As you know from previous reading here, icons were not a part of earliest Christianity.  They were a borrowing from non-Christian Greco-roman art, and gradually developed over the centuries.  You will recall too that the image of Jesus as it appears in icons was also a gradual development, and in the earliest Christian art his depiction is quite different than in later icon images.

The same is true of angels.   Just as the earliest catacomb art was narrative and symbolic — not the icon art the church later permitted — the earliest images of angels are nothing like their appearance in icons.  Here, for example, is the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, as depicted in the 3rd century Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome:


Most obviously, what is missing are the wings that were later considered an essential characteristic of icon angels.  So where did the angel wings come from?  Well, just as icons were a continuation of non-Christian polytheistic images of the gods, wings on angels in Christian art came from non-Christian classical art, which had winged deities such as this 5th century B.C. depiction of Eos, Goddess of the Dawn,  here holding the body of Memnon:


And of course there is the famous 2nd century B.C. winged Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre:


So wings on Christian angels began to appear in the 4th century.  But what I want to talk about today is not wings, but rather diadems and ribbons.

Here is the 1st century  Farnese Diadumenos (“Diadem-bearer”), a Roman copy of an earlier Greek statue depicting an athlete tying his victory ribbon in his hair:


Here is a Roman sculpture from around the 1st century c.e.  It was originally a full statue, but only the head survived, and was placed on a “bust” base.   It is an Anadoumenos, an athlete who has tied the tainia (headband) around his head.  Such headbands were also worn by deities and rulers, etc.

(British Museum: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

And here are angels from mosaics in the 6th century Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, with bands in their hair:


Here is the Archangel Michael in mosaic at the 12th century Capella Palatina in Palermo.  Note the gem in his hair, held there by ribbons that, though tied at the back, are seen at the sides of his head:


Here is a 13th century icon of the Archangel Michael from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.  He wears a simple diadem with a central gem in his hair,  again held by ribbons that are seen at the sides of his head:


So what we see in the hair of icon angels is a simple diadem, ornamented with a large gem in the center and held in place by ribbons tied at the back of the head that are seen curling out at the sides.  In Russian these ribbons are called тороки/toroki.

Now over time, the simple ancient origins of the headband/diadem borrowed from non-Christian classical art and used in depictions of Christian angels were forgotten.  And when the original meaning of something is forgotten in iconography, it is often given a fanciful new meaning.  So when Byzantine iconography came into Kyivan Rus’ and later into what became Russia, eventually the notion arose that because these curling ribbons were generally seen by the ears of angels in icons, they had something to do with divine hearing.

The tradition developed into the form published in an 1889 text.  It says the angels have bands (toroki) at their ears, which are the resting place of the Holy Spirit.  When a command comes from God, the ears tremble, and the angel then looks into the mirror he holds, and there he sees written what God is commanding, like a finger writing on water.

Note how the painter of this 19th century Archangel Michael placed the ribbons right at the ears:


And so a simple band around the head in classical times developed into the legend of the angels’ diadem ribbons signifying “divine hearing.”


This icon is actually a clever but apparently quite accurate modern copy of a 19th century icon attributed to the Old Believer Vetka School.  Such reproductions are produced through a technical process in the Izhitsa Workshop in Russia, and sold as honest copies.  You should have no difficulty in recognizing the type:

Спас НерукотворныйVetka19vek

The title inscription is divided into left and right sides of the image.

On the left side is:  NERUKOTVORENNUIY— “Not-Hand-Made.”

And on the right: OBRAZ G[OSPO]D[E]NImage of the Lord”

So all together, “The ‘Not Made by Hands’ Image of the Lord.”

Commonly this image is depicted as the face of Jesus on a cloth shown alone, or else held by two angels.  In some examples such as this one, there are three angels.

The angel at left here is SVYATUIY ARKHANGEL MIKHAIL — “Holy Archangel Michael”:

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He holds the cloth with his left hand, and in his right is a disk bearing the IC abbreviation for ISUS — “Jesus.”

At right is SVYATUIY ARKHANGEL GAVRIIL — “Holy Archangel Gabriel.”

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He holds the cloth with his right hand, and in his left is a disk with the letters XC, abbreviating KHRISTOS — “Christ.”

The third angel at the top has no name inscription in this example, either because it was omitted or because it was lost over time.  The name of the third angel in icons of this specific type varies from example to example.  In some the third angel is the Archangel Raphael, in others Selaphiel, etc.  Some versions call each of the three angels only “Angel of the Lord.”

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The cloth itself is ornamented with very simply-painted folk flowers, roses being a favorite.

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The swift strokes with which they are painted contrast with the very fine painting of the main image of Jesus:


Here is a closer look at the upper face.  Note that even though this is an Old Believer icon, the eyes have that little dot of flesh (technically the lacrimal caruncle) in the inner corner, a detail not found in Russian icons before the latter part of the 1600s.

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Here we see the great care the painter took in painting the hairs of the beard:

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Though not common, there are a number of Old Believer icons of this type that include three circles below, showing small images from the legendary history of the “Not Made by Hands” image:

The circle at left depicts King Abgar of Edessa receiving the “Not Made by Hands” image from the Apostle Faddey/Thaddeus.  You will recall that it is part of a legend that developed over time, to which a “miraculous” image, made when Jesus pressed a cloth to his wet face, was added.

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The second circle depicts another part of the legend, in which King Abgar of Edessa has the “Not Made by Hands” image placed above the city gate to be venerated by those entering and leaving.  It was eventually hidden in a niche there, with a burning lamp placed before it.  In the sixth century, during a Persian siege, the niche was opened and the image supposedly found with the lamp still burning before it after centuries.  And “miraculously” the image had been duplicated on a tile, the so-called Keramidion or “Holy Tile.”

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The third circle, oddly enough, depicts another and quite contradictory legend of the origin of the “Not Made by Hands” image.  This is the story of Veronica and her veil, which recounts that as Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, a woman named Veronica (literally “True Icon”) wiped the sweat and blood from his face with a cloth, and his image was imprinted upon it.  This separate and disparate version of the legend gradually developed between the 11th and 14th centuries.

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Between the first and third circles is an inscription reading BOZHIE VIDYENIE BOZHESTVENNOE CHUDO, meaning “The Vision of God — a Divine Miracle.”

Here is another 19th century example of the “Three Angel” variant, again from the Vetka School:

In this one, the IC and XC abbreviations held by the left and right Archangels are replaced by abbreviations for the word Svyat — “Holy.”  And in the three scenes at the base, the circles of King Abgar and Veronica are reversed.  The third Archangel at the top is Raphael.

And here is yet another 19th century example:


You will find previous postings about the Abgar legend, Veronica, and other examples of the “Not Made by Hands” type in the site archives.  Just use the search box at the right of any page.


Here is a nicely painted icon. It is obviously an angel, but which one?

(Courtesy of

That is easy to determine if we read the title inscription. It mixes Greek with Slavic.

The first word is Greek Hagios — meaning “Holy.” As you can see, it is abbreviated.

The second word is Slavic borrowed from Greek: Arkhistratig’ — meaning “Chief Commander.”

And the actual name of the angel is the third word: Mikhail’ — “Michael.”

So this icon depicts “Holy Chief Commander Michael,” that is, the Archangel Michael as Chief Commander of the Heavenly Armies. He is dressed in military garb, and holds a sword in his left hand.

So that was easy. It is an icon of the Archangel Michael as Chief Commander. But it is very important to pay attention to detail in icons; otherwise we may miss something interesting. That is why we should not stop at this point, but should continue by looking at the scroll in Michael’s right hand. You will recall that as cartoon characters speak in speech bubbles, icon characters speak in scroll texts. So Michael is telling the viewers something.

You may have read previous postings here on “recording angels” — those angels usually depicted in the entryway or porch of Russian Orthodox churches. And you may remember that sometimes in the same location, we see an icon of Michael, usually with some kind of warning inscription to churchgoers:

Well, that is what we have in today’s icon. It is Michael with a warning inscription. His military aspect, with hand on sword, is intended to be intimidating.

So what does he say through his scroll? The text is ordinarily this one, with slight variations:

О великое Божие милосердие, како не снидет огнь с небеси и не пожжетъ людей, глаголющих в церкови во время Божественного пения …

O velikoe bozhie miloserdie, kako ne snidet ogn’ c nebesi i ne pozhzhet liudey, glagoliushchikh v terkovi vo vremya Bozhestvennogo peniya ….

“O great mercy of God, how can fire not fall from heaven and burn the people who talk in church during the Divine Singing.”

One variation used is:


“O great mercy of God, how can fire not fall from heaven and burn those without fear and faith standing here.”

Here is a different exposure of the central image.  Notice the fine gold highlighting lines on the wings.  This is done by applying lines of a sticky substance called the assist, then placing gold leaf upon it (a technique called inakop).  Some writers mistakenly refer to the gold lines as assist — but that is only the “glue” to which the gold leaf adheres, forming the linear highlights.

Don’t forget that the ribbons curling out from Michael’s head (and those of other angels) by tradition signify divine hearing.


Such an image of Mikhail/Michael can be on one side of the church entryway/porch, and on the other may be found an image of the Archangel Gabriel, who holds another related scroll.  Here is the text of the scroll as found on an image of Gavriil/Gabriel, painted in a very westernized manner in the Church of the Prophet Elijah in Moscow:


It reads:



“The Angel of God writes down the names of those entering the church, listening with fear to the Divine Singing.”

Another more comforting “Entry Angel” inscription is this, from the 1817 church in the village of Malakhovo in Yaroslavl Oblast:


His scroll reads:


“Put off worldly worry and resort to the temple of God, in which you will find joy and consolation.”



A year of suffering, misery, death, and blood. That is what Putin has brought the world in his massive invasion of the independent country of Ukraine, following on his earlier illegal seizing and occupation of Ukrainian Crimea. Great sorrow and loss of life for Ukraine, including the kidnapping of Ukrainian children and their removal to Russia, and thousands upon thousands of Russians dead for no reason other than Putin’s deranged ambition. And it still goes on. But Ukraine, in spite of all obstacles, stands firm for its rightful independence. The courage and steadfastness of the Ukrainians reminds me of these lines from the U.S. National Anthem:

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

Today’s icon will look familiar to those of you who are long-time readers here:

(Kherson Regional Art Museum)

It is obviously a Marian icon of the “Soothe my Sorrow” type.  The child Jesus holds a scroll with the standard text for this type:   “Judge Righteous Judgement.”  In the four corners we see the floral ornamentation so often found and beloved in Ukrainian folk icons.

This particular 19th century example, from the Kherson Oblast Art Museum in Ukraine, is not an Old Believer work, as we see from the IHC XC abbreviation for Jesus Christ.  The Old Believers would have used the IC XC form.

If you would like to read more about this Marian icon type, you will find a previous posting here:




A reader asked me if there are icons of the Syrophoenician woman as described in Mark 7:24-30:

And from thence he [Jesus] arose, and went into the region of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid.

25 For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:

26 The woman was a Greek [non-Jew], a Syrophenician by nation; and she implored him to cast forth the demon out of her daughter.

27 But Jesus said to her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not right to take the children’s bread, and to throw it to the dogs.

28 And she answered and said to him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

29 And he said to her, For this saying go your way; the demon is gone out of your daughter.

30 And when she was come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

Well, such images do exist, but they are apparently not as common as those of the other reputed healings by Jesus. A possible reason is the general discomfort felt at Jesus basically calling this woman and all other non-Jews “dogs.”

Here is a Serbian fresco example:


The title inscription reads “Christ Heals the Daughter of the Canaanite Woman.”

We see the disciples at left, and Jesus leaning toward the imploring woman.

At right — in spacial shortening — we see the black little demon leaping out of the daughter’s mouth.

Now you probably noticed that the fresco inscription calls the woman a “Canaanite,” not a Syrophoenician. Why is that?

It is because the fresco follows the revised account of the incident as given in the gospel called “of Matthew.” We find it in Matthew 15:21-28

21 Then Jesus went from there, and departed into the region of Tyre and Sidon.

22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same region, and cried out to him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she cries after us.

24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

25 Then came she and prostrated before him, saying, Lord, help me.

26 But he answered and said, It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

27 And she said, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.

28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, O woman, great is your faith: be it to you even as you will. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

There is a lot of talk among interpreters of these two accounts, trying to soften the obvious harshness of Jesus’ basically calling the woman and all non-Jews “dogs.” Most try to de-emphasize that portion and place more emphasis on the faith of the woman, as well as her humility in seemingly accepting being called a dog. Some point out that the Greek term here refers to “house” dogs, and not to “wild” dogs, as though that somehow lessens the cruel impact. Others try to excuse the unkind words by saying the mission of Jesus was to Jews, not to non-Jews (which raises all kinds of interesting theological problems). And some say Jesus was being deliberately nasty just to test the woman. Nonetheless, in spite of all efforts to soften the tone of Jesus, this is one of those stories that many wish had not said what it does.

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost is called the “Sunday of the Canaanite Woman” in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.