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.”
Today we will look at two Russian icons that were once the side panels on a three-panel Deisis set. As you know, the icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty” would have been the central icon, with Mary approaching him at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right. They are painted very much in the old and traditional manner:
Deisis icons reflect a royal court in which the ruler sits enthroned, and petitioners come to him with requests.
If we look more closely at the panel of John, you will find — if you are a long-time reader here — that you can easily translate his scroll:
The common inscription can quickly be recognized by its first two Church Slavic words — АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ/AZ VIDEKH — “I saw…” You will recall that it continues “…and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God, who takes [away the sins of the world].”
The scroll held by Mary bears a very common text given her in Deisis icons, though sometimes we find variants.
VLADIKO MNOGOMILOSTIVE GOSPODI ISUSE KHRISTE SUINE MOI PRIKLONI UKHO…
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, my son, incline [your] ear….”
So Mary is asking Jesus to bend his ear to her and hear her petition on behalf of humans.
A владико/vladiko is a master or ruler. In Eastern Orthodoxy, one often finds the term vladiko or vladika used when addressing a bishop.
These two Deisis panels are attributed to vicinity of Syzran/Suizran (Сызрань), a town on the Volga River, which was a center for traditional icon painting by Old Believers in the 19th century. The Old Believers seem to have been in the region from the latter part of the 18th century. In the year 1878, it was noted that between Simbirsk and Syzran there were 14 parishes of “State Church” believers, but 29 parishes of raskolniki — “Schismatics,” the deprecatory State term for Old Believers.
In this map of a segment of the Volga, we see Syzran at left, and Samara (Самара) at right:
In the second half of the 19th century, there were said to be at least 70 icon painting masters and establishments doing a flourishing business in the Syzran area. The majority of them were Поморцы-Беспоповцы/Pomortsui-Bespopovtsui — that is, members of the Old Believer sect called “priestless” Pomortsui/Pomortsy. They elected lay persons to conduct their services instead of priests. In spite of this, their high-quality icons were commissioned not only by their own sect, but by others as well — including members of the State Church. That does not mean, however, that there were no religious conflicts between the State Church and those holding other beliefs in Syzran.
One characteristic often found in Syzran icons is a kovcheg/ark with a wide and dark luzga — the bevel separating the ark from the outer border. The luzga was often painted with gold or silver floral, etc. ornament, as we see in this detail from the “Mary” panel:
Syzran icon painting flourished from the late 18th to early 29th century.
I have always thought the “red” icons produced in the region of the Russian icon painting village of Kholuy to be quite pleasant. They are simple enough to look like folk art, but when done by an experienced painter, they have a charm often missing in more sophisticated icons. They were once rather inexpensive, but that is changing as more people have come to appreciate them.
You will recall that many of them have a silver background that was generally originally tinted with a colored varnish to make it appear gold. Often this varnish is removed when the icon is cleaned, and that of course also removes the “gold” effect, leaving the silver background instead.
Here are some good examples.
First, a “Smolensk” type icon of Mary:
And here is a “Lord Almighty”:
And finally a “John the Forerunner”:
These “red” icons, with their bright borders and stamped floral decoration, were very popular and widely sold. They even turn up in the Balkan countries, including Romania — having been there for many long years.
If you are a regular reader here, you should be easily able to read the inscriptions on book and scroll, because the texts are common and we have seen them in previous postings. The three icon types seen here were also previously discussed, and you will find those postings in the site archives.
The icon above shows, in the center, the killing of John the Forerunner (Baptist) as mentioned in the new testament. But all the other images around it come from the legends of what happened later.
Everyone familiar with the New Testament stories knows that according to them, John was beheaded. In the legends that followed, his head kept getting lost and found over the years. In fact there are THREE “official” findings of the head of John, all shown in iconography and celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar.
It is said that after the killing of John, his disciples buried the body in Sebastia, a Samaritan city.
Here is the portion of the icon showing the burial/entombment of the body:
But Herodias, the wife of Herod and scheming mother of Salome, is said to have hidden the head in “a dishonorable place” — i.e. a pile of manure.
Now the Gospel called “Of Luke” says in 8:1-3, when talking about Jesus:
And it came to pass soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good tidings of the kingdom of God, and with him the twelve, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary that was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuzas Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered unto them of their substance.
This Χουζᾶς — Khouzas — as he is called in Greek (Хуза/Khuza in Slavic) was, as said here, Herod’s steward. But note that the emphasis is not upon him, but rather on his wife Ioanna/Joanna. It is Ioanna who figures in the later tale of what became of John’s head.
According to the legend, Ioanna took the head of John from its hiding place, put it in a clay jar, and buried it at one of Herod’s properties on the Mount of Olives. Years later, a noble named Innocent (Innokenity in Slavic) came into possession of the property. He was having a church built there, but when the trench for the foundation was being dug, the clay jar containing the head of John was discovered. According to the legend, the “signs” accompanying the finding showed Innocent that it was an important relic. He kept it with great honor, but when his death was near, he feared that it might be desecrated by non-believers. Consequently, he had the head buried again where it was found — in the church. And after his death the church was neglected and fell into ruin, covering the burial place of John’s head.
In the days after Constantine had become the Roman Emperor, two monks visiting holy places came through Jerusalem. While there, John the Forerunner appeared to them (saints were always appearing to people in these old tales, it seems), and told them where his head was buried. They went to the ruined church, found the head, and placed it in a woven camel hair sack. On the way to their residence, they happened upon a potter. They prevailed upon him to carry the sack to their place, without telling him what was in it. But on the way, John the Forerunner appeared to the potter, and told him to run away from the lazy monks, taking the sack and head with him. The potter absconded with (the scene shown at the top of the segment above) and kept the head reverently in his home. Eventually, before he died, he put the head into a water jar, and gave it into the keeping of his sister.
That all comprises the tale of the “First Finding,” (even though technically it includes two “findings”) — and is represented by this segment:
Here is another example of the “First Finding,” a border scene from an icon of John:
Here is a segment from a Byzantine icon showing the “First Finding.”
Note the presence in all of these of a building.
The head was kept for many years by devout Christians. Eventually it came into the hands of a certain Eustathios/Evstatiy, who was an Arian Christian. You may recall that Arians (who nearly became the dominant form of Christianity) held that Jesus was not God in the same sense as the Father, nor equal to him. So later Christians looked on Arians as heretics. When various ailments were cured by the head of John, Eustathios attributed the cures to the fact that the head was in the possession of a true-believing Arian. But his enemies considered that blasphemy, and he was forced to flee. So he buried the head of John in a cave near Emesa, planning to return later and retrieve it.
That did not happen, however. A group of non-Arian monks took up residence in the cave, and eventually a monastery was constructed there. In 452 c.e. John the Forerunner once more appeared, this time to the head of the monastery, a certain Marcellus/Markellos. John told him where the head was hidden, and Marcellus had it unearthed (this is the “Second Finding”). It was kept for a time in Emesa.
Here is the segment showing the “Second Finding”:
This is a border scene from an icon of John, showing the “Second Finding”:
Here is a border scene of the “Second Finding,” from a Byzantine icon:
Here is another icon — Russian — with various scenes from the tale of the “Second Finding.” At lower center is John appearing to Markellos, and at upper center the finding of the head. The inscription above reads ВТРОЕ ОБРЕТЕНIЕ — VTOROE OBRYETENIE — “Second Finding.”
The “Second Finding” is commonly represented by two figures in front of a cave.
Now in actual icons, the various findings of the head of John are often somewhat confused iconographically. Here, for example, is a Russian icon with the cave common to icons of the Second Finding, but the title above reads “First Finding of the Head of Holy John the Forerunner.”
Thε Greek inscription on this fresco combines the interment of John’s body with the iconography of the Second Finding, but the title reads simply:
Ο ΕΝΤΑΦΙΑCΜΟC ΚΑΙ Η ΕΥΡΕCΙC HO ENTAPHIASMOS KAI HE EVRESIS
“THE ENTOMBMENT AND THE FINDING.”
The head was then taken to Constantinople, the center of the Eastern Orthodox religio-political world. It is said that during muslim attacks — at the time of the Iconoclastic controversy, Christians secretly removed the head from the city, taking it to a place in Abkhazia called Comana, where they hid it. After the Seventh Ecumenical Council gave the Iconophiles victory over the Iconoclasts, a priest had a vision showing the location of the hidden head, and it was once more found (the “Third Finding”), and was returned to Constantinople.
This segment of the image shows the head in Constantinople; this image is often used to represent the “Third Finding”
Here, however, is a late Russian icon of the “Third Finding,” which as you can see, looks much like the “First Finding” in the Russian icon mentioned above — so one sees how confused the iconography of these “findings” can be:
Now oddly enough, the story then moves to the Roman Catholic West. It is said that in 1204, Catholic soldiers, while looting Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, came upon a glass-covered human face set into a silver plate. A Greek inscription identified the head — missing its lower jaw — as that of John the Forerunner. The head was taken to Picardy, in France, where it was ceremonially greeted by the bishop at the gates of the city of Amiens. In 1220 the head was placed in the Amiens Cathedral. There it became a highly venerated relic that drew pilgrims from far and near. In 1604, Pope Clement VIII asked for and received a piece of the head to put in the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome.
These accounts once more illustrate the importance supposed relics once had. In fact the veneration of relics and their supposed powers helped to give rise to the acceptance of venerated icons in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Today we will look at two images from a Russian iconostasis. Both are painted in the late фряжская манера — Fryazhskaya manera — literally the “Frankish Manner,” which was how Russians designated icons painted in the more realist manner borrowed from Western Europe, which as we have seen in previous postings, strongly influenced State Church icon painting from the latter part of the 17th century.
Here is the Prophet Nahum ( Пророк Наум — Prorok Naum)
Here is a closer look at the face:
The inscription above his head reads СВЯТЫЙ ПРОРОК НАУМЪ — SVYATUIY PROROK NAUM — “Holy Prophet Nahum.”
Here is the text on his scroll:
ТАКО ГЛАГОЛЕТЪ ГОСПОД БУДЕТЪ ВЬ ПОСЛЕДНИЕ ВРЕМЕНИЯ ЗНАМЕНИЯ В СОНЦЕ ЛУНЕ И ЗВЕЗДАХЪ
TAKO GLAGOLET GOSPOD BUDETS V POSLEDNIE VREMENIYA ZNAMENIYA V SONTSE LUNE I ZVESDAKH
“Thus says the Lord. There shall be in the last times signs in the sun, moon and stars.”
Oddly enough, the text is not from the Old Testament Book of Nahum. Instead, It is adapted from Luke 21:25-26: “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and looking after those things which are coming on the earth; for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.”
Many people are not aware that John the Baptist — more commonly called John the Forerunner in icons — is considered a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy, and is often called the last of the Old Testament Prophets, even though he appears in the New Testament. Here he is, also painted in the Fryazhskaya manera, which we can call simply the “westernized manner.”
Here is a closer view of the face:
If you have been reading here for some time, you will easily be able to translate the name inscription above his head. The last letter of the last word in this example differs from the standard, which is ПРЕДТЕЧА — PREDTECHA — “Forerunner.” As already mentioned, in icons John is more often called the “Forerunner” than the “Baptist,” though the latter is also found.
Here is John’s scroll:
It is adapted from the Gospel attributed to Matthew by combining two texts. First is:
Here is a Marian icon, still with its discolored varnish:
I hope you recognize it as the left panel from a three-panel Deisis set of icons. As you will recall, the central icon in such a set is the image of the “Lord Almighty,” and the right panel is John the Forerunner, or John the Baptist as he is called in the West.
The image shows Mary approaching Jesus, acting as go-between in praying for the world (and in the mind of the believer, approaching Jesus with the prayers of the person praying before the icon).
We should take a look at her scroll in this type, because it has a common inscription that you should add to your repertoire of standard texts. It reads (put into modern Cyrillic):
Владыко Многомилостиве, Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне и Боже Мой, Vladuiko Mnogomilostive, Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine I Bozhe Moi, “Master -most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, Son and God of-me, приклони ко Мне ухо Твое, ибо аз молю за мир. prikloni ko Mne ykho Tvoe, ibo az moliu za mir. bend to me ear of-you, for I pray for [the] world.”
In normal English,
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, My Son and my God, incline your ear to me, for I pray for the world.”
You can see that several words are abbreviated in the icon text, as is common. This “left panel” type of Mary is of course just a smaller form of her image in the more detailed Desis icon found in a church iconostasis (the big icon screen separating congregation from altar in Russian Orthodox Churches). But this type is also very closely related to the image of Mary in the type known as the Bogoliubskaya: There are several Bogoliubskaya variants, depending on figures added to the right of Mary. In the example shown here, there are several saints associated with Moscow, such as the four Metropolitans of Moscow Petr (Peter), Alexiy, Iona (Jonah), and Filipp (Philip) as well as the Holy Fool Alexiy, Man of God.
Added at the top are the two popular saints and patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus) The “Moscow” saints give this Bogoliubskaya variant the secondary name “Moskovskaya” — “Of Moscow.” So this is the “Moscow” variant of the Bogoliubskaya type. But look at Mary’s scroll. It begins exactly the same as the Marian “left panel” icon, only in this example it is shortened for reasons of space, and every word except mnogolostivе is abbreviated:
Владыко Многомилостивый, Господи Иисусе Христ[е]…
“Master most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ….
If we look at the right panel from this Deisis set, we find it is the standard type of John the Forerunner:
John is holding a scroll with one of the two most common texts used not only in this right-panel type but also in icons of John in general. It is:
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”
The other common text for John is “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
As you see, John is pointing at the child Jesus lying in the liturgical vessel, representing the “Lamb” — the piece of bread considered to be the “body of Christ” in the Eastern Orthodox Eucharist.
Finally, let’s take a look at the central Deisis panel, which is the “Lord Almighty,” Jesus seen as ruler in the heavenly court:
Now we might expect the text on his book to be the most common “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):
Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́ Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui
Obviously, however, this example does not have that most frequent text. It cannot be, because the text on this icon is prefaced with the words
Речé Госпóдь свои́мъ ученикóмъ … Reche Gospod’ svoim” ychenikom” …
Spoke [the] Lord [to] of-him disciples…
“The Lord said to his disciples…”
And then it quotes the text of Matthew 11:27:
Вся́ мнѣ́ преданá сýть Отцéмъ мои́мъ: и никтóж[е знáетъ Сы́на, тóкмо Отéцъ]…. Vsya mnye predana sut’ Otsem” moim” : i niktozh [e znaet” Suina, tokmo Otets”…]
All [to] me handed-over is [by] Father of-me: and no one [ knows the Son but the Father…] “All things have been committed to me by my Father: and no one [knows the Son except the Father…]
So this particular icon of the “Lord Almighty” uses the verse just preceding the most common text used on the Russian type.
As an added note, a reader asked me why Russian icons, as in this example, put a little T above the letter that in a Greek icon would be the standard letter omega (ω) in the customary Ho On (ὁ ὢν = “The One Who Is”) inscription on “Jesus” icons.
The Russians have come up with all sorts of fanciful explanations for this, saying the three letters abbreviate this or that Church Slavic phrase. Some priests even tell children that the T is the “cross atop the crown of Christ” — the omega roughly forming the “crown.” But the real answer is apparently that a few centuries ago, Russian iconographers did not commonly understand Greek, so when they saw the accented omega in ὢν on a correctly inscribed icon, they just replaced it (apparently beginning in the early 1400s) with the Slavic letter that had a little T mark above it, which happens to be the abbreviation for the word ot (“from”) in Church Slavic:
And the miswriting was perpetuated in countless copies. From the ordinary Russian point of view, if that was the way it was passed down, that was the way it should be. A fundamentalist Protestant likes to respond to religious questions with “It’s in the Bible.” A traditional Russian Orthodox believer would respond, “That’s the way our fathers handed it down to us.”
You might not yet have noticed another little difference between the inscriptions on the Greek Pantokrator halo and the Russian Gospod’ Vsederzhitel (“Lord Almighty”) halo. While the three letters in the three bars of the cross are read from left to top to right in Greek icons, in Russian icons they are generally moved so that the O is at the top, the OT is at left, and the N is at right.
Now you have an easy, rule-of-thumb way of distinguishing Russian icons of Jesus from Greek. But of course the text in the open book is another obvious tip-off.
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.