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?




Today’s first example is not an icon.  It is an icon-influenced illustration of a Russian saint, done by the noted Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942).  If you know Russian fairy tales, you have likely seen the colorful Bilibin illustrations for them.  And who does not enjoy a good story about Baba Yaga the Witch?

I show you this illustration because it depicts a person often found in icons, and its inscription in Church Slavic is one you should be able to translate now without difficulty if you have read the little lessons in previous postings:

(Courtesy of

Let’s look at the inscription:

It is only slightly abbreviated:


Blagovernuiy means literally “good-believing,” but it is understood to mean a “true, Orthodox believer.”  It was a title formerly applied to members of the Russian Imperial Family.  Velikiy Knyaz is sometimes translated as “Great Prince,” sometimes as “Grand Duke.”

Bilibin has depicted him holding the “Vladimir” icon of Mary.  The story of the Vladimir image — in brief — is that it was brought from Constantinople to Kiev in 1131.  It was placed in a convent at Vyshgorod, today a suburb of Kiyev/Kiev.  Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy invaded and plundered Kiev in 1155.  He took the icon from the convent, and was on his way back to Suzdal with it, so the story goes, when the horses stopped, and refused to go farther.   Supposedly Andrey prayed all night and Mary appeared to him, telling him to take her icon to Vladimir, and to build a church and convent on the site of his vision.  Then the horses were allowed to move again.

Andrey did have a church and convent built on the site, and called the place Bogoliubovo — meaning loosely “Loved by God” — and from that is derived his name, Bogoliubskiy.

There is something else to note in this Bilibin illustration — the white church in the background at left.  It depicts a real church.  In Russian it is called the  Церковь Покрова на Нерли — Tserkov Pokrova na Nerli — literally, the “Church of the Protection on the Nerl” (the Nerl is a river).   The Pokrov (which means literally “veil” and figuratively “protection”), you may recall, is an old icon type discussed in a previous posting.  In English that church is often referred to as the “Church of the Intercession,” which blurs its real meaning somewhat.  Why is it shown here with Andrey Bogoliubskiy?  Because he commissioned the building of the white stone church in the year 1165 — tradition says in memory of his dead son Izyaslav — and it is still there today.  Andrey Bogoliubskiy also introduced the Pokrov as a church festival in his region.

Following the precedent of Constantinople, Bogoliubskiy made Mary the protectress and patron of royal authority and the State (HIS authority and HIS State, of course).  In addition to the “Vladimir” image, Andrey is also associated with the Marian icon known as the Bogoliubskaya.  You will recall that according to the traditional story, when taking the “Vladimir” image back to Suzdal, the horses stopped, Andrey prayed at great length, and Mary appeared to him.  He is said to have had the first Bogoliubskaya image painted in commemoration of that.

The Bogoliubskaya image exists in several variants.  The basic type shows Mary standing full length with an open scroll in her hand, looking to the right of the image, where Christ is seen in the clouds above.  The text on Mary’s scroll varies from example to example.  Other examples show one or more figures kneeling before Mary at right.  Generally when it is only one figure, it is Andrey Bogoliubskiy.

The most interesting variant is that known as the Bogoliubskaya Moskovskaya — the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type.

Here is an example of that “Moscow” type, which, though painted in the manner of the late 17th century Armory School of Moscow, is nonetheless a recent icon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Icons of the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type are characterized by Mary standing at left with an opened scroll in her hand, and a group of bowing and kneeling figures at right, among them Moscow saints and other saints popular in that region.  They vary somewhat from example to example, but in general one often finds The Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr, Alexiy, Iona and Filipp; the “Fools for Christ’s sake” Vasily/Basil, Maxim, and Alexiy, Man of God;  Venerable Paraskeva; Basil the Great; the Apostle Peter; the nun-martyr Evdokiya; the martyr Paraskeva, and Simeon the Kinsman of the Lord.




In an earlier posting, I talked about the very popular Marian icon type called in Church Slavic Vsem Skorbyashchim Radost, — the “Joy of All Who Suffer.”  You may also find it titled Всех скорбящих Радость — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost, which is the same name in Russian.  The Skorbyashchim/Skorbyashchikh part means both “those who are afflicted” and “those who sorrow,” which is why some translate the title as “Joy of/to Those Who Sorrow.”

Today we will look at an interesting and common subtype of that icon.  It is called Всех скорбящих Радость (с грошиками) — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost S Groshikami, meaning “The Joy of All Who Suffer ‘With Coins.'”  The example below —  which appears to have been painted in oils — bears the title: ОБРАЗ СКОРБЯЩИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ OBRAZ SKORBYASHCHIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI “[THE] IMAGE OF [THE] ‘OF THE SUFFERING’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD” Looking at it, we can see why it is commonly called “With Coins”;  it has coins on its surface.  In most icons the coins are painted, but the maker of this example used real copper coins inserted into the panel:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Here is a half-kopek coin from 1898: And here is another from 1909.   The С.П.Б. at the bottom indicates the coin is from the Saint Petersburg mint: Icons of this sub-type often have a brief inscription at the base stating the origin, as we see in the following example produced near the end of the Tsarist era — one of the new mass-produced, chromolithographed icons on tin, such as were offered by the firm of Jacquot and Bonacœur (in Russian Жако и Бонакер), which also produced other kinds of tin goods such as colorful boxes.  These “printed tin” icons competed with the business of icon painters and further contributed to their decline:

 The problem with these colorful old icons on metal is that when scratched or exposed to moisture, they tend to rust very easily, though they were quite attractive to the ordinary Russian buyer when new.

Here is its title inscription, in beautiful traditional lettering, but in Russian rather than Church Slavic:

vsekhsklithtitle And here is the “origin” inscription:

It says:

The true likeness of the wonderworking image of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Suffer”; it turned up after a thunderstorm that broke out the 23 of July in the year  1888 over the chapel located at St. Petersburg, in the area adjacent to the glass factory.

The traditional story relates that there were several icons in the chapel.  It was struck by lightning, and everything inside was charred, with the exception of one icon that was found where it had fallen face down on the floor.  When it was turned over, the dark surface of the image had become fresh and clear, and sticking to the surface were eleven coins from the poor box that had been shattered by the lightning strike. Now, given the religious mind of ordinary Russians at that time, this event that sounds rather ordinary to us today was seen then as remarkably miraculous.  Within a day of the event, crowds of pilgrims gathered at the chapel, and the fame of the image spread far and wide, drawing even greater masses of people.  And then followed the inevitable “miraculous” healings that are associated with such images in Eastern Orthodoxy.

As we have seen, this image is a variation on the popular “Joy of All Who Suffer” type, and it is said that the image that was eventually transformed by lightning into the “With Coins’ variant was originally found floating in the Neva River by a member of the Kurakin family; later a relative, a merchant named Matveev, donated the icon to the chapel in the village of Klochka, not far from the glassworks, by St. Petersburg. You probably noticed the two inscribed banners at Mary’s sides, which are common to this sub-type.  Loosely translated, they are:



These inscriptions illustrate what is happening in the icon:  at left an angel holds out clothing to the naked, and at right another angel stands behind the ill who have come to Mary for healing.

It is important to know the date of appearance of the so-called “wonderworking” Marian icons, because we know that an icon cannot be earlier than the time of its appearance.  So if you happen to be offered an icon of the “Joy of All Who Suffer ‘With Coins'” as an 18th-century icon, you will know that dating is impossible, given that the image did not exist prior to 1888.  The same rule of thumb applies to saints, whose icons are not likely to be found before the date of “glorification” (the Russian equivalent of canonization) of the saint depicted. The “With Coins” sub-type of the “Joy of All Who Suffer” is also often referred to as Всех скорбящих Радость близ Стеклянного завода — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost” Bliz Steklyannogo Zavoda —  “The Joy of All Who Suffer ‘Near The Glass Factory.'”


I mentioned in an earlier posting (“Protection Images East and West”) that the earliest written prayer to Mary was found in Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470. It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.” Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”

We can paraphrase it as:

We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.

In this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather directly for her powers of deliverance.

I wrote in that earlier posting that It is not surprising we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt. Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis — the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of [the] God,” which we may liken to Theotokos — “Birthgiver of God” in Greek.  The worship of Isis spread in the Roman Empire, with processions, temples, paintings, and images such as this one, from the 2nd century c.e.:

(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time) under Roman imperial patronage, the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted; and as that happened, the places and functions of the old gods were gradually taken over by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.

While the veneration of Isis was fading in the Empire, the veneration of Mary was growing.  As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.” The latter won out.

At the far southern edge of Egypt lay the Temple of Isis at Philae.  In spite of the 392 edict of Emperor Theodosius closing all temples in Egypt, the Isis temple and the other temples at Philae remained open until they were finally officially closed only in the reign of the Byzantine Christian Emperor Justinian, in 535 – 537 c.e.  That is considered the symbolic end of the old Egyptian religion.

Temple at Philae; mid 19th century

Temple at Philae; mid 19th century

But in life, such boundaries are rarely so distinct.

Images of Isis as Mother of Horus frequently depicted her nursing her divine child, as in this Egyptian example:

(Walters Art Museum)

(Walters Art Museum)

It is not a great step from that three-dimensional image to this wall painting of Mary nursing the child Jesus, found in the Coptic Monastery of Apa Jeremiah (Deir Apa Jeremiah) at Saqqara, Egypt, generally dated 6th – 7th century c.e.:

And from that, it is but another short step to icons of the type known in Greek as the Galaktotrouphousa and in Russia as Mlekopitatelnitsa.  Here is a Russian example.

(Courtesy of

The smaller images of St. Nicholas and John the Forerunner at lower left and right are not a part of the type.

Let’s look at the title inscription:


It reads:  МЛЕКОПИТА          ТЕЛНИЦА ПРе[святая] Б[огоро]д[и]ца

Joining the two sides, we get in transliteration:

As is typical in traditional Russian iconography, conscious effort is made to remove the image from reality.  That is why Mary’s breast is so oddly depicted and placed near her shoulder — an attempt to avoid any trace of sensuality:


The Russian Mlekopitatelnitsa type is said by tradition to be based on the Galaktotrophousa (“Milk-nursing”) icon once kept at the Monastery of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, not far from Jerusalem. The hagiographic tradition relates that St. Sabbas, near death, said prophetically that the icon would be given into the hands of a relative of the Serbian Royal Family who would also bear the name “Sava.” (Sabbas).  St. Sabbas died in 532, during the reign of Justinian.  In the 13th century, the first Archbishop of Serbia, named Sava (Sabbas) (1174-1236), visited the monastery, and was given the icon (together, supposedly, with the “Three-handed” icon of Mary).  On his way back, the Archbishop came to Mount Athos, where he eventually had the Khilandar Monastery restored as a Serbian monastery, and gave to it the “Milk-nursing” icon from Palestine.


Eastern Orthodoxy has been generally suspicious of statuary — of images in three dimensions.  Historically, statues are not entirely absent.  Even as early as the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, such three-dimensional images existed in Christianity.  But over time — and particularly after the Iconoclastic period — Eastern Orthodox art has tended to avoid the use of religious statuary.  But one does encounter icons in relief, carved into stone, cast into metal, impressed in clay or carved in wood.

That is why one sometimes finds wooden relief icons of one kind or another in Russian iconography, though they are in general more scarce than painted icons.

Wood carving has been a part of Russian folk art since pre-Christian times, and when one finds carved icons in the 18th and 19th centuries, they still have much the appearance of folk art objects, though they were used just as were painted icons.

Here is a carved wooden icon depicting the Crucifixion.  It is depicted as though in a church interior, which is why we see seven church domes above it:

(Courtesy of

We see the usual figures found in painted Crucifixion icons — Jesus in the center, his mother Mary and another Mary at left, and at right the disciple John and the Centurion Longinus (Login Sotnik).  Even the inscriptions are carved in wood, and considerable time must have been required for such detail.  When the carving was finished, the icon was painted in suitable colors and then varnished.  The surface has oxidized and aged over the years, which is why the surface now has a rather dark appearance:

Each figure has its title inscription, and above Jesus we see the usual inscription, written here as IНЦI, abbreviating “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  And at the sides of his head is the common IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”

Most notable, however, is the very long carved text in the outer borders of the icon.  The novice student of Russian icons might at first despair of determining what it signifies, but one should always keep in mind that icon inscriptions tend to be very repetitive.  Also, certain texts tend to be associated with certain images.  Given that, can we possibly make any sense out of all those hundreds of letters carved without punctuation or even separation into individual words?

Fortunately, it is not as difficult as it looks.  In fact if you have read the earlier postings on this site, you will already have been given the key to translating it.

What does one do with such an unfamiliar inscription?  One first looks for the familiar, whether in words or phrases.  And if we go to the beginning of the text, which is at the upper left corner, we can begin to work with it.  In general the starting point in most icons for a sequence of images or a long text is at upper left:

That is a bit dark, so it would be helpful to brighten the image to add clarity, like this:

We can now see, looking carefully, that the inscription begins with these letters:


Where have we seen that before?  The most logical place to look is in materials dealing with Crucifixion images.  You may recall that some time ago I did a posting titled “The Instant Expert on Russian Crosses“:

In that article, I gave the standard inscriptions associated with the Crucifixion type.  And among them, you will find this:

Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…


 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Kresty — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

Now one thing we will notice about the form of the text on this icon is that its wording in Church Slavic is a bit different than the standard Russian Orthodox version.  That is because this icon uses the old text, not the revised wording used by the State Church after the separation from the Old Believers.  That tells us this is an Old Believer icon, and indeed such carved relief icons tend to be found more commonly among Old Believers than in the State Church.

Here is the Old Believer text:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

And here is the text as found in State Church prayer books:

Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его. Яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут; яко тает воск от лица огня, тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменующихся крестным знамением, и в веселии глаголющих: радуйся, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень, прогоняяй бесы силою на тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Иисуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго и поправшаго силу диаволю, и даровавшаго нам тебе Крест Свой Честный на прогнание всякаго супостата. О, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень! Помогай ми со Святою Госпожею Девою Богородицею и со всеми святыми во веки. Аминь.

You can see that there are some differences, but not enough to prevent us from recognizing the text in both cases.  Do not be intimidated by this.  All it means for practical purposes is:

If the beginning words read:
Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его… then we know it is likely an Old Believer icon.  But if we see the text beginning like this:
Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его… then we know it is a State Church image.

Keep in mind that one need not be concerned about minor differences in spelling, but differences in wording help us to distinguish icons of the Old Believers from those of the State Church in Russia after the latter part of the 17th century.  One can even see slight differences between the form of the text used on the carved icon and that given above as the Old Believer form of the full prayer.  The reason is that the text on the icon more closely follows the spelling used in the Ostrog Bible (Острожская Библия ) — the first complete printed Church Slavic Bible in the corrected edition of 1581.