Today we will look briefly at a very uncommon icon type.  It is related to those icons we have seen in previous postings, representing the Guardian Angel and a person at death; but this particular type is based upon a collection of prayers:

(Russian State Museum)

As you can see, it consists of lots of little scenes, each with a bit of text beneath it.

The title inscription should tell us what this is all about:

It is a bit fuzzy, but we can nonetheless read it.  It says:

Изображение Канyна На Исход Души

Though the writer has spelled Kanona as Kanuna, we nonetheless know what he meant, so we can easily translate the title as:


So we know this icon represents a particular liturgical collection of funereal prayers relating to the departure of the soul from the body at death and its journey in the afterlife, as believed in Eastern Orthodox tradition.

This appears to be an Old Believer icon from the 19th century.  It is not a type you are likely to encounter, but if you do, you will be able to recognize it now.




In earlier postings we looked at icons of Holy Wisdom depicted as a red-faced angel sitting upon a throne often supported by seven pillars.  Today we will look at a 16th century Novgorod icon that again depicts Wisdom, but in a different manner.

Customarily, when looking at icons here, we look at the whole image first, then look more closely at various details.  Today, however, we shall begin with details, which will enable you to understand the icon as a whole when seeing it.

Here is the first detail:

We see a circle with a robed figure in the center, holding a chalice in hand.  Beside the head is a faint inscription reading:

Божия Сила Божия Премудрость
Bozhiya Sila Boshiya Premudrost’
“Power of God — Wisdom of God”

In the red surrounding circle are the winged wheels that are the class of angel called “Thrones” — commonly found in icons of the Trinity.  Also faintly visible in the red circle are representations of Seraphim and the symbols of the Four Evangelists — Man, Eagle, Lion, Ox:

In the darker, cloudy circle enclosing that, we see other angels, as well as a eucharistic container and an altar table.

Not only does the robed central figure have the “Thrones” underfoot — usually a sign of divinity — but also has an eight-pointed halo, another common sign of divinity,  a symbol of the days of Creation with the Eight Day — the Day of Eternity.  Below the seat on which Wisdom sits, we see seven slender supporting pillars.  That takes us back to the fundamental text on which Wisdom icons are based.  Proverbs 9:1:

Wisdom has builded her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars.

The illustration of the text continues:

“She hath killed her beasts…”

Those words are indicating by the two figures slaughtering two cattle beneath them.

She has mingled her wine; she has also furnished her table.

Here we see the wine and the table:

She has sent forth her maidens: she cries upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wants understanding, she says to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.

So in the detail above, we see all the people coming to receive the wine of wisdom.  And “crying from the highest places of the city” is a crowned figure in the tower, holding a scroll:

He is King Solomon, the traditional author of the book of Proverbs.  He is considered a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy.  He holds a scroll that begins:

Premudrost’ sozda sebye kh[ra]m i outverdi…
“Wisdom built herself a temple and set up…”

So of course he is telling us  — as in Proverbs 9:1 — that Wisdom built herself a temple and set it up on seven pillars.

You may recall that older Orthodox translations say  — as here — khram/”temple,” which is also used in Slavic to mean “church.” Later translations use дом (dom), meaning “house.”

At right, above those coming for wine, we see a red circle of seraphim in which Mary is seated with Christ Immanuel, who is considered to be Wisdom:

Below her at right is a turbaned figure  — Kozma/Cosmas of Maium — holding a scroll that has a variant version of  an excerpt by him from the Canon of Holy Thursday:

Всепричинная подательница жизни безмерная мудрость Божия создала себе храм из чистой, не знавшей мужа Матери: ибо в храм телесный облекшийся славно прославился Христос Бог наш»

“The Cause of All, Giver of Life, the immeasurable Wisdom of God, created for himself a temple from the pure, husbandless Mother: for clothed in the temple of the body, gloriously has been glorified Christ our God.”

That illustrates Mary with Christ Immanuel above him — that the child Wisdom, through Mary, was clothed in the temple of a human body.

So that is the main part of the icon, which symbolizes not only the pre-existence but also the incarnation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom — and along with that it represents the Eucharistic sacrifice.

At the top of the icon, we see a seven-domed church:

The scenes beneath the smaller domes represent the Seven Ecumenical Councils, arranged chronologically from left to right:

At left is the Council of Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian controversy and the nature of Jesus.  Beside it is the Council of Constantinople in 381:

Next come the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, and beside it the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

Following that are the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553, under Emperor Justinian, and beside that the Sixth, the Council of Constantinople in 681.

Last — on the far right — is the Seventh Ecumenical Council under Empress Irene and her son Constantine, in 787.

At the very top of the icon are circles with angels bearing scrolls, but the inscriptions are too small to read in the photo. Often these are interpreted as the gifts of the Spirit.

That should go far in enabling you to understand the whole icon:



I have discussed icons of the “Flight to Egypt” previously.   Today we will examine a variant of that type in this 14th century fresco from Vysokie Dechani in Serbia:

Perhaps you noticed all those little white guys falling from the tops of the walls.  They are explained by the origin of this variant.

The reason for their addition is that this type illustrates — as the Slavic inscription on it tells us by giving the first words — Ikos 6 from the Akathist hymn to Mary:

«Возсиявый во Египте просвещение истины, отгнал еси лжи тьму: идоли бо его, Спасе, не терпяще Твоея крепости, падоша»

“By shining in Egypt the light of truth, you did dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Savior, unable to endure your strength.”

So this variant depicts the idols of Egypt — those little white fellows in the fresco — falling at the arrival of Jesus, which is a tale found in apocryphal writings narrating the childhood of Jesus.  And these tales ultimately may be traced back to a rather fanciful interpretation of Isaiah 19:1:

In the Septuagint version, it is:

Ορασις Αἰγύπτου. – Ιδού, Κύριος κάθηται ἐπὶ νεφέλης κούφης καὶ ἥξει εἰς Αἴγυπτον, καὶ σεισθήσεται τὰ χειροποίητα Αἰγύπτου ἀπὸ προσώπου αὐτοῦ….

“The vision of Egypt:  Behold the lord sits upon a swift cloud, and shall come to Egypt, and the handmade [idols] of Egypt shall be shaken before his face ….”

In the King James version it is:

The burden of Egypt. Behold, the Lord [Yahweh] rides upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence….”




There is a very strange story in Mark 11:

11 And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the evening was come, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:

13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if perhaps he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.

14 And Jesus said to it, No man eat fruit of you hereafter forever. And his disciples heard it.

After this, they go into Jerusalem, and there Jesus “cleanses the Temple” by turning over the tables of the money changers.

19 And when evening was come, he went out of the city.

20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.

21 And Peter, calling to remembrance, says to him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursed is withered away.

22 And Jesus answering says to them, Have faith in God.

23 For truly I say to you, That whoever shall say to this mountain, Be you removed, and be you cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he says shall happen; he shall have whatever he says.

24 Therefore I say to you, Whatever things you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them.

As uncomfortable Christians have long noted, this story makes Jesus look like a peevish child having a temper tantrum.  No one can expect to find figs on a tree when it is not yet time for it to bear, so cursing it so no one may ever eat figs from it is like a child kicking and damaging a toy that does not behave as he wishes it to.

The Markan Gospel of course adds a little moral to the story about getting whatever one prays for if one truly believes (a result centuries of earnestly believing and praying Christians have thoroughly disproved) but the unsound moral hardly seems to fit the oddity of the event.  It is no wonder then, that for centuries believers have sought some allegorical meaning to the tale, whether it be that the Jews were not “bearing fruit” of righteousness, or that the days of Temple worship had ended, or even the very interesting theory (for which there is some support) that the present Gospel of Mark was intended for the consumption of beginners in the faith, who understood things literally, but those more advanced were taught the secret meaning behind these stories of Jesus.

Every year the tale of the cursing of the fig tree is read in Orthodox Churches on the Monday of Holy Week, but it is read in the version found in Matthew, which differs in interesting ways.  You may recall that the consensus of scholarship is that the Matthaean Gospel is based upon (today we would say plagiarizes) that called “of Mark.”

First, Matthew removes the embarrassment of Jesus cursing the non-bearing fig at a time when it was not the season for it to bear.  It is done by omitting this Markan line:

…for the time of figs was not yet.

Next, the writer of “Matthew” makes the withering of the fig more dramatic in his revised version.  Instead of having the disciples notice that the fig has withered when they pass by it on the day after the cursing, “Matthew” makes the fig wither as soon as it is cursed, and the disciples watch it happen.  In Matthew 21, we find:

19 And when he [Jesus] saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon but leaves, and said to it, Let no fruit grow on you henceforward forever. And immediately the fig tree withered away.

20 And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!

The point of all this for us, however, is that there are icons of the cursing of the fig.  Here is a Russian example:

(Source: http://поисков.рф)

And of course there is the 14th century fresco in the Serbian Patriarchate at Pech:

Here is yet another fresco:

The cursing of the fig tree is not at all a common icon subject, which is as one might expect, given the troubling nature of the story.


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.





You may recall the words often used to frighten and discipline misbehaving school children — “It is going on your permanent record.”  Well, it was not only teachers who used this threat.  It has long been practiced in Eastern Orthodox iconography as well.

Today we will look at an icon type more often found in fresco than in painted panel form  Here is a rare example of the latter:

(Gian Pietro Serra Collection)

It obviously depicts two angels holding scrolls, but to find out who they are, we must read the title inscription at the top:



You may recall that some time ago we looked at frescos of the angel or angels painted at the entrance to Russian churches, who record the names of those entering the church:


Well, this icon is another and smaller version of that.  Though sometimes the standing angel at the left is called Michael (and he may also carry a sword), and the (usually seated) angel at the right Gabriel, in other examples they may be anonymous, as are the angels in this painted panel example.

In it, we see the recording angels that note down the names and disposition of those who enter and those who leave the church — whether they are present, and whether they enter in a reverent manner, and whether they leave earlier than appropriate.

As you see, each angel in the icon holds a scroll, but instead of simply listing names, the scrolls in this example bear pious inscriptions.

Here is the angel at left:

His scroll reads (I am putting it in the modern Russian font):

Радуйтеся и веселитеся, яко мзда ваша мн[ога на небесех].

Raduitesya i veselitesya, yako mzda vasha mn[oga na nebesekh].

It is the first words of Matthew 5:12:

“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.”

Here is the angel on the right:

He has a pen in hand, and he has written:

Радуйтеся, пра…

It is the beginning of Psalm 33:1 (Psalm 32:1 in Western numbering):

Радуйтеся, пра[веднии, о Господе: правым подобает похвала].
Raduitesya, pra[vednii, o Gospode: pravuim podobaet pokhvala].

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.”

The motif of an angel with a scroll is called — sensibly enough — Ангел со свитком/Angel so svitkom — “The Angel with a Scroll.”

An icon from the Blagovyeshchenie (Annunciation) Monastery in Murom shows an “Angel with a Scroll,” and the  title inscription identifies it as the angel seen in the vision of “Holy Father Ammon,”  who saw “the Angel of the Lord Sitting and Writing Names of Those Entering the Church of God.”
(Murom History and Art Museum)

This relates to the old tale that the Egyptian monk-priest Ammon was given the ability to see spiritual things.  Once during the Eucharist, he saw an angel near the altar who was writing down the names of those present, and crossing out the names of the absent monks.

The scroll of the Murom angel reads:

“The Angel of the Lord Writes Down the Names of Those Entering the Church of the Lord ….”

Sometimes the inscription is a bit longer:

Ангел Господень написует имена входящыя в церковь Господню со страхом, и с верою.

“The Angel of the Lord writes down the names of those entering the Church of the Lord with Fear and with belief.”

As mentioned in my earlier posting, a single recording angel is sometimes simply known as the Ангел храма — Angel Khrama — “Angel of the Church.”  It is believed that this angel becomes the protector of a church when it is consecrated, and remains on duty there until the Second Coming — even, it is said, if the church is destroyed.  Such an angel may be depicted as standing or sitting, recording on his scroll the names of those entering the church, noting those absent or late or leaving early, so that he may give his report on them at the Last Judgment.

It is written in the Spiritual Meadow that Abba Leontios — the priest of the coenobitic Monastery of St. Theodosios — reported:

“Once on Sunday I came to church to celebrate the Holy Mysteries.   On entering the temple, I saw an angel standing at the right side of the throne [the altar]. Horrified, I retired to my cell. And there came a voice to me: ‘Since this throne was consecrated, I am commanded to be with it all the time.'”

Now obviously there is a relationship here to the standard image of the Guardian Angel in icons, who follows each person through life, recording his deeds.  Sometimes the iconography of the two becomes mixed, particularly when the angel writing on a scroll is simply called “The Angel with a Scroll.”


Today we will look at the iconography of one of the saints of the island of Crete:

(Byantine and Christian Museum, Athens)

In the center we see the large image of the saint himself.  If it once had his title, it is worn away.  But we see it abbreviated in another similar icon of the same fellow:

We see:


abbreviating  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC/Ho Hagios — “The Holy”;

And we see

It has a mark of abbreviation above it.  It abbreviates ΙѠΑΝΝΗC/Ioannes — “John”:

And finally, divided into two parts at the sides of his head, we find:

Ὁ ΕΡΗ               ΜΙΤΗC   — Ho Eremites — “The Hermit.

If we put it all together, we get:



Because he was a monk, John is often titled Όσιος Ιωάννης ο Ερημίτης/Hosios Ioannes ho Eremites.  You will recall that Hosios is the Greek equivalent of the Russian Prepodobnuiy; it signifies a male monastic.

You may have recognized that the Greek word ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC/Eremites is already found in English as “eremite,” and in fact our English word “hermit” comes ultimately from the Greek eremites, which in turn is derived from Greek ἔρημος/eremos — meaning a deserted, wild place.  It is the word used in the New Testament for the “desert” where John the Forerunner/Baptist preached.  So an eremite or hermit was originally one who went out to live in wild, uninhabited places — like the Judean desert, or the Nitrian Desert in Egypt.

The icon of John the Hermit tells the hagiographic tale of his life in condensed form.  We will look at elements of this tale taken from two similar icons.  Remember that these lives of the saints are not literal history, but rather tales to inspire and entertain believers — so they are often a mixture of history and fanciful fiction — and sometimes entirely fiction.

The tale tells us that in the year 1600 (others say it may have been even some two centuries earlier) 36 monastics came with John from Egypt to lead ascetic lives on the island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea.  There they made such a local impression that they were joined by 39 more — this time Cypriots.  By this time, things were so lively around them that they wanted to find a quieter place to live a monastic life.  First they tried going to Antalya in Asia Minor (now in Turkey), but again they were pestered by lots of religious “groupies.”  Nonetheless, another 24 monastics joined them, so now they were, all together, 99 monks.  They decided that number was enough, and would not accept more, because they considered Jesus to the the 100th member of their community — a nice round number.

To find a quieter place for their ascetic lifestyle, they got on a ship and headed for the island of Crete, but the weather was bad and the sea rough, so they only managed to make it to the island of Gavdos, which is about 26 miles south of Crete.   There they stayed only for 24 days, and then set off again, sailing to Crete.

When they got there, they discovered that John was missing.  According to the tale, he had fallen asleep on Gavdos, and so missed the boat when all the others got on board to sail for Crete.

When they found John was gone, they went to the beach and waited there for him.  And John was supposedly able to miraculously put his mantle on the sea, and using his staff as a mast, he stepped onto the cloth and sailed across the waters to join the other monks on Crete.

That is what we see in this part of the icon.  At the top is the ship.  Below it, John stands at right on the island of Gavdos.  Another monk stands on the shore of Crete, opposite him.  And then below that we see John sailing across the sea from Gavdos to Crete on his cloth mantle:

Below  that, we find the old monks all gathered together, and above them is a Greek inscription identifying them as ῾Η Σύναξις τῶν Γερόντων/He Synaxis ton Geronton — “The Assembly of the Elders.”

The remainder of scenes on the left side of the icon deal with the death of John.

The monks, having arrived on Crete, lived in caves.  John eventually went off to find a place by himself.

So he left the 98 other “Fathers,” and went to Akrotiri on Crete.  There he managed to live in a cave he found for many years.

It is said that John prayed so much on his knees that at last he had trouble standing, and would crawl about on all fours.  It happened that one day when he was out gathering greens for food, a hunter passing by with his bow and arrows mistook John crawling in the bushes for a beast, and shot him with an arrow.

He begged and received John’s forgiveness.

John is said to have breathed his last in his cave, and in the icon we see his koimesis/”dormition” there — his death, with an angel on each side of his body.

Here is the second of the two icons of John the Hermit, which as you can see, is much the same as the first.

There is a particularly peculiar element in John’s hagiography.  He is supposed to have made an agreement with the other 98 monks that when one of them died, they would all die.  And it is said that when the hunter who accidentally killed John went to inform the other monks of John’s death, he found that they had already died at the time when John died.