Given that I discuss a Nativity icon every year about this time, you should all now be quite familiar with the iconography.  Nonetheless, it seems that from icon to icon of this type there is always something new to discuss.  That is why today I am going to bore you incredibly, not only repeating elements I have already talked about in past years, but by adding some new bits of information to drive your patience to its ultimate limits, or if you happen to be of a pedantic turn of mind, you can use them to push your friends and relations to near insanity this holiday season as you grasp them firmly by the sleeve and insist on telling them everything you now will learn about the iconography of Russian Nativity icons.

Let’s use this example from about the end of the 17th century.  The title reads “Image of the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”


It omits the beginning images such as the Annunciation, and goes directly the the birth of Jesus:


We see Mary and the child Jesus in the middle, an angel at each side, and looking on are Joseph and the serving woman.  The usual ox and ass are just below the manger, and a couple of shepherds observe.  At the very top, a flying angel holds the Star of Bethlehem.

At top left we see the Magi following the star, and just below that is the Adoration of the Magi:


At right we see the Magi being told by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod (lower) and above that the departure of the Magi:


At middle left, we see an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary and the child Jesus and flee to Egypt:


At center right Joseph and Mary are on the Flight to Egypt with the child Jesus, and with them walks a young man who is identified in some icons as Jacob (James), the son of Joseph by a previous marriage.  Of course there is a long story to that “previous marriage” notion, but it is intended to preserve the concept of the virginity of Mary until the birth of Jesus.  Just above the head of Joseph is a falling white figure — one of the idols that supposedly fell when the child Jesus entered Egypt:


At lower left we see Herod conversing with the scribes to find out where the new “King of the Jews” is to be born:


At bottom center is the Slaughter of the Innocents:


Above and between the Herod scene and the Slaughter of the Innocents, we see the mothers of the region weeping for their  slaughtered sons:


At lower right is the killing of Zechariah/Zachariah, the Priest and father of John the Forerunner (the Baptist):


Now if you have not fallen asleep already, or gone off to the kitchen to find a snack, you perhaps noticed that there are three elements of the icon I have not yet discussed.  I will do so now, because they are of particular interest to those who find such things interesting (strange people like myself, in other words).

The first is Joseph and an old man who seems to be talking to him, actually part of the main Nativity scene:


Though in most icons he is not named, we often say that in tradition, this old man is the Devil tempting Joseph to doubt the virgin birth.  That tradition had become known by the end of the 19th century.  But originally, this old fellow in woolly garments was merely an old shepherd, and he was not always placed near Joseph.  Sometimes he was one of three, a young shepherd, a middle-aged shepherd, and this old man — so it is the same age distribution that we find in icons of the Magi.  The old shepherd sometimes had a staff, either broken, or whole as we see in this example.  Though he is often dressed in woolly animal skins, sometimes he wears cloth.

When the old shepherd was eventually placed near Joseph, that began all kinds of speculation as to why he was in that position, and why he seemed to be talking to Joseph, and if so, what was he saying?

Now if you look carefully, you will see that in this example the old fellow does have a name inscription just above his head:  “Anen.”  This seems to come from Annas, the scribe in the Protoevangelion of James, who goes to visit Joseph and finds Mary pregnant, and reports it to the priest.  Others have speculated that the name may have come from the apocryphal Passion of Christ, which spread from western Europe to Russia in the 17th century.  In it the High Priest Annas is killed under Emperor Tiberias by being sewn up in animal skins.  To confuse matters even more, in some examples the old man is called Jacob, and in others even Isaiah.  Some icon painters thought his name was Khlyust or Gryukh.  So what we have here is a confused tradition that developed out of the presence of an unnamed old shepherd in Nativity icons — a tradition that never became stabilized until as mentioned, in the 19th and 20th centuries the notion that the old man is the Devil began to appear in books, and that explanation became so widespread that today it is the most often repeated description in icon literature.  A more detailed account of the evolution of the “old shepherd as Devil” notion is found in the article Shepherd, sinner, demon: a quasi-demonological motif in
the iconography of the Nativity of Christ  by D.I. Antonov in Demonology as a Semiotic System (Демонология как сеиотическая система) Moscow, 2020.

The second image is Elizabeth and the infant John the Forerunner (Baptist).  It is a scene taken from the Protoevangelion of James:

And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was split, and received her. 

So here we see Elizabeth with the child John pursued by a soldier and entering the cave that has “miraculously” appeared.


And finally, there is the mysterious woman with a child lying beside her, found just above the scene of Zechariah/Zachariah:


This mother and child come from the apocryphal tradition that during the Slaughter of the Innocents,  the mother of Nathanael hid her infant son under a fig tree.  There she kept him until the slaughter was over, saving his life.  That is supposedly why, in the Gospel called “of John,” we find this in the first chapter, which describes the calling of the disciples of Jesus:

45 Philip finds Nathanael, and says to him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

46 And Nathanael said to him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip says unto him, Come and see.

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and says of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!

48 Nathanael says to him, How do you know me? Jesus answered and said to him, Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.

The tale even made its way into the Coptic Synaxarium:

It was said that when he [Nathaniel] was a young man, he quarreled with a man, killed him, and buried him under the fig tree, and no one knew about it. It was also said that at the time of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem by Herod, his mother hid him under a fig tree that was at her house. She nursed him during the night and hid him during the day, and continued to do so until the persecution of Herod died down. His mother did not tell him about this until he was fully grown and he never told anyone about this. When Jesus revealed that to him, he realized that He was the omniscient God, bowed before him, and was obedient to Him. He believed, followed Him, and became one of His twelve disciples.

So now (are you still awake?) if you have read this article and my previous postings on Nativity icons, you know how to identify everything in detailed icons of the birth of Jesus.  If you need a refresher course on other aspects of such icons, you will find previous postings on Nativity icons in the site archives here, which you may read by using the search box at the right of every page.

If you want to put everything you have just learned to quick use, you can practice identifying every scene in this very similar Nevyansk icon from the first half of the 19th century.  You will note that it adds the washing of the newborn infant Jesus to the upper central scene of the birth of Jesus.



OK, it’s that time of year again.  Time to once more share the link to the animated “holiday” version of the Ukrainian folk song Shchedryk.  Let’s all hope for the speedy advent of peace, full independence and prosperity for all of Ukraine.


A reader asked me to discuss this rather peculiar icon. It is from a German private collection and apparently dates to the 17th century:

It has the numerous little nail holes in the surface characteristic of icons that were once covered with a basma — that early form of metal covering that preceded the later riza or oklad  As you can see, it represents three angels — but who are they?

Well, though it lacks an identifying inscription, it represents the Trinity of the Old Testament — the three angels who appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in the book of Genesis, and then went on toward Sodom.  What is odd about this image is that the angels are shown standing and without Abraham.  That is unusual.  Usually we find them without Abraham only in icons with the three “Trinity” angels seated at a table, as in the famous example attributed to Rublev.   We see a “palace” (as buildings in old icons are called) in the background, but that is common in the ordinary icons of the “Old Testament Trinity” as seated angels.  You will find a discussion of the “Old Testament Trinity” type here:


There are icons of the three “Trinity” angels appearing to the Russian saint Alexander Svirskiy, but in that case there is usually a log building in the background and Alexander kneeling before the angels, as in this example:


You will find further information on that icon type here:



Here is an often-reproduced icon representing Nicholas of Myra:

The icon was painted for the Monastery Church of St Nicholas that was built on the island of Lipno in the Msta River, a few miles south of Novgorod, which is why the image is generally known as “Nikola Lipenskiy” (Никола Липенский).  The church was built in 1292, and the icon was painted in 1294.  It is a very large icon, about 72.4 inches by 50.7 inches.  It has undergone some later modification and restoration, and the coloring has changed somewhat due to the degradation of the pigments and the oil.  The lengthy inscription at the base was apparently added in the 16th century when the icon was renovated.  It details who painted it, who ordered it, etc.  A version of the account is given in the Third Novgorod Chronicle, beginning:

In the summer of 6802, under Prince Andrey Alexandrovich , under Archbishop Kliment of Great Novgorod and Pskov, under the mayor Andrey Klimovich, an icon of the great miracle worker Nicholas was painted in the Lipenskiy Monastery by the command and acquisition of the servant of God Nikola Vasilyevich ….”

In typical Orthodox fashion, the icon inscription describes the painter as “the sinner Alexa Petrov” and the commissioner as “the slave of God Nikola Vasilyevich.”

If we examine the vertical cracks in the surface, we can see that it was painted on a panel of three joined boards of linden wood.

Now let’s look at the iconography.

At top center is the representation of the altar table or “throne” prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus, called the Hetoimasia in Greek and the Уготованный престол/Ugotovannuiy prestol — “Preparation of the Throne” in Slavic.  At the sides of that are the Archangels Michael at left and Gabriel at right.  Extending at both sides of the angels are twelve apostles, among them Paul.

Down the sides are other saints (not in order):  Basil the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Athanasius of Alexandria, Hypatius (uncertain) — as well as the Unmercenary saints Cosmas and Damian and the first native saints of Kyivan Rus’ — Boris and Gleb.  We also find the famous military saints George and Demetrios, and the patrons of horses Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus).

The imposing central main image of Nicholas looks toward the left, where a smaller image of Jesus hands him the book of the Gospels, and just to the right of Nicholas is Mary, giving Nicholas his bishop’s stole (omophorion).  The images of Nicholas, Jesus and Mary are all painted in the recessed “ark” (kovcheg) area of the icon.

It is worth noting that in some of the countless icons of Nicholas painted over the centuries, he looks to the left as here (it would be his right side, where Jesus stands), in some to the right, and in others straight ahead (the most common type).  So it is not at all true that icon saints always look directly at the viewer.

Here is an image of the St. Nicholas Church at Lipno Island:




Today we will look at a fresco from the Nikola Nadein (Никола Надеин) Church in Yaroslavl. It represents one of the miracle legends associated with St. Nicholas:

The key elements are the sailors in the ship, the woman at left handing them a vessel of oil, and Nicholas appearing at right. To know what all this signifies, we have to know the legend, which is as follows.

The relics (the bones) of Nicholas were kept in the city of Myra, in what was then the region of Lycia but today is in Turkey. It was believed that the relics secreted a miraculous fragrant oil that in Eastern Orthodoxy is known as “myrrh.” It is a common belief in conservative Eastern Orthodoxy that relics of saints, and even some icons, may “miraculously” stream this oil.

The story of the relics of Nicholas secreting oil reached as far as Greek settlements at the mouth of the Don River, which in those days was known as the Tanais River. Hearing of this supposedly miraculous event, some pious people there decided to sail to Myra to venerate the relics of Nicholas.

They boarded a ship that was loaded with grain to set of on the voyage. But as they were making ready to depart, a woman suddenly appeared. She was carrying a vessel of oil, and she brought it to the sailors, saying:

“I myself would like to take this oil to the tomb of St. Nicholas but I am afraid to embark on a distant sea voyage, since I am a weak and sick woman. Therefore, I ask you, take this vessel with oil and take it to Myra, and there pour it into the lamp at the tomb of the saint.”

Now this woman, who appeared so sincere and pious, was in reality the Devil, who had taken the form of a woman.

The ship set sail, and at first all went well. But then a very strong wind suddenly came up, and the waves on the water grew huge and threatening. The ship was in such danger that the men on it decided to give up their voyage and return home. But as they turned the ship around, St. Nicholas suddenly appeared to them, telling them the storm was caused by the vessel of oil the Devil, who had taken the form of a woman, had given them.

The men then threw the container of oil into the sea, which erupted in flames and a stinking thick, black smoke that seemed to burst up from the depths of the sea. Even the drops of ocean spray turned to fiery sparks. The men were terrified by this, but St. Nicholas calmed the sea and filled the air with a pleasant fragrance. The men then resumed their journey, reached Myra, and there fulfilled their wish to venerate the relics of the saint.

Here is the Nikola Nadein Church in Yaroslavl: