St. Nicholas Eve and Day, December 5th and 6th, are very popular in the Netherlands; but they are generally ignored in the United States, where St. Nicholas long ago evolved into the secular, jolly Christmas giver of gifts and resident of the North Pole, Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas is still one of the most commonly found Russian (and Greek) icon types. Here is a full-length Nicholas painted in 1897, robed as a bishop, blessing with one hand and with the Gospels in the other:

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Scholars tell us that while it is likely that a real Nicholas once existed as Bishop of the town of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey) around the beginning of the 4th century, the rest of his story is largely an accretion of legends — in short, most of what we know about Nicholas is simply untrue — fictionalized elaboration. His relics (bones) are said to be kept at Bari in Italy. In 2009 a Turkish archeologist ask that his government request the return the bones (taken or stolen by Italian sailors in the Middle Ages) to Turkey.

There are so many icons of Nicholas that one tires of seeing them. Nonetheless, a student of icons must know about them.

As I mentioned in a previous posting, there are three main types: Nicholas of Velikoretsk, Nicholas of Mozhaisk, and Nicholas of Zaraisk.

The “Velikoretsk” type is the one we usually see, Nicholas shown head to shoulders, or half-length, or more rarely (as above) full length. Jesus is often depicted in a circle on one side, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary on the other, presenting him the bishop’s stole (omophorion in Greek):

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Less common than the basic “Velikoretsk” type are icons of that type surrounded by standard scenes from the life and legend of Nicholas, as in this example:

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The other two types of Nicholas that one is likely to encounter are first, “Nicholas of Mozhaisk,” as in this interesting example that, atypically, also includes four scenes from the “life.”

And second, there is the “Nicholas of Zaraisk” type, in which Nicholas is shown standing with arms raised out to the sides, with the Gospel book in one hand and the other in a sign of blessing, as in this icon pattern (reversed):


As already mentioned, some icons show Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with standard scenes from his tale. Let’s take a look at seven separate panel icons showing some of them:

1. The birth of Nicholas:

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2. The baptism of Nicholas:

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3. Nicholas brought for education:

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4. The consecration of Nicholas as bishop:

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5. Nicholas throws a bag of money through a window at night as dowry for three poor young women, so they might marry:

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6. Nicholas rescues three men condemned to execution:

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7. Nicholas restores life to a child drowned in the Dniepr River:

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There are quite a number of possible additional “life” scenes found in this or that icon of Nicholas, so here is a general listing of a few of the most prominent, including some already mentioned:

The birth of Nicholas, the baptism of Nicholas, the healing of a crippled woman, Nicholas brought for education, consecration as deacon and as bishop, driving a demon out of a well, appearing to the sleeping Emperor Constantine, rescuing three men from imprisonment, rescuing the drowning Demetrios, giving gold for the dowry of three young women to save them from prostitution, the three men and the whale, saving a boy abducted by Saracens, the death of Nicholas, the tomb of Nicholas and translation (moving) of his relics.

One could write a thick book about the legendary history of Nicholas, but this should be enough for a quick introduction to his icons.


When one first begins to learn about icons, every icon is interesting, and each new icon is a new experience. After one has seen many, many icons, however, one becomes more discriminating. One begins to look for intriguing variations, for quality of painting, and, of course, for unusual types.

Today’s icon is one of those unusual types. Examples of it are seldom seen. It is called the Nedremannoe Oko (Недреманное Око), “The Unsleeping Eye.”

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It depicts Christ Immanuel, that is the youthful or child Christ reclining on a bed. At left is Mary, and at right an angel, his hands covered with a cloth to show reverence. If we look at a pattern of the type (reversed, as patterns taken from old icons generally are), we can see further details:

Above the child is a flying angel of the Seraphim rank holding the spear and sponge of the crucifixion; beside him is another angel holding the cross (eight-pointed, as the traditional Russian cross was). Examples of the type often place the scene in a paradise-like garden. As in the first example, God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) may be shown at the top of the icon.

The text associated with this type in Russian iconography is generally that of Psalm 121:4:

Behold, he that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”

The version of this type found in Greek iconography differs somewhat in that it is less elaborate and the eyes of Christ Immanuel, though he is reclining, are generally open. That brings us to the second text associated with the type — Genesis 49:9:

…he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?”

This text, in regard to the icon, is rather obscure unless we recall that Simeon Metaphrastes, in the tenth century, expressed the odd belief that a lion sleeps without closing his eyes; further, that the young of the lion are born dead, but are brought to life by the parent on the third day. This, of course, begins to “open our eyes” as to the significance of this icon, because this being “born dead” and being “brought to life” on the third day is an allegory for Jesus, who is said to have been in the tomb until the third day, when he rose to life.

Further, if we turn to the E. Orthodox liturgy, a hymn for Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) reads:

Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that lie dead in their tombs. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as he sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to him: You have lain down; you have slept as a lion; who shall awaken you, O King?

From all of this we see that the “Unsleeping Eye” icon represents the “sleep” of Jesus, after the crucifixion, in the tomb on Holy Saturday; and that while sleeping he is also, as God, eternally awake, according to Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

The Greeks call the type of Christ Immanuel reclining Ho Anapeson (Ο ΑΝΑΠΕΣΟΗ) — “The Resting One.” The Greek version, as already mentioned, is generally simpler than the Russian, and may consist only of the reclining Christ Immanuel, sometimes with an accompanying angel (who may hold the spear, sponge and cross), and sometimes with the angel and with Mary. Russian examples generally depict Mary standing, while Greek versions tend to depict her as seated in a chair to the right of the sleeping Immanuel, with right arm outstretched and holding a cloth at the side of the child’s head.

In old Greek churches it was sometimes painted over the western door; because of that, it is at times associated also with Psalm 121:8:

The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

However it is sometimes found at the diakonikon (a chamber on the south side of the central church apse).


This attractive icon represents Simeon Bogopriimets (Симеон Богоприимец), “Simeon the God-Receiver.” Like a number of icon saints, he is both a biblical and an apocryphal figure.

His origin is in the account of the child Jesus brought to the Temple by his parents in Luke 2:25-32:

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,

28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

I have left this excerpt in its King James English, because lines 29-32 have become very well known in that form. They are still used, for example, in the Lutheran liturgy.

So we know Simeon is seen as a righteous man miraculously kept alive until the time when he would meet Jesus. First we should note that this gives us part of Simeon’s usual title in icons, Pravednuiy, meaning “Righteous.” Second, we should keep in mind that when information was lacking, Christian tradition would just make up events and details to add interest and importance to a story.

In the case of Simeon, he was given the “backstory” that he was one of the 72 scholars given the task of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek by authority of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphos, according to the Letter of Aristeas (generally considered a fictional work). The story relates that the librarian of the great Library at Alexandria asked Ptolemy to have the Old Testament translated. Ptolemy sent envoys to Jerusalem, and 72 scholars were chosen and brought back to Egypt to do the work, six from each of the Twelve Tribes. Supposedly they finished their translation in 72 days.

According to tradition, during the translation Simeon was working on the Book of Isaiah. When he came to Isaiah 7:14, he read this:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Simeon was puzzled, and decided that “virgin” must be a scribal error. He was just about to correct the word to “woman” when an angel suddenly appeared and held back Simeon’s writing hand, telling him “You shall see these words fulfilled; you shall not die until you see Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.” This was long before the birth of Jesus, but miraculously Simeon was said to have remained alive until finally he saw the child Jesus when his parents Joseph and Mary brought him to the Jerusalem temple. Having finally seen Jesus, Simeon died. Dmitriy Rostovskiy, the Russian Orthodox saint and hagiographer, wrote that at death Simeon was a remarkable 360 years old.

Paradoxically, the old Hebrew texts (as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls) DID say “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14, not “virgin” as the Greek Septuagint translation, which became the authoritative text for Greek Orthodoxy, would have it. But of course the notion of Mary’s virginity became a very important doctrinal matter in Eastern Orthodoxy, and stories like this were created to support the dogma.

Because Simeon “received” the child Jesus in the Temple, he is called “Simeon the God-Receiver,” Jesus being considered God in Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

According to the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Herod sent assassins to look for the child John the Forerunner (the Baptist). When they approached John’s father Zacharias in the Temple, they asked where his son was, but Zacharias said he did not know. So they killed him. When his death was discovered, Simeon was chosen to replace Zacharias as priest.

There is another tradition relating that when Simeon was traveling back from Egypt to Jerusalem, he threw his ring into a river, saying that if he could not find it, then the prophecy of Isaiah was not valid. But the next day he bought a fish, and found his ring inside it. This, of course, is very much like the story found in the History of Herodotus, written c. 445 B.C.E:

When Polycrates read this letter, and perceived that the advice of Amasis was good, he considered carefully with himself which of the treasures that he had in store it would grieve him most to lose. After much thought he made up his mind that it was a signet-ring which he was wont to wear, an emerald set in gold, the workmanship of Theodore, son of Telecles, a Samian. So he determined to throw this away; and, manning a penteconter, he went on board, and bade the sailors put out into the open sea. When he was now a long way from the island, he took the ring from his finger, and, in the sight of all those who were on board, flung it into the deep. This done, he returned home, and gave vent to his sorrow.

Now it happened five or six days afterwards that a fisherman caught a fish so large and beautiful that he thought it well deserved to be made a present of to the king. So he took it with him to the gate of the palace, and said that he wanted to see Polycrates. Then Polycrates allowed him to come in, and the fisherman gave him the fish with these words following- “Sir king, when I took this prize, I thought I would not carry it to market, though I am a poor man who live by my trade. I said to myself, it is worthy of Polycrates and his greatness; and so I brought it here to give it to you.” The speech pleased the king, who thus spoke in reply:- “Thou didst right well, friend, and I am doubly indebted, both for the gift, and for the speech. Come now, and sup with me.” So the fisherman went home, esteeming it a high honour that he had been asked to sup with the king. Meanwhile the servants, on cutting open the fish, found the signet of their master in its belly. No sooner did they see it than they seized upon it, and hastening to Polycrates with great joy, restored it to him, and told him in what way it had been found.

As you can see, the study of icons can lead one far afield. As I often say, one can tug on any one thread in the study of icons, and it connects to countless other nearly and distantly related topics.

It is worth noting that the abstraction of the human form found in this icon has become what one generally thinks of as the typical appearance of a Russian icon. But many people do not realize that this “typically Russian” manner of abstraction was actually kept alive, from the middle of the 17th century onward, by the Old Believers who separated from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church, and who were often severely persecuted for it. Countless icons that today are considered products of the Russian Orthodox State Church over the period of some three centuries were really created in the icon workshops of the Old Believers.


Icons of the Twelve Major Church Festivals — showing the chief festivals of the Russian Orthodox church year — are rather common. Less common are “Week” icons. These are often called by the Church Slavic word for “week,” Sedmitsa (Седмица), derived from sedm (седмь), meaning “seven,” referring to the seven days of the week.

In the “Week” icon, each day is represented by a different icon type. This is an example of such an icon:

Here are the types with the days they represent. Let’s begin at upper left:

1. SUNDAY: First comes the Sozhestvie vo Ad, the Descent into Hades/Hell, which is the old manner of depicting the Resurrection of Jesus in Russian Orthodoxy.
2. MONDAY: This day is represented by the Sobor or Assembly of the Archangels, with Christ Immanuel (the youthful Jesus) shown in a disk in the midst of them.
3. TUESDAY: The rather grim Beheading of John the Forerunner, the execution of John the Baptist, represents this day.
4. WEDNESDAY: The type for this day is the Blagovyeschenie, the Annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel of the coming birth of Jesus.
5. THURSDAY: The Footwashing, the type for this day, is taken from the account in John 13:1-12 of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
6. FRIDAY: This day is represented by the Raspyatie, the Crucifixion of Jesus.
7. SATURDAY: The type for this day is All Saints, represented by a gathering of saints of various categories.

At the center of “Week” icons we generally find another image, that of the New Testament Trinity, representing the three persons of the Trinity as the enthroned God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) depicted as an old, bearded man; the enthroned Jesus; and the Holy Spirit shown in the form of a dove, as he appeared at the Baptism of Jesus. When the altar table is also seen, it is an indication of the Hetimasia, the preparation of the throne (symbolized by the altar) as a sign of the coming Last Judgment.

As mentioned in the previous posting, types have their little variations from example to example. Here is a somewhat more elaborate old pattern for a “Week” icon:


This pattern has the usual types representing days, as in the first example, but it adds to them, at top center, six images featuring God the Father shown in a circle with various scenes about him. These six images represent the Six Days of Creation, from the Genesis account in the Bible.

In the center of this pattern is a more elaborate example of the Trinity in Heaven “among the Powers,” that is, among the angels.

The large scene at the base of the icon is a great gathering of saints representing “All Saints,” the type for Saturday, but added to this is a scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the tempting serpent wrapped around the tree.


One often encounters Russian icons from the 18th and 19th centuries that are “multiple” icons, meaning they include more than one icon type as main images on the same panel. The number of types varies, but four were often used, no doubt for pleasant symmetry.

Today I would like to discuss such an icon, first generally, and then focusing on one particular type on the panel. Here is the icon:

It was painted, as the inscription at the base says, in 1833. We can see a lingering baroque influence in the ornate gold framing of the four main images.

Let’s “read” the icon, by which I mean identify all its images.

At the top we see the three seated angels that comprise the “Old Testament Trinity” type, representing the Trinity as the three angels that appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the Plains of Mamre.

Just below and to the right is the Voskresenie Khristovo, the “Resurrection of Christ.” Here it is depicted in the Western manner, showing Christ rising above his empty tomb, rather than as the “Descent into Hades” that was the older Russian Orthodox form.

To the right is the Mother of God type often identified simply by its general Greek title, Hodigitria, meaning “Way-Shower.” But in Russia the type in the form shown here is the “Smolensk” Mother of God. It differs from the very similar Iverskaya/Iveron type in that the head of the mother is erect (or nearly so), whereas in the Iverskaya type the head of the mother inclines more toward the Christ Child.

At lower left is the “Joy of All Who Suffer” type, showing Mary aiding those suffering and in need of help, such as the blind, the lame, etc. This was a very popular type in the 18th and 19th centuries.

At lower right is the “Lamb of God” (Agnets Bozhiy) type. I will discuss this further below.

In the very center of the icon is the “Image Not Made by Hands,” the image of Christ on a cloth in the apocryphal tale of King Abgar of Edessa.

In the four corners of the icon we see images representing the Four Evangelists. St. John and his disciple Prokhor are at upper left, St. Matthew at upper right, St. Mark at lower left and St. Luke at lower right.

To finish general mention of the images, we find as border saints Prepodobnaya Maria (Venerable Maria) at left. Remember that Prepodobnaya, though meaning literally “most like,” is the Slavic term signifying a nun in Russia. At right is the Svyataya Muchenitsa Varvara, “The Holy Martyr Barbara.”

Now let’s go again to the fourth main image, that a lower right, the “Lamb of God.”

Those new to icons are often mystified by the “Lamb of God” type, because they are unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodox liturgical practices. To understand this type it is essential to know that unlike the flat, round wafer used in the Roman Catholic Eucharist, Russian Orthodoxy uses a “raised” loaf of bread, in fact five in total are used. Out of the first loaf, the priest cuts a cube of bread that is called “The Lamb,” because it signifies Jesus, the “lamb of God” as he is called by John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) in John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The priest places the “Lamb” portion of the loaf on a footed, round metal dish called a diskos (Дискос), corresponding to the paten in a Catholic mass. Over that is placed the zvezditsa (Звездица), meaning “star.” It looks like a thin metal cross with the arms bending downward. This makes an arch framework above the “Lamb” piece of bread. Usually there is a round boss in the center of the zvezditsa that is ornamented with a star. This symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem from the nativity story. The zvezditsa provides an open framework so that a cloth may be placed over it without touching the “Lamb.” Additional pieces of bread are also placed on the diskos representing Mary, the nine ranks of angels, and saints, but as they do not figure in the imagery here they need not be discussed further.

You may wish to know that at one point a large cloth called the vozdukh (Воздýхъ) is placed over both diskos and chalice. The “Lamb” on the diskos is considered to be the body of Jesus, and the wine in the chalice (mixed with a little water) the blood. The cloth that covers both represents the graveclothes in which the body of Jesus was wrapped at death, as well as the swaddling clothes in which he was wrapped at birth. In Greek Orthodoxy, the zvezditsa is called the asteriskos, and the vozdukh is called the aër, meaning “air.” The vozdukh is not shown in the “Lamb of God” icon type, but I mention it here because it extends the symbology.

You will notice that in the type, Jesus is depicted, though without clothing, as Christ Immanuel, the child Christ. It is worth mentioning that this “Lamb of God” symbology is often found in icons of John the Forerunner as well.

Beyond that, we need only mention the two angels, one at each side of the “Lamb,” and the red rank of winged angel known as Seraphim, shown above and at both sides.

There are, as with most icon types, little variations that appear from example to example. Here is an icon pattern for a “Lamb of God” type showing some such variations:


This version is presented as a “Deisis” variant, with the “Lamb” in the center instead of the enthroned Jesus. At the top is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) shown as an old man supported on Seraphim, and holding a cross-surmounted orb. Below that are angels holding the cross and the spear and sponge of the Passion of Jesus. Below them are two angels holding ripida (рипида), the ceremonial fans representing Cherubim and Seraphim (two ranks of angel).

Two angels immediately above the “Lamb” hold the prosfor (the liturgical loaf) and a knife called the “spear” (kopie/копие). The spear is used by the priest, in the liturgy, to cut out the piece of bread called the “Lamb.”

At the left of this icon pattern is Mary, and at the right is John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). The strange, winged rings below the diskos holding the “Lamb” are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

Now you understand why knowing the basics of the Russian Orthodox Eucharist ceremony is essential to understanding the “Lamb of God” icon type.



In a previous posting, I touched briefly on the interesting icon type known as Sophia, Wisdom of God. Here is one rendering:

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It depicts a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.  That angel is Sophia, Wisdom of God.  It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom.  If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus.  But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom.  You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) on the other, is a variant of the “Deisis” type (the other two approaching figures are “Holy Apostle John the Theologian” at left and John Chrysostom at right). The starry bands at top represent heaven, in which sits “Lord Savaof” (Sabaoth), God the Father depicted as an old man. This rendering varies from the norm in that the painter has placed the seven pillars in the background, instead of depicting them as five small uprights supporting the throne. This “enthroned angel” image of Sophia, Wisdom of God is known as the “Novgorod” type, because it first appeared in the northern trading city of Novgorod in the 15th century. It is also the most commonly-seen image of Sophia.

There is, however, another and rather more complex “Sophia, Wisdom of God” type, the so-called “Kiev” Sophia. It is a slightly variable type, but the description given here should take you far in understanding and recognizing it. It is noteworthy that the “Kiev” type is customarily painted in the Westerized manner that began to be adopted in Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century.

Here is the Sophia, Wisdom of God “Kievskaya”:

The “Kiev” type is noted for its groups of sevens, though some versions of the image skimp on these, using fewer elements. But here is what the full type generally comprises:

Like the “Novgorod” image, it has its basis in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs in the Septuagint version, which gives us the first “seven.”


The image depicts a circular temple, and around the base of its dome is written Proverbs 9:1 in Greek:


Here it is in mixed case:

Η σοφια ωκοδομησεν εαυτη οικον και υπηρεισεν στυλους επτα (unaccented)
Η σοφία ᾠκοδόμησεν ἑαυτῇ οἶκον καὶ ὑπήρεισε στύλους ἑπτά (accented)
He Sophia okodomesen heaute oikon kai hypereise stylous hepta (transliteration, old style)

It is also generally written around the dome base in its Church Slavic version:

Premudrost sozda sebe dom/ i utverdi stolpov sedm

Both mean: Wisdom (Premudrost) has built (sozda) herself (sebe) a house (dom)/temple (khram) and (i) set up (utverdi) pillars (stolpov ) seven (sedm). Some texts use dom’ (ДОМЪ; house) while others use Khram’ (ХРАМЪ; temple).

At the top is Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) represented as a bearded old man, often with a triangular halo (a late adoption into Orthodox iconography) signifying the Trinity; He is breathing forth the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and his breath extends to the central image of Mary. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit is believed to proceed from the Father, but in Roman Catholicism from the Father and the Son. This (the so-called Filioque (“…and from the Son”) was an issue of contention in the schism that finally separated the two segments of Christianity in the mutual cursings (anathemas) and excommunications the two divisions laid on one another in 1054.


They are shown with their symbols, which may vary from icon to icon:
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a vessel of medicaments, Gabriel with a blossoming lily, Selaphiel with hands crossed in prayer, Yegudiel with a crown (in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers (roses) on a white cloth.


Depicted on the seven pillars are noted items mentioned in sevens from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation); and depicted with accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit, the latter coming from Isaiah 11:2-3:

“And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God.”

In Church Slavic it reads (Russian font):

И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…

They usually are, from left to right:

1. A book with seven seals; (“The Gift of Wisdom”);
Revelation 5:5: “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

2. A seven-branched candlestick; (“The Gift of Understanding”);
Revelation 1:12: “And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks…

3. Seven eyes; (“The Gift of Counsel”);
Revelation 5:6: “...and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

4. Seven trumpets; (“The Gift of Strength”);
Revelation 8:2: “And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

5. A hand with seven stars (“The Gift of Knowledge”);
Revelation 1:16: “And he had in his right hand seven stars…

6. Seven golden vials; (“The Gift of Piety/Godliness”)
Revelation 15:7: “And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever.”

7. Seven thunders; (The Gift of the Fear of God”).
Revelation 10:3; “…and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

In the center of the temple Mary stands on a crescent moon; twelve stars are in her halo, representing both the twelve apostles (New Testament) and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Old Testament); the image is taken from Revelation 12:1:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars…

Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and her arms are outstretched in the ancient posture of prayer. It is the importance given to Mary in this image, as well as its usual classification among Marian icons, that has led to some confusion. Some mistake Mary for Wisdom, when traditionally Jesus, who is visually only a small part of this image, is Wisdom. In Roman Catholicism, Mary was looked on as being Wisdom, but this view was not the traditional view of Eastern Orthodoxy; however Catholicism — particularly from the latter part of the 17th century and in some respects even earlier — had an influence on Orthodox iconography, and Kiev was subject to that influence.

At Mary’s sides are seven Old Testament figures: Moses with the tablets of the Law, Aaron the first priest with a blossoming rod, King David with the Ark of the Covenant, the Prophet Isaiah with a scroll showing the text of Isaiah 7:14, beginning “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son…” (Се Дева во чреве приимет и родит СынаSe Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit Suina), the Prophet Jeremiah with a rod, the Prophet Ezekiel with closed doors, and the Prophet Daniel with the stone not cut by hands.

It is noteworthy that these figures are connected with what are considered in Eastern Orthodoxy prefigurations of Mary:

Moses, who saw the bush that burned but was not consumed, used as a prefiguration of Mary holding Jesus within her womb. But here he holds the tablets of the Law, and a scroll that says of Mary, Радуйся, скрижале Божия, на ней же перстом Отчим написася слово Божие — Raduisya, skrizhale Bozhiya, na nei zhe perstom Otchim napisasya slovo Bozhie — “Rejoice, Tablets of God, on which the finger of the father has written the Word of God.” Thus the Law tablets become the prefiguration of Mary as the “tablets” on which Jesus was written, i.e. was incarnated in Christian belief.

Aaron with his blossoming rod: Numbers 17:8: “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” This prefigures Mary giving birth to Jesus.

King David with the Ark of the Covenant: Mary is considered the Ark of the New Testament Covenant, containing Jesus as the Ark of the Old Testament contained the Law — the Old Covenant.

Isaiah 7:14 in Christian tradition is applied to the birth of Jesus from a virgin (though the Hebrew text of Isaiah merely says “young woman” and has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus).

Jeremiah with his rod of almond tree: Jeremiah 1:11: “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree.” This relates to the rod of Aaron.

Ezekiel with closed doors: Ezekiel 44:2: “Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” That is a symbol of the virgin birth and of Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine held by both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics).

Daniel with the uncut stone: Daniel 2:34 “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.” (Again, a symbol of virginity).


There are seven steps leading to the temple (which represents the Church, as well as Mary as the “house” of Jesus). From bottom to top they are:

1. Vera: Faith
2. Nadezhda; Hope
3. Liubov; Love
4. Chistota; Purity
5. Smirenie; Humility
6. Blagodat‘ Blessing/Grace
7. Slava; Glory


Look at this Russian icon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Even without the inscription, it is immediately identifiable to an informed student of icons, because the scene is so distinctive. Nonetheless, let’s look at the title inscription. Here it is in a modern Russian font:




Do not be concerned with little differences in spelling from example to example.

So, this icon depicts The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Martyred at the Sebaste Lake, or simply the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste” as they are commonly called. According to their story, the 4th century ruler Licinius wanted to rid his army of Christians. In Armenia, a military commander named Agricolaus was unhappy with forty soldiers, all Christians, who refused to sacrifice to the Gods. This was a major issue in those days, because refusal to sacrifice not only made Romans think the Christians were atheists, but also that they were revolutionaries, because traditionally it was the Gods who were the support of the State.

As punishment, the forty soldiers were led, in winter, out onto a frozen lake and made to remain there through the night unless they gave in and made the appropriate sacrifice. An inviting bathhouse was fired up on the shore with warm water. As the night proceeded, one soldier could not take the intense cold any longer, so decided to make the sacrifice, and went to the bathhouse. According to tradition, he fell down dead as soon as he stepped through the entrance.

Later in the night the soldiers still suffering on the icy lake supposedly had a vision. There was a light from heaven, and the water of the lake suddenly turned warm and melted the ice.

All guards were asleep except for one, who looked out on the lake and saw 39 crowns appear in the sky over the heads of the martyrs. He woke up the other guards and told them that he had decided to become a Christian, and he then went into the lake with the other martyrs.

When morning came and the martyrs in the lake were found still alive, they were taken from the lake, their legs were broken, and then they were piled onto a cart and taken away and burned.

Of course this is just a brief summary, and there are many more of the typical frills in the full story that one finds in the accounts of saints. Such elaborations make it very difficult to determine what in such tales may have an historical basis and what is just the fantasizing of the hagiographers (those who write stories of saints). As I have written in previous postings, some saints are entirely fictional, and some lives are a mixture of history and fiction in varying ratio and percentage.

As for this particular icon, it is painted in the old style maintained by the Old Believers (in opposition to the Westernized style adopted by the State Church). Usually one finds the forty martyrs in white trousers, but here the painter has added a bit of visual interest by giving some of the “undies” pastel colors.

We can see the soldier who gave up and went into the bathouse on the left, and we see the guard kneeling in the foreground who has decided to become a Christian and join the martyrs. In the clouds above, Jesus blesses them and sends down the crowns of martyrdom.

The building at left and the hills at right are typical of the traditional scenery of icons. In Russia such a building is called a “palace,” so the backgrounds of icons are commonly “hills and palaces,” or as we would say, “hills and buildings.” And of course both are stylized.

Here is a detail to show you how hills were painted in the traditional manner as it had developed by the 19th century:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

One can easily see that first a hill is painted in its base color, then the “steps” of the hill are formed by overpainting in the same color lightened with white, and finished with white highlights.

The lake water is indicated by simply painting swirling, concentric, thin white lines over the darker background color. And the clouds are formed in the snail-like fashion typical of the Old Believer painters in the region of the “three villages,” Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui.