There are many Russian icons of Mary traditionally considered “wonder-working” by Eastern Orthodox conservative believers, that is, able to work miracles. Many of these originated in Russia, some were borrowed from the West, but a number were originally Greek Orthodox icons adopted by Russian Orthodoxy.

Among these borrowed Greek icons is one originally called the Παναγία Γοργοεπήκοος — Panagia Gorgoepikoos — meaning the “All Holy ‘Quick To Hear'” in Greek.

“Panagia” — “All Holy” is a title of Mary. When the Russians borrowed this image, they translated the name of the image as “Skoroposlushnitsa,” which also means “Quick To Hear.”

This is a somewhat elaborated Russian version of that icon. The title icon itself is in the center of the image. The image at the top and the archangels beside and holding the central image are not original to the type. The multi-winged red angel below the image is a seraph.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a better look at the central image:


The three-part image at the top of the icon is a separate icon type, the Deisis. It shows the heavenly court, with Christ the Ruler seated in the center, and two supplicants, Mary on the left and John the Foreunner (the Baptist) on the right, approaching Jesus to ask favors on behalf of humankind. This type is often painted as three separate icons, one for Mary, one for Jesus, and one for John.


The traditional origin story for the “appearance” of the “Quick To Hear” icon is this:

The prototype of the icon hung on a wall in the Dochiariou Monastery on Mt. Athos, in Greece. Mt. Athos is the most famous monastic center of Eastern Orthodoxy, and over the centuries monks from many countries, including Russia, had centers there. The mountain is considered to be sacred to Mary, and it is generally forbidden for females (even of most species of animals) to be on it. That is a story in itself, but for another time.

The wall on which it hung was a chapel open on both sides, and in 1664 a monk named Neilos (“Nil” in Slavic) used it as a night-time shortcut from the monastery kitchen to the refectory. He carried a torch to light his way, which of course put out a considerable amount of smoke as it burned.

One day when the monk was on his usual course, passing the icon with his torch, he suddenly heard a voice saying, “From now on, do not come here with lighted torches and do not blacken my image!”

Neilos was very frightened by the sudden, authoritative voice, and did not know who was speaking. But eventually he decided that it must just have been some other monk. He put the matter out of his head, and kept up his habit of using the chapel as a shortcut. But then he heard the voice again. This time it scolded him. “Monk unworthy of the name, how long can you so blithely and shamelessly blacken my image?” But this time there was something else. Neilos was struck blind.

He realized that it was Mary speaking, and he repented his actions. The monks found him praying before the image the next morning, and he told them the story of his experience. A perpetual lamp was lit before the icon, and Neilos spent much time kneeling before it, offering incense along with many prayers. Because of this, Neilos heard the voice again, this time telling him that he was forgiven and healed, and that the icon was to be called “Quick To Hear,” because monks who called upon Mary would be quickly heard and have their prayers mercifully answered. The corridor was closed, the icon was moved into another chapel, and the icon (and of course the monastery) became a noted place of pilgrimage.

As you can see, this follows a common folklore motif pattern for “miracle-working icons.” At the beginning the icon is lost, or unrecognized, or ignored. Then the icon makes its presence and wishes known in a dream, or in some other way. At first the signs are not taken seriously enough, but then they are made obvious, and the person involved in the tale repents and does what the image has told him or her to do, and things are again made right.

The “Quick to Hear” icon is only one of a number of famous “Athos” icons that were adopted into Russian Orthodox iconography as “miracle-working” (chudotvornaya) images.


In a previous posting (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/podlinniki-the-manuals-of-icon-painting-and-how-to-read-them/) we looked at a printed podlinnik page. You will recall that a podlinnik, in icon painting, is a manual describing how persons in icons are to be painted. It told the color and forms of hair and beard, the kind and color of garments, as well as whether a hand was blessing, or held a scroll or some other object. So a podlinnik was a manual for constructing the form of a saint in an icon.

Originally, textual podlinniki (or “podlinniks,” if you like the informal anglicization) were manuscripts written out by hand and arranged according to the Church calendar, so one looked at the day when a particular saint was commemorated in the Russian Orthodox Church, and there one found the description of how to paint him or her.

Here is a podlinnik page with the beginning of the month of May. The larger writing at the top says, “The Month of May, having days 31.”


Today we will look at the first entry in order to better understand how a podlinnik functioned.

The lines from first to beginning of the sixth, if we transliterate into the Roman alphabet, look like this:

S[vya]tago pr[o]r(o)ka Ieremii, sye(d) brada ioanna b[o]goslova, vlasui ilii pr(o)r[o]ka, riz[a} shizhgal
ra(z)byelna ispo(d) zelen’ v rukye svitok” a v ne(m) pisano: tako gl[ago]let g[o](spo)d”: n[e]bo i zemlya mimo idet”, a slovesa moya mimo nepreidut.”

“Of-the-holy Prophet Jeremiah, grey, beard of John Theologian, hair of Elijah the prophet, robe bright-yellow
whitened, under green, in hand scroll, and on it written: Thus says the Lord God, heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away.”

In the transliteration, I have place omitted letters in brackets [ ] and letters written above as superscription in parentheses ( ).

The meaning is this:

The prophet Jeremiah is to be painted with hair grey, with the beard of John the Theologian (the Evangelist), the hair on the head like that of Elijah the Prophet, his robe is painted bright yellow and lightened with white, the under-robe is painted green. A scroll is in his hand, and on it is written:
“Thus says the Lord God, heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away.”

The robe color given in this podlinnik as шижгал — “shizhgal” (a bright yellow made from buckthorn berries) is just a variant spelling of шишгиль, “shishgil’.” In the Bolshakov podlinnik, which has an entry much like this one, the color given for Jeremiah’s robe is instead “vokhra” (ochre) whitened and the under-robe is “lazor,” a dark blue. One often finds such disagreements in old painters’ manuals about the appropriate colors for a saint’s garments, as well as differences in what one painted on a particular saint’s scroll.

This entry for Jeremiah goes on to give an alternate scroll inscription, prefaced by

A indye pishet — “and elsewhere is written,” meaning that the writer of this podlinnik knows that in other manuals this alternate inscription is given for Jeremiah’s scroll:

G[o]s[po]di sila(m) sudi pravedno
“Lord of powers, judge righteously.”

The “powers” here are the heavenly hosts, the heavenly armies of angels.

So that is what a podlinnik is — description after description of the saints commemorated on every day of every month of the year. It is like a recipe book, with each description a recipe for painting a saint. Keep in mind that, as I said earlier, these old manuals often disagree on how saints are to be painted, and the painters themselves recognized that. Often one finds, for example, instructions such as that a saint is to be painted as an old man, however then comes the added comment “but elsewhere it is written” that he is to be painted as a young man. And of course, as already mentioned, one finds differences in the scroll inscriptions for the same saint, differences in colors, and even differences in the spelling of those colors.


Today I would like to talk a little more about Vyaz’ (Вязь). that “condensed” form of ornamental writing used for titles on countless icons. It means simply “joined” or “tied,” and that is because letters are pushed closely together or joined to another on the same upright stem instead of being entirely separate.

Vyaz’ has many variations, but in all the basics remain the same: an inscription is condensed by the reduction in size of some letters and by the abbreviation of some words.

Here is a very nice example, the title inscription on an icon of the “Unburnt Thornbush.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Let’s look a little more closely:


When we look carefully, we can see that the inscription consists of five words. Let’s separate them to make deciphering easier:

This is the first word, OBRAZ, meaning “Image.” Notice that in Church Slavic script, the letter that is O in modern Russian font is written like the Greek letter Omega, which looks something like an English “W.”


In a modern Russian font, it would look like this: ОБРАЗ. Notice how the Р (“R” in English) is reduced in size so it can fit in the upper hollow between the Б (“B”) and the А, and the З (“Z”), rather than being placed at the end, is instead written above the preceding three letters as much smaller superscription.

Next comes the word NEOPALIMUIYA, meaning “Unburnt” — НЕОПАЛИМЫЯ. In the written example, the letter represented in the modern Russian font as Я (“YA) is written more like an “I” joined to an “A” in English.


Following that is the word KUPINUI, meaning “Thornbush” — КУПИНЫ. Notice that the Slavic У, which is the sound “oo” as in “moon” phonetically, is written like an O surmounted by a Y.


And then comes the first of two words identifying this as a Marian icon — PRESVYATUIYA, meaning “Most Holy” — ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ. Notice that not all the letters are included; it is abbreviated:


And finally the word BOGORODITSUI, meaning literally “Birthgiver of God,” but generally loosely translated as “Mother of God” — БОГОРОДИЦЫ. Notice that the Д (D) is written above in smaller form instead of being in the body of the word, and that the word as a whole is heavily abbreviated, with several letters entirely omitted, but nonetheless to be supplied by the reader.


All together, we get:

OBRAZ NEOPALIMUIYA KUPINUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI. You may be accustomed to seeing the letter Ы transliterated as “Y” instead of as “UI,” as I tend to do informally.

So, let’s look again in informal transliteration:


Did you notice that the endings of the words following OBRAZ indicate that grammatically, one should insert an “OF” when translating? That is why in English, the title is “IMAGE OF THE UNBURNT THORNBUSH MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.”

As you can see, Vyaz’ is not difficult once one learns to distinguish individual letters, but of course one must also learn a little basic Church Slavic vocabulary to understand what the words mean. That is not difficult. You will see the words “Image,” “Most-Holy,” and “Mother of God” repeated over and over again in titles, if you look at large numbers of icons, and so you will always know what they mean. Icon inscriptions, as I frequently emphasize, are very repetitive, so a little study gives great results.



It is just a fact that collectors like icons with “fancy” metal covers. I am not a collector of icons but of information about them, so it is no surprise that I prefer to see an icon without its cover. Nonetheless, I suspect I am in the minority. People just seem to like icons with “bling.”

Today I want to talk a bit about icon covers. Technically, there is a general name for such ornamental additions, such fancy trimming. That name is OKLAD (Оклад).

Oklad literally means “trimming,” and it is used in referring to any ornamental covers and associated pieces added to the surface of an icon. An oklad is generally of thin sheet metal, but it may also be an embroidered cover, etc.

The kind of oklad one finds on very old icons, such as those from the 14th to the 16th and even into the latter half of the 17th century, are a specific type called a basmennuiy oklad (басменный оклад), a “basma” oklad.

BASMA (Басма) comes from an old Turkic word meaning to “imprint” or “impress.” A basma consists of pieces of thin metal plate embossed in relief (thus the name) with ornamental patterns by being beaten upon a metal form. These embossed plates and strips were then cut to shape and fitted together over the surface of the icon, being fixed in place with numerous nails. Inscriptions were often added by being engraved on separate strips of metal that were also attached by nails. Thus the use of the basma on very old icons accounts for the numerous nail holes left in the painted surface after the basma has been removed. It was consequently very damaging to the painted surface.

The riza (Риза, meaning “robe”) though largely synonymous with oklad, is generally now the preferred term to indicate the one-piece metal ornamental covers that were used to decorate icons from the latter part of the 17th century onward. Instead of being composed of individual sheets of metal stamped with ornamentation, as in the basma, the riza was a solid, single metal piece with edges bent at a right angle to fit over the sides of the icon. The riza was affixed to the icon by nailing it to the sides of the icon panel, thus avoiding the damage to the painted surface caused by use of the older basma. A riza was commonly decorated in repoussé work and engraving and chasing with a simplified form of those parts of the painted surface that it covered — garments, and even buildings and trees etc. in some cases, as well as inscriptions. A riza could be made of anything from gold to silver to gilded silver to silvered brass to tin, depending on what the patron desired and could afford. On gold or silver examples, one generally finds the hallmarks used on Russian works of precious metals — stamped maker’s initials, grade of metal, etc. Absence of such marks generally means one is looking at a riza of cheaper metal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a riza was sometimes made of inexpensive metal with machine-stamped ornamentation.

A repoussé chased and engraved silver or gold riza, sometimes with added filigree work and colorful cloisonné enamel, can be considered a work of art in itself. Nonetheless, it is important, when considering an icon for any purpose, to know precisely what is under the riza. Some very cheap icons consisted only of a panel with faces and hands on it, the rest of the unpainted surface being hidden by the riza. And of course a riza may be used to disguise fakes, such as paper lithographs glued to a board and varnished over to make them appear to be painted icons. By the way, the word cloisonné is often mispronounced, even by those who should know better. It is pronounced klwa-son-nay, not kloi-son-nay.

Here is an icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker, covered with a gilt silver, somewhat neoclassical-influenced riza:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

A riza can sometimes be a helpful adjunct in dating an icon, but should never be taken as the final determinant. A riza could be added to an icon many years after the icon was painted, making the painting much older than the riza. Also, an old riza can be placed over a newer painting, which again will mislead the unwary. And of course with the amount of fakery practiced in Russia today, a new riza may be placed over a new painting, with the riza having old hallmarks that are simply modern fakes, making both icon and riza forgeries. When buying an icon, it is best to see it both with and without the riza, so that the entire painted surface, sides, and reverse of the icon may be examined.


It can be seen that these three terms “oklad,” “basma,” and “riza” may easily lead to some confusion. The question often arises, should one call a single-piece icon cover an oklad or a riza? The answer is that while technically one may use either, riza is commonly to be preferred now, keeping oklad as a more general term. Originally the riza was just an element of the oklad, a metal covering in the shape of a robe that was nailed over the painted robe of a saint, etc. on an icon. But gradually it came to signify the entirety of a solid metal icon cover.

It is not uncommon to find “jewels” added to icon trimming. Sometimes these are genuine gems, sometimes semiprecious stones, but more often just colored glass. One may also find pearls, sometimes real, sometimes false. Filigree work and cloisonné enamel may also be found on better riza examples.

Among features included in an oklad may be a separate (but attached) VENETS (Венец), or halo. The diminutive form is VENCHIK (венчик); a halo is also called a nimb (Нимб), from Latin nimbus.

Please note that there is some ambiguity in the use of the terms venets and venchik. A venets can be a halo, but in the podlinniks it is often used to mean a crown; and a venchik can be a nimbus or halo.

A feature seen on some icon covers, particularly those of icons of Mary, is a KORUNA (Коруна) or crown of metal, from the Latin corona. One also sees, as part of the oklad ornamentation, a metal crescent suspended from the neck of Jesus or Mary, called a TSATA (Цата).

Both the basma and the riza are ornamentation affixed to an icon. But there is another kind of ornamentation that surrounds the icon while not being affixed to it. That is the glass-fronted case in which some icons were kept in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It functioned rather like a clock case, both ornamenting and protecting the icon. Such a case is called a KIOT, from the Greek word kivotos (κῑβωτός), meaning “ark” (do not confuse this with the “kovcheg” ark, the recessed surface on which the central image of an icon is painted). A kiot could be simply a shaped box with a glass front, or it could be more elaborate, with added ornamentation to frame the icon, such as the gilt woodwork in the example below:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

There is much more to say about icon covers and the ornamentation of icons, but that will wait for another day.