Part of the fun of icons is in trying to translate some of the roughly or oddly written inscriptions.
Here, for example, is a Greek-inscribed icon you will recognize as John the Forerunner — John the Baptist. Greek icons of John often have a “wild and wooly” appearance, almost like a combination of primitive art and more abstract art:
But it is his scroll that interests us today:
The texts used on John’s scroll in icons are usually quite limited, so one might guess at what it says, but it is best to be able to read it, though some of the spelling is phonetic rather than standard. Also, it is a little worn, but nonetheless we can make out what was intended. Here is what it looks like:
Well, with a little imagination, we can tell that the painter’s intention was a standard inscription:
Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawn near.”
The painter did some (for us) odd things, for example using OI where we would expect I or H in Greek, but that is easily explained — all three have the same “ee” sound in later Greek, so again, he was just writing phonetically.
The title inscription is a bit odd in its arrangement. We see it in the upper left-hand corner:
It is meant to be read from lower left to upper left to upper right.
At lower left we have
The bottom letter above is not quite clear in the inscription, but nonetheless we can easily see that the inscription is to be understood as Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — “The Holy…”
The name Ιωάννης/Ioannes/John at top left is abbreviated to only two letters — Ιω.
When we get to his title at upper right, we see the beginning Ὁ/Ho/”The” followed by a very elaborate ligature intended to represent — when joined to the ΟC/os ending, the word Πρόδρομος/Prodromos/ “Forerunner.”
So we see that the title intended by the abbreviations and fancy ligature is Ὁ Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Πρόδρομος — HO HAGIOS IOANNES HO PRODROMOS — “THE HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”
By now, I hope readers have discovered that if this site is read from the first postings onward, it provides a useful course in identifying icons and reading their inscriptions. Being able to read inscriptions is a very important part of the study of icons, and it is not difficult.
Today we will look at another icon of Ioann Predtecha — Иоанн Предтеча — John the Forerunner — commonly called John the Baptist in the West.
This type is commonly known by the title inscription we see at the top. We will take it in two parts:
СОБОРЬ СВЯТАГО ПРОРОКА… SOBOR SVYATAGO PROROKA…
ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY PROPHET…
…ИОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧИ ...IOANNA PREDTECHI
…JOHN THE FORERUNNER
So it reads, all together,
СОБОРЬ СВЯТГО ПРОРОКА ИОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧИ
“THE ASSEMBLY OF THE HOLY PROPHET JOHN THE FORERUNNER”
You may remember from previous lessons that the Church Slavic СОБОРЬ — Sobor — means “council,” “assembly” “gathering” and it is even the word used for a cathedral. Here it is appropriate to translate it as “assembly.” In Orthodox Church calendrical usage, a sobor (Greek synaxis) was originally (in Constantinople) an assembly for liturgical purposes at a church, in honor of a saint or saints involved in a particular event (often a day after an event celebrated as one of the major feasts) These calendar celebrations were later generally adopted in Orthodoxy. So we find, for example, the Sobor of John the Forerunner celebrated on January 7th, the day after the Feast of the Bogoyavlenie — the Theophany (the baptism of Jesus).
So this icon is the “Assembly” of John the Forerunner, and it depicts visually the account we find in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
Бы́сть Иоáннъ крестя́й въ пусты́ни и проповѣ́дая крещéнiе покая́нiя во отпущéнiе грѣхóвъ. Buist Ioann krestyay v pustuini i propovyedaya kreshchenie pokayaniya vo otpushchenie gryekhov.
“John was baptizing in the wilderness and preaching baptism of repentance in remission of sins.”
And in this next detail, we find illustrated these words:
И исхождáше къ немý вся́ Иудéйская странá и Иерусали́мляне… I iskhozhdashe k nemu vsya Iudeyskaya strana i Ierusalimlyane…
“And there went out to him all the country of Judea and the Jerusalemites…”
We see the people of Jerusalem coming out of their city, on their way to John.
And in this detail we see illustrated these words:
и крещáхуся вси́ во Иордáнѣ рѣцѣ́ от негó, исповѣ́дающе грѣхи́ своя́. i kreshchakhusya vsi vo Iordanye ryetsye ot nego, ispovyedaiushche gryekhi svoya.
“…and were all baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins.”
Here we see the people removing their clothes on the banks of the Jordan, in preparation for baptism:
Here John is described:
Бѣ́ же Иоáннъ оболчéнъ власы́ велблýжди, и пóясъ усмéнъ о чреслѣ́хъ егó…. Bye zhe Ioann obolchen vlasui velbluzhdi, i poyas usmen o chreslyekh ego….
“John was clothed in camel hair, and a leather belt around his waist….”
It is interesting to note that among the beasts surrounding John, we find a lion, a donkey, a camel, and even a unicorn. Because the word used to describe John’s desert in the new testament means “wilderness,” (a wild, deserted place) Russian painters — who did not know what the Judean desert was like — just painted a kind of forest instead. That is typical of this type in Russian iconography.
John is looking upward toward Lord Sabaoth in the sky, who is blessing him with the fingers of the blessing hand in the position used by the Old Believers, so that just confirms what we already suspect from the style of the painting — that this is an Old Believer icon. We can see Lord Sabaoth’s inscription just above him:
Господъ саваофъ Gospod savaof
It is interesting to note how the landscape is painted. As I have mentioned before, the Old Believers — while keeping the abstraction of “human” figures, nonetheless borrowed techniques for painting landscapes from the more realistic art of Western Europe. The foliage of the trees and bushes consists of progressively lighter leaves superimposed on a darker background, a technique also used in the landscapes of Western Europe.The water is composed of background washes of shades of blue, with horizontal strokes of dark to light superimposed upon it.
From all of the characteristics of this icon — including the strong use of bright gold with a bright red inscription upon it, as well as the abstract manner of painting the human figures, combined with the somewhat “westernized” landscape, and the Old Believer blessing sign of “Lord Sabaoth,” we can reasonably assume that this attractive icon is from one of the number of Old Believer icon workshops once found in various cities and towns of the Urals. Today the icons then produced in those Ural workshops are generally known under the blanket term “Nevyansk School” (Невьянская школа — Nevyanskaya shkola ), after the city of Nevyansk (Невьянск), the largest center of the Old Belief in the Urals — though Nevyansk icons were painted in a number of places in the region (such as Nizhniy Tagil/Нижний Тагил, Staraya Utka/Старая Утка, Krasnoufimsk/Красноуфимск). Large numbers of Old Believers from parts of Poland, northern Russia and the Volga settled in the important mining region in the early 18th century, bringing with them influences from various schools of icon painting. The “Nevyansk School” of icon painting that developed out of this was largely active from the second half of the 18th through the first half of the 19th century (though there are earlier examples), and benefited from the patronage of those involved in the rich Ural mines. But with the economic downturn in the Urals and other changes, the school went into a decline in the second half of the 19th century.
In the map below, the large black dot in the circle at lower right is the city of Sverdlovsk. Going northward, we see Nevyansk, and some distance above it, Nizhniy Tagil. Krasnoufimsk is at lower left.
Today’s icon is an easy one to recognize. It is John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). This icon appears to be from an iconostasis, more specifically from the “Deisis” tier that shows numerous saints approaching Jesus from both sides, like petitioners approaching the emperor in a Byzantine court. In fact Christians tended to imagine Heaven as being like the court of an emperor, with saints waiting with their requests on behalf of humanity.
We should recognize John from his long and tangled hair, hIs scraggly beard, and his shaggy, hairy garment that in Russia was commonly called a vlasyanitsa, meaning a “hair shirt.” But if there remains any doubt, it is removed by the title inscription:
As you can see, there is no space between the words. The first word Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy” (thus “Saint”) is abbreviated:
We see the С (s) with a Т (t) above it, followed by the Ы (ui) that merges into the Й. We have to add the missing letters to read it as Svyatuiy, but this “Holy” title for saints is so common and prevalent in icons that we should now easily recognize what it is.
The second word is his name, IOAN (John):
We see the I, then the O in the form of the old Greek letter Omega, followed by the A and the N. Remember that in reading Cyrillic letters, when the bar slants to the left (И), the letter is an “I” but when it slants to the right or seems to be straight, it is an “N” (Н) The little letter that looks somewhat like “b” written above the “N” is Ъ; it has no sound of its own, but affects the pronunciation of the preceding consonant (you need not worry about that if you just want to read instead of pronounce; think of it as a silent letter).
Now we come to the last word, PREDTECHA, meaning “Forerunner.” The painter has written in in two parts, with the ПРЕД- (Pred-) in the first line, Notice that he has written the “d” (д) above the “PR” as a susperscript letter, though it is faded here:
He has written the -ТЕЧА (-techa) in the second line. The little mark that looks like a flower at the end of the title is just ornamentation:
It would be easy to mistake the very last letter for a Cyrillic И (“i”), but it is not; it is just that the upward-sloping line joining the left vertical in the “a” to the right vertical has worn away with age.
Did you notice, by the way, how the painter has left quite visible the scratched-in lines that mark out the space for writing the title?
So, we have the whole title inscription: SVYATUIY IOAN PREDTECHA, “HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”
A characteristic of old Russian icons in general is the elongation of the figures, with the bodies of the saints “stretched out” to a quite unnatural degree. This was an attempt to distinguish them from ordinary, worldly people, and to show us that we are seeing a “spiritual” depiction of a saint rather than the mere “physical” body. We find the same thing in earlier Western European sculpture of the Romanesque and Gothic periods. This lengthening of the saints also fits well with the proportions of the icon screen into which such an icon might be fitted.
So here is John, with his feet resting on the little field of dark color at the bottom, the “ground” that is so characteristic of many Russian icons of the 17th century:
As you can see, John’s shaggy, hairy garment is painted by simply adding multiple thin strokes of very whitened color over the darker background. Notice also that this icon, like many before the 18th century, has a kovcheg, an “ark” or “box,” meaning that the image has a raised border and a recessed surface upon which the image of the saint is painted. One sometimes finds a kovcheg in later icons, but it is more common in earlier examples. It meant more work in preparing the panel for painting — considerably more work in a panel the size of this icon of John.
In earlier postings we have seen how Russians depict John the Baptist, more commonly called “John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Today we will take a look at a later Greek icon of John:
The title inscription at the top reads:
Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΙѠ ο προδρομος
The initial “O” is the word “the” (used with masculine nouns). In old Greek it is pronounced “HO” here, but in modern Greek pronunciation it is just pronounced “O.”
The Second word ΑΓΙΟΣ similarly has an added “h” in old pronunciation, making it HAGIOS. In modern Greek it is pronounced more like A-yos. In both cases it means literally “Holy,” and is the word used for a saint.
The two letters ΙѠ have a curved line above them on the icon to show that they are an abbreviation. Here they abbreviate Ἰωάννης, Ioannes, the Greek form of the name “John.”
Then comes the word ho again (meaning “the”), which when put together with the last word gives:
ο προδρομος = Ho Prodromos
Ho Prodromos means “The Foreunner”; and so we have the whole inscription, translated:
“[The] Holy John the Forerunner”
In Greek the definite article the (ho here) is often used where in English it would be left out; that is why the first “the” above is in brackets).
If you are familiar with the iconography of John in Russia, there is little different in Greek icons other than painting style and inscription language. You may recall that the two most common scroll inscriptions for icons of John are:
1. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
2. “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
If you know that the Greek word metanoia means “repentance” (more literally “to change one’s mind”), then you will have little difficulty deciding which inscription is depicted in this Greek icon.
It is taken from Matthew 3:2, which, when the divided words on the scroll are joined, reads:
Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon.
“Repent-you, neared for the Kingdom of the Heavens”
or in King James English,
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
So we see there is nothing unusual about this image. The cross staff he holds in his hand is common in Western European paintings of John, but is not common in Russian depictions.
The tree at left in this example seems merely ornamental, but it is a vestigial reminder of the tree often seen with an axe at its base in many icons of John, a reflection of John’s words in Matthew 3:10 (and Luke 3:9):
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
So whether you encounter John the Baptist as Predtecha in Russian icons or Prodromos in Greek icons, it is the same “Forerunner” title, and you should have no trouble recognizing John and, in most cases, in deciphering his scroll inscriptions.
As I often repeat, icons are very repetitive, so a little learning goes a long way.
One of the first icons I studied when I began research several decades ago was that of John the Baptist, called John the Forerunner (Ioann Predtecha) in icon inscriptions.
Icons of John are interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they tend to mix together related images in a somewhat dream-like fashion.
In this Palekh-style pattern for an icon, for example, we see John the Baptist in the type sometimes called “Angel of the Desert,” meaning John is shown winged and standing in the wilderness, which in very old icons consists of a few abstract rocks and a tree. But in later examples such as this, the wilderness is often shown as a forested area, because painters of that time, having never seen a dry desert, visualized John’s wild and deserted habitat as a forest.
Why does John have wings? We could say it is because in Eastern Orthodoxy he is termed a “heavenly man and earthly angel,” but we need to go one step beyond that, to the Greek New Testament account in Mark 1:2-3 that first tells us about John:
That probably does not mean much to you unless you read Greek. What it says is:
“Behold, I send my angel/messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way; a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'”
Now the reason I have written “angel/messenger” to translate the word highlighted and italicized in Greek is to point out that it — angelos — has a double meaning: it means both messenger and angel. The word “angel” originally meant a messenger — but it can also mean just an ordinary messenger. So when reading Mark 1:2-3, Eastern Orthodox iconography chose to emphasize the “angel” meaning of the word — a divine messenger, i.e. an angel, therefore John was given wings. That is the odd logic of icon painting.
Further, John is often shown holding a kind of chalice or salver, and in it — if we see it up close — is depicted the naked child Christ, lying down. John is pointing at the Child. This again is something of a mystery to the student, until he realizes that such icons are mixing the imagery of the Bible with the imagery of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy — the equivalent of the Catholic Mass. You see that in the detail of the right panel of a three-panel Deisus (Greek Deisis) set:
But before I explain further, we need one more piece of the puzzle. For that we need to consider John’s scroll.
In Russian icons, saints and other figures do not speak in cartoon bubbles. They speak in scrolls. So the scroll a saint holds is a kind of cartoon bubble that speaks to the viewer.
In this example, John’s scroll is a slight variant of:
POKAITESYA, PRIBLIZHIBOSYA TSARSTVIE NEBESNOE
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is come near.”
In icons of John depicting a tree, we usually see, if we look closely, that there is an axe cutting into its trunk. This image comes from the statement of John that, as given in Luke 3:9:
Ужé бо и сѣки́ра при кóрени дрéва лежи́тъ: вся́ко ýбо дрéво, не творя́щее плодá добрá, посѣкáется и во óгнь вметáется.
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”
John’s scroll usually says:
AZ VIDEKH I SVIDETELSTVO VA ONEN CE AGNETS BOZHIY VZEMLYAI GRYEKHI MIRA
It means: “I saw and witnessed concerning him, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.'”
That quote requires a jump to the Gospel of John, 1:29, which gives us this in Church Slavic:
Во ýтрiй [же] ви́дѣ Иоáннъ Иисýса грядýща къ себѣ́ и глагóла: сé, áгнецъ Бóжiй, взéмляй грѣхи́ мíра:
“On the morrow John saw Jesus coming to him and said: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.'”
The example below uses that “I saw and witnessed” inscription, but shortens it slightly due to lack of space:
Sometimes one finds both the “I saw and witnessed” inscription and the “Repent, for the Kingdom Of Heaven” inscription on the same scroll.
Now we can return to the question of why John holds a chalice (sometimes shown as a kind of salver) with the child Jesus in it. That again is imagery from the Orthodox liturgy, in which a part of the eucharistic bread is called the agnets, the “Lamb.” The bread in the liturgy is Christ. So what John holds, whether it looks like a chalice or a salver, is actually a footed diskos, the “dish” in the liturgy that holds the bread — and the bread is the body of Christ. So in icon-think, all these elements are mixed up together in one picture. Do not expect icons to make chronological sense. Instead they work with mixing images that relate in some way, no matter what their origin. Again, it is somewhat the way dreams work, where one symbol associates with another, but the whole picture does not seem to make sense in the real world. A dream makes “dream sense,” and an icon makes “icon sense.”
If you look closely at the “diskos” held by John in the second image, you will see lines curving upward and inward from it, meeting in a little star at the top. This represents the liturgical implement called the asteriskos, the “star-cover.” Its purpose is to support the cloth veil that is placed over the diskos during the Eucharistic ritual in Eastern Orthodoxy. If you recall that the Child Christ as “Lamb of God” lies on the diskos, then you will see why this metal “star-cover” represents the Star of Bethlehem.
So that is the knowledge essential to understanding basic icons of John. There are more complex icons, but no need to deal with those right now.
It is important to remember, as I have said, that icons have their own logic, and it is a logic of association of images. It can be very complex, drawing from a great many different sources, but all one really needs to know is how this mixture presents itself in icons. Those who have studied Jungian thought will quickly notice parallels with dream images and the concept of archetypes.
Some icons of John have background scenes showing incidents from his life as found in both New Testament and apocryphal sources, for example an angel leading the child John into the wilderness, etc. We see such scenes in this icon:
At middle left is an angel leading the child John into the wilderness; at lower left is the birth of John the Forerunner; at lower right is the beheading of John, and at upper right is the discovery of his head.
This particular example is rather unusual in that the image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth) shown in the clouds at the top depicts him turned sideways instead of full-face, as is customary. Another unusual feature is that instead of bearing the Christ Child in a vessel (symbolizing the “Lamb” in the Eucharistic bread), John here carries his own head. The head in the container instead of Jesus as “Lamb” was and is the preferred form in Greek iconography, and it was also the standard form in Russian iconography until the 17th century, when the “Child” in the chalice began to replace it. When John’s head is in the container, it tends to emphasize the death of John as a kind of “forerunner” to the death of Jesus, and of course as mentioned, the “Child” in the chalice has Eucharistic significance. A third unusual feature in this image is that the painter has placed the cross of martyrdom in John’s right hand, something generally omitted in this type.
By the way, notice in the example below that all of the icon surface except for the central painting is covered with ornate metal. Such adornment was common on very old icons, and yes, the metal was attached by nailing it right onto the surface. That is why old icons, when these covers are removed, are seen to be full of little nail holes. The metal covering was added as a sign of respect, though punching numerous holes in the surface of a painting may not seem so to us today.