Today I want to talk a bit about monk saints.

I specifically want to talk about those monks who became famous as founders of monasteries in the northern forests of Russia, the so-called “Northern Thebaid.” Why is it called that? Because the first monks in Christian history appeared in the 3rd century in an area called the Thebaid (after the city of Thebes), in southern Egypt. They went out into the barren regions of the upper (southern) Nile and began monasteries there. When monks in Russia went into the wild northern forest regions centuries later, that eventually came to be known as the Northern Thebaid.

You will want to remember that the standard title for a monk on Russian icons is “Prepodobnuiy” — Преподобный, often abbreviated to “Prep” (ПРЕП) or “Pr” (ПР). Usually it is just loosely rendered in English as “Venerable,” but what it really means is “Most” (Pre-) “Like” (-Podobnuiy.” So a monk is titled “Most-like.” But “Most like” what? Most like Christ, most like the original man Adam before the proverbial “Fall,” who was said in Genesis to be made in the image of God. So Eastern Orthodox believed that in such monks, one saw a person who was most like the true “spiritual” man.

You will also want to know that such monastic founders are often depicted in a monastic robe called the “Great Skhima.” It is (now) the garment worn by monks considered to have reached the highest level of development. The name comes from the Greek Μεγάλο Σχήμα, Megaloskhima, meaning “Great Shape”or “Great Form.” the Russian Great Skhima is often depicted as hooded, though the Greek form is not. You can easily recognize a monk of the Great Skhima by the long and wide cloth band called the analav in Russia (from Greek analavos), which hangs down in front and back and is ornamented with the cross and spear and sponge (and appropriate abbreviations) of the Crucifixion. You can see that analav in this icon of Stefan/Stephan of Makrish, Стефанъ Махрищский. He was a 14th-century monastic founder of the Northern Thebaid:

(Courtesty of
(Courtesty of

The icon shown above can easily be dated no earlier than the later years of the 19th century. Before that time, the geometrical and rounded-top border, incised and painted in imitation of cloisonne, was not used, as can be said also of the heavily-incised and gilt decoration of the rest of the image; and of course the manner in which the figure itself is painted indicates the same period.

Let’s look at another icon of a monastic founder of the Northern Thebaid, this time Makariy (Macarius) Unzhenskiy, titled here Prepodobnuiy Markariy Unzhenskiy I Zheltovodsky Chudotvorets Преподобный Макарий Унженский и Желтоводский Чудотворец, — “Venerable Macarius of Unzha and Yellow-Water, Wonderworker” In this icon, Makariy is shown in the center, and at the sides are four scenes from his life. Above him is the “Holy Trinity,” depicted in the form called the “Old Testament Trinity,” that is, as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham in the Old Testament. Makariy founded a monastery in 1434 near Yellow Water Lake on the Volga.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Finally, here is another icon of a monk of the Northern Thebaid, in this case the well-known Nil (Nilus) Stolbensky, who established his hermitage on Stolobny Island in Lake Seliger in the mid-1500s. Before his death, he is said to have predicted that a monastery would be built on the site, and one was established by the monk German (Herman). It became a famous pilgrimage destination, drawing many thousands of visitors a year. It was a place where pilgrims could buy not only painted icons of Nil, but also little carved wooden statues of him, depicted supported on the crutches that he used to sleep upright.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons)

Such “three-dimensional icons” are not usual in Eastern Orthodoxy, but large numbers of them still exist. The pilgrimages and resulting sales were a lucrative business for the monastery, which also boasted reputedly healing waters (Okovetsky Spring). Such attractions made it the most-visited pilgrimage site in Russia before the Revolution. As is common with icons of northern monastic founders, Nil is shown here beside his monastery, though technically, as already mentioned, it did not exist until after his death.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

This icon is a mixture of the traditional style with certain westernized elements, such as the trees in the background and the less abstractly-formed (though still not very realistic) clouds in which Jesus is seen blessing Nil.



In Russian, an icon is an ikona (икона, pronounced ee-KOHN-ah). And every student of icons must learn to recognize the major church festivals. These are the most important days of commemoration in the church year, and each one can be found as a separate icon, as well as combined in icons such as this image of the Resurrection and Major Church Festivals:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

This example shows sixteen festivals in addition to the most important one, the large image of the Resurrection (Воскресение) in the center.

The other festivals arranged around it are, clockwise with their Russian names, beginning at the upper left side:

1. Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God — Рождество Пресвятой Богородицы
2. Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple — Введение во храм Пресвятой Богородицы
3. Old Testament Trinity (for Trinity Sunday) — Святая Троица
4. Annunciation — Благовещение Пресвятой Богородицы
5. Birth of Christ — Рожество Христово,
6. Baptism of Christ (Theophany) — Богоявление
7. Transfiguration of Christ — Преображение Господне
8. Dormition of the Mother of God — Успение Пресвятой Богородицы
9. Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God — Покров Пресвятой Богородицы,
10. Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) — Сошествие Святого Духа
11. Elevation of the Cross — Воздвижение Креста Господня,
12. Beheading of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) — Усекновение главы Иоанна Предтечи
13. Raising of Lazarus — Воскрешение праведного Лазаря
14. Ascension of Jesus — Вознесение Господне
15. Entry into Jerusalem — Вход Господень в Иерусалим.
16. Meeting of Jesus in the Temple — Сретение Господне

In icons of this type the number of festivals arranged about the central Resurrection image will vary. The first example shown here is more extensive than usual, and in addition it has the images of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in the four outer corners. Commonly, however, the number of festivals added to the central Resurrection image is twelve, thus making thirteen festivals in all, as in this example:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of



Here is an image of Jesus from a Byzantine coin of the second reign of Justinian II, 705-711 c. e. Not what you expected?

(Photo by kind permission of
(Photo by kind permission of

I have said previously that the standard image of Jesus present in Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, and in much of Protestant art (with some recent exceptions) — the image with long hair, a long, thin nose, and a moustache and medium-length beard — was something created in Christianity as it became more and more deeply associated with the Roman (and Byzantine) State. But you may be surprised to learn, as the gold Byzantine coin on this page shows, that the manner in which Jesus was depicted was still not firmly fixed as late as the beginning years of the 700s.

This gold solidus, minted in Constantinople, shows us that there was more than one idea of how to depict Jesus in circulation at that time. The inscription on it reads (in Latin) “DOMINUS IESUS CHRISTUS REX REGNANTIUM — The LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF KINGS.”

This Jesus does not have the “Hellenic” look of what later became accepted as the standard image of Jesus. Instead, the characteristics of Jesus in this solidus are more typical of what a Semitic Jesus might really have looked like, though again, of course, only in a general way. There is even a story recorded by the historian Theodorus Lector that a man once painted a portrait of Jesus according to the “Zeus” type, (the Hellenic type) and that Heaven punished him for it by shrivelling his hands. That just confirms that the notion held by many modern art historians — the idea that the long hair and general appearance of the Hellenic type was partly based on that of the Greek God Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans) — is not just a modern theory. In addition, Theodorus Lector remarks in his Church History (1:15) that the image of Jesus with “wooly” (oulon) and short (oligotrikhon) hair (the “Semitic” type) was, of the two types, the most authentic image. Theodorus Lector (literally, “Theodorus the Reader”) was a reader in the great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople in the first part of the sixth century.

We can be certain that both images of Jesus current at the beginning of the 700s — the Hellenic image and the Semitic image — were based on other images already in existence. In fact we can verify that by looking at the Sinai icons, preserved in the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai and so surviving the Iconoclastic Period of Eastern Orthodoxy. Among them we find a sixth-century example not only of the Hellenic type (the “Sinai Pantokrator” discussed in an earlier posting here) but also a rarely-mentioned example, many are surprised to learn, of the Semitic type, also from the sixth century. And it is worth noting that coins exist from the first reign of Justinian II (685-696) that are stamped with the Hellenic type of Christ, as in this example:

In short, both the Semitic and Hellenic types of Christ image were in use in the sixth and early seventh centuries. And they are obviously very different images.

Of course we know which type eventually became the favored image of the government and the religious authorities. The “Semitic” Christ image faded from use and the “Hellenic” image, so much more “Greek” and “classical” in appearance, won out and became the image of Christ that most people recognize as “Jesus,” though of course it is just an image created in the Church, an image quite unknown to much earlier Christians, who neither knew precisely what Jesus might have looked like nor seemed to have much concern about the matter. The first Christian art, which we see in the catacombs and in the house church at Dura Europos, was an art of symbols and of simple narrative depictions, utilizing generic rather than portrait images of biblical persons including Jesus, who was sometimes shown as a beardless magician holding a wand as he performed miracles such as raising Lazarus from the dead.



In a previous posting I discussed the icon type known generally as the New Testament Trinity.  Here is an example of the basic type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

It depicts the three persons of the Trinity seated in heaven.  Jesus is at left, and to the right is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) depicted, as was common, as an old man with a white beard.  Above them is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.  In a ring around them are cherubim and seraphim, and in the outer points are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

There is a slightly more detailed type that, while utilizing the same basic image, adds to it Mary at the left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at the right, approaching the Trinity on behalf of mankind.  This makes the New Testament Trinity into a kind of Deisis variant.

The image below is an example of that.  The inscription painted at the top gives it the rather grand title, “IMAGE OF THE THREE-HYPOSTATIC GODHOOD.”  The royal orb at center, surmounted by a cross, symbolizes divine rule over the world.  So we can see that when we look at New Testament Trinity icons, we are supposed to be seeing the heavenly court, which believers pictured very much in the likeness of the earthly court of a Byzantine Emperor or a Russian Tsar, with supplicants approaching to ask favors.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

There is an even more complex and interesting type of the New Testament Trinity that is popularly called the New Testament Trinity “AMONG THE POWERS.”  What are these powers?  They are the various ranks of angels, also found in the heavenly court, who are also referred to as the “Bodiless Powers,” because unlike humans, their forms are not material.

In the example below, we see angels (at top) and archangels (at the sides), as well as cherubim and seraphim and the odd kind of angel called “Thrones,” which are seen at the feet of the Trinity.  The “Thrones” are those odd, winged wheels.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The archangels bear the symbols commonly associated with each.  If you look closely at the angel just to the left of Mary, you will see that he has a small boy with him, and the boy holds a fish.  That angel is the Archangel Raphael, and the boy with him is Tobias, from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, which tells the peculiar folk tale of how Raphael told the boy Tobias to catch a fish and to remove its organs, which turn out, when burnt, to be able to drive out demons.

Here is another example of the New Testament Trinity “Among the Powers.”  This example adds a few saints to the angels at the top.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

We also see Raphael and Tobias again, and Tobias still has his large fish, better seen in this detail:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

At the lower left is a Guardian Angel leading the small figure of a girl before God (it is a boy in some examples).  This is a generic figure representing the soul of the Christian believer, and is here given the title, “The Righteous Soul” (Dusha Pravednaia).  There is also an angel at lower right with a boy.  Customarily this boy has no halo, and represents the “Sinful Soul” (Dusha Greshnaya) being led before God by the generic figure of the Angel Khranitel, the Guardian Angel who watches over each Christian person in Eastern Orthodox belief.

Here is another example — a 19th century icon from a workshop in the Urals.  It again bears the title “Image of the Three-Hypostatic Godhood, Father and Son and Holy Spirit”  (ОБРАЗ ТРIИПОСТАСНАГО БОЖЕСТВА ОЦА И СЫНА И СВЯТАГО ДУХА — Obraz Triipostasnago Bozhestva Otsa i Suina i Svyatago Dukha).


This example puts strong emphasis on the Archangels, their names and actions in its inscriptions.  In these more detailed “Three-Hypostatic Godhood” versions, one often finds a Church Slavic text in a rather baroque-looking cartouche at the bottom (as in the above icon), reading:

Отца Безначальна, Сына Собезначальна, Духа Соприсносущна, / Божество Едино, / херувимски славословити дерзающе, глаголем: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш, молитвами всех святых Твоих помилуй нас.

Beginningless Father, co-beginningless Son, co-eternal Spirit, one Godhood, we glorify in the manner of the Cherubim, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God; through the prayers of all saints have mercy on us.

It is from a Hymn to the Trinity (a Троичен — Troichen), tone 3:

Троице Единосущная и Нераздельная, / Единице Триипостасная и Соприсносущная, / Тебе, яко Богу, Ангельскую песнь вопием: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш:

Слава: Отца Безначальна, Сына Собезначальна, Духа Соприсносущна, / Божество Едино, / херувимски славословити дерзающе, глаголем: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш, молитвами всех святых Твоих помилуй нас.

O Trinity, of one essence and undivided, three-hypostatic and co-eternal Unity, to you as God we sing the Angelic hymn:  Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God.

Beginningless Father, co-beginningless Son, co-eternal Spirit, one Godhood, we glorify in the manner of the Cherubim, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God; through the prayers of all saints have mercy on us.


In a future posting I may talk more about the ranks of angels, their textual origins, and their role in icons.  But for now, if you have read this posting  you will be able to recognize the New Testament Trinity type and its variants.

Just one final word:  Why is it called the New Testament Trinity?  That is to distinguish it from the Old Testament Trinity type, which shows the three persons of the Trinity represented as the three angels who visited the Patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre as recorded in the Old Testament.  The Greeks call that type the “Hospitality of Abraham.”



The student newly introduced to Russian icons cannot help but notice that they divide into two major categories — those painted in a very stylized and manner and those painted in a more realistic manner.  A more common way to characterize these divisions is to describe the one as “traditional” and the other as “westernized.”

What exactly do those terms mean in regard to icons, and what is behind them?

As mentioned in a previous posting, stylization of form — a kind of abstraction — is something that developed gradually in the history of icon painting.  We can see from the famous icon of the “Sinai Pantokrator” that stylization was not always practiced.  It was in fact a tendency within icon painting that, over time, became fixed.  Eventually it was felt wrong to paint an icon of a saint or other religious figure that was in any way realistic.

The philosophy behind this stylization arose after the fact as an explanation of why icons were and should be painted in a stylized manner.  It came to be believed that icons should depict saints in their “spiritual” or “heavenly” manifestation, not as though they were everyday people one might see on the street.  To make a saint look realistic was believed to make him look sensual and worldly.  Even buildings and backgrounds had to be painted in a rather abstract manner, because they were to convey not real buildings, but the “notion” of buildings, and the belief arose that their odd forms and skewed perspective reflected the nature of the heavenly world in which normal laws of light and perspective do not apply.  But again, keep in mind that the explanation came after the style arose, and was formulated to justify what had become solidified as a tradition.

All of this changed after the great schism took place in the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century.  On one side was the State Church, with the authority of the Tsar behind it, and on the other were large numbers of “Old Believers,” sometimes called “Old Ritualists,” who refused to accept the changes in liturgy and practice harshly introduced by the head of the Russian Church at that time, Patriarch Nikon.  The State Church called the Old Believers raskolniki — “schismatics,” though it was of course the State Church itself that caused the schism by departing from traditional Russian usages and demanding, under threat, that everyone must follow its lead.

Though they differed on a number of points that may now seem to us rather trivial, both sides initially kept to the stylized manner of painting icons.  But as the State Church became more and more influenced by the culture and art of Western Europe — of countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands — both the Russian aristocracy and eventually even icon painters began to accept aspects of the more realistic painting practiced in those Catholic and Protestant countries.  In fact “realism” as it was understood at the time came to be seen as the proper way to paint icons in the State Church, while the traditional, “abstract” manner was kept alive largely by the icon painters providing icons for Old Believers.

That is why, if one looks at great numbers of icons from the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries, it is not difficult to mentally divide them into the “stylized” and “westernized” categories.  It even happened that some painters combined aspects of each, which we can consider a third, intermediate category.  One finds, for example, some Old Believer icons in which the figures of the saints are still quite stylized, but the trees, rocks, and streams in the background are depicted with a kind of simplified realism, showing the obvious influence of Western European art.

Some icon painters even used Western religious engravings in the realistic manner as models for icons painted in the more traditional manner, often, again, combining elements of stylization and realism.  State Church icons, in general, eventually took on a kind of saccharine quality, much like the Roman Catholic pictures of saints one finds on “prayer cards” in the middle of the 20th century.

Let’s look at three examples of a very famous Russian icon type, the “Kazan” Mother of God.  There are countless copies of this icon in existence because it was one that had a reputation as a great miracle-working icon (I won’t go into its origin story today).

Here is the Kazan icon painted in the traditional stylized manner:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The garments and faces are stylized, and a dark base color for the flesh is only slightly modified by lightened overpainting to form the features.

And here is the same type, painted in what at first seems the same manner, but we can nonetheless see touches of Western influence.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Even though the overall forms of garments and faces are still stylized, there is an obvious Western influence, for example in the lighter, more “realistic” coloring of the faces and in the   more natural coloring of the lips.  So we might call this “intermediate” in style, with some influence from each side, even though in overall form the icon is still quite traditional.

Finally, here is an obviously very Westernized version of the same icon type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The garments have lost their stylized straight lines and angles, and have begun to “flow” like real fabric.  The faces too are far more realistic, and have lost the dark coloring and abstraction that we still see in the first example.  Even the manner in which the features are formed has changed.  It is no longer simply a matter of a dark base color for the flesh, over which lighter shades of the same color are superimposed and finished by simple highlights.  Instead there is an effort to blend colors in an attempt to depict how flesh really looks, even though the painting is not highly sophisticated.

No one would mistake the third example for a pre-schism icon or for an Old Believer icon.  It is quite obviously the product of a painter supplying believers within the State Church.

Interestingly, there is a movement in modern Russian Orthodoxy that has undertaken a kind of reversal of taste by re-introducing a preference for the stylized manner kept alive by the Old Believers; some even put it forth as being more “Orthodox” and acceptable. So now, even within the State Church, both stylized and westernized manners of icon painting may be found.  So fashions and trends in icon painting change over time, heavily influenced by what is going on within the culture that produces them, and also, of course, by the views of authorities of both Church and State, as well as by the preferences of ordinary people.