Today I would like to talk a bit about this icon of Kharlampiy:

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(Courtesy of

Kharlampiy, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, was a priest who was martyred in the year 202 at the age of 113 (others say 107; these stories often vary in details). I will not repeat his story, which is easily available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it follows the usual form of hagiography, which should not be confused with history. The lives of the early saints, though there may be some historical elements now and then, are largely pious fictions that follow similar patterns and present similar motifs.

What I do want to emphasize is that the veneration of Kharlampiy, like that of other saints, continues the pre-Christian practice of venerating and asking favors of deities both great and minor. When Christianity declared the old gods to be “demons,” the populace needed a substitute, and that substitute was found in Christian saints such as Kharlampiy. His name is just a Slavicized version of the Greek Χαράλαμπος — Kharalampos, pronounced “khar-A-lam-bos” in modern Greek. He is a very popular saint in Greece, and is often found in Russian icons as well. Among other things, Eastern Orthodox pray to Kharlampiy for relief of mental problems. That relates to one of the “miracles” of Kharlampiy, in which he drove out a devil from a possessed person. On the island of Lesvos (Lesbos), there is a tradition of sacrificing a bull at the chapel of Kharlampiy/Kharalambos — the unfortunate victim is decorated with garlands, just as was done in pre-Christian times.

Kharlampiy is shown here robed as a bishop. In his left hand he holds a cloth supporting the Gospel book (the cloth is to show veneration when touching sacred objects). His right hand is held up with the fingers forming the sign of blessing favored by the Old Believers, who were separated from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s over disputes about ritual forms, etc., one of which was this distinctive way of making the sign of blessing. It is a useful way to recognize Old Believer icons, which in any case are often more traditional and stylized in form than those of the State Church in the following centuries.

If we look more closely at Kharlampiy’s face, we can easily see the method of painting. The entirety of the hair, face and beard are first painted in a dark brownish color (sankir), and then the features of the face are created by superimposing layers of the same base color, only progressively lightened with the addition of white (belila), with highlights being very white. The hair and beard are painted simply by adding thin, curving strokes of white over the sankir base. A few darker details are added, and it is finished. But still the sankir base color is easily seen behind the added layers.

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If you have been reading this site for a while, you will of course know that the standard Russian title for a saint is Svyatuiy for a male and Svyataya for a female. Many saints also have secondary titles, and one of the most interesting of these is Strastoterpets (страстотерпец), meaning “Passion-bearer.”

Whenever one hears this title, the first saints that come to mind are Boris and his brother Gleb. Here is a late icon of them:

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(Courtesy of

Of course Eastern Orthodox will tell you that in its most general sense, all martyrs are “passion bearers,” those who suffer for their faith. But that is not the way the term is commonly used in the hagiography of Russian icons. Instead, “Passion-bearer” is used in icons in a more particular sense. It means an Eastern Orthodox believer, innocent in character, who suffers because of other “Orthodox” who conspire against him and persecute him (or her, of course). So the word “passion” in this case is used in its old meaning of “suffering” (not in the more modern sense of fiery romantic attachment, though that can lead to suffering as well!).

Historically, this kind of suffering tends to happen because of political intrigue of one kind or another. That is why Boris and Gleb are the prime examples and pattern-setters of “Holy Passion-bearers.”

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The name inscriptions on the icon above are:

Svyatuiy Knyaz’ Boris — “Holy Prince Boris”
Svyatuiy Knyaz’ Gleb — “Holy Prince Gleb”

Their story goes right back to the beginnings of state Orthodoxy in Kyivan Rus; Great Prince Vladimir converted his people to Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity by edict, basically “Convert or else…”. That is why he is a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy.

According to the old story, when Vladimir died, advisors told Boris that he should eliminate his half-brother Svyatopolk, the eldest son of Vladimir, and take control. Boris refused to raise his hand against his brother.

Svyatopolk, however, was not so ethical. He sent assassins to kill Boris. They supposedly found him praying before an icon of Jesus. When he saw what was happening, Boris submissively prayed for strength and allowed himself to be killed. Svyatopolk wanted all the wealth and power, with no possible rivals.

Svyatopolk then sent word to the other brother, Gleb, saying that he should come because their father was ill. On his way there by boat, news came to him that their father had died and that his brother Boris had been assassinated by Svyatopolk. He wept for them. His boat was taken by the assasins, and Gleb too was killed.

Because of their innocent and submissive deaths (at least according to the account passed down), Boris and Gleb were declared the first “native” saints of Kyivan Rus. This official declaration and acceptance by the church of a person’s sainthood is called “glorification” in Russian Orthodoxy. So Boris and Gleb were “glorified” in 1071, known loosely as the first “Russian” saints (even though Kyivan Rus and the later Russia are not at all equivalent).

It should be mentioned that the traditional account of the deaths of Boris and Gleb does not accord precisely with all historical evidence of that time, but again, we are dealing with hagiography here, stories told for religious or religio-political reasons, so we should not expect them to be factual in all respects.

There are other “Holy Passion Bearers” in Russian Orthodoxy as well. Probably the most controversial is also one of the most recent. — Tsar Nicholas II, who in spite of his disastrous incompetence as Tsar and his questionable private life, was “glorified” as a “passion-bearer” saint by the Russian Orthodox Church on August 20, 2000, because he and his family (who were also declared “passion-bearers”) were murdered by the Communists.

But let’s look at a more sophisticated icon of Boris alone. This finely-painted example, from the late 19th century, is in the “neo-Byzantine” manner. You will recall that there are three styles of Russian icon painting, loosely speaking: the old stylized manner, the later “western” or realistic manner adopted under western European influence, and a mixture of the two. The neo-Byzantine style is a sub-category of the “realistic” manner that mixes more realistic painting with the formal, “hieratic” appearance of earlier Byzantine art, thus the name “neo-Byzantine”:

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(Courtesy of

Boris is dressed in very elaborate royal robes, with a spear in one hand (to show his authority) and a jeweled cross of martyrdom in the other.

The appearance of this icon, with its elaborate false-enamel border and its heavily incised and patterned gold background, is very typical of the latter part of the 19th-early 20th century, but the detail in this example is rather striking. Look at how carefully the painter has depicted the ornate robes, sewn with pearls and encrusted with gems, and the elaborate “damask” patterns on the robes and even on the slippers:

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(Courtesy of

As in many icons, Jesus is depicted in clouds above the saint. But here the inscription on the Gospel book he holds open is notably different. Instead of any usual inscription, this book has the text of John 16:21:

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Zhena egda razhdaet, skorb’ imat, iako priide god egda zhe rodit otrocha, ktomou ne pomnit skorbi za radost, iako rodisya chelovyek v mir.

“A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.”

This is used here as an analogy. The meaning is that the “holy passion-bearers” such as Boris must go through a period of suffering and sorrow (their martyrdom) but after that is past, then comes the joy of heaven.


In the earliest-known Christian art — that of the catacombs and of the house church at Dura Europos — we find a small vocabulary of images (though not icons in the Eastern Orthodox sense) representative of Christian faith — everything from the Good Shepherd (an image borrowed from the pagan “Ram Bearer”) to simple depictions of biblical stories. Among them are Jonah, the raising of Lazarus (in which Jesus is shown as a magician with a wand), and a number of others. What we do not find is the cross.

To modern Christians that seems very strange, because the image of the cross is today everywhere in Christianity, and in nearly every denomination and sect of it. It has been for many centuries.

One would also think that there would be no question about the visual appearance of the cross, but that is not the case. It is not just that there are differences such as that between the ordinary “latin” cross and the Russian “eight-pointed” cross. The uncertainties go right back to the original texts. The Greek word in the New Testament that is generally translated “cross” — σταυρός (stauros, pronounced stav-ROS in modern Greek) is in itself vague. Originally — in classical Greek — it meant an upright wooden pole. By New Testament times it apparently had come to signify anything from an upright pole to a pole with a crossbeam, etc. Even the Latin word, crux, could indicate a number of different forms, everything from a simple stake to more elaborate frameworks on which an execution could take place.

In early Christian tradition as reflected in written sources, the cross of Jesus seems to have been regarded as in the form of the letter “T,” without a beam extending above the crossbar. This is found (as is the more usual form) in later Christian art — even in the time of the Reformation. But the Russian tradition, as we have seen, long preferred the eight-pointed cross consisting of an upright pole, a crossbeam set a short distance down from the top of the upright, a horizontal signboard placed above the crossbeam, and a slanting foot support above the base.

According To Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380 c. e.), Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity, Constantine, dreamed that she was to go to Jerusalem. She did so in 326-328, though already in her late seventies. She supposedly found the site of the tomb of Jesus, and in it three crosses — one that of Jesus, and two those of the malefactors crucified with him. She also found (though not attached) the signboard placed above the head of Jesus at the crucifixion. The problem was in determining which cross was that of Jesus.

Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, according to the story, came up with a method. He knew of an ill woman at the point of death. He had her touched by each of the crosses. The first had no effect on her illness, nor did the touch of the second cross. However, when the third cross was brought to her, she was immediately healed and healthy.

Socrates goes on to say that Helena had a church erected over the sepulchre for which her son supplied the materials, and she left part of the cross there, kept in a silver case. The rest of the cross she sent to her son Constantine, who thought it would protect any city in which it was kept. So he had it placed inside a statue of him erected on a pillar in Constantinople.

It makes a good story, very typical of fanciful Christian hagiography, but like most such stories it has its problems, not least among them the fact that the church historian Eusebius says nothing at all about the cross being discovered by Helena, or connecting her with the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then too, Eusebius quotes a letter of Constantine to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, in which the Emperor relates that excavations on the site of a pagan temple had uncovered a token “of the holiest passion.” So perhaps during excavations to remove a pagan temple and to replace it with a Christian church, some wood was found (or said to be found) which was then put forth as “the True Cross.” But Constantine says nothing about any relation of this to his mother Helena.

But the stories behind icons are not what we think of today as history. Instead, they are hagiography, stories written with a religious (and sometimes religio-political) purpose in mind. There is even a further story associated with the finding — that a funeral was passing by with the body of a dead man. Each of the three crosses was placed on the corpse, and when touched by the third — the cross of Jesus — the dead man came to life.

Be that as it may, the icon type I want to discuss today is that known as the Elevation of the Cross, one of the major Church Festivals of the year celebrated on September 14th.

Here is an example:

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(Courtesy of

It bears the title inscription VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA GOSPODNYA — “THE ELEVATION OF THE HONORABLE CROSS OF THE LORD.” It depicts the raising of the cross, after its discovery, before the people of Jerusalem for their veneration. In this example, bishop Makariy (Macarius) stands just to the left of the cross. Another bishop is opposite him. At far left, crowned, is Tsar (Emperor) Constantine, and at far right Tsaritsa (Empress) Elena, Helena.

Note the large size of the cross. In other examples of the same icon type, the cross is often depicted in a much smaller form, as we see in the next icon, which bears the title VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA — THE ELEVATION OF THE HONORABLE CROSS:

(Courtesy of
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In this more elaborate icon, the cross is only a fraction of the size of that in the previous example. It is so small, in fact, that
Bishop Macarius is holding it in his hands above his head. This is the influence of the use of small crosses in church ritual. Note also that in this image, the positions of Constantine and Helena are reversed; she is on the left, and he is on the right.

Note the dark mark in the lower left border just beneath the central image. It is a candle burn, something one often sees on old icons. It was common to display an icon for veneration on a shelf with a candle burning before the image, and sometimes the candle was placed too close.

It is helpful to remember that in the hymns sung on the Festival of the Elevation of the Cross, there are some lines that one frequently finds on Russian cross-associated icons and on Russian crosses in general.

The first is from the tone 1 Troparion:
“O Lord, save thy people” (Спаси, Господи, люди Твоя — (Spasi, Gospodi, liudi tvoya).

The other, very common on cast brass crosses and icons of the Crucifixion, is:
“We bow before your Cross, Lord, and praise your holy resurrection” (Кресту Твоему поклоняемся, Владыко, и Святое Воскресение Твое славим — Krestu tvoemy poklonyaemsya, Vladiko, i svyatoe voskresenie tvoe slavim.”

It is also worth remembering that in Eastern Orthodoxy, Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena are called not only saints, but also “Equal to the Apostles.”

Here is another example, showing Helena at left:

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

The inscription at the top reads:
“Elevation [of the] Honorable Cross [of the] Lord”


In a previous posting I mentioned that one of the motifs found in origin stories of Marian icons regarded as “miracle-working” in Russian Orthodoxy is the “icon in a tree” motif. Here is another icon in that category:

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(Courtesy of

This icon shows the “appearance” or “finding” (обретение —obretenie) of the Zhirovitskaya image. It is painted in the “western” realistic manner favored by the State Church rather than the stylized manner preferred by the Old Believers.

The Zhirovitskaya icon is said to have “appeared” in the year 1470. You will recall that in Russian Orthodox icon lore, the “appearance” (Явление — yavlenie) of an icon means its first “supernatural” manifestation resulting in its recognition as a miracle-working image.

The events are said to have happened near the little village of Zhirovits, in Grodno province of what then was part of the Duchy of Lithuania, but now is in eastern Belarus. Two shepherds were in a wood belonging to the well-to-do Orthodox believer and grandee Alexander Soltan when they noticed a bright light coming from a pear tree growing by a stream at a hill. They went closer, and saw that the light was coming from a small image of Mary holding the Christ Child. As they looked more closely, the light gradually dimmed and then disappeared, but the icon remained.

It was a small stone image, carved in relief in jasper. The two shepherds bowed to the icon, then took it down from the tree and brought it to Alexander Soltan, telling him of its “miraculous” appearance.

He did not take the story very seriously, but nonetheless put the icon in a chest, which he locked.

The next day he had guests. During conversation, he told them of the shepherds’ tale and the little stone icon. They expressed a desire to see it, but when he went to the chest and unlocked it, there was no icon inside. It was gone.

Some time later the shepherds were again in the wood, and again they saw the icon in the same tree. Once more they took it down and brought it to Alexander Soltan. This time he took it very seriously, and vowed to built a church to house the image, which he did.

A settlement formed around the wooden church he built, but in 1560 the church caught fire and burned to the ground. Everyone thought the icon kept in the church was lost.

It happened that some peasant children coming home from school passed the site where the church had stood. They saw a very strange thing there, a beautiful woman glowing with light and sitting on a rock. They hurried on and told of what they had seen, and the news came to the village priest.

He went to investigate, and saw the rock but no lady. On the rock a candle was burning, and beside the candle was the little stone icon, quite unharmed.

It was placed in a temporary site until the villagers had a new church constructed, this time of stone, and the icon was placed within it.

By the time 100 years had passed, there was an Eastern Orthodox monastery near the church. But in 1613, the monastery was captured by “Uniates” (Eastern Catholics), who nonetheless continued to treat the icon with great respect. “Uniates,” by the way, is a term now largely used by Eastern Orthodox to refer to Eastern Catholics, and it has taken on derogatory connotations.

I have mentioned the unfortunate anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe previously. It is noteworthy that the village of Zhirovits, at that time under the control of the Polish king Casimir, became a place in which by law, Jews could not live. Nor could they even stay overnight if journeying, but had to pass through barefoot and bareheaded. Every now and then in the study of icons one discovers such enmity toward Jews, which can be traced back through Church authorities such as John Chrysostom, and even into the anti-Jewish sentiments expressed here and there in the New Testament. It is one aspect of the dark side of Christian history.

In 1839 the region came back under Eastern Orthodox control, and the icon was to be found in the monastery Church of the Dormition, built on the site where the icon first “appeared.” It was placed in the iconostasis, just to the left of the “Tsar Doors.”

The church was a site of pilgrimage (and of course of income for the monastery), and pilgrims would come to dip water from the spring to take home with them, and also pieces of a large stone called the “Footprint of the Mother of God.”

As in Western medieval Europe, a supposedly “miraculous” object or relic was sure to draw pilgrims, then the equivalent of the tourist trade of modern times.

It is said that in 1915 the icon was taken to Moscow and placed in a church there. But during the Communist era — in 1922 — it was smuggled out, so it is said, in a jar of jam — and now is again in the Dormition Cathedral on the site of its first appearance, in Zhirovits/Zhirovichi, Belarus.

The original Zhirovitskaya icon
The original Zhirovitskaya icon

The “original” Zhirovits image, now set in an ornate surround, does not look like much. One can barely make out what the image is, so rough is the carving on it.


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The image above is a representation of, as its inscription says, the Sozhestvie Svyatago Dukha Na Apostolov — “The Descent of the Holy Spirit Upon the Apostles.” The Greeks call this type Η Πεντηκοστή — He Pentekoste, pronounced “ee pen-tee-kost-EE” in modern Greek. It means “fiftieth,” — in this case the 50th day after Easter.  That Greek word is the source of “Pentecost,” the term generally used in Western churches for the commemoration.

So it is a type found in both Greek and Russian iconography, one of the major church festivals.

The type depicts the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost, as described in the second chapter of Acts. At the top of this image is a descending flame — the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Some examples show individual tongues of flame resting on the heads of the Apostles.  The icon takes some liberty, however, in placing the later apostle Paul across from the apostle Peter at the top of the group; Paul was not present at the “descent,” but was added in iconographic convention nonetheless. Also Mary is included at the head of the Apostles in the above example, though she is omitted in many others, leaving the chief seat empty — the situation of the Apostles after Jesus ascended and before the Holy Ghost descended upon them as their comforter and teacher. In Greek icons, the four Evangelists may be anachronistically included, and the youngest apostles are often placed in the two lowest seats.

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA

The stylized background buildings — called “palaces” in Russian icon-painting terminology — here represent the Upper Room in which the Apostles were seated.

At the base of the type is a completely symbolic image, an old man in a dark space sometimes shown as a cave, though here it is just an arched opening.  In Greek icons he bears the name Ο Κόσμος — Ho Kosmos — “The Cosmos,” meaning “The World.” He is in the darkness of the world without the Gospel, and aged by sin, but in his hands he holds a cloth. Though not shown here, there are often twelve rolled scrolls lined up on the cloth, which represent the promise of the coming of the teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the world, now that the Holy Spirit is descending. Photios/Photis Kontoglou (1895-1965), the fellow who inspired a revival of the “Byzantine” style of icon painting in Greece, calls the cloth held by the old man the “sindon,” which refers to the burial shroud of Jesus. The message is that the death and resurrection of Jesus led to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the going forth of the teaching of the Twelve Apostles into all the world.

An observant reader asked why old “Cosmos” in the first icon shown above has a halo. The answer is that it was a painter’s error. He did not understand the symbolism or tradition of the type, and mistakenly thought that the symbolic representation of “The World” was a saint of some kind, so he gave “Cosmos” a halo, but without a name written in it. Other icons of the same type (like the second image) correctly show “Cosmos” with no halo.