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.
Святый Священномученик Евсевий, епископ Самосатский
If you have been paying close attention to previous “lessons” here in reading Church Slavic, you should only have trouble with a couple of those words. Don’t worry about the extra letter ъ in ЕВъСЕВIИ as written on the icon. Such spelling variations are not uncommon.
Святый — Svyatuiy means “Holy.” It is the word used for a male saint.
Священномученик — Svyashchennomuchenik means “Priest-martyr,” or to use its partially Greek form, “Hieromartyr.” You will recall that мученик — muchenik — by itself means “martyr” when used of a male.
Евсевий, — Evseviy — is the saint’s name. It will look a bit strange until we recall that when Greek names are put into their Russian/Church Slavic forms, “eu” in Greek commonly becomes “ev” in Russian; and Greek “b” becomes “v” in Russian. And the “-ios” ending common for many Greek names becomes the ending -ий — iy— in Russian/Church Slavic. So keeping all that in mind (it is not as difficult as it sounds at first) — we can put the name back into its transliterated Greek form like this:
Евсевий — Evseviy = Eusebios
And if we want to put it into its Latin form, we need only recall that the Greek name ending –ios becomes –ius in Latin. And that gives us the usual form of this saint’s name as commonly found in English, because English often uses the Latin forms of Greek names that end in -ios. In this case it is Eusebius.
So this is a saint named Eusebius.
The next part of the title tells us he is an
епископ — episkop. That means “bishop.”
And the final word tells us what he was bishop of or where he was from:
Самосатский — Samosatskiy — means he was of Samosata. Remember that the -skiy ending on a Church Slavic place name means “of” that place. So now we have the full title and name of the saint:
You may be asking yourself (if you are not forgetting the whole thing and turning off your computer by now) WHY this saint is dressed in the conventional garb of a Roman warrior if he was a bishop. Because as you know, bishops are usually depicted wearing their ornate robes and an omophorion, the long stole around the neck that hangs down in front and is characteristic of bishops. Could it be a painter’s mistake?
In this case it is not, and the reason why this bishop is dressed in Roman armor is found in the traditional story of his life. I should remind you that these stories of saints’ lives are not history; they are pious legends that are sometimes a mixture of fiction and fact, and sometimes entirely fiction.
In any case, it is said that the bishop Eusebius took part in the First Ecumenical Council — the Council of Nicaea; and there he was a staunch defender of the so-called “Orthodox” position — that Jesus is God and equal to and of the same substance as God the Father. He held this position against the Arians, who asserted that Jesus was not equal in status to the Father. This council took place in 325 c.e., when Constantine was emperor.
For his opposition to the Arian position, it is said that Eusebius was removed from office and banished. And the Emperor Constantius, who succeeded Constantine, ordered Eusebius to give up a decree authorizing the election of the non-Arian bishop Meletius as bishop of Antioch. The Emperor threatened to have Eusebius’ right hand cut off if he did not hand it over. The tradition says Eusebius refused, and stretched out both his hands to be cut, but the Emperor was impressed by his courage and did not carry out the threat.
When the Emperor Julian (361-363) became emperor (the Christians like to call him “the Apostate”), it is said that Christians were persecuted again, so Eusebius dressed himself in the garb of a Roman soldier as a disguise, and travelled through Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine, preaching the “Orthodox” non-Arian concept of God and creating non-Arian bishops and deacons among the Christians.
Julian was killed in battle, and was succeeded by Emperor Jovian (363-364). Under this Emperor persecution of Christians came to an end, and the bishop Eusebius had protected — Meletius — at the urging of Eusebius, convened a council of 27 bishops at Antioch, where they confirmed the non-Arian “Orthodox” belief.
However, Jovian died, and Valentius (364-375) became Emperor, giving reign of the East to his co-emperor Valens (364-378). Valens was an Arian. You can see that there was an ongoing struggle back and forth in the Empire about whether it was to be Arian or “Orthodox.” Under Valens the Arian approach was again favored, and Meletius was sent into exile to Armenia. Eusebius, now Bishop of Samosata, was ordered into banishment in Thrace. He urged his tearful congregants, on leaving, to keep to the “Orthodox” belief. The Arian Eunomios was made Bishop of Samosata in his place, but it is said the followers of Eusebius refused to accept his authority or attend his services.
Then the pendulum swung again. The Emperor Gratian (375-383) came to power, and the Arian bishops were out and the “Orthodox” bishops were restored to their offices. Eusebius returned to being Bishop of Samosata, and worked to put “Orthodox” clergy back into power in other regions. In the year 388 he was in the Arian city of Dolikhina, where he intended to oust the Arian bishop and install an “Orthodox” bishop. One Arian woman was having none of it. She picked up a roof tile and hurled it at Eusebius’ head. It was a mortal blow, and he died of it, after saying that the woman should not be punished. He was buried in Samosata.
So that is the traditional story. If nothing else, it emphasizes that Christian doctrine was often the result of much bickering, infighting, and political and power struggles, and the Roman Emperors were very important in this, supporting whichever side they happened to favor. And eventually, as we know from history, the “Orthodox” position on the status of Jesus became the imperially-favored position, and holds its place in Eastern Orthodoxy to this day.
That story explains why Eusebius is wearing Roman armor instead of a bishop’s robes. But perhaps you noticed that in his hand, where a warrior saint would often hold a lance or a sword, Eusebius holds a book of the Gospels, to show that he is, like other bishops, a teacher of the Church.
One more small detail. On the right side — at the very end of the long “life” story written on the icon — we see this in larger letters than the preceding text:
Pamyat‘ as used here means Memory/Commemoration; Ego means “his/of him”; Iiunya here means “June”; KB is a number written in letters; K is 20 and B is 2, so together they form the number 22.
Evseviya means “of Evseviy/Eusebius.”
All together, it means “The Commemoration of Eusebius is on June 22nd,” and in fact that is his annual day of commemoration in the “Old Style” Church calendar.
Above the image of Eusebius, we see a typical image of Jesus blessing him from the clouds of Heaven (remember that in these times, Heaven was believed to be in the sky above the earth). If you look at Jesus’ blessing hand, you will see that the fingers are held in the position favored by the Old Believers, who separated from the politically-supported “State” Church in the mid-1600s. That tells us this icon was painted by someone in the tradition of the Old Believers. That is not surprising, because by this late date, the State Church favored icons that were much more realistic and “Western European” in appearance than this example.
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 Russian icon depicting a scene from the traditional life of the physician saint Panteleimon. Often an icon of a saint will have scenes from his life shown in little squares around the outer edges. Such an icon is termed с житем, s zhitem, meaning “with the life.” However, as here, sometimes individual “life” scenes were also painted as separate icons.
The icon depicts the young Panteleimon, whose life, you may recall, was set in the late 3rd-early 4th century. According to his story, he was studying medicine under Euphrosinos, whom he accompanied to the royal court. There he came to the notice of the Emperor Maximian, who advised Euphrosinos to train the clever boy well so that he might eventually become the court physician. That is the scene shown here.
Of course later Panteleimon had trouble when he confessed to being a Christian, and so Maximian had him killed, making him a martyr.
Scholars of hagiography tell us that “his Acts are worthless,” meaning the story of Panteleimon’s life and miracles is completely unreliable, largely fiction. Of course we can recognize that for ourselves when we read in the account of his martyrdom that when he was beheaded, milk flowed from his neck and the olive tree to which he was tied bore fruit.
Nonetheless, his largely fictional story is probably based on a real martyrdom, because he has been venerated as a saint in the East since very early times.
Along with the other popular physician saints Kosmas and Damian, Panteleimon is known as an “unmercenary” physician because, it is said, he would heal people without charging for his services.
In old icons, we cannot always rely on titles to be precisely accurate. Most Russians of the time were illiterate, and painters sometimes made mistakes. One might find a saint given the wrong name, or a saint with the right name painted with the characteristics of a different saint. And of course there are lots of variations in spelling.
This icon of Panteleimon before the Emperor seems to have been given a title more appropriate to another scene in his life, as we shall see when we translate it:
As you see, it is a Vyaz (“linked”) inscription, condensed by pushing letters close together and by abbreviation.
For icon students just beginning to read inscriptions, once they have learned the Cyrillic alphabet in its Church Slavic form, the next problem they encounter is learning where one word ends and another begins — in short, separating an inscription into its component words. That is when a basic Church Slavic vocabulary comes in handy.
Let’s take a look at the inscription word by word. Here is the first:
We see these letters Ч Ю Д О
The left upright stroke of the letter Ю shares the same upright stroke as the first letter, Ч. Together they form the word ЧЮДО, a variant spelling of the word CHUDO, meaning “wonder, miracle.” Church Slavic does not have a definite article (“the”) so we have to supply that when translating. So to begin with, we have “The Miracle ….”
The second word is:
The letters are arranged like this:
It abbreviates the word СВЯТАГО (SVYATAGO), though the writer has arranged it rather oddly. SVYATAGO means “of the holy.”
So far we have “THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY….”
This word, only slightly abbreviated, is ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИКА (VELIKOMUCHENIKA). VELIKO– means “Great” and MUCHENIKA is just the word MUCHENIK (“martyr”) with a grammatical -a ending. So VELIKOMUCHENIKA means “[of] the Great-Martyr.”
Our translation so far has given us “THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT-MARTYR….”
The next word is
ХРИСТОВА (KHRISTOVA). That is the “of” form (notice the -a ending) of the word KHRISTOS, “CHRIST.” Adding that to our translation, we now have:
“THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR OF CHRIST ….”
And finally comes his name:
Though the writer has used an “O” as the second letter instead of the usual “A,” (such spelling variants are common in old icons) it is easy to see that this is the name PANTELEIMONA, again given the “of” ending -a. PANTELEIMON (from the Greek meaning “All-Merciful”) is one of the most popular Eastern Orthodox saints, because, as we have seen, in life he was said to be a physician and is believed by Eastern Orthodox to have great power to miraculously heal as a saint.
That gives us the complete main inscription:
“THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR OF CHRIST PANTELEIMON.”
All of those words are very basic Church Slavic icon vocabulary, which means you will see them repeated countless times in inscriptions, making them very easy to recognize and read. You probably noticed that we only translate some of the “-a” grammatical endings that mean “of.” That is because some of them merely reflect the first “of” in the sentence, a characteristic of Church Slavic. So in the sentence
CHUDO SVYATAGO VELIKOMUCHENIKA KHRISTOVA PANTELEIMONA, we translate SVYATAGO as “of the holy,” but the -a ending on VELIKOMUCHENIKA simply repeats that “of” sense without needing translation. But the -a in KHRISTOVA does need translation in English, while the -a on PANTELEIMONA is again merely a grammatical reflection of a previous “of,” so we leave it untranslated. One gets used to knowing which to translate and which to leave untranslated, and I am trying to make this very simple for beginning students, without using a lot of unnecessary grammatical terms.
Yet in spite of the main title at the top of this icon, the image does not show Panteleimon working a miracle. There is, however, another scene from his life in which he heals a paralyzed man in the presence of the Emperor, and it is likely the title to that scene that the painter has mistakenly added to this earlier scene in the life of the saint.
Let’s take a look at one more inscription, the title inscription written by the image of Panteleimon in the icon:
It might be a little difficult to see, so I will repeat it in modern Cyrillic:
СТ В МУ ПОНТЕЛЕИМОНЪ (ST V MU PONTELEIMON’)
After reading the first inscription, that one should be really easy. THE “ST” abbreviates SVYATUIY, the regular male form of “HOLY” (you saw the “of” form of the same word in SVYATAGO in the main inscription). The “V” abbreviates VELIKO, “GREAT,” as in the main inscription, and MU abbreviates MUCHENIK, “MARTYR,” as you already saw. PONTELEIMON’ is again this writer’s spelling of PANTELEIMON. So the saint’s inscription reads:
“HOLY GREAT MARTYR PANTELEIMON,” or as we would usually say in English with the added definite article, “THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR PANTELEIMON.”
You might wish to to know that in the West, Panteleimon is often known as Pantaleon.
By the way, I am endlessly amazed that the number of readers of my site keeps growing.
Today I would like to talk a little more about Vyaz’ (Вязь). that “condensed” form of ornamental writing used for titles on countless icons. It means simply “joined” or “tied,” and that is because letters are pushed closely together or joined to another on the same upright stem instead of being entirely separate.
Vyaz’ has many variations, but in all the basics remain the same: an inscription is condensed by the reduction in size of some letters and by the abbreviation of some words.
Here is a very nice example, the title inscription on an icon of the “Unburnt Thornbush.”
Let’s look a little more closely:
When we look carefully, we can see that the inscription consists of five words. Let’s separate them to make deciphering easier:
This is the first word, OBRAZ, meaning “Image.” Notice that in Church Slavic script, the letter that is O in modern Russian font is written like the Greek letter Omega, which looks something like an English “W.”
In a modern Russian font, it would look like this: ОБРАЗ. Notice how the Р (“R” in English) is reduced in size so it can fit in the upper hollow between the Б (“B”) and the А, and the З (“Z”), rather than being placed at the end, is instead written above the preceding three letters as much smaller superscription.
Next comes the word NEOPALIMUIYA, meaning “Unburnt” — НЕОПАЛИМЫЯ. In the written example, the letter represented in the modern Russian font as Я (“YA) is written more like an “I” joined to an “A” in English.
Following that is the word KUPINUI, meaning “Thornbush” — КУПИНЫ. Notice that the Slavic У, which is the sound “oo” as in “moon” phonetically, is written like an O surmounted by a Y.
And then comes the first of two words identifying this as a Marian icon — PRESVYATUIYA, meaning “Most Holy” — ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ. Notice that not all the letters are included; it is abbreviated:
And finally the word BOGORODITSUI, meaning literally “Birthgiver of God,” but generally loosely translated as “Mother of God” — БОГОРОДИЦЫ. Notice that the Д (D) is written above in smaller form instead of being in the body of the word, and that the word as a whole is heavily abbreviated, with several letters entirely omitted, but nonetheless to be supplied by the reader.
All together, we get:
OBRAZ NEOPALIMUIYA KUPINUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI. You may be accustomed to seeing the letter Ы transliterated as “Y” instead of as “UI,” as I tend to do informally.
So, let’s look again in informal transliteration:
OBRAZ NEOPALIMUIYA KUPINUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI.
Did you notice that the endings of the words following OBRAZ indicate that grammatically, one should insert an “OF” when translating? That is why in English, the title is “IMAGE OF THE UNBURNT THORNBUSH MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.”
As you can see, Vyaz’ is not difficult once one learns to distinguish individual letters, but of course one must also learn a little basic Church Slavic vocabulary to understand what the words mean. That is not difficult. You will see the words “Image,” “Most-Holy,” and “Mother of God” repeated over and over again in titles, if you look at large numbers of icons, and so you will always know what they mean. Icon inscriptions, as I frequently emphasize, are very repetitive, so a little study gives great results.
The “Myrrh-bearing Women” is a variation on a very old subject in Christian art. Essentially it depicts three (or more) women coming to the tomb of Jesus on “Easter” morning, the morning of the resurrection. What is believed to be a very early painting of this motif (there is some disagreement) still exists as a wall fragment from the little church at Dura Europos, in what is now Syria, which was built about 233-256 c.e. It apparently depicts, at left, either a tomb or a rudimentary sarcophagus with a triangular lid, and at least three women (perhaps originally as many as five — the painting is damaged) approaching from the right, candles or torches in hand. What is either the rising sun or a star is seen just to the right of the tomb. This wall painting, as well as the other paintings in the house Church at Dura Europos, were not “icons” as later found in Eastern Orthodoxy. They were simply illustrations of biblical narratives, in spirit quite like the paintings on the Jewish synagogue of the same time and place, though the house church paintings were less sophisticated.
We have similar, though not identical elements in this Russian icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women. At left is an angel sitting on a rock (rolled away from the tomb entrance in the New Testament accounts). Beside him is a lidless sarcophagus, empty except for linen graveclothes, and to the right stand the three women, listening to the angel. As background elements we have hills at left and right, beyond which is seen the walled city of Jerusalem. The tomb itself is shown as a cave, with a stone sarcophagus lying outside it, though we are to understand that it is within the cave. The sarcophagus is depicted in the old manner of abstract perspective, in which a flat object is tilted toward the viewer, with the height at the back greater than that at the front. This method is often incorrectly described as “reverse perspective.”
It all seems very simple and straightforward, but actually this simple scene is an adaptation, a careful selection of elements from the disparate biblical accounts of the resurrection, which do not tell exactly the same story and are not compatible with one another either in the list of women visiting the tomb, which ranges from Mary Magdalene alone to more than three, nor do they agree in why women came or what they saw or were told when they arrived. That, of course, is because the biblical accounts are hagiography, not accurate history. Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, combines biblical accounts with tradition to come up with no less than eight myrrh-bearing women, though all are not always depicted in icons.
The gospel called “Matthew” tells us that the women came only “to see” the tomb. Nothing about bringing any “myrrh,” no spices to anoint the body at all. And in the gospel called “John,” only one woman, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, again bringing no spices, and it is revealed that there would have been no point in her doing so, because the body had already been anointed before entombment with “100 pounds” of spices. The Gospel called “Luke” tells us that in spite of having witnessed the entombment, women prepared spices and brought them to the tomb on “Easter” morning. “Mark,” like “Luke,” tells us that women came to the tomb with spices (the general view is that “Luke” adapted, with variations, his account from that of “Mark”; for an interesting different view, see http://markusvinzent.blogspot.com/search/label/Luke).
Taken together, in fact, the resurrection narratives of the New Testament are so incompatible in details that “fundamentalist” attempts to harmonize them only lead to such bizarre scenarios and so many comings and goings of people to the tomb on Easter morning that I used to joke that they should have installed a traffic light. But my point here is not to go into all of that, interesting as it is, but rather just to point out that the image of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” takes the “spice bringing” motif only from Mark and Luke, leaving aside the quite incompatible accounts of Matthew and John, in which no women who come to the tomb bring spices.
Let’s take a look at the title inscription at the top of the icon:
It is written in the vyaz (“joined”) calligraphic manner, which in English we may call a “condensed” inscription. It reads ЖЕНЫ МИРОНОСИЦЫ, ZHENI MIRONOSITSY, literally “WOMEN MYRRH-BEARING.”
As we have seen, in the gospel called “of John,” only one woman comes to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection — Mary Magdalene. We are not told why she comes — after all, we are told in chapter 19 that the body of Jesus had already been anointed with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes when it was laid in the tomb — only that she came early, while it was still dark. She finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, and she runs to tell Peter “and the other disciple.” They see the empty tomb, then go away again, but Mary remains, and has an encounter with a man she thinks is the gardener, but who turns out to be the risen Jesus. So in John, Mary Magdalene is the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.
Here is an icon of her:
We can tell from the corner pieces, the foliage pattern in the outer border, and the ornate gilt background that this is an icon in the style of the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century. Mary holds a vessel of “myrrh” in her right hand, in keeping with one of her traditional titles — мироносица —mironositsa — “Myrrh-bearer.”
The title inscription reads:
“Image of Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene.”
In Eastern Orthodoxy, Mary Magdalene is the foremost among women given the “Equal-to-the-Apostles” title, which is given those who are believed to have equaled the Apostles in their spreading of the Christian message. The other biblical woman given this title is (oddly enough) the so-called “Woman at the Well” of the Gospel of John, chapter 4, whom tradition gives the name Фотина — Photina in Russia (Svetlana in Russian translation) and Φωτεινή —Photeini/Photini in Greek. She was provided with an elaborate, fictionalized biography that has her later dying as a martyr under Nero in Rome.
Anyone beginning to read inscriptions on Russian icons will soon realize that there are two languages one is likely to encounter — first, Church Slavic for main inscriptions, titles, scroll inscriptions (such as that pictured above) and “liturgical” texts; second, Russian, which is occasionally used for added details about when and by whom an icon was painted, and for what purpose it was painted (such as a commemoration of an event, a donation to a church, etc.). The primary and most prevalent language on icons is Church Slavic, which is closely related to Russian, but is different enough that modern Russians have some difficulty in understanding it.
The traditional Russian Orthodox Bible was printed in Church Slavic (Bible reading did not become popular in Russia until quite late, through the efforts of a Protestant Bible society, and even then it was only the New Testament that was generally read by Russian laypersons somehow lucky enough to be literate).
There are generally two kinds of inscriptions on Russian icons. The first is written in ordinary, quite legible Church Slavic Cyrillic letters (which in some cases vary from those used in modern Russian). The second, however, is quite different. It is a stylized calligraphic decorative form of Church Slavic writing using abbreviations, elongated and stylized letter forms, inserted smaller letters, and even tiny letters written as superscriptions (written above the larger letters, in which they are mentally to be inserted). This form of decorative writing is extremely common on Russian icons, particularly in the titles of icons. In English we call it a “condensed” inscription for convenience, because it does look like it has all been squeezed and condensed into an abbreviated form, but in Russian it is called Vyaz (Вязь).
Vyaz incriptions were used on icons because they have a decorative, formal appearance. They were also used on other objects, such as in book headings, or engraved on copper, brass or silver utensils. Such ornate inscriptions are often a complete mystery to the beginning student of icons, but the key to understanding them is this: First, one must have a basic and simple vocabulary of common Church Slavic terms, words that are very repetitive in icons, such as “Holy” “God” “Apostle” “Martyr” etc. etc. That is not at all difficult to achieve. Second, one must have a great deal of patience, because in Vyaz there are three obstacles:
The first, already mentioned, is learning a basic, elementary icon vocabulary;
The second is distinguishing and recognizing the ornate forms of the letters used in the inscription;
The third is learning where the words separate.
As for the second of these obstacles, it exists because Vyaz letters vary widely in their ornateness and appearance, so one must learn to recognize the basic form of the letter from its ornate form, and these ornate forms vary widely in their complexity. The third obstacle — learning to separate each individual word — is necessary because Vyaz letters are not only often joined to one another but also are run together from one word to another without intervening space or punctuation. This is similar to the problem those reading an ancient uncial manuscript of the Greek New Testament face — one has to determine where a word or a sentence ends and another begins in order to determine what it means. You can easily see why these can be obstacles from this old book example of Vyaz: It is fairly typical of the kind of thing one faces in reading Vyaz inscriptions on icons. We can “expand” the condensed inscription by reading it letter by letter from left to right, very carefully and patiently. The first word in the inscription consists of two letters — a Church Slavic “O” (which looks like an odd “W”), and in the middle space of the “O” is a “T” that looks much the same as our “T” in English. Together these from the word “OT,” meaning “From” or “OF.” The second word is a proper name, “MARK,” which appears here in the form “MARKA.” The first “A” is above and connected to the right upright bar of the “M.” Then comes a full-length “R” (which looks like “P” to an English speaker), followed by a “K” and then an upright “A,” which in ornate form looks like a long “I” with a little diamond attached to its left side. So that is MARKA –“MARK.” Next comes the abbreviated word “SVYATOE” — A form of “SVYATUIY,” meaning “HOLY”: We see the “S” that looks like a Roman “C” on the left, the “T” in the upper middle, the “O” in reduced size at the middle bottom, and the “E” on the right side. The other letters are omitted, as shown by the curved line above the “T,” and must be supplied by the reader. The next and final word is longer, but it is useful to know: That is the word “BLAGOVYESTVOVANIE,” which means literally “Good News” in Slavic, and it is a word used to mean “GOSPEL.” The curved line above the second and third letters indicates abbreviation by omission of a letter, in this case the absence of the letter “A,” which the reader must supply. That is why one must know the basic vocabulary in order to recognize and distinguish individual words. All together, this Vyaz inscription reads: “OT MARKA SVYATOE BLAGOVYESTVOVANIE” That means simply “[THE] From/Of Mark Holy Gospel,” which we would translate into English as “THE HOLY GOSPEL OF MARK.” The same principles used in this little example apply to the countless Vyaz titles one finds written on icons, so it is very important to take the amount of time necessary to form a basic vocabulary of Church Slavic (don’t think you have to learn the entire Church Slavic language — you do not!) and to learn to recognize the ornate calligraphic forms of letters used in writing Vyaz. These are the keys that unlock those attractive but often mysterious (though generally rather simple) titles that identify an icon type.
This must all seem very complex and exotic to the beginning student of Russian icons, but I assure you that it is much simpler than it looks on first examination. The reason, again, is that Russian icon inscriptions in Church Slavic are extremely repetitive, so one encounters the same common words and phrases over and over again. That is why a little study gives great rewards in the ability to read and translate icon inscriptions.
You may wish to know what the scroll at the top of this posting says. It is taken from Ezekiel 33:11:
Не хощу смерти грешникомъ но во еже обрати[тися нечестивому от пути своего и живу быти ему]
“I do not desire the death of the sinner , but that he should turn from his path and live.”