I have mentioned previously how icon painting in Russia changed drastically from the latter part of the 1600s onwards. And I have mentioned that the survival of the old stylized manner of icon painting survived largely due to the ultra-conservatism of the Old Believers, who not only refused the innovations in ritual and text forced on them by the Patriarch Nikon, but also kept to the old style of icon painting, scorning the western innovations favored later by Tsar Peter “The Great.”

I have mentioned too how the “official” Russian Orthodox Church, working hand in hand with the Tsar in the 1600s, had the chief voice of the Old Believers — the Archpriest Avvakum — murdered — they burnt him at the stake. And when the State Church went after the other Old Believers, they escaped and spread into distant regions farther from the Church and State authorities, moving into northern Russia, into the Urals and Siberia, and down among the Cossacks and into other regions where they might be safer.

Nonetheless, some of the Old Believers, when threatened by the forces of the Tsar, locked themselves inside their wooden churches and set them on fire, preferring to die in flames rather than to accept what they considered to be the great heresy that had come into the Russian Orthodox Church through the innovations of Nikon.

And that is today’s odd topic — the odd connection one finds between the Old Believers and fire.

Fire, in Russian, is огонь — ogon‘. Russian being an Indo-European language, it is not difficult to see that the Russian word is in essence the same as the Sanskrit Agni, which, in addition to meaning “fire,” is also the name of the Vedic God of Fire, to whom sacrifices are made. So there is an interesting psychological link here with the Old Believer way of thinking.

The Old Believers saw fire as both a purifier and a connection to the end of the world and the Last Judgement. It is not surprising that we see this reflected in their icons.

The Old Believers were the chief makers of cast metal icons, and they saw in them images that were created by fire rather than painted by the hand of man.

They were also fond of icons of the Prophet Elijah (Iliya), who through his prayers was able to call down fire from heaven upon his sacrifice. So we find many Old Believer icons of Elijah that include the “Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah,” as in this example, painted by a very skilled artist:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Let’s take a look at the identifying inscription, apparently written by a hand other than that of the painter of the image, which was a common practice:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of


We see, as the central image, Elijah seated in his cave in the wilderness. Around him are scenes with his follower Elisha, showing Elijah parting the waters of the Jordan River with his mantle (on one side), and (on the other side) is Elisha doing the same with the mantle dropped to him from Elijah’s fiery chariot, the scene at the top. At lower left is an angel about to awaken Elijah to eat the food brought to him.

Here is a detail of the fiery horses; note how the painter has delineated them in just black and white, with the flames doing the rest:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

And here is a closer view of Elijah ascending in the fiery chariot. Look at the gold highlighting on his garments:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Look closely at his garments again in this detail showing the angel awakening Elijah:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

There is something interesting about the technique here. You may have noted that the highlights on the garments are gold. That was made possible by gilding the entire background of the icon, then painting the figures over it. The highlights were then added by removing paint from the area to be highlighted, revealing the gold base beneath. This is in contrast to highlighting practiced in many icons simply by lightening the base color with white, or by adding gilding over the garments. This method of “removing to reveal” the gold beneath was very effective, and makes for very striking icons.

Look also at the trees and leaves in the background. Though the Old Believers were careful to keep to stylization in the figures of the saints, it is not uncommon to see touches of westernization in the painting of the background landscape, and in the trees and leaves seen here, which are not as radically stylized as in earlier times.

Finally, we can see the skill of the face painter in this detail, showing careful whitened highlighting over the sankir (dark brown) base, and the painting of beard and hair by the persistent adding of very fine, white lines.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The inscription in the halo reads “Holy Prophet Elijah.”


One thing the serious student of icons learns quite soon is not to mistake the accounts of the lives of the saints celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy for actual history. Though the percentage of fact to fiction varies from saint to saint, some, as we have seen in previous postings here, are entirely fictional.

The icon saint I want to discuss today is one of the most prominent, and was famous not only in Russia but also throughout the pre-Protestant Christian world — St. George.

Paradoxically, however, George is also one of the most heavily fictionalized saints. Did he exist at all? Samantha Riches, in her book St. George; Hero, Martyr and Myth, writes that “there is no aspect of St. George’s life that is incontrovertible, whether his birthplace, profession, the year of his death or details of his tortures.” It is true that if we investigate all of the early documents purporting to tell the life of George, we find a mass of contradictory disparities. And again, As Riches writes, “The net result is that none of the competing camps are able to offer a truly convincing explanation of who St. George was, or indeed, if he actually existed at all.”

What we do know is that churches were dedicated to George early on, and that as a reputed martyr saint his veneration was very widespread, and the stories told of him and his miracles only multiplied in extravagance. Whether originally so or not, George came to be noted as a military saint, which is why he is customarily depicted in armor.

His most popular image, of course, is as the dragonslayer, as in this Novgorod icon from the 1400s:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

George is commonly depicted in icons in three ways:

1. Standing without armor or weapons, as in the “Deisis” ranks of the iconostasis;
2. Standing with armor and weapons, as in his individual icons and with other saints;
3. As dragon slayer.

Here is an example of the first form, an iconostasis panel showing George robed but without armor or weapons. The image in this icon was uncovered after overlying paint layers were removed to reveal the earliest layer. Patches of the overlay may still be seen; note particularly the later patch at upper right, left on because it contains the saint’s name and title:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Here is an example of the second form, a simply-painted icon showing, at left, the three patron saints of marriage fidelity, Samon, Aviv, and Guriy; and at right George in his Roman armor with lance, the Prophetess Anna (the one from the meeting of Christ in the temple as an infant), and the nun Evdokia (Eudocia), as well as Jesus blessing from the clouds above:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Now we come to the very prevalent and widespread depiction of George as slayer of the dragon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

It is a very pleasantly stylized icon showing George striking with his lance at the fallen dragon, while in the “palaces” to the right the King and Queen look on, as does their rescued daughter Elisava, standing below. At upper left Christ blesses from the clouds, while an angel descends to place the crown of victory upon George’s head. This is the type in which George is usually given his standard title, Георгий Победоносец — Georgiy Pobedonosets — “George the Victory-bearer,” meaning George the Victorious.

It is the familiar old story of the dragon that had to be placated by being fed periodically, and of lots being cast to decide who to feed to the monster; the lot falls upon the daughter of the pagan king, but George the hero appears and subdues and wounds the dragon, which in the iconic version is then leashed and led by the rescued princess into the city. There George tells the populace that if they will convert to Christianity, he will slay the dragon, which upon their agreement he then does.

It is not hard to see that this is the same kind of thing we find in mythology and in fairy tales. We can recall the Greek story of Perseus saving the princess Andromeda from the sea monster as her parents looked on. And of course for prototypes of the warrior hero in Roman armor on horseback, striking with his lance at a dragon-like creature, we need look no farther than Egyptian depictions of the God Horus fighting the evil God Seth in crocodile form, as in this image from the 300s c.e.:

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Many modern-day Eastern Orthodox tend to now see the “George and the Dragon” icon as a symbol of Good overcoming Evil, or of Christianity overcoming paganism, but of course before modern times Orthodox believers held to a quite literal interpretation in which a real hero George killed a real dragon and saved a real princess. And of course there are still conservative Eastern Orthodox who take the icon as history, just as they consider the world only a few thousand years old. In any case, the earliest textual version of the “George and the Dragon” story dates to the 1100s.

Let’s take a look at another example of this type:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

We can see that things are moved around a bit, and small details change from example to example of this type, but the basic concept remains the same. However, what I want you to notice particularly in this example is the upraised right hand of George that holds the lance:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The observant student of icons will notice that in addition to holding the lance, the hand also shows the fingers in the position of blessing used by the Old Believers, and used by them as a sign of the “true belief” in opposition to that of the State Russian Orthodox Church, which adopted a different position for the fingers in the middle of the 1600s. So this little detail of the hand is telling us that the painter wanted everyone to know that this was an “Old Believer” icon. And in fact this is a good time to note that most of the “traditional” icons painted in the stylized manner that we find in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were painted by or for Old Believers. The State Church, you will recall, had adopted the westernized and more realistic manner of painting icons, but the Old Believers stuck tenaciously to the stylized manner that is so popular among collectors and icon enthusiasts today.

One more example of “The Great Martyr George the Victory-bearer” and then we shall call it a day:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

This finely-painted example not only includes the usual elements of the “Dragon” type, but also adds four scenes at the base from the tale of the martyrdom of George.

So, having gone through all of this, was there really a St. George? We know there were early churches dedicated to him, but we also know that the earliest account of his life is full of the usual hagiographical extravagant nonsense, and cannot be regarded as historical. There are various places claiming to have physical relics (meaning bones/body parts) of St. George, but there was a thriving historical trade in fake relics, so that means nothing.

All we can say, then, is that veneration of a saint called George who was considered a martyr existed by the 6th century. But when we look for any definite or conclusive information about details in the life of a real person, we find none, and so St. George remains, in the words of Samantha Riches, “enigma personified.”

My own view is that it hardly matters whether there ever was a real St. George, because no reliable information about him remains, just masses of extravagant, fabricated acts and miracles for this saint who was once “hugely popular” all the way from the Middle East to the British Isles and northern and southern Europe — and of course, throughout the Greek and Slavic realms.

George’s real importance in the lives of Slavic peasants, was as the mythical hero “Yegoriy the Brave,” the militant protector of cattle from wolves and bears, associated not only with the wellbeing of horses but also with the greening of the grass after winter and the pasturing of the cattle. St. George became a kind of nature god, like the Prophet Elijah, whose chariot rolling across the heavens made the thunder. George was, in Russian peasant lore, the one who brought the spring.


Who is this fellow?

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

He is one of the most easily recognizable saints in icons and is also one associated in hagiography with the last Tsar and the downfall of the Romanov Dynasty — Seraphim of Sarov.

Seraphim’s image is further notable because he is one of the relatively small number of saints of whom a portrait was made during his lifetime. Most depictions of saints in icons, as mentioned previously, are imaginary and largely generic.

Here is a portrait of Seraphim said to have been painted from life:

He was born in Kursk, southwestern Russia, in 1759. His parents named him Prokhor. The family name was Moshnin. He lost his father, a builder, at age three, and when he was seven he was with his mother as she was supervising construction of the cathedral. The boy fell from the bell tower to the ground, but instead of being killed, his mother found him standing unharmed.

When nine, Seraphim learned to read and write Church Slavic (the liturgical language of Russian Orthodoxy), but fell very ill. But while asleep he had a vision of Mary, who told him he would soon be healed; and in fact on a rainy day the “Sign” icon of Mary in its Kursk-Korennaya version was being carried in procession through the town and was taken on a shortcut through the Moshnin’s yard. Seraphim was brought out to kiss the icon, and he was cured. Not surprisingly, the Kursk-Korennaya or “Kursk Root” icon is included among those considered wonderworking in Russian Orthodoxy.

He was a very pious boy, spending much time in church and in the reading of religious books.

At age 17, he decided to become a monk, and went on a pilgrimage to the famous Pecherskaya Lavra monastery in Kiev; there he met the hermit Dosifei, who told him that his real place was in the Sarov Monastery. Prokhor went there in 1778 and kept himself busy both with religious practices and with work at such things as baking and carpentry.

He practiced the “Jesus Prayer,” (Иисусова молитва –Iisusova molitva) — a form of constant audible or inward repetition of the words Господи Иисусе Христе Сыне Божий помилуй мя грешнаго — Gospodi Iisuse Khriste Suine Bozhiy pomilui mya greshnago – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or in its shorter form, Господи Иисусе Христе помилуй мя — Gospodi Iisuse Khriste pomilui mya “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” This is the prayer made famous by the little Russian classic commonly called The Way of a Pilgrim in English translation — a book purporting to be a biography but suspected of being a highly fictionalized religious work that nonetheless gives a good picture of the practice of this form of prayer and what was believed to result from it.

Practicing this method of prayer and longing for more isolation, Prokhor was was permitted to go out into the forest to fast and pray.

In 1780 he became ill with a swelling of the body that lasted for three years. He took communion in his cell, and had another vision of Mary, this time with the apostles Peter and John. She touched his head, and liquid began to run out of his side and the swelling went down and he was healed.

In 1786, aged 27, Seraphim officially became a monk with the name Seraphim. He saw angels in the church during the liturgy, and once he saw Jesus appear surrounded by the “Heavenly Powers,’ the ranks of angels. Jesus floated through the air and into his icon at the right side of the “Tsar Doors” of the iconostasis.

After this, Seraphim divided his time between his duties in the church and prayer in a hut built for him in the forest quite some distance from the monastery.

A large bear used to come to Seraphim’s forest hut to be fed, and when Seraphim told him to come or to leave, he would obey.

This icon of Seraphim “with the life,” meaning with scenes from his life, shows Seraphim with the bear, among other images depicting major events in his story:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

People, hearing of his reputation for holiness and piety, began showing up in his forest for counseling, many of them women. Seraphim was troubled by the notion of women coming to him, so he blocked the path with logs.

In his retreat, he experienced the kinds of apparitions and noises recorded by rigorous ascetics as far back as the famous “temptations of St. Anthony” — he would hear howling beasts and mobs of people beating at his door, see attacking animals and evil spirits, and even a dead man coming out of a coffin, what today we would call hallucinations. Such apparitions are common to ascetics in several world religions.

Seraphim decided to spend the nights standing or kneeling in prayer on a huge granite boulder in the forest. He brought a smaller boulder into his hut, and he prayed kneeling on that during the day. He is said to have kept up this rigorous practice on a minimum of food for nearly three years, getting ulcerated varicose veins on his legs, an affliction that never left him. Such radical self-mortification is something we encounter frequently in stories of the lives of Eastern Orthodox saints. Suffering was considered a virtue and purifying, even if self-inflicted.

In 1804 Seraphim was out in the forest cutting wood with an axe. Three peasants came up and asked him for money. He told them he had none, but they did not believe it, and began beating him. Instead of defending himself, he took the severe beating, and one of the peasants even struck Seraphim’s head with the axe. He fell bleeding and silent, and the peasants, thinking he was dead, tied his hands and feet with rope and were going to toss him into the river to hide the body. But when they rifled his cell and found only an icon and some potatoes, they began to be afraid, thinking they had killed a saintly man, so they ran away and left him lying.

Seraphim regained consciousness, managed to untie himself, and crawled to his hut. The next day he dragged himself, all bloody and broken-toothed, to the monastery, and was kept there for some time, recovering from broken bones and many wounds.

Seraphim fell asleep and had another vision. This time Mary was there again with the apostles Peter and John. Mary spoke to the doctors who had come to treat Seraphim, asking them “Why do you trouble yourselves?” Of course no one but Seraphim could see or hear all of this.

As a consequence, Seraphim refused help from the doctors, yet his pain quickly went away and later that day he was able to stand and walk about a little. But he kept the effects of the severe beating all the rest of his life, and though he previously walked a bit bent over from an accident with a tree, he was even more bent and stooped now, a posture that is common in his icons.

Here is a typical icon of Seraphim, showing the stooped posture characteristic of him:

(courtesy of

(courtesy of

The peasants who had beaten him were caught, but Seraphim said that they must be forgiven, otherwise he would leave Sarov. Not wanting to lose their local holy man, the serfs were forgiven, but their houses caught fire (unexplainedly) and were destroyed. Seeing this as divine punishment, the peasants begged and received forgiveness directly from Seraphim.

In 1806 Seraphim was offered and refused headship of the monastery.

After this, he went into a long period of silence, not talking to those who came to him. This period of silence extended some five years. He spent even more time in solitude and prayer, living a rigorously ascetic life, wearing a large iron cross under his garment and keeping a lamp burning before the icon of Mary in his cell that he called his “Joy of Joys,” an icon painted, incidentally, in the westernized manner of the State Church.

After these five years of silence and isolation, Seraphim began to talk again, allowing people to come to him for counseling, and he kept his door open to them from early morning into the evening. He is said to have told people where to find lost or stolen objects, and he also is said to have cured people by touching them with oil taken from his icon lamp. In short, he took on the role of the starets, the spiritual advisor.

In November of 1825 he had another vision in which he saw Mary with saints Peter of Alexandria and Clement of Rome (who happened to be celebrated in the church calendar on that day). After this vision he again began going into the forest for prayer. A hut was built for him near a spring some distance from the monastery, which he used as a hermitage during the day.

In most of the literature on him, it is emphasized that Seraphim was a strict adherent of the State Church. He supposedly, when asked by a “schismatic” visitor whether the State Church or the Old Believer view was better, told the fellow to stop his nonsense. And when an old lady, crippled and near paralyzed, came to him and told him she had left the State Church for the Old Belief of her husband, Seraphim told her to return to the State Church and to stop making the sign of the cross with fingers in the position used by Old Believers. He touched her hands and chest with oil from his icon lamp, and, the story goes, she was immediately cured. All of this opposition to the Old Believers, however, may be simply State Church propaganda, because there is evidence that Seraphim may actually have been sympathetic toward the Old Belief, and in many of his icons he is shown holding the lestovka (лeстовка), the “little ladder” — the distinctive leather prayer rope used by Old Believers. Often icons either omit this detail, or in some cases, replace it with a less controversial form, as seen in the first image on this page.

It is said that Seraphim made a number of predictions of events in the future of Russia — for example the Crimean War and a famine, and the number of healings attributed to him multiplied greatly. After his ordination as a priest monk in 1793 he also became spiritual advisor to the nuns of the Diveyevo Convent.

One day, when asked why he dressed in such tattered garments, Seraphim replied, “Ioasaph the king’s son considered the mantle given him by Vaarlam the Solitary more high and valuable than the royal purple” (for more on the surprising history of these two supposed saints, read the article on them in the blog archives).

Slightly less than two years before his death, Seraphim had another vision of Mary, this time accompanied by a bright light, two angels, and twelve virgins. This time it was said to have been seen not only by Seraphim but also by an elderly Diveyevo nun visiting him on that day. Mary told Seraphim he would soon be with them, a foretelling of his death.

On January 2, 1833, the smell of smoke alerted a monk, who went to Seraphim’s cell and found some cloth smouldering, apparently set aflame by a fallen candle. The monk could see little in the cell, and went to tell the other monks. They returned, looked about the cell, and found Seraphim still in kneeling position before his lectern and icon of Mary. He was dead.

In 1902 Tsar Nicholas II urged the “Holy Synod” governing the Russian Orthodox Church at that time to get on with procedures that had begun some time earlier in investigating Seraphim for sainthood. So on the 19th of July, 1903, Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, and the rest of the Imperial Family attended the glorification process that officially made Seraphim a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.

There are stories that Seraphim had “clearly predicted” that Tsar Nicholas would be killed and Russia would be taken over by “lawless men” for a time, but like much that has to do with saints, it is often very difficult to know what in his life is historical fact and what is just pious hagiography. What is certain is that Seraphim, titled in his icons “Holy Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, Wonderworker,” is one of the most popular saints of the Russian Orthodox Church today.

It should be obvious that icons of Seraphim of Sarov will be relatively late. One often sees examples from the first quarter of the 20th century, and of course there are many modern examples as well.


In the latter 17th Century — the late 1600s — there was a significant change in Russian icon painting. That was an important century, historically.

First, in its middle, came the huge controversy in the Russian Orthodox Church over revisions in ritual (such as how to make the sign of the cross) and in liturgical books. Patriarch Nikon, the head of the Church, thought that the way the Greeks did things at that time was the correct model to follow, and that the Russian Church had deviated from what he thought was that standard. On the other hand, conservative traditionalists were furious over that uppity Nikon wanting to change the way their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done things, and saw Nikon as a dangerous heretic. How dare he say that the spelling of Jesus should have an extra letter! How dare he change the way everyone had always crossed themselves, saying that the fingers had to be in the position used by those deviant Greeks, who, after all, had their civilization destroyed for their evil ways when God punished them for their heresies by allowing the Moslems to conquer Constantinople, the Second Rome, in 1453!

Well, Moscow was now the Third Rome, the bastion of true Orthodoxy, the conservatives believed — and now that devilish Nikon was trying to lead the Russians away from the true path! They were having none of it, and their chief spokesman, the Archpriest Avvakum, ranted against the innovations of Nikon and eventually got himself murdered for it by the authorities as a consequence.

In short, there was a tremendous schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, and it separated into two main divisions: first, that of the conservatives who firmly maintained the old ways of doing things, and second, that of the State Church, with the punishing authority of the Tsar behind it. As a consequence, the Old Believers — the “Old Ritualists” went one way, and the State Church, persecuting those they considered to be raskolniki — “schismatics” went another.

For a short time this had little effect on icon painting. Nikon, after all, did not like Western European religious painting any more than did the Old Believers. Nonetheless, even in his time the influence of the “Franks,” meaning the Western Europeans such as Germans, Dutch, and Italians — penetrated first secular painting, and soon after, icon painting.

Just as the Russians liked to say, for appearances, that icons were “exchanged” instead of “bought,” even so the moderates who wrote of icon painting at that time were perfectly willing to allow such new “Frankish” innovations into icons as naturalistic shading and perspective, while maintaining that all was still perfectly “Orthodox” as long as such painting maintained the podobie, the “likeness” of Jesus and Mary and the saints. But that “likeness” was understood very loosely, so loosely in fact that it was little more than the general outline of a saint or type.

This was, after all, the period when the Russians began to really look to the West, realizing that it was making rapid strides in many fields while Russia was still lingering in the Dark Ages. And when Peter I — Peter the Great as he is called — came to power, he had little patience with Russian “overkill” in the matter of icons. He was quite aware that the Westerners in Russia at that time looked on the over-the-top veneration of icons they witnessed in Russian churches and public and private buildings as backward idolatry, so Peter took steps such as clearing out the numerous icons found on Russian ships, reducing the allowed number to one only; he is said to have done the same in his own residences, getting rid of all the numerous icons of saints and keeping only the cross and an icon of Jesus. He also tried — not entirely successfully — to stem the Russian predilection for declaring icons “miracle-working.”

A good marker for the change in art in the latter part of the 1600s is the painter Simon Ushakov, who maintained the old forms of icons while nonetheless incorporating shading and perspective. No longer were all icons to be rigidly stylized; instead, lines softened, garments began to drape naturally, the use of more accurate light and shadow was introduced, and a more naturalistic way of depiction in general became the norm.

We can see this “having it both ways” mode of icon painting quite clearly in Ushakov’s version of the Kykkos Mother of God — his rendering of a supposedly miraculous Greek icon of Mary and the child Jesus. Here it is:

There are a number of things to note about this painting. We can see first of all, that there is a conscious effort to make the figures more real and naturalistic; they have not only more realistic proportions than in traditional icon painting, but also attention is paid to correct shading and there is a move toward natural draping of the garments, though there is still some stylization in the folds. Coloring — such as that of the flesh — is far more realistic.

I would like you to look at it very closely, particularly at the eyes (see the detail image below). In them you will find a useful tip for dating. I once saw an icon of the Georgian (Gruzinskaya) Mother of God type in a university museum, and I could tell immediately that the date on its label was considerably earlier than it should have been. How did I know? Because the inner corner of the eye had that little dot of flesh (technically the lacrimal caruncle) that eyes really have, and that we see in the inner corners of the eyes of Mary in Ushakov’s Kykkos icon. That little detail is not found in Russian icons before the latter part of the 1600s.


Nonetheless, even with the advent of greater realism, State Church icons in Russia retained an inherent conservatism of form. Ushakov’s painting of the Kykkos Mother of God is still rather rigid, and painters tended not to adapt the more relaxed attitude toward positioning figures that was found in Western European religious art of the period. Ushakov is, in a sense, still “copying,” still keeping the podobie — the “likeness” or “form” — while filling that form with greater, though still restrained, naturalism.

Of course that does not mean the old stylized manner was abandoned in Russia; it was kept alive by the Old Believers, who continue to paint stylized icons right up to the present. In the following example, though considerably later than Ushakov, we find the figures depicted as though the innovations of Ushakov and those like him had never taken place:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Ushakov also reflects his conservative side in the inscription on the Kykkos image, which shows its Greek title — written in Greek:


It reads “HE ELOUSA HE KYKYOTISSA – literally “The Merciful the Kykkos” (Meaning “The Merciful One of Kykkos”). But in very small, nearly invisible letters just below ELEOUSA is written its translation in Church Slavic: Milostivaya – meaning “Merciful” — a tiny concession to those who wanted things more “Russian.”

But what of the original Kykkos image?

Well, as you know by now, all of these famous icons — famous because they are considered to be miracle-working in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity — have their various origin stories, and the Kykkos icon (that is a simple name for it in English) is no exception.

You will recall that one way to give great importance to an icon was to say it was painted by St. Luke. In a previous posting I discussed the fact that there is no support whatsoever for the notion that a St. Luke ever painted icons in the first years of Christianity, and that quite to the contrary, the first Christians did not paint or venerate icons, and would have considered the whole notion frightfully pagan.

And speaking of pagan notions, that is one of the most interesting things about the Kykkiotissa icon.

There is the motif in ancient Greek mythology of the “person that must not be looked upon.” It has its variations. There is, for example, the Gorgon Medusa, whose countenance was so frightful that anyone who looked upon her would be turned to stone. And there is the tale of Semele, the unfortunate girl who wheedled the promise from Zeus that he would grant her a favor, and then asked to see him in all his full splendor. Well, you may recall that when Semele saw him in his glory, she was consumed to ashes.

A variation on that motif is applied, oddly enough, to the Kykkiotissa icon, which is kept in the Kykkos Monastery on the island of Cyprus. Unlike most such icons, the faces of Mary and the child Jesus on the Kykkos icon are not to be seen, but are always covered with a veil that obscures a good part of the image. That is because it is generally believed that to look upon the faces of that icon will bring misfortune — even blindness — to the viewer. This does not generally apply to copies of the image, in which there is no such prohibition.

The origin story of the icon relates that it was sent by Luke to Egypt. When persecution arose there, the icon was packed off to the chief city of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, in the year 980. There was a delay when the ship was attacked by Saracens, but eventually the icon made it to the great city. Keep in mind that these tales are hagiography (not reliable history) — religious writings for what we today would call propagandistic purposes.

The icon was then said to have been sent by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to Cyprus in 1082, after the Emperor’s daughter became inexplicably ill. The Emperor was told that she would be cured if he would send the miraculous icon of Mary to the hermit Isaiah on Cyprus, who had been having divine revelations that Mary wanted her image there. Isaiah built a church to house the image, and when the Emperor finally did send it, it was placed in the new church.

As is frequent in such stories, there are little details such as the Emperor’s hesitation after agreeing to send the image, during which he was punished by heaven for not getting on with it, but again as usual, all was made right when he did finally send it to Cyprus. Monks settled around the church, an abbot was appointed, and the monks were given land and three villages. And that was the origin of the Kykkos monastery.

We find the usual miracle stories associated with the Kykkos image — cures of physical ailments, prayers for rain answered, and also the usual “negative side” miracles, such as the withering of the hand of someone who showed disrespect to the icon.

Copies of the Kykkiotissa image began being painted in Russia in the 1600s, which is why we find the type among the extant icons painted by Simon Ushakov. The Russians generally call it the Milostivaya Kikkskaya — the “Merciful Kykkos” icon.


Today I would like to talk a bit about this icon of Kharlampiy:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Kharlampiy, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, was a priest who was martyred in the year 202 at the age of 113 (others say 107; these stories often vary in details). I will not repeat his story, which is easily available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it follows the usual form of hagiography, which should not be confused with history. The lives of the early saints, though there may be some historical elements now and then, are largely pious fictions that follow similar patterns and present similar motifs.

What I do want to emphasize is that the veneration of Kharlampiy, like that of other saints, continues the pre-Christian practice of venerating and asking favors of deities both great and minor. When Christianity declared the old gods to be “demons,” the populace needed a substitute, and that substitute was found in Christian saints such as Kharlampiy. His name is just a Slavicized version of the Greek Χαράλαμπος — Kharalampos, pronounced “khar-A-lam-bos” in modern Greek. He is a very popular saint in Greece, and is often found in Russian icons as well. Among other things, Eastern Orthodox pray to Kharlampiy for relief of mental problems. That relates to one of the “miracles” of Kharlampiy, in which he drove out a devil from a possessed person. On the island of Lesvos (Lesbos), there is a tradition of sacrificing a bull at the chapel of Kharlampiy/Kharalambos — the unfortunate victim is decorated with garlands, just as was done in pre-Christian times.

Kharlampiy is shown here robed as a bishop. In his left hand he holds a cloth supporting the Gospel book (the cloth is to show veneration when touching sacred objects). His right hand is held up with the fingers forming the sign of blessing favored by the Old Believers, who were separated from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s over disputes about ritual forms, etc., one of which was this distinctive way of making the sign of blessing. It is a useful way to recognize Old Believer icons, which in any case are often more traditional and stylized in form than those of the State Church in the following centuries.

If we look more closely at Kharlampiy’s face, we can easily see the method of painting. The entirety of the hair, face and beard are first painted in a dark brownish color (sankir), and then the features of the face are created by superimposing layers of the same base color, only progressively lightened with the addition of white (belila), with highlights being very white. The hair and beard are painted simply by adding thin, curving strokes of white over the sankir base. A few darker details are added, and it is finished. But still the sankir base color is easily seen behind the added layers.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of


If you have been reading this site for a while, you will of course know that the standard Russian title for a saint is Svyatuiy for a male and Svyataya for a female. Many saints also have secondary titles, and one of the most interesting of these is Strastoterpets (страстотерпец), meaning “Passion-bearer.”

Whenever one hears this title, the first saints that come to mind are Boris and his brother Gleb. Here is an icon of them:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Of course Eastern Orthodox will tell you that in its most general sense, all martyrs are “passion bearers,” those who suffer for their faith. But that is not the way the term is commonly used in the hagiography of Russian icons. Instead, “Passion-bearer” is used in icons in a more particular sense. It means an Eastern Orthodox believer, innocent in character, who suffers because of other “Orthodox” who conspire against him and persecute him (or her, of course). So the word “passion” in this case is used in its old meaning of “suffering” (not in the more modern sense of fiery romantic attachment, though that can lead to suffering as well!).

Historically, this kind of suffering tends to happen because of political intrigue of one kind or another. That is why Boris and Gleb are the prime examples and pattern-setters of “Holy Passion-bearers.”

The story goes right back to the beginnings of state Orthodoxy in Kievan Rus (now the Ukraine); Great Prince Vladimir converted his people to Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity by edict, basically “Convert or else…”. That is why he is a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy.

According to the old story, when Vladimir died, advisors told Boris that he should eliminate his half-brother Svyatopolk, the eldest son of Vladimir, and take control of Kiev. Boris refused to raise his hand against his brother.

Svyatopolk, however, was not so ethical. He sent assassins to kill Boris. They supposedly found him praying before an icon of Jesus. When he saw what was happening, Boris submissively prayed for strength and allowed himself to be killed. Svyatopolk wanted all the wealth and power, with no possible rivals.

Svyatopolk then sent word to the other brother, Gleb, saying that he should come because their father was ill. On his way there by boat, news came to him that their father had died and that his brother Boris had been assassinated by Svyatopolk. He wept for them. His boat was taken by the assasins, and Gleb too was killed.

Because of their innocent and submissive deaths (at least according to the account passed down), Boris and Gleb were declared the first “native” saints of Kievan Rus. This official declaration and acceptance by the church of a person’s sainthood is called “glorification” in Russian Orthodoxy. So Boris and Gleb were “glorified” in 1071, the first “Russian” saints (even though Kievan Rus and the later Russia are not at all equivalent).

It should be mentioned that the traditional account of the deaths of Boris and Gleb does not accord precisely with all historical evidence of that time, but again, we are dealing with hagiography here, stories told for religious or religio-political reasons, so we should not expect them to be factual in all respects.

There are other “Holy Passion Bearers” in Russian Orthodoxy as well. Probably the most controversial is also one of the most recent. — Tsar Nicholas II, who in spite of his disastrous incompetence as Tsar and his questionable private life, was “glorified” as a “passion-bearer” saint by the Russian Orthodox Church on August 20, 2000, because he and his family (who were also declared “passion-bearers”) were murdered by the Communists.

But let’s look at a more sophisticated icon of Boris alone. This finely-painted example, from the late 19th century, is in the “neo-Byzantine” manner. You will recall that there are three styles of Russian icon painting, loosely speaking: the old stylized manner, the later “western” or realistic manner adopted under western European influence, and a mixture of the two. The neo-Byzantine style is a sub-category of the “realistic” manner that mixes more realistic painting with the formal, “hieratic” appearance of earlier Byzantine art, thus the name “neo-Byzantine”:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Boris is dressed in very elaborate royal robes, with a spear in one hand (to show his authority) and a jeweled cross of martyrdom in the other.

The appearance of this icon, with its elaborate false-enamel border and its heavily incised and patterned gold background, is very typical of the latter part of the 19th-early 20th century, but the detail in this example is rather striking. Look at how carefully the painter has depicted the ornate robes, sewn with pearls and encrusted with gems, and the elaborate “damask” patterns on the robes and even on the slippers:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

As in many icons, Jesus is depicted in clouds above the saint. But here the inscription on the Gospel book he holds open is notably different. Instead of any usual inscription, this book has the text of John 16:21:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Zhena egda razhdaet, skorb’ imat, iako priide god egda zhe rodit otrocha, ktomou ne pomnit skorbi za radost, iako rodisya chelovyek v mir.

“A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.”

This is used here as an analogy. The meaning is that the “holy passion-bearers” such as Boris must go through a period of suffering and sorrow (their martyrdom) but after that is past, then comes the joy of heaven.


In the earliest-known Christian art — that of the catacombs and of the house church at Dura Europos — we find a small vocabulary of images (though not icons in the Eastern Orthodox sense) representative of Christian faith — everything from the Good Shepherd (an image borrowed from the pagan “Ram Bearer”) to simple depictions of biblical stories. Among them are Jonah, the raising of Lazarus (in which Jesus is shown as a magician with a wand), and a number of others. What we do not find is the cross.

To modern Christians that seems very strange, because the image of the cross is today everywhere in Christianity, and in nearly every denomination and sect of it. It has been for many centuries.

One would also think that there would be no question about the visual appearance of the cross, but that is not the case. It is not just that there are differences such as that between the ordinary “latin” cross and the Russian “eight-pointed” cross. The uncertainties go right back to the original texts. The Greek word in the New Testament that is generally translated “cross” — σταυρός (stauros, pronounced stav-ROS in modern Greek) is in itself vague. Originally — in classical Greek — it meant an upright wooden pole. By New Testament times it apparently had come to signify anything from an upright pole to a pole with a crossbeam, etc. Even the Latin word, crux, could indicate a number of different forms, everything from a simple stake to more elaborate frameworks on which an execution could take place.

In early Christian tradition as reflected in written sources, the cross of Jesus seems to have been regarded as in the form of the letter “T,” without a beam extending above the crossbar. This is found (as is the more usual form) in later Christian art — even in the time of the Reformation. But the Russian tradition, as we have seen, long preferred the eight-pointed cross consisting of an upright pole, a crossbeam set a short distance down from the top of the upright, a horizontal signboard placed above the crossbeam, and a slanting foot support above the base.

According To Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380 c. e.), Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity, Constantine, dreamed that she was to go to Jerusalem. She did so in 326-328, though already in her late seventies. She supposedly found the site of the tomb of Jesus, and in it three crosses — one that of Jesus, and two those of the malefactors crucified with him. She also found (though not attached) the signboard placed above the head of Jesus at the crucifixion. The problem was in determining which cross was that of Jesus.

Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, according to the story, came up with a method. He knew of an ill woman at the point of death. He had her touched by each of the crosses. The first had no effect on her illness, nor did the touch of the second cross. However, when the third cross was brought to her, she was immediately healed and healthy.

Socrates goes on to say that Helena had a church erected over the sepulchre for which her son supplied the materials, and she left part of the cross there, kept in a silver case. The rest of the cross she sent to her son Constantine, who thought it would protect any city in which it was kept. So he had it placed inside a statue of him erected on a pillar in Constantinople.

It makes a good story, very typical of fanciful Christian hagiography, but like most such stories it has its problems, not least among them the fact that the church historian Eusebius says nothing at all about the cross being discovered by Helena, or connecting her with the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then too, Eusebius quotes a letter of Constantine to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, in which the Emperor relates that excavations on the site of a pagan temple had uncovered a token “of the holiest passion.” So perhaps during excavations to remove a pagan temple and to replace it with a Christian church, some wood was found (or said to be found) which was then put forth as “the True Cross.” But Constantine says nothing about any relation of this to his mother Helena.

But the stories behind icons are not what we think of today as history. Instead, they are hagiography, stories written with a religious (and sometimes religio-political) purpose in mind. There is even a further story associated with the finding — that a funeral was passing by with the body of a dead man. Each of the three crosses was placed on the corpse, and when touched by the third — the cross of Jesus — the dead man came to life.

Be that as it may, the icon type I want to discuss today is that known as the Elevation of the Cross, one of the major Church Festivals of the year celebrated on September 14th.

Here is an example:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

It bears the title inscription VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA GOSPODNYA — “THE ELEVATION OF THE HONORABLE CROSS OF THE LORD.” It depicts the raising of the cross, after its discovery, before the people of Jerusalem for their veneration. In this example, bishop Makariy (Macarius) stands just to the left of the cross. Another bishop is opposite him. At far left, crowned, is Tsar (Emperor) Constantine, and at far right Tsaritsa (Empress) Elena, Helena.

Note the large size of the cross. In other examples of the same icon type, the cross is often depicted in a much smaller form, as we see in the next icon, which bears the title VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA — THE ELEVATION OF THE HONORABLE CROSS:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

In this more elaborate icon, the cross is only a fraction of the size of that in the previous example. It is so small, in fact, that
Bishop Macarius is holding it in his hands above his head. This is the influence of the use of small crosses in church ritual. Note also that in this image, the positions of Constantine and Helena are reversed; she is on the left, and he is on the right.

Note the dark mark in the lower left border just beneath the central image. It is a candle burn, something one often sees on old icons. It was common to display an icon for veneration on a shelf with a candle burning before the image, and sometimes the candle was placed too close.

It is helpful to remember that in the hymns sung on the Festival of the Elevation of the Cross, there are some lines that one frequently finds on Russian cross-associated icons and on Russian crosses in general.

The first is from the tone 1 Troparion:
“O Lord, save thy people” (Спаси, Господи, люди Твоя — (Spasi, Gospodi, liudi tvoya).

The other, very common on cast brass crosses and icons of the Crucifixion, is:
“We bow before your Cross, Lord, and praise your holy resurrection” (Кресту Твоему поклоняемся, Владыко, и Святое Воскресение Твое славим — Krestu tvoemy poklonyaemsya, Vladiko, i svyatoe voskresenie tvoe slavim.”

It is also worth remembering that in Eastern Orthodoxy, Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena are called not only saints, but also “Equal to the Apostles.”


(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The image above is a representation of, as its inscription says, the Sozhestvie Svyatago Dukha Na Apostolov — “The Descent of the Holy Spirit Upon the Apostles.” The Greeks call this type Η Πεντηκοστή — He Pentekoste, pronounced “ee pen-tee-kost-EE” in modern Greek. It means “fiftieth,” — in this case the 50th day after Easter.

So it is a type found in both Greek and Russian iconography, one of the major church festivals.

The type depicts the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost, as described in the second chapter of Acts. The icon takes some liberty, however, in placing the later apostle Paul across from the apostle Peter at the top of the group; Paul was not present at the “descent,” but was added in iconographic convention nonetheless. Also Mary is included at the head of the Apostles in this example, though she is omitted in many others, leaving the chief seat empty — the situation of the Apostles after Jesus ascended and before the Holy Ghost descended upon them as their comforter and teacher. In Greek examples the youngest apostles are often placed in the two lowest seats.

At the top of this image is a descending flame — the fire of the Holy Spirit. Some examples show individual tongues of flame resting on the heads of the Apostles.

The stylized background buildings — called “palaces” in Russian icon-painting terminology — here represent the Upper Room in which the Apostles were seated.

At the base of the type is a completely symbolic image, an old man in a dark space sometimes shown as a cave, though here it is just an arched opening, In Greek icons he bears the name Ο Κόσμος — Ho Kosmos — “The Cosmos,” meaning “The World.” He is in the darkness of the world without the Gospel, and aged by sin, but in his hands he holds a cloth. Though not shown here, there are often twelve rolled scrolls lined up on the cloth, which represent the promise of the coming of the teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the world, now that the Holy Spirit is descending. Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965), the fellow who inspired a revival of the “Byzantine” style of icon painting in Greece, calls the cloth held by the old man the “sindon,” which refers to the burial shroud of Jesus. The message is that the death and resurrection of Jesus led to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the going forth of the teaching of the Twelve Apostles into all the world.

An observant reader asked why old “Cosmos” in the icon shown above has a halo. The answer is that it was a painter’s error. He did not understand the symbolism or tradition of the type, and mistakenly thought that the symbolic representation of “The World” was a saint of some kind, so he gave “Cosmos” a halo, but without a name written in it. Other icons of the same type correctly show “Cosmos” with no halo.


If people are puzzled by ordinary icons, what are they to make of something like this one?

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

This is the Okovetskaya icon of Mary, also known as the Rzhevskaya.

You will recall that the manifestation of a Marian icon as chudotvornaya — “miracle-working” — is called its yavlenie — its “appearance.” There are over 600 such Marian icons generally recognized in Russian Orthodoxy, and that does not include images that are known only locally.

In the lore of icon “appearances,” one motif is that of the icon appearing in a tree. The Okovetskaya-Rzhevskaya icon is one of these.

It is said to have appeared in a forest near Okovtsy Village near Rzhev (thus its title), In Tver Province, on May 26th in the year 1539. Here is the tale in brief:

Four thieves made a pact. Two were to steal two cows, and the others were to steal two horses. They were then to meet in the woods and exchange their ill-gotten animals. The first pair managed to pilfer the cows, but when they went to the place in the forest where they were to trade for the horses, there was no one there. Instead, they saw an odd sight. In one tree there was an iron cross nailed up, and close to it was another tree in which they saw an icon hanging.

This frightened the thieves, and they left quickly. But the story of the icon in the tree became known, and a large number of villagers went in a group to investigate. They found the iron cross, and nearby was an icon hanging in another tree. When they took the icon down from the tree, suddenly there was a loud sound like a powerful wind, and the icon began to glow with a bright light.

As is the case with these tales, the icon soon began to work miracles, healing about 170 people. Eventually the image, having become famous, was taken ceremoniously to Moscow, and after a time was returned to the church built for it near the site of its appearance.

There are essentially two Okovetskaya-Rzhevskaya icon types: the first is the one shown here, which shows the cross hanging in one tree, and the Okovetskaya icon hanging in the other. The second type is that of the Okovetskaya image alone, which depicts Mary holding the child Jesus, and beside them stands St. Nicholas.

In the first type, the cross is conventionally depicted as an icon hanging in a tree. Behind it are the walls of Jerusalem, below it are the skull and bones of Adam (buried, according to legend, on the future site of the Crucifixion), and above it the sun darkened and the moon red as blood.

Icons of the second type show Mary and her child in various positions from example to example, so those alone are not the key to identification; the key is the presence of St. Nicholas with them, dressed in the robes of a bishop.

There is another and better-known icon that also has the “appearing in a tree” motif in its origin story — the Zhirovitskaya; but I will save that for another day.


Today I would like to talk a bit about the icon of the Archangel Michael (Архангел Михаил –”Arkhangel Mikhail” ) as the angel of the Apocalypse. This type, which varies somewhat from example to example in title, in the number and arrangement of elements, and in inscriptions and their variations, is a mixture of images from the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) and tradition concerning Michael.

Let’s take a look at an example:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The Church Slavic title at the top reads:
Groznuiy Strashnuiy Silnuiy Nebesnago Tsarya Voedvoda Arkhistratig Mikhail


Michael is called in Greek the arkhistrategos (αρχιστρατηγός) — the “chief commander” of the armies of heaven. This title, or a Russianized variant, is sometimes written in Cyrillic letters on Russian icons, but one may also find Michael called by the Slavic equivalent, Voevoda (Воевода), meaning “warlord.” This example includes both titles.

The main elements are the Archangel Michael, usually red-faced, winged and crowned, riding across the skies on a winged red horse. Don’t ask why a winged angel also needs a winged horse; as in fairy tales, it is just the way it is.

A rainbow is over his head. A trumpet extends from his mouth. In one hand he holds a lance with which he strikes at the Devil (omitted in some examples), who has fallen below into an abyss in which we see the towers of a city overwhelmed by a great flood. In the same hand is a cross (omitted in some examples), and a censer swinging on a chain. In his other hand he holds the Gospels.

At upper left, on clouds, is an altar table with Jesus as Emmanuel behind it ( or the mature Jesus in some icons). On the altar is a cross, the book of the Gospels, and in some examples (not this one) a chalice.

What does it all mean?

The key lies in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, which Protestants call the Book of Revelation. In chapter 12 we find:

7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

So we know that this is an icon relating to the tales of the “end of the world” found in the Apocalypse. That is why, in the upper left hand, we find the altar, which is also called the “throne.” This image of the altar in the clouds is called in Greek the Hetimasia, in full, the “Preparation of the Throne.” What is it prepared for? The answer is judgment, the Last Judgment, the “Dreadful Judgment” as it is called in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Now let’s consider Michael himself. Why is his face red? Well, we have seen in previous articles that a red face in general indicates the presence of the fire of divinity. There is an icon of Mary with a red face, and there is also an icon of Jesus as “Holy Wisdom,” depicted as an angel with a red face. In Michael’s case, his red face is explained by the letters above his head in this example:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

In a modern Russian font they are:


They are obviously some kind of abbreviation, as we can tell from the little curved line of abbreviation found above each of the letters. And what they abbreviate is part of Hebrews 1:7:

Tvoryai angelui svoya dukhi i slugi svoya ogn’ palyashch’

Who makes his angels spirits and his servants a flame of fire

So Michael, as an angel serving God, is a fiery being. We have already seen this angels = fire equivalency in an icon type discussed earlier, the Angels of the Elements in the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary, which also has the same inscription from Hebrews 1:7.

What of the rainbow? It is taken from Revelation 10:1:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.

Why is a trumpet extending from Michael’s mouth? Well, there a several mentions in the apocalypse involving angels and trumpets. The iconography of this type adapts such images rather loosely.

“From the trumpet came forth a voice signifying the second coming of the Lord — on earth thunder and lightning”

And what about the swinging censer? Its inscription is:

“From the censer came forth a fragrance upon the whole world.

It alludes loosely to Revelation, chapter 8:

1. And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.

4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.

5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.

And by the Gospel Book is this:

“The Word of God came forth into all the world [cosmos].”

That is a loose allusion to Revelation 14:6:

6 And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
7 Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

Looking at the Hetimasia in the upper left corner again, its inscription from Hebrews 1:8 is:
Prestol’ tvoi bozhe v’ vek’ veka

Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.

That comes from Hebrews 1:8:
Къ Сыну же: престолъ Твой Боже, въ вѣкъ вѣка: жезлъ правости, жезлъ Царствія Твоего.

“But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.”

By the abyss is this, from Psalm 9:6 (9:9 Slavic version- we see a variation on it at the base of the first icon shown above):

The swords of the enemy have failed utterly; and thou hast destroyed cities: their memorial has been destroyed with a noise.

The abyss in this icon type is filled with water (but not always). The city towers within it reflect two events: the Old Testament destruction by fire of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Michael, according to Eastern Orthodox tradition, was the chief commander, and also the destruction of Babylon in the Apocalypse, described in Revelation 18:21:

And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.

In this type we cannot expect precise correspondences between the imagery and biblical texts. Iconographers borrowed them quite loosely, and the mixing of these images has somewhat the surreal quality and lack of logic that one finds in dreams.

That, essentially, is what the icon of the Archangel Michael as heavenly warlord is: a kind of irrational, apocalyptic dream of destruction and the end of the world.

Finally, here is the type at its most basic.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The painter has used no inscriptions other than the title, which in this example is:
ОБРАЗ МИХАИЛА АРХАНГЕЛА — OBRAZ MIKHAILA ARKHANGELA –”IMAGE OF THE ARCHANGEL MICHAEL,” and over Christ the standard IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”

So, keeping in mind that individual examples have their own peculiarities, that is the general nature of the icon type of Michael as chief commander of the heavenly armies, or as I like to call it, “Terrible Michael and his Flying Red Horse.”