This very well-painted icon depicts one of the miracles traditionally attributed to St. Nikola/Nicholas of Myra:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

The title inscription at the base identifies it:

It reads:L


The story relates that in the region of Antioch there lived a pious man named Agrik/Agkrikos.  Every year on the day of commemoration of St. Nicholas, he would go to the church consecrated to St. Nicholas and pray, then return to his home and have a big dinner for his friends, relatives, and beggars.

It happened that one year, when the day to honor Nicholas came, he told his son Vasiliy/Basileos/Basil — who was aged 16 — to go to the church and pray to Nicholas and attend the liturgical services, while the father stayed home to prepare for the customary dinner.

While the son was at Matins at the church, it was attacked by Saracens, who captured the son and took him to the island of Crete.  There, because he was an extremely beautiful lad, he was made the cupbearer of the Muslim Prince.

The parents were grief-stricken, so sorrowful with weeping that they neither attended church nor commemorated Nicholas for two years.  Even into the third year they kept this up, until finally in the third year, on the day before St. Nicholas was to be commemorated,  the father said to his wife that it was no use to weep; they should go to the church with oil and candles and pray to St. Nicholas for their son.  So again they attended on St. Nicholas Day, prayed fervently to Nicholas, and came home to have the customary guests for the special annual dinner.

While everyone was seated at the meal, the dogs in the yard began to bark loudly.  Agrik sent his servants out to see what was happening.  When they returned, they said they saw no one, and nothing at all.  But the barking not only continued, but got worse, so Agrik himself went to investigate.  He was surprised to see a handsome young man in saracen clothes standing outside, holding a container of wine in his hands.  Agrik, walking toward him, recognized his own son.  The puzzled boy told him he did not know what had happened.  He had just been pouring wine into the cup of the Muslim Prince on Crete,  when suddenly the lad felt someone grab his hand, and he was carried off by St. Nicholas as though in a whirlwind, and then found himself outside his own home.

Now if you are a regular reader here, you will know it is not unusual in Eastern Orthodox hagiography for stories or parts of stories to be recycled from saint to saint.  So perhaps you immediately recognized that the tale of the boy carried off to become a cupbearer, and saved and brought home by a Saint, is essentially the very same “rescued boy” motif that we find in the hagiography of St. George.  You will find it in this previous posting:

And here, again, is the iconographic image of the boy being rescued by St. George, with the wine pitcher still in his hand.

We can look back even farther for the more ancient origin of this tale.  In Book 20 of Homer’s Iliad, we find these lines (233-235):

Τρωὸς δ᾿ αὖ τρεῖς παῖδες ἀμύμονες ἐξεγένοντο, Ἶλός τ᾿ Ἀσσάρακός τε καὶ ἀντίθεος Γανυμήδης, ὃς δὴ κάλλιστος γένετο θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων· τὸν καὶ ἀνηρείψαντο θεοὶ Διὶ οἰνοχοεύειν 235κάλλεος εἵνεκα οἷο, ἵν᾿ ἀθανάτοισι μετείη.

“And from Tros again three matchless sons were born, Ilus, and Assaracus, and godlike Ganymedes, who was born the most beautiful of mortal men; wherefore the gods caught him up on high to be cupbearer to Zeus by reason of his beauty, that he might live with the immortals.

Yes, the abduction, in ancient Greek mythology, of the youth Ganymede, who because of his great beauty was made cupbearer to Zeus.

Here is a closer look at the father (and mother) seeing their son standing outside with St. Nicholas:



Here are the dinner guests, and a barking dog out in the yard:






Here is a seldom-seen but very interesting Greek iconographic type.  This example — a fresco in the Protaton Church at Karyes, Mount Athos — was painted near the end of the 13th century by Manuel Panselinos (Μανουήλ Πανσέληνος):

Who is it?  Well, the clue lies in the halo, which shows three points of the cross.  As you know, the halo in the form of the cross is found on icons of Jesus.  But as you can see, this does not look at all like conventional images of Jesus.  So again, who is it?

Here is the answer:  it is Jesus.  But it is Jesus in an uncommon form.  In Greek this iconographic type is called Ὁ Χριστός ὁ εν ετέρα μορφή — Ho Khristos ‘ho en hetera morphe”  “Christ ‘the one in another form.'”

In Mark 16:12-13 we read:

Μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα δυσὶν ἐξ αὐτῶν περιπατοῦσιν ἐφανερώθη ἐν ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ, πορευομένοις εἰς ἀγρόν.

After that he [Jesus] appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country. And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.”

And the Gospel called “of Luke” (24:13-32) tells the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus, after the Crucifixion of Jesus.  On their way Jesus appears to them, but they do not recognize him:  “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.”  When they finally arrive at Emmaus and are sitting at supper, and suddenly realize who he is, he immediately disappears.

Here is a modern image of the type:

The notion that Jesus could appear in a different form to different people — sometimes even at the same time — is very old.  It is found, for example, in the Acts of John (87-93), in which Jesus is said to have appeared looking like John, then James saw him as a child while John saw him as a man, and again John saw him as a balding man with a thick beard, while James saw him as a youth with a beard just beginning.  Sometimes he was seen as a small and unattractive man, at other times as tall as heaven.

John also says of Jesus in this apocryphal gospel, “Sometimes when I would take hold of him, I felt a material and solid body, and at other times again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it did not exist at all.”  The general notion was that Jesus, being a god in essence, could take any form at all.  Mainstream Christianity settled on the notion that Jesus had a stable bodily form instead of just appearing to be human, in contrast to what they considered the heresy of docetism, but nonetheless traces of the old “polymorphic Jesus” view remain in Mark, Luke, and the iconographic image of Jesus “in another form.”

Here is a second modern example of the type:


Here is a “month” icon for December.

You will recall that “month” icons depict the major saints and festivals of each month in the Church year.

(Courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

This example adds, in the outer borders, images of the “wonderworking” Marian icons celebrated in the December.  Today I want to focus on the icon shown a bottom left.  It is too small to see clearly in the photo, but here is  a different and larger example, though old and quite worn:

The original icon is said to have been painted in 1299.  It depicts Mary with the Christ Child held on her left arm.  In her right, she holds a bishop’s stole (an omophorion, which she is giving to the fellow standing on the right (shown very much smaller than Mary).  In some examples — as in the “month” icon — he kneels instead of standing.

He is easier to see in this 19th century example:

His name is Maxim (Максим/Maksim).  He was a Greek, and Metropolitan of Kiyev (Kiev) from about 1283–1305.  Though Kiyev had been invaded and sacked by the Mongols (the “Tatar Hordes”), the Church clerical system continued to function there.  But Kieyev was in a terrible state.

Maxim thought it advisable to leave the many difficulties in Kiyev and move the office of the Metropolitanate to a more congenial and comfortable location, which for him was the Principality of Vladimir, ruled by Andrei Aleksandrovich (Gorodetskiy).  So when Maxim came to the city of Vladimir, he conveniently had a vision there.

As he told Prince Andrei, he had just fallen asleep when a very bright light appeared.  In it stood Mary, holding her child.  She spoke to him, saying:

Рабе Мой, Максим! Добре пришел еси семо посетите град Мой.

“My servant Maxim!  It is good that you have come to visit my city.”

Then she handed him the omophorion, saying:

Приими омофор сей и паси во граде Моем словесныя овцы.

“Take this omophorion and feed with words the sheep in my city.”

You may recall that the words “feed my sheep” — Паси овец Моих — were spoken by Jesus to Peter in John 21:17.  And the motif of an omophorion being given by Mary comes from the tale that Mary gave St. Nicholas of Myra his bishop’s stole.

Maxim presented this vision to Andrei as heavenly authorization that he was to set up the office of Metropolitan in Vladimir, abandoning Kiyev.  And he showed Andrei an omophorion — supposedly the one given to him by Mary — as proof.  So in the year 1299-1300, Maxim transferred the Metropolitanate of the Church from Kiyev to Vladimir, under the title “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’.”  You will recall that this was in the days before there was a Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia to rule the Church (which began about 1588).

The omophorion was regarded as a holy relic, and was placed in a golden “ark” (box), and kept in the Uspenskiy Cathedral in Vladimir for 112 years.  In 1488 the sacristan of the Cathedral hid the golden box with the omophorion in it, along with other church objects, during the invasion of Vladimir by the Tatar Khan Talych.  Tortured to reveal the hiding place of the treasures, the sacristan refused, and was killed.  The box with its omphorion was lost from that time, because no one knew where its hiding place lay.

In Spite of Maxim’s supposed celestial vision, the Metropolitanate in Vladimir did not last long. Maxim’s successor — Peter — moved it to even greener pastures in the rising city of Moscow in 1325, where it continued to be called — for a time — the “Metropolitanate of Kiev and all Russia — until 1488.

After Peter died in 1326, he was eventually declared a saint, which is why we often see him depicted in icons  of the three famous Metropolitans of Moscow — Peter, Alexei and Jona.

The three are also often found in examples of the Marian icon called “Bogoliubskaya Moskovskaya” — the “‘Moscow’ Bogoliubskaya image.  In the detail below, They are in the front row of kneeling “Moscow” saints, along with Filipp (Philip) a Metropolitan of Moscow said to have been murdered by Ivan the Terrible:

From left they are Pyotr (Peter), Aleksiy (Alexei), Filipp (Philip) and Iona (Jonah).



Today we will look at a Greek-inscribed icon of Jesus as Ὁ ΒΑCΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΒΑCΙΛΕΟΝ ΚΑΙ ΜΕΓΑC ΑΡΧΙΕΡΕΥC — Ὁ Βασιλεύς των Βασιλέων καί Μέγας Ἀρχιερεύς  — Ηο Basileus ton Basileon kai Megas Arkhiereus:
“The King of Kings and Great High Priest.”

(Photo Courtesy of Luisa Ghirimoldi)

The type depicts Jesus enthroned, robed in the garments of a bishop, with crown/mitre and omophorion (the stole around his neck).  This particular example has added twelve apostles around the head of Jesus, which are not present in all icons of the type.

His robe in this icon is richly decorated with all kinds of flowers, among which are roses, lilies, and interestingly enough, irises:

The title of this type comes from these biblical excerpts:

The first is Revelation 19:16:

Καὶ ἔχει ἐπὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν μηρὸν αὐτοῦ ὄνομα γεγραμμένον, Βασιλεὺς βασιλέων καὶ κύριος κυρίων.

And he has on his robe and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”

Then Hebrews 2:17:

Ὅθεν ὤφειλεν κατὰ πάντα τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς ὁμοιωθῆναι, ἵνα ἐλεήμων γένηται καὶ πιστὸς ἀρχιερεὺς τὰ πρὸς τὸν θεόν, εἰς τὸ ἱλάσκεσθαι τὰς ἁμαρτίας τοῦ λαοῦ.

“Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like his brothers, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people

And Hebrews 4:14:

Ἔχοντες οὖν ἀρχιερέα μέγαν, διεληλυθότα τοὺς οὐρανούς, Ἰησοῦν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, κρατῶμεν τῆς ὁμολογίας.

For we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.

And Hebrews 6:20:

…ὅπου πρόδρομος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν εἰσῆλθεν Ἰησοῦς, κατὰ τὴν τάξιν Μελχισεδὲκ ἀρχιερεὺς γενόμενος εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

From where the forerunner is for us entered, Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedek.

Let’s turn to texts commonly found in the book Jesus holds in icons of this type.

Here is an example by Michael Damaskinos (Μιχαήλ Δαμασκηνός, 1530/35–1592/93), a noted Cretan iconographer:

(Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Greece)

Here the book inscription combines two texts.

The first — on the left page — is from John 18:36:

ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς Ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου· εἰ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἦν ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμή οἱ ὑπηρέται ἄν οἱ ἐμοὶ ἠγωνίζοντο ἵνα μὴ παραδοθῶ τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις·

“Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews….”

The second — on the right page — is very like the words used in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25:

καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν, καὶ εἴπεν, Λάβετε, φάγετε, Tοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν κλώμενον· τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν.

Ὡσαύτως καὶ τὸ ποτήριον, μετὰ τὸ δειπνῆσαι, λέγων, Tοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ ἐμῷ αἵματι· τοῦτο ποιεῖτε, ὁσάκις ἂν πίνητε, εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν.

“And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

After the same manner also he took the cup, after he had eaten, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

What we find on the icon book, however, is not precisely that text in wording.  Instead, it varies somewhat, because it is actually the words spoken by the priest in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

Λάβετε, φάγετε, τοῦτό μού ἐστι τὸ σῶμα, τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν κλώμενον εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.

Labete, phagete, touto mou esti to soma, to huper humon klomenon eis aphesin hamartion.

“Take, eat, this is my body, which for you is broken for the forgiveness of sins.”

Now as we can see, the first page associates the icon with Jesus as king, and the second page with the “high” priest performing the Eucharist, in keeping with the titles “King of Kings” and “Great High Priest.”  So this type is considered a Eucharistic icon.

If we take a look at the inscription at the bottom of the icon, we find this:



“Prayer/supplication of the Servant of God Leontios, Priest of Christopher:  The Hand of Michael Damascene [literally “of Damascus” — a family name].

As an alternate, one may also find this text, from John 14:27:
Εἰρήνην ἀφίημι ὑμῖν, εἰρήνην τὴν ἐμὴν δίδωμι ὑμῖν· οὐ καθὼς ὁ κόσμος δίδωσιν, ἐγὼ δίδωμι ὑμῖν.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you: not as the world gives, give I to you.”

Now we are ready to return to the text on the first icon on this page, which is a bit tricky because it is written in an ornate manner, with many ligatures.

Here is the left-hand page:

Having now seen the inscription on the Michael Damaskinos book, we should be able to read it as:

Λάβετε φά-
γετε τούτο μου
εστί το σώμα
το υπέρ υμών
[εις άφεσιν αμαρτιών]

Labete, phagete, touto mou esti to soma, to huper humon klomenon eis aphesin hamartion.

“Take, eat, this is my body, which for you is broken for the forgiveness of sins.”

And here is the right-hand page:

It reads:

Πίετε εξ αυτού πάν-
τες τούτο εστί το
Αίμα μου το της
Καινής Διαθή-
κης, το υπέρ υμών
[και πολλών εκχυνόμενον εις άφεσιν αμαρτιών]

Piete ex autou pantes. Touto esti to haima mou, to tes kaines diathekes, to huper humon kai pollon ekkhunomenon eis aphesin hamartion.
“Drink of this all [of you].  This is my blood of the new covenant, which for you [and many is shed for the forgiveness of sins].”
The portions given in brackets above are the last lines on each page, too faint to see in the photo.
One may also find this composite, combined text on some examples of this icon type.  It is adapted from John 6:35:
Αμήν αμήν λέγω υμίν, Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς· ὁ ἐρχόμενος πρός με οὐ μὴ πεινάσῃ· καὶ ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ οὐ μὴ διψήσῃ πώποτε
 And from John 6:53:
και ἐὰν μὴ φάγητε τὴν σάρκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πίητε αὐτοῦ τὸ αἷμα, οὐκ ἔχετε ζωὴν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς.
 “Truly, Truly I say to you, I am the Bread of Life.  Who comes to me will never hunger, and who believes in me will never thirst.”
“And if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Returning to the first icon shown on this page, we have noted the presence in this example of the Twelve Apostles arranged in a twining vine near the head of Jesus. You may recall, if you are a long-time reader here, that the  addition of those apostles relates this icon to another type  called Η ΑΜΠΕΛΟC — He Ampelos in Greek — “The Vine.” It depicts Jesus sitting near the top of a many-branched grape vine, and around him in the branches are the Twelve Apostles.  That relationship accounts for why some icons of the “King of Kings and Great High Priest” having the “vine apostles,” also have these words as the text on the book held by Jesus, from John 15:1-2:

Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ἄμπελος ἡ ἀληθινή, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ γεωργός ἐστιν. Πᾶν κλῆμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μὴ φέρον καρπόν, αἴρει αὐτό· καὶ πᾶν τὸ καρπὸν φέρον, καθαίρει αὐτό, ἵνα πλείονα καρπὸν φέρῃ. I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit.”

Now you should be an expert in reading and interpreting Greek-inscribed “King of Kings and Great High Priest” icons.



As you know, there are a number of “group” icons showing saints associated with a particular story, like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, and so on.

Today we will take a brief look at another group icon.  Here is an example painted by Emmanuel Tsanes (Εμμανουήλ Τζάνες, 1610 – 1690):

It is identified by title (in Greek) as:


A fuller title would be:
“The Holy Ten Martyrs those in Crete.”

In normal English, it would be “The Holy Ten Martyrs of Crete.”

In this icon they are:

Top row, left to right:
Ευαρεστος  — Euarestos
Πομπιος  — Pompios
Ζωτικος — Zotikos
Αγαθοπους — Agathopous
Βασιλιδης Βασιλειαδης — Basilides/Basileiades

Second row:
Θεοδουλος — Theodoulos
Cατορνινος — Satorninos
Ευπορος — Euporos
Γελασιος — Gelasios
Ευνικιανος — Eunikianos

The name Pompios is sometimes replaced in lists of the ten by either Cleomenes or Mobios.
Each holds a cross of martyrdom.

The cult of the “Ten Martyrs” became particularly popular on Crete (then Candia) near the end of the rule of the island by Venice, which terminated in 1669.

The tales of their martyrdom is found in a work written sometime between the 6th and 8th century, though it is supposedly based on a lost earlier text.

We get a good idea of their hagiography from the pages of The Lives of the Primitive Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Volume 12.  This massive work by Alban Butler was first printed in london from 1756 to 1759 (the pages shown are from an 1800 Edinburgh printing):



There is today a village on the Island of Crete called Agioi Deka — “Holy Ten,” because it is where these saints were said to have been martyred.  Around the turn of the century there was a small, dark and stagnant lake where animals were taken to drink at the edge of the village that traditionally had been called Αγία Λίμνη — Aya Limni in modern pronunciation — “Holy Lake.”  Its waters reputedly had healing powers.  There is a story that a young man had a vision of the Ten in 1898, and they told him to drink the water to be healed of fever.   In 1902 Bishop Vasileos Markakis of Gortyna and Arkadia had the waters drained, and what are said to be the “tombs” of the Ten were revealed.  A small church still called “Holy Lake” was then built over them in 1915-1917.  Here is an image of the “tombs” beneath the church:

As we see from the account of the Ten found in the work by Alban Butler, the remains of the Ten were said to have been long before taken to Rome.



Today we will look briefly at another type of cast metal icon.  This type is distinguished from other similar icons of the crucifixion by its very large size, by the number of individual types joined to make it, as well as by the row of 19 to 21cherubim extending along the very top.

When I say “other types joined to make it,” I mean literally that.  A Great Patriarchal Icon combines forms used to make other individual icons into one very large cast icon.  One can see in the casting where the individual forms were pieced together.

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

At center we can see the form for a standard “house cross” Crucifixion, with its side panels showing Mary and the “Mother of God” at left and the Apostle John and the Centurion Login (Longinus) at right.  Around it are placed the various types for the Major Church Festivals, as well as an icon of St. Nikolai/Nicholas, Marian images, and other saints and angels.

This type of easily-recognized, very large metal icon has a specific name.  It is called a Большое Патриаршее распятие — Bolshoe Patriarshee Raspyatie — a “Great Patriarchal Crucifixion.”  In English it is sometimes just referred to as a “Great Patriarchal Icon” or “Great Patriarchal Cross.”  But in the slang of the everyday Russian icon trade, it is often called a большая-лопата — bolshaya lopata or большая патриаршия лопата — bolshaya patriarshiya lopata — a “Great Shovel” or a “Great Patriarchal Shovel,” because of its shovel-like shape.

These “Great Patriarchal Crucifixion” icons were, as one might suspect, the product of Old Believer workshops, and were produced largely in the Moscow area in the 18th and 19th centuries, but of course in fewer numbers than the more common and less expensive smaller Crucifixion metal icons.


Childbirth was a very serious matter in Russia in the days before modern medical care.  Being a difficult time for women, they turned to what comfort they could get from an icon considered to specifically help with the difficulties of birth.

There are two variants of icons on this theme, and their names tend to be confused in practice.

The first is called (not surprisingly), Помощь В Родах — Pomosch v Rodakh — the “Help in Birth,” or some slight variation on that such as Помощница В Родах  — Pomoshchnitsa v Rodakh — “Helper in Birth,” etc.  Here is an example

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

The title here reads Поможение Родам’ Пресвятыя Богородицы — Pomozhenie Rodam Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “[The] Help in Birth Most Holy Mother of God.”

As you see, it is somewhat similar in form to the Znamenie (“Sign”) type, except in the “Helper” the mother’s hands are held inward at an ellipse with the Child Christ (Immanuel, Logos) in it.

The second variant is called «Помогательница женам чады рождаты»  “Helper of Women in Birthing Children.”  But as already mentioned, the title given this type is often one of the same used for the first variant, as we see in this example, which is titled:

Or in normal English order,
“The Image of the Most Holy Mother of God ‘Helper in Birth.'”

In this second variant, Mary’s head is bare, with her long hair visible; her head nods slightly to the side, and her hands are held inward but above the mandorla/clipeus in which the naked Christ Child stands.  In some examples the hands meet, with fingers overlapping, or are held in prayer.  So this is another of those few types in which Mary is shown bareheaded, a likely indication of borrowing from Roman Catholicism, because showing Mary with loose hair is not typically Eastern Orthodox.  That is probably why some copies add a headcovering to this type.

Examples of these “midwives’ icons” began to appear in large numbers in Russia in the 19th century, which is why most old examples one sees are only from the 19th-early 20th century.  Modern copies of “Helper” icons — both painted but more often printed  — are quite common.

A supposedly “wonderworking” example of this type “appeared” as late as 1993, when Protopriest Vladimir Andreyev was giving communion to an old woman in her home.  She told her granddaughter to go to the attic and get an icon.  An old copy of the “Helper in Childbirth” was brought down, covered with dust, soot, and cobwebs, and having a darkened metal cover (riza/oklad).  The old lady gave it to Protopriest Vladimir Andreyev.  The icon was cleaned, and supposedly began to work miracles involving childbirth and infertility.  It is kept in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas ‘The White’ (Собор Николы Белого) in the city of Serpukhov ( Серпухов).

With these two type variants, expect also variations in title and in form from copy to copy.  One may even find Mary shown full length, or a thin crescent moon below the Child.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the “Helper in Birth” icon on December 6 (Old Calendar) or January 8 (New Calendar), considered in folk tradition the day of midwives and of women in labor.  On this day gifts — particularly of prepared food — were brought to midwives to honor them.  Midwives cooked a kind of porridge of millet or buckwheat, which was used in a folk ritual to make a child grow well.  The midwife would hold up the pot of porridge and say Расти высоко-высокоRasti vuisoko-vuisoko”  — “Grow high!”  That is why the day is called Бабьи каши —Bab’i Kashi, meaning loosely “Old Wives’ Porridge”; kasha is a porridge made of grains boiled in water or milk.

Now to confuse matters, there is a third Marian icon associated with birth, and in form it may appear either like the first variant above, or like the second variant, but with a different title.  It may also depict Mary’s hands below the mandorla/clipeus with the child, rather than above, or even depict one hand raised and one lowered.  This type is called  Слово плоть бысть — Slovo Plot’ Buist’ — “The Word Was Made Flesh” (taken from John 1:14), and it is also referred to as the Albazinskaya icon or as Знамение Албазинская — the  “Znamenie ‘Albazinskaya’”  It is best to distinguish it from the others if it bears either of these titles.

One can easily see from this image how it might be confused with the second variant above, except for title:

Here is the form with hands held below the Child:

Notice the cloth — like an omophorion — across Mary’s hands.  It is not always present, and some examples may place Mary’s hands above the Child, with a thin crescent moon below.

The origin story of the Albazinskaya “Word Was Made Flesh” type relates that it was taken from the Kirensk Holy Trinity Monastery at Kirensky Ostrog (a fortress settlement on the Kirenga and Lena Rivers in Siberia)  to the village of Albazin in 1665-6 by the staretz Ermogen.  Albazin (now Albazino/Албазино́) was the first Russian settlement on the Amur River, and a fortress was built there in 1651.  The Amur — called the “Black Dragon River” by the Chinese — has long been an area of border contention and struggles between Russia and China.

The icon was then taken to Sretensk, on the bank of the Shilka River — a tributary of the Amur.  In 1868 it was moved again, this time to Blagoveshchensk.  In 1916 the icon was used to bless the Amur River Bridge, completing the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  After a stay in a museum during the Soviet Era, it is now kept in the Blagoveshchensk Cathedral.  While originally it was regarded as a kind of “protector” of the settlement at the Russian border region with China, it gradually became regarded as a helper with problems in pregnancy and birth.

Now obviously there is much confusion of form and title among these “Helper” icons, and when identifying them, the wise course is just to use the title written on a given icon.  In the absence of a title, one should generally classify an icon by the common title given the first or second variant, depending on form, unless the “Word is Made Flesh” or Albazinskaya title is present.