I have often said that when one follows any thread in the study of icons, it leads to countless others in an endless tapestry of related information.

This is particularly obvious in the transformation of a brief biblical story into a long string of varying legends.  That story is of the “woman with the issue of blood” found in Mark 5:25–34, Matthew 9:20–22, and Luke 8:43–48).  Here is the Lukan version:

 “And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, who had spent all her living on physicians, neither could be healed of any,came behind him [Jesus], and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood staunched.  And Jesus said, ‘Who touched me?’   When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master, the multitude throng you and press you, and do you say, ‘Who touched me?’  And Jesus said, Somebody has touched me: for I perceive that power is gone out of me.  And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him, she declared to him before all the people for what cause she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately.  And he said to her, ‘Daughter, be of good comfort: your faith has made you whole; go in peace.‘”

This woman is not given a name.  Here is a Russian icon depicting the story:

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

Eusebius (circa 260/265 – 339/340), in his Ecclesiastical History (Book 7, chapter 18) tells about a statue in the town of Caesarea Philippi, also called Paneas (now Banias):

“Since I have mentioned this city, I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Savior deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Savior to her remain there.

 For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if supplicating. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases.

They say that this statue  is an image of Jesus. (τοῦτον τὸν ἀνδριάντα εἰκόνα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φέρειν ἔλεγον ) It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city.

Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

The essence of this story is that there is a statue of a man dressed in classical style, reaching out his hand toward a woman kneeling before him, hands out as though in supplication.

Now as  John Francis Wilson points out in his book Caesarea Philippi: Banias, the Lost City of Pan, such an image of a kneeling, supplicating woman and a man in classical garb standing, with hand out to her, is a very good description of the image found on those coins of the Roman Emperor Hadrian called Restitutor (“Restorer”) coins.  These show the Emperor helping the province (represented as a kneeling figure) raise itself again.  So what Eusebius saw, in spite of the fanciful story associating it with Jesus, is more likely to have been a statue depicting such a symbolic scene of kneeling province and standing Emperor.  Keep in mind that Eusebius says the statue was made, as was the habit of the “ancients” as “gentiles,” to  erect statues in honor of those regarded as deliverers.  That again would well describe a Restitutor image.  You will find a good depiction of such “Restorer” coins on the right side of this page:

In the Church History of Sozomen (circa 400-450) book 5, chapter 21, the statue is no longer presented as “said to be” Jesus, but as Jesus.  He uses it to take a dig at the Emperor Julian, who abandoned Christianity for “paganism,” and so became abhorred by Christians:

Having heard that at Cæsarea Philippi, otherwise called Paneas, a city of Phœnicia, there was a celebrated statue of Christ which had been erected by a woman whom the Lord had cured of a flow of blood, Julian commanded it to be taken down and a statue of himself erected in its place; but a violent fire from heaven fell upon it and broke off the parts contiguous to the breast; the head and neck were thrown prostrate, and it was transfixed to the ground with the face downwards at the point where the fracture of the bust was; and it has stood in that fashion from that day until now, full of the rust of the lightning. The statue of Christ was dragged around the city and mutilated by the pagans; but the Christians recovered the fragments, and deposited the statue in the church in which it is still preserved.

In the apocryphal 4th century Acts of Pilate (5:26), the “woman with the issue of blood” testifies before Pilate at the trial of Jesus, and is given a name:

And a certain woman named Veronica, said, I was afflicted with an issue of blood twelve years, and I touched the hem of his garment, and presently the issue of blood stopped.  The Jews then said, We have a law, that a woman shall not be allowed as an evidence.

So this originally anonymous woman came to be known as Veronica, and she is so identified in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Russian depictions of her healing by Jesus are generally known as Исцеление кровоточивой жены — Istselenie krovotochivoy zhenui — “The Healing of the Blood-flowing Woman,” or some slight variation of that.

In this 14th century Serbian fresco, the title is “Christ Heals [the] Blood-flowing [Woman]”:

In Greek iconography, she is called Ἡ αἱμοῤῥοοῦσα γυνή — He haimoroousa gyne — “The Blood-flowing Woman,” or simply He Haimorroousa.

Now oddly enough, this tale of Veronica eventually became tangled, in garbled fashion, with the tale of the “Abgar Image” of Jesus — the “Image Not Made by Hands” — which as we saw in an earlier posting, evolved over much time.

You may recall that in western Catholic tradition, Veronica was said to have wiped the face of Jesus with a cloth on his way to  be crucified, and the image was imprinted on the cloth.  This again is a variation on the later version of the “Abgar” tale, in which Jesus pressed a cloth to his wet face, and his image miraculously was imprinted upon it — becoming, supposedly, the first Christian icon.

All of this again reminds us how completely unreliable these old religious traditions generally are.  They are more legends and pious fables than actual history.  But to those who made and used icons, they were considered to be fact.

There is far more to the history of these various “Veronica” tales than I have space for today, but for those who want to investigate further, I suggest, as a good introduction, the book Veronica and Her Cloth; history, symbolism and structure of a “true” image, by Ewa Kuryluk.



Anyone familiar with Russian art will have seen the remarkable painting (completed in 1883) by Ilya Repin (1844–1930) called Крестный ход в Курской губернии — Krestnuiy khod v Kurskoy Gubernii loosely, “Religious Procession in Kursk Province.”  It is fascinating not only because of the skill of the artist, but also because it is a look at Tsarist Russia, warts and all.  With a slight change of costume, it could be a scene out of the Middle Ages:

To the left, we see the poor and humble walking as best they can, and above them, mounted on horses, the civil authorities.

In the center we see the well-to do and the clergy.  Note the many tree stumps on the slope behind them:

At right — in front of the fellow striking at the crowd with his whip — men carry an elaborate structure, decorated with flowers and beribboned.  It contains an icon, though we see only the golden glints of light reflecting off its case.  Some of those carrying it are shod in woven bark shoes, which was common among the peasantry of those days:

Though many are familiar with the painting, most do not know that it depicts the annual procession carrying the Курская Коренная — Kurskaya Korennaya — the “Kursk Root” icon — from the monastery where it was kept to the city of Kursk.

Today we will take a look at that somewhat controversial icon type.  Here is the “Kursk Root” image as it appears today, in its enameled and filigreed cover in the style of the beginning of the 20th century.

It is said that the Kursk Root icon originally consisted only of the center image of Mary and the Christ Child, in the form known as the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of god.  Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the inscription across the bottom of the icon.  It is long, so I will divide it.  Here is the beginning:

It reads:

“[The] Representation and Measure of the Wonder-working Image…”

“[Of the] “Sign” Most-Holy Mother-of-God  Root-Kursk.”

So all together,

The origin story of the icon tells us that its “appearance” took place in the 13th century (the 1200s), when Russia had been devastated by the plundering and burning Mongol hordes.  The tale is set in the vicinity of Kursk, a place some 280 miles south of Moscow.

Kursk was destroyed by the invading Tatars under Batu Khan about 1237-1240, and was not rebuilt again until 1586.  After the invasions of the Tatars, what had been a city became a wilderness.

In the autumn of 1295 (September 8th, so the story goes), a hunter from Rylsk, a city down the Sem River to the West, came wandering through the forest in the vicinity of Kursk, looking for game.  On the banks of the Tuskar River near Kursk, he found a small icon lying face down at the roots of a tree.  When he turned it over, he found it to be a copy of the “Sign” Mother of God.  And it is said that as soon as he picked it up, a spring of water bubbled out of the ground where it had lain (remember the Catholic story of Bernadette and the spring at Lourdes?).  That is supposed to have been the icon’s first miracle.

Here is a map showing Kursk ( Курскъ ) at right center, and at the far lower left is Rylsk (Рылскъ)

If we look more closely at Kursk, we see the River Tuskar (Тускар ) flowing northward just to the right of it, and bending eastward near the top of the image:

A little wooden chapel was built for the icon there, and its reputation as a miracle-working icon began to spread.  Soon people were coming all the way from Rylsk to venerate the image and to hope for miracles.

Hearing all the news, Prince Vasiliy Shemyaka of Rylsk ordered that the icon be brought to Rylsk, and crowds of citizens went out to greet the icon on its arrival, but the Prince himself was not among them.  Because of this sign of disrespect, the legend says Prince Vasiliy was struck blind, until (as these stories go — another common motif), he repented with prayer before the icon, and was healed.  He then had a church dedicated to the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God” built at Rylsk for the icon, and established a feast to be held annually in its honor.

But here we encounter yet another common motif in the hagiography of icons.  You will remember that traditionally these “wonderworking” icons behave like conscious persons, and can move under their own volition.  Well, the story tells us that the icon from Kursk disappeared from the church at Rylsk, and was found to have returned to the little chapel originally built for it at Kursk.  The citizens of Rylsk went to retrieve it, but when they brought it back to Rylsk, it disappeared again.  This happened several times, until finally the people of Rylsk accepted the inevitable and let the icon stay where it wanted to be, at Kursk.  A priest named Bogoliub (literally “God-Love”) came and undertook the care and rituals of the chapel.

In 1383 the Tatars came back to Kursk, and tried to burn down the chapel.  It would not burn, so they suspected Bogoliub of magic.  The priest told them it was the icon that was protecting the chapel, so they took the icon, cut it in two pieces, threw the pieces off in different places, burnt the chapel (it worked this time), and took Bogoliub prisoner.  He worked as a captive sheepherder until rescued by some ambassadors from Moscow who heard him singing songs to Mary as they passed by.  Bogoliub returned to the site of the chapel, found the pieces of the icon, and they are said to have miraculously grown back together, with no sign of the cut showing except the presence of something like dew.

Hearing of these wonders, the people of Rylsk took the icon back to their city, but again the icon disappeared and was found back at Kursk.  So they rebuilt the burnt chapel at Kursk for the icon, and it stayed there for some 200 years.

In 1597 Tsar Feodor of Moscow ordered the rebuilding of the city of Kursk, heard of the “miracles” of its icon, and had it brought to Moscow, where it was received with great acclaim.  The Tsaritsa Irina had a rich covering of pearls, precious stones, etc. made for the icon.  It was at this time that the Tsar is said to have had the original icon placed in a gilt silver frame, with the image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) at the top, and Old Testament prophets at the sides (as in the icon type “The Praise of the Mother of God”).  Then the icon was sent back to Kursk.  A monastery and church were built on the site of the old chapel, and a new church dedicated to Mary as the “Lifegiving Fountain” was constructed where the spring had appeared when the icon was found.  The Monastery came to be known as the “Root Desert,” after the root where the icon was originally discovered.  “Desert” (Пустынь/Pustuin) is used in Russian Orthodoxy to signify a monastic settlement, recalling the Theban Desert of Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated.

When another Tartar invasion threatened, the icon was taken to a larger church in the city of Kursk, and a copy was left in its place in the chapel.

In the 17th century, the “Pretender” Dmitriy (eventually Tsar of Russia from 1605-1606) claimed to be the son of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” and to have survived an assassination attempt.  His army fought to put him on the throne, and during his battles he knew the propaganda value of the Kursk icon, and had it brought to his military camp in Putivl.  He eventually took it with him to the palace in Moscow.  The icon was there until 1615.

In 1612, a Polish commander besieged Kursk, but it is said the inhabitants prayed to Mary, who supposedly appeared on the walls with two shining monks to fend off the attackers.  The citizens of Kursk promised in their prayers that they would build a monastery in the city in the name of the “Sign” icon.  They petitioned the Tsar (then Mikhail Feodorovich), and in 1615 the icon was returned to Kursk and placed in the cathedral there.  In 1618 it was moved to the “Sign” Monastery in Kursk.

In the intervening years, the icon (or copies of it) was further used in one conflict or another — including a copy sent to General Kutuzov by the City of Kursk in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.  This again is an example of the belief that icons can aid in battle and defense (or be used as propaganda devices to inspire soldiers, depending on one’s point of view).

It is said that Revolutionaries tried to blow up the icon in 1898, but it somehow survived the explosion undamaged.  It was stolen from the “Sign” Monastery in April of 1918 and stripped of its valuable covering, but it was found and returned in early May.

In 1919 (this is after the Revolution) the icon was taken to Serbia, briefly to Crimea in 1910, then back to Serbia, and eventually to Munich (Germany), and in 1951 to the United States, settling eventually at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, New York and the  Cathedral Church of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City, which is the residence of the First Hierarch of the very conservative division of Orthodoxy called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).  It is treated by present-day Russian Orthodox much as it was in the past, as a “miracle-working” icon, and as such it continues to add new stories of its “miracles” to its traditional history.

 Now, as mentioned earlier, it is said that the original icon found at Kursk was a small copy of the Znamenie/”Sign” type, and that later the image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father) and nine Old Testament Prophets were added to it in 1597 when it was brought to Moscow.

In recent times there has been much controversy over the presence of God the Father on the image.  Some of the more conservative Russian Orthodox (there is a strong, very conservative element in Eastern Orthodoxy) consider it to be heretical, which always amuses me, given the widespread and centuries-long use of the image of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox icons.  And of course it is paradoxical that an icon with a supposedly heretical image atop it should nonetheless be considered “miracle-working” through more than four centuries after the additions were supposedly made.

In any case, it is standard for copies of the icon to depict all of the figures, including God the Father right at the top.  So common is this practice that I have never seen an old copy without them.

Here is an example in which the image of Lord Sabaoth (with the Dove of the Holy Spirit) at the top center is plainly labeled Б[о]гъ О[те]цъ — Bog Otets — “God the Father.”  The longer inscription at the base reads:  “The Representation and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the “Sign” Most Holy Mother of God of Kursk.

(Courtesy of

Interestingly, an example of the “Kursk Root” type in the collection the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts was recently called to my attention.  Here it is:

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

This particular icon is interesting and unusual because someone, at some time, apparently removed the image of God the Father that should be in the clouds at the top, leaving an oddly blank space never found in such icons:

The  images of the prophets on examples of the type vary slightly from image to image.  The example just above shows (King) David, Moses, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, at left, Habakkuk at the base, and (King) Solomon, Daniel, Isaiah, and Elijah at right.  The example shown first on this page depicts David, Moses, Isaiah and Gideon at left, Habakkuk at bottom center, and Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Elijah at right.


Today we will take a very brief look at another of the so-called “Wonder-working” icons of Mary — the Rostovskaya (“Of Rostov”) image.  There is little information about it, but it is easy to recognize.  The “Rostov” of the title is one of two large Russian cities by that name.  This one is the Rostov north of Moscow, in Yaroslavl Oblast (Region).  The other is Rostov on the Don.  The northern city, which is very old, is often distinguished from the other by the title Ростов ВеликийRostov Velikiy — “Rostov the Great”

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

This type depicts Mary standing on clouds at left.  She holds the Christ Child, who blesses those standing on the right, which vary in number from example to example.  Here there are three, which is standard in many examples.  From left to right they are the Bishops of Rostov Leontiy (Leontius, died 1073), Isaiya (Isaiah, died 1090), and Ignatiy (Ignatius, died 1288).

It is said that Leontiy, who was born in Constantinople, was killed in 1073 at the instigation of sorcerers, which shows that this period was a time of conflict between the indigenous beliefs of the region and the expanding authority of the Orthodox Church. Isaiya was born in Kiev/Kiyev, and became a monk at the famous Monastery of the Caves there (Pecherskaya Lavra). Ignatiy was born in the Rostov area. Tradition says that at his funeral, two pious nuns, as well as other particularly pious people, saw the saint rise out of his coffin and walk up into the air above the church, where he blessed the people and the city; then he descended into the church, where his coffin lay prepared.

Here is another example of the type, which expands the number of saints at right to fifteen:



From past posting here, you are already familiar with the standard Deisis icon type depicting Jesus enthroned in the center, with Mary approaching him on the left and John the Forerunner on the right — showing the heavenly court.  And of course there is the variant in which Mary is robed like a Queen, commonly called Predsta Tsaritsa odesnuyu Tebe  — The “Queen Stands at your Right,” after Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Slavic Bible)  There is also the extended Deisis, which adds more saints to the basic form.  And you will perhaps recall  the “Savior with Bystanders” Deisis that is sometimes called “The Week,” (though it is not the usual type by that name).

There is also the “Trinity” Deisis.  In this variant, the central figure of Jesus is replaced by the “New Testament Trinity” image — Jesus seated at left, God the Father as an old man at right, and the Holy Spirit as a dove between them.

Here, however, is an example of a less common Trinity variant in which the “New Testament Trinity” is replaced by the  Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” (or “Paternity”) image — showing God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) as an old man seated on a throne, with Christ Immanuel (Jesus in child or youth form) seated on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove before the Father’s chest.

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


God the Father holds the orb of authority, and has the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) as his halo, signifying the Eighth Day — the Day of Eternity.  We see Mary in royal robes at left, and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) also crowned, standing at right.  Beside Mary is the Archangel Michael, and the Archangel Gabriel stands by John.  The two little monks at the foot of the throne are commonly the founders of the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea in northern Russia, Zosim (Zosima) at left, and Savvatiy (Sabbatius) at right.  You may recall that they are also the patrons of beekeeping.

Let’s take a look at the title inscription (slightly enhanced):


Words are abbreviated, but with missing letters added, it reads (in modern font):

“[The] Image of the Most Holy Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

If you add this knowledge to what you have learned from previous “Deisis” postings on this site, you should now have a very good grasp of the basic type and its variations.


In northwestern Russia lies the large lake called Lake Ladoga.  On its western side is an island called Konevets (Коневец,), the site of the Konevskiy Monastery.

According to tradition, near the end of the 14th century a Russian from Novgorod named Arseniy (died 1444) ) went to the far-off monastic community on Mount Athos, in Greece.  There he spent some three years.  When he decided to return to Russia in 1393, an Athos abbot and elder named John gave him an icon of Mary and the Christ Child to take back with him.  Arseniy looked about Lake Ladoga (then called Nevoozero), and decided to establish his monastic cell on Konevets Island after a storm blew him ashore there (he saw that as a divine sign).  Gradually others joined him, and that was the beginning of what became the Konevets/Konevskiy Monastery there.

When Arseniy first came to the island, he found that the Karelian people living on the mainland brought their cattle there to graze from spring to fall.  Now it happened that on the northwestern side of the island there was a huge stone considered to be the sacred abode of spirits.  Each year the people would leave a horse as a sacrifice to the spirits who manifested in the stone, in thanks for keeping watch over the cattle during the grazing season.  And each year when they came back, the remains of the horse would have entirely disappeared, showing the approval of the spirits.

Arseniy, of course, did not care for this “pagan” notion, so he went to the stone — called the “Horse Stone” (Конь-Камень/Kon-Kamen), taking with him the Marian icon he had been given on Athos.  Once there, with the power of the icon and of his prayers, so the old story goes, he is said to have driven the spirits out of the Horse Stone, and they could be seen leaving in the form of a flock of black ravens that rose into the air and flew all the way across the strip of land to the west to Vyborg, on its bay at the eastern side of the Gulf of Finland.

Here is an old map showing Konevets Island in Lake Ladoga, and Vyborg/Viborg to the far west (and slightly south) of it.  At the the bottom right is St. Petersburg:

Here is a photo of the Horse Stone, with the Orthodox chapel built atop it to show the dominance of Russian Orthodoxy over the old beliefs:

Now on to the icon itself, known as the Konevskaya image, after the name of the Island and Monastery (and the saint, who is known as Arseniy Konevskiy).

This is a copy of the Konevskaya icon, dated 1873, and of course we can see by its style that it is painted in the “Westernized” manner of the State Church:

(Courtesy of

Now the interesting thing about this image (one of the supposed “miracle-working” Marian icons) is that we can find an early example of an Italian painting almost identical in form, but with obvious Italian characteristics in style, dating to the 14th century, and attributed to the painter known only as the “Master of the Sterbini Diptych.”  All we know about this painter is that he is believed to have worked on the Adriatic coast, either in Venice or one of the other cities of the region.  His work shows the cross-fertilization between Byzantine icon painting of the time and Italian painting of trecento (1300s) Italy.  We even see in this example hints of the style of Giotto:

The motif of the Christ Child with a bird is frequent in Western religious art, with various symbolism attributed to the bird (the soul, resurrection, the Passion, the Holy Spirit, etc.), but one must also keep in mind that birds on a string were once given to children as playthings.

In the case of the many copies of the Konevskaya icon (which began to multiply in Russia in the 16th century), one sometimes finds examples with one bird, while others (as in the 19th century example on this page) depict two birds.  The presence of a bird or birds in the Konevskaya (Коневская ) icon type accounts for its alternate name, the “Dove” icon (Голубицкая/Golubitskaya).  Golub (Голубь) in Russian means “dove.”  The icon presently kept as the “original” Konevskaya icon in the New Valaam Monastery in Finland (since 1956) is suspected to be a later copy of the lost original.

It is also worth mentioning that we find the word “horse” (Russian kонь/kon) in the name of the Horse Stone in the origin story of the icon, as well as in the name of the icon and that of Konevets Island.  The horse symbol, in the old Slavic religion, was associated with the Thunder God Perun, whose duties were later taken over by the Old Testament prophet Elijah.


I have mentioned before that Nikolai/Nicholas is one of the most common icon saints, and also one of the easiest to recognize.  Here is a well-painted example from the year 1908:

(Courtesy of

One of the things that always amused me about icons of Nicholas is that his head down to the lips is a circle.  Have you noticed that?  Look at it:

(Courtesy of

To paint Nicholas, all the iconographer had to do in beginning was to make a large circle for the main part of the head, and then add a smaller, partial circle to the base of that for the bearded portion.

The smaller, lower circle is sometimes not quite so obvious, either because of the shaping of the beard added over it, or because the painter was a bit more adventurous.  But if we look at the following example, the lower portion of the face (with beard) is quite obviously just a smaller circle imposed upon the larger to form the structure of the face of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

Now let’s return to the first example.  As you know, Nicholas is known in Russian iconography as Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Nicholas the “Wonderworker.”  A “wonder” (чудо/chudo) is a miracle.  It is the Slavic equivalent of Greek θαύμα/thauma, so in Greek a wonderworker is a θαυματουργός/thaumatourgos. We can see that Chudotvorets (Чудотворец) title written on the right side of the image:


One often finds little variations in spelling (usually phonetic), such as the use here of Ю (the “iu” sound) instead of У (the “oo” sound) — often written as the combined o and у:

You will remember that in this “Nicholas of Velikoretsk” type, Jesus is seen at left with the Gospel book he gave to Nicholas, and Mary at right with her donation, his bishop’s stole (Russian omofor, Greek omophorion).

Now this Nicholas icon (the first example shown on the page) is painted considerably “fancier” than most.  And the inscription, instead of calling Nicholas Svyatuiy (Holy) Nikolai Chudotvorets, instead uses the Greek equivalent Άγιος/Hagios, though the rest of the title is written in Church Slavic.

Not only that, this icon in giving the standard Gospel text for Nicholas on the book he holds, actually identifies it in smaller letters at the top of the text, which is rather unusual in such icons.  It says on the left page:

Еvангелiе от луки
Evangelie ot luki
Gospel  of/from Luke

And on the right:
зачало к д е
Zachalo k d  e

Зачало/zachalo in Church Slavic means literally “beginning,” but it also has the sense here of an extract or quote from the Bible.  It is the equivalent of the term pericope (pronounced puh-RI-cuh-pee) used in biblical studies.

But what about the к д  (we can omit the “e” for now)?  Well, as you may recall, Church Slavic letters can also be used as numbers.  And note that on the icon, there is a curved line above the кд.  That means it is to be read as the number 24.  The problem, however, is that the text given is not from Luke 24, but rather is Luke 6:17.  So did the writer of this icon text get it wrong?  No, because here he is not going by the verse numbering of the Bible, but rather by the numbering of Gospel excerpts from the Lectionary, the book of readings to be used at various services during the Church year.  This is one of those tricky little things about icons involving the complex Eastern Orthodox liturgical books, and believe me, that subject gets really boring fast, so no need for details here.  Just remember that in the Eastern Orthodox Church services, there is another numbering system for Gospel texts other than that found in the Slavic Bible.  And in that system, this common Lukan excerpt is “Zachalo/Pericope 24″:

Here is how it is arranged on the pages (with a literal translation).
Во время оно                At time that
ста Исус на ме-            stood Jesus on [a] pl-
сте равне и                   ace level and
народ ученик                crowd of disciples
Его, и множе-                of him, and a multi-

-ство много                   -tude of many
людей от всея                people of all
Иудеи и Иерусали-        Judea and Jerusale-
ма, и помория                -m, and the coast
Тирска и Сид[онска]….  of Tyre and Sid[on]…..

The date inscription is found at the base:

It is given in an imitation of much earlier writing.  It says:
“This holy image was painted in the year 1908, the month of February, finished on the 15th day.”



The 16th century was an important but troubled time in Eastern Orthodoxy.

You will recall that Constantinople — the chief city of the Eastern Orthodox world — had fallen to the invading muslim Turks in 1453.  In the view of the Russians, that was the punishment of God — destroying the “Second Rome”  And the Russian monk Filofey wrote the defining phrase of the future in a letter of praise to the Russian Tsar Vasili III (1479-1533): in 1510:

“For two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and a fourth there shall not be.”
ꙗ҆́ко два̀ ри̑ма падо́ша, а҆ тре́тїй стои́тъ, а҆ четве́ртомꙋ не бы́ти.

Filofey held that the Latin Christianity of Rome had fallen into false doctrine and the arms of the Devil; Constantinople, for its sins, had fallen to the Turks; so the new center of the “true” Christian world — he thought — was now Muscovy (Russia), with Moscow at its head.  Filofey said the Tsar was the only earthly emperor over Christians, centered in Moscow at the Uspenskiy (Dormition) Church, and that all Christian kingdoms would finally fall — according to the prophetic books — to the Russian Empire.

We see here the mixture of Church and State that has plagued Eastern Orthodoxy through its history.  It was believed that the Tsar received authority from God both to rule the empire and to protect the Orthodox Church.  The Tsar was the “icon of God” — the visual representative of God on earth.

Now there was in Russia at this time a very devout monk named Nil Sorskiy (after the Sora River, where he settled).  He had learned the mystical meditation system called Hesychasm, and had even spent time in the Greek monastic center, Mount Athos.  In Russia he formed a community based on the Athos skete or “hermitage” model, which had a dwelling for the “elder” —  the spiritual guide — and his disciples lived around him.  Here is an old illustration of Nil and his community:

They spent their time in religious pursuits, and those who came to them for counsel helped to support them.  This system began to spread, and soon a number of such ascetic communities existed, which became collectively known as the Заволжские старцыZavolzhskie startsui — the “Trans-Volga Elders.”

The kind of monasticism Nil and his followers advocated stood in stark contrast to the conventional monasticism existing in Russia at that time.  The Russian monasteries were then holders of vast tracts of land, including whole villages of peasants that were virtual slaves to the monasteries, because the monasteries owned the land, the crops and animals, and had slave master rights over the poor peasants — all supposedly by the authority of God and Tsar.

That leads us to another noted (or notorious) monk of this time — Iosif Volokolamskiy — Joseph of Volokolamsk.  Here is an icon of him:

The inscription reads:

“Venerable Joseph of Volokolamsk.”

Joseph — also known as Joseph Volotskiy — was the abbot of the Volokolamsk monastery (where he insisted on absolute obedience), and a severe opponent of a religious movement in Russia that became known as the so-called “Judaizers.”  They criticized the wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church and its monasteries, did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the divinity of Jesus or the veneration of icons, and rejected the formal clergy of the Orthodox Church in favor of selected elders.  Their services were held in homes rather than church buildings, and consisted of reading and singing verses from the Bible and Psalms.  They worshiped on Saturday instead of Sunday, and taught the children of peasants to read and write.  They wanted a return to a simple form of spirituality and service.

All of this infuriated Joseph, who was something of a control freak.

In 1503 there was a church council (synod) at Moscow to decide what to do about the “Judaizer” movement.   Joseph was a leading voice there, and his solution to the “Judaizer” controversy was simple; he said they should be declared heretics, then arrested, then burned to death.  He reminds me of the Protestant Reformer Jean Calvin, who was also a control freak and had Michael Servetus, who disagreed with him on the doctrine of the Trinity, burned at the stake in Geneva.  Nonetheless, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Joseph is considered a saint, commemorated in the Church calendar, and venerated in icons.

Those who shared the views of Nil Sorskiy stood up to Joseph at the council, saying that only God had the right to judge, and that no one, Church or State, had the right to punish them.  Nil held that if one wanted to convince the Judaizers, one should do so by forgiveness and by living a holy life as an example.

Joseph was unrelenting.  His views on the Judaizers gained the upper hand at the council, and so he eventually succeeded in having their leaders imprisoned and burned alive — some in Moscow, some at Novgorod.

Nil Sorskiy had also opposed Joseph on another important issue — the matter of the wealth of the monasteries.  Because he was opposed to the monastic accumulation of wealth, land, and virtual slave peasants, Nil and those who supported his views became known as the “Non-possessors” or “Non-acquirers.”  They felt that monastic wealth was contrary to a monk’s life of spirituality, work, poverty, and contemplation.

Those like Joseph, who favored monastic wealth and property, were known as the “Possessors” or “Acquirers.”  He felt that the wealth and lands of the monasteries were part of the order that God wanted to exist in the world, and that the monasteries needed such wealth to do their appointed work.  To Joseph, those who would take away the wealth and lands of the monasteries were opponents of God’s order, and thus heretics.

One “Non-possessor” was a nobleman become monk named Vassian, who challenged the “Possessor” viewpoint:

“Where in Gospel tradition, the Apostles, and the Fathers are monks ordered to get populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? …. We look to the hands of the rich, fawn on them slavishly, flatter them to get some little village from them. … We wrong, rob and sell our brother Christians; we torture them with scourges like wild beasts.”

But again, it was Joseph of Volokolamsk and the “Possessors” who won.  It is paradoxical that both the murderous Joseph of Volokolamsk and the more merciful Nil Sorskiy became saints of Russian Orthodoxy.  But Eastern Orthodoxy has a long history of glossing over contradictions and paradoxes — the reasons for which are often unknown or forgotten by the average “believer.”