What is today? Well, in the United States it is Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery, when word finally came to those of African descent in the state of Texas on June 19th, 1865, that they were emancipated — now free and equal with their former masters.

Of infinitely less significance is the fact — as a reader here reminded me — that as of today this blog has been in existence for ten years. Yes, I have been wasting your time and mine with all this rather useless information about icons for a whole decade now.

That means there are ten years of information on icons in the archives. More practical information on the identification of icons than you will find in any book — and it is all completely free of charge.

(Courtesy of


Papa Rimskiy — it sounds like the jovial old owner of a Russian tea room, but it is not; instead it is one of those saints that span East and West.  Here he is in a Russian icon:

We have seen a Papa Rimskiy here before — Kliment, Papa Rimskiy.  So if you have a good memory, you will recall that Papa Rimskiy is a rank and location title meaning “Pope of Rome.”  Yes, both Kliment/Clement and this fellow — Svyatuiy Alexandr” Papa Rimskiy — “Holy Alexander, Pope of Rome” are classified as — well, Popes of Rome.

Now it will be obvious to you, if you remember your history, that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split in 1054 over  the rather silly question of whether the Son (Jesus) proceeds from the Father only, or from the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Of course these dogmatic quibbles are never just over one thing; they are also often about power and self-importance.  But in any case, the Eastern and Western churches generally share saints declared before that date, and after it their saints are not officially shared, because each considered the other heretical from that time onward.

Concerning this particular Papa Rimskiy — Alexander — almost nothing is known for certain.  That of course never stopped the Church from inventing stories about him.  In Eastern Orthodoxy, Alexander is known as a hieromartyr — a priest-martyr, but that may be due to confusing him with another Alexander, who by tradition was martyred on May 3rd along with two others named Eventius and Theodulus.  The Orthodox believe that Alexander, Pope of Rome was martyred on that date in 119, supposedly burned alive under the authority of the Emperor Hadrian.  After the calendar revisions under Pope John 23rd in 1960, however, the Alexander traditionally martyred on that day was no longer identified as a pope in Roman Catholicism; the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, continues to consider him as such.


A reader asked about the inscription surrounding this comparatively recent fresco of the Pantokrator in the dome of the St. Alexander Nevskiy church in Belgrade, Serbia:

(Photo: Petar Milošević)

The inscription in Church Slavic reads:

яко приниче с высоты святыя своея, Господь с небесе на землю призре, услышати воздыхание окованных, разрешити сыны умерщвленных

Iako priniche s vuisotui svyatuiya svoeya, Gospod’ s nebese na zemliu prizre, usluishati vozduikhanie okovannuikh,
razreshiti suinui umershchvlennuikh

It is taken from Psalm 101:20-21 in the Septuagint and Church Slavic Bible numbering, Psalm 102 in the KJV and “Western” numbering:

“For he has looked out from the height of his sanctuary; the Lord looked upon the earth from heaven, to hear the groaning of the fettered, to loose the sons of the slain.”


Here is an example of a familiar icon type, and if you have read my previous posting on it ( ), or if you are familiar with the New Testament, you will easily recognize the scene depicted:

(Courtesy of

As mentioned in the previous discussion, the story is found in only one place in the New Testament: the Gospel attributed to John, chapter 5. Here it is as presented in the King James version:

Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, [waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.]

And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

10 The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed.

11 He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk.

12 Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?

13 And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place.

14 Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.

15 The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.

16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.

Now as I said earlier, there are several difficulties with this text. First, the grammar near the beginning is uncertain, so translators are not quite sure whether it is referring to a pool near the sheep market, or near the Sheep Gate, or whether it is actually referring to a “Sheep Pool.”

More significant is the fact that though it is found in the version of the New Testament used throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as in the King James version, the whole portion in brackets and bold type — the part about an angel troubling/stirring the water — was not originally part of the story; it was added later. It is not found at all in the earliest Greek manuscripts of John. That is why almost all modern translations omit it. That makes even part of what is left of the account uncertain.

All of that, however, is not our concern today. Instead, I would like to take a look at the title inscription, and in doing so, to give some pointers for beginners in translation:

The first thing to note is that it is heavily abbreviated, which can make things more difficult. But what I would like you to learn from this is a helpful technique: begin with what you know.

Now out of all the words in the inscription, you should at least recognize the letters ГДЬ, and they should immediately remind you of the very common word ГОСПОДЬ —GOSPOD’, meaning “Lord.”

Now let’s begin on the rest, starting at far left:

We see the letters НЛЯ (the last — the “ya” sound — I have written in the modern Russian font). Above them is a superscript Д/D. They abbreviate NEDELYA — the word for “Sunday”

That word is not abbreviated; it is CHETVERTA, meaning “fourth.”

That is the little word PO, meaning “after.”

That is the word PASKHE; it is a grammatical form of Paskha, meaning “Easter.” Your are likely familiar with it in English as an adjective, as in “Paschal lamb.”

This is a tricky one, because there are only three obvious letters. But if you keep in mind the context of the icon image, and what is happening it it, you might remember the word ИСЦЕЛЕНИЕ/ISTSELENIE, with that same ИСЦ/ISTS beginning — and Istselenie means “healing.”

And then comes the word whose basic form you should already recognize:

Next comes this:

That is the word РАСЛАБЛЕННАГО/RASLABLENNAGO — the “of” form of “paralytic.”

Now if we put all this together, we get the title by arranging things in English-language order:

“Fourth Sunday After Easter: the Healing of the Paralytic by the Lord.”

And that is exactly what this icon represents: the story of the healing of the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, which is commemorated in the Russian Orthodox calendar on the fourth Sunday after Easter.

In the icon shown above, we see the Paralytic lying on his bed, and Jesus, with his disciples, coming to heal him. In the background is a stylized version of the Pool of Bethesda, shown here (in very unlikely fashion) as a raised basin. Behind it is the angel, who is troubling the waters of the pool with his hand.

Behind the angel is the subsequent scene chronologically, with the healed paralytic carrying his bed — depicted here as a kind of bench. And to his left are the “Jews” questioning the man as to who dared to heal him on the Sabbath. The writer of John had a rather anti-Jewish sentiment, paradoxically because Jesus and his disciples were Jews — but of course by the time the Gospels were written, the early Christians not only had for the most part become distinct from the Jews, but had also began a kind of blame campaign against them, which led to even greater antipathy later, and much suffering in history.

It is also not certain what the point of the story is. Some scholars speculate that it was intended to show the superiority of the healing of Jesus over the “natural” healing sought at springs and fountains and pools, which were often considered sacred places in the ancient world. There was even apparently a shrine of the Greek healing god Asklepios/Asclepius found at the archeological site of the Pool of Bethesda (if it is correctly identified). The pre-Christian tradition of healing springs and waters was continued in Christian guise both in the byzantine world and in Russian Orthodoxy.


It is unusual that a completely new style of icon painting — a new “school” of icon painting we might say — is created by a single person.

We have seen that Photis Kontoglou (1896-1965) began a revival of a more traditional style of Greek icon painting in the 20th century, based largely on inspiration from monastery frescos of earlier centuries; his style is distinctive and recognizable, and has strongly influenced modern Greek Orthodox icon painting, but we cannot say it is entirely new.

That is not the case, however with the painter Isaac Fanous (ⲓⲥⲁⲁⲕ ⲫⲁⲛⲟⲩⲥ, December 19, 1919 – January 14, 2007), who single-handedly created a completely new style in icon painting that has become considered characteristic of contemporary Coptic iconography both inside and outside of Egypt. The innovation of Fanous is like the Iridium layer in geological strata that separates the age of the dinosaurs from what came after. That is just how significant a change he made in Coptic iconography. That does not mean, however, that the more conservative among the Copts have abandoned the strongly European-influenced realism so often found in Coptic churches in Egypt, or that there are not those in the Coptic church who oppose the simple style of Fanous, preferring the more flamboyant “Italianate” realism that most Copts had come to recognize as the norm. Nonetheless, when those outside of Egypt think of contemporary Coptic iconography, they now think of the “Neo-Coptic” style introduced by Fanous, which has become increasingly popular among new icon painters.

Fanous began his art studies in Egypt, but later studied icon painting under the Russian emigré Léonid Ouspenskiy (1902-1987) in France. Ouspenskiy’s book Theology of the Icon is often mentioned in discussions of the history of icons, but I always caution students that Ouspenskiy’s view of the history of icons is more based on Orthodox tradition and wishful thinking than on solid historical fact, and can give students a very mistaken impression.

In any case, the time spent by Fanous under Ouspenskiy seems to have had no visible effect on the course of his icon painting, because the new style he later created — the “Neo-Coptic” style, is not only easily recognizable but quite distinct from anything that came before. Now that style has been taken up by not only Coptic iconographers, but also by many painters who are not Coptic Christians — but just enjoy its clarity and straightforward simplicity.

Here is an icon by Fanous in the St. Peter & St. Paul’s Coptic Church:

The title inscription is in Coptic — the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language. It reads:


Stefanos is the name — Stephanos in Greek, Stephen in English. You can probably read it easily now that you have learned the Greek alphabet (you have, of course, if you are a serious student here). The Coptic alphabet consists of Greek letters with added special letters to make it fit the Coptic language. Pi ( ⲡⲓ )is the masculine singular definite article, found as a prefix that functions rather like ho in Greek icons — it can loosely be translated as “the.” Shorp (ϣⲟⲣⲡ) means “first” here. So if you know your New Testament, you will recall the story in Acts of the martyrdom of Stephen — the “first” Christian martyr. And that is the fellow shown here. So the title begins:


It continues in smaller letters below:


It is not hard to recognize the first “prefix” word as PI- “the” — plus the borrowed Greek word for Archdeacon, and the rest at right begins with another prefix — ⲙ/M, meaning “and” here, followed by the borrowed Greek word martyros — “martyr.” So the whole inscription reads: