(illustration: Stilisticheskie traditit͡sii iskusstva Palekha; Zinovʹev, Nikolaĭ Mikhaĭlovich)

One of the first icons I studied when I began research several decades ago was that of John the Baptist, called John the Forerunner (Ioann Predtecha) in icon inscriptions.

Icons of John are interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they tend to mix together related images in a somewhat dream-like fashion.

In this Palekh-style pattern for an icon, for example, we see John the Baptist in the type sometimes called “Angel of the Desert,” meaning John is shown winged and standing in the wilderness, which in very old icons consists of a few abstract rocks and a tree.  But in later examples such as this, the wilderness is often shown as a forested area, because painters of that time, having never seen a dry desert, visualized John’s wild and deserted habitat as a forest.

Why does John have wings?  We could say it is because in Eastern Orthodoxy he is termed a “heavenly man and earthly angel,” but we need to go one step beyond that, to the Greek New Testament account in Mark 1:2-3 that first tells us about John:

Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν
σου:  φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς
τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

That probably does not mean much to you unless you read Greek.  What it says is:

“Behold, I send my angel/messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way; a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'”

Now the reason I have written “angel/messenger” to translate the word highlighted and italicized in Greek is to point out that it — angelos — has a double meaning:  it means both messenger and angel.  The word “angel” originally meant a messenger — but it can also mean just an ordinary messenger.  So when reading Mark 1:2-3, Eastern Orthodox iconography chose to emphasize the “angel” meaning of the word — a divine messenger, i.e. an angel, therefore John was given wings.  That is the odd logic of icon painting.

Further, John is often shown holding a kind of chalice or salver, and in it — if we see it up close — is depicted the naked child Christ, lying down.  John is pointing at the Child.  This again is something of a mystery to the student, until he realizes that such icons are mixing the imagery of the Bible with the imagery of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy — the equivalent of the Catholic Mass.  You see that in the detail of the right panel of a three-panel Deisus (Greek Deisis) set:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

But before I explain further, we need one more piece of the puzzle.  For that we need to consider John’s scroll.

In Russian icons, saints and other figures do not speak in cartoon bubbles.  They speak in scrolls.  So the scroll a saint holds is a kind of cartoon bubble that speaks to the viewer.

In this example, John’s scroll is a slight variant of:


“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is come near.”

In icons of John depicting a tree, we usually see, if we look closely, that there is an axe cutting into its trunk.  This image comes from the statement of John that, as given in Luke 3:9, “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”

John’s scroll usually says:


It means:  “I saw and witnessed concerning him, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.'”

That quote requires a jump to the Gospel of John, 1:29, which gives us this in Church Slavic:

“On the morrow John saw Jesus coming to him and said:  ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.'”

The example below uses that “I saw and witnessed” inscription, but shortens it slightly due to lack of space:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Sometimes one finds both the “I saw and witnessed” inscription and the “Repent, for the Kingdom Of Heaven” inscription on the same scroll.

Now we can return to the question of why John holds a chalice (sometimes shown as a kind of salver) with the child Jesus in it.  That again is imagery from the Orthodox liturgy, in which a part of the eucharistic bread is called the agnets, the “Lamb.”  The bread in the liturgy is Christ.  So what John holds, whether it looks like a chalice or a salver, is actually a footed diskos, the “dish” in the liturgy that holds the bread — and the bread is the body of Christ.  So in icon-think, all these elements are mixed up together in one picture.  Do not expect icons to make chronological sense.  Instead they work with mixing images that relate in some way, no matter what their origin.  Again, it is somewhat the way dreams work, where one symbol associates with another, but the whole picture does not seem to make sense in the real world.  A dream makes “dream sense,” and an icon makes “icon sense.”

If you look closely at the “diskos” held by John in the second image, you will see lines curving upward and inward from it, meeting in a little star at the top. This represents the liturgical implement called the asteriskos, the “star-cover.” Its purpose is to support the cloth veil that is placed over the diskos during the Eucharistic ritual in Eastern Orthodoxy. If you recall that the Child Christ as “Lamb of God” lies on the diskos, then you will see why this metal “star-cover” represents the Star of Bethlehem.

So that is the knowledge essential to understanding basic icons of John.  There are more complex icons, but no need to deal with those right now.

It is important to remember, as I have said, that icons have their own logic, and it is a logic of association of images.  It can be very complex, drawing from a great many different sources, but all one really needs to know is how this mixture presents itself in icons.  Those who have studied Jungian thought will quickly notice parallels with dream images and the concept of archetypes.

Some icons of John have background scenes showing incidents from his life as found in both New Testament and apocryphal sources, for example an angel leading the child John into the wilderness, etc.  We see such scenes in this icon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

At middle left is an angel leading the child John into the wilderness; at lower left is the birth of John the Forerunner; at lower right is the beheading of John, and at upper right is the discovery of his head.

This particular example is rather unusual in that the image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth) shown in the clouds at the top depicts him turned sideways instead of full-face, as is customary.  Another unusual feature is that instead of bearing the Christ Child in a vessel (symbolizing the “Lamb” in the Eucharistic bread), John here carries his own head.  And a third unusual feature is that the painter has placed the cross of martyrdom in John’s right hand, something generally omitted in this type.

By the way, notice in the example below that all of the icon surface except for the central painting is covered with ornate metal.  Such adornment was common on very old icons, and yes, the metal was attached by nailing it right onto the surface.  That is why old icons, when these covers are removed, are seen to be full of little nail holes.  The metal covering was added as a sign of respect, though punching numerous holes in the surface of a painting may not seem so to us today.

Icon of John the Baptist, tretiakov gallery

John the Forerunner — Tretyakov Gallery                                    (Image via Wikipedia)



If one begins researching the icons of Mary called chudotvornaya— “wonderworking” — in the Russian Orthodox Church (and there are some in Greek Orthodoxy too, but not nearly as many), one will quickly notice that a number of them are said (with a straight face) to have been painted by St. Luke.  Yes, Saint Luke, also known as the Evangelist Luke.  On conservative E. Orthodox religious sites one will see this repeated over and over again about such icons as the Vladimir Mother of God (Vladimirskaya), which was even said to have been painted by Luke on a board taken from a table used by Jesus and his family.

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

The Vladimirskaya Icon of Mary                                             (Image via Wikipedia)

Well, it simply is not true.  Not one bit of it.  First of all, we do not know who really wrote the Gospel attributed to St. Luke.  That attribution was added later.  The Gospel is actually anonymous.

What we do know is that the Gospel attributed to Luke contains not one word about the painting or veneration of icons.  Nor is there the slightest mention of it anywhere in the New Testament where a “Luke” is mentioned — or anywhere in the New Testament at all.

Not one of the icons attributed to Luke is in a style remotely connected to the 1st century A.D.  All are much, much later (and from various later times chronologically).  And there is not one bit of scientific analysis dating any one of the number of icons attributed to Luke to the 1st century.

Where, then, does the notion come from that several icons of Mary were painted by Luke?  First of all, it comes from the desire of the later church — after the making and painting of icons had become established practice (which was beyond the period of the earliest Christians) — to retroactively inject the later doctrine of icon making and veneration into earliest Christianity, where there is really no trace of it.  Second, we may speculate that Luke was chosen as the prototypical first painter of Christian icons because, according to tradition, he was a physician — a doctor.  And early physicians used certain powdered medications that were also used in early and later painting — among them notably cinnabar, which provided the bright red-orange color we see in Russian icons.

Luke the Evangelist painting Vladimirskaya ico...

Icon of Luke Painting Icon of Mary                                   (Image via Wikipedia)

So no, there are no icons, wonderworking or not, painted by Saint Luke.  Nor, we can tell from the history of the development of Christian art, were there ever any such icons.  The earliest Christians simply did not paint and venerate icons as they are known later in the Eastern Orthodox Church, so attributing any icon to Luke is an obvious anachronism well known to be such by students of art history.

In spite of that, the Greek Orthodox have a legend that Luke painted three icons of Mary during her lifetime, and that she personally approved them; then after her death, he is said to have painted an additional seventy!

The supposed first three icons are said to be:

  1.  The Kykiotissa icon, which the Russians call Kikkskaya, now at the Kykkos Monastery on Cyprus.
  2. The Megalospilaiotissa or “Great Cave” icon (also called Speliotissa), now at the Megaspilaion Monastery in the Peloponnese, Greece.
  3. The Soumeliotissa icon, once kept at the Soumela Monastery in Turkey, now at the 20th-century “monastery” (actually the Dormition Church) in Greece (named after the Turkish site), at Kastania in Macedonia.

As a sidelight on the famous “Vladimir” icon pictured on this page, it is interesting to know that out of the whole painting, only the face of the child (not the rest of his head) and the face of Mary remain from the original painting, along with a couple of other small and insignificant patches.  The rest — which is the greater part of the icon we see today — is all later, all reworking.

When I say the original painting, I am not talking about the 1st or 2nd or 3rd or 4th or even the 5th century C.E.  I am talking about the 12th century, when the original icon was painted by an anonymous iconographer in Byzantium.  This is the most famous supposedly “Lukan” icon, and yet in fact it was not painted until the 1100s, and most of what we see today was actually painted at various later times.

But how does it happen that we think of it as a Russian icon?  And why is it named for Vladimir, a place in what used to be Kievan Russia?  That is because the icon was taken from Constantinople to Kievan Russia in the first half of the 12th century.  And in Russia it has remained, to be copied countless times over the years as the Vladimirskaya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — the “Vladimir Most Holy Mother of God.”  And of course its popularity was only increased by all the tales of various miracles that became associated with the icon — the earlier equivalent of our modern-day supermarket tabloid stories with headlines such as “Face of Jesus appears on Tortilla.”



A Russian Orthodox blessing cross

(Image via Wikipedia)

There is a standard iconography in Russian Crucifixion icons, and it is important for the student to understand it, because the Crucifixion is one of the most common types one will encounter.

The Crucifixion is often found both in painted icons on wooden panels and in brass castings such as the one depicted here — a “blessing” cross.

We will examine it from top to bottom:

At the very top is the image of Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — which is God the Father depicted as an old man with a white beard.  Here he is shown raising his right hand in blessing.  Immediately below Lord Sabaoth is the Dukh Svyatuiy — the Holy Spirit shown in the form of a dove.  On the crosses of one sect of “priestless” Old Believers, the image of Lord Sabaoth is replaced by the Image “Not Made by Hands” — the Obraz Nerukotvornnuiy — the Image of Christ on a cloth, with the inscription Svyatuiy Ubrus‘ — “The Holy Cloth.”

On both sides of the Holy Spirit, but slightly lower, is an angel.  They bear the inscription Angeli Gospodi — Angels of the Lord.  Each has his hands covered with a cloth, a practice that shows reverence.

Then one often finds the inscription Tsar Slavui — “King of Glory” — referring to Christ.

On a sign at the center of the crossbeam just above Christ’s head, we see the superscription borrowed from the biblical account:  I N TS I — which abbreviates the Church Slavic words for “Jesus (I) of Nazareth (N), King (TS) of the Jews (I) — Isus Nazoryanin’ Tsar Iudeiskiy.

Just below that, the halo of Christ has the standard three bars of the cross visible in it, with the inscription HO ON — “The One Who Is” — the equivalent of the King James Old Testament title of God, “I Am That I Am.”

Just above the crossbeam of the cross we usually see the stretched-out inscription IC  SN’   B ZH I   XC.  The IC and XC are read first, followed by the rest.  All together it reads Isous Khristos Suin Bozhiy — “Jesus Christ [the] Son of God.”

At the left end of the crossbeam is a round circle with a human face.  This is the Sun (Solntse).  It is commonly depicted as dark in color on painted icons.  On the opposite end of the crossbeam is another circle with a face, colored red in painted icons.  This is the Moon (Luna).  On painted icons, one often finds the explanatory description of these two:  “The Sun darkens, the Moon Becomes as Blood.”  That is an apocalyptic image from the Bible, taken from Acts 2:20:  “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come” (King James version).  The same image is found in the Apocalypse of John (Revelation 6:12):  “And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.”  Both excerpts are inspired by the words of the Book of Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:31):  “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.”

Below the outstretched arms of Christ is another long inscription, taken from the Russian Orthodox liturgy:  “We Honor Your Cross, Lord, and Praise Your Holy Resurrection (Krestou Tvoemu Poklonyaemsya Vladuiko i Svyatoe Voskresenie Tvoe Slavim). I have loosely translated ПОКЛОНЯЕМСЯ — “poklonyaemsya” here as “honor,” but it literally means “bow before.”  In modern Cyrillic letters the inscription looks like this:


Next, we must notice that there are two long lines ascending, one on each side of the lower body of Christ.  The one on the left has a point at its top.  It is the spear with which the body of Christ was pierced.  It is identified by the single letter K, for Kopie — “spear.”  The other is a long reed bearing a sponge at its top.  This is the sponge with which Christ was given vinegar to drink.  It is identified by the single letter T for Trost’— “reed.”

Just above the slanted short beam to which Christ’s feet are nailed is the inscription NI   KA.  This forms the Greek word NIKA, meaning “He [Christ] Conquers.”   Some Old Believers have their own interpretation, making the inscription Slavic rather than Greek:  N  I  K  A  – Nas Iskupi Kroviu Adamova — “Save Us with the Blood of Adam.”

The slanted footbeam itself is notable because of the traditional folk interpretation that it slants up toward Christ’s right hand, indicating the ascent of believers to heaven, and it slants down from his left hand, indicating the descent of non-believers to Hell.

Just beyond both sides of the footbeam we usually see towers and other buildings, representing the walled city of Jerusalem.  Sometimes, in place of or in addition to these, we see representations of Mary, mother of Jesus at the left, with her standard title MP ΘΥ (Meter Theou — “Mother of God” — a Greek title — and on the right Svyatuiy Apostol Ioann — “The Holy Apostle John.”  In painted icons these two are generally shown full-figure, along with other saints such as Longinus  (Svyatuiy Login) the Centurion, whose name comes from apocryphal works such as the Gospel of Nicodemus rather than from the Bible.

At the very base of the central crossbeam we find these letters:

M   L

R   B

They abbreviate the words Mesto Lobnoe Rai Buist, meaning “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.”  Some Old Believers give the letters R  B a different interpretation:  Rab Bozhiy — “Servant of God.”

Just under the base of the cross is a little opening in the ground containing a skull and bones (often a skull with two bones that form a sideways X).  This  skull is identified by the letters G  A  as Golova Adama — “The skull of Adam.”  In icon tradition, Adam — the first-created man — was buried precisely on the site where the Crucifixion later took place.  And when Christ was crucified there was an earthquake, and the ground opened just below the cross, revealing Adam’s skull.
The very last thing one needs to know about the standard inscriptions is that usually at the bottom of the cross one will also find the letters G  G  for Gora Golgofui — “The Hill of Golgotha” — identifying the place where Christ was crucified.

However, brass crosses such as the one in the photo often have an inscription on the reverse side, though some have only ornamentation.  The most common inscription is part or all of the Exapostilarion of the Elevation of the Cross:

Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei — [The] Cross [is] Protector of All the World
Krest’ Krasota Tserkovnaya  — [The] Cross [is the] Beauty of the Church
Krest’ Tsarem’ Derzhava  — [The] Cross [is the] Might of Kings
Krest’ Vyernuim’ Utyverzhdenie  [The] Cross [is the] Comfort of the Believers 

This has variations, one of which changes the last two lines to:

Krest’ Angelom Slava — [The] Cross [is the] Glory of Angels
Krest’ Besyom Yasva — [The] Cross [is the] Plague of Demons

Some examples merely add those last to lines to what came before, like this (in Cyrillic letters):


On the reverse of some crosses, there is sometimes a long additional inscription either following the Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei text, or else found on its own.  It is an apocryphal speech of Jesus, in which he says essentially, “For your sake I suffered…” and goes on to detail how “for your sake” he did this and that to show the way to salvation, took on flesh, labored, was cursed and spat upon, crucified, placed in the tomb, descended to Hades, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and finishes up with a caution about the place “prepared for the Devil and his angels.”  This brief summary of the longer text, along with the text itself in Church Slavic,  should enable you to recognize it.  Look for the words Рече Господь — Reche Gospod’ —   “The Lord said…” at the beginning, and for the repetition throughout it of the phrase Вас ради — Vas radi — “For your sake…”  Here is the Slavic text:

Рече Господь Аз же терпя, ожидах покаяния вашего и обращения ко мне от зол ваших, зане прежде моего суда страшного многи показах вам пути ко спасению, и образ дах вам собою, милуя вас добре. Вас ради в плоть облекохся, и вас ради труждахся, вас ради алчен бых, желая вашего спасения, вас ради связан от беззаконных, бых, вас ради поруган бых, вас ради заплеван бых, вас ради заланиту ударен бых, вас ради на крест вознесен бых, вас ради гвоздия приях в руку и в ногу мою, вас ради тростию биен бых, вас ради оцта и желчи вкусих, и вас ради копием прободен бых вребра моя, вас ради смерть приях, вас ради во гроб положен бых, вас ради в ад снидох и изведох вы оттуду от тьмы на свет и паки воскресох, показуя вам воскресение от мертвых, и на небеса вознесохся, и вас ради послах Дух Святый в мир на апостолы моя, и послах я проповедати царствие мое, и дах Дух Святый в сердца ваша и поставих вам учители великие, и премудрые книжники, и нарекох вас сынове моя и братию, вы же не тако послушаете Мене, но сотвористе волю диаволю и ангел его, и ныне от идите от Мене, злии делатели неправды, в место, уготованное диаволу и ангелом его, не хощу же вас видети николиже.

While I am at it, I might as well throw in a couple of alternate inscriptions common on the backs of some large or small cast metal crosses:

Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…


“Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered.  Let them also that hate him, flee before him.”  On some crosses it continues:  “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.”  The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version).  The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Kresty — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

Such inscriptions added to the believer’s sense that the cross was a powerful “supernatural” talisman that could drive away evil — the same sense that we find in Western horror stories in which the cross wards off vampires.

An inscription sometimes found on small crosses is Спаси и сохрани — Spasi i Sokhrani – “Save and Protect.”

And finally — I promise this is the last inscription for this article — one often finds on the reverse of silver crosses worn by priests (in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century) these words from I Timothy 4:12: “Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity”  (Obraz budi vyernuim’ slovom’, zhitiem’, liuboviu, vyeroiu, chistotoiu“).  This was good advice, because at that time there was considerable controversy over misbehavior by Russian Orthodox priests, a good number of whom were given to extorting money from the poor for religious services and/or given to drunkenness.

I suppose I should not finish without telling you that some cast brass crosses intended to be displayed in the homes of believers (also sometimes in churches) — and again particularly popular among the Old Believers — had additional scenes added to them.  The number of such added scenes varies, and commonly those added are representations of major church festivals, etc.  In the example shown below, these added scenes are, from top left:

1.  The Entry into Jerusalem; 2.  The Resurrection of Christ; 3. The Ascension of Christ; 4. The Presentation [of Christ] in the Temple; 5.  The Old Testament Trinity.  This example also shows, as the figures standing by the cross, not only Mary, Mother of Jesus and the Apostle John, but also Mary Magdalene (Svyataya Maria Magdalini) and the Centurion Longinus. (Svyatuiy Login).  Some brass examples add several rods atop the image, with images of seraphim at the upper ends.

Russian crucifix, 14.5 cm high, brass with ena...

(Image via Wikipedia)

You will note that this particular example of a brass house cross has colored enamel added to the surface.  This was a common practice, and having a bit of enamel fired onto the brass during its making added just a bit to the price, both for the original buyer and often for the purchaser (the collector) of such old items today.  Brass crosses and other brass icons were commonly cast in sand molds.

Well, now you know far more about crucifixion icons than practically anyone would ever want to know.  You are a sudden expert in the matter, knowing what millions do not know.  But it probably won’t make you a dime.  It is just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, something with which the more curious among us (such as myself, and you, reader, if you have managed to get this far) are afflicted.



When I first became involved with icons many long years ago, there was still a lot of snobbery about their age.  In general the feeling was that the earlier an icon was, the better it was, so icons of the 18th to early 20th centuries were not as appreciated as they should have been.  The reverse side of that coin is that the later icons were much less expensive and more obtainable by museums and collectors than the rarer images from the “Golden Age” of icon painting.

My view on the appeal of icons, however, was always more objective, less concerned with the monetary and “right period” aspects.  I felt that the appreciation of icons should not rely just on age, but also on the “character” of an icon — its inherent visual appeal.  So I had a great interest in icons that would have caused the “classic” collector to turn up his nose — icons from the 1700s up to about the time of the Russian Revolution.  I even had appreciation for what one might call “folk” icons, finding that some of the originally cheap and mass-quantity icons actually had an appeal all their own, particularly those delightful icons of the 18th and 19th century with cinnabar red predominating and embossed, metal leaf “svyet” (background) and garments tinted by varnish overlay to make a cheap substitute for gold leaf.  So yes, my interest in icons extended even to examples of icons as simple folk art.

In fact one could say that nearly all Russian icons in the old style and its variations are to me a kind of Russian folk art, representative of cultural attitudes and the beliefs of their times.

Suffice it to say that attitudes have changed in the last decades, and today there are many collectors of fine and interesting examples of the later period of  Russian painting that formerly was ignored by the cognoscenti.

Most people interested in icons have seen pictures of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrey Rublov, probably the most famous of Russian icons, the “Mona Lisa” of its type.  But look at this later icon of the same subject:

(Courtesy of

This icon carefully preserves earlier elements, such as the Stroganov-style buildings at left, and the “shingled” appearance of the mountain on the right, but wonderful touches are present — such as the “feathery” appearance of the shingled steps of the mountain, and that particularly pleasing stylized tree behind the central angel, with its abstract leaves that shade so obviously and uniformly from dark in the underpainting to the white overlay.  The painter has even placed a striking, star-like cave opening in the mountain, which adds considerable interest to the image.

No one would mistake these angels for Rublyov angels — they are real “folk” angels, but high quality folk angels, with their outstretched, pastel wings that remind one a bit of Giotto.  Icons like this are the reason why I have always preferred the old and stylized “abstract” styles favored by the Old Believers to the almost Italian looking, increasingly saccharine “realistic” images so popular in the State Church from the middle of the 17th century up to the Revolution.  This particular icon is a very pleasing work, a real collector’s item.  The surprising thing is that abstraction continued, among some icon painters, right into the early 20th century — and so one may still look for icons of character as late as the early 1900s.

Now, as to the type itself, we already know that this is the image commonly known as the Old Testament Trinity, to distinguish it from the New Testament Trinity, which shows God the Father as a bearded old man along with Christ, and the Holy Spirit represented as a dove.  But the actual title written on this icon is simply Svyataya Troitsa — “The Holy Trinity.”  It shows the appearance of three angels to the Patriarch (the title in icons is Praotets, meaning “Forefather”) Abraham on the plains of Mamre, as recorded in Genesis, chapter 18.  Abraham is seen with Sarah, his wife, serving the angels seated at the central table.  the tree in the background is the “Oak of Mamre.”  The three angels are the three members of the Christian Trinity, all believed (somehow) to be God in E. Orthodox dogma.

In folk tradition, the central angel is generally considered to be Christ, and sometimes he is even given the three points of the cross in his halo with the Ho On inscription that is characteristic of Christ.  The Stoglav Council opposed the practice, but painters often went their own way, ignoring the decree, which is why in the study of icons one should look not at what theologians said should be done, but rather at what was actually done by icon painters.  Always look at real practice rather than theory.  Another folk belief is that the delightful tree behind Christ in this image represents the wood of his cross.  The angel at left was considered to be God the Father and the building behind him represents the Church; the angel at right was the Holy Spirit, and the mountain behind him is the mountain of spiritual ascent.  Such fanciful interpretations were very popular among ordinary people.

Though they cannot be seen clearly in this photo, the three angels have curling ribbons extending from the area just above their ears.  These are standard in icon depictions of angels, and traditionally they represent divine hearing; angels both hear prayers and are attentive to the will of God.  Of course in this image, the angels are God.

The Greeks called icons of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre the “Hospitality of Abraham” (Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ — He Philoxenia tou Avraam).



As I wrote earlier, if one wishes to understand icons, one must learn to read them — at least the basic and most common inscriptions.  This must seem a tremendous task to the beginner, but that is a serious misconception.  Learning to read common icon inscriptions is actually very easy precisely because they are so common.  That means they are also very repetitive, so a little study gives great rewards far out of proportion to the little effort involved.

There are essentially two languages used in most icon inscriptions one is likely to encounter:  First, Church Slavic on Russian icons; second, Greek on Greek icons.

Church Slavic traditionally holds the place in the Russian Orthodoxy that Latin formerly held in Roman Catholicism:  it is a language used in “Church” matters, but not the same language people speak in their everyday lives.  So in traditional Russian Orthodoxy, Church Slavic is the language used both in the rites of the Russian Church and in inscribing icons.  It is important to note that it is neither what is called Old Slavonic, nor is it modern Russian, but rather something between the two.  A modern Russian can understand it only with some difficulty, which is why many Russians have trouble reading a Bible written in Church Slavic, but no trouble reading one written in modern Russian.

The Greek language  traditionally used in inscribing Greek icons is an old form like that of the New Testament manuscripts.  Modern Greek is somewhat different, but not so different that a speaker of modern Greek cannot read — again with some difficulty — the old Greek text of the New Testament.

So for the sake of simplicity, we can say that the language of Russian icons is Church Slavic, and the language of Greek icons is old Greek.  I have deliberately been a bit vague about what “old Greek” is, because Greek went through several stages of transformation from ancient Classical Greek to modern Greek as spoken by people in their daily lives.

I will not include everything one needs to know about inscriptions in this posting, but I hope to expand on what is included here over time, in further postings.

First I want to discuss Russian icons.  I do this because Russian icons are those one is most likely to encounter, given that they were painted in such huge numbers.  And also I must admit to a certain favoritism, regarding Russian icon painting as the real flowering of the icon painting tradition.

So let’s begin by looking a a Russian icon:

(Courtesy of

Though the inscriptions on this icon are not clear enough to be easily read in the photo, we can nonetheless use this as an example for learning about icon inscriptions, which on this image are written in red.

First, note that there is an inscription at the very top, in the center of the border area.  The border — at either top or bottom — is the usual place for the title of the icon as a whole, or the title of the main image on an icon.  In this case it is Tsar TsaremThe King of Kings.  That is a title applied to Christ in icons showing him crowned and seated on a throne as Tsar — as Emperor or “King.”  The Russian and Church Slavic title “Tsar,” by the way, comes from the Latin word Caesar.

That takes care of the overall icon title.  But if we look at the figures below, we see (though faintly in this photo) that each has a title above his or her head.  In the case of the female figure on the left, which is Mary, the title is usually МР θУ, M R TH U, which abbreviates Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God” in Greek.  Interestingly, this Greek title is customary on Russian icons of Mary, favored over the Russian translation Bogomater.  So it is one of the exceptions to the general rule that Russian icons are inscribed in Church Slavic.  But the figure on the right is John the Forerunner — usually with that title, Svatuiy Ioann Predtecha, written over his head.  The two angels are the Svayatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail (the Holy Archangel Michael) and the Svyatuiy Arkhangel Gavriil (the Holy Archangel Gabriel).  You will recall that Svyatuiy is the standard title for a saint.  It means literally “Holy.”

So now we have covered the two basic kinds of general icon inscriptions — the overall title of the icon, and the individual names of the saints depicted.  Often, however, we will see additional inscriptions.  On some, it may be writing on a scroll held by a saint.  On others, as in this example, it will be something else.  In this case it is on the two discs held by the two angels.  The one on the left reads ΙС; the one on the right reads ХС; together — I S  KH S –They abbreviate Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ,” which abbreviation is often written the same in both old Greek and in Church Slavic.  On State Church icons of the middle of the 17th century onward, one will find this abbreviation given as IHC XC — IIS KHS — adding an additional letter to “Jesus” as part of the change in the Russian liturgical books essentially forced on the Russian Church by the Patriarch Nikon, its head at that time.  Nikon’s “reforms” led to the separation of the Old Believers, who kept to the old forms and rites and detested such changes.  It is important to note that the Old Believers were terribly persecuted by the State Church — the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, by means of the Russian State, which acted as its punishing arm.  Many of them died rather than give up what they considered to be the true faith and practice handed down to them by their forefathers.

But getting back to the matter of inscriptions, we have now covered all of them present in this icon, and we have seen the general pattern followed by inscriptions on Russian icons — the overall title, the secondary names of the saints pictured, and the tertiary additional inscriptions.

To complete the picture, I should tell you that Christ in this icon is robed like a bishop, wearing the traditional stole with crosses around his neck.  Images with Christ enthroned in the center with Mary on the left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) on the right are usually called a Deisis, meaning “Beseeching” in Greek.  The Deisis depicts Mary and John interceding on behalf of humans with Christ, imploring (fervently asking) him to be merciful.  Russians pronounced it “Deisus.”

However, note that in this example Mary wears a crown, which is absent in the standard Deisis.  That is why this particular form is often called “The Queen Stands at Your Right” (Predsta Tsaritsa Odesnuyu Tebe).  That is an Old Testament excerpt from Psalm 45:9:  “Upon your right the Queen did Stand in Gold of Ophir.”  Sometimes in this “Queen” variant, both the crowned Mary and John the Forerunner are shown winged, like angels.  Also noteworthy is that in some versions Jesus wears a bishop’s crown (mitre) rather than the crown of an emperor or tsar.

Now we have covered almost everything, but should also note that Jesus holds a long sceptre and the book of the Gospels, which in this example is closed.  And finally, in the three bars of the cross that almost always are visible in the halo of Jesus in Russian icons, we see the letters O ΩΝ (Ho On with the “o” pronounced like the o in “lo,” but written on most Russian icons in a Slavicized form, as in this photo, instead of the modern Greek form).  It means “The One (Ho) Who Is (On),” the name of God revealed to Moses in the Old Testament, translated in the King James version as “I Am That I Am.”  That is to indicate that, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox belief, Christ is also God.

I will also caution you that in addition to these two main languages for icon inscriptions, one may also find occasional additional inscriptions — generally added notes rather than main inscriptions — written in “modern” Russian on Russian icons, and additional inscriptions in more modern Greek on Greek icons.  In the case of Russian icons such inscriptions often say when and for whom an icon was painted, or why it might have been given as a donation, or perhaps indicating some other event commemorated.

If you are a beginning student of the art of icons, do not forget to learn the Cyrillic alphabet so that you may decipher the originals of these inscriptions on Russian icons.  And you will also need to know the Greek alphabet for Greek icons.  There are little variations in the manner in which both Cyrillic and Greek letters are written on icons, and I will try to deal with those in future articles.  And also in future articles, I will devote more time to Greek icons and how to read them.

I do not want to end this posting without mentioning that among the icons produced by other countries in which Eastern Orthodoxy is found, there are the icons of the Romanian Orthodox Church.  The old examples may have inscriptions in Cyrillic script, but more recent Romanian icons are generally inscribed in Roman letters (Romanian is predominantly a “Latin” language with Slavic influence, in contrast with Russian, which is Slavic).  Perhaps I will have more to say about Romanian icons in articles to come.  They are seldom seen outside of Romania in comparison to Russian icons, and when they are seen it is often in the “folk” form, which was as reverse paintings on glass, set into in a wooden frame.



Do you notice anything strange about the icon shown here?  Obviously it is an icon of Mary and the Christ Child, but look at the hands of the Mother.  Now do you see it?  She has three hands!    Look at her left hand.  There is another hand just below it.  And there is a third hand supporting the Christ Child.  This is the “Three-Handed” Mother of God, and it has an origin story as strange as the image itself.  What we must ask ourselves is why Mary has three hands in this image (the example shown is from the Ferapontov Monastery).

Богоматерь Троеручица. Ферапонтов Монастырь

The answer is very simple.  Painters misunderstood and misinterpreted the original Greek icon on which huge numbers of hand-painted copies were based.  While it is true that the original icon had three hands, only two of them were intended to be Mary’s hands.  That is something that the process of copying the icon repeatedly changed, just as repeated copying of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible resulted in great numbers of changes and variations in readings.

But how did the original icon come about on which these huge numbers of peculiar copies were based?  Well, all we have is the traditional origin story. That tale is as strange as the Russian image itself, and to examine it more closely we need only to look at another Russian icon — this one late 19th century — depicting the “origin story” of the Three-Handed Mother of God icon.

Origin of the Three-Handed Mother of God image -- an icon of St. John of Damascus (Courtesy of

We see, in the background, the “original” icon of Mary that gave rise to this legend.  It is said that John of Damascus, who was the leading proponent of icon veneration in the Church against the opposers — the iconoclasts — was in the employ of a powerful Caliph.  The Byzantine Emperor Leo  — an opposer of icon veneration — supposedly had letters forged in John’s handwriting, urging Leo to attack the Caliph.  These were made available to the Caliph, who on seeing the forgeries, believed them to be genuine.  He decided to punish John for his presumed disloyalty, ordering that his hand be cut off as punishment.  In this rather gory icon, we see John of Damascus, with his severed hand lying on the ground, and blood flowing freely, praying before an icon of Mary.

According to the tale, because of his prayers before the icon, Mary healed John by miraculously re-attaching the severed hand.  In gratitude for this miracle, a silver image of the severed hand was affixed to the icon itself.  If you look closely, you will see that this “origin story” icon has condensed the story so that we see not only John with his severed hand, but also the silver hand already attached to the image (which actually happened later).  Icons frequently push two or more events together into the same image, ignoring chronology.

So that is the peculiar origin story of the original “Three-Handed” icon of Mary.  And as already mentioned, misperceiving that silver hand for a third hand of Mary in the process of repeated copying  is what gave us so very many Russian icons of Mary with three hands.  Images that show the “added” hand as not that of Mary are actually uncommon in Russian icon painting.  One sees from this how easily folk tales become spread, and how mistakes get incorporated into the icon painting tradition, becoming tradition in themselves.

We see in the “origin story” icon of John of Damascus the ornate painted and embossed border so typical of countless Russian icons painted in the late 19th and very early 20th century.  The style of this icon is very Westernized, in the more realistic manner preferred by the State Church and abhorred by the Old Believers, who kept generally to the old stylized “abstract” manner of painting figures and backgrounds.

But what about the real origin of the silver hand on the original icon?  Well, the “true believers” would not question the origin story, but for the rest of us, it is far more likely that someone with an affliction of the hand once did pray before the icon, and when the hand got better, he or she had a silver hand made and attached to the image in thanks.  This is a common practice in many Marian shrines, including those of Roman Catholics.  There one sees little silver body parts of all kinds attached to or placed near images of Mary.  They are generally referred to by the Latin term “ex-voto,” meaning something resulting from a vow — in this case little silver objects offered in gratitude for perceived answers to prayer.




I have spoken earlier of how often icon saints are just generic images.  That is particularly obvious in the image of the Guardian Angel (Angel Khranitel) who represents each individual believer’s guardian angel —  “one image fits all.”

The Guardian Angel was believed to watch over each Orthodox believer, keeping note of his or her good and bad deeds.  He is generally shown with a cross in the right hand — representing faith — and a sword in the left, signifiying his power to protect from evil.

In the example shown here, the Guardian Angel stands on a cloud depicted, as Russian icon clouds generally are — as a collection of snail-like curls.  The Guardian Angel is sometimes the main icon figure, but more often he is found in the company of other saints, and he is also a very common border image.

The other saint in this image is Svayataya Prepodobnaya Feodosiya.  If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that Svyataya means “holy” or “saint,” and Prepodobnaya signifies a female monastic — a nun.  And this nun saint’s name is Feodosiya, or if we put it in a western form, Theodosia.  Remember when reading icon inscriptions that the Church Slavic in which icon titles are written has no “TH,” and uses “F” instead.

This icon most likely belonged to a girl or woman named Feodosiya.  Using it, she could pray both to the saint for whom she was named and to her Guardian Angel.

The little image at the center of the top border — between the two inscriptions identifying the saint and angel below — is the “Not Made By Hands” image of Christ (I discussed this image in an earlier posting).  It holds the place that generally would be taken by an image of Gospod’ Savaof — God the Father painted as an old man with a white beard.  One sect of Old Believers abjured the “Gospod’ Savaof” image, and used the “Not Made By Hands” image in its place, as here and at the top of crucifix icons.

Did you notice that the main images in this icon — painted near the beginning of the 20th century — are on a central field surrounded by a raised border?  The border and recessed field form a kovcheg — literally an “ark,” but more simply a “box,” meaning a kind of visual box in which sacred things are found — the sacred things in this case being the two figures.  The use of the kovcheg is generally characteristic of much older icons, but from the late date of this particular image, we see that it is by no means an infallible indicator of date.  Note also that though the sacred figures in this icon all have haloes, there is no real svyet’ (literally “light”) — no bright or gilded background such as is often found on other icons.