Turning to the name-labels on portraits [in a Kiev church], we find that the significance of the pictorial, of the visual, is if anything even more pronounced. The first impression is of a kind of linguistic anarchy. The names themselves were written in Greek, or in Slavonic, or in their Greek forms using Cyrillic letters, or in any number of hybrid combinations. The reasons vary from object to object, and may include ignorance, miscopying, hypercorrection, perhaps mere aesthetic preference, but the variability of forms is not necessarily a barrier to the verbal reading of the labels. The more revealing elements, paradoxically, are those which are relatively stable: the standard abbreviations labelling Christ and the Mother of God, the epithet for ‘saint’ or ‘holy’, the legend ‘Jesus Christ is victorious’ which accompanies the image of the Cross. Even where the standard language of the graphic environment is Slavonic, these standard forms remain consistently Greek: (ΙϹ ΧϹ; ΜΡ ΘΥ; Ο ΑΓΙΟϹ or the monogram of an alpha within an omicron; ΝΙ ΚΑ). Thus the most common of all image-labels retain their nonnative forms. By verbal logic the words signified by these abbreviations ought to have been appropriated into native usage, along with large numbers of other words and terms specific to the imported faith. Instead, these graphic formulae in effect cease to function as alphabetic script and turn into ideograms. A wholly unscientific survey in a modern church shows that a large proportion of viewers have no difficulty affirming that the graphic sign ΜΡ ΘΥ ‘means’ Mother of God, but that very few could decode it as an abbreviation of the Greek Meter Theou. Familiarity cancels out difficulty. Images of Christ and the Mother of God were familiar enough to be recognised along with their appropriate graphic emblems of identity, and the gap in perception between our notional ‘lettered’ and ‘unlettered’ viewers is diminished almost to nothing, since both might ‘read’ these inscriptions in the same way. The correct writing is that which is correct as part of the picture, not necessarily that which gives the ‘correct’ letters for the words as articulated in the native language.
I’m fascinated by these situations on the margins of literacy, and how people interpret signs in different ways.