysostom? Well, most likely because he included a discussion of it in one of his homilies:
“What then? did they restore the decayed? By no means; for neither is it possible to do any good to that which is already spoilt, by sprinkling it with salt. This therefore they did not. But rather, what things had been before restored, and committed to their charge, and freed from that ill savor, these they then salted, maintaining and preserving them in that freshness,  which they had received of the Lord. For that men should be set free from the rottenness of their sins was the good work of Christ; but their not returning to it again any more was the object of these men’s diligence and travail.”
John seems not to have understood the original meaning of the saying, and in fact there is much controversy even today about what was meant by salt losing its strength or savor, because salt remains — well, salt, no matter how old it is. It does not lose its strength or savor. Some think that the “salt” mentioned was not at all what we know as salt, but rather a kind of substance used to fertilize the fields — a fertilizer that could lose its strength. But no firm and definitive solution to the puzzle of this text seems yet to have been found — so it remains obscure.
Here is a Russian icon with a large crowd of figures:
The inscription at the top tells us who they are;
ОБРАЗЪ СОБОРЪ СВЯТЫХ
All together it reads:
ОБРАЗЪ СОБОРЪ СВЯТЫХ СЕМИДИСЕТИ АПОСТОЛОВ OBRAZ SOBOR SVYATUIKH SEMIDISETI APOSTOLOV
“IMAGE of the ASSEMBLY of the HOLY SEVENTY APOSTLES”
You may recall that a Sobor — an Assembly — is also the name used for a commemoration of a group of saints or angels, and in fact there is an “Assembly of the Holy Seventy Apostles” commemorated annually in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar.
The problem is that their names — and even their numbers — vary from account to account.
If one reads older Bible translations, one finds the Seventy mentioned in Luke 10:1 (and 10:17), for example in the King James version:
“After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.”
That is essentially what we find in Church Slavic Bibles as well, for example in the “Elizabeth” Bible:
По сих же яви Господь и инех седмьдесят, и посла их по двема пред лицем Своим во всяк град и место, аможе хотяше Сам ити:
And we find it in the traditional Byzantine Greek text:
μετα δε ταυταανεδειξεν ο κυριοςκαιετερουςεβδομηκοντακαι απεστειλεν αυτους ανα δυο προ προσωπου αυτου εις πασαν πολιν και τοπον ου εμελλεν αυτος ερχεσθαι
However, if we look at more recent translations, we find something different — for example in the English Standard Version:
“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.
And if we look at more recent editions of the Koine Greek text of Luke 10:1, we also find that has changed to “seventy-two,” for example in Tyndale House SBL
So in the newer texts and translations of Luke, seventy has become seventy-two.
This is not, however, a new problem, and it originates in the variant readings found in old Greek manuscripts of Luke. Some say there were seventy apostles sent out in Luke 10, while others say seventy-two. Modern critical Greek texts of the New Testament tend to prefer the “seventy-two” reading, because it is found in Papyrus 75 ( Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV ), as well as attested in Papyrus 45 (Chester Beatty Papyrus) for Luke 10:17; and it is the reading also found in Codex Vaticanus and several other manuscripts, while the reading “seventy” is found in some such as Codex Alexandrinus. Modern manuscript scholars presume that “seventy-two” was likely the earlier reading, and that “seventy” came from revising the number to fit the frequent use of the number seventy for various purposes elsewhere in the Bible, while seventy-two is an uncommon number found mentioned only once in quite another biblical context.
In any case, though in its calendar and liturgy the Eastern Orthodox churches prefer to use the number “Seventy” for the apostles sent out in Luke 10, writers such as Dimitriy Rostovskiy were familiar with the discrepancy. In his discussion of the “Assembly of the Holy Seventy Apostles” commemoration, he noted that some of the Seventy had fallen “from the faith and dignity of their office,” one even becoming a pagan priest; and he mentions two names that were added to the list — Dionysius the Areopagite, and Simeon Niger. The old lists naming the Seventy or Seventy-two do not always agree on all the names. You will find Dimitriy Rostovskiy’s discussion of the matter here: