I have mentioned in previous postings that icon painters sometimes made mistakes.  Look at this image:

(Courtesy of

Now usually the first thing one does in identifying a saint is to read the name inscription — which in the case of icons with a single saint — as in this example — is also the title inscription:

It reads:


Well, that is straightforward and clear; the name is that of the well-known saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa — Saint “Friday-Friday” as you know from a previous posting on her (you do know, don’t you — since you have read and carefully remembered everything I have ever written here in the past nine-plus years?).  Here is the link to that previous posting:

So, the title inscription is clear enough.  It definitely identifies the image as that of the Great Martyr Paraskeva Pyatnitsa.  And if we look at the iconography, it looks quite like that of Paraskeva — though she usually has a cloth head covering — often a white head covering, and is rarely shown with uncovered hair.  And though many icons of Paraskeva show her without a crown, many also give her a crown atop her head covering.

Here is a closer look at the face:

So what is the problem?

Well, let’s look at the scroll she is holding:

It reads:



Wait … EKATERINA???!!!

Well, I hope you remember that Ekaterina is the Slavic form of Catherine — and the most famous Saint Catherine is Catherine of Alexandria:

So what has happened here?

Well, Paraskeva and Catherine sometimes look rather similar when shown “to the waist” in icons.  Did the fellow painting the scroll text mistakenly choose the “Catherine” text instead of the usual “I believe in one God…” text commonly found on icons of Paraskeva?  But it is also possible that the fellow who wrote the title inscription on the icon just looked at the image and thought, “O.K., this is the Great Martyr Paraskeva,” and wrote that incorrect title accordingly.  We do not really know whether this icon was originally intended to be Catherine (which it may well have been, because she is more often depicted with her hair uncovered than Paraskeva), or whether it was intended to be Paraskeva, but was given the wrong scroll inscription — one appropriate for Catherine.  In favor of the “Catherine” identification would be not only the scroll text and uncovered hair, but also the jewels and pearls ornamenting her garments.  Paraskeva is commonly depicted with more simple robes, while Catherine is frequently shown in “noble” garments.  But again, there was some interchange of characteristics in their iconography from example to example, and that is what likely led to the confusion obvious in this icon.

But before continuing, let’s finish the translation of the scroll inscription:



Aside from all that, we can easily tell that this is an Old Believer icon from the position of the fingers on the right hand holding the cross of martyrdom.

They are in the distinctive blessing position used by the Old Believers, and commonly used in their icons to distinguish them from those of what they considered to be the “heretical” State Russian Orthodox Church.


From recent reader questions, I can tell that some of you could use a little review in identifying saints in Russian icons.

Let’s look at an example:

(Courtesy of

It is easy to identify the image of Jesus in the clouds, but today we want to look at the saints.  Let’s begin on the left:

In identifying saints it is of course most important to read the name inscription usually found in the halo or above or beside the saint.  Such an inscription may have several parts.  For example, second word in the inscription for the fellow above gives his “personal” name.  It is ПАХОМIЙ/PAKHOMIY — or in Greek form Pakhomios, in Latin form Pachomius.

His name is preceded by his “saint classification” title, which is abbreviated here as:

It is short for ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ/PREPODOBNUIY, which is the standard title for a monk.  It is usually rendered in English as “Venerable,” though it literally means “Most Like” — meaning most like Christ, or most like Adam before the Fall.  Do not expect it to always be abbreviated the same way, and sometimes it is shortened to just the letter П/P.

After the saint’s name we see the abbreviation ВЕЛ/VEL.  That is short for  ВЕЛИККИЙ/VELIKIY — meaning “The Great.”  So this saint we can easily identify as “Venerable Pakhomios/Pachomius the Great.” Notice that in transliteration, the Greek form ends in -os, the Latin (which is often the form used in books and lists of saints) in -us.

Now it is very important in identifying saints to look not only at the whole name title, but also at the garments worn.  As we can see, Pachomius is wearing a monk’s robe, which fits his title.  And it is useful to look at the face of the saint.  Note the color and length of the hair, and the presence or absence and shape of a beard, etc.  Those will help in distinguishing saints of the same name from one another, as often the saint’s title will not have enough space on the icon to include such distinguishing information.

Here is another saint.  We can tell from his crown and rich robes that he must be some kind of royalty or ruler.  And we can see from the sword he holds that he is also somehow militant.

If we look at his name title, we find this:


Blagovernuiy (abbreviated on the icon) is a title often used for Eastern Orthodox rulers/royalty.  It means literally “Good-believing,” but it is used to mean “Right-believing,” or “Orthodox.”

Blagovernuiy is followed by Knyaz, meaning “Prince”; sometimes you will see it translated as “Grand Duke,” but “Prince” tends to be the common rendering in English.

Next we see his name:  Aleksandr” — Alexander.

And then comes what we can call his “locator” title — the place with which he is associated.  Here the abbreviation НЕВ/NEV tells us it is Nevskiy, meaning “of the Neva.”  The Neva is a river in northwestern Russia.  So this is the “Good-believing Prince Alexander Nevskiy” — the same fellow who is the central figure in the classic Russian movie with the memorable musical score by Prokofiev.

We see again in the saint below how important garments are.  He too wears a crown and royal robes.

His title is given as СВЯТЫЙ/SVYATUIY, the male form of “Holy,” which is the most common title found before a saint’s personal name.  And we can see that his name is ДИМИТРIЙ/DIMITRIY, which is Demetrios in Greek form and Demetrius in Latin form.  Now as you probably know, there is more than one saint with this name, and that is why the next word after his personal name is important.  It is given here as ЦАР/TSAR, but we can see from the curved horizontal line above it that it is an abbreviation.  Now we might logically think the full form would be ЦАРЬ/TSAR’, and that this fellow is a Tsar — an Emperor or King (it can mean either).  But this is where it is important to know a little bit of history.  In Russian history, there was an important person named Dimitriy ЦАРЕВИЧ/TSAREVICH — a title meaning Dimitriy “Son of the Tsar.”  And that is who this fellow is.  He was the 16th-century son of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible,” and after his father’s death he died under mysterious conditions (“mysterious” rather like the poisoning of Alexander Navalny in contemporary news — politics in Russia has always been a dangerous business).  So here, a little bit of knowledge of Russian history can keep one from making an error in identification.

Here is a female saint.  The first word in her inscription is СВЯТАЯ/SVYATAYA.  That is just the female form of SVYATUIY, so again, it means “Holy,” the word used for “saint.”  Her personal name title is МАРIЯ/MARIYA/MARIA/MARY.  Now if you are wondering why the last letter in Svyataya and the last letter in Mariya look different on the icon than the Я in the font I use, that is because I use a modern Russian font for writing Church Slavic, but both forms have the same “-ya” sound.

Now there are a number of saints named Maria/Mary, so which one is this?  Well, from her garments we see she is not dressed like a nun or a queen.  But we can easily determine which one she is by the last part of her name — МАГ/MAG.  Now again, we can tell from the curved horizontal line above those letters that the word is an abbreviation, and what it abbreviates is МАГДАЛИНА/MAGDALINA — “MAGDALENE.”  So this is the well-known New Testament saint Mary Magdalene.

Let’s look at another Russian icon:

Jesus is at upper left in the clouds, but we want to look at the saint standing to his right.

A first glance at his clothes tell us he is a monk.  And looking at his title, we see the first word confirms that.  It is ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ/PREPODOBNUIY — “VENERABLE,” the usual title for a monk saint.

Next comes his personal name — МАКАРIЙ/MAKARIY, in Greek form Makarios, in Latin form Macarius.  Now there several saints named Makariy/Makarius, so which one is this?  We can know that from the final word in his name inscription, which is his “place” or “locator” title here — ЖЕЛТОВОДСКIЙ/ZHELTOVODSKIY.

You may recall from my earlier posting on colors in old Russian icons that ZHELT’ (желть) means “yellow.”  And you perhaps know the word VODA (вода) means “water.”  In fact vodka (the alcoholic drink) means “little water” in Russian.  So it is not hard to tell that Zheltovodskiy (the -skiy usually means “of” or “from”) means “of Yellow Water.”  So this fellow is “Makariy/Macarius of Yellow Water.”  Yellow Water is the name of a lake in Russia (Желтоводское озеро/Zheltovodskoe Ozero), south of Nizhnuiy Novgorod.  Makariy/Macarius once settled there and founded a monastery.

From all this we can see (I hope) how important it is to look at every word in a saint’s name inscription — not just his or her personal name.  And keep in mind that it is very easy to find the traditional “life” of a saint on the Internet, but you will usually find it by using the name in its Latin form.  Even Russian and Greek Orthodox web sites often use the Latin form of a saint’s name, though the saint may have been Russian or from a Greek-speaking region.





I have previously mentioned the Marian icon type known as the “Uncut Mountain” (Гора Нерукосечная/Gora Nerukosechnaya), and a reader recently asked about it, so today I will discuss the type in more detail.

The earliest known example is Russian, dating to around the beginning to middle of the 1500s.   It was an elaboration of the earlier type of the enthroned Hodigitria (basically Mary enthroned with her child).  The “Uncut Mountain” type, however, incorporated into that basic image Marian symbols representing prefigurations of Mary and the virgin birth according to Eastern Orthodox belief, taken largely from the Old Testament and from the Akathist hymn.

Here is the icon:

(National Kolomensk Museum Estate, Moscow)

At first glance, this image appears to have omitted the three stars usually found on the maphorion (the veil covering head and shoulders) of Mary.  But let’s look closer:

Now we can see that where we usually find the obvious stars, there are instead three faces, all with the profile oriented to the right.  There are bright lines extending from the mouths of the faces.

Now we know from the examination of other Marian icon types having faces instead of stars on the maphorion that these are commonly interpreted as anthropomorphized stars — one could say the “angels” of the stars.  But in those cases, the faces are usually shown within circles, and without the lines emitted from the mouths.  In the example shown here, the faces appear to represent winds rather than stars, and the variation in depiction of the faces from example to example seems to indicate a certain amount of uncertainty among painters as to how they should be painted and just what they were intended to represent.

The garments of Mary are ornamented with stylized clouds.

They derive from the Akathist, Oikos/Ikos 6:

Rejoice, shelter of the world, broader than a cloud.”

We may also look to these words of John of Damascus from the Liturgy of St. Basil:

Hail, you who are full of grace, in you rejoices all creation — the assembly of the angels and all the human race.  O hallowed temple, mystical paradise, and the glory of maidenhood, of whom God, our God before all worlds, was incarnate and became a child.  He made your womb his throne and the same he made wider than the heavens.”

We see the “uncut mountain” on Mary’s breast, represented in its stylized form with “slabs and heels.”  If you do not recall what those are, look at this previous posting:

The “uncut mountain” symbol is taken from the Old Testament book of Daniel:

You saw until a stone was cut out of a mountain without hands, and it smote the image upon its feet of iron and earthenware, and utterly reduced them to powder” (Daniel 2:34)

Whereas you saw that a stone was cut out of a mountain without hands, and it beat to pieces the earthenware, the iron, the brass, the silver, the gold; the great God has made known to the king what must happen hereafter: and the dream is true, and the interpretation thereof sure” (Daniel 2:45).

The “stone cut without hands” represents in Eastern Orthodoxy the birth of Jesus from Mary as “without seed [human sperm] made flesh of the Virgin” — i. e. the supposed virgin birth.

Mary holds the ladder:
Hail, Heavenly Ladder, on which God has descended ” (Akathist, Oikos 2); this symbolizes Mary giving birth to the heavenly Jesus as a being on earth, in human flesh.  It is derived from the Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-17.

Just above the ladder is an arc representing a rainbow:

Rejoice, bridge conveying us from earth to heaven” (Akathist, Oikos 2).

It represents the covenant between heaven and earth, God and man, as in the biblical story of Noah and the flood. This is applied to Mary as the link and bridge between heaven and earth, through giving birth to Jesus and so renewing a divine-human covenant.

On the armrests of the throne are flaming lamps:

Akathist, Oikos 11:

We see the holy Virgin as  a flaming torch appearing to those in darkness; for having kindled the Immaterial Light, she leads all to divine knowledge; she illumines our minds with radiance and is honored by our shouting these praises.”

At Mary’s feet is a grassy green paradise with stylized plants, recalling Mary as the entrance to Paradise, as in the Akathist, Oikos 4:

Rejoice, key to the Gates of Paradise.”

The Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) is seated on Mary’s left arm:

Akathist, Oikos 1:

“Rejoice, you who are the King’s throne.”

We should take a look at the scroll held by Jesus:

It reads:


That refers to John 8:58:

Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Before Abraham was, I am.”

As you already know from previous postings, there are other Marian icons (such as the Molchenskaya and “Unburnt Thornbush” types) incorporating Marian symbols.

As a sidelight on rainbows and Marian icons, I was appalled by the news that three women in Poland were on trial (January, 2021) for displaying posters of the Częstochowa (the Russians call it Chenstokhovskaya) icon, modified by giving Mother and Child rainbow halos:

Yes, astonishingly, Poland in the 21st century has a law (Criminal Code #196) in which “a person who “offends the religious feelings of others by publicly insulting a religious object or place of worship” may be imprisoned for up to two years.  The “rainbow” Częstochowa icon was used by the women as a human rights protest against Polish right-wing governmental oppression of and discrimination against those with same-sex attraction, etc.  The prosecution of these women is a glaring violation of freedom of speech, and a relic of the disturbingly backward and fanatical linking of religion and politics that has unfortunately not only had disastrous consequences in past centuries, but has recently gained considerable power not only in Poland but in the United States as well.  As Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.”


I hope that by now you all easily recognize the fellow in this icon:

(Courtesy of the Ikonemuseum Kampen, Netherlands)

Yes, he is the “Repentant Thief,” known in Russia as Rakh the Thief.  I have discussed him and his distinctive Slavic name in this previous posting:

So why am I discussing him today?  Well, because the Kampen Icon Museum kindly shared this photo of an icon in  their collection with me, and it is a particularly interesting example.  You would know just why it is interesting if you had seen a lot of “Rakh” images.

In most, he is shown very much as in this icon — standing in a loincloth and holding a cross, though here the cross appears to be behind his right hand rather than in it.

What is distinctive about this image is that in his other hand, Rakh holds a scroll with a Church Slavic text on it.  It is very unusual for him to be depicted with a scroll, and that — aside from its overall pleasant appearance — is what makes this icon so interesting.

Let’s look at the scroll:

It reads:

Видя разбойник Начальника Жизни на Кресте висяща, глаголаше: аще не бы Бог был воплощс[я, Иже с нами распныйся, не бы солнце лучи (своя) потаило, ниже бы земля трепещущи тряслася. Но вся терпяй, помяни мя, Господи, во Царствии Твоем]

Vidya razboynik Nachal’nika Zhizni na Kreste visyashcha glagolashe ashche ne bui Bog buil voploshchs[ya izhe c nami raspnuiysya ne bui solntse luchi (svoya) potailo nizhe bui zemlya trepeshchushchi tryaslasya no vsya terpyay pomyani mya Gospodi vo tastrsvii tvoem]

The portion in bold type is the portion used on the scroll.  The remainder is the continuation of the text.  It is taken from the Liturgy for Great Friday, and is the Troparion of the Ninth Hour — Tone 8:

“When the Thief beheld the Ruler of Life hanging upon the cross, he said: ‘If it were not that God in the flesh were crucified here with us, the sun would not have hidden his rays nor would the earth have quaked and trembled; But all-suffering one, remember me, Lord, in your kingdom.'”

So now when you see icons of Rakh, in the majority of them you will note the absence of a scroll.


Today we will look at a fresco from the Vysokie Dechani monastery in Serbia:

The subject is obvious for anyone even moderately familiar with the Bible, but let’s look at the title inscription nonetheless:

It reads:


Well, the spelling is a bit archaic, but one can easily see that it is a line taken from the Gospel attributed to Matthew (21:12):

И войдя Иисус в церковь, изгна вся продающия и купующия в церкви…

I voydya Iisus v tserkov’, izgna vsya prodaiushchiya i kypyiushchiya v tservki …

“And Jesus entered the temple, casting out all those who sold and bought in the temple …”

So this is a depiction of an event described (though somewhat differently) in all four New Testament Gospels, and generally known as the “Cleansing of the Temple” (Изгнание торгующих из Храма/Izgnanie torguiushchikh iz Khrama). Did you notice that the Slavic word for “temple” in the inscription also is used in icon inscriptions to mean “church”?  We find tserkov/церковь and khram/храм used interchangeably from example to example.

We see Jesus at left with a raised whip cord in his hand, looking like he means business:

He overturns the table of the moneychangers, spilling coins on the floor:

We see the sellers of doves being driven out:

And the exiting animals that were to be sold for slaughter and sacrifice in the temple:

Now it has often been pointed out that there are serious discrepancies among the New Testament gospels concerning this event — the “Cleansing of the Temple.”  As I have mentioned previously, from all present evidence, the gospels called “of Matthew” and “of Luke” appear to be simply edited and expanded versions of the gospel called “of Mark.”

In Mark 11:15-17 we find:

15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 And would not allow any man to carry any vessel through the temple.  17 And he taught, saying to them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but you have made it a den of thieves.

In Matthew 21:12-13:

12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of those who sold doves, 13 And said to them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.

In Luke 19:45-46

45 And he went into the temple, and began to cast out those who sold therein, and those who bought; 46 Saying to them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but you have made it a den of thieves.

There are small variations in wording.  Note that Matthew, Mark and Luke use a composite Old Testament quote made by combining Isaiah 56:7 — “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’  with Jeremiah 7:11:  “… but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'”  Also, Matthew and Luke have omitted Mark’s longer borrowing, that it was to be a house of prayer “for all nations.”

But there is a much larger discrepancy.  In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the “Cleansing of the Temple” takes place in the last week of the ministry of Jesus, and is used as the reason for plans to arrest him, leading to the Crucifixion.  However, there is another account in the Gospel called “of John” (2:13-17) that places the “Cleansing” near the beginning of his ministry — it happens during the first Passover of that ministry.  If one asks the “true believers” — basically Christian fundamentalists — why the chronologies here are so radically different, they will often say that Jesus must have cleansed the Temple twice — their usual methodology of coming up with any far-fetched attempt to explain glaring biblical discrepancies.  For rational readers, however, it is quite obvious that the Gospels are not historical accounts, but rather manipulate events and sayings to fit the purposes — the “messages” — of their individual authors.

Here is “John’s” version of the event, found in chapter 2:

13 And the Jews’ Passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: 15 And when he had made a whip of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; 16 And said to those who sold doves, Take these things away; make not my Father’s house a house of trade. 17 And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of your house has consumed me.

So John, instead of using the combined “den of thieves” quote, has instead taken a notion from Zechariah 14:21:  “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”

There is more to be said about the differences between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and that called “of John,” but this much is sufficient for a general view of the iconography.

Depictions of the event are more commonly found in frescos than in panel icons, and title inscriptions vary somewhat from example to example, but the type is easily recognized.

This example has an inscription that appears somewhat anti-Semitic in tone because of one word in the phrasing:

Here it is:

It says:

“Christ casting out the Jews (ЕВРЕIЕ/Evreie“Hebrews”) from the Temple  — Sellers and Buyers.”