There is a little-known icon type called the Неугасимая Свеча  — Neugasimaya Svecha — the “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary.  Here is an example:

It is a rather late icon type, which is why examples are generally painted in a “westernized” manner.

The story associated with this type relates that a fellow who was abbot of the Alekseevskiy Monastery in Uglich from 1864-1872 had a vision of Mary, in which she appeared to him with a candle in her right hand and an abbot’s staff in her left.  An icon was painted of Mary as seen in his vision.

The traditional tale of the icon continues in the year 1894, when an ill merchant in St. Petersburg had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and told him to go to a certain place and pray in front of a specific icon there and he would be healed.  Now as we have seen, that is a rather common motif in these origin stories of supposed “wonderworking” Marian icons.  We can call it in its basic form the “it came to me in a dream” motif.

In this case the place to which he was told to go was the Alekseevskiy Monastery in the city of Uglich.  It turned out that when the fellow talked to the abbot there about his dream, the icon he described was the same one painted after the vision of the earlier abbot Evangel.  It was then being kept in the monastery pantry.  According to the story, the man prayed before the icon and was healed (we would not be discussing it if that usual part of such tales were absent).  On June 23 the icon was moved to the monastery’s Uspenskiy (“Dormition”) Church.  The merchant also honored the icon by presenting it with a gilt silver riza (icon cover).

The title of this icon type is taken from Ikos II of the Akathist to the Dormition of Mary:

Радуйся, свеще неугасимая огня невещественнаго …”
Raduisya, sveschche neugasimaya ognya neveshchestvennago
Rejoice, Inextinguishable Candle of immaterial fire …”

The relation of the icon to the city of Uglich accounts for its alternate title — Вратарница Угличская — Vratarnitsa Uglichskaya — the “Uglich Gate-keeper” icon.  Under this title, it should not be confused with the Iverskaya/Iveron icon of Mary, which is also sometimes titled Vratarnitsa/Gatekeeper after its Greek title, the Portaitissa (Πορταΐτισσα).

The distinguishing features of the  “Inextinguishable Candle”/”Uglich Gate-keeper” icon, as we have seen, are that Mary, dressed as a nun, holds a lit candle in her right hand, and an abbot’s staff — usually along with prayer beads — in her left.

Now oddly enough, this “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary is sometimes confused with a somewhat similar-appearing icon of Mary as Ἡγουμένη του Ἁγίου Όρους/Hegoumene tou Hagiou Orous — “Hegumena/Abbess of the Holy Mountain,” the Holy Mountain being Mount Athos in Greece. There is a group of varying icons of this latter type depicting Mary as the Abbess of the kleros of Mount Athos.  A kleros is, in this case, an assigned portion of land.  According to tradition, the portion of land of Mount Athos belongs to Mary.

Now one would think that an icon showing Mary as Abbess of Athos would be a simple matter, but even the simplest matters are often the subject of doctrinal bickering among Eastern Orthodox factions.  That is why some newer icons of this type are changed to depict Mary in her usual garments rather than in the clerical mandyas shown in the above icon, and with her right hand raised to the side, palm outward, instead of the right hand blessing with fingers in the IC XC sign seen above.

The little ship at lower right relates to the legend that in New Testament times, Mary came to Mount Athos in a boat with St. John the Evangelist.




This old icon pattern is for the type “John in Silence.”  Well, don’t keep silent now, because it is time again for new subscribers  here (and old ones too, if you wish) to let me know why you are bothering to read my peculiar little blog.  Just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the top of any page (including this one), and write whatever you feel I should know about you and your interest in icons.

This is also a good time for those of you who have been restraining yourselves from making comments of one kind or another about this site — including suggestions for future topics —  to feel free to express yourselves.

As usual, all comments sent me will be kept private (only I shall see them) unless otherwise requested by the sender.

You may write in English if you wish, and do not worry about your grammar if your English is not perfect.  I am more interested in what you have to say than in how you say it.  If you are not comfortable writing in English (I have a lot of readers from various countries), do not let that stop you.  You may write to me in whatever your preferred language may be.

Having now removed all your excuses for not writing, I hope to hear from as many of you as possible in the next few days.  That will help me to know what on earth all you people are doing here reading about this very odd subject — icons and their interpretation.







In a previous posting, I discussed how to distinguish icons of Mary that depict several swords at her breast, and mentioned one single-sword type.

Today we will look at another Mary-sword icon, but again this time with only one sword.

The icon is called the Vasilkovskaya (Васильковская).  Here is an example in the manner characteristic of the late 19th-early 20th century:

Let’s look at the title inscription at the base:


Note that in English we have to reverse the last two words, which literally are Bozhiy Materi — “God-of Mother.”

Now as we know, most of these Marian icons have origin stories.  Here is that of the Vasilkovskaya:

In the 15th century, there was a town called Vasilkovo (Васильково/Wasilków) a few miles from what is now Bialystok in northeastern Poland.  At that time, a blind fellow named Vasily was wandering abandoned through the thick forests of the vicinity, hungry and worn out.  He fell to the ground and went to sleep on a hill high above a river, and as he slept, he dreamed.

In his dream, Mary came to him and told him to brush aside the leaves on the ground, dig into the sand, and there he would find water that would heal him if he washed his eyes with it.

He did as he was told, found the hidden water, washed his eyes with it, and according to the legend, his sight was restored (compare this with the Catholic tale of Bernadette and Lourdes).  As his sight came back, he saw before him an icon of Mary as he had seen her in his dream vision.  It was on canvas rather than wood.

Vasiliy dug out a well there and put a protective shelter over it, and in it he placed the newly-appeared icon of Mary.

The story continues by relating that in the early 18th century, a different Vasiliy (possibly Vasily Samotyją Lenczewskim) — who was involved with a paper factory — had lost his sight, but was told in a dream that he would be healed by praying before the icon at the spring.  He followed the instructions of his dream vision, and he too was supposedly healed.  He built a wooden chapel over the site in 1719.  The place was called  Svyataya Voda (Святая вода) — “Holy  Water.”  In 1864 the wooden church was replaced with a stone church.  The icon was venerated both by Uniates and by Russian Orthodox.

Now it is rather obvious that this icon is akin to the many Mater Dolorosa (“Sorrowful Mother”) images popular in the Catholic West.  Variants of the image depicting Mary with a single sword in her breast appear under various titles, including Симеоново проречение — Simeonovo Prorechenie — the “Prediction/Prophecy of Simeon” and И Тебе Самой душу пройдет оружие — I tebe Samoy dushu proidet oruzhie — ” A sword shall pierce through your own soul also.”  These titles, as we have seen in an earlier posting, may also be found on icons of Mary with multiple swords.

There is also a more complex icon type featuring Mary with a single sword, standing by the crucifixion of Jesus (who may or may not be on the cross), and accompanied by the various symbols of the Passion.  This type is generally given the title Плач при Кресте — Plach pri Kreste — “Weeping at the Cross.”  It too obviously derives from the “Prophecy of Simeon” in Luke 2:35.

Be aware, however, that similar icons may be found minus the sword, as in this example, titled simply Плачь Пресвятыя Богородицы — Plach Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “[The] Weeping of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there is a little-known icon type called the Strastnaya Lipetskaya (Страстная Липецкая), which depicts Mary much as she is shown in the “Weeping at the Cross” type — often also with the instruments of the Passion.  But in this case the distinguishing features of the type are first, that the single sword is on the cross to the right of and behind Mary, rather than shown against her breast; and second, she holds a white cloth in her left hand.

Tradition relates that the “Lipetsk-Passion” icon was kept in the Nativity of Christ Cathedral in the city of Lipetsk, in what was then Tambov Province.  In 1831 the icon is said to have broken a plague of cholera that had spread in the region.


In previous articles we have encountered many icon inscriptions in Church Slavic and many inscriptions in Greek, so those readers here who are serious students of iconography will have gained the ability to transliterate and translate quite a number of common inscriptions.   And as you have likely found,  just having the ability to read the title inscriptions on icons is a major advantage.

But what is one to do with an icon that has an inscription like the one below?

It is written on the reverse of an icon.  At first glance at the lettering, it may appear to be in Church Slavic — but on closer inspection it is obviously like no Church Slavic we have seen so far.  And what is that strange initial letter at top left, which appears again as the eighth letter from the right in the third line?

The answer is that this unusual (for us, up to this point) inscription is not Church Slavic, not Russian, and certainly not Greek.  It is your introduction to a form of Cyrillic lettering used in old style Romanian inscriptions that may sometimes be encountered on icons.

Yes, the language used here is Romanian, but not written in the Roman letters used for that language today.  You may recall that Romanian used the Cyrillic alphabet before it was replaced by a variant of Roman letters in the 1860s.  That does not mean, however, that everyone immediately made the change, and the old Cyrillic system took a while to fade out, though it was mostly gone by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century.

So,  let’s jump right into the subject by saying that the alphabet used in the above inscription is Cyrillic lettering modified to fit the peculiarities of the Romanian language, which is a blending of a Romance, Latin-origin language with Slavic elements.  If you encounter Romanian icons, a little knowledge of the subject can be very helpful.

Some of the letters in the Romanian inscription are already familiar to you from what you have learned of the Church Slavic alphabet — but some are also either different, or used to indicate different sounds than in Church Slavic.

I find that an easy way to learn a new alphabet is not to memorize a table of letters on a page but rather to learn the letters as they are actually used in words, and that is what we shall do here.

Let’s look at the first line followed with a transliteration into modern Romanian and a literal translation:

Închipuirea făcătoarei de minuni Icoane …
Image-of     worker of miracles      icon …

We can see that the first letter is the Romanian Î, which is pronounced like “u” in French une (“one”) or like ü in German über (“over”).  The third letter к is the equivalent of modern Romanian ch — pronounced like “c” in cap.  The last letter of the first word — which is found in Church Slavic as the sound “ye” — has a different sound here — ea — pronounced “ya.” The second letter in the second word — ъ — also has a different value here than in Church Slavic.  Here it represents the Romanian ă, which is pronounced like “uh.”

a Preasfintei Stăpânei noastre de Du-
of [the] Most-holy Lady of-us  of Du

The first letter is Romanian a — as in English “father.”  In the third word, the fifth letter is Romanian â, pronounced just the same as Romanian î — like French u as in une (“one”).  For this sound, î is commonly written at the beginning of a word, and â within a word.

Now notice that the last word has only its first two letters on this line — Du — but the rest of the word is found at the beginning of line three:

The word is Dumnezeu — “God.”  So if we add that to line three, it reads:

Dumnezeu Născatoarei aflătoare în Sfanta …
God (of) Birthgiver found in Holy …

Dumnezeu is an interesting word.  We find as a Latin equivalent the common words  Domine Deus — “Lord God” — but there is speculation that the Romanian form may predate the arrival of Christianity.  Perhaps you noticed the similarity of the -zeu ending to the name of the Greek god Zeus.

Lavrea a Neamtului din Mold-[ova] Valachia
Lavra of Neamts       in   Moldavia-Wallachia.

A Lavra, you may recall, is a monastery.  Moldavia and Wallachia are two very old Romanian principalities that were united in 1859 and more formally in 1862.

So here is the whole inscription again, followed by a transcription in modern Romanian letters and translation into normal English:

Închipuirea făcătoarei de minuni Icoane
a Preasfintei Stăpânei noastre de Du-
mnezeu Născatoarei aflătoare în Sfanta
Lavrea a Neamtului din Mold-[ova] Valachia.

Image of the wonder-working icon
of our most holy Lady the Mother of G-
od found in the holy
Lavra of Neamts in Moldavia-Wallachia.

So we now know from the Romanian inscription on the reverse of the panel what the icon represents.  So let’s look at the painted surface:

(Courtesy of

It is a Hodigitria icon in form — somewhat “westernized” — and with two added angels.  And we know from the inscription that it is the “Neamts” (Neamț) icon type.  The original is regarded as a “wonderworking” image in Romanian Orthodoxy, and it is considered the oldest documented icon in Romania.

Here is what the original Romanian “Neamts” icon looks like under its 1853 silver metal covering:

The traditional history of the icon relates that in 1401 it was given by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos to the Moldavian Voievod Alexander I “The Good” (Alexandru cel Bun).

The story relates that there was an ancient icon of this type in Lydda (now Lod, in Israel), supposedly dating to the year 35 c.e. (which of course is a pious fiction).  The future Byzantine Patriarch Germanos had a copy made of that icon in 665 c.e., which he took with him to Constantinople on becoming Patriarch.  There it was given to the Heleopatra Monastery.

The icon was said to have been hidden in 714 c.e. during the Iconoclastic period under Emperor Leo the Armenian, then in 716 was sent by Patriarch Germanos to Pope Gregory III in Rome, where it supposedly was kept in St. Peter’s Basilica for 106 years.  Pope Sergius II is said to have returned the icon to Constantinople after the end of the victory of the Iconophiles over the Iconoclasts.  The icon was returned to the Heleopatra Monastery, where tradition relates it remained for the next 555 years.

In 1401 it was sent as a gift to Alexander the Good, Voievod of Moldavia (part of what was to become the future Romania).  It was first kept in the Church of Sfântul Gheorghe/St. George in Suceava for 14 years, and then was taken to its namesake residence — the Neamts Monastery, where it is still to be found today.

Now given the legend of its origin, why would it be connected with a supposedly early icon from Lydda?  The answer lies in the Neamts Monastery icon of Mary having another painting on its reverse side (unlike most later copies).  Here is that image:

It depicts St. George, who according to one tradition was martyred in Lydda.  Thus we have the “Neamts” Lydda Hodigitria icon of Mary that is so prominent today in Romanian Orthodoxy.

One final detail.  When we looked at the Romanian inscription on the reverse side of the later rendering of the “Neamts” type, we saw only the upper part of it.  Here is the whole thing:

Now as you can see, only the upper four-line inscription is in Cyrillic Romanian.  The lower three lines — which say the same thing as the upper inscription — are written in Church Slavic.  So this icon has a bilingual inscription.  There is a very similar icon — also with a bilingual inscription on the reverse — found in a museum in the Vitebsk Region, Polotsk, Belarus.  Here is a link to that image:



On June 21, 1547 a disastrous fire swept through Moscow, destroying its wooden structures, displacing some 80,000 people and killing around 2,500 – 3,000.  It nearly destroyed the Kremlin.

Popular rumor of the time had it that the fire had been called forth by witchcraft practiced by Anna Glinskaya, the grandmother of Tsar Ivan IV — “Ivan the Terrible.”  She was said to have gone through through Moscow, casting a destructive spell by sprinkling the streets and houses with an evil potion made of water in which human hearts had been steeped.  Such were the times.

One result of the fire was the need for new religious paintings — frescos and icons — for the imperial palace and for the Blagoveschchenie/Annunciation Cathedral, etc.  in the Kremlin.  Iconographers from Pskov and Novgorod were assigned to undertake the task.

About three years later, the State Secretary Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovatiy (also transliterated as Viskovatyi) began to publicly criticize the new religious paintings.  His motives seemed to be a mixture of religion and politics.  But in any case, his open criticism over time led to serious trouble.  Remember that the Russian Orthodox Church was (and still is to a great extent) a Church-State affair, and Tsar Ivan himself apparently had approved the new religious paintings.

The essence of the controversy was that Viskovatiy declared a number of the new iconographic paintings heretical.

A classic example of what he detested was this surviving four-part icon:

It consists of four icon types.

At top left is “And God Rested on the Seventh Day” (И почи Бог в день седьмый/I pochi Bog v den’ sedmuiy):

At top right is the “Only-begotten Son and Word of God” (Единородный сыне и Слове Божий/Edinorodnuiy suine i Slove Bozhiy):

At lower left is “Come, People, Worship the Three-hypostatic Godhood” (Приидите, людие, Триипостасному Божеству поклонимся/Priidite, liudie, Triipostasnomu Bozhestvu pkonimsya):

And at lower right is “In the Grave Fleshly” (Во гробе плотским/Vo grobe plotskim)

Now as one can tell from the titles, this was evidence of a growing trend in icon painting toward depicting religious texts in visual form — icons that expressed concepts in Eastern Orthodox theology in an often allegorical manner.  Such icons are often called “mystical-didactic,” or to use the more currently popular Russian term, Богословско-дидактические иконы/Bogoslovsko-didakticheskie ikonui — “Theological-didactic” icons.

His complaints about such icons being introduced to Moscow did not do Viskovatiy any good.  In 1553 he was brought before an ecclesiastical council on charges of heresy, and was found guilty of blasphemy against the icons he scorned.  Seeing the way things were going, Viskovatiy repented and recanted — and so the icons he considered heretical innovations became a part of the regular iconographic repertory of Russian Orthodoxy.



As I have mentioned previously, the prophets can be a real pain for students of icons.  The problem is not in identifying them.  That is usually easy.  It is in their scroll inscriptions.

The podlinniki — the manuals of icon painting — give descriptions of how prophets are to be painted, and they also generally give scroll inscriptions for each.  One would think that would make the matter easy, but it does not.  The podlinnik instructions for prophets’ scroll inscriptions are frequently not the inscriptions we encounter on actual icons of them, so one never knows what inscription might be used on an old icon for a given prophet.  That is where the difficulty lies.

The best one can do then — aside from being familiar with the podlinnik inscriptions — is to take each icon case by case, and that is not always easy, particularly if a scroll inscription is damaged or fragmentary.

Nonetheless, let’s have a go at an example:

Here is a 16th century fresco of a prophet from the Dionysiou Monastery at Mt. Athos:

As usual, he is easy to identify by his title inscription:


He is the prophet ΜΑΛΑΧΙΑC / MALAKHIAS — the Greek form of Malachi.

Now we come to his scroll inscription:

As is common in old inscriptions, there are some abbreviations and some ligatures — joined letters.

It begins with these words:

The first letter is I; the second letter that looks like an A in Roman lettering is actually one way of writing a D (Δ) in Greek.  And the third letter is a combination of two letters —  ΟΥ — OU in English — with the O below and the Y on top.  So all together, they make the Greek word

ΙΔΟΥ — Idou — meaning “Behold.”

The second word — a bit worn in the inscription — is ΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ/ERKHETAI, meaning (he/she/it) “comes.”  It begins on the first line and ends on the second.

Then we find the first abbreviation:

It is a Κ and C  — K and S in English — and that little horizontal curved line above is, you may recall, the sign of abbreviation.  Those two letters together signify the word ΚΥΡΙΟC/KURIOS, meaning “Lord.”

And then comes a real give-away word:

The first three letters of the word are squeezed into the end of the line:

ΠΑΝ — with the A smaller and a small N written above it.

Then comes T and O, with the O written beneath the T.  Then comes the end of the word:

All together, they spell a very common icon word: ΠΑΝΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ/PANTOKRATOR — meaning “Almighty.”  Remember that the ω here is the same letter as Ω in the modern Greek alphabet, and it is pronounced the same as the letter O.

Thus far we have IDOU ERKHETAI KURIOS PANTOKRATOR — which is easy to translate as:
“Behold, comes [the] Lord Almighty…”

And if you are clever (you must be, if you are reading this peculiar blog site), you will then suspect that it is likely to be something written in the Old Testament book of Malachi.  So the next step — given that the inscription is in Greek — is to look for those words in the Septuagint Greek version of the book of Malachi.

And behold, what we find there in Malachi 3:1-2 is:

ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ …

Idou erkhetai legei kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

It reads just the same as the icon scroll text except for the third word λέγει/legei, meaning “[he] says.”

If we put it into English, we get this:

“Behold, he is coming, says the Lord Almighty.  And who will endure the day of his coming?”

So, if we remove the word legei/”says” from the text in the book of Malachi, we will have the text on the icon scroll:

Idou erkhetai kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

Behold comes Lord Almighty and who will-endure the day coming-of his

Or in normal English,

“Behold the Lord Almighy comes, and who will endure the day of his coming?”

It is not uncommon to find that the writers of icon scrolls vary a text slightly, as has been done here by removing one word.

You may recall that this abbreviation in the latter part of the inscription  — a K with a diagonal stroke at right bottom …

… is the word και/kai, meaning “and.”

And you should also remember this ligature — the one that looks rather like a 9 in English:

It is the joined letters ει/ei, and in the inscription we find it in the word

ὑπομενεῖ / hupomenei — meaning “endure,” and also at the beginning of the word

εἰσόδου /eisodou — meaning “entrance,” or more loosely, “coming.”

If you recall the two similar ligatures

— which joins A and N,


— which joins A and U —

that should take care of the scroll inscription — except to note, as mentioned at the beginning, that it is not the scroll inscription given — for example — in the Greek painter’s manual known as the Hermeneia of Dionysios of Fourna:

According to that manual, his inscription should be:

Tade legei Kurios:
apo anatolon heliou kai eos dusmon to onoma mou

“Thus says the Lord:
‘From the rising of the sun and until setting my name …'”

That is a fragment from Malachi 1:11.

Now having gone through all that, you might pause and ask yourself what on earth you are doing here wasting your time with all this esoteric stuff about translating Greek icon inscriptions. Well, if you are a regular reader of this site, it is a rather hopeless question.  People are what they are, and some find themselves interested in and curious about the strangest and most useless things.  So don’t worry.  Don’t bore your neighbors with it, and you will be fine.  Just continue to act normal in public.






This icon appeared as unidentified on a Russian forum site (

It is a very uncommon type, yet in spite of the seemingly garbled inscription at the top, it is clear that what it represents is a story found in the traditions associated with the garments of Mary.

You may recall an older posting here on supposed “garment” relics, among them the robe of Mary:

In that posting, there was brief mention of a tradition that the robe of Mary is said to have saved the city of Constantinople from invasion in the year 860.  Well that is the event depicted here.

The tradition from Greek chronicles and from the Russian Tale of Bygone Years (Повесть временных лет/Povyest’vremennuikh lyet) relates that on June 18, 860, a fleet of “Rus'” ships under Prince Askold was raiding in the Black Sea and even as far as the Bosphorus, and came to Constantinople intent on plunder and siege.

Patriarch Photios of Constantinople then took the robe of Mary from the shrine where it was kept, and going in procession outside the walls of the city, he came to the shore beyond which lay the invading fleet.  He dipped the robe in the water, and a great storm miraculously arose that raised great waves that began to dash the ships on the rocks, breaking them apart and sinking them.  Discouraged by this disaster, the Rus’ invaders gave up their siege and departed with their remaining ships.

If we look at the image, we see Photios standing on the shore in his clerical garments at left, holding the robe of Mary in his hands.  And to the right, we see the helmeted and armored warriors in the Rus’ ships of Askold on the waves of the sea:

Here is a more detailed Russian fresco image from 1648 of the same event: