There are quite a number of traditionally paired saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography — Zosima and Savvatiy, Cosmas and Damian, Florus and Laurus, and so on.

Today I would like to briefly discuss another prominent pair of saints.  Their names in latinized form are Sergius and Bacchus.

Traditionally, Sergius and Bacchus were supposed to have been Roman soldiers and secret Christians martyred in the 4th century because they refused to sacrifice to the gods.  They were included in early accounts of martyrs, and popularly venerated as early as the 5th century.

Oddly enough, Sergius and Bacchus are best known today as “gay” icons, and some newly-painted images with that focus depict them in rather more intimate closeness than the majority of older icons.  This is due to a book written in the late 20th century that, with dubious scholarship, presented the premise that Sergius and Bacchus were a romantically homosexual couple.

Actually, though they have a centuries-long history of veneration in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Catholicism, to me the most interesting thing about Sergius and Bacchus is that they apparently never existed at all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia states “their existing Acts are not genuine,” which is a polite way of saying that the accounts of their lives and martyrdom are as historical as Pinocchio.  Eastern Orthodoxy, however, has never reviewed its vast list of saints to try to separate those who are “fake” from those who did exist, so there are quite a number of saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendars and icons today who did not exist at all.

Nonetheless, Sergius and Bacchus can still be put to some practical use in helping improve ability to read Greek icon inscriptions, so let’s take a look at some examples.

Here is a 16th-century fresco of the pair by Theophanes the Cretan, found in the Lavra of Athanasios on Mount Athos.  Note that each holds a cross, signifying martyrdom for the Christian faith.

The title inscriptions should be easy for you to read if you have been following my earlier postings on reading Greek inscriptions.

Here is the left inscription:


By now you should know that the three letters at upper left stand for Ο ΑΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — meaning “The Holy.”  Below that is the saint’s name, written partly to his left, partly to his right:  CΕΡΓΙΟς — Sergios.

And here is the right inscription:

We see the same Ho Hagios abbreviation at upper left, and below is the saint’s name:  ΒΑΚΧΟC — Bakkhos, which we usually see in its latinized form, Bacchus.  You will recall that the letter X (chi) in Greek has the rough, gutteral pronunciation of the last ch in the name of the composer Bach.

That was really easy, so here is something more challenging, the inscription from another Mount Athos fresco of the martyrdom of Sergius and Bacchus, this time by the 16th-century Cretan painter Tzortzis:

It is quite gruesome, as are many scenes of martyrdom in Eastern Orthodox iconography, so let’s concentrate on the title inscription at the top:

It reads:



If we separate the words in that, we get:

Martyrion Ton Hagion Sergiou Kai Bakkhou
Martyrdom of-the Holy Sergios and Bakkhos

As you can see, the word Hagios and names Sergios and Bakkhos take on different grammatical endings here.

You should know that the Greek word μαρτύριον (martyrion) originally meant a testimony, as in giving one’s testimony or witness; it gradually took on the looser meaning of “martyrdom” — being killed for one’s testimony or cause.





Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:


Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy).

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.


Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.


A reader asked about a Greek inscription.  It is on a 16th century fresco of the Old Testament Prophet Jonah from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted by the Cretan Tzortzis.  Somehow it feels very appropriate to talk about Jonah after an American presidential election that makes a great many of us feel as though we had been suddenly thrown into the sea and swallowed up by a monster.

Jonah, as almost everyone knows, is the fellow who was told by his god to go to the great city of Nineveh and prophesy there of the deity’s coming wrath.  Jonah did not like the job he was given, so he took a ship at Joppa, going away from Nineveh toward Tarshish.  While on this journey, a great storm arose.  The sailors cast lots (an old form of divination) to determine what had brought the storm upon them, and the result was that the lot fell on Jonah.  So to save themselves, the sailors tossed him into the stormy sea, where he was swallowed by what in Greek is called a κῆτος (ketos).  Ketos was a rather vague word that applied to any sea monster or huge fish.  Much later, people began to think of it as meaning a whale, which is why we usually speak of the tale of Jonah as “Jonah and the Whale.”   Spending three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster,  Jonah prayed to his god and repented for trying to run away.  The sea monster vomited him up, and he went to Ninevah to tell them their city would be overthrown because of its wickedness.

The image of Jonah being vomited up by the sea monster is one of the few later icon images that can be found also as a common motif in the pre-icon art of the early Christians, where it was apparently used as a symbol of salvation and resurrection.
Let’s take a look to see what can be made of the inscriptions on the fresco:
We see first that they are in Greek.  And there are two of them, one in the upper right-hand corner, which we may reasonably suspect is the “title” inscription for the image.  The other is on the scroll held by Jonah.  And we all know that in icons, scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” through which persons speak to the viewer.
Let’s look first at the upper right inscription.  We see that as in most older Greek icon inscriptions, the words are not separated as they would be in modern writings.

It is divided into three lines, which we can place together and transliterate:

If you have been reading past postings here on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the words Ἡ — He — the feminine form of “the.”  And you should recognize the word ΤΟΥ — tou — even though it is abbreviated, as “of the.”  And you might recognize the similarity of the letters ΠΡΟΦΗΤΟΥ — prophetou — to our English word “prophet.”  Notice that it begins with the joined letters Π (p) and  Ρ (r).  So let’s go on to divide the inscription into its individual words:

Literally translated, that is:

The (he) out (ek) of-the (tou) sea-monster (kutous=ketous) vomiting (anadosis) of-the (tou) prophet (prophetou) Jonah (Iona)

We can put it into normal English as:

“The Vomiting of the Prophet Jonah by the Sea Monster”

Or if we want to make it less blunt,

“The Sea Monster Expels the Prophet Jonah”
From previous  postings here, you should now be familiar with every ligature in this and the following scroll inscription:

Transliterated, it is:

There are some abbreviations, and I have supplied the missing letters in parentheses.

The inscription on the scroll is the words of Jonah as found in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, in Jonah 2:3:

Καὶ εἶπεν ᾿Εβόησα ἐν θλίψει μου πρὸς κύριον τὸν θεόν μου, καὶ εἰσήκουσέν μου· ἐκ κοιλίας ᾅδου κραυγῆς μου ἤκουσας φωνῆς μου.

Kai eipen Eboesa en thlipsei mou pros kurion ton theon mou, kai esiekousen mou
ek koilias hadou krauges mou ekousas phones mou.

And [he] said, I-cried in affliction of-me to [the] Lord the God of-me, and [he] hearkened [of] me; out of the belly of Hades cry of-me [he] heard voice of-me.

So we could translate the portion written on the scroll as:

I cried in my affliction to the Lord my God, and he hearkened to me.”

Now if we could only get out of the next four years as easily as Jonah got out of the sea monster in this old tale.



Here is a rather long posting that will likely severely bore anyone who is not interested in learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.  But it is a helpful posting for those peculiar souls who do want to learn that rather esoteric skill.  In any case, it is something any serious student of icons should know.

A reader asked about inscriptions on icons of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.  That gave me a good excuse to talk a bit more about ligatures in Greek icon inscriptions.  “Ligature,” in writing, is the linking or joining of letters together.  When icon students first encounter ligatures, they find them mystifying and confusing, but really the principle is quite simple once one knows what to look for.

First, let’s take a look at the main portion of an example of such an icon type in this fresco from Mt. Athos:

Here is what Mary is saying to Jesus in the inscription:


Let’s look a little closer:

It begins with an abbreviation:  ΚΕ.  But notice the horizontal line above the two letters.  Do you remember that such a line (sometimes curved, but still horizontal) indicates an abbreviation?  Here, the two letters abbreviate ΚΥΡΙΕ (Kyrie).  You may recall that ΚΥΡΙΟC (Kyrios) is the Greek word for “Lord.”  KYRIE is just another form of it — the form used in addressing someone — in talking to them directly.   So here KYRIE also means”Lord” (but see below).

Now in a previous “lesson,” I told you that when encountering unfamiliar inscriptions, one should look at the visual context, at what is in the image.  And here the context is the biblical story of Mary talking to Jesus after his resurrection.  So all we need ask is, where in that context does she address him as “Lord?”  We must also remember that Kyrie is the standard respectful way for a woman to address a male in Greek — which is why the King James version of the Bible sometimes translates it as “Sir.”  So again, where in this context does Mary address Jesus as “Lord” or “Sir?”  We find it in the Gospel called “of John,” Chapter 20, verse 15:

Jesus says to her, Woman, why weep you? whom seek you? She, supposing him to be the gardener, says to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

The next step, of course, is to take a look at the same verse in a Greek New Testament, so that we can verify that we have chosen correctly:


Now, let’s compare that with the inscription on the icon:

Here’s where we run into the ligature issue.  We already know that the first two letters, KE, abbbreviate KYRIE — “Lord”/”Sir.”  that means, if we have the chosen the correct text, the next two letters should be EI in Greek.  But in the actual icon inscription, the third symbol does not look like any recognizable letter at all.  The reason is that it is a ligature, a joined letter.  We find it it two places in the inscription:

The first occurance is somewhat marred by a crack in the painting surface, but the second, almost just below the first, is quite clear.  It looks rather like the number nine.  But the rounded part to the left is the “E” portion of the ligature, and the vertical line is the “I.”  So we can be reasonably certain that we have the correct text, because the third and fourth letters in the inscription are EI, meaning “if.”

The next two Greek letters in the inscription look like CV:

C in Greek is “s” in English.  And the V is actually just a way of writing the Greek letter Y, which in lower case is υ.  So the word in Greek is CY, which we can transliterate as SY or sy.  Sy is Greek for “you.”

Up to this point we have:

Lord/Sir if you…

The next word in the inscription is not complete:


It has one ligature, the fourth symbol.  That is a combination of C and T in Greek.  So it reads  EBACTAC — Ebastas.  But the word is shortened.  It is really EBACTACAC — Ebastasas, meaning “carried off”

The next word is also missing its ending:

The first symbol is a ligature of a and u, so the three letters shown are aut, which if written in full would be auton, meaning “him.”

Next come these words, all pushed together, as is often common in Greek inscriptions:


The first letter is the ligature of e and i that we have already seen.  With the next two letters, it makes the word ΕΙΠΕ — EIPE–, meaning “tell.”  That is followed by the word MOI, meaning “me.”  And the final word in the line has a common ligature of the letters O and Y, with the Y placed atop the O.  So it is the word ΠΟΥ — POU –, meaning “where.”

So now we have:

“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him, tell me where…”

Then comes:


The first four letters are ΕΘΗΚ — ethek, but the writer has left off the ending.  The whole word would be ΕΘΗΚΑC — ethekas — meaning “[you] have laid.”  That is followed by the abbreviation for AUTON (AVT) that we have already seen, and so we know AUTON means “him.”  The last four letters form the combined word KAΓω — KAGO –, and the two words put together to make it are ΚΑΙ ΕΓω, kai ego, meaning “and I.”

Adding that to what we already have, it gives us:

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I...”

Then come the last words of Mary’s little speech:

Here the word AYTON — auton, which we saw earlier in its shortened form, is spelled out in full.  You will recall it means “him.”  Next comes a ligature, the letters A and P (R) joined, so the last word is ARω — ARO, meaning ” [I] will take away.”

So the inscription, in our rather literal translation so far, is

Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I him will take away.

If we put that into more normal English order, we get,

Sir, if you carried him off, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.

Now keep in mind that you did not have to know the entire inscription to know what it was.  You determined that from the first few words, seen in the context of the image shown — Mary kneeling before the resurrected Jesus.  Then all you had to do was to find those few words in the Greek text of the New Testament where the story of Mary before the resurrected Jesus is told.  Using that process enables one to recognize a great many inscriptions without knowing the entire vocabulary of the text at first glance.

We can see how useful that is if we look at another icon of the same type, also with a Greek inscription:

If we look at what Mary is saying to Jesus in this example, we find it to be:

It is very much the same as the inscription in the first example, with only slight differences in writing.  And the one word separated at the bottom is easy.  In Greek letters it is ΡΑΒΒΟΥΝΗ — RABBOUNI — an Aramaic word that means loosely “My Master/Teacher.”  That, according to the Gospel called “of John,” was the exclamation of Mary to Jesus when she finally recognized him.

Just for completeness, let’s deal with the other inscriptions one is likely to find on icons of this type.  First, there is the identifying inscription above Mary:

Picture 089

Picture 089

As you might guess, it just reads:


You probably noticed that the HAGIA is abbreviated.  In the name “Mary,” the A and Ρ (R) are joined, and the HE (H) is linked to the M in Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — “the Magdalene.”

And of course the title as a whole means “THE HOLY MARY THE MAGDALENE.”

There is also an inscription found in this type that you should already recognize from a previous posting.  For it, we will go back to this example in the first image:

The inscription is just above the empty grave of Jesus (with the graveclothes lying in it):

Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΤΑΦΟC — HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “The Holy Sepulchre.”

Let’s also look back at that first image to see what Jesus is saying to Mary:


The IC at the top is of course just the standard abbreviation for “Jesus.”  But the inscription below it has the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene:


In normal English that is “TOUCH ME NOT,” or more modern, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.”  That accounts for the common Latin title often given these images in the West, Noli Me Tangere, which is just the translation of Me Mou Aptou.

I hope you noticed that the letters ΜΗ are joined in a ligature, as are ΟΥ in the word ΜΟΥ, and there is another ligature joining the letters Π and Τ in ΑΠΤΟΥ.

Finally, let’s take a look at the title inscription of the whole image at the very top of the first example.  It is cut off in the photo, but we can fill in what is missing:



The After the Resurrection to the Magdalene Mary of the Savior Appearance

In normal English,


One will often find little variations in Greek spelling (as in ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ / ΕΓΕΡCΙΝ in the above example), but usually they are not severe enough to cause confusion.

You may also wish to know that this ME MOU APTOU icon type of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is another of those borrowings into Eastern Orthodox art from Western Catholic art, from the time when Venice controlled the island of Crete, and the icon painters there worked to supply both Greek Orthodox and Western Catholic markets for paintings.  You may have also noticed that Mary Magdalene’s head is bare in these icons, which is a little unusual, given that most women have their heads covered in icons.  But it is usual for Mary’s hair to be seen in these particular type, because the image was borrowed very closely from Western examples — and in the West, Mary Magdalene is often seen with head uncovered.




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: