Here is a 14th century fresco from Vysokie Dechani, in Serbia:

The visible inscription says only МОЛЕНИЕ/MOLENIE — “Prayer.”  and below that we see the common title inscription identifying the woman as ΜΡ ΘΥ — Meter Theou — Greek for “Mother of God,” i.e. Mary.

So this fresco depicts “The Prayer of the Mother of God” — Mary praying — but what is the story behind it?

It comes from the legendary tale of her “Dormition” — which means “Falling Asleep” — that is, her death.  Earliest Christianity left no tradition about what became of Mary.  It was not until the 5th century that stories giving varying accounts of her death began to appear.

The tradition in iconography relates that one day Mary went to Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and prayed that her soul might be taken from her body so that she might see her son again.  The angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that her wish was to be granted:  she would die in three days.

So that is what we see in this fresco from Dechani — the “Prayer of the Mother of God on the Mount of Olives.”  This example does not show the angel (some do) — just a hand blessing from Heaven.

Now you may notice the stylized trees are all bent in Mary’s direction.  That is because tradition says that when Mary said her prayer on the Mount of Olives, the trees bowed to her in reverence (we also find the motif of “bowing trees” in icons of Irene Chrysovolantou).

It is not surprising that we seldom see this subject on its own.  Usually it is depicted as one of the scenes in detailed icons of the Dormition, such as this 17th century Russian example from Yaroslavl:

The image of the “Prayer of the Mother of God on the Mount of Olives” (Моление Богоматери на Елеонской горе/Molenie Bogomateri na Eleonskoy Gore) is the second scene from the left in the bottom row.  Though small in the photo, we can see that it nonetheless has the same basic elements as the Dechani fresco.





Many people are puzzled by icons in which persons — frequently angels, but also other persons — are seen with the hands covered with what appear to be towels.  They wonder what the reason for these “towels” might be.  When seen in icons of the Baptism of Jesus, they might even think that the angels are carrying towels to dry Jesus off, as though he has just come wet from a bath.  Actually there is a different reason behind this peculiar feature of icons.

Hands are covered in icons as a sign of great reverence and humility.   The practice of covering the hands  may have come from an Eastern court custom followed in the old Persian Empire, which was later adopted in the Greco-roman world and the Roman court, then passed on in the byzantine court.  Hands were covered when objects were handed to or received from the Emperor, both as a sign of great respect and to show a kind of symbolic barrier between the Emperor and those approaching him.   At one time, a cloth was even sewn onto the outer garment of those handing objects to or receiving from the Emperor in the byzantine court, so that they might use it to cover their hands.  The impression given is that what was touched by the Emperor had become “sacred” in a sense; it was not an ordinary object and was not to be treated without great respect.  In any case, the practice of covering the hands when touching a sacred object is thought to have been introduced in late antiquity, and was used also in religious contexts to indicate reverence before a divine presence.

Technically in iconography, the motif of covered hands is given the Latin name manus velatae — which simply means “veiled hands,” or manibus velatis — “with veiled/covered hands.

It is said that at one time when the Roman Emperor Julian was giving rewards to some men called to the palace, one of them reached out to take the gift with bare hands.  Julian then remarked that the men knew how to take, but not how to receive, because the bare hands were not covered in respect, as should have been done with proper etiquette.  It was “very bad form,” as the British expression has it.

So again, in icons, the covering of the hands symbolizes not only great reverence and humility, but also emphasizes the sacredness of certain objects or persons.  The hands may be covered with  separate cloth, or with part of  the garment.  Sometimes only one hand is covered.

We find “covered hands” in many icons, for example — as already mentioned — the angels in icons of the Theophany — the Baptism of Jesus:

We may find them on the angels depicted at the Birth of Jesus:

We often see a cloth or part of a garment between the hand and the Gospels in icons where a saint such as Nicholas holds the book:


We find it also in icons showing angels carrying the symbols of the Passion:

Now when you see covered hands in this or that icon type, you will know what it signifies — strange though it may sometimes appear.


Today we will go a bit abroad from Eastern Orthodox icons, and take a quick look at an apocryphal character in the family tree of Jesus.

Here is a carved and painted image by the “Urban Master of Hildesheim”:

( Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.)

It depicts at lower left, the child Jesus seated on the lap of his mother Mary.  Beside them sits St. Anne, by apocryphal tradition the mother of Mary, as well as the grandmother of Jesus.  But the female figure towering above them, with staff in one hand and open book in the other, is the seldom seen “great-grandmother” of Jesus.

She actually has a name, but that name varies depending on the source.  In this image and others, she is called Emerentia or Emerantia.  Elsewhere — particularly in Florentine manuscripts — she is called Ismeria.

We find the tale of Emerentia in the Vita Iesu Christi of Ludolph of Saxony (c. 1300-1378):

It relates that seventy years before the “incarnation of the divine Word,” there was a virgin born of the root of David who used to visit the sons of the prophets on Mount Carmel.  It is said that one of them had a dream in which he saw a root with two trees growing out of it.  One of the trees had three branches, and one of the branches had flowers more pure and fragrant than the others.  A voice in the dream said,  Hec radix est Emerentia nostra — “This root is our Emerentia,” and added that she was destined to have great descendants.

Two Florentine manuscripts — one the 14th century MS Panciatichiano 40, the other the  15th century MS 1052  (in the National Central Library and Riccardiana library of Florence, respectively) give the name of St. Anne’s mother as Ismeria, and offer different details.

The reason for mentioning all of this is that readers may encounter some rather peculiar, newly-painted icons depicting Jesus sitting on the lap of Mary, and Mary sitting on the lap of St. Anne, and St. Anne sitting on the lap of her supposed mother, to whom the new icons give the name “Maria.”  These new icons are apparently based on the old images of Mary sitting on St. Anne/Anna’s lap, and Jesus seated on Mary’s lap.  Combinations of the three figures are found in old European art, and German even has the term Anna Selbdritt (German, meaning loosely “as a group of three”) for depictions of St. Anne, Mary, and Jesus as a group.

Of course none of these names for a supposed great-grandmother of Jesus are historical, but are merely the product of Christian inventiveness.

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, the great-grandmother of Jesus is given the name Mariya/Maria.  She is mentioned in the Chetya-Minea of Dmitriy Rostovskiy:

“Saint Joachim lived in the city of Nazareth of Galilee and had a wife named Anna from the tribe of Levi, from the family of Aaron, the daughter of the priest Matthan, who lived before the reign of Herod, the son of Antipater. This priest Matthan had a wife Mary, from the tribe of Judah, from the city of Bethlehem and three daughters: Maria, Soviya and Anna. “

The supposed genealogy goes like this:

Matthan and Maria had three daughters:

  1.  Mary had a daughter named Salome, considered a midwife at the birth of Jesus and/or one of the Myrrh-bearing women.
  2.   Soviya’s daughter Elizabeth bore John the Forerunner.
  3.   Anna/Anne bore Mary, mother of Jesus.


In movies, an “extra” is an actor who appears in a scene — often in the background — but is not a major character and generally has no lines to speak and is not named in the credits.

Icons too have their “extras,” persons who appear in the scene but are generally given no name.

We often find such an “extra” in icons featuring the “Flight to Egypt.”  In fact we saw one in a previous posting:

The main characters in the narrative are Joseph at right, and Mary with the child Jesus, both riding.  However in this example there is a fourth character walking behind.  This is the “extra.”  He appears in some icons, but is omitted in others.  Notice that he has no halo, and no name title above his head.  He is often identified in discussions of iconography simply as their “servant.”  However, in the apocryphal texts, the single male accompanying Joseph, Mary and Jesus is identified as a son of Joseph.  We read of Joseph in the Protoevangelium:

And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed.

And indeed, in some examples of the “Flight to Egypt” we do find the youth leading the ass, instead of walking behind it and carrying the traveling bag on a stick, as shown above.

We see the boy leading the ass in this early Italian painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, more closely reflecting the excerpt from the Protoevangelium:

There is another tradition, however, which says the the person who goes with Joseph and Mary is not Joseph’s son, but rather Salome — often identified as the woman present at the birth of Jesus in the apocrypha.  This is found in The History of Joseph the Carpenter:

Joseph was told by my Father in a vision.  He rose up, took me and my mother Mary, I sitting on her lap, Salome walking behind us, and we went down to Egypt.

There are still more variations on just who accompanied the family to Egypt in apocryphal texts, but I will not go into that now.  Suffice it to say that in some icons, Joseph and Mary and Jesus go unaccompanied, but we often find that boy or young man as an “extra,” sometimes in front, sometimes behind.

We encounter another “extra” in icons of the “Visitation,” the visit of the pregnant Mary to her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth.  This extra is female, and commonly appears as a young woman holding up the curtain of Elizabeth’s house, peeking out as Elizabeth and Mary meet.  This young woman has no name, but she is generally understood to be Elizabeth’s servant.  In fact in discussions of Russian iconography, she is generally identified only as a sluzhanka (служанка), a female serving maid.

We find her in Western Catholic iconography as well.  Here she is in a c. 1320 stone carving at the Cathedral of Orvieto, in Italy — the young woman holding up the curtain at right, watching Elizabeth and Mary embrace.

Here is the young female “extra” again, in the mosaic of the “Visitation” in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice:

She also pops up in the Sofiya Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine — this time peeking out at left:

Just as movie extras may appear in different movies, we also find the “peeking maid” in this mosaic segment depicting a quite different event — “The Prayer of the Holy Anne” (Ἡ Προσευχη Της Ἁγιας Αννης / He Proseukhe Tes Hagias Annes), in the monastery at Daphne/Daphni, Greece.  This St. Anne is by tradition the Mother of Mary:

It is worth mentioning that  while Protestants tend to think of Joseph and Mary as being rather poor, that is not the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Poor people could not afford the servants (more literally slaves) that we sometimes see in icons of the family members and relatives of Jesus.


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):