In an earlier posting on the icon type of the “Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae,” I mentioned that there was a tendency in early Christianity to worship angels.  In an attempt to control it, or at least to put it under the authority of the main Church, there was a third-century Council of Laodicea in Phrygia.  It stated in its Canon 35 that Christians were not to avoid the regular church services by going away instead to call upon angels. Though there is some question as to the precise interpretation of this, we can nonetheless see how strong the veneration of angels was at this time by the making of this law (it was also forbidden by this council to join in prayer with “heretics” or “schismatics.”

“Council” in Church Slavic is Sobor.  Sobor is also the word used in Russia for a cathedral.

It was believed that at the end of time — on the day of the “Last Judgment,” there would be a council of all the “heavenly powers” — the angels.  Because this was at the “end of time,” it was seen symbolically as the end of the old creation and the beginning of the Eighth Day — the “day of Eternity.”  That is why in old Church writings the Last Judgment is sometimes referred to as the “Eighth Day.”

It was considered appropriate, then, that the Church festival celebrating the angelic gathering would also be on an “eighth day,” so it was set on the eighth day of the ninth month (November 8th), which at that time would have been measured from the beginning date of March 1.

That leads us to today’s icon.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

Let’s look at the title inscription:

It is so long that to see it more clearly, it is best to divide it in halves.  Here is the beginning:

It reads:


Here is the ending:


Putting all that together and in normal English, it is:


You will recall that Michael is traditionally considered the commander of the heavenly armies, and “bodiless powers” means the various ranks of angels, which are considered to be without physical bodies — but rather with “spiritual” bodies.  In Greek iconography this type is often called Η Συναξις των Ασωματων — He Synaxis ton Asomaton — “The Council of the Bodiless.”

At left we see the Archangel Michael:

At right is the Archangel Gabriel:

The center of the image is balanced by the unidentified (in this example) central angel, who holds two mirrors, that at left with the abbreviation for Jesus (IC) and that at right with the abbreviation for Christ (XC).  He has the typical curly ribbon ends at his ears that signify divine hearing.  It is noteworthy that the arrangement of the angels varies from example to example.  In some, this central angel is identified as Michael, with the two angels in the foreground being Gabriel at left and Raphael at right.  In others, Raphael is the central angel.  In examples with the foremost angels identified, often the names added to these are the archangels Iegudiel, Selaphiel, Uriel, and Barakhiel.

Below him, in a ring of Seraphim (traditionally Seraphim are red, but often artists reversed the colors, making them blue, and Cherubim red) is the image of Christ Immanuel, the Son born eternally of the Father, again with the IC XC abbreviation and the standard HO ON abbreviation in Greek,  signifiying “The One Who Is.”

The red angel at the base of the circle is identified by inscription as:


It is a peculiarity of Russian iconography that the plural form is used for the singular with both cherubim and seraphim, which accounts for the monks (and nuns) named “Seraphim.”  In many examples, this red lower central angel is identified as СЕРАФИМЪ — Seraphim.

In English, the icon type “Council of the Archangel Michael and Other Bodiless Powers” is often called simply the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael,” the term synaxis being borrowed from the medieval Greek for a “gathering,” often specifically a religious gathering for the celebration of the Eucharist.  This type is also sometimes called simply the the “Synaxis of the Archangels.”

Here is another example of the type, which we can tell from its style dates from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:


As mentioned earlier, this example has Mikhail (Michael) as the central angel (Archangel); in the left foreground is ГАВРИИЛЪ — Gavriil — Gabriel, and behind him left to right, [И]ЕГУДИИЛЪ — Iegudiil — Iegudiel and  СЕЛАФИИЛЪ — Selafiil — Selaphiel.  At right foreground is РАФИИЛЪ — Rafiil — Raphael, and behind him УРИИЛЪ — Uriil — Uriel and БАРАХИИЛЪ — Barakhiil — Barachiel.  The red central angel at the base is identified as a СЕРАФИМЪ — Serafim — Seraphim, and the title of the blue angels at each side is divided between them: ХЕРУ-ВИМИ — Kheruvimi — Cherubim.  The title, rather squeezed in at the top, is given as  СОБОРБ АРХ[АНГЕЛА] МИХАИЛА —  SOBOR ARKHANGELA MIKHAILA — “The Council of the Archangel Michael.”  So this shows the gathering or council of the Archangels — the АРХАНГЕЛЪСКИЙ СОБОР — Arkhangelskiy Sobor.


Today we will look at another cross, but not the usual kind.  We can tell that right away by the presence of the winged angel on it.  But why is the angel there, and who is he?

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

Metal icons often show wear from long use, and the fact that the owners liked to polish them with chalk did not help to preserve surface detail.  That is why we often find fine details on metal icons worn smooth.

The kind of cross shown here had a string or cord through the upper part.  So it is a breast or pectoral cross.

The image at the top is the “Not Made by Hands” type, depicting the face of Jesus on the cloth.  But again, who is the angel?

In spite of wear, one can tell that he carries a long rod (мери́ло — merilo) in one hand, and a mirror (зерцало — zertsalo) in the other.  One might, therefore, expect him to be an Archangel.   But traditionally, this type of cast metal cross of an angel with the crossbar at his head is identified as the Ангел Великого СоветаAngel Velikogo Soveta — the “Angel of Great Counsel.”

We have already seen another “Angel of Great Counsel” type in icons of Jesus as the Blagoe Molchanie — the “Blessed Silence.”  And this metal cross is another form of Jesus as the “Angel of Great Counsel.”  Pectoral crosses of this type are often from the 18th century, though one may find them a little earlier and later as well.


A reader in Croatia kindly sent me photos of this cast brass and enamel cross.

If you read my previous posting on cross inscriptions (, you will find some of that material repeated here.

First, this is a “Priestless” (Bezpopovtsy) Old Believer cross of the type called an “altar cross” (напрестольный крест — naprestol’nuiy krest).  One can tell it is a “Priestless” cross by looking at the image at the very top.  It is the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus on the cloth, the so-called “Abgar” image that resulted from the old story that Jesus once pressed a cloth to his face, which became miraculously imprinted on the cloth, and was thus the first Christian icon.  If this had been a “Priested” (Popovtsy) Old Believer casting, it would instead have a top image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit as a dove; and it would also have the I. N. TS. I inscription that abbreviates Pilate’s text “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Исус Назорянин, Царь Иудейский ).

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Let’s take a closer look at the top of the cross:

We see the “Not Made by Hands” image, with the halo of Jesus having the HO ON inscription, meaning “He Who Is.”  Just below it is a Church Slavic inscription identifying the image:



If we join the two lines as they should be, they read:
Obraz Nerukotvorrenuiy, menaing “[the] IMAGE NOT-HAND-MADE,” or in more normal English, “The Image Not Made by Hands.”

Below that are two flying angels, bowing toward the crucified Jesus, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.  Their abbreviated inscription reads:

ANGLI GOSPODNI (remember that a doubled Г Г is pronounced like English “ng”)
“Angels of the Lord”

And just below the two angels is the abbreviated inscription:


1 Corinthians 2:8 reads:
Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Now let’s look at the middle portion.  At the top, we see the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,”   Remember that while the Old Believers use the , Ісусъ [Isus] spelling, the Russian State Church uses Іисусъ [Iisus]. and “Christ” is Христос — Khristos.


Below the IC XC are these words:

“Son of God.”

At left we see the sun, and beneath it is its name:

At right is the moon, with its name:

Below is a long inscription that runs all the way along the main crossbar.  We will begin with the left side:

It reads:

Cross Of-You We-Bow-Before Master, or in better English,
“We bow before your cross, Master…” (Vladiko means “Ruler,” “Master.”)
It is often translated simply, “We honor/venerate your cross, Lord…”

And it finishes on the right side:

…And your holy resurrection we-praise
More smoothly,
“…And praise your holy resurrection.”

So all together, the inscription reads:
“We bow before your cross, Master, and Praise your holy resurrection.”

It is a common text, found in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom as well as in that of Basil, and repeated in the liturgy of the Third Week in Lent, etc.

In the lower portion of the upright beam, we see at left a spear, and at right a sponge on a reed.  By the spear is the letter K, abbreviating КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear.”   And by the sponge is the letter T, abbreviating  ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod, with the sponge at its top.

In and near the lower crossbar, we see the walls and roofs of Jerusalem, and the letters НИКА — NIKA — Greek for “He Conquers.”

At the base of the upright we see these letters:

М  Л
Р  Б

They abbreviate




[The] Place [of the] Skull Paradise Became

In normal English, “The Place of the Skull became Paradise.”  “Lobnoe” is often more loosely translated as “Execution” or Judgment,” but Mesto Lobnoe refers to the place commonly called Calvary in English, from the Latin Calvariæ Locus, “Skull Place.”

That leads us to the final two inscriptions.

At the sides of the base of the cross are the letters

Г  Г

They abbreviate

“Hill [of] Golgotha”

“Golgotha” ultimately derived from the Aramaic Gagultâ, meaning “skull.”
Remember that Church Slavic (like Russian) has no “th” sound, so it is replaced with the “f” sound.

Just below the base of the cross is an opening in which lies a skull.  This follows the tradition that the Crucifixion happened at the center of the earth, and that was supposedly where the biblical first man, Adam, was buried.  So the skull is that of Adam.  And at the sides of the skull are the letters

Г  А
[the] SKULL (literally “head”) [of] ADAM

Some crosses (like this one) have a little plant at the base, a sprout of new life.

Now let’s look at the reverse inscription, which is the one most commonly found on these Old Believer brass crosses:

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Though it has some variations in spelling (these are common), it is the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the Prayer of the Praise of the Cross (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — which is:

Крест хранитель всей вселенной;
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy

Крест красота церковная;
Krest krasota tserkovnaya

Крест царем держава;
Krest tsarem derzhava

Крест верным утверждение;
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

Крест ангелом слава;
Krest angelom slava

Крест бесом язва.
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe,
the Cross is the beauty of the Church,
the Cross is the might of kings,
the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful,
the Cross is the glory of angels and scourge of demons

(Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins — Festal Matins for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

At the base of the inscription we see another eight-pointed cross (the Old Believers would not accept the Latin cross).  Though again the spelling is off, it has the usual abbreviations:



“Son of God.”


“Jesus Christ”

We see the letters K and T for Kopie and Trost‘ (spear and reed/rod).

Note that they have reversed the positions of the letters in the М  Л / Р  Б abbreviation for Mesto Lobnoe Ray Buist, but the meaning is the same — “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.”

Finally there are the letters Г Г for Gora Golgofa, “Hill of Golgotha.”

I mentioned earlier that the example discussed in this posting is an “altar cross.”  It is useful to know that cast metal Russian crosses are generally classified as follows:

1.  The altar cross (Напрестольный Крест — Naprestol’nuiy Krest):  it is placed on the altar beside the Gospel book.  These are the large crosses one often sees.

2. The pectoral cross (Нагрудный Крест — Nagrudnuiy Krest, or Наперсный Крест,  Napersnuiy Krest)These are the small to medium-sized crosses with a loop or hole at the top, so they may be worn on a cord or chain about the neck.  They are worn both by the clergy (priests, monks) and by certain pious people.

3.  The kiot or “arkcross ( Киотный КрестKiotnuiy Krest):  These are the crosses placed on the shelf in the “beautiful corner” of a room, along with the family icons.  They are of medium size, and have no hole or loop at the top.  They may also be taken on trips as a kind of temporary prayer focus.  They include those crosses one sees with side panels showing Martha and Mary (“Mother of God”) on the left of the Crucifixion and the Apostle John and Centurion Longinos (Login) at the right.  Kiot crosses are sometimes commonly known as “house crosses.”

4.  The body cross (Тельный крест — Telnuiy Krest):  These are the usually quite small crosses with a hole or loop at the top, worn around the neck on a cord or chain, and given to each person at baptism.  So any Russian Orthodox person wore a body cross.


Every now and then, one reads something that is just too off the mark to overlook.

I happened to notice, today, an article talking about the Nativity painted by Giotto (c. 1266-1337):

It is a pleasant scene, typical of the early Italian mixture of old elements from the Greek tradition softened by the Italian sensibility.  It shows the familiar elements:  a star above, angels (one of whom announces the birth to the shepherds at right), the ox and ass, Mary and her child, old Joseph seated to one side, and the two serving women with the infant Jesus and the basin in which he is washed.

The article asked why Jesus is shown twice, as though it were some great mystery.  The explanation it gave was that the two representations symbolize his “divine” and “human” natures.

The correct explanation, of course, is that this double representation was simply the old way of showing two scenes from a narrative.  In one scene here, Mary is holding the infant Jesus.  The other scene is the washing of the infant Jesus by the two serving women.

If we look at a 10th century Byzantine ivory carving of the Nativity, we can see how these same elements were present:

(Walters Gallery)

(Walters Gallery)

Here, instead of Giotto’s warm depiction of Mary holding her child, we find the traditional, rather cold Eastern Orthodox image of Mary turned away from the child.  And then below, we see the child again, this time in the wash basin, being bathed by the two serving women.  At left sits Joseph, and at right is a shepherd.  Three angels are above, one of whom is obviously making his announcement to the shepherd, who is looking upward.

Now if you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that showing a subject twice is simply the icon way of depicting ongoing action by showing two or more scenes or events from a narrative in the same painting.  There is no great mystery or symbolism to it.  As I mentioned in a previous posting, it is a kind of precursor to animation, and we might call it “static” animation, in that it indicates a change of focus from one event to another, but without actual movement of the image; it is the eye of the viewer that moves.  And of course early Italian art was strongly influenced by the Byzantine tradition.

People often give these things fanciful and imaginative interpretations, but they tend to overlook the art historical aspect — the development and changes in iconography over time.


There are quite a number of traditionally paired saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography — Zosima and Savvatiy, Cosmas and Damian, Florus and Laurus, and so on.

Today I would like to briefly discuss another prominent pair of saints.  Their names in latinized form are Sergius and Bacchus.

Traditionally, Sergius and Bacchus were supposed to have been Roman soldiers and secret Christians martyred in the 4th century because they refused to sacrifice to the gods.  They were included in early accounts of martyrs, and popularly venerated as early as the 5th century.

Oddly enough, Sergius and Bacchus are best known today as “gay” icons, and some newly-painted images with that focus depict them in rather more intimate closeness than the majority of older icons.  This is due to a book written in the late 20th century that, with dubious scholarship, presented the premise that Sergius and Bacchus were a romantically homosexual couple.

Actually, though they have a centuries-long history of veneration in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Catholicism, to me the most interesting thing about Sergius and Bacchus is that they apparently never existed at all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia states “their existing Acts are not genuine,” which is a polite way of saying that the accounts of their lives and martyrdom are as historical as Pinocchio.  Eastern Orthodoxy, however, has never reviewed its vast list of saints to try to separate those who are “fake” from those who did exist, so there are quite a number of saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendars and icons today who did not exist at all.

Nonetheless, Sergius and Bacchus can still be put to some practical use in helping improve ability to read Greek icon inscriptions, so let’s take a look at some examples.

Here is a 16th-century fresco of the pair by Theophanes the Cretan, found in the Lavra of Athanasios on Mount Athos.  Note that each holds a cross, signifying martyrdom for the Christian faith.

The title inscriptions should be easy for you to read if you have been following my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions.

Here is the left inscription:


By now you should know that the three letters at upper left stand for Ο ΑΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — meaning “The Holy.”  Below that is the saint’s name, written partly to his left, partly to his right:  CΕΡΓΙΟς — Sergios.

And here is the right inscription:

We see the same Ho Hagios abbreviation at upper left, and below is the saint’s name:  ΒΑΚΧΟC — Bakkhos, which we usually see in its latinized form, Bacchus.  You will recall that the letter X (chi) in Greek has the rough, gutteral pronunciation of the last ch in the name of the composer Bach.

That was really easy, so here is something more challenging, the inscription from another Mount Athos fresco of the martyrdom of Sergius and Bacchus, this time by the 16th-century Cretan painter Tzortzis:

It is quite gruesome, as are many scenes of martyrdom in Eastern Orthodox iconography, so let’s concentrate on the title inscription at the top:

It reads:



If we separate the words in that, we get:

Martyrion Ton Hagion Sergiou Kai Bakkhou
Martyrdom of-the Holy Sergios and Bakkhos

As you can see, the word Hagios and names Sergios and Bakkhos take on different grammatical endings here.

You should know that the Greek word μαρτύριον (martyrion) originally meant a testimony, as in giving one’s testimony or witness; it gradually took on the looser meaning of “martyrdom” — being killed for one’s testimony or cause.





Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.


Here is a rather long posting that will likely severely bore anyone who is not interested in learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.  But it is a helpful posting for those peculiar souls who do want to learn that rather esoteric skill.  In any case, it is something any serious student of icons should know.

A reader asked about inscriptions on icons of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.  That gave me a good excuse to talk a bit more about ligatures in Greek icon inscriptions.  “Ligature,” in writing, is the linking or joining of letters together.  When icon students first encounter ligatures, they find them mystifying and confusing, but really the principle is quite simple once one knows what to look for.

First, let’s take a look at the main portion of an example of such an icon type in this fresco from Mt. Athos:

Here is what Mary is saying to Jesus in the inscription:


Let’s look a little closer:

It begins with an abbreviation:  ΚΕ.  But notice the horizontal line above the two letters.  Do you remember that such a line (sometimes curved, but still horizontal) indicates an abbreviation?  Here, the two letters abbreviate ΚΥΡΙΕ (Kyrie).  You may recall that ΚΥΡΙΟC (Kyrios) is the Greek word for “Lord.”  KYRIE is just another form of it — the form used in addressing someone — in talking to them directly.   So here KYRIE also means”Lord” (but see below).

Now in a previous “lesson,” I told you that when encountering unfamiliar inscriptions, one should look at the visual context, at what is in the image.  And here the context is the biblical story of Mary talking to Jesus after his resurrection.  So all we need ask is, where in that context does she address him as “Lord?”  We must also remember that Kyrie is the standard respectful way for a woman to address a male in Greek — which is why the King James version of the Bible sometimes translates it as “Sir.”  So again, where in this context does Mary address Jesus as “Lord” or “Sir?”  We find it in the Gospel called “of John,” Chapter 20, verse 15:

Jesus says to her, Woman, why weep you? whom seek you? She, supposing him to be the gardener, says to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

The next step, of course, is to take a look at the same verse in a Greek New Testament, so that we can verify that we have chosen correctly:


Now, let’s compare that with the inscription on the icon:

Here’s where we run into the ligature issue.  We already know that the first two letters, KE, abbbreviate KYRIE — “Lord”/”Sir.”  that means, if we have the chosen the correct text, the next two letters should be EI in Greek.  But in the actual icon inscription, the third symbol does not look like any recognizable letter at all.  The reason is that it is a ligature, a joined letter.  We find it it two places in the inscription:

The first occurance is somewhat marred by a crack in the painting surface, but the second, almost just below the first, is quite clear.  It looks rather like the number nine.  But the rounded part to the left is the “E” portion of the ligature, and the vertical line is the “I.”  So we can be reasonably certain that we have the correct text, because the third and fourth letters in the inscription are EI, meaning “if.”

The next two Greek letters in the inscription look like CV:

C in Greek is “s” in English.  And the V is actually just a way of writing the Greek letter Y, which in lower case is υ.  So the word in Greek is CY, which we can transliterate as SY or sy.  Sy is Greek for “you.”

Up to this point we have:

Lord/Sir if you…

The next word in the inscription is not complete:


It has one ligature, the fourth symbol.  That is a combination of C and T in Greek.  So it reads  EBACTAC — Ebastas.  But the word is shortened.  It is really EBACTACAC — Ebastasas, meaning “carried off”

The next word is also missing its ending:

The first symbol is a ligature of a and u, so the three letters shown are aut, which if written in full would be auton, meaning “him.”

Next come these words, all pushed together, as is often common in Greek inscriptions:


The first letter is the ligature of e and i that we have already seen.  With the next two letters, it makes the word ΕΙΠΕ — EIPE–, meaning “tell.”  That is followed by the word MOI, meaning “me.”  And the final word in the line has a common ligature of the letters O and Y, with the Y placed atop the O.  So it is the word ΠΟΥ — POU –, meaning “where.”

So now we have:

“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him, tell me where…”

Then comes:


The first four letters are ΕΘΗΚ — ethek, but the writer has left off the ending.  The whole word would be ΕΘΗΚΑC — ethekas — meaning “[you] have laid.”  That is followed by the abbreviation for AUTON (AVT) that we have already seen, and so we know AUTON means “him.”  The last four letters form the combined word KAΓω — KAGO –, and the two words put together to make it are ΚΑΙ ΕΓω, kai ego, meaning “and I.”

Adding that to what we already have, it gives us:

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I...”

Then come the last words of Mary’s little speech:

Here the word AYTON — auton, which we saw earlier in its shortened form, is spelled out in full.  You will recall it means “him.”  Next comes a ligature, the letters A and P (R) joined, so the last word is ARω — ARO, meaning ” [I] will take away.”

So the inscription, in our rather literal translation so far, is

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I him will take away.

If we put that into more normal English order, we get,

Sir, if you carried him off, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

Now keep in mind that you did not have to know the entire inscription to know what it was.  You determined that from the first few words, seen in the context of the image shown — Mary kneeling before the resurrected Jesus.  Then all you had to do was to find those few words in the Greek text of the New Testament where the story of Mary before the resurrected Jesus is told.  Using that process enables one to recognize a great many inscriptions without knowing the entire vocabulary of the text at first glance.

We can see how useful that is if we look at another icon of the same type, also with a Greek inscription:

If we look at what Mary is saying to Jesus in this example, we find it to be:

It is very much the same as the inscription in the first example, with only slight differences in writing.  And the one word separated at the bottom is easy.  In Greek letters it is ΡΑΒΒΟΥΝΗ — RABBOUNI — an Aramaic word that means loosely “My Master/Teacher.”  That, according to the Gospel called “of John,” was the exclamation of Mary to Jesus when she finally recognized him.

Just for completeness, let’s deal with the other inscriptions one is likely to find on icons of this type.  First, there is the identifying inscription above Mary:

Picture 089

Picture 089

As you might guess, it just reads:


You probably noticed that the HAGIA is abbreviated.  In the name “Mary,” the A and Ρ (R) are joined, and the HE (H) is linked to the M in Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — “the Magdalene.”

And of course the title as a whole means “THE HOLY MARY THE MAGDALENE.”

There is also an inscription found in this type that you should already recognize from a previous posting.  For it, we will go back to this example in the first image:

The inscription is just above the empty grave of Jesus (with the graveclothes lying in it):

Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΤΑΦΟC — HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “The Holy Sepulchre.”

Let’s also look back at that first image to see what Jesus is saying to Mary:


The IC at the top is of course just the standard abbreviation for “Jesus.”  But the inscription below it has the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene:


In normal English that is “TOUCH ME NOT,” or more modern, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.”  That accounts for the common Latin title often given these images in the West, Noli Me Tangere, which is just the translation of Me Mou Aptou.

I hope you noticed that the letters ΜΗ are joined in a ligature, as are ΟΥ in the word ΜΟΥ, and there is another ligature joining the letters Π and Τ in ΑΠΤΟΥ.

Finally, let’s take a look at the title inscription of the whole image at the very top of the first example.  It is cut off in the photo, but we can fill in what is missing:



The After the Resurrection to the Magdalene Mary of the Savior Appearance

In normal English,


One will often find little variations in Greek spelling (as in ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ / ΕΓΕΡCΙΝ in the above example), but usually they are not severe enough to cause confusion.

You may also wish to know that this ME MOU APTOU icon type of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is another of those borrowings into Eastern Orthodox art from Western Catholic art, from the time when Venice controlled the island of Crete, and the icon painters there worked to supply both Greek Orthodox and Western Catholic markets for paintings.  You may have also noticed that Mary Magdalene’s head is bare in these icons, which is a little unusual, given that most women have their heads covered in icons.  But it is usual for Mary’s hair to be seen in these particular type, because the image was borrowed very closely from Western examples — and in the West, Mary Magdalene is often seen with head uncovered.