Here is a little self-test:

If you have been a diligent student of the postings on this site, you should be able to identify everything in this multiple icon.  A multiple icon is an icon with several separate types placed together on a single panel.  This example has four main types, a smaller central type, and of course the saints used as border images.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:

The inscription reads

Aside from the inscription, one can tell from the facial characteristics (form, hair, beard), the costume, and from the accompanying figures of Jesus at left and Mary at right that this is an image representing St. Nikolai/Nikola/Nicholas of Myra.  You will recall that Jesus is giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels, and Mary is presenting him with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion).  If you notice that Nicholas is not shown full-face, but rather as though turning from the left, you may remember that such a Nicholas — though often with a harsher expression than here — is called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — and was thought to ward off evil.

Now you will have read in a previous posting that “Nicholas the Turner” is an icon type that appeared among the Old Believers in the 18th century, so that tells us something important about this icon too; and what it tells us is confirmed by the hand.  As you see, the fingers are held in the blessing position used by the Old Believers, and that confirms that this is an Old Believer icon.

Upper right:

Of course you know that the MP ΘY letters in two circles at the top abbreviate the Greek words Meter Theou — which are common on Russian icons of Mary.

From the title inscription, we can tell that this is identified as the
or in normal English,
The “‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God.”

And of course that is Jesus in the circle on her breast.

You may recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous “palladium” icons, considered to be city protectors, and that its legendary history says it saved the citizens of the great trading city of Novgorod in the northwest of Russia from the invading Suzdalians.

Lower left:

The inscription identifies this Marian icon type as the


It is sometimes also translated loosely as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.”  It is important to remember, however, that this type is not the only Marian icon type to be found under that title.

Next comes a New Testament Scene that is also an annual Eastern Orthodox Church commemoration:

If you are familiar with the New Testament, you can probably identify it without the inscription below.  Here is that inscription:


And that is what the scene depicts:  the execution of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and the presentation of his head to Salome.

Such an icon type was particularly important to Old Believers because it called to mind the terrible persecution they suffered under the State Orthodox Church.

In the center of the icon we find the image of — as the red title inscription tells us here — the

It is the image traditionally considered the “first icon” in Eastern Orthodoxy, because the old legend that developed over time said that Jesus once pressed a wet towel to his face, and his image was miraculously imprinted on it.  It is the “Abgar” image sent by tradition from Jesus to King Abgar of Edessa.

You will notice the other inscriptions written on the cloth — first the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and below the face, this inscription:


So in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Holy Cloth” is the cloth after Jesus supposedly transferred the image of his face to it.

Finally, there are four border saints in this icon:

First comes the

In ordinary English, the “Guardian Angel.”  It is important to know that this is a generic figure who represents the Guardian Angel supposedly assigned to each person —  It is often found as a border image, but is also found as an icon type on its own.  He holds a sword in one hand and a cross in the other:

The others are:

2.  St. Alexandra;

Venerable Sergiy;

St. Feodora/Theodora;

Such border saints as these three are generally found in icons as the “angel” saints of the members of the family for whom the icon was painted — the saints after whom each person was named.

A purchaser — in this case an Old Believer — could choose the icon types to be represented on such a multiple icon, and of course could tell the painter the names of his family members to include in the border, represented there by their “name” saints.  And again, the “Guardian Angel” served as the generic figure representing each angel assigned individually to protect a family member.

Now you will find all this information — including a longer discussion of each main type shown — in the site archives.



As I have mentioned previously, the prophets can be a real pain for students of icons.  The problem is not in identifying them.  That is usually easy.  It is in their scroll inscriptions.

The podlinniki — the manuals of icon painting — give descriptions of how prophets are to be painted, and they also generally give scroll inscriptions for each.  One would think that would make the matter easy, but it does not.  The podlinnik instructions for prophets’ scroll inscriptions are frequently not the inscriptions we encounter on actual icons of them, so one never knows what inscription might be used on an old icon for a given prophet.  That is where the difficulty lies.

The best one can do then — aside from being familiar with the podlinnik inscriptions — is to take each icon case by case, and that is not always easy, particularly if a scroll inscription is damaged or fragmentary.

Nonetheless, let’s have a go at an example:

Here is a 16th century fresco of a prophet from the Dionysiou Monastery at Mt. Athos:

As usual, he is easy to identify by his title inscription:


He is the prophet ΜΑΛΑΧΙΑC / MALAKHIAS — the Greek form of Malachi.

Now we come to his scroll inscription:

As is common in old inscriptions, there are some abbreviations and some ligatures — joined letters.

It begins with these words:

The first letter is I; the second letter that looks like an A in Roman lettering is actually one way of writing a D (Δ) in Greek.  And the third letter is a combination of two letters —  ΟΥ — OU in English — with the O below and the Y on top.  So all together, they make the Greek word

ΙΔΟΥ — Idou — meaning “Behold.”

The second word — a bit worn in the inscription — is ΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ/ERKHETAI, meaning (he/she/it) “comes.”  It begins on the first line and ends on the second.

Then we find the first abbreviation:

It is a Κ and C  — K and S in English — and that little horizontal curved line above is, you may recall, the sign of abbreviation.  Those two letters together signify the word ΚΥΡΙΟC/KURIOS, meaning “Lord.”

And then comes a real give-away word:

The first three letters of the word are squeezed into the end of the line:

ΠΑΝ — with the A smaller and a small N written above it.

Then comes T and O, with the O written beneath the T.  Then comes the end of the word:

All together, they spell a very common icon word: ΠΑΝΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ/PANTOKRATOR — meaning “Almighty.”  Remember that the ω here is the same letter as Ω in the modern Greek alphabet, and it is pronounced the same as the letter O.

Thus far we have IDOU ERKHETAI KURIOS PANTOKRATOR — which is easy to translate as:
“Behold, comes [the] Lord Almighty…”

And if you are clever (you must be, if you are reading this peculiar blog site), you will then suspect that it is likely to be something written in the Old Testament book of Malachi.  So the next step — given that the inscription is in Greek — is to look for those words in the Septuagint Greek version of the book of Malachi.

And behold, what we find there in Malachi 3:1-2 is:

ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ …

Idou erkhetai legei kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

It reads just the same as the icon scroll text except for the third word λέγει/legei, meaning “[he] says.”

If we put it into English, we get this:

“Behold, he is coming, says the Lord Almighty.  And who will endure the day of his coming?”

So, if we remove the word legei/”says” from the text in the book of Malachi, we will have the text on the icon scroll:

Idou erkhetai kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

Behold comes Lord Almighty and who will-endure the day coming-of his

Or in normal English,

“Behold the Lord Almighy comes, and who will endure the day of his coming?”

It is not uncommon to find that the writers of icon scrolls vary a text slightly, as has been done here by removing one word.

You may recall that this abbreviation in the latter part of the inscription  — a K with a diagonal stroke at right bottom …

… is the word και/kai, meaning “and.”

And you should also remember this ligature — the one that looks rather like a 9 in English:

It is the joined letters ει/ei, and in the inscription we find it in the word

ὑπομενεῖ / hupomenei — meaning “endure,” and also at the beginning of the word

εἰσόδου /eisodou — meaning “entrance,” or more loosely, “coming.”

If you recall the two similar ligatures

— which joins A and N,


— which joins A and U —

that should take care of the scroll inscription — except to note, as mentioned at the beginning, that it is not the scroll inscription given — for example — in the Greek painter’s manual known as the Hermeneia of Dionysios of Fourna:

According to that manual, his inscription should be:

Tade legei Kurios:
apo anatolon heliou kai eos dusmon to onoma mou

“Thus says the Lord:
‘From the rising of the sun and until setting my name …'”

That is a fragment from Malachi 1:11.

Now having gone through all that, you might pause and ask yourself what on earth you are doing here wasting your time with all this esoteric stuff about translating Greek icon inscriptions. Well, if you are a regular reader of this site, it is a rather hopeless question.  People are what they are, and some find themselves interested in and curious about the strangest and most useless things.  So don’t worry.  Don’t bore your neighbors with it, and you will be fine.  Just continue to act normal in public.






Many people have the impression that Church teaching on the nature of Jesus was generally accepted until a fellow named Arius came along in the 4th century and and upset things by foolishly teaching something different, so the Church decided to have an all-Church council at Nicaea (in present day Turkey) to condemn Arius and make the Church’s teaching on the matter official.  Everyone then accepted the  Council’s Nicene Creed that explained the nature of Jesus in clear terms, and things returned to normal.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  If you would like to know all the details of the origins of the controversy and the overwhelming effect of the Council and its linking of the power of the State with Church on the historical development of Christianity (and thus of Christian art and iconography) I suggest you read Charles Freeman’s very interesting and helpful book The Closing of the Western Mind, which contains chapters offering a very good summary of the events leading to the Council of Nicaea, of the Council itself, and of its transforming consequences.

However, if we clear away all the clutter and dust of centuries-old argument overlaying the controversy, we find that it originated in a simple fact:  the writings of the New Testament as a whole were never adequate in providing a clear and unequivocal statement of Christian doctrine.  If you have any doubt of that, just remind yourself of the great number of warring sects and denominations in Christianity from ancient times until today.  But that is a vast topic, and our focus here is on iconography.

Let’s look at a pattern for an icon of the Nicene Council — or as the Russians call it, Первый Вселенский Собор/Pervuiy Vselenskiy Sobor — the “First Universal Council,” or to use more churchy language, the “First Ecumenical Council.”

There is considerable variation among icons of this council, but the Stroganov Podlinnik pattern above gives us a good idea of elements often included.  Though no identification of figures is given in the Stroganov Podlinnik, we can turn to the textual Bolshakov Podlinnik for help.  It begins like this:

First, a palace; in the palace on a golden throne sits Tsar [Emperor] Constantine in imperial clothing ornamented with gold and pearls, in the hand a scepter.

Constantine is the crowned figure we see at top center:

The Bolshakov then goes on to mention figures  often found near Constantine in such icons:  Eustaphios of Antioch, Makarios of Jerusalem, Hosius of Cordoba, Spyridon of Trimythous, Alexander of Alexandria, Paphnutios of Thebes, Palamon of Egypt, Athanasius the Great and other Church fathers.

In the foreground of the pattern, we see a group at left, headed by St. Nicholas, who is conversing with Arius, who stands just behind Emperor Constantine seen a second time at lower right.  Arius and his followers are identifiable by the absence of halos.  So this icon makes quite clear the Eastern Orthodox view of who are considered the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” in this icon and event.

On the  left side of the pattern is an image we have seen and discussed previously:

Perhaps you will recognize it as the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria,” who tradition claims saw Jesus as a boy with torn garments, symbolizing the tear in the fabric of the Church caused by the teachings of Arius.  For more information, see this previous posting:

On the right is an image of the death of Arius as told by his bitter enemy, Socrates Scholasticus.  We see Arius seated in a toilet enclosure, and his insides are pouring out — supposedly a punishment from God for his “heresy.”

If we look at a recent fresco of the Council of Nicea in the Megalo Meteoron Monastery in Greece, we see similar elements, but also some differences.

(Photo J. Jensen: (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, Wikimedia Commons –photo enhanced here)

Let’s look at the top inscriptions:

The first — at top center — identifies the church in the background as that of

Below that and divided into two parts at each side is the title of the icon:


In the “power position” at center, we see the Emperor Constantine, titled here


Above him, as in the Stroganov pattern, we see a rendering of the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria.”

And at the base of the icon, in a position of weakness and submission, we see a fallen figure titled


Such icons then, are intended to support  a particular ecclesiastical view of the Council of Nicaea and its significance.




The title got your attention, did it not?  Well, it is not as interesting as it sounds.  Symeon is Symeon Metaphrastes, the noted 10th century compiler of the Greek Menologion, which gives “lives” of the Eastern Orthodox saints in ten volumes.  He was not a critical writer, but rather unquestioningly accepted his sources as he found them, one reason why there is so much nonsense in the Orthodox lives of the saints.  Scholars assert that some of the lives in the collection were added after Symeon.

The “Lesbian” is an apparently fictional saint (though regarded as genuine in Eastern Orthodoxy) whose tale is recorded in the Greek Menologion, apparently re-worked there from an earlier account written about 920 c.e. by Niketas Magistros.   She is  ὉΣΙΑ ΘΕΟΚΤΙΣΤΗ Ἡ ΛΕΣΒΙΑ/HOSIA THEOKTISTE HE LESBIA — Theoktiste the Lesbian, but “Lesbian” is used here in its original sense, meaning simply someone from the Isle of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean Sea.

Her story in brief is this:

She was born in Mithymna (Methymna) on Lesbos, but was orphaned early in life, and given to a monastery, where she was happy and pious in the monastic life.  In 846 c.e. at age 18 she went to visit her sister in another village on the Feast of the Resurrection.  The night after she arrived, Muslim pirates took all the people of the village — Theoktiste included — captive, and sailed off southward with them to the then mostly deserted Isle of Paros, where they intended to sort them by value for eventual sale as slaves.  Theoktiste somehow managed to escape, and spent the next 35 years on Paros, living as a pious and ascetic hermitess, with her dwelling being an old church dedicated to Mary — The Church of the All-Holy One of the Hundred Gates (Παναγία η Ἑκατονταπυλιανή Panagia he Hekatontapyliani)

Eventually a group of hunters came to the island, and one of them entered the church.  There he saw a strange figure in a corner near the altar.  The figure spoke, telling him not to approach, because she was ashamed to be seen as a nude woman.  He offered his cloak, and dressing herself in it, she came all grey and shriveled out into the light, and began to tell her story.  Then she asked the man to bring her a bit of the “Presanctified Gifts” — portions of the Eucharistic bread and wine — if he were to visit the island again in that year.  He eventually came back to the island, bringing the Eucharistic portions she had requested.  She received and consumed them in tears.  He left to do some hunting on the island, and on returning, he found Theoktista had died.  He dug a shallow grave, but on burying her, he cut off one of her hands to take as a holy relic.  Then he boarded and sailed away.  But when the morning came, he and his companions were shocked to find the ship seemed not to have moved at all,  but was still off the shore of Paros, and he decided this was a divine way of telling him the hand was not to leave the island.  He returned the hand to the body in the grave, and the ship sailed off with no further trouble.  While on the voyage, he told his story to his shipmates, and they all insisted on returning to Paros to venerate the relics of Theoktiste.  But when they arrived, her body was nowhere to be found.  Church tradition gives the year of her death as 881 c.e.

Now it is not hard to see that there are elements in this story that seem suspiciously reminiscent of the tale of of the desert ascetic St. Mary of Egypt.

You will recall that in that other tale, the Elder Zosima goes out into the desert and finds there a naked and grey-haired ascetic woman who is Mary of Egypt.  He gives her his cloak, and she comes to him and they talk.  She tells her story  in which she had gone by ship to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  She tries to go into a church there, but a mysterious force will not let her enter.  She repents and then is able to enter the church.

Mary asks Zosima to bring her some of the Eucharistic bread and wine a year from the time of their meeting.  She takes the Eucharist, and asks him to come again the following year.  When he returns a year later, he finds only her dead body.  He buries the body with the aid of a lion, who digs the grave with his claws.

So all these elements are common to both the tale of Mary of Egypt and the tale of Theoktiste the Lesbian:

The finding of an ascetic, grey-haired woman in a deserted place;
The giving of the cloak and the telling of the story of her life;
The presence of a ship in the tale;
A journey involving a Church feast (one the Exaltation of the Cross, the other the Resurrection);
A mysterious force that will not permit something to be done until there is repentance (in one case Mary unable to enter a church, in the other a ship unable to get away from the island);
The request by the ascetic female for portions of Eucharistic bread and wine to be delivered within a year’s time;
The finding of the body of the saint, and its burial by the discoverer of the ascetic female.

It is generally held by scholars that the tale of St. Theoktiste was simply a borrowing of the story of Mary of Egypt, updated by changing its setting to the Greek Isles and the time of the Saracen raids.

If one goes to the Hekatontapyliani Church on Paros, one still finds there a depression the marble floor that is identified as the “footprint of St. Theoktiste.”

The icons one is likely to encounter of Symeon Metaphrastes tend to be both uncommon and recent, and his iconography is often confused with that of another Symeon — Symeon the New Theologian, whose icons are more common.

Icons of Theoktiste are also generally recent, like this example with a Greek inscription identifying the rather “Goth”-like figure as Ἡ ὉΣΙΑ ΘΕΟΚΤΙΣΤΗ Ἡ ΛΕΣΒΙΑ/He Hosia Theoktiste he Lesbia.  You will recall that Hosia is the title used for a female monastic saint.



Here is a pleasant 19th century Deisis set, which traditionally consists of a central icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty,” an icon of Mary approaching from the left, and one of John the  Forerunner approaching at right:

Jesus has the common inscription from Matthew:

“Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):

Прiидите ко мнѣ́ вси труждáющiися и обременéн­нiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́
Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui


(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Mary, however, has an uncommon inscription for a Deisis panel:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It is the beginning of the text known in the West as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55):

Величит душа моя Господа и возрадовася дух [мои] о Бозе Спасе моем.
яко при(зре на смирение рабы своея…)

Velichit dusha moya Gospoda i vozradovasya dukh moi o Boze Space moem.
Iako prizre na smirenie rabui svoeya…

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.  For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…”

And here is the John the Forerunner panel:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)


The scroll of John is a bit odd too, because it uses John 1:29, but stops at the beginning letters of the usual “Behold the Lamb of God” text:

[Во утрий же] виде Иоанн Иисуса грядуща к себе и глагола: се, Аг[нец Божий, вземляй грехи мира]

“[And in the morning] John saw Jesus coming to him and said, behold the La[mb of God who takes away the sins of the world].”

One often sees individual side panels from Deisis sets that have lost their accompanying two panels.




If you are not interested in old icon painter’s manuals (podlinniki), prepare to be bored stiff.  This posting is a look at, and a comparison of, two descriptions of a saint in two Russian podlinniki.  It is likely to be of interest only to those who want to know more about painter’s manuals and to those who are learning to read them.

Here’s a quick comparison of entries from:

1: The late (1903) Bolshakov Podlinnik and
2: The 18th century Svodnuiy Podlinnik in the Filimonov redaction of 1874.

It is the first saint for the month of June:


Myesats Iiun’ imat’ dniy 30.
[The] month of June has days 30
“The month of June has 30 days.”

Svyatago muchenika Iustina filosofa, sredniy, rus, brada kozmina, plat’ okolo shei byel, riza lazor’ ispod kinovar’ z byelilom, rukoiu blagoslovlyaet, v lyevoy svitok.

“Of the holy martyr Justin [the] Philosopher; middle[-aged], [hair] rus, beard of Kosmas, scarf around neck white, robe blue, under cinnabar with white, hand blesses, in the left a scroll.”

It begins with Svyatago — “of the holy” — because this is the day of commemoration of Justin.  Podlinnik entries for saints (and old Church calendar entries) generally begin thus, with the “of” form.

Justin has brada kozmina — the beard of Kosmas/Cosmas — the popular unmercenary saint of the common icon pair Kosmas and Damian.  It simply means he is painted with a beard the same size and shape as Kosmas.

Rus as a hair color means that color typical of many Russians, which is dark blond-light brown.

The plat’ — “cloth” — generally meaning a scarf or shawl in the case of a male, depending on circumstances — is byel — “white.”  And the white scarf is okolo shei — “about [the] neck.”  If any of you have seen the translation of the Bolshakov Podlinnik that appeared some years back (1995) under the title An Icon Painter’s Notebook, you will notice that the translator of that book incorrectly read shei in this entry for Justin as “silk” rather than “neck,” and so made the line oddly read “… he has a cloth around of white silk” instead of the correct reading, “[the] scarf around [the] neck [is] white.”

You will recall that a riza is a robe in podlinnik usage, and in this entry it is lazor’, ispod kinovar z [s] byelilom — dark blue, under[-robe] cinnabar [red] with white.  The best lazor’ was made from powdered lapis lazuli, and of course kinovar is the red to reddish-orange made from powdered mercury sulphide.

When an entry just says “[his] hand blesses,” it means the right hand.  And then, as here, we are told what the left hand is holding — in this case a svitok — a scroll.

And here is the entry for Justin in the Svodnuiy Podlinnik:

You should be able to easily guess the meaning of the heading, even though spelling and form varies somewhat.  And you should be able to read the first four words — “Of the holy martyr Justin the Philosopher.”

Then it tells us:

bye v lyeto 5642
…”[he] was in the year 5642.

We can easily see that 5642 (written in Arabic instead of Cyrillic numerals here) is one of the old “from the Creation of the World” dates.  Russian Orthodox thought (and some still do) that the world was created in the year 5,508 before the birth of Jesus.  So to convert such a date as we find in the podlinnik to our modern dating system, we must subtract 5,508 from 5,642, which gives us the year 94 c.e. (Common Era).  Modern accounts of Justin’s life tend to say he was born circa 100 c.e, so the date here is not too far from that.

The podlinnik goes on to tell us:

podobiem rus

You already know that rus is the hair color — dark blond to light brown.
Podobiem refers here to Justin’s “likeness” (подобие/podobie).  We can understand it to mean he is “painted like this,” i.e. rus hair, etc.

It goes on to tell us:
vlasui s ushei kratki
hairs to [the] ears short

— meaning his hair is short, down to the ears.

So we know thus far that Justin’s hair is dark blond-light brown, and that it is short, down to his ears, instead of the long hair we find on some icon saints.

It agrees with the Bolshakov Podlinnik in telling us his

brada aki Kozmina
beard [is like] Kosmas…

and that

okolo shei plat’ byeloy
about [the] neck [is a] scarf white…
“about the neck is a white scarf…”

But it differs somewhat in saying that

v rukakh kniga
“in [the] hands [a] book”

You will recall that in the Bolshakov Podlinnik, he holds a scroll rather than a book.

The description finishes by telling us that Justin is dressed in a

riza lazorevaya, ispod svyetlokrasnaya.
“robe blue, under[-robe] bright-red.

Now if we look at old icons of Justin, we can sometimes find icons closely matching a podlinnik description, such as this 17th century example from a calendrical icon:

(Moscow Spiritual Academy)

We see the light brown hair down to his ears, and his beard is not too far beyond the range of “like Kosmas.”  He has a white scarf or shawl about his neck, and his outer robe is blue, while his under-robe is cinnabar red.  He holds a scroll rather than a book.

Compare that with this 19th century example:

(Uspenskiy Vrazhek, Moscow)

We can see some changes, such as  a cross held in the right hand instead of blessing, and a book instead of a scroll in the other hand.  We find also a the reversal of the garment colors, and the forms of the garments are more like the example given in the old Stroganov Podlinnik:

If we look further at old examples of Justin, we find even more variance from the two podlinnik descriptions.  Here, for example, is a 16th century image of Justin painted by Theophanes of Crete:

(Stavronikita Monastery, Athos)

The Greek inscription reads:
Ho Hagios Iustinos ho Philosophos
“[The] Holy Justin the Philosopher”

As you can see, there is no white scarf about the neck, no book or scroll in the left hand, and there is variation in the garments and their coloring, as well as a difference in the style of the hair.

What does all this tell us?  Well, we should learn from it that a description in a given podlinnik may not be a precisely accurate description of all icons of a saint from all periods and places.  One finds many variations.  Even in old Russian painter’s manuals, one often finds after a description of a saint the words, “but elsewhere it is written…”  —  and then a differing description is given.  So even the old podlinniks recognized that there were differences and disagreements as to how a given saint was to be painted.



If you have been reading here for some time, you will easily recognize this as an icon of “John the Forerunner,” who is more commonly called John the Baptist outside Eastern Orthodoxy (though sometimes within it as well).

His iconography in this example is rather typical, but here is a quick review:

John is shown clothed in a hair garment, with a cloth wrap over it.  He stands in a stylized wilderness.  At lower left we see an axe and a tree, which represents Matthew 3:10:

And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

John is winged, in keeping with the double meaning of the word angelos in Greek; it can mean both messenger, and also an angel as a messenger of God.  Also, in Eastern Orthodoxy John is often called a “heavenly man and earthly angel.”

Jesus blesses John from heaven, at upper right.

At lower right we see John’s head in a salver, signifying his manner of death according to the Gospels.

Now let’s take a look at what is different — and new to us in this icon.  It is the long Greek inscription on his scroll, which is not that we usually find on icons of John, but one less common:

His scroll text — addressed to Jesus — is this (with some variation in spelling):

Οράς οία πάσχουσιν, ω Θεού Λόγε, οι πταισμάτων έλεγχοι των βδελυκτέων. Έλεγχον και γαρ μη φέρων ο Ηρώδης,τέτμηκεν, ιδού, την εμήν κάραν, Σώτερ.

Here is a loose translation:

“You see how suffer, O Word of God, those who reprove the wrongs of the abominable.  For not bearing reproof, behold, Herod cut off my head, Savior.”

So with his severed head in front of him, he is telling Jesus, “You see how people who reprimand the wrongdoings of the wicked suffer.  Because he could not endure my criticism — look, Savior! — Herod cut off my head.”

Now there are a number of odd things about John.  Among them is that he is mentioned in the Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, though that account disagrees with those in the canonical Gospels.  Josephus says Herod had John executed because of John’s influence over crowds of people and thus raised the possibility of a rebellion.  The Gospels say John was killed because he condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who was already married, and so as a woman could not legally marry Herod by Jewish law.  There also appears to be a discrepancy in the dating of John, who in Josephus seems to have been killed after the death of Jesus, while in the Gospels his death comes nearer the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.  However, there is some disagreement among scholars over the precise placement of John in the chronology of Josephus.

Most notable is that the account of John the Baptist in Josephus does not in any way connect him with Jesus.