It is not surprising that the physical features of images of the bulk of Eastern Orthodox saints found in icons are simply imaginary.  Though there are some saints (like Seraphim of Sarov) whose icons bear a reasonable likeness of their actual physical appearance in life, the features of most icon saints were just “made up” at some point, leaving us with generic figures distinguished largely by the kind of garment worn, as well as by the shape, length, and color of hair and of beard (when present).  So we are left with imaginary images of a great many saints, identified specifically by the title inscription given to each depiction.

It is as though one were to decide to make a picture of the famous King Arthur of British legend.  We might decide to give him neck-length dark hair, make him a young man, clean-shaven.  We could then give him a crown, and put the title “King Arthur of the Britons” on the image to distinguish it from all other images of young, clean-shaven, dark-haired men wearing crowns.  Then if we were to say, “This is how Arthur is to be painted from now on,” it would be much the same as with icons.   These imaginary, generic icon depictions became standardized by being passed down over the years, though one still finds some disagreements in painter’s manuals on how this or that saint is to be painted.

Here is a fresco from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted in 1547 by Tzortzis Phouka:

The title inscription tells us this is Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC ΜΑΚΑΡΙΟC Ὁ ΡωΜΑΙΟC — HO HAGIOS MAKARIOS HO ROMAIOS — “[The] Holy Makarios the Roman.”  His life is vaguely placed in the 4th to 5th century.

His name Makarios means “Blessed” in Greek.  But in iconography, Makarios can often mean confusion, because there were at least twenty saints by that name, and sometimes not only bits of their lives but also their representation in icons can become rather confused.

To give you an idea, here is a portion of another depiction — also a fresco:

It looks like the very same person, doesn’t it?  We even see the title Ὁ [Ἁ]Γ[ΙΟ]C ΜΑΚΑΡΙΟC — HO HAGIOS MAKARIOS — “HOLY MAKARIOS.”  But if we stop there, we will be mistaken, because what follows “Makarios” in the title inscription identifies him as Makarios Ὁ ΕΓΥΠΤΙΟC — HO EGYPTIOS — “The Egyptian.”  This Makarios is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Well, Makarios the Egyptian — also known as Makarios the Great — is not the same as Makarios the Roman.  We must also be careful to distinguish Makarios the Egyptian — who is also known as Makarios the Great — from his contemporary Makarios the Alexandrian, who obviously was an Egyptian too, but not THE  Makarios the Egyptian.

Now to confuse matters even further, though Makarios the Great/the Egyptian is often depicted as here, with a long beard and covered in hair, just like the first image of Makarios the Roman — Makarios the Great/the Egyptian may also be found in quite a different form, in a monastic habit.  There is even an icon type showing him standing with a “cherubim” (cherub), an incident from the hagiographic story of his life:

Because of this scene, even though the Greek inscription on the icon identifies him only as Ho Hagios Makarios, we know this is intended to be Makarios the Egyptian/Makarios the Great.

Similarly, there is an icon type of Makarios the Roman, depicting him with an element that identifies him specifically as “the Roman” just as clearly as the “Cherubim” identifies Makarios the Egyptian/the Great.  Here it is in an 18th century icon from the Skete of St. Anna on Mount Athos:

We see this Makarios — called Makarios ho Romaios here — “Makarios the Roman” — sitting in his cave with two lions.  Those two lions are the identifying element from his hagiography (aside, of course, from the ho Romaios in his title inscription).

But there is yet more confusion.  We have just seen Makarios the Roman with his lions, but there is another Makarios the Roman who has nothing to do with lions, and is from a much later date.  He is Makarios/Macarius the Roman “of Novgorod,” who is said to have died in northern Russia in 1550.  His icons show him much the same as other monastic founders of that region.  So now we have to distinguish this later Makarios the Roman “of Novgorod” from the earlier Makarios the Roman “of Mesopotamia.”

All of this is just to give you an idea of how easily things may be confused in iconography, and how careful one must be when identifying saints in icons, particularly when part or all of a title inscription may be missing.  Icon painters sometimes made mistakes, confusing one saint with another of the same name, and so in general, the best thing to do is to go by the title inscription — the name written by the saint, rather than strictly by the physical appearance.  When a title inscription is missing or incomplete, it is often impossible to identify a saint simply by appearance — except in the case of the most distinctive saints.





Here is an icon of another stolpnik — stylite — another “pillar guy,” one of those men who lived atop a pillar as an ascetic practice.  This fellow, however, is Russian.

The title inscripton above him reads:

“Holy Venerable Nikita Stylite.”

Nikita had a rather miserable life, which I will summarize later in this posting.  But first I want to point out that by the last years of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th, icon painting in Russia was seriously threatened by the development of chromolithography — the printing of images in multiple colors — which permitted the printing of icon images on both tin and on paper.

Chromolithography — instead of using a single stone with an image engraved on it — used multiple stones, each engraved with the portion of the image corresponding to the required color of ink.  As the paper was printed by one stone after another, the image aquired a new color from each.  To achieve the desired tones and shading, as many as several dozen stones might be used to print one image.

To the average Russian, it was much less expensive to buy a printed icon than a painted icon.  And given that painted icons were essentially copies of rather standardized images — copies of copies of copies of copies — it seemed that icons and mass printing were an ideal combination.  Buyers no longer had to rely on a monochrome or hand-tinted print; now they could have printed images in color, which became quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, and hung in many homes of ordinary people — often framed behind glass.

Before the advent of chromolithography, Western European prints — in the form of engravings or woodcuts — already had a substantial influence on Russian religious art from the latter part of the 17th century, when the traditional stylized manner kept alive by the Old Believers began to be abandoned by the State Church in favor of the more “realistic” art of Western European Protestants and Catholics.  The effect of such prints on icon painting only increased in the 18th century.

Black and white lithographic printing — printing from an engraved stone — was developed in Germany in the late 18th century, and spread to Russia, where both lithographed and chromolithographed paper religious images began to appear in the 1830s-1840s.  Lithographs of one kind or another were printed as early as 1858 in the icon painting village of Mstera, at the workshop of the one-time serf Ivan Aleksandrovich Golyshev (И.А. Голышев — 1838—1896), which produced until about 1885, when it gave way to larger printing companies that began producing chromolithographed paper icons en masse from about 1870 — factories such as that of Efim Ivanovich Fesenko (Ефим Иванович Фесенко — 1850–1926) in Odessa, which produced the icon of Nikita shown above.

Fesenko also printed a number of other icon types — all in the “Westernized” style adopted by the State Church, which by the late 19th century looked very much like religious images produced by Catholics in Western Europe. To our eyes, they look quite bland and saccharine.  Fesenko, by the way, managed to survive into the Soviet Era, and was made permanent director of what had previously been his own printing company, after the government nationalized it.

Another prominent chromolithographer of icons in Odessa at that time was the firm of Vilgelm/Wilhelm Til (Вильгельм Тиль), whose 1881 Catalog declared that with its publication, his firm had set itself the task to “make its products available — even at the farthest distance — to each and all wishing to buy for little money the representations of holy icons of worthy workmanship, and in full accord with the writings of the Orthodox Church, in that the greater part of the images are taken from icons in Russian monasteries and churches.

It added:

For 22 years there has been an institution in Odessa — closely known by many nearby rich monasteries, but hardly known to our village [rural] clergy. This firm is known by the name V. Til and Company.  It manufactures images of holy icons, for the most part copies of wonderworking [icons] — of various sizes, at a price accessible to every Orthodox Christian.”

So by the later years of the 19th century, chromolithography — lithographed images in multiple colors — had greatly expanded in Russia, and was just the latest trend in what had become a long tradition of borrowing from the West in icon art.

That was followed by the application of chromolithography to printing on tin rather than paper — the kind of metal icons produced by the famous Moscow firm of Jacquot and Bonacœur (in Russian Жако и Бонакер / Zhako i Bonaker), examples of which are still found on the antique icon market today.  Those colorful images, which had a richer appearance than chromolithographs on paper,  drew even more customers away from painted to printed icons, and the business of the traditional hand-painted icon workshops declined sharply.  The painters could not easily compete, and some began turning to cheaply-painted icons in an attempt to somehow stay in business.

So threatened was the long tradition of Russian icon painting, that in 1900 Tsar Nicholas II established a special committee for its preservation, the Комитет попечительства о русской иконописи / Komitet popechitel’stva o russkoy ikonopisi — “Committee for Guardianship of Russian Icon Painting.”  It had three objectives:

  1.  The banning of printed icons;
  2.  The printing of podlinniki — painter’s manuals — to preserve the old traditions of how saints and scenes were depicted.
  3.  The establishment of workshops for the teaching of icon painting.

It was too little too late. The printed icon business had become well-established and heavily patronized in Russia.  To bring out the big guns, the “Holy Governing Synod” of the Russian Orthodox Church attempted to ban the printing of icons in monasteries and churches, and even attempted to stop the sale of the tin icons of Jaquot and Bonaker.  They failed miserably.  For ordinary Russians, it was a matter of economics.  Printed icons, whether on paper or tin, were much less expensive than painted icons, and easily served the same purpose.  When one considers icons not as “art” but as religious implements made for a purpose, there is no difference.

The icon painting workshops continued their severe decline into the last days of the reign of Tsar Nicholas, and then came the blow that finished them off — the rise of the Russian Communist State.  That is when some of the old icon painters turned to other ways of making a living, like those of Palekh, who began to paint laquerware boxes with colorful images taken from fairy tales or from “Socialist life.”  As a general rule of thumb, the old period of Russian icon painting may be considered to have ended in 1917, though of course some icons were still painted later, here and there.

In 1944 the making of printed icons under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church began again, this time with silk-screened images — a process which lends itself easily the creation of icons, which had originally been painted by s system of layering colors much like that followed in silk screening.  And of course the revival of religious art — including painted icons — only increased with the fall of Communism.  Today Russia produces painted icons, printed icons, and silk-screened icons — among other kinds.  But the world has changed, and so has Russian culture.

Let’s look more closely at another icon printed by Fesenko, one of those included in his album of such chromolithographs.  Here is the Sobor Svaytuikh Semi Arkhangelov — the “Assembly of the Seven Archangels”:

It depicts the Archangels with their symbols (which may vary from icon to icon):
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a lily and lantern (but traditionally a vessel of medicaments), Gabriel with a chalice (traditionally a blossoming lily), /Seraphiel/Selaphiel with a crown (traditionally with hands crossed in prayer), Yegudiel with hands crossed in prayer (traditionally with a crown; in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers/roses, (traditionally on a white cloth).

If we look at the printing at the base, we see the title of the image, but we also see other information typical of such prints:

Оть С. Петербургского Духовного цензурного Комитета печатать дозволяется. С.-Петербургь, 3 Октября 1897 г.  Архимандрить Клименть. Хромолитография Е. И. Фесенко вь Одесе.
Собственность издания Хромолитографии Е. И. Фесенко вь Одесе

It means essentially:
“Printing approved by the St. Petersburg Spiritual Censorship Committee.  St. Petersburg, 3rd October, year 1897.  Archimandrite Kliment.  Chromolithography of E. I. Fesenko in Odessa.
Print property of the Chromolithography of E. I. Fesenko in Odessa.”

We see the approval of the censorship board, the place of approval, the date of approval, and the name of the approving cleric, as well as the name of the printer and place of publication.  So religious publications in Tsarist Russia — even prints — were subject to review by the censorship committee of the Synod, the authority at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church at that time.  Such censorship was rather like the “Imprimatur” found in books approved for printing by Roman Catholic authorities declaring them free of material contrary to approved doctrine.

Now let’s turn back to the fellow in the first image above — Nikita the Stylite.

According to tradition, Nikita was born in Pereslavl Zalesskiy in the 12th century.  He grew to become a violent and cruel tax collector, keeping a substantial portion of what he rapaciously took for himself.  That went on for years.

One day Nikita went to church, and there he was thunderstruck when he heard spoken the words of Isaiah 1:16-17:

Измыйтеся, (и) чисти будите, отимите лукавства от душ ваших пред очима Моима, престаните от лукавств ваших.  Научитеся добро творити, взыщите суда, избавите обидимаго, судите сиру и оправдите вдовицу….

Wash yourselves, and become  clean; remove the evil of your souls from before my eyes; cease from your evil.  Learn to do good, seek judgment, rescue the oppressed, judge the orphan and plead for the widow.”

He could not sleep that night.  The next morning, he decided to get the matter off his mind by throwing a party for his friends.  But when his wife was preparing food, she saw the meat running with blood, and when it was put in the cooking pot, she was horrified to find a bloody foam on the top, and then a human head popped up in it, along with an arm and a leg.  She ran to Nikita, and when he looked, he saw the same thing.  He realized that his evil ways as a plundering tax collector had been murder for the people.

He then went to the Nikitskiy Monastery not far from Pereslavl.  There he confessed his evil deeds with tears, but the hegumen was not certain of his repentance.  So he told Nikita to show his sincerity by standing at the Monastery gate, telling all who passed by of his evil deeds.  Nikita agreed to this, and began carrying out his penance.  He declared his evil ways to all passing, for three days.  Then he went to a dirty, swampy place, took off all his clothes, and sat down naked in the mucky water, praying to God.  When the hegumen sent a monk to check on him, he found Nikita sitting in the swamp, covered with mosquitoes and blood.

Viewing that as a sign of sincere repentance, the hegumen took Nikita into the monastery and made him a monk.

Once he had become a monk, Nikita became fanatical about it, spending sleepless nights in prayer and fasting.  He had terrifying visions, which he interpreted as the wiles of the devil, and so he made the sign of the cross and called on the Great Martyr Nikita for aid.  It is said that through all of these privations and prayers, Nikita gained the ability to work miracles, and he became noted locally as a healer.

Prince Mikhail of Chernigov suffered from a kind of paralysis … and when he heard about the abilities of Nikita, he ordered that he be taken to see him.  The tradition relates that on the way,  the retinue met a monk who said he was from Nikita’s monastery.  Mikhail asked the monk about the supposed wonderworker, and the fellow replied that Nikita was just a fake — a deceiver.

After the Prince had continued some distance farther, he met another fellow who told the Prince he was wasting his time going to see Nikita.  Nonetheless, the Prince proceeded, and when his retinue neared the monastery, he ordered a tent erected, and sent a boyar to the monastery to inform them that he wanted to see Nikita.

Before the boyar arrived, a monk appeared to him — blind, and holding a shovel in his hands.  He said that Nikita had died, and that he had just buried him.

Now the boyar was a clever fellow, and realized that these different  men who were trying to obstruct the visit of the Prince to Nikita were all just a demon taking on different forms.  So he spoke a prayer that made the demon stand immovable just where he was, while the boyar went on to see Nikita, who was living atop a pillar.  He told him of the Prince’s affliction, and Nikita gave him his staff to take to the Prince.  When the Prince held the staff, he was able to stand wand walk on his own legs to see the saint.

When Nikita was told about the mischievous obstructing demon, he commanded the demon to stand motionless before his pillar, where everyone could see him, for three hours (notice the common “three” motif here?).  After the time was up, the demon swore an oath that he would never do evil again, and vanished.  The Prince made a rich gift to the monastery, and returned home.  Nikita continued to work miracles of healing, and his fame grew.

Some relatives came to see him to ask for help.  They saw that Nikita had burdened himself by wearing chains to which three crosses were fastened, as penance.  Now these chains had been worn to a shining condition by constant rubbing against Nikita’s body, and the relatives, seeing this, mistakenly thought they were made of silver.  They made an evil plan to steal them.  So they came by night to Nikita’s pillar, killed him, wrapped his chains and crosses in a canvas, and absconded.  So Nikita died violently on the 24th of May, 1186.

The next morning a cleric discovered the body and informed the hegumen, who found it still warm and emitting a fragrance.

The robbers, meanwhile, had reached the Volga River.  When they opened their cloth to look at the chains, they were so disgusted to find them merely polished iron that they threw them in the river, not far from the Monastery of St. Peter near the city of Yaroslavl.

The next night a monk from the St. Peter Monastery, named Simeon, noticed three brilliantly-shining pillars not far from the shore, reaching from earth to heaven.  When he told the arkhimandrite, he — together with the head of the city and a crowd of people — went to the river bank.  As they did so, they saw the chains miraculously rise to the surface of the water, and float like dry wood to the shore.  Seeing this, they took the chains, and singing hymns, set off with them toward the city.  On the way they met a lame man, who was healed when touched by the crosses on the chains.  They worked more healing miracles, and later Nikita himself appeared to Simeon, telling him that the chains should be placed on Nikita’s coffin.  So they were taken from Yaroslavl to Pereslavl and placed in the tomb with Nikita’s body.

Now as we can see, this all forms a kind of folk tale, which is typical of the stories of the Eastern Orthodox saints.

We should take a look at the scroll held by Nikita, showing his most common inscription:

It reads:



Ruler Christ, Tsar, forgive me, a fallen one; raise the one lost in vice from the excrement of sin.



Here is a 19th century icon from a private collection:

You will recognize from a past posting that the central figure, wearing the crown of thorns here, is that of  the “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” (Спас в темнице / Spas v temnitse,  Спас Полуночный / Spas Polunochnuiy). 

The more elaborate icon on this page combines that basic image of Christ imprisoned with the Instruments of the Passion.  So we can title this expanded icon Христос в Темнице с Орудиями Страстей — Khristos v Temnitse s Orudiyami Strastey — “Christ in the Dungeon with the Arms of the Passion.”  “Arms” or “weapons” here is to be understood in the sense in which it is used in a “coat of arms.”  In other words these are symbols — the instruments of the Passion story of Jesus.  These symbolic Arma Christi (in Latin) — “Arms of Christ”  date as far back as the Middle Ages in Catholic Christianity.

As you might have guessed, this late Russian icon type is derived from Roman Catholic imagery.

On it, we see a number of inscriptions.  Most just identify the various objects, but we will look at one more closely.  We have to turn this part of the image sideways to read the inscription:

It reads:

Разделиша ризы моя себе и даша в снедь мне [мою] желчь
Razdelisha rizui moya sebe i dasha v sned’ mne [moiu] zhelch’

“They parted my garments among them and for my raiment cast lots.”

Though based on Psalm 22:18 (21:18 in the Church Slavic Bible), repeated in Matthew 27:35, the text here is closer to a variant in liturgical use.

It is not difficult to identify all the other objects.

At left is the pillar to which Jesus was tied when flogged.  Atop it, we see the rooster that crowed three times as Peter denied Jesus:

At bottom left is the scourge used to beat Jesus.
To the right of the base of the pillar is the chalice of the Last Supper.
Below it is the robe of Jesus.
Below that are the hammer and nails used to crucify Jesus,  and the pincer with which the nails were removed.

Between the chained legs of Jesus we see the dice cast for his garment, and below his feet is the pouch that held the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed him, with the silver pieces scattered beside it.  Below them are rods used to whip Jesus.  Above the coins is the knife/sword Peter used to cut off the ear of the the servant of the High Priest.

Above the sword is the pitcher of water Pilate used for washing his hands.

On the right side we see the lance with its point at left, the sponge on a reed at right, and the ladder of the “Removal from the Cross.”

The only remaining object is the hand at lower right, which represents the hand which slapped Jesus.

This is not a common icon type.





In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is an ornate, rectangular cloth used in the services of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  It is placed on the altar and on a table in the center of the church, and it is also carried in ritual procession.

In ritual use, it represents the removal from the cross, burial, body, and tomb of Jesus.

In Greek it is commonly called an Epitaphios (Ἐπιτάφιος) or Epitaphion, meaning “on/over the tomb.”  Russians call it a Plashchanitsa (Плащаница) — a “Shroud.”

It is decorated — commonly embroidered but sometimes painted, or both — with either the iconographic type of the Deposition (the “Placing in the Tomb”) or with the dead body of Jesus alone.

On Russian examples, there is generally an embroidered inscription around the outer border.  Usually it is the Good Friday Vespers Troparion, tone 2:

Благообразный Иосиф с древа снем Пречистое Тело Твое, плащаницею чистою обвив, и вонями во гробе нове покрыв положи.

Blagoobraznuiy Iosif  s dreva snem Prechistoe Telo Tvoe, plashchanitseiu chistoiu obviv, i vonyami vo grobe nove pokruiv polozhi.

“The noble Joseph took from the tree your most pure body, wrapped it in a clean shroud, and with spices laid it in burial in a new tomb.”

When that troparion is sung, the plashchanitsa is carried in procession before being placed on a table in the center of the church.  Often that table is ornamented with flowers and candles, and is the symbolic “tomb” in which the plashchanitsa (“the body”) is placed.

Sometimes, however, there is a different inscription, particularly on older examples.

Here is a plashchanitsa from the year 1662.  As you see, it has a long vyaz (meaning with some letters linked and others and pushed close together — “condensed” — by using larger and smaller letters) inscription around the outer border:

(Vologda Oblast Regional Museum)

In the center is a rather standard “Placing in the Tomb” (Положение во гроб  Polozhenie vo Grob) icon type, which the Greeks call Επιτάφιος Θρήνος — Ho Epitaphios Threnos — “The Weeping/Lamentation over the Tomb.”

In the four inner corners are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

Let’s look closer to see some inscriptions:

By the angel symbol at left, we can make out МАТФЕ for МАТФЕИ –Matfei — “Matthew.”

Next comes МАРФА — Marfa — “Martha.”

Then МАРИЯ –Mariya — “Mary.”

And the woman below is ΜΡ ΘΥ  abbreviating Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”

By that inscription, we see the common IC XC abbreviation for Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”

At right we see the inscriptions for ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ — Gospod Savaof — “Lord Sabaoth,” God the Father.  And below him is the СВЯТЫ ДУХЪ — Svyatui Dukh — “Holy Spirit” in the form of a dove.

The face at the right is that of ИОАН–Ioan — “John” the Apostle.

Here is the right portion of the central image:

We see ИОСИФЪ —Iosif — “Joseph” at left.
Beside him is НИОДИМЬ —Nikodim — “Nicodemus.”  And at right is an eagle, the symbol here for МАРКО — Marko — “Mark” the Evangelist.

Now there is the long border inscription to deal with.  It might seem intimidating at first, but remember that when you see an inscription you do not recognize, the first step is not to throw up one’s hands in dismay, but rather to begin looking for any familiar words.

So let’s see what we can do by that methodology.  Here is the inscription separated into parts for easier viewing.  Remember that inscriptions usually begin in the upper left-hand corner, so that is where we shall start:

Let’s look closer at the very beginning.  It is helpful, when trying to decipher an inscription, to write the letters down:


We can put it into all large letters too, and transliterate it:

Wait — doesn’t that beginning DAMOLCHIT sound vaguely familiar?  It should.  We have seen it before in this earlier posting (and of course you remember everything in earlier postings here, don’t you?):

There we see it as the beginning of this text:

Да молчит всякая плоть человеча, и да стоит со страхом и трепетом, и ничтоже земное в себе да помышляет; Царь бо царствующих, и Господь господствующих, приходит заклатися и датися в снедь верным. Предходят же Сему лицы ангельстии со всяким Началом и Властию, многоочитии Херувими, и шестокрилатии Серафими, лица закрывающе, и вопиюще песнь: Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя.

Da molchit vsyakaya plot chelovecha, i da stoit so strakhom i trepetom, i
nichtozhe zemnoe v sebe da pomuishlyaet; Tsar bo tsarsvuiushchikh, i Gospod
gospodstvuiushchikh, prikhodit zaklatisya i datisya v sned vernium.  Predkhodyat zhe Semu litsui angelstii so vsyakim Nachalom i Vlasiiu, mnogoochitii
Kheruvimi, i shestokrilatii Seraphimi, litsa zakruivaiushche, i vopiiushche pesn:
Alliluya, Alliluya, Alliluya.

Let all human flesh be silent, and let it stand with fear and trembling, and let itself consider nothing earthly; for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords comes forth to be sacrificed and given as food to the believers; and there go before him the choirs of Angels, with every Dominion and Power, many-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces, and singing out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

And if we look at the inscription, we can see that even though our embroidered version says vsyaka plot as the third and fourth words instead of vsyakaya plot, we can consider that just a shortening of the word — such differences are common in old inscriptions.  But the important thing is that if we go on and write down and transliterate the rest of it, we find it to be very much the same as the “Da molchit” inscription we see in the earlier Eucharistic icon.  And we know from that posting that this text is the excerpt from the Liturgy of St. Basil, used in the Eucharistic celebration on Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter Sunday) in place of the usual “Cherubic Hymn.”

Here is the remainder of the border inscription, in case you want to practice you vyaz.  It is  read from top to the right border to left border to bottom:

Right side:

Left side:

Bottom left:

Bottom right:

If we look at the right half of that last bottom part — beginning near the middle, we can see this sequence:


It is not difficult to recognize three repetitions of ALLILUIYA — in English form Alleluia/Hallelujah.  So that just confirms that we have the right text, as we could see if we transliterate the whole thing bit by bit.

Да молчит всякая плоть человеча, и да стоит со страхом и трепетом, и ничтоже земное в себе да помышляет; Царь бо царствующих, и Господь господствующих, приходит заклатися и датися в снедь верным. Предходят же Сему лицы ангельстии со всяким Началом и Властию, многоочитии Херувими, и шестокрилатии Серафими, лица закрывающе, и вопиюще песнь: Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя.

There still remain some inscriptions we must deal with.  Of course you will easily read the ИОАНЪ/IOAN/JOHN and  ЛУКА/LUKA/LUKE inscriptions beside the symbols of the two Evangelists at lower left and right, but there are two longer inscriptions as well.

There is:


That is a variation on an icon title with which we are already familiar — ПОЛОЖЕНИЕ ВО ГРОБЪ/POLOZHENIE VO GROB/”[the] PLACING IN THE TOMB”

Here it is a bit longer:


[The] Placing in [the] tomb [of the] Lord God and Savior of-us Jesus Christ.”

In normal English, “The Placing in the Tomb of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Having disposed of that one rather easily, we can go on to the last inscription:


It means essentially that Dmitriy Andreyevich Stroganov (Дмитрий Андреевич Строганов, died 1670) had this plashchanitsa (siya plashchantisa) made as a donation to a church.  Dmitriy was  a member of the very wealthy Stroganov family that gave its name to a school of icon painting.  In the year 1647, Dmitriy and his father Andrey owned — among other holdings — towns, villages, and 1, 488 serfs.


In Russian iconography, “Avvakum” usually means one of two things.  Either it is Avvakum the Prophet (Prorok Avvakum), or it is the unfortunate martyred Old Believer saint Archpriest Avvakum (Protopop Avvakum) who resisted the revisions of Church books and practices pushed through by Patriarch Nikon in the middle of the 17th century, and was killed for it.

Today we will look at Avvakum the Prophet.

Avvakum is just the Slavic form of the name of the Old Testament prophet found in the King James Version of the Bible as Habbakuk.  In the Greek Septuagint version, he is called Ἀμβακοὺμ ὁ προφήτης — Ambakoum ho prophetes — “Ambakoum the Prophet”.

Here is an 18th century image of Avvakum from the Prophets Tier of a Karelian Church.

(Kizhi Monastery, Karelia)

It is a folkish and pleasant image with a very nicely-written scroll.  The text is one often found on icons of Avvakum:

It reads:


Then in small letters at the base:
приосененныя чащи

priocenenuiya chashchi

AND [the] HOLY [one] F-
of shadowy thickets.

We could also transliterate IUGA (the South) as Yuga, and if we do it that way, it may remind you of the former country known as Yugoslavia — “South Slavia.”  That may help you to remember the meaning of ЮГ IUG/YUG “the South.”  The A added to the end of IUG in the inscription is a grammatical ending.

As you see in the icon, Avvakum is pointing to a thicket of trees.

Here is an earlier and more sophisticated icon

We can see that the inscription is much the same, but with the  absence of the word chashchi — “thickets/thick forests” at then end:



“God from the South comes, and the Holy One from the mountain of shadowy…

The text is taken from Avvakum/Habbakuk 3:3:

Бог от юга приидет, и святый из горы приосененныя чащи

“God from the South comes, and the Holy One from the mountain of shadowy thickets.”

The Septuagint Greek text is a bit different:

3 ὁ Θεὸς ἀπὸ Θαιμὰν ἥξει, καὶ ὁ ἅγιος ἐξ ὄρους κατασκίου δασέος.

Ho Theos apo Thaiman hexei, kai ho hagios ex orous kataskiou daseos

“God from Thaiman comes, and the Holy One from the mountain of  the shadowy thicket.”

The latter part of the Greek phrase is sometimes translated as “the mountain overshadowed by forests.”

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the “mountain of the shadowy thicket” or “overshadowing thicket” or “overshadowed by forests” is seen as a symbol of Mary, from whom God comes — i.e. from whom Jesus was born.  The Ode 4 First Canon from the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple says:

The overshadowed mountain that Habakkuk foresaw and announced prophetically in days of old has come to dwell within the sanctuary of the temple; there she has put forth flowers of virtue and with her shadow she covers the ends of the earth.

Of course this is really fanciful interpretation, and the King James version of Habbakuk 3:3 — based on the Masoretic Hebrew text — has no “shadowy thicket” or “overshadowing forest” at all:

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran.”

Both Teman and Paran, in the Old Testament, seem to be places associated with the desert region south of Israel — the direction of Edom and Sinai.

One of the bothersome things for students of iconography is that painters did not always give a prophet the same scroll text.  The following image of Avvakum has a scroll with a text that is obviously not the “mountain of shadowy thickets” one we have just seen:

Here is a closer view:

It reads:


It is adapted from the text we find in Avvakum 3:1 in the Ostrog Bible — the old version used by Old Believers:


We find another adaptation of it used in the Ode 4 Irmos of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:

Песнь 4 Ирмос: Услыша пророк пришествие Твое, Господи, и убояся, яко хощеши от Девы родитися и человеком явитися, и глаголаше: услышах слух Твой и убояхся, слава силе Твоей, Господи.

Ode 4: Irmos:
The prophet heard of your coming, Lord, and was afraid that you were to be born of a virgin and appear to men, and he said, ‘I have heard the report of you and am afraid.’ Glory to your power, Lord.
So whether a thicket/thickets or overshadowed forest or a prophet afraid, both  texts found on Avvakum icons are considered to relate, in Eastern Orthodoxy, to Mary, who gave birth to Jesus.  She is the “thicket” or “forest” to which Avvakum points in the first icon on this page.



Every now and then, someone asks me about the letters sometimes seen on Greek icons of Nicholas of Myra — specifically on his omophorion, the stole bishops wear about the neck.

Let’s look more closely:

They can be quite mystifying, but the mystery is easy to solve.

First, the most common are those seen on the right in the image above.  They should be read in this order:


Τhey abbreviate the Greek words


In full,

Φως Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι
Phos Khristou Phainei Pasi
“The light (PHos) of Christ (KHristou ) Shines (PHainei) on all (Pasi )

“The Light of Christ Shines Upon All.”

You may also see the last word in Greek as Πάσιν/pasin, with the same meaning.

During the weekdays of Lent, the Eucharistic liturgy — that is, the one in which the bread and wine are consecrated — is not used.  Instead the evening liturgy used is called the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.”  When communion is given during this vespers liturgy, the “gifts” used — that is, the bread and wine — were previously consecrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of the preceding Sunday.  That is why they are called “presanctified gifts.”

Now at one point in that Vespers communion liturgy, the priest looks at the icon of Christ and says:

Φώς Χριστού…
Phos Khristou
“The light of Christ…”

Then he turns to the congregation and says:

…φαίνει πάσι
phainei pasi.”
“…shines upon all.”

So that is the origin of the  ΦΧΦΠ.

Another abbreviation is also sometimes seen on the omophorion, as in the image on this page.  It is:


You may have already guessed that the IC is for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”  You will of course remember that on Greek icons the older form of “S” is C and the newer form Σ.

You might at first be puzzled by the N K, until you recall the very common cross abbreviation:

Iesous Khristos Nika
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”

And that is what the N K on the omophorion stands for:  N[I]K[A] — “[he] Conquers.”


If we were playing a “who is it” game, and I said to you, “Warrior saint, dragonslayer, saved princess,” you would probably answer “St. George.”  There is, however, another saint in icons who fits that description.  We would call him Theodore in English, though the Russians call him Feodor and the Greeks Theodoros.

In his “Lives of the Saints,” Dmitriy Rostovskiy (who was himself declared a saint) identified the dragonslayer Theodore as Theodore Stratelates (meaning “General”); but there is another warrior saint Theodore called Theodore Tiron (“Recruit”).  Here is a fresco from the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria depicting both:

(Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov )

Let’s look a bit closer.  Here is Theodore Tiron:

If you are a long time reader here, you should be easily able to read the title inscription as:
SVYATUIY FEODOR TIRON — “Holy Theodore Tiron.”

Tiron is just the transliterated Greek word Τήρων, meaning “Recruit.” 

Here is the other one:

SVYATUIY FEODOR STRATILAT — “Holy Theodore [the] General.”  Again, Stratilat is just a Slavicization of the Greek Στρατηλάτης, meaning “General.”  So this Theodore has a higher rank than the first:

The consensus of scholars, however, is that the second and higher ranked Theodore — Theodore Stratelates — Theodore the General — never existed, but is another of those fictional saints created in error.  He was mistakenly duplicated from Theodore Tiron, but given a higher rank.

The Bolshakov Podlinnik describes them like this:

Here is Theodore Stratelates, on February 9th:

Of holy Martyr Feodor Stratilat, rus hair like George, beard of Nikita the Martyr, in armor, robe cinnabar with white, cloak white, in the left hand a shield, on the head a reddish-purple helmet highlighted with cinnabar, in the hand a cross.

Then, on February 17th, we have Theodore Tiron:

Of the Holy Great Martyr Feodor Tiron, rus (light brown/dark blond), hair on the head curly, beard the length of Florus, in armor, armor all checkered gold, outer [robe] cinnabar, under armor green, leggings purplish black, in the right hand a cross, and in the left a sword.

Now we can easily see these descriptions do not fully match the Bulgarian depictions, but painters in different places often used other colors, so do not expect the Bolshakov Podlinnik to accurately describe all saints as they were depicted by different painters.