There are some odd accounts in the New Testament — among them that of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas on the Mount of Olives.

Here is one image:

We see the title in Greek at the top:  Ἡ ΠΡΟΔΟCΙΑ/HE PRODOSIA 

Notice that the Π is linked to the Ρ.

He Prodosia means “The Betrayal.”

Now in the account found in the gospel called “of John,” we find these Greek words used:

χιλίαρχος/khiliarkhos:  a khiliarkhos is a Roman military officer commanding one thousand men.
σπειρα/speira:  a speira is commonly a Roman cohort consisting of 600 to 1,000 men.

We read in John 18:12 of what is said to have happened on the Mount of Olives on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested:

Ἡ οὖν σπεῖρα καὶ ὁ χιλίαρχος καὶ οἱ ὑπηρέται τῶν Ἰουδαίων συνέλαβον τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ ἔδησαν αὐτὸν.

“Then the speira and the khiliarkhos and the subordinates/officers of the Jews took Jesus and bound him.”

A speira under a khiliarkhos?  That means the “band” of soldiers arresting Jesus was not just fifteen or twenty or thirty or forty men; according to this account, they must have been at least 600 to a thousand — just to arrest one person.

That is not the end of the strangeness.  There is the matter of the violence on the side of the disciples  Mark tells us vaguely (14:47):

“And one of the bystanders drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Luke is similarly vague as to who it was: (Luke 22:50):

“And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.”

Matthew is not much clearer (26:51):

“And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.”

John, however, gives a surprising name (18:10):

“Then Simon Peter drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.

Why does Peter even have a sword, if the disciples of Jesus are just a peaceful band?  And further, why do we find this mysterious exchange between Jesus and his disciples, just before going out to the Mount of Olives,  in Luke (22:35-38):

And he said to them, When I sent you without purse, and money, and shoes, did you lack anything? And they said, Nothing.  Then he said to them, But now, he that has a purse, let him take it, and likewise his money: and he that has no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.  For I say to you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.  And they said, Lord, look, here are two swords. And he said to them, It is enough.”

Why do the disciples of Jesus need swords?  Is Jesus trying to make himself look like a rebel against Rome, and so be arrested as a criminal?  Or is there perhaps some connection here between the accounts of Jesus and Jewish rebellion against Rome that we do not understand?

And why, when we find the disciples of Jesus named in Luke (6:14-16) do we find what most scholars consider to be a zealot among them — a zealot in the political sense, meaning a rebel against Rome — or is he, as some suggest, merely “zealous” in the religious sense?

“Simon, (whom he also named Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called Zelotes, And Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.”

And is Judas Iscariot really to be understood as Judas Sicariot — Judas the “dagger man,” one of the terrorist assassins known as Sicarii, rather than being simply ish Keriot — “man of [the village of] Keriot?

And why do so many of the things that happen in the Gospels seem chronologically out of place when compared to what is known from secular sources of historical figures and events?

For what it is worth (and what it is worth is still not quite clear), there is an interesting study of the matter by Lena Einhorn, who has written two books on the topic:

The Jesus Mystery: Astonishing Clues to the True Identities of Jesus and Paul (Lyons Press, 2007)

A Shift in Time:  How Historical Documents Reveal the Surprising Truth About Jesus (Yucca Publishing, 2016)

Einhorn herself admits her conclusions are an unproven hypothesis, but her books are nonetheless interesting for her examination of the apparent historical peculiarities in the chronology in the New Testament.

Iconographically, it is interesting that the image at the top of this posting shows Peter cutting off the ear of a boy servant —

— while other images — including the Western rendering here by Duccio di Buoninsegna — depict the servant as an adult male (at the far left of the image):





This  image by Emmanuel Panselenos/Panselinos looks like an icon of Jesus, doesn’t it?

It is not Jesus, however.  We might have suspected so, given the Roman armor he wears and his spear and sword, but of course the definitive identifier is the Greek inscription, which reads:

“[The] Holy Artemios”

Artemios is another of the warrior saints, which accounts for the armor and weapons.  Officially, he is a Μεγαομαρτυς/Megalomartys — a “Great Martyr.”  The hagiographies of great martyrs frequently credit them with undergoing severe suffering under persecution for their beliefs, along with miracles and the often the conversion of others.  Though it is said that Great martyrs are generally from the time before the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Artemios was killed after that.  He is said to have been born in Egypt, and was a general under Emperor Constantine.

Constantine’s successor and son — Constantius II — sent Artemios to retrieve the relics of three famous saints —  first those of St. Timothy in 356, and the following year those of the Apostle Andrew and the Evangelist Luke.  Having brought these to Constantinople, he was rewarded in 360 by being made Imperial Prefect of Egypt (Dux Aegypti).

Artemios was a fanatical Christian iconoclast, with a reputation for the destruction of statues of the gods.  He entered the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria and destroyed the images and offerings.  When Julian became Emperor, he listened to the complaints of the people about Artemios, who was accused of badly administering the province under his control.  Having been called to Antioch and found guilty, Artemios was condemned to death, and is said to have been beheaded there in 362, which accounts for why he is known as Artemios of Antioch.

The hagiography of Artemios, however, gives another view.  It relates that he was beheaded for questioning the Emperor’s torturing of two Christian priests, Eugenios and Makarios, saying the Emperor was being guided by a devil.   Artemios was stripped of his office and beaten, and told to sacrifice to Apollo and be made a praetorian prefect, or else be killed.  Artemios refused and was tortured.  Being asked then to sacrifice to Zeus and Asklepios, Artemios again refused and reviled the Emperor.  He was squeezed between two large quarry stones, again refused to sacrifice, and  and was beheaded.  His body is said to have been claimed by a Christian deaconess named Ariste, who sent it to Constantinople as that of a martyr.

Artemios seems to have been an Arian Christian — one of those who denied the equality in divinity of Father and Son as God, and it is possible the tale of the martyrdom of Artemios was originally an Arian document that underwent later development.  By the 5th century, he had gained a reputation for healing — with a specialty in the cure of hernias, and the site where his relics were kept became a noted healing shrine.  When adopted into Eastern Orthodox hagiography, his Arian connections were not mentioned, and so he became a famous “Orthodox” warrior saint in iconography.

In the Maronite Church, Artemios is known as Mar Shalita.


A reader recently asked about the “middle” division of angels.  Perhaps that is something others wish to know too, so I may as well review the whole topic.

In icons, there are three divisions of angels, and each has three ranks of angel.  All together form the nine choirs/orders of angels.  Here they are, in descending rank:

First Choir/Order (Slavic лик/lik, plural лики/liki, Greek: τάγμα/tagma, plural τάγματα/tagmata):

Seraphim (Slavic: серафимы — Greek: σεραφὶμ); six wings
Cherubim (Slavic: херувимы — Greek χερουβὶμ); four wings
Thrones (Slavic: престолы — Greek θρόνοι); winged rings/wheels, with eyes in the wings.

Second Choir:

Dominions (Slavic: господства — Greek κυριότητες)
Virtues (Slavic: силы — Greek δυνάμεις)
Powers (Slavic: власти — Greek ἐξουσίαι )

Third Choir:

Principalities (Slavic: начальства (начала) — Greek ἀρχαὶ)
Archangels (архангелы — Greek ἀρχάγγελοι)
Angels (ангелы — Greek ἄγγελοι)

Here is an 18th century icon (showing some Western influence, as you may notice).  It depicts various angelic appearances in the border images, and as the title in the text block tells us, the nine ranks of angels as the central image:

First, let’s dispose of the angelic appearances in the border, which include:

  1.  The Appearance to Moses;
  2.  The Vision of Daniel;
  3.   Appearance of the Trinity to Abraham;
  4.   Prophecy of Ezekiel;
  5.   Appearance of Michael to Joshua Son of Nun (Isus Navin);
  6.   Penalty of King David;
  7.   Michael troubles the pool (of Siloam);
  8.   Jacob Wrestles with the Angel;
  9.  Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae;
  10.  Dispute over the body of Moses;
  11.  Archangel Michael frees Peter from prison;
  12.   The Angel appears to the women at the tomb of Jesus;
  13.   The Angel leads a soul to Paradise;
  14.   Archangel Michael appears to Pakhomios
  15.   The saving of the Hebrew Youths from the Fire
  16.   Archangel Michael blocks the path of Balaam.

That — along with the image of a church at the bottom — completes the “angelic” border images.

As you know from a previous posting, the large central image at the top is the Coronation of Mary — a type borrowed into Eastern Orthodox iconography from Roman Catholic art.  The “triangle” halo on God the Father is also a Western borrowing.

Here are the central ranks of angels:

The symbols held by the various ranks of angels differ from example to example.  In the icon above, we see that the “thrones” are  depicted as normal angels, but holding a throne as their symbol (though in other icons, they are shown as winged wheels).  The Seraphim hold their hands in an attitude of prayer and adoration.  The Cherubim hold open books.  The Dominions hold scepters The Virtues hold mirrors.  The Powers hold spears/lances. The Principalities hold crowns.  The Archangels hold scales.  And the Angels hold souls in the form of infants.

The icon pattern below — titled “Image of the Holy Nine Ranks of Angels”  is somewhat different:

Here the Seraphim are shown as six winged, the Cherubim as four winged, the Thrones are dressed as bishops, the Dominions hold censers and mirrors, the Virtues are depicted as warriors with swords, the Powers are crowned and hold scepters, the Principalities hold staffs, the archangels merely gesture, and the Angels hold scrolls and books.

In addition, the nine Archangels are shown again with their names in a ring around the central image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father), Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as a dove, arranged in the “Fatherhood” (Paternity) icon type, called in Slavic Otechestvo.

In the icon below — ОБРАЗ ДЕВЯТИ ЧИНОВ АНГЕЛЬСКИХ/OBRAZ DEVYATI CHINOV ANGEL’SKIKH — “IMAGE OF THE NINE RANKS OF ANGELS” — with the Archangel Michael as the central image, we see the ranks arranged somewhat differently:

From top to bottom at left, we see Cherubim, Angels, Dominions, and Guardian Angels:

From top to bottom at right, we see Seraphim, Virtues, Thrones and Principalities:

At top center, we see the Archangels in the usual “Sobor” (Assembly/Council) form:

So we can see this icon has substituted “Guardian Angels” for the “Powers” Rank.

That is a brief summary for reference of the types and ranks of angels in Eastern Orthodox iconography.



The fifth Sunday after Easter (“Pascha”) — called the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman (Κυριακὴ τῆς Σαμαρείτιδος/Kyriake tes Samareitidos) — commemorates the Gospel tale of Jesus conversing with the “Woman at the Well.”

The story is found only in the gospel called “of John” (chapter four), though of course no one knows who wrote it.  The earliest manuscripts are anonymous.

The story does, however, illustrate the characteristic tendency of that Gospel to give Jesus long theological speeches, quite unlike the other Gospels.  In “Mark,” for example, Jesus carefully keeps his status a secret, not wanting who he is to be revealed.  But in the story of the Woman at the Well, we find this exchange:

λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή· Οἶδα ὅτι Μεσσίας ἔρχεται, ὁ λεγόμενος χριστός· ὅταν ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, ἀναγγελεῖ ἡμῖν ἅπαντα.

λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι.

The woman says to him, ‘We know that the Messiah will come, the one called Christ.  When he comes, he will tell us all.’

Jesus says to her, ‘I am, the one speaking to you.‘”

He means of course “I am he, I am the Messiah.”  So we see that John’s view of Jesus is quite different than that of the Markan gospel.  While in Mark his status is secret, in John it is boldly open.

The imagery of the Samaritan Woman is quite early, appearing in the 4th century catacombs on the Via Latina in Rome.  There is an earlier and rather crude image of a woman at a well in the mid-3rd century house church at Dura Europos in Asia Minor, but its identification is uncertain.  While some consider it to be the Woman at the Well (shown alone, without Jesus), others identify it as Mary (mother-to-be of Jesus) at the well — part of the apocryphal Annunciation story.

In the catacomb painting — still early Christian art by nature rather than formal “icon” art — Jesus appears typically as a short-haired, beardless generic young man.

By the time we get to the 6th century mosaic at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna,  depicting the same story, Jesus has become more formal and hieratic.  Still beardless, here he has shoulder-length hair and the characteristic cross halo we find on later images of him.

As the iconography develops over the years, it does not change much.  Additional figures of disciples may be added, and we find also many examples in which the originally round well takes on an obviously cruciform shape, as here:

Aside from the original story of the Woman at the Well in John 4:1-39, Eastern Orthodox Byzantine tradition gives her a rather lengthy and elaborate fictionalized biography that has her later dying as a martyr under Nero in Rome, a typical hagiographic account.  She is given the name Φωτεινή — Photeini/Photini in Greek and Фотина — Photina in Slavic (Svetlana in Russian translation).  You will recall that Mary Magdalene is given the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles”  — used for those believed to have equaled the Apostles in their spreading of the Christian message.  The Samaritan “Woman at the Well” is also given that title, not only because of her apocryphal life as an evangelist, which is said to have taken her as far as Carthage in Africa before martyrdom in Rome, but also because of the story related in John that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did’” (John 4:39).  Her “life” in church tradition also gives her five named sisters (Anatola, Kyriake, Phota, Photis, Paraskeva) and two sons , Joses and Photeinos (also supposedly given the name Victor by Jesus).


Two postings back, I discussed the prevalence of slavery in the New Testament and its survival in Christianity (see https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/jesus-slaves/).  Today we will look at an interesting related issue.  Be cautioned — this requires careful reading, because it can be rather confusing — a confusion that is reflected in iconography.

There is an icon type depicting the healing story found in Matthew 8:5-13:

In it, a Roman centurion (we see him with Jesus in the above image) comes to request healing for his παῖς/pais:

“[Jesus] Having entered into Capernaum, there came to him a centurion [ἑκατόνταρχος/hekatontarkhos], beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my pais [παῖς] is lying in the house paralyzed, terribly tormented.’  And he [Jesus] says to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’

But the centurion, answering him, said, ‘Lord [Kyrie], I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only speak the word and my pais will be healed.  For even I — a man — am under authority.  I have under me soldiers, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to that one, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulos] Do this! and he does it.’   Jesus hearing him was amazed, and said to those following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.'”

Now the question is, what did the Centurion in the story mean by pais?  The usual English translation will say (euphemistically) that the pais here is his servant, however that is not at all clear from the context.  Indeed, when the Centurion is telling Jesus how he just gives a command and is obeyed by his soldiers, he adds that all he has to do is say to his slave (doulos) “Do this!” and the slave does it.  Now again, in most English translations, both pais and doulos are commonly and euphemistically translated as “servant.”

A doulos, however, is not a servant as we understand the term.  A doulos is quite literally a slave, and the legal property of his owner.  Pais, however, can mean a child, a boy; it can also be a term used for a male slave (just as slave owners in the American South used the term “boy” when referring to a male slave, with the appellation surviving even in post-slavery times as an implied disrespectful deprecation in the southern United States when used for men of African descent).  A pais may even signify the male sex partner of the slave owner (those who favor this interpretation point out that in New Testament times, centurions were not allowed to marry, though of course some had female sex partners).

So, was the pais of the Centurion in “Matthew” his son?  Was he asking Jesus to heal his boy?  Or was he asking him to heal his slave, and if so, why does he use pais in one place, and doulos in another, as though he is speaking of two different persons?  I will leave the “male sex partner” possibility for others to ponder.

In any case, how is it that most English translations  — given this uncertainty — render pais here as “servant” and not “boy”?

The answer is that the translators go to the parallel story in the gospel called “Of Luke.”  As you know, “Mark” is considered to be the first gospel written of the New Testament four, and both “Matthew” and “Luke” are expanded, edited versions of Mark, adding additional material (notably birth and resurrection appearance stories at beginning and end, as well as other material in the main body of the text).

Mark, however, has no tale of a centurion coming to Jesus and asking for healing.  But there is a version of the story in “Luke” 7:1-10:

“And when he [Jesus] had finished all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum.  And a certain slave [doulos] of a centurion was ill, about to die, who was precious to him.

And hearing about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, begging him to come cure his slave [doulon].  And coming to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, ‘Worthy is he to whom he will grant this, for he loves our nation, and built a synagogue for us.’  And Jesus went with them.

And when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  Therefore I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.  But say the word, and my pais shall be healed.  For I a man am appointed under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to another, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulo] Do this! and he does it.’

And having heard these things, Jesus was amazed by him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I did not even find such faith in Israel.'”

Now obviously this is just a variation on the same story, though in Luke’s version, the Centurion does not himself come to Jesus, but instead sends Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come.   But in the Lukan version (unlike “Matthew”) it is quite clear that the Centurion’s doulos and his pais are one and the same person — his slave.  And that is why translators, reading Luke, make the Centurion’s pais in Matthew his “servant” and not his boy (though as we have seen, doulos really means “slave.”

We have, however, also seen that there are differences in the two stories, and so we cannot know for certain that the pais in Matthew was the Centurion’s slave and not his own son.

In fact the matter is only further confused if we take a look at another story, found in the gospel “Of John,” 4:46-54:

“So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he had made the water wine.  And there was a certain royal official [βασιλικὸς/basilikos], whose son [υἱὸς/huios] was ill in Capernaum.

He, hearing that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, asked that he would come down and heal his son, for he was about to die.  Jesus therefore said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.’

The royal official [basiliskos] says to him, ‘Lord [Kyrie], come down before my child [παιδίον/paidion] dies.’

Jesus says to him, ‘Go, your son [υἱός/huios] lives.’

The story continues for a few more lines, but that is the essence of it.

Now it seems this tale in “John” is just another variant of the same tale told in Matthew and Luke.  The Centurion becomes a “royal official,” and the pais of Matthew  becomes quite clearly the “son” of the official in John.  In fact when the official asks Jesus to come before his son dies, he uses the word παιδίον/paidion, which is just a diminutive form of παῖς/pais.

So that leaves us still not knowing what “Matthew” intended the pais of the Centurion to be, though it may well have been his son, as in John, and not his slave.  Luke makes it quite clear that in his story, the pais is a slave.  But in John, the official’s paidion is quite clearly his huios, his son.

Now, those brave and patient souls among you who have read all of that, will now know the confusion that lies behind the presence of two quite different images in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  We have already seen the first, which shows the Centurion beseeching Jesus to heal his pais, which is generally interpreted to be his slave by the admixture of Luke’s version of the story with that of Matthew.

John’s story, however, results in quite a different icon type, in which the Centurion (not just “royal official”) has Jesus heal his son.

Here is an example from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

We see Jesus and his disciples at left, and the Centurion at right, beside the bed on which his son lies.

The Greek inscription reads:

Ὁ Χριστός ιώµενος τον ὑιον του εκατοντάρχου
Ho Khristos iomenos ton huion tou [h]ekatontarkhou

“Christ Healing the Son of the Centurion.”

Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, Matthew’s tale of the healing of the Centurion’s “servant” is read on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  John’s tale of the Royal Official’s (“Nobleman’s”) son is read on Monday of the 3rd week In Pascha.  They are treated as two quite separate “miracles.” But in practice — including in iconography — they are often confused, as we see from the Dionysiou fresco, in which we find the Centurion (not “royal official/nobleman”) of Matthew and Luke, but the Centurion’s son (from the Gospel of John) is the one being healed, not his slave.

If your head is spinning after all that, relax, sit down, have a nice hot cup of herbal tea.



You may remember the tale associated with the popular Greek female saint Irene Chrysovolantou — that the Apostle and Evangelist John sent her — via some sailors — three apples from Paradise.  You will find the story here:


This motif of the three apples from Paradise is also found in the hagiography of the saint depicted in this fresco from Meteora:

We can see enough of his title  inscription to translate it:

At the top is the usual Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC  — Ho Hagios abbreviation, meaning “[the] Saint.” Here it is represented by just the three letters O A Γ.

Then comes the name of the saint, written here as


When we join the parts, it forms Euphrosinos, but it is more commonly written as Ευφροσυνος  —  Euphrosynos.

Notice the ligature (“joining”) of the letters E and Υ (E and U in English) as:

If we look to the right of his head, we find his secondary title:

It reads


The common spelling of this is Ὁ ΜΑΓΕΙΡΑC — HO MAGEIRAS, but as we know from past experience, Greek spelling on icon images often varies, though the pronunciation is usually much the same.

HO MAGIROS/MAGEIRAS — means “the cook,” so we have identified this saint as “Euphrosynos the Cook.”

The tale associated with him — his “hagiography” — relates that he worked as the cook in a kitchen in a monastery.  He took a lot of abuse from the other monks (as cooks often do from those they serve), but through it all he remained patient and humble, though the others did not think much of him.

Now as the tale goes, a priest in the monastery wanted to know what life was going to be like for the “righteous” in the next world.  He prayed fervently for God to show him.

One night the priest had a dream.  In it, he found himself in Paradise, and who should he see there but the abused cook from his own monastery kitchen!  He was quite amazed, and asked Euphrosynos how he managed to be there.  The cook replied that it was just through the goodness of God.

Surrounded by all the beauty of the Garden of Paradise, the priest asked the cook if he might have something from Paradise to take back with him.  The cook picked three juicy apples from a tree, wrapped them in a cloth, and gave them to the priest.

The priest woke suddenly when the semantron (that “gong” board used in old monasteries) was struck.  He found himself in his own room, still thinking of his strange dream.  But he smelled a wonderful fragrance, and found something wrapped in a cloth beside him.  When he opened the cloth, he found there the three apples the cook had given him in Paradise.

The priest hurried to the cook, and when he found him, he asked him where he had been the night before.  The cook replied simply that he had been where the priest had been.

The excited priest went off to tell the rest of the monks about what a holy person the cook they were always complaining about really was, but when the monks went to honor him, he was nowhere to be found, and they never saw him again.  All that was left were the three fragrant apples from Paradise.  Whoever ate them was healed of all physical problems.

Now if we look more closely at this story, we find it is severely lacking in details.  The story does not say when it happened, or precisely where.  Some say it happened in a monastery in Palestine, others say Alexandria in Egypt, and still others say it happened in a monastic community on Mount Athos in Greece.  It is just a kind of pleasant folk tale, the religious equivalent of a fairy tale (which many lives of saints actually are), and it served much the same purpose, both entertaining and teaching a lesson.

Now you know why icons of Euphrosynos picture him holding a branch with three apples on it.  And you also know why icons of Euphrosynos the Cook are commonly found in Greek monastery kitchens, and in many ordinary Greek restaurant and home kitchens as well.  Euphrosynos has become the patron saint of Greek cookery.

We have one more little detail to notice — the little cross with letters on the garment:

If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that IC XC abbreviates Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ,” and the NK abbreviates the Greek word NIKA, meaning “He Conquers.”



The god Serapis, Roman Egypt:  tempera on wood, from a triptych, c. 100 c.e. — J. Paul Getty Museum

In earlier postings, I noted that the making and veneration of icons (as the term was later understood in Eastern Orthodoxy) was not an “official” part of earliest Christianity, but rather came into it later, on the fringes of Christianity as it spread out of Judaism and into the polytheistic Greco-Roman world.  The use of icons came from polytheistic religious practice into Christianity gradually (and not without controversy), only being accepted officially as part of Church practice centuries later.

That is why the first evidence we have of icons being venerated as sacred images is found in that border where polytheism meets Christianity, the latter being influenced by the former.

In Greco-Roman polytheism, it was common for those who believed they had received a beneficial answer to their prayer to a deity to offer some sort of gift in return to that god or goddess — a votive offering.  The term comes from the Latin votum, meaning a vow or promise.  Such a gift given in thanks was part of the relationship between worshiper and deity — “you do this for me, and I will do this for you.”

There were various kinds of votive gifts to the deities, but often they were images.  One could donate a clay image of the deity, a stone or bronze statue small or large, and one could even donate a shrine or temple to house such images.  Among these votive gifts were painted panels depicting the deity or deities.  They could be donated to a temple, or placed in a home shrine.  These panels are ancestors of the later Eastern Orthodox icon.

The practice of venerating such images of the gods in polytheistic practice, whether in home or temple, involved honoring them with lights, and with wreaths, crowns, and garlands woven of flowers and foliage.

That is precisely what we find in the apocryphal Acts of John, usually dated as early as 150-200 c.e.   It records how a man named Lycomedes, raised from the dead by the Apostle John, had a painting — for all practical purposes an icon — made of John, enshrined it in his bedroom, and honored it with lights and garlands.  Here is that portion of the account:

There came together therefore a gathering of a great multitude on John’s account; and as he discoursed to them that were there, Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went hastily to him and said to him: You see me in a great hurry to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it. And the painter, giving some one the necessary implements and colors, said to Lycomedes: Show him to me, and for the rest have no anxiety. And Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near him, and shut him up in a room from which the apostle of Christ could be seen. And Lycomedes was with the blessed man, feasting on the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced yet more in the thought that he should possess him in a portrait.

The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of him and went away. And on the next he painted him in with his colors, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes to his great joy. And he took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that you always do when you come in from the bath into your bedchamber alone? do not I pray with you and the rest of the brethren? or is there something you are hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of your gods that is painted here? for I see that you are still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is you, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.

And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: You mock me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] your Lord? how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ lives, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who has imitated this my face, desires to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colors that are now given to you, and boards and plaster (?) and glue (?), and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye.

But do you become for me a good painter, Lycomedes. You have colors which he gives you through me, who paints all of us for himself, even Jesus, who knows the shapes and appearances and postures and dispositions and types of our souls. And the colors wherewith I bid you paint are these: faith in God, knowledge, godly fear, friendship, communion, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, purity, simplicity, tranquillity, fearlessness, grieflessness, sobriety, and the whole band of colors that paint the likeness of your soul, and even now raise up your members that were cast down, and levels them that were lifted up, and tends your bruises, and heals your wounds, and orders your hair that was disarranged, and washes your face, and chastens your eyes, and purges your bowels, and empties your belly, and cuts off that which is beneath it; and in a word, when the whole company and mingling of such colors is come together, into your soul, it shall present it to our Lord Jesus Christ undaunted, whole (unsmoothed), and firm of shape. But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.

What we see in this early pious tale is the making of a Christian icon by a former “pagan” who just adapts his old religious practice to new Christian circumstances.  And that is precisely how Christian icons began — with the changing of the gods from pagan polytheism to Christian polytheism — the veneration of Jesus and Mary and all the growing panoply of saints who became the new gods in practice, if not in terminology.

Just as Lycomedes was following old polytheistic practice in his obtaining and veneration of an image of John, and his veneration of it with lights and garlands, so Eusebius of Caesarea suggests that the statue of a standing man and kneeling woman once found at the city of Paneas/Banias was a statue of Jesus and the woman with an issue of blood, made by “gentiles” (meaning non-Christian polytheists).  He wrote:

“Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

So again we have an association of the making of images with the traditional practices of “pagan” polytheists — though three dimensional art fell out of favor in later Eastern Orthodoxy, the panel painting survived as the Christian icon.

For more on the Banias/Panias image and its likely real nature, see this earlier posting:

Note that Eusebius does not attribute these early Christian images to Christians, but rather to “pagans” following their traditional polytheistic practices of veneration, but applying them to Christian “heroes.”  As Eusebius wrote in his Life of Constantine,

“…we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

That is much in keeping with what Irenaeus  (c. 130–202) had to say about the Carpocratians (a Christian sect founded in the 2nd century), in his Against Heresies, 1:25-6:

They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [‘pagans’]”.

So again we find veneration of images in the traditional polytheistic manner, this time applied to both “pagan” and Christian images — but being “according to the practice” of or “after the same manner” as the “pagan” polytheists.  That is why I often say that the making and veneration of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just the continuation of the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods, but in Christian guise.  Like the saying from the old TV show Dragnet, “Only the names have been changed….”