As you will know from those past postings, the inscription at the base of the cloth reads С[ВЯ]Т[ЫЙ] ОУБРУСЪ/SVYATUIY OUBRUS/OUBROUS/UBRUS — meaning “Holy Cloth/Towel.” There are variations in spelling, which is common in Russian icons.
When used as a primary image — which it very often was — the cloth is frequently held by angels, as in this example from the latter part of the 19th century:
My point in discussing it again today is simply to give you another title inscription variant to add to your Church Slavic vocabulary.
Here is the title inscription on the icon:
It is written very clearly, and only the last word is abbreviated. In full, it is:
In normal English, “The ‘Not Made by Hands’ Cloth of the Lord.” The “Not Made by Hands” part refers of course to the image on the cloth, not to the cloth itself. One does not often see it titled this way, but now when you do, you will recognize the variation.
You should be able to recognize all the other standard abbreviations found in this icon — the IC XC borrowed from the Greek Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ,” which in Russia is found as Исус Христос/Isus Khristos among the Old Believers and as Иисус Христос/Iisus Khristos in the State Orthodox Church. And by now you should know the Ὁ ѠΗ (ΗΟ ΟΝ) inscription commonly found in the halo of Jesus, meaning “The One Who Is” — the Septuagint translation of the title of God that is rendered in the King James Version of the Bible as “I Am That I Am” (Exodux 3:14).
It is important also to remember this abbreviation:
It is the letters А Г (A-G), which abbreviate Ангел Господень /Angel Gospoden’, meaning “Angel [of the] Lord.” It is an abbreviation found in countless icons with angels.
Finally, you probably noticed that this particular icon is a combination of traditional stylization and “Westernized” naturalism. It keeps the old form found in traditional painting, while using more natural folds to the cloth and robes, and more naturalistic coloring and color transitions, though still showing some of the more stylized traits of traditional painting.
Incidentally the expression “not made by hands” is also found in a different context the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 5:1:
Here it is in Church Slavic: Вемы бо, яко аще земная наша храмина тела разорится, создание от Бога имамы, храмину нерукотворену, вечну на небесех. Vemui bo, yako ashche zemnaya nasha khramina tela razoritsya, sozdanie ot Boga imamui, khraminu nerukotvorenu, vechny na nebesekh.
And in Greek: Οἴδαμεν γὰρ ὅτι ἐὰν ἡ ἐπίγειος ἡμῶν οἰκία τοῦ σκήνους καταλυθῇ, οἰκοδομὴν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἔχομεν, οἰκίαν ἀχειροποίητον αἰώνιον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. Oidamen gar hot ean he epigeios hemon oikia tou skenous kataluthe, oikodomen ek Theou ekhomen, oikian akheiropoieton aionion en tois ouranois.
“For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building from God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
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.
If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:
The inscription reads
СВЯТЫЙ НИКОЛА ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ SVYATUIY NIKOLA CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”
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.
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
ЗНАМЕНИЕ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ ZNAMENIE PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
the “‘SIGN’ MOST-HOLY GOD-BIRTHGIVER”
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.
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:
ОУСЕКНОВЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНЫЯ ГЛАВЫ СВЯАТАГО IОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧА USEKNOVENIE CHESTNUIYA GLAVUI SVYATAGO IOANNA PREDTECHA
“CUTTING-OFF [of the] HONORABLE HEAD [of] HOLY JOHN [the] FORERUNNER.”
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
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ОБРАЗ ГОСПОДЕНЬ NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODEN’
“NOT-MADE-BY-HANDS IMAGE [of the] LORD”
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:
СВЯТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ SVYATUIY UBRUS
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;
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.
Today we will look at an icon primarily for its Vyaz inscription. Learning to read these “condensed” inscriptions is very important — in fact essential — for serious students of icons, but it is not difficult.
We can see that this icon is a kind of schematic image (without natural perspective) of a group of buildings within a wall, and we can see a few monks and clerics standing within it:
The small inscriptions in red identify the various buildings, but we need not bother with those. Our interest today is in the large title inscription at the top, which identifies the image.
…ПРЕПОДОБНАГО ОЦА НАШЕГО ИГУМЕНА СЕРГИЯ РАДОНЕЖСКАГО …PREPODOBNAGO OTSA NASHEGO IGUMENA SERGIYA RADONEZHSKAGO
Let’s look at it word by word:
OBITEL‘: An obitel’ is a cloister — a monastery. Notice that the third vertical on the omega-like O is shortened, so that the Б (b) can be fitted in above it and above the shortened first vertical in the letter И (i).
S[VYA]TUIYA: “Of the Holy.” Note the omitted letters in the abbreviation, shown in brackets in the transliteration. Also note the form of the final “ya” sound, made by a letter combining I and A — represented by Я in the modern Russian font.
ZHIVONACHALNUIYA – “Life-initiating,” commonly translated as “Lifegiving”; the “of” form is used here — without abbreviation
TR[OI]TSUI: “TRINITY”; again in the “of” form. The Т is placed above the Р (R), and the first vertical on the Ц (ts) is greatley shortened to fit close to the first two letters.
PR[E]P[O]D[O]BNAGO: “Venerable” — the loose English translation of the word meaning “most like,” and used as the title for monks. Note the strong abbreviation. Note also the transformation of the second vertical in the letter П (p) curving it out to make the Р (r) — thus getting two letters out of one. Note also how the Д (d) is written above the word — here in the “of” form.
OTSA: “FATHER” — meaning here a spiritual father. Here it begins with another omega-form O. There is another joined letter, made by shortening the second vertical in the Ц (ts) to make it also the lower vertical in the final letter A. In the “of” form.
NASHEGO: “OF US” — rendered as “our” in English. By now you should be accustomed to seeing verticals shortened to fit other letters in. The first three letters – НАШ (nash) are a very good exmaple of that.
IGUMENA: “HEGUMEN” — a clerical title used for the head of a monastery, like an abbot in Catholicism. the second vertical on the beginning letter И (i) is drastically shortened to make room for the Г (g) above it. Note the form of the third letter — the “ou/oo” sound — found as У in the modern Russian font. In the “of” form.
SERGIYA: “SERGIY/SERGEI — in the “of” form.
RAD[ONEZHSKAGO]: “OF RADONEZH.” It is very common for only the beginning letters of a “place” title to be used, with the rest omitted in the abbreviation.
So we see the inscription identifies this icon as:
ОБИТЕЛЬ СВЯТЫЯ ЖИВОНАЧАЛНЫЯ ТРОИЦЫ ПРЕПОДОБНАГО ОЦА НАШЕГО ИГУМЕНА СЕРГИЯ РАДОНЕЖСКАГО OBITEL’ SVYATUIYA ZHIVONACHALNUIYA TROITSUI PREPODOBNAGO OTSA NASHEGO IGUMENA SERGIYA RADONEZHSKAGO
“The Monastery of the Holy Life-giving Trinity of Our Venerable Father Hegumen Sergiy/Sergei of Radonezh.”
It is the most noted monastery in Russia — even today. And now you also know why there is a little icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” separating the two parts of the inscription.
(Prepare yourself; get cup of tea and a cookie or twenty, because this is mind-numbingly long)
In the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodoxy, there are five pre-Lent Sundays, followed by five Lent Sundays. There is an iconographic image associated with each.
The pre-Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography are;
FIFTH SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF ZACCHAEUS:
Here is a 14th century Serbian Fresco showing Jesus and his disciples at left, and at right Zaccheus up a tree.
Here is the title inscription:
Х[РИСТО]С ПРИЗИВАЕТЬ ЗАКХЕИ ОТ СИКОМОРIЕ KHRISTOS PRIZIVAET ZAKKHEI OT SIKOMORIE
“Christ calls Zacchaeus out of the Sycamore.”
I have transliterated the Church Slavic inscription using a modern Russian font, but note that the original uses the old symbol for ot (meaning “out of,” “from”), which looks like a Greek omega with a small T atop it — in other words, a combination of o and t:
And in the word Sikomorie/Sycamore, it uses that same “omega” symbol — minus the T — for the letter o.
The story of the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus — a staple of Sunday School classes for little children — is found in Luke 19:1-10:
1 And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.
2 And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, who was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
3And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.
4 And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
5And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said to him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at your house.
6 And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
7 And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.
8 And Zacchaeus stood, and said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
9 And Jesus said to him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
10For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
4TH SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE:
Here is another 14th century Serbian fresco, the image for this Sunday:
The title inscription, which is rather difficult to see in this illustration, reads:
ПРИТЧА О МИТАРИ И ФАРИСЕЙ PRITCHA O MITARI I PHARISEI “[The] Parable of [the] Publican and [the] Pharisee.”
If you are wondering what all those brackets are about, remember that Church Slavic — like Russian, has no definite or indefinite articles — no “the” or “a,” so we have to supply them for good English.
The short words above the two figures are just abbreviations of “Pharisee” (Фарисей; the central figure at left) and “Publican” (Митар; the central figure at right).
Note that the icon is really divided into two halves, and we see two images of the Publican and two of the Pharisee. At left the proud Pharisee is praying and thanking God that he is not like that miserable Publican, toward whom he gestures with his left hand. Below him is the Publican, shown humbly striking his breast with both fists.
In the right half of the icon we see the Publican, represented as the righteous one of the two by the halo that is now given him. Notice the ray of heavenly light extending to his head. Below him is the Pharisee, skulking out of the Temple with no halo — a sign of his divine rejection because of his pride.
In the upper portion of the image, we see the long reddish cloth hanging from building to building. This is the velum — the old standard symbol telling us the scene is taking place in an interior. At the center of the image is the temple altar, shown in the form of an Orthodox Church altar.
The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is found in Luke 18:10-14:
10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.
Perhaps you noted the similarity between the prayer of the Publican and the “Jesus Prayer” repeated over and over in Russian Orthodoxy: Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне Божий, помилуй мя, грешного. Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine Bozhiy, pomiluy mya,greshnogo
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF THE PRODIGAL SON:
Ιcons of the Prodigal Son vary in their details and complexity. Here is a modern page showing one Greek example:
The incriptions above the two figures in the foreground are:
Left: ὁάσωτος ὑιός — ho asotos huios — “the prodigal son”
In modern Greek, it is pronounced “o asotos eeos.”
Right: ὁφιλόστοργος Πατήρ — ho philostorgos Pater — “the loving father”
At upper left the Prodigal Son is shown sitting depressed and hungry among the pigs, and at right we see him leaving the pigs and walking back to his home.
The rather lengthy and well-known story of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32. I won’t repeat it here.
Note the signature in the lower right corner of the image. It reads:
If you are a long-time reader here (I keep saying that, don’t I!), you will not only be able to read that inscription on your own, but you will also recognize the name Photis Kontoglou (Φώτης Κόντογλου, 1895-1965). He is noted for his 20th-century revival and adaptation of earlier iconographic styles and the creation of a new “retro” movement in modern Greek icon painting, which had a wide influence.
2ND SUNDAY BEFORE: SUNDAY OF THE LAST JUDGMENT:
Another name for this day is “Meatfare Sunday,” because it is the last day on which believers can eat meat before Lent.
The icon for this Sunday is the Страшный суд — Strashnuiy Sud — “Terrible Judgment” as the Russians call it, representing the judging of all the living and dead at the second coming of Jesus. Here is a 15th century example from Novgorod:
1ST SUNDAY BEFORE: CHEESEFARE SUNDAY/EXPULSION OF ADAM AND EVE FROM PARADISE:
The icon for this day (as you might have guessed from the heading) is the “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise”/Изгнание Адама и Евы из Рая/Izgnanie Adama i Evui iz Raya. The tale is found in Genesis 3:22-24.
Here is a 17th century Russian example — a fresco from the portal of the Church of Nicholas Nadeina in Yaroslavl (in case you are wondering where the Nadeina comes from, it derives from the name of the wealthy merchant who paid for its construction — Епифаний Свешников/Epiphaniy Sveshnikov, who was nicknamed Надей/Nadey. The church was so called to distinguish it from other St. Nicholas Churches in that city.
It depicts Adam and Eve exiting through the gate of Paradise, and an angel making sure they leave and do not return. This image is often found in combination with other scenes relating to Adam and Eve.
The rather odd English name of this Sunday derives from the Church practice of making this the last day on which believers are allowed to eat dairy products such as cheese (as well as eggs) before the beginning of the Lenten fasting (they are already fasting from meat). The Russian name for this day is Масленичная неделя/Maslenichnaya Nedelya — “Butter Sunday,” and the week before Lent is celebrated as Мaсленица — Maslenitsa — from the Russian word for “butter” (масло/maslo). Maslenitsa is a very old Slavic celebration dating to pre-Christian times, when it was the festival welcoming the sun and the beginning of spring. The standard Russian food for Maslenitsa is блины/blinui/bliny — the little round thin pancakes made of flour, eggs, milk and butter or oil. Their round shape represented the sun.
Another popular Russian name for this Sunday is Прощёное Воскресенье — Proshchonoe Voskresen’e — “Forgiveness Sunday.”
The Greeks call Cheesefare Sunday Κυριακή Της Τυροφάγου — Kyriake Tes Tyrophagou — “Sunday of Cheese-eating.”
Now we move onto the The Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography. They are:
1ST SUNDAY: THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY:
This celebrates the triumph in the year 843 c.e. of those who favored the making and veneration of icons (the Iconophiles) over those who decried it as an unchristian survival of paganism (the Iconoclasts). The main figures in the icon are the byzantine Empress Theodora, shown crowned at left, with her son Michael III. In the center is the Hodegitria (“Way-shower”) icon. To its right stand the Patriarch of Constantinople, Methodios, and Bishop Theodoros.
2ND SUNDAY: ST. GREGORY PALAMAS:
As one might expect from the name, this Sunday commemorates Gregory Palamas (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς/Gregorios Palamas, c. 1296 – 1359). Gregory was an Athonite monk and prominent defender of Hesychasm — the meditative practice in Eastern Orthodoxy — and its theology. He later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and was glorified as a saint in 1368. Here is a 15th century Greek icon of him:
The inscription is rather worn, but still legible. The top line is read from the left to right sides, and the remainder also from left to right. Here is the left side:
At the top is the partly-obliterated Ὁ Άγιος/Ho Hagios/”The Holy,” followed by a word divided into two parts — Αρχιεπί-σκοπος/Arkhiepiskopos/”Archbishop.”
And here is the right:
At top is the name Γρηγόριος/Gregorios/”Gregory,” followed by two divided words. The first is Θεσσαλονί-κης/Thessalonikes/”of-Thessaloniki, and the second is Ὁ Παλα-μάς/Ho Palamas/”the Palamas.”
If we put them together as they are meant to be read, we get:
Ὁ Άγιος Γρηγόριος Αρχιεπίσκοπος Θεσσαλονίκης Ὁ Παλαμάς Ho Hagios Gregorios Arkhiepiskopos Thessalonikes Ho Palamas “The Holy Gregory, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, (the) Palamas”
It may seem peculiar that there is a major Sunday commemoration just for Gregory; the thinking behind it is that the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the Iconophiles over the Iconoclasts (considered “heretics” in Eastern Orthodoxy), and Gregory’s triumph over those opposing the practice of Hesychasm similarly was another victory of what came to be considered Orthodoxy over opposing doctrines.
3RD SUNDAY: THE VENERATION OF THE CROSS:
There are two icons generally associated with this day. The first is the same as that for the Major church feast called the “Elevation of the Cross.” Here is a 19th century Russian example:
The Inscription at the top reads:
ВОЗДВИЖЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНАГО КРЕСТА ГОСПОДНЯ
VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA GOSPODNYA
“Elevation of the Honorable Cross of the Lord.”
The icon depicts the raising of the cross on which Jesus was crucified for the veneration of the people of Jerusalem. St. Helena — mother of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized and supported Christianity in the Roman Empire — according to legend discovered the cross of Jesus buried in Jerusalem in 326 c.e. In the icon Helena stands at left, and on the left side of the cross is Bishop Makariy/Makarios/Macarius of Jerusalem, and on the other side another bishop.
The second icon associated with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross is the type generally called simply ПОКЛОНЕНИЕ КРЕСТА — POKLONENIE KRESTA — “Veneration of the Cross.” Here is a 12th century Russian example.
It depicts the empty cross ornamented with a wreath, standing on Golgotha with the skull of Adam visible within the hill. At left is the sun, and at right the moon. The Archangel Michael is at left, holding the spear of the crucifixion, and at right is the Archangel Gabriel, holding the sponge on a reed. In the sky above are six-winged cherubim at the sides, and at each side of the upper bar of the cross are seraphim bearing ripida — the ceremonial fans used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.
The liturgical phrase associated with the Veneration of the Cross (and found on countless Crucifixion icons) is:
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО И СВЯАТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ
KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLONAEMSYA VLADIKO I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM
“We bow before your cross, Master, and praise your holy resurrection.”
4TH SUNDAY: JOHN OF THE LADDER:
This day commemorates the 6th-7th century monk and writer Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος/Ioannes tes Klimakos/John of the Ladder. The Russians call him Иоанн Лествичник/Ioann Lestvichnik/John the Ladder-guy. He is discussed — along with the icon of the “Ladder of John Klimakos” — in this previous posting: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/
This commemoration celebrates the effort and virtue needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here is a 13th century icon of John Klimakos from the St. Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, where he was abbot:
The title inscription is easy; it reads:
Ὁ ἉγιοςἸωάννης ὁ τῆς Κλίμακος Ho Hagios Ioannes ho tes Klimakos
“The Holy John the [one of the] Ladder”
5TH SUNDAY: MARY OF EGYPT:
Mary of Egypt is one of the most common figures in Russian icons. Traditionally, she was a desert ascetic living in the wilds in the region of the Jordan River. She and her iconography are discussed in this previous posting:
Today, thanks to a reader question, we will take a look at a 14th century icon in the Byzantine Museum, Athens. It represents the Archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies.
The question asked was, what do the letters in the round mirror (depicted as a transparent sphere here) held by St. Michael mean?
Let’s look at them:
First, we need to know that the letters are Greek, which makes sense, given that it is a Byzantine icon.
The first letter — at the top — is Χ. It stands for Χριστος — Khristos — “Christ.”
It would be easy to mistake the second letter, at left, for an Α. But actually it is the letter Δ, which is often found written in this manner in old icons. It stands for Δικαιος — Dikaios — meaning “Righteous.”
The third letter, at right, is Κ, for Κριτης — Krites — “Judge.” It is related to our English words “critic” and criticism.”
All together, the letters abbreviate Χ(ριστός) Δ(ίκαιος) Κ(ριτής). — “Christ [the] Righteous Judge.” It is an expression that recalls the words of John 7:24:
μὴ κρίνετε κατ’ ὄψιν, ἀλλὰ τὴν δικαίαν κρίσιν κρίνετε Me krinete kat’ opsin, alla ten dikiaian krisin krinete
Not judge according-to appearance, but the rightous judgment judge
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”
You may recall that a variant of this phrase is often found as a Gospel text in Russian icons of Jesus as “Lord Almighty.”
Не на лица судите сынове человечестии, но праведен суд судите: им же бо судом судите, судят вам и в нюже меру мерите, возмерится вам.
“Judge not according to the appearance, sons of men, but judge righteous judgment. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged, and with what measure you measure, you shall be measured.”
There is also a title inscription on the Michael icon that we should examine. It is divided into left and right parts:
Ὁ ΑΡΧ[ΩΝ]…. HO ARKHON
Ὁ ΜΕΓΑC… HO MEGAS
Notice how the the A and the P (R) are joined, and how the X (KH) in Arkhon is placed above, below a curved line indicating abbreviation.
Notice that the Λ (L) in MIKHAEL is placed above the last two letters.
This title inscription is read with the first line jumping from the left to right side, as does the second, like this:
Ὁ ΑΡΧ(ΩΝ) ΜΙΧΑΗΛ Ὁ ΜΕΓΑC ΤΑΞΙΑΡΧΗC HO ARKHON MIKHAEL HO MEGAS TAXIARKHES
“THE PRINCE MICHAEL THE GREAT COMMANDER”
That title recalls the Old Testament book of Daniel, 12:1, in the Septuagint Greek version:
Και ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ ἀναστήσεται Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἄρχων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ἑστηκὼς ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ λαοῦ σου·
“And in that time shall stand up Michael the great prince, that stands over the sons of your people.”
Thanks to the reader who asked this question, because it helps everyone to advance a bit in the study of icons.
While serious readers here want to learn to read “condensed” icon inscriptions, technically called “Vyaz'” or “joined/linked” inscriptions, some also want to learn to write it as a calligraphic form.
This page show the letters of Church Slavic in a “pen” form, with wide vertical strokes and thin horizontal and angular strokes.
Vyaz’ inscriptions vary widely. One can make the vertical strokes very long and narrow, which enables more letters in a smaller space, or one may make them shorter. One may make the letters very simple (like the basic forms shown above), or one can make them as ornate as desired, with lots of little added flourishes. And of course they can be written in various colors, red being a common choice for icons.
In combining letters, some vertical strokes in a letter may be shortened to allow the insertion of another letter written small. We see that in the following incription. I will transliterate it with the small letters within and above the inscription in lower case. Omitted letters are in brackets.
It reads: Obraz Neopalimuiya Kupinui Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui OBrAz NeOpAlIMuiiA KupinuI Pres[vya]t[ui]ia B[ogoro]d[i]TSuI
We have seen the inscription in an earlier posting on that icon type, “The Image of the Unburnt Thornbush Most Holy Mother of God.”
Here the beginning of another inscription:
OBRAz VOZDVIZHEN[i]E CHesTNAGO KR[e]sTA G[o]s[pod]NYA
“Image of the Elevation of the Venerable Cross of the Lord”
Notice how the writer of the inscription has used strong vertical lines, and very thin triangular lines to form the “horizontals” at top and bottom of letters. And notice the little flourishes he has placed on the letters here and there. His T letters consist of three, full-length verticals with triangular “horizontals” at the top, but this form is less common.
The best way to learn Vyaz’ calligraphy is to look at lots of different examples, and to copy those one finds most appealing. Some people find it helpful to use graph paper at the beginning, so that the size of varying letters can be carefully measured while writing. And keep in mind that there are lots of variations in just how a particular letter may be ornamented.
Here is a link to a Russian calligraphy video, showing Slavic letters being written:
Here is another, showing the manner in which letters may be ornamented:
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.