Explanations of Greek initials on icons

I was wondering if someone could explain some of the more common initials I see on Eastern iconography. I know that IC XC means ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (“Jesus Christ”), and I think ΜP θC means Μητηρ θεος (“Mother of God”), or maybe it’s Mary (in Greek) followed by Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, “God-bearer”). The “NIKA” that’s sometimes appended to IC XC means “conquers”.

But there are some other icons I see that have letters that I can’t account for. For example, in many icons that show Jesus with a halo, there are three Greek letters in the halo (I think omicron, omega, and nu) as seen here. What do those stand for?

Perhaps people could share some pictures of icons here and explain not only the Greek letters/abbreviations/words, but also the significance of the other features (such as the positioning of fingers, etc.). I know, for example, the hand posture that indicates ICXC, found in the Pantokrator. But I’m sure there are other features and symbols I’m missing, since I’m not an Eastern Catholic and haven’t really been taught about icons.

The Greek letters O WN stand for “He Who is”, the closest in Greek y ou can get to YHVH.

Hi Japhy,

On your reference, I cannot very well distinguish the top symbol. The bottom symbol is XC (the tilde on top indicates an abbreviation) which is CHI and SIGMA (this is the usual way of writing sigma on icons and ancient manuscripts). It means XPICTOC (Christ).

If the top symbol is IH, then it would mean IHCOYC (Jesus)


Good article here:


This site also has links that explain in good detail a couple of Icons. Still under construction for more Icon details. There’s a great explination of the Icon of the Nativity.


A couple things to remember:

  1. There are several languages commonly used in iconography:
    Old Church Slavonic
    Russian Church Slavonic*

  2. Many Russian Tradition Icons mix 2 or more. (usually, in the US, RCS and English, in Russia, Greek and RCS or Greek and OCS, sometimes Russian and Greek)

  3. Modern Slavic languages often have reduced out several symbols from Old Church Slavonic. Local Iconographers sometimes use the modern versions for readability.

  4. Many times words are broken in odd places and use rare ligatures, masking modern intelligibility.

more commentary:

I’ve seen IC XC in Slavonic, and ИС ХС, and even Ις Χς. All are variations on Greek & Slavonic Shorthand: 1st and last letters, with a bar over, typically.

Α Ω is “Alpha and Omega”, the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet. I’ve seen one Russian Icon with А Я, Az and Ya, the first and last of Russian, but this is an abberation.

Μητερα Θεού is (modern) greek for Mother of God. ΜΡ ΘΥ is the usual abbreviation. (Note that most such abbreviations are in all capital letters, and further, lower case letters are a more recent innovation than Iconography.

shows a mixed Slavonic ІС ХС and english I AM in the halo.

Shows Ις Χς ΠΑΗΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ (Jesus Christ, Pantocrator), but breaks pantocratnor ΠΑΗ ΤΟ ΚΡΑΤωΡ, but uses a ligature for ΑΝ and a stack for ωΡ.

shows Ο ωΝ in the Halo, ΙC ΧC for the abbreviation, and Ο ΠΑΝτωΚΡΑΤΟΡ (I, pantocrator). Again, the ligature form ΑΝ, and the τω stacked, and broken into ΟΠΑΝτωΚΡΑΤΟΡ.

  • Mildly different from Old Church Slavonic; more a dialect than a truely separate language
    ** Used on very old Slavic Icons. Rare these days.

Hello Japhy,

I have always understood the letters IC XC and NIKA being divided into NI KA - placed in the four quadrants of the the cross as being Jesusu Christ conquers death. Has anyone heard this?

Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum.

You mean this? http://www.pagesorthodoxes.net/images2/cx-xcnika1.gif

Yes! Iecuc Xrictoc Ni ka.


I have added a new page on my Info pages, with Greek initials. It maps to the sites that appear in my web site.
Please check it out:
Greek Initials and Monograms

God Bless

omicron omega nu

How does that mean He who is?

I’m assuming the omicron means “The One”

The omega is puzzling, as this couldn’t be an article, which would again me nominative (omicron) and not dative (omega).:confused:

The Nu is very perplexing. Is it perhaps Eta in the “lower” case…The omega is clearly in the lowercase, so it would make sense the the “N” looking figure is actually an Eta. However, eta would connote past tense (e.g. John 1…In the beginning was (en - eta + nu) the Word)!?!:eek:

I’m confused! Is there any “official” source for this? A parishioner “borrowed” my liturgical symbols resourcebook:(

Thanks for any help!:thumbsup:

Oops! I went back to the LXX, and I saw that the “to be” verb is participial…Thus the omega.

OK, so I have “The One” and “Is”…Any clues for the Nu/Eta?

It’s two words: “Ο” meaning “the”, and “ωΝ” meaning “[who] is”, which can be found in Rev. 1:8.

Yeah, I just figured it out…

Usually, Greek iconography uses abreviations. I kept trying to use each letter as an abbreviation, which made it impossible to figure out.

After I posted, I just started reading and rereading the LXX Ex. 3:14 passage. It suddenly dawned on me after the 10th time. It’s NOT an abbreviation. It’s the actual words!

Don’t I feel sheepish:o That was way easier than I was making it:blush:

Thanks again:thumbsup:

It actually took me reading the sentence backwards in Greek (this helps me focus on grammar) to see the combination.:shrug:

More of the same: platytera.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-forerunner.html

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