Today’s icon type is very easy to recognize. It is commonly called “The Four Births.” It is also sometimes called the Доброчадие/Dobrochadie.
It depicts the births of four figures very prominent in the Eastern Orthodox hierarchy of religious figures — Mary (Called the Mother of God), Jesus, John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and Nicholas of Myra, commonly called Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.
The iconography of the birth and early lives of biblical figures such as Mary, Jesus, and John is not based simply on the biblical accounts; they are combined with extra-biblical apocryphal stories such as found in the Protoevangelion of James and the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew.
Three of these “birth” types — that of Mary, of John, and of Nicholas, are very similar, as one can see, because iconographers had little information to work with, so they just repeated similar elements: a reclining mother, a father seated at right, three attendants, and the newborn child washed by a serving maid.
The birth of Jesus in this example is a mixture of the earlier “Eastern” type combined with some elements from the “Western” type that were adopted into Russian iconography, primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. It depicts Mary in a seated position beside the infant Christ (rather than lying down and facing away from him, as earlier), and it includes the three Magi at left and a shepherd at right. At front left, Joseph is shown with an old shepherd, who traditionally is seen as the Devil trying to tempt Joseph to doubt the virgin birth (“Hey, come on Joe — you’re not really buying that cock and bull story, are you?”). That comes from the earlier nativity form, as does the scene at right, the child Jesus washed by a serving maid.
It is interesting that the cave in which Mary gives birth is a detail found in the Protoevangelion of James,generally believed to date to the 2nd century (found also in the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew), and was a matter of controversy in early Christianity because in the pre-Christian Mithraic religion, the sun god Mithras was born from a rock (not surprisingly, on December 25th), and his rites were celebrated in a cave. The early Christian martyr (and Eastern Orthodox saint) Justin Martyr, in the latter half of the 2nd century, thought that the Mithraic use of a cave was a deceit of the devil, whom he believed inspired such similarities to Christianity among the pagans. He had this to say in his Dialogue with Trypho:
“And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah’s words?…” (LXX)
“‘…But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you,’ I continued, ‘what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us to-day, I shall again remind you of the passage.’ Then I repeated the passage from Isaiah which I have already written, adding that, by means of those words, those who presided over the mysteries of Mithras were stirred up by the devil to say that in a place, called among them a cave, they were initiated by him. ” (LXXVIII)
Each of these four births is also found as a separate icon type, whether in its basic form or with some elaboration, as in this example of the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God”:
St. Nicholas Eve and Day, December 5th and 6th, are very popular in the Netherlands; but they are generally ignored in the United States, where St. Nicholas long ago evolved into the secular, jolly Christmas giver of gifts and resident of the North Pole, Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas is still one of the most commonly found Russian (and Greek) icon types. Here is a full-length Nicholas painted in 1897, robed as a bishop, blessing with one hand and with the Gospels in the other:
Scholars tell us that while it is likely that a real Nicholas once existed as Bishop of the town of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey) around the beginning of the 4th century, the rest of his story is largely an accretion of legends — in short, everything else said about Nicholas is simply unsupported and fictionalized elaboration. His relics (bones) are said to be kept at Bari in Italy. In 2009 a Turkish archeologist ask that his government request the return of the bones (taken or stolen by Italian sailors in the Middle Ages) to Turkey.
There are so many icons of Nicholas — called “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker” — that one tires of seeing them. Nonetheless, a student of icons must know about them.
As I mentioned in a previous posting, there are three main types: Nicholas of Velikoretsk, Nicholas of Mozhaisk, and Nicholas of Zaraisk.
The “Velikoretsk” type is the one we usually see, Nicholas shown head to shoulders, or half-length, or more rarely (as above) full length. Jesus is often depicted in a circle on one side, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary on the other, presenting him the bishop’s stole (omophorion in Greek):
These depictions of Jesus and Mary originate in the story (for which there is no evidence) that St. Nicholas was present at the 1st Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea. Later, an additional detail was added to the legend. At that Council, Nicholas is said to have been so irritated by Arius, leader of the opposition, that he slapped him in the face. Arius complained to the Emperor Constantine, who had Nicholas removed and imprisoned. While in prison Jesus and Mary appeared to him; Jesus gave Nicholas the Gospel book and Mary restored his omophorion, the sign of his office as bishop. This detail seems to have been added to the legend near the end of the 14th century. That “slapping” scene is briefly described in the 18th century Greek painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna, as part of the iconography of the 1st Ecumenical Council.
Less common than the basic “Velikoretsk” type are icons of that type surrounded by standard scenes from the life and legend of Nicholas, as in this example:
The second type of Nicholas icon one is likely to encounter is “Nicholas of Mozhaisk,” as in this interesting example, which, atypically, also includes four scenes from the “life.”
Here is another example of the “Mozhaisk” type:
And third, there is the “Nicholas of Zaraisk” type, in which Nicholas is shown standing with arms raised out to the sides, with the Gospel book in one hand and the other in a sign of blessing, as in this icon pattern (reversed):
As already mentioned, some icons show Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with standard scenes from his tale. Let’s take a look at seven separate panel icons showing some of them:
1. The birth of Nicholas:
2. The baptism of Nicholas:
3. Nicholas brought for education:
4. The consecration of Nicholas as bishop:
5. Nicholas throws a bag of money through a window at night as dowry for three poor young women, so they might marry:
6. Nicholas rescues three men condemned to execution:
7. Nicholas restores life to a child drowned in the Dniepr River:
This icon depicts Nicholas in the “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” form, but with two added scenes at the sides of Nicholas saving the child drowning in the Dnieper River at left, and at right the child returned to his parents:
There are quite a number of possible additional “life” scenes found in this or that icon of Nicholas, so here is a general listing of a few of the most prominent, including some already mentioned:
The birth of Nicholas, the baptism of Nicholas, the healing of a crippled woman, Nicholas brought for education, consecration as deacon and as bishop, driving a demon out of a well, appearing to the sleeping Emperor Constantine, rescuing three men from imprisonment, rescuing the drowning Demetrios, giving gold for the dowry of three young women to save them from prostitution, the three men and the whale, saving a boy abducted by Saracens, the death of Nicholas, the tomb of Nicholas and translation (moving) of his relics.
Here is another icon with a central image of Nicholas, surrounded by scenes from his life:
They are to be read clockwise, from upper left:
The birth of Nicholas;
The baptism of Nicholas;
The healing of the blind woman:
Nicholas learning his letters;
Nicholas consecrated deacon;
Nicholas consecrated bishop;
Nicholas saving the drowning boy;
The death of Nicholas.
As with other major saints, one also finds icons of Nicholas in the iconostasis form, showing him turned toward what would be a central image of the enthroned Jesus — that is, in the Deisis form, beseeching for favors on behalf of those who pray to Nicholas:
In addition to the main types of Nicholas icons, there is another one should know. It is an image of Nicholas with his face turned slightly to the left (the “sinister” side), but with unusually large eyes looking to the right. This type — commonly called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — arose among the Old Believers, and appears first near the end of the 18th century.
Any old icon of this type you see will be an Old Believer icon. In this type, the face is generally much larger than usual, leaving little space between it and the border. It commonly has a severe, angry look. The blessing hand may or may not be seen. When it is seen, the fingers will form the distinctive “Old Believer” sign of blessing — not that of the State Church. This type, with its rather threatening expression, has a particular reputation among old believers for repelling demons, misfortune, and all kinds of “filth.” Отвращать (otvrashchat) in Russian means to “ward off,” “avert,” “turn away,” so this “Turning” (Отвратный ) Nicholas “turns away” anything evil, in Old Believer tradition.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the common text found on the Gospel book held by Nicholas in Russian icons (when there is a text) is Luke 6:17, or at least the beginning of it:
VO VREMYA ONO STA ISUS NA MESTE RAVNE I NAROD OUCHENIK EGO I MNOZHESTVO MNOGO LIUDEI OT VSEYA IOUDEI I IEROUSALIMA I POMORIYA TYRSKA I SIDONSKA….
“At that time Jesus stood on a level place and the group of his disciples and a multitude of many people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon….”
Now one may ask, why that text, given that it has no obvious connection to Nicholas. The answer is that in the liturgy for the Feast of St. Nicholas in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Gospel reading generally used for that day is Luke 6:17-23.
One could write a thick book about the legendary history of Nicholas, but this should be enough for a quick introduction to his icons.
When one first begins to learn about icons, every icon is interesting, and each new icon is a new experience. After one has seen many, many icons, however, one becomes more discriminating. One begins to look for intriguing variations, for quality of painting, and, of course, for unusual types.
Today’s icon is one of those unusual types. Examples of it are seldom seen. It is called the Nedremannoe Oko (Недреманное Око), “The Unsleeping Eye.”
It depicts Christ Immanuel, that is the youthful or child Christ reclining on a bed. At left is Mary, and at right an angel, his hands covered with a cloth to show reverence. If we look at a pattern of the type (reversed, as patterns taken from old icons generally are), we can see further details:
Above the child is a flying angel of the Seraphim rank holding the spear and sponge of the crucifixion; beside him is another angel holding the cross (eight-pointed, as the traditional Russian cross was). Examples of the type often place the scene in a paradise-like garden. As in the first example, God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) may be shown at the top of the icon.
The text associated with this type in Russian iconography is generally that of Psalm 121:4 (Slavic Bible 120:4):
Сé, не воздрéмлетъ, нижé ýснетъ храня́й Изрáиля. Se, ne vosdremlet, nizhe usnet khranyay Izrailya “Behold, he that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
The version of this type found in Greek iconography differs somewhat in that it is less elaborate and the eyes of Christ Immanuel, though he is reclining, are generally open. That brings us to the second text associated with the type, taken from Genesis 49:9 of the Greek Septuagint version:
…ἀναπεσὼν ἐκοιμήθης ὡς λέων καὶ ὡς σκύμνος· τίς ἐγερεῖ αὐτόν; …anapeson ekoimethes hos leon kai hos skumnos; tis egerei auton
“..reclining he slept as a lion, and as a [lion’s] whelp; who shall rouse him up?”
It is from that text that the Greeks take their name for this type — Anapeson.
The text, in regard to the icon, is rather obscure unless we recall that Simeon Metaphrastes, in the tenth century, expressed the odd belief that a lion sleeps without closing his eyes; further, that the young of the lion are born dead, but are brought to life by the parent on the third day. This, of course, begins to “open our eyes” as to the significance of this icon, because this being “born dead” and being “brought to life” on the third day is an allegory for Jesus, who is said to have been in the tomb until the third day, when he rose to life.
Further, if we turn to the E. Orthodox liturgy, a hymn for Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) reads:
“Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that lie dead in their tombs. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as he sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to him: You have lain down; you have slept as a lion; who shall awaken you, O King?”
From all of this we see that the “Unsleeping Eye” icon represents the “sleep” of Jesus, after the crucifixion, in the tomb on Holy Saturday; and that while sleeping he is also, as God, eternally awake, according to Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
The Greek version of the type, as already mentioned, is generally simpler than the Russian, and may consist only of the reclining Christ Immanuel, sometimes with an accompanying angel (who may hold the spear, sponge and cross), and sometimes with the angel and with Mary. Russian examples generally depict Mary standing, while Greek versions tend to depict her as seated in a chair to the right of the sleeping Immanuel, with right arm outstretched and holding a cloth at the side of the child’s head.
Here is a mid-14th century example from the Monastery of John the Forerunner, which is a few miles from Serres in northern Greece. It depicts Mary standing at right, and two bowing angels, their hands covered with cloths as a sign of veneration, at left.
Here is the title inscription:
IC XC — ΙΗCΟΥC ΧΡΙCΤΟC — “Jesus Christ”
Ὁ ΆΝΑΠΕCωN — HO ANAPESON — “THE RECLINING.”
As you see, the A and N are joined, as are the A and Π.
In old Greek churches the Anapeson was sometimes painted over the western door; because of that, it is at times associated also with Psalm 121:8:
“The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
However it is sometimes found at the diakonikon (a chamber on the south side of the central church apse).
There are some very different looking, later examples of variant icons under the same title. Some simplify the image to a very “Western” looking Mary holding the sleeping infant Jesus. These images are generally more like Roman Catholic art. Here is one in the town of Ruibinsk (Рыбинск) that has a reputation as “miracle working”:
It bears an inscription taken from the Song of Solomon 5:2:
Аз сплю, а сердце мое бдит. Az spliu, a serdtse moe bdit.
“I sleep, but my heart wakes.”
Other late variants under the same name depict the child Jesus sleeping on a cross, surrounded by symbols of the Passion. Mary may be present or absent, as in this Ukrainian example:
This attractive icon represents Simeon Bogopriimets (Симеон Богоприимец), “Simeon the God-Receiver.” Like a number of icon saints, he is both a biblical and an apocryphal figure.
His origin is in the account of the child Jesus brought to the Temple by his parents in Luke 2:25-32:
25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.
26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
I have left this excerpt in its King James English, because lines 29-32 have become very well known in that form. They are still used, for example, in the Lutheran liturgy.
So we know Simeon is seen as a righteous man miraculously kept alive until the time when he would meet Jesus. First we should note that this gives us part of Simeon’s usual title in icons, Pravednuiy, meaning “Righteous.” Second, we should keep in mind that when information was lacking, Christian tradition would just make up events and details to add interest and importance to a story.
In the case of Simeon, he was given the “backstory” that he was one of the 72 scholars given the task of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek by authority of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphos, according to the Letter of Aristeas (generally considered a fictional work). The story relates that the librarian of the great Library at Alexandria asked Ptolemy to have the Old Testament translated. Ptolemy sent envoys to Jerusalem, and 72 scholars were chosen and brought back to Egypt to do the work, six from each of the Twelve Tribes. Supposedly they finished their translation in 72 days.
According to tradition, during the translation Simeon was working on the Book of Isaiah. When he came to Isaiah 7:14, he read this:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Simeon was puzzled, and decided that “virgin” must be a scribal error. He was just about to correct the word to “woman” when an angel suddenly appeared and held back Simeon’s writing hand, telling him “You shall see these words fulfilled; you shall not die until you see Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.” This was long before the birth of Jesus, but miraculously Simeon was said to have remained alive until finally he saw the child Jesus when his parents Joseph and Mary brought him to the Jerusalem temple. Having finally seen Jesus, Simeon died. Dmitriy Rostovskiy, the Russian Orthodox saint and hagiographer, wrote that at death Simeon was a remarkable 360 years old.
Paradoxically, the old Hebrew texts (as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls) DID say “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14, not “virgin” as the Greek Septuagint translation, which became the authoritative text for Greek Orthodoxy, would have it. But of course the notion of Mary’s virginity became a very important doctrinal matter in Eastern Orthodoxy, and stories like this were created to support the dogma.
Because Simeon “received” the child Jesus in the Temple, he is called “Simeon the God-Receiver,” Jesus being considered God in Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
According to the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Herod sent assassins to look for the child John the Forerunner (the Baptist). When they approached John’s father Zacharias in the Temple, they asked where his son was, but Zacharias said he did not know. So they killed him. When his death was discovered, Simeon was chosen to replace Zacharias as priest.
There is another tradition relating that when Simeon was traveling back from Egypt to Jerusalem, he threw his ring into a river, saying that if he could not find it, then the prophecy of Isaiah was not valid. But the next day he bought a fish, and found his ring inside it. This, of course, is very much like the story found in the History of Herodotus, written c. 445 B.C.E:
When Polycrates read this letter, and perceived that the advice of Amasis was good, he considered carefully with himself which of the treasures that he had in store it would grieve him most to lose. After much thought he made up his mind that it was a signet-ring which he was wont to wear, an emerald set in gold, the workmanship of Theodore, son of Telecles, a Samian. So he determined to throw this away; and, manning a penteconter, he went on board, and bade the sailors put out into the open sea. When he was now a long way from the island, he took the ring from his finger, and, in the sight of all those who were on board, flung it into the deep. This done, he returned home, and gave vent to his sorrow.
Now it happened five or six days afterwards that a fisherman caught a fish so large and beautiful that he thought it well deserved to be made a present of to the king. So he took it with him to the gate of the palace, and said that he wanted to see Polycrates. Then Polycrates allowed him to come in, and the fisherman gave him the fish with these words following- “Sir king, when I took this prize, I thought I would not carry it to market, though I am a poor man who live by my trade. I said to myself, it is worthy of Polycrates and his greatness; and so I brought it here to give it to you.” The speech pleased the king, who thus spoke in reply:- “Thou didst right well, friend, and I am doubly indebted, both for the gift, and for the speech. Come now, and sup with me.” So the fisherman went home, esteeming it a high honour that he had been asked to sup with the king. Meanwhile the servants, on cutting open the fish, found the signet of their master in its belly. No sooner did they see it than they seized upon it, and hastening to Polycrates with great joy, restored it to him, and told him in what way it had been found.
As you can see, the study of icons can lead one far afield. As I often say, one can tug on any one thread in the study of icons, and it connects to countless other nearly and distantly related topics.
It is worth noting that the abstraction of the human form found in this icon has become what one generally thinks of as the typical appearance of a Russian icon. But many people do not realize that this “typically Russian” manner of abstraction was actually kept alive, from the middle of the 17th century onward, by the Old Believers who separated from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church, and who were often severely persecuted for it. Countless icons that today are considered products of the Russian Orthodox State Church over the period of some three centuries were really created in the icon workshops of the Old Believers.
Icons of the Twelve Major Church Festivals — showing the chief festivals of the Russian Orthodox church year — are rather common. Less common are “Week” icons. These are often called by the Church Slavic word for “week,” Sedmitsa (Седмица), derived from sedm (седмь), meaning “seven,” referring to the seven days of the week.
In the “Week” icon, each day is represented by a different icon type. This is an example of such an icon:
Here are the types with the days they represent. Let’s begin at upper left:
1. SUNDAY: First comes the Sozhestvie vo Ad, the Descent into Hades/Hell, which is the old manner of depicting the Resurrection of Jesus in Russian Orthodoxy.
2. MONDAY: This day is represented by the Sobor or Assembly of the Archangels, with Christ Immanuel (the youthful Jesus) shown in a disk in the midst of them.
3. TUESDAY: The rather grim Beheading of John the Forerunner, the execution of John the Baptist, represents this day — or else an image of John baptizing.
4. WEDNESDAY: The type for this day is the Blagovyeschenie, the Annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel of the coming birth of Jesus.
5. THURSDAY: The Footwashing, the type for this day, is taken from the account in John 13:1-12 of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
6. FRIDAY: This day is represented by the Raspyatie, the Crucifixion of Jesus.
7. SATURDAY: The type for this day is All Saints, represented by a gathering of saints of various categories.
At the center of “Week” icons we generally find another image, that of the New Testament Trinity, representing the three persons of the Trinity as the enthroned God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) depicted as an old, bearded man; the enthroned Jesus; and the Holy Spirit shown in the form of a dove, as he appeared at the Baptism of Jesus. When the altar table is also seen, it is an indication of the Hetimasia, the preparation of the throne (symbolized by the altar) as a sign of the coming Last Judgment.
As mentioned in the previous posting, types have their little variations from example to example. Here is a somewhat more elaborate old pattern for a “Week” icon:
This pattern has the usual types representing days, as in the first example, but it adds to them, at top center, six images featuring God the Father shown in a circle with various scenes about him. These six images represent the Six Days of Creation, from the Genesis account in the Bible.
In the center of this pattern is a more elaborate example of the Trinity in Heaven “among the Powers,” that is, among the angels.
The large scene at the base of the icon is a great gathering of saints representing “All Saints,” the type for Saturday, but added to this is a scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the tempting serpent wrapped around the tree.
One often encounters Russian icons from the 18th and 19th centuries that are “multiple” icons, meaning they include more than one icon type as main images on the same panel. The number of types varies, but four were often used, no doubt for pleasant symmetry.
Today I would like to discuss such an icon, first generally, and then focusing on one particular type on the panel. Here is the icon:
It was painted, as the inscription at the base says, in 1833. We can see a lingering baroque influence in the ornate gold framing of the four main images.
Let’s “read” the icon, by which I mean identify all its images.
At the top we see the three seated angels that comprise the “Old Testament Trinity” type, representing the Trinity as the three angels that appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the Plains of Mamre.
Just below and to the right is the Voskresenie Khristovo, the “Resurrection of Christ.” Here it is depicted in the Western manner, showing Christ rising above his empty tomb, rather than as the “Descent into Hades” that was the older Russian Orthodox form.
To the right is the Mother of God type often identified simply by its general Greek title, Hodigitria, meaning “Way-Shower.” But in Russia the type in the form shown here is the “Smolensk” Mother of God. It differs from the very similar Iverskaya/Iveron type in that the head of the mother is erect (or nearly so), whereas in the Iverskaya type the head of the mother inclines more toward the Christ Child.
At lower left is the “Joy of All Who Suffer” type, showing Mary aiding those suffering and in need of help, such as the blind, the lame, etc. This was a very popular type in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At lower right is the “Lamb of God” (Agnets Bozhiy) type. I will discuss this further below.
In the very center of the icon is the “Image Not Made by Hands,” the image of Christ on a cloth in the apocryphal tale of King Abgar of Edessa.
In the four corners of the icon we see images representing the Four Evangelists. St. John and his disciple Prokhor are at upper left, St. Matthew at upper right, St. Mark at lower left and St. Luke at lower right.
To finish general mention of the images, we find as border saints Prepodobnaya Maria (Venerable Maria) at left. Remember that Prepodobnaya, though meaning literally “most like,” is the Slavic term signifying a nun in Russia. At right is the Svyataya Muchenitsa Varvara, “The Holy Martyr Barbara.”
Now let’s go again to the fourth main image, that a lower right, the “Lamb of God.”
Those new to icons are often mystified by the “Lamb of God” type, because they are unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodox liturgical practices. To understand this type it is essential to know that unlike the flat, round wafer used in the Roman Catholic Eucharist, Russian Orthodoxy uses a “raised” loaf of bread, in fact five in total are used. Out of the first loaf, the priest cuts a cube of bread that is called “The Lamb,” because it signifies Jesus, the “lamb of God” as he is called by John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) in John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
The priest places the “Lamb” portion of the loaf on a footed, round metal dish called a diskos (Дискос), corresponding to the paten in a Catholic mass. Over that is placed the zvezditsa (Звездица), meaning “star.” It looks like a thin metal cross with the arms bending downward. This makes an arch framework above the “Lamb” piece of bread. Usually there is a round boss in the center of the zvezditsa that is ornamented with a star. This symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem from the nativity story. The zvezditsa provides an open framework so that a cloth may be placed over it without touching the “Lamb.” Additional pieces of bread are also placed on the diskos representing Mary, the nine ranks of angels, and saints, but as they do not figure in the imagery here they need not be discussed further.
You may wish to know that at one point a large cloth called the vozdukh (Воздýхъ) is placed over both diskos and chalice. The “Lamb” on the diskos is considered to be the body of Jesus, and the wine in the chalice (mixed with a little water) the blood. The cloth that covers both represents the graveclothes in which the body of Jesus was wrapped at death, as well as the swaddling clothes in which he was wrapped at birth. In Greek Orthodoxy, the zvezditsa is called the asteriskos, and the vozdukh is called the aër, meaning “air.” The vozdukh is not shown in the “Lamb of God” icon type, but I mention it here because it extends the symbology.
You will notice that in the type, Jesus is depicted, though without clothing, as Christ Immanuel, the child Christ. It is worth mentioning that this “Lamb of God” symbology is often found in icons of John the Forerunner as well.
Beyond that, we need only mention the two angels, one at each side of the “Lamb,” and the red rank of winged angel known as Seraphim, shown above and at both sides.
There are, as with most icon types, little variations that appear from example to example. Here is an icon pattern for a “Lamb of God” type showing some such variations:
This version is presented as a “Deisis” variant, with the “Lamb” in the center instead of the enthroned Jesus. At the top is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) shown as an old man supported on Seraphim, and holding a cross-surmounted orb. Below that are angels holding the cross and the spear and sponge of the Passion of Jesus. Below them are two angels holding ripida (рипида), the ceremonial fans representing Cherubim and Seraphim (two ranks of angel).
Two angels immediately above the “Lamb” hold the prosfor (the liturgical loaf) and a knife called the “spear” (kopie/копие). The spear is used by the priest, in the liturgy, to cut out the piece of bread called the “Lamb.”
At the left of this icon pattern is Mary, and at the right is John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). The strange, winged rings below the diskos holding the “Lamb” are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”
Now you understand why knowing the basics of the Russian Orthodox Eucharist ceremony is essential to understanding the “Lamb of God” icon type.
In Greek iconography one may find the “Lamb of God” type called either Ho Amnos (Ὁ ἀμνός) — “The Lamb”) or Ho Melismos (Ὁ μελισμός) — “The Dividing” (or more graphically, “dismemberment”). The Melismos, in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, is the act of dividing/cutting the Eucharistic bread.
Here is the image in a 14th century Macedonian fresco, which also uses “Ho Melismos” as the title:
And here is a most unusual 14th century Serbian depiction of the type — unusual because it depicts the body of Jesus Immanuel lying on the diskos, with his feet in the Eucharistic chalice: