Here is an icon pattern from the Russian Stroganov Podlinnik   Today’s focus is on the fellow in the tree, shown in this example from the month of June:


The inscription above him — written in the handwriting style of the late 16th-early 17th century — reads:




ИЖЕ = IZHE is a Church Slavic word found often in the old painters’ manuals and in the calendar of saints.  It means approximately “which/who is,” “the one which is” or “the one who is.”  It often distinguishes saints by the place traditionally associated with them.  When used of saints in this manner,  it means loosely “the one in…”  In today’s case, this David, to distinguish him from others, is “the one in Thessaloniki.

So all together, it means:

Our Venerable Father David, the one in Thessaloniki;
Grey, habit in ochre with white.

The first part of the text identifies the saint:  David of Thessaloniki.   The second part tells how to paint him: Grey (hair and beard), and his monastic habit ochre with white.

Being of Thessaloniki, David is one of the many Greek saints celebrated in Russian Orthodoxy as well.  Here is a Greek icon of him:


Being in red, the inscription above the saint is a bit difficult to make out, but it looks to be much the same as the usual inscription for him in Greek icons: O όσιος Δαβίδ ο εν Θεσσαλονίκη — in old pronunciation, Ho Hosios Dabid, ho en Thessaloniki, but in modern Greek, O Osios David o en Thessaloniki.  You will recall that Hosios/Osios is the title used for a monastic male saint in Greek.

The icon shows David sitting in his almond tree residence, and a non-saint kneeling at right.  We know he is not a saint because he has no halo.

At left is seated a crowned figure identified by another red inscription, partly abbreviated as:

Ο Προφήτης Δαβίδ
Ho Prophetes Dabid/O Prophetes David

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the King David of the Old Testament is commonly titled as “Prophet.”  In this Greek icon, King David holds a scroll reading:

δικαιος ως φοινιξ ανθησει ωσει κεδρος

That is an excerpt from Psalm 92:12 (91:13 Septuagint):
δίκαιος ὡς φοῖνιξ ἀνθήσει, ὡσεὶ ἡ κέδρος ἡ ἐν τῷ Λιβάνῳ πληθυνθήσεται.
The righteous shall flourish as a palm-tree: he shall be increased as the cedar in Lebanon.

Remember that in icons, people speak through their scrolls, like in cartoon bubbles.  So King David is saying that David of Thessaloniki is one of the righteous, and of course the mention of two kinds of trees relates to David of Thessaloniki living in a tree.

The figure shown in the clouds above is of course Jesus.

So much for the linguistic and symbolic aspect of these images.  But just who was David of Thessaloniki, and why did he live in a tree?

Well, you know from earlier postings about the odd kind of saint called a “stylite,” one who lives on a pillar.  The term for tree-dwelling saints is “dendrite.”  So David of Thessaloniki is a dendrite.

To make a long story short, David is said to have been an ascetic monk living roughly between 450-550 c.e.  He was thought to have come to Thessaloniki in Greece from Mesopotamia.  He entered the monastery of Saints Theodore and Merkourios.  While there, he somehow got it into his head that the thing to do was to make his dwelling up in the branches of the almond tree that grew beside the monastery church.  He thought that if he did that, he would somehow learn God’s will for him.  So he lived in the tree in the heat of summer and cold of winter for three years.  After that time, an angel appeared to him, saying that God had heard his prayers, but that it was time for David to climb down and live in a monastic cell like other monks.  Because of his eccentric asceticism, David gained a local reputation as a holy man and healer, and was visited by many people seeking his help.

For some reason, these stories tend to leave out details such as how the fellow living in the tree managed the sanitary necessities of being a human, but then such things are seldom mentioned in hagiography.

Greek icons of David of Thessaloniki often have him holding a scroll upon which is written:

Μοναχός εστιν αληθώς ο μηδέν έχων εν τω παρόντι βίω ει μη μόνον τον Χριστόν.

It means loosely:

“The true monk is one who in this life has nothing but Christ.”



In early Russia, it was not the custom to paint persons other than Bible figures and saints.  And of course those were painted in the traditional stylized manner.  When the painting of secular portraits first began to be accepted in the 16th century, they were done with the same techniques and stylization used in painting religious icons, as in this portrait of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible.”  So the techniques of icon painting, it was found, could be put to other use.


When the Communists took control of Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century and made painting religious icons impractical, the workers in the noted icon-painting village of Palekh turned instead to painting scenes of fairy tales and foklore, again using techniques learned in icon painting.

I was recently quite surprised to find that a very talented young woman in my part of the country has come up with her own very innovative use of the methods of the icon painting tradition.  Her name is Olga Volchkova.  Olga was born in Russia, and studied at the Tver Art School, at the Tver Icon Painting School, and also studied oil restoration at the Grabar Institute.  And in her words, she has “canonized plants” — has given them anthropomorphic form, extolling their virtues (and occasionally, dangers) in the form of saints.

I was happy to receive Olga’s permission to show some of her work here.  All photos are copyrighted by Olga Volchkova.

Here is her manifestation of the Saffron Flower:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

Here is “St. Calla Lily”:

(Couresty of Olga Volchkova:

Here is her “Holy Spirit of Herbs”:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

This is her stylized depiction of the poisonous flower Aconite:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

Here is “Black Tulip”:

Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

This is her visual ode to the potato.  She says the little fellow at the top, where one usually finds “Lord Sabaoth” in conventional icons, is the “Potato God.”

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

Here is “St. Cyani” the Bachelor Button (Centaurea cyanus); note the bicycle in the background:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

This is a more conventional saint, Crispin.  You may recall that according to tradition, he was a shoemaker, the patron saint of cobblers:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

And finally, here is St. Watermelon.  Note the seed decoration around his neck:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova:

As you can see from these examples, there is much that a creative artist can do with the skills used for icon painting.  No doubt some conservatives may wish to take offense at the playful “canonizing” of plants, but to them I would say, “Get a sense of humor.”  One could do worse than to recall in visual form all that plants do for us.

To see more of Olga’s unique “plant icons,” go to her site:



In a previous posting, I discussed the icon type known as the “Myrrh-bearing Women” (  There we looked at a Russian example, and encountered some of the discrepancies among New Testament accounts of the Resurrection.

It is generally believed that the Gospel called “of Mark” was the first to be written, and that both that called “of Matthew” and that “of Luke” were merely edited expansions of the text of Mark.  It is noteworthy that Mark has no birth story of Jesus and no story of resurrection appearances of Jesus, both of which were added to the beginning and end of “Mark” and “Luke.” The post-resurrection appearance of Jesus now found in Mark 16 (after verse 8) was added later. The Gospel called “of John” has no birth story, but it does have a resurrection account, and just as Matthew and Luke differ from one another significantly in telling their tales, so does John differ from both.  All of the resurrection stories in the Gospels have substantial discrepancies.

That brings us back to the icon of the “Myrrh-bearing Women,” the image of the women coming to the tomb of Jesus early Eastern morning and finding that his body was not there.  As we saw in the previous posting, the Gospel accounts differ on just who came to the tomb and why.

Let’s look at a fresco of the Myrrh-Bearing Women from the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos in Greece:


In it we see two women bearing vessels of myrrh, and at the right two angels.  The Gospels disagree on the number present.  The painter here seems to have gone with “Matthew” for the number of women (“Mary and the other Mary”) and with Luke and John for the number of angels (Matthew has only one).   We see the empty tomb with the linen graveclothes in it, and below are the unconscious Roman soldiers who, according to “Matthew,” were set to guard the tomb (the other Gospel accounts have no soldiers).

The common inscription usually found on Greek icons of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” is simply Αἱ Μυροφόροι in Greek — Hai Myrophoroi — pronounced “ay mee-ro-FOR-ee” in modern Greek.  It means simply “The Myrrh-bearers.”  But in the Dionysiou fresco, we do not see that title.  Instead, we find this inscription:


It reads:


As you can see, we find linked letters used.  We see a “τ” atop an “o,” and a “v” atop an “o.”  Those linkages give us “to” and “ou.”  And we also find an abbreviated word, KC for ΚΥΡΙΟC  So we can transliterate the inscription as:


Remember that if you see an inscription you have not encountered before, look for any familiar words.  You know TOPOS from the English word “topography.”  Topos means “place” in Greek.  And if you read my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the common word HO as the masculine form of “the.”  And the last word KYRIOS you should know means “Lord.”  So we can understand this much:


Now if you are familiar with the New Testament — as every student of icons should be — even this small translated amount, when connected with the illustration of the empty tomb, should remind you of the words of the angel to the women in the Gospel of Matthew, 28:6:

…see the place where the Lord lay.

And in fact that is what the inscription means.  In the Greek New Testament it is found as:

Δεῦτε, ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο ὁ κύριος.
Deuter, idete    ton topon hpou   ekeito  ho kurios
Come, see      the   place  where lay      the Lord

In the Dionysiou fresco, there is also a small inscription just above the tomb:

It reads:


The Α (a) and Γ(g) are linked together, and the ς (s) is placed below the O.

Transliterated, it reads:


A taphos is a grave, sepulchre, or tomb.

Now very interestingly, if we look at the different Gospel accounts of what the angel (or angels) at the tomb supposedly says to the women, we get an insight into how the writers of Matthew and Luke  altered the original Markan speech.  Let’s examine them:

MARK 16:

You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, the crucified.  He is risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.


For I know that Jesus, the crucified, you seek; he is not here, for he is risen, as he said.  Come see the place where he lay.  And go quickly, tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.  And behold, he goes before you into Galilee.  There you will see him.  Behold, I have told you.

LUKE 24:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here but is risen.  Remember how he spoke to you, being still in Galilee, saying the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men…

What in Mark is a prediction made by Jesus that they would see him in Galilee becomes in Matthew a prediction made by the angel that they would see Jesus in Galilee, and in Luke it is changed even more drastically to become something that Jesus predicted in Galilee of his crucifixion!

Why would Luke want to change this statement that the disciples were to see the risen Jesus in Galilee to something quite different that Jesus had formerly said in Galilee?  The answer is simple, but surprising to those who do not read the Bible carefully.  In Matthew, the disciples go to Galilee after the resurrection and see the risen Jesus there.  But in Luke, the disciples do not go to Galilee.  Instead, Luke has Jesus appear to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus that same day, and again on that same day, he appears to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Luke has no appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee, so he had to eliminate the prediction found in Mark and Matthew, and he did so by changing it to a prediction Jesus made in Galilee that he would be crucified.

It becomes quite obvious, then, that the writers of the Gospels used the materials they had for their own purposes, altering them as they saw fit.  “Gospel truth” is not the same as historical truth.  So when reading the Bible, as in reading the hagiographic accounts of saints’ lives, it is always wise to keep in mind the saying of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess:  “It ain’t necessarily so.”



Today we will take a look at the the  “Ascension” type, called Voznesenie in Russia, and in Greek icons He Analepsis Η ΑΝΑΛΗΨΙΣ..
In the Bible, we find Ascension narratives only in the Gospel attributed to Luke and in the book of Acts.  Both are rather minimal.  There is also a very brief mention in the Gospel called “of Mark,” but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is a later addition.

Here is a pleasant late Russian example of the Ascension type painted in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of

The Church Slavic inscription reads ВОЗНЕСЕНИЕ ГОСОДНЕ — Voznesenie Gospodene — “Ascension of the Lord.”

At both sides are Twelve Apostles, identified by inscription as “Apostles of the Lord.”  And in the center, as is common in “Ascension” icons, stands Mary.

Above is Jesus, rising into heaven in a circle of light carried by two angels.  Note that Jesus sits on a rainbow.  That element (not mentioned in the Gospels) comes from two main sources, the first being the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 1:

26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The second source is the book of Revelation, the “Apocalypse of John”:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

What we see in this icon, then, is not the usual Western European depiction of a standing Jesus slowly rising into the clouds, but rather a depiction of Jesus raised up to the heavenly throne on which he sits and is said to come in judgment.

Here is an earlier image of the Ascension found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, usually dated to the 6th century, though the book as a whole may be a composite volume of more than one date.  This depiction borrows elements from Ezekiel and from the Revelation:

In it, Jesus is not seated but standing, and there is no rainbow.  There are six “standard” angels (four above, two beside Mary).  Two hold the oval in which Jesus stands, two approach Jesus with wreaths of victory, and two look toward the apostles. But just below Jesus, we see a creature with four faces, wings filled with eyes, and wheels at both sides.  This too comes from Ezekiel 1 and from the Revelation 4.  The four heads, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, symbolize the four Evangelists Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.  The wheels, in Eastern Orthodox theology, are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

If you look carefully to upper left and right of the image, you will see the moon and the sun depicted as living beings.  Here is the moon:

And here the sun:

If we look at the group of Apostles, we see there are twelve.  As the Gospels relate, at the time of the Ascension there were only eleven, Judas having betrayed Jesus and committed suicide.  But the Rabbula image and many later examples of the Ascension add Paul as a twelfth apostle in the type (the twelfth was actually Matthias, chosen after the ascension and not depicted in it).  Of course the presence of Paul is an anachronism, but Eastern Orthodoxy likes to see the Ascension icon as also an image of the Church, and so we see Mary at center (also considered an image of the Church on her own), as well as those apostles later considered the two chief apostolic founders of the Church, Peter and Paul.

Here is a much later Russian example that has neither rainbow nor the symbols of the Evangelists nor “Thrones” nor Paul.  It is influenced not only by Western and less anachronistic depictions of the Ascension, but also shows the increased realism favored by the State Church in later times”  Here the three chief figures at bottom are Mary, the Apostle Peter at left, and the Apostle John at right:

(Courtesy of

Here is another Russian example, this time again painted in the traditional “stylized” manner, with much attention given to the hill from which Jesus is rising:

(Courtesy of

The Ascension type is found not only as a separate icon, but also in icons showing the Resurrection and major Church festivals.

Now the interesting thing about Ascension icons is that they perpetuate right into modern times the ancient, pre-scientific notion of a universe that has humans living on a flat earth above which is a solid firmament, and above that firmament is not only a sea but also the throne of God.  “Heaven” in traditional Jewish and Christian belief was the sky, so of course when Jesus ascends, he ascends into the sky.  Now, however, thanks to science, we know that the firmament is not a solid dome, that there is no sea above it, and no throne room of God up there, where he sits like an ancient king.  Consequently, many modern Christians, in an attempt to adapt, have begun thinking of Heaven not as the sky, but as somehow in a separate dimension.  That view, however, is not in keeping with the Ascension icons nor with biblical accounts.  But early Christians, not knowing that the earth was round, and not knowing that the earth is only a tiny particle in an immense universe, thought that all Jesus had to do to reach Heaven was to go up.  Of course “up” would take one in multiple and different directions of space, depending on where and when on the globe one went up, as the earth revolves in its path around the sun.  And we know that one can go light years (the distance light travels in a year) in any direction and not find a physical Heaven as described in the Old and New Testaments.  All this provides major problems for today’s “literalist” Christians, which is why they tend not to think about the matter.


You already know that in Eastern Orthodoxy, there are lists of saints popularly believed to help with specific problems and saints who are “patrons” of this and that.  For example, Nicholas of Myra became a popular patron of Russian sailors, among other things.  And the Russian monks Zosima and Savvatiy were the patrons of beekeeping.  St. Triphon/Trifon was the fellow you prayed to if you had trouble with flocks of geese.

It is similar in other countries where Eastern Orthodoxy is found.  There is a female saint — almost unknown outside Eastern Orthodoxy — whose specialty in popular Greek thought is to make women pregnant.  How does she do this?  With apples.

Now throughout the world, in folk belief, different cultures had many different methods believed to help a woman conceive.  In Cornwall, a female who wanted a baby could have her helpers pass her — feet first — through a large Neolithic stone with a hole in it it called the Men-an-tol ring stone.  It had to be done during a full moon, and it had to be done seven times.

(Photo: Nilfanion, Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Nilfanion, Wikimedia Commons)

The saint who provides the same service — but with apples — dates to the ninth century.  Her name is Irene Chrysovalantou.  Her popularity, however, is rather modern, which accounts for the recent date of most of her icons.

You will recall that there was a huge controversy over the painting and veneration of icons in the 800s c.e.  It was not practiced by the earliest Christians, but seeped into Christianity from the “pagan” fringes, and it took centuries to be officially approved in the Church.  Finally the veneration of icons was officially enforced by the Byzantine Empress Theodora in the year 843.

Theodora had a son named Michael (aged twelve), and she wanted to find a suitable bride for him.  She sent out searchers who found an appropriately virtuous and beautiful girl of noble birth in Cappadocia.  On the journey bringing her back with them to Constantinople, the searchers allowed the girl — named Irene — to make a little side trip to visit a noted hermit who lived on Mount Olympus and get his blessing.  The hermit Ioannikos did not see just anybody, but Irene was special.  And when he met her, he not only blessed her but told her she should go to the Monastery of Chrysovalantou in Constantinople, where she would become the guide of the nuns there.  At least so the story goes.

As these things happen, when Irene arrived in the big city, she found her prospective husband, the pre-teen Michael, had already found another bride.  So Irene gave away her worldly possessions, went to the Monastery of Chrysovalantou, and became a nun there.  She was eventually made the treasurer and purchasing agent for the monastery.  As time passed, she began a very ascetic life.  And when the old Abbess died, the Patriarch Methodios of Constantinople chose Irene to be the new leader of the monastery.  Chrysovalantou, by the way, comes from χρυσος (Khrysos)  meaning “golden” and βαλαντιο (valantio) meaning “purse”).

Icons of Irene are not difficult to recognize, though one can generally expect them to be recent to quite modern.  Her icons are identified by the presence of an angel and by three apples, and often bending cypress trees.

The angel comes from the story that Irene prayed for clairvoyance so that she might better guide the nuns under her care.  God sent her an angel who stayed by her and told her everything about the private lives of the nuns — so no one in the monastery from that time on had any secrets the angel did not reveal to the Abbess Irene.

Irene continued her ascetic practices, with visions of demons, one of whom even set her clothes on fire.  She would stand all night in the yard of the monastery, praying with her arms raised, and they became so stiff that other nuns had to push them down in the mornings, and it is said one could hear the cracking noise as they were pushed down.

One day the nuns noticed handkerchiefs tied to the tips of two tall cypress trees in the yard, and wondered how anyone could have reached so high.  But a nun had seen Irene praying in the yard at night, and saw that not only was the Abbess levitated about six feet above the ground, but also that the two cypresses had bowed their tops toward the ground in veneration of her.  It was Irene who had tied handkerchiefs to the tops of the cypresses as they bowed to her.

But why apples, and how did that “eat an apple and get pregnant” belief begin?  It is said that one night Irene heard a voice telling her to welcome a sailor who would bring fruit to her that day.  Nuns found the sailor outside the gate, and brought him to the Abbess.    He told her he was from the Island of Patmos (where according to legend John the Evangelist had lived in a cave).  He and his shipmates were sailing past the far end of the island when they heard an old man shouting for them to stop.  But the coast was rocky, so the sailors made to continue on.  But the old man — who was John the Apostle and Evangelist — shouted again, and the ship stopped still in the water.  The old fellow walked across the waves to the ship, and took three apples out of his garments.  He told the sailors the apples were from Paradise, and that they were to give them to the Patriarch Methodios.  Then he took out three more very large and fragrant apples from Paradise, and asked the sailors to give them to Abbess Irene at the Chrysovalantou Monastery.  Then John disappeared and the ship moved forward in the water again.

It is said that Irene ate a piece of one of the apples every day for forty days, and no other food or water.  And when she ate a piece, her mouth became so fragrant that all the nuns in the monastery could smell it.  She gave the second apple to the nuns for them to divide and eat, and they too became fragrant and very happy.  The third apple she kept uneaten until finally she consumed it shortly before her death.

That accounts for the three apples seen in icons of Irene.  And in Greek Orthodoxy, it is believed that if a woman brings an apple to the church to be blessed on July 28th, the day of commemoration of Irene, that apple will have the power to make her conceive, if she fasts for three days before eating it (and paradoxically has no sexual relations during that time).

The original Chrysovalantou Monastery in Constantinople was destroyed some time after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.  A new monastery was founded in her name not far from Athens, in Greece, in 1930, with legends saying the nun had appeared and authorized its site during construction.

The new Irene Chrysovalantou monastery is in Lykovrisi.  Its apples are much in demand by women who want “really effective” sacred apples to make them pregnant, and Eastern Orthodox believers from all over the world still make donations to that Monastery, requesting in return a slice of the “sacred apple” to make them conceive or to supposedly heal other ills.  In the Monastery there is a kind of “no guarantees” sign in Greek reading τρωος πιστευεις ελπηζεις — “You eat, you believe, you hope.”

Here is an icon painted (as the inscription says) by a monk named Mikhail at Karyes Monastery on Mount Athos in 1983.  The title inscription at the top reads:





In the icon, we see the angel, the three apples, the bending cypress with a handkerchief tied to its top, as well as the nun peeking out behind the door and seeing Irene with the tree bowing to her.

The Lykovrisi (Λυκόβρυση) Monastery also has a so-called “miracle-working” icon of Irene — decked out in coins and other votive objects —  painted by a monk of Athos named Nektarios in 1919.  He was later martyred by the Turks.  The recent founding of the Monastery dedicated to Irene and the publicity surrounding its “sacred apples” accounts for why St. Irene Chrysovolantou icons tend to be from the 20th century or later.  She is usually titled either Οσία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Hosia Eirene Khrysovalantou) or Αγία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Hagia Eirene Khrysovalantou).  You will recall that Hosia is the title for a nun, and Hagia means “holy” or more loosely “saint.”

By coincidence, today — August 19th — is an “apple” holiday in Slavic Countries.  It is a pre-Christian celebration that after the conversion to Christianity became known as Яблочный Спас (Yablochnuiy Spas), meaning “Apple Savior.”  It is also called “Second Savior,” because there is a “First Savior” holiday on August 14th, called “Honey Savior” ( Медовый Спас — (Medovnuiy Spas).   Apple Savior is a popular seasonal marker, considered the beginning of cooler weather and Autumn (though the temperature where I am is expected to reach 102 degrees today).  Officially it is the Church celebration of the Transfiguration of Jesus, but as a folk celebration it is the day when one can begin to eat apples, which by this day have ripened in great abundance, and in folk belief should not be eaten before Apple Savior.

There are many folk customs associated with the day, one of which (aside from eating lots of apple foods) is to gather in the evening to watch the sun set and to sing songs.  And it is considered a duty that those who have apples should share them with relatives and with the needy, and apples are even taken to the graveyards, because there is a connection between Apple Savior and the deceased.

There is a third Slavic “Savior” holiday in August along with “Honey Savior” and “Apple Savior.”  It is Ореховый Спас — Orekhovuiy Spas — “Nut Savior.”  Nut Savior happens on the 29th of August this year.  It is not nearly as popular as “Apple Savior.”





Today we will take a look at part of the large and detailed “Last Judgment” fresco on the wall of the famous Church of St. George (Biserica Sfantul Gheorghe ) at the village of Voroneț in the county of Suceava (pronounced Su-cha-va) in northeastern Romania.  But first some useful things to know for students of icons.

First, in Romanian a Biserica is a church.  Sfantul is the Romanian equivalent of Svyatuiy (Holy, i.e. “Saint”) in Church Slavic.  And Gheorge, as you might guess, is the Romanian form of George.

As mentioned, the church is at Voroneț.  Do not be confused when elsewhere you may see it written either as Voronet or Voronets.  The reason is that Romanian has a distinctive letter — ț — with a little “tail” at the bottom.  That means it is pronounced “ts.”  Many sources spell it simply Voronet in English, because English does not have that letter; but that gives the mistaken impression that the last syllable is pronounced “-net,” while actually it is pronounced “-nets.”

Now, having taken care of those little but useful details, we can go on to the fresco.  It is painted on the exterior of the church.  In the photo below, you can see the protecting roof above it:

(Photo: Wikipedia)

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Though very elaborate, it is on the whole much like Russian representations of the Last Judgment.  The Romanians call this type the Judecata de Apoi,  literally the “Judgment of Afterwards” or more loosely the “Next Judgment.”

As we shall see, that notion of “next” is significant in regard to today’s image.  Here is the detail from the fresco on which we wish to concentrate now:


It shows us a huge crowd of the Righteous (males seem to get preference) coming in a long line to the Gate of Paradise, which is at left.   Note the winged “cherubim” just above the gate (remember that Slavic uses the plural for the singular).   Let’s look a little closer:

At the front of the line, we see the Apostle Peter, holding the key that opens the Gate of Paradise.  And holding his hand is St. Paul.  That distinguishes this “after” entry into Paradise from the “before” entry that we find in standard iconographic depictions of the Resurrection of Jesus, in which the figures seen winding up to the Gate of Paradise are the Righteous of the Old Testament.  In that depiction, we see the Righteous Thief (called Rakh in Russian iconography) at the head of the line, instead of St. Peter.

If we look to the left of the Gate of Paradise in this “after” depiction, we can see that it shows Mary seated in Paradise, with the Archangel Michael at left, and the Archangel Gabriel at right.  Just to the left of Michael  (and long inside the gate) is the Repentant Thief, still carrying his cross (his ticket to Paradise) after all this time — but of course icons do not deal with time in a rational fashion.

To the left of the Repentant Thief, we see a type occasionally found by itself in Russian iconography — the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seated in Paradise (see my earlier posting,


Here is a closer look at the patriarch on the right, Iakov — Jacob:


You can see his abbreviated title just above his head at left.  The writing just to the right of the head of the Righteous Thief is that of a tourist, and it is not the only graffito by visitors to be seen on this fresco, unfortunately.  As is traditional with the Patriarchs in this depiction, Isaac holds the souls of the righteous in his lap, a depiction derived from the biblical phrase “in Abraham’s bosom,” as in Luke 16:22:

“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried…”

So the souls of the righteous are to be in the lap/bosom of the patriarchs, so this iconography tells us.  In some examples, one or more of the little souls are seen climbing in the background trees.

Finally, if we take a look up on the garden wall behind the Patriarchs, we find two inscriptions:


We need not bother with the lower one.  It is another “tourist” graffito from 1903, someone named Larionescu who wanted to be immortalized (how I wish tourists had changed!).  The important one is the original inscription above, which is in Church Slavic:

Raiskoe Selenie

РАИ (Rai)  is the word for “Paradise.”  Rai-skoe makes it adjectival, and Selenie means a house or dwelling or residence.  So this portion of the larger fresco is identified as the “Paradise Dwelling.”

It is helpful to know why, in Romanian iconography, one sometimes finds inscriptions in Church Slavic, and other times in Romanian.  The reason is that Church Slavic was originally the liturgical and administrative language in Christian Romania.  But between the 16th and 17th centuries it was replaced by Romanian for administrative purposes.  Church Slavic continued to be used as the Eastern Orthodox liturgical language in Romania into the first half of the 18th century, but by the latter half of that century it had given way to Romanian  So one can get a rough idea of how old a Romanian icon is by whether it is inscribed in Church Slavic or in Romanian.  As a rule of thumb, a Church Slavic inscription often means it is older that about 1750, and a Romanian inscription generally means it is more recent (unless, of course, a modern painter has faithfully copied an older icon with its inscription).

And finally, you may wish to know that Church Slavic is of course a Slavic language, but Romanian is a Latin-based language with a strong admixture of Slavic elements.  That is why Romanian may seem more akin to Italian and French.






What does one do on encountering icon types one has not seen previously and cannot immediately identify?  Well, there is hope.

To find what steps to take, let’s look at a couple of adjoining frescos from the 11th century Church of St. George at Staro Nagoričane in Macedonia.  They were painted during a renovation in the early 14th century.  And by the way, the letter č in Nagoričane is pronounced as “ch.”


There are two problems with these images for the student of icons.  First, they are not a common subject for panel icons (though not unknown).  Second, the title inscriptions are in Greek.  What can be done?  Let’s take a closer look at the left-hand image:


The first step is to closely examine the depiction.  We see Jesus at left (identified by his cross halo and the IC XC Greek abbreviation of “Jesus Christ”).  But notice that his hands are bound, and the rope is held by the man to his right.  And farther right is a seated figure, obviously some kind of authority.

The next step is to look at the inscription for any familiar words at all.  For the beginning student, these will be limited.


As is common in old inscriptions, the words all run together.  But let’s transliterate it:



We can recognize the definite article H, meaning “the,” at the beginning.

The second word is ΠΑΡΑ (para).  In greek it means “beside,” “before,” “by.”

Then comes the word ΤΟΥ (tou), meaning “of,” “of the.”

Anyone familiar with the Bible should recognize what comes next.  It is a name:  KAIAPHA. This is the Caiaphas of the Gospels.  That is a huge clue, because we know the scene must have something to do with Jesus and with Caiaphas.  And given that Jesus is bound and standing before Caiaphas, it can only be this, from the Passion story:

Matthew 26:57:

And they that had laid hold on Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled.

We find it also in John 18:24:

Now Annas had sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest.

We see the word ΚΑΤΑ, which means “according to,” “down,” and “against.”

It is followed by the abbreviation for Christ in Greek, ΧΥ — for Khristou — “Christ.”

The final word is ΕΞΕΤΑCΙC (exetasis), meaning “examination.”

So if we separate out all these words, we get:


He Para tou Kaiapha kata Khristou Exetasis

Meaning roughly:
The by (the) Caiaphas against Christ examination

Or as we would say it in normal English,

“The Examination of Christ by/before Caiaphas”

Here is the right-hand image:


We see that Jesus is bound in this image also, and at right is another authority figure (as we can tell from his important chair).  And given that we already have determined that the left-hand image is Jesus before Caiaphas, we may rightly assume that this image is somehow related.

If we look at the inscription, we find this, which we can put through the same process:



He Para tou Anna kata Khristou Krisis
The by (the) Annas against Christ Judgment

Or in normal English,

“The Judgment of Christ by/before Annas”

That comes from John 18:13:

And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year. Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.

We find the fellow shown tearing open his robes in this excerpt from Matthew 26:59-66 (King James Version):

Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses, And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.

So what we see in these two fresco images is a mixture of elements from the story of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, as taken from the four Gospels.

That was not too difficult, was it?