The Akathist was originally a 6th-century hymn to Mary — in Greek — attributed to Romanos the Melodist. The word is from the Greek a- meaning “not” and -kathistos, meaning “seated.” So an akathistos or akathist is a hymn sung while “not seated,” that is, while standing.
But there are other akathists as well, addressed to “sacred” persons, liturgical events, and even to Mary as manifested in various icons.
Akathists are divided into thirteen poetic segments, each consisting of a kontakion (Slavic kondak) and an oikos (ikos in the Slavic form). I mention the terms because they appear frequently in Marian icon inscriptions. In the same context, you will also want to know the term troparion (Slavic tropar), which is a short hymn form. When you see a troparion on a Russian icon, it will usually be identified at its beginning with the word tropar, followed by the word glas (“voice”), meaning the tone in which it is sung. There are eight tones used in Eastern Orthodox liturgical singing. “Voice” or “tone” here really means mode, in the musical sense. A mode in Eastern Orthodox singing is a base note with the melody built around it, following a defined set of scale steps. For the base note, think of the “drone” pipe on bagpipes that continually plays the same note while the melody is built up around it. There is more to the eight-tone mode system, but that is all we need for our purposes.
Now personally, I find even this much about the kontakion, ikos, and troparion pretty boring, but it is very helpful when trying to read and identify icons, so students of iconography should know the minimal basics I have just given. More is not necessary unless you plan to study Byzantine or Slavic liturgical music.
Now to today’s very uncommon icon type:
We see Mary standing at the center in a oval of light. Christ Immanuel is on her breast, and in her hands she holds out a cloth –her veil — very much as she does in another icon type called the Pokrov or “Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God.”
Behind her is what appears to be a curved wall, with a turret at each end. At left is a group of nuns, and at right another group of females.
What does all this mean? It is explained by the inscription at top and bottom, identified by its first word as an ikos, and by the following number as “10.” It is Ikos 10 from the “original” akathist to Mary, called the “Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God.”
Стена еси девамъ, Богородице Дево, и всемъ къ Тебе прибегающымъ: ибо небесе и земли Творецъ устрои Тя, Пречистая, вселься во утробе Твоей, и вся приглашати Тебе научивъ:
Радуйся, столпе девства:
радуйся, дверь спасенія.
Радуйся, начальнице мысленнаго назданія:
радуйся, подательнице Божественныя благости.
Радуйся, Ты бо обновила еси зачатыя студно:
радуйся, Ты бо наказала еси окраденныя умомъ.
You are a wall to virgins, O Virgin Mother of God, and to all who flee to you; for heaven and earth’s Maker prepared you, Most Pure One, dwelt in your womb, and taught all to call to you:
Rejoice, pillar of virginity:
Rejoice, gate of salvation!
Rejoice, leader of mental formation:
Rejoice, giver of divine good!
Rejoice, for you did renew those conceived in shame:
Rejoice, for you gave wisdom to those robbed of their reason.
There is more, but that is all the writer of the icon inscription had room for. There are slight variations in the text of the Akathist as found on this image, but that is to be expected when comparing Old Believer inscriptions with those used by the State Church, whose Bible translations and liturgical books vary slightly in translation from those of the Old Believers.
So, what we see in this icon type is Mary holding out her veil of protection, somewhat as in the Pokrov image, but instead of the other details of that type we have instead a wall behind her symbolizing Mary as “Wall to Virgins,” meaning the protector of virgins, and that accounts for the crowd of nuns at left and the crowd of maidens at right — the “virgins.” The sun and moon are added merely as decorative elements, but you will recall also the description of Mary as the “Apocalyptic Woman” standing on the moon and clothed with the sun — so there is a hint of that in their inclusion here.
This icon type, “You Are a Wall to Virgins” (Стена еси девамъ/Stena esi devam) is seldom found separately, but in icons representing the Akathist, and in other icons of Mary “с акафистом” (s akafistom) — that is, “with the Akathist,” it is included in the border scenes depicting the kontakia and oikoi (“houses”) of that hymn. In some examples Mary is shown without Christ Immanuel on her breast and without the veil in her hands.
Though the word стена (“stena”) means literally “wall,” those translating the Akathist often prefer the more florid “bulwark,” so for short one may call this icon type either literally the “Wall to Virgins” or more loosely the “Bulwark of Virgins,”