In the previous posting, we looked at a warrior saint popular among Coptic Christians.  Today we will look at a monk saint who was an Egyptian, and whose icons are found not only there but also in Greece, the Balkans, and Russia.  His name in Coptic is Pakhom, meaning “eagle”; in Greek it is Pakhomios, and in Russia Pakhomiy.

He is often found with the Greek title Όσιος Παχώμιος ο Μέγας — Hosios Pakhomios ho Megas,  Hosios is a title used for monastics, corresponding to the Russian use of Prepodobnuiy, very loosely rendered into English as “Venerable.”  Pakhomios of course is his name, and ho Megas means “the Great.”  We have the same word borrowed into English as a prefix signifying “very big” for all kinds of things, from “mega-mall” to “mega-pizza,” so its meaning in Greek should be easy to remember.

The standard type of Pakhomios (or Pachomius latinized) depicts him standing, robed as an abbot.  But a more interesting type commonly associated with monasteries shows an angel appearing to him.  Here’s an example from a wall in Meteora:

Pakhomios, at left, is shown in the stylized “look of surprise” posture used in Greek iconography, leaning slightly away, with both hands raised, palms out, before him.  The angel points at the monastic hood.  Now let’s consider the Greek inscriptions:

On the figure at left:

Ο   Α

By now, if you have been reading regularly here, that abbreviation should be easy to translate as HO HAGIOS — “[the] HOLY”

Next comes the saint’s name:


That is easy too — “PAKHOMIOS.”

The inscription on the angel at right is what one might expect:


Angelos Kyriou means “Angel of the Lord.”  You will recall that kyrios/kurios is “Lord,” but when it has the -ou ending, it means “of the Lord.”

Τhe double gamma (ΓΓ) in Greek is prounced like “ng” in English.  You probably noticed that the last letter in Angelos is the combined double letter we have encountered before, –os.  Here it is written rather like a question mark.

Those inscriptions should have given you little trouble.  But I do not expect you to translate the scroll inscription without help.  But once I tell you what it is, you will be able to read it in multiple examples of this icon type, because in Greek icons the same inscription tends to be repeated again and again:


It reads:
In   this          the     skhima      shall-be-saved all       flesh    O    Pakhomios

Or in normal English,
“In this skhima shall all flesh be saved, O Pakhomios.”

What I have transliterated as sothesetai is actually written sothesete on this scroll.  And skhima here, often written as “schema” in English, has a double meaning.  It means not only the form, shape, and appearance of something, but it is also the name for the monastic habit, the clothing Eastern Orthodox monks wear.

Now who exactly is Pachomios, and what is being shown here?

He is said to have lived in Egypt between about 292 and 346.  There was already a tradition of going into the desert to live as a hermit or “anchorite.”  But eventually some hermits began to site their dwellings near one or another noted ascetic, and such a grouping was known in Greek as a laura or in Slavic as a lavra.  Pachomius began as a hermit, but founded a community of monks living together on an island in the Nile called Tabennae (also written as Tabennisi).  It grew into a community of some 1400 monks living the so-called coenobitic life, meaning that of monks living together and practicing under the same rules.  The name for such a community in Latin is a coenobium.  It comes from the Greek words κοινός/koinos meaning “common,” and βίος/bios, meaning “life.”  You may already know the word κοινός/koinos from the term “Koine Greek,” used to describe the kind of “common” Hellenistic Greek in which the New Testament was written.

As for the icon type, it is the traditional explanation for why Pakhomios founded a monastic community on Tabennae.  The story is that an angel dressed in a monastic habit and hood appeared to Pachomius one day while he was praying at the island.  The angel told him to found a community of monks there, and showed him by example not only the garment his monks were to wear,  but also gave him a tablet bearing the list of rules by which they were to live.

Here is a Russian pattern for the type “The Vision of Pachomius,” one of the transfers taken from old icons by Guryanov:

In this rendering, the angel is identified by the IC XC inscription as “Jesus Christ.”


Christians of the 4th century did not like the Roman Emperor Julian.  He was philosophically-minded, a student of Neo-Platonism, lived a somewhat ascetic life, and he was not averse to conversing with ordinary people.  He tried to root out corruption in the Empire, and attempted to hold it together  through the restoration of pre-Christian
“national” religious practices, though he regarded the stories of the gods as allegorical.  He also promoted freedom of religion, declaring in an edict in 362 that all religions were to be equal before the law.

The Christians, however, had been rising in power since the legalization of Christianity under the emperor Constantine.  They were definitely not supporters of freedom of religion.  They considered the gods of the polytheists to be demonic.  And they certainly did not want to give up having a “Christian” emperor (Constantius II, son of Constantine, preceded Julian) and instead have one who favored and promoted polytheism.  So they rejoiced when, in 363, on a military campaign against the Sassanids, Julian received a wound that ultimately killed him.

Because Julian had known Christianity from his boyhood, was quite familiar with the Bible and even once had been a reader (lector) in the Church, Christians disliked him all the more when he abandoned Christianity for neo-Platonic polytheism.  They called him “Julian the Apostate.”

All of this is just a lead-in to help explain why an image of the fallen and wounded Julian is found in the iconography of a saint named Merkurios/Merkourios/Mercurius.

Merkurios is one of the warrior saints of the Eastern Church.  He seems to have actually once existed, which cannot be said of all Christian saints.  Beyond that, his story dissolves into fiction.  Traditionally, he was a soldier from Caesarea in Cappadocia (now Kayseri in Turkey), and was martyred for refusing to ritually sacrifice to the gods in the year 250 c.e.

Here is an iimage of Merkurios from a wall painting in Ochrid, Macedonia, dating just before the beginning of the 14th century:


Let’s look at the title inscription:

If you read the earlier postings on how to read Greek icon inscriptions, this one should present no problems at all.  At the left is the abbreviation

Ο      Α

The Γ (g) is written above as a superscript letter that fits into the first word, and below the OA is a squiggle signifying the  ος (-os) ending of that word.  So we see it is just the standard old Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC, Ho Hagios, meaning “[the] HOLY,” and you will recall that Hagios is the word used to signify “saint.”

Next comes his name, which is divided into three lines:



“MERKOURIOS,” or as it is commonly written in its Latinized form, Mercurius.

There is a further inscription on the sword of Merkurios that connects it with the Archangel Michael.  We will soon see why.

This first type of Merkurios, showing him standing clothed as a Roman warrior, is the type most commonly found.  But there is a second type, found particularly in Coptic Christianity, that shows him mounted on a horse, somewhat as in icons of George the Dragonslayer.  But instead of a dragon, there is a fatally-wounded man fallen (often with his horse) under Merkurios, and that man is the Emperor Julian.

Now if we stop to do a little historical math, we can see that Merkurios is said to have died in 250 c.e.  The Emperor Julian died in 363 c.e.  So we have a gap of 113 years between.  Why, then is Merkurios depicted in icons killing Julian?

The answer lies in another of those fanciful stories common in the study of icons.  But first let’s look at an example of the rather violent second type:


It depicts Merkurios killing Emperor Julian with a lance.  At right is a bishop,  easily identifiable as such by his garments, particularly the diamond-shaped epigonation worn at his waist.  This bishop is St. Basil “the Great.”  According to the tale, Basil heartily disliked the Emperor Julian and his “pagan” preferences.   Basil went to pray on a mountain with other Christians, and while doing so saw a vision of Mary calling St. Merkurios to her, and telling him to go and kill Julian.  So Christian tradition accounts for the death of Julian by saying a mysterious soldier appeared, stabbed Julian with his lance, then disappeared, and that soldier is supposed to be St. Merkurios, sent down from Heaven to do the violent deed.

In such a story we see the dark side of Christianity, and its intolerance, when in authority, of dissent.

The angel at upper right is the Archangel Michael, and that refers to another story explaining why Merkurios is shown with two swords.  It relates that Merkurios was fighting as a Roman soldier against barbarians, when suddenly the Archangel Michael appeared and gave him a bright sword, telling him it would bring victory.  So Merkurios fought with two swords, his own and the heavenly sword given him by Michael.  And that is why in the Coptic Church, Merkurios is also known as Abu Seifein.  Abu is Arabic for “father,” but it has a secondary connotation of a possessor of something.  Seifein means “two swords,” so Merkurios is Abu Seifein, the “Father/Possesor of Two Swords.”

But he also has another name.  When he was a boy, he was called Philopater, “Father-lover.” (Philo=love, Pater=father) — but it can also be translated as “loved by his father.”

Let’s take a look at his title inscription as shown on the Coptic icon above.  And by the way, “Coptic” signifies the traditional Christian Church in Egypt, that of the “Copts,” that is, the Egyptians.  But first you should know that the Coptic alphabet is based on the Greek, so while some letters will be familiar, others will not.  Also, the Coptic language is the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language, though much mixed with Greek words:

The inscription, written in two lines, reads:


Even if you do not know any Coptic, you should be able to read most of this title inscription from what I have already told you about Merkurios.  You can see the word AΓΙΟC, and you know that is HAGIOS, meaning “Holy, Saint”; next, though the word is divided between two lines, comes  ΦΙΛΟΠΑΤΗΡ, and you know from what I have told you that PHILOPATER was the original given name of Merkurios.  Sometimes the Copts call him simply “Saint Philopater.”  And finally, though the “M” at its beginning  is written in the Coptic manner, you should recognize, following Philopater,  the name ΜΕΡΚΟΥΡΙΟC — MERKURIOS.  As you have already seen in other Greek inscriptions, the “ou” sound, pronounced “oo” in English, is indicated by placing the Y letter atop the O.

I hope you noticed that there is still one little mystery left about the Coptic title inscription.  Why do we find the letters ΠΙ right at the beginning before ΑΓΙΟC?  That is easily explained:  ΠΙ, pronounced “PEE” in English, is the definite masculine article in Coptic, or to put it simply, here it means “THE.”  So it is used as HO would be in Greek.  Instead of writing HO HAGIOS, “The Holy” as the Greek title of a male saint, the Copts write PI AGIOS before the name of a male saint.  Hey — now you speak Coptic (well, at least one word of it).





The two probably most famous Russian monks are widely separated in time.  In a previous posting I discussed one of them, Seraphim of Sarov, who died in 1833.  Today we will look at the iconography of the second and earlier, Sergiy of Radonezh, who died 1392.   He became one of the most prominent of Russian “nationalistic” saints.  He was the founder of the Trinity-Sergiev Lavra, which grew into a very large monastic community with its own workshops and an important pilgrimage site.

Though in Russia his name is written as Sergiy, you will find it in English publications also as Sergei and Sergius, or in those with a French influence as Serge.

You have probably noticed that in the titles of monk saints, things usually follow this order, with four elements:

1.  The title Svyatuiy, “Holy.”
2.  The “rank,” title, Prepodobnuiy (loosely rendered in English as “Venerable.”
3.  The saint’s name (like Sergiy).
4.  A word identifying the saint by location, like Radonezhskiy, meaning “of Radonezh.”  This location name is one way to distinguish among several saints with the same name.

5.  Sometimes an additional title is added, such as chudotvorets, “wonder-worker.”

Let’s start with an icon from near the end of the 19th century.  Though originally cheaply and hastily painted, it nonetheless can teach us a few things.  It is an icon of Sergiy  с житем (s zhitem).  S means “with” and zhitem means “life,” so we can translate it as an icon “with the life,” that is, with scenes showing incidents from the life of the saint.  Sometimes such scenes are just painted in the background of the icon, but frequently they appear in little boxes around the edge of the main image, as in this icon.  Such a box containing an individual scene is called a клеймо (kleimo) in Russian (plural клейма/kleima).  So an icon with kleima in the border is an icon with square or rectangular cells containing additional scenes around the border of the central image.  Such scenes may vary from image to image in their number, content and order.

So here is the icon of Sergiy “with the life”:

Sergei is said to have been born in Rostov in the year 1314.  His parents were a pious couple named Kirill and Maria.  Their third son was a boy named Varfolomei (Bartholomew).  His older brothers quickly learned to read, but Varfolomei found it very difficult.  So he prayed for help in learning.

One day his father sent him out to search for missing horses.  On the way he saw a monk elder, a starets, deep in prayer under an oak tree.  Varfolomei waited patiently, and when the elder finished, he asked the boy what he wanted.  Varfolomei replied by asking the elder to pray  for him, that he might be able to learn to read and write.

Here is a non-icon painting by Mikhail Nesterov showing that encounter, which is a very well-known theme in Russian art:


The elder prayed for the boy, then reached into his bag and took out a piece of prosfor (prosphora) the bread used in the Church liturgy.  He told the boy to eat it as a sign of grace and to help him learn.  Varfolomei put it in his mouth, and it tasted sweet.  The monk then told him that he would become learned far beyond the level of his brothers, and the elder and the boy then walked together to Varfolomei’s home, where the starets ate and talked with the parents, predicting  a very learned and holy life for their son.  The parents went to the doorway with the monk as he was leaving, but suddenly he disappeared, leaving them thinking he might have been an angel.

The inscription on this kleimo says: “The youth Varfolomei, Venerable Sergiy, receives the piece of prosfor from the starets.”


After meeting the starets, Varfolomei began leading a rigorous life of prayer and fasting and pious practices, and wanted to become a monk; but his parents asked him not to do so until after their deaths.  He agreed.  In this period the family moved from Rostov to Radonezh, Then the elderly parents, now considered saints themselves, died, and Sergei spent forty days in prayer for them.  This number is significant, because in traditional Russian Orthodoxy it is believed that during these forty days the soul of the departed goes through various stages, one of which is passing through the so-called “toll-houses” where it is tested for various sins.  At the end of the forty days it reaches the place where it will spend the time until the Last Judgment.

This kleimo shows Sergiy, clothed in monk’s habit, praying before the “relics” of his parents, that is, at the tomb of his parents.

Notice the “rosary” he is holding.  It is the old lestovka or “ladder” rosary with triangular flaps at the bottom, a form which was kept by the Old Believers.

Varfolomei, after the death of his parents, went off into a deep forest with his widowed brother Stefan (Stephen) and began leading a very hard and ascetic life so rigorous that his brother could not take it and left.  But before he left, the two had built, along with their hut, a church that they dedicated to the Holy Trinity.  Varfolomei stayed on alone, and at the age of 23 he was tonsured as a monk, taking the name Sergiy from one of the pair of Roman martyrs (Sergius and Bacchus) celebrated on that day.

This kleimo shows Sergiy hard at work with his axe, constructing a monastic cell.

As is common in stories of ascetics, Sergiy was bothered by evil spirits that would visit his forest retreat, trying to frighten him into giving up his monastic life.  But he would pray the “Jesus Prayer,” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) and his prayer would drive them away.  That is the scene in this kleimo:

Sergiy worked on and prayed for others to come and join with him.  One night while praying, he had a vision in which he saw a bright light and a great many birds flying around.  He heard a voice telling him that the number of people joining his community would be many like the birds.  His vision is depicted in this kleimo:

While Sergiy was still hoping for members of his community, a bear came to him.  Sergiy would leave bread out on a stump for him when he had it, and when there was only a little, he is said to have given what remained to the bear, going without himself.  This kleimo depicts Sergiy sharing his meal with the bear:

Sergiy made sure that his monastery offered help to the needy and to travelers and the ill.  It is said that once, when he was performing the liturgy, the monks saw an angel celebrating with him , and they saw a fire around the altar that entered the chalice.  That is the scene depicted in this kleimo:

Sergiy was considered a “wonderworker,” and among his miracles was resurrecting a dead boy through prayer, as shown here:

The monks at Sergiy’s monastery had to carry their water from a long distance away, until finally Sergiy went down into a ravine near the monastery and found there a little pool of rainwater.  He prayed over it, and a spring then burst out of the ground, providing the monastery with water nearby.  That is the scene shown here:

When he was dying, Sergiy received the eucharistic bread and wine:

It is said that long after his death,  in 1422 Sergiy appeared to a layman in a dream, telling him to go to the head of his monastery and ask why his relics (his body) were left in the wet ground.  During the construction of the new cathedral, his relics were said to have been uncovered and were found incorrupt, body, clothing, and all.  Then they were placed in the church.  This kleimo depicts the obretenie, the “finding” of Sergiy’s relics:

Even though it comes earlier chronologically, I have kept one scene for last, because it is life scene most often found painted as a separate icon.  It is the appearance of Mary to Sergiy.  The story is that one day he had just finished reciting the Marian prayer “It is Proper” when, resting a moment, he said to his disciple Mikhei (Micah) that something wonderful was about to happen.  Then a voice was heard, saying, “The blessed Virgin is coming.”  Mary, the apostle Peter and the evangelist John appeared.  Mary told Sergiy his prayers had been heard, and that his monastery would grow and flourish both during his life on this earth and after.  Here is that kleimo:

Here is a more sophisticated example, painted in the traditional style and as a separate icon:

(Courtesy of

The “Old Testament Trinity” is visible in the clouds above them.

Now let’s look at another icon of the same event:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

It is heavily incised and gilded, with border ornamentation characteristic of the latter part of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  It is painted in the “Westernized” manner favored by the State Church of the time.  Notice the “pearls” and “jewels” painted around and in the halos.

From roughly the same period, here is another “Westernized” icon showing Sergiy full-length, again with the elaborate border and background ornamentation often found in icons of that time:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

With such icons we are near the end of the old period of icon painting that gradually faded away with the Russian Revolution and the oppressive Communist rule that followed.


Most icons showing biblical events from the traditional accounts of the life of Jesus make obvious sense in relation to the church year:  the Nativity icon celebrates the event depicted, the birth of Jesus; the Baptism (Theophany) icon celebrates the baptism.  Even the Indiction icon, which shows the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he enters the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from the book of Isaiah, makes sense in its position as the beginning of the church year.

Today’s icon, however, does not make obvious sense, in spite of the fact that it is an easily recognized scene.

It depicts the event called in Western art “Jesus Among the Doctors,” recorded in Luke 2:41-49:

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.  And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.  But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances.  And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.

And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.  And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said to him, Son, why have you thus dealt with us?  Behold, your father and I have sought you sorrowing.

And he said to them, How is it that you sought me? Know you not that I must be about my Father’s business?

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The title written on this icon is ПРЕПОЛОВЕНИЕ Г[ОСПО]ДНЕ — Prepolovenie Gospodne, meaning “[The] Middle of the Lord.”  That is rather cryptic until I tell you that the complete name of the festival it celebrates, as written in the calendar, is actually Преполовение Пятидесятницы (Prepolovenie Pyatidesyatnitsui), meaning  “[The] Middle of Pentecost,” or as it is usually written in English, “Mid-Pentecost.”

Mid-Pentecost happens on Wednesday in the middle of the fourth week after Easter, halfway between Easter and the festival of Pentecost (the celebration of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles), sometimes called “Whitsun” or “Whitsunday” in the West.

So that is what this icon type signifies in the Eastern Orthodox liturgical year:  the festival that occurs halfway between Easter and Pentecost — in “the middle.”

The type varies slightly from example to example.  In this one Joseph and Mary stand at left (many icons omit them), and the youthful Jesus is seated in the Temple amid the elders, discussing texts with them.  Jesus holds an open book.  In some other examples, he holds a rolled scroll.

It is rather odd that the image of the young Jesus among the elders became used for Mid-Pentecost, because the biblical text that connects the Mid-Pentecost icon type with that festival, and is sometimes used as the title of the icon, actually refers to a different (but similar) event supposedly later in the life of Jesus, as written in John 7:14:

Абие же в преполовение праздника взыде Исус во церковь и учаше. И дивляхуся Иудее, глаголюще: како Сей книги весть не учився? Отвеща им Иисус и рече: Мое учение несть Мое, но Пославшаго Мя:

Abie zhe v prepolovenie prazdnika vzuide Isus vo Tserkov’ i uchashe.  I divlyuakhusya Iudee, glogoliushche: kako Cey knigi vest’ ne uchivsya?  Otveshcha im Isus i reche:  Moe uchenie nest’ Moe, no Poslavshago Mya.

Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.  And the Jews marveled, saying, How knows this man letters, having never learned?  Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.

You may have notice the word tserkov, which ordinarily means “church,” but in this context means the Temple.

One finds variations in the wording of the title, such as:

“In the Middle of the Feast Jesus Went Up into the Temple…”

In that one, the word святи́лище/svyatilishche ordinarily means “sanctuary, shrine” — but here again in context it is referring to the Temple.

That excerpt originally referred to the adult Jesus and to the Jewish feast of Sukkoth, but Eastern Orthodoxy made use of that “middle of the feast” notion to apply the image instead to Mid-Pentecost.  All in all, it makes for rather confused and stretched connections, but that is tradition.  In any case, it shows us how intimately icons are connected with the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodox Church.

In Russia the type is often referred to as Беседа Христа с книжниками/Beseda Khrista s knizhnikami/”The Conversation of Christ with the Scribes”

If we look at the inscriptions on the books held by the youthful Jesus and by the fellow next to him, we find the two events skewed even more.  Both come from the story of the later event when Jesus was an adult, as found in John, chapter 7:


The book held by the man next to Jesus (representing “the Jews”) says:

Аще обрезание приемлет человек в субботу,[ да не разорится закон Моисеов, на Мя ли гневаетеся, яко всего человека здрава сотворих в субботу.]
“If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, [that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?]”
John 7:23
And the text held by Jesus says:

Аще кто хощет волю Его творити, разумеет [о учении, кое от Бога есть, или Аз от Себе глаголю.]
“If any man will do his will, he shall know [of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.]”
John 7:17

There is, however, another manner of depicting “The Middle,” in keeping with the adult Jesus preaching in the Temple, as in John 7.  Here is a 14th century fresco from Pech, Serbia:

The inscription reads:

ПРЕПОЛОВЛIЕНIЕ ПРАЗНИКА — Prepolovlienie Praznika

Though the spelling is a bit different, the meaning is the same:  “[The] Middle of the Feast.”

The troparion for the Mid-Pentecost festival also makes use of that “middle of the feast” concept:

Тропарь, глас 8
Преполовившуся празднику, / жаждущую душу мою благочестия напой водами, / яко всем, Спасе, возопил еси: / жаждай да грядет ко Мне и да пиет. / Источниче жизни нашея, Христе Боже, слава Тебе.

Troparion, voice (tone) 8:
In the middle of the feast, fill my thirsty soul with the waters of piety, as to all, Savior, you cried:  Let the thirsty come to me and drink.  Fountain of our life, Christ God, glory to you.

Here is another example of the second type:

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

In it, Jesus holds a book with the text taken from John 7:27:


“[On the last day of the great feast] Jesus stood and cried, saying: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me [and drink.]”

At left is Peter, who holds a scroll bearing a text from John 6:68:


“Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

Below Peter is one of the Jews:

He holds a scroll with a text taken from John 7:15:


“How does he know these writings, not having been taught?

At upper right, the disciple John holds a scroll with a text taken from John 1:3:

“All through him came to be, and without him nothing [ came to be that was].”

Below him, another listener holds a scroll with a text from John 7:26:


“Do the rulers indeed know that this is the Christ?”

At bottom center is a group (represented as boys) holding a scroll with a text combining concepts from John 7:40-41:

It reads:

“Truly this is the Messiah, the Christ.”

In Russian Orthodoxy, Mid-Pentecost is traditionally a time when both the fields and water are ritually blessed.


Do you remember the popular Disney movie from the 1960s called “The Parent Trap”?  In it, a girl goes to camp and discovers that she has an identical twin.  It is actually based on a 1949 story by the German author Erich Kästner titled Das Doppelte Lottchen, “Doubled Lottie.”  Today’s icon saints are like the “Doubled Lottie” story gone extreme.

To make it very simple, there are two saints very prominent throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, whether in Greek, Russian, or Balkan iconography.  They are called in English Cosmas and Damian, in Russia Kozma and Domian (sometimes spelled Damian), and in Greek Kosmas and Damianos.

As you already know from previous postings, the Eastern Orthodox calendar of saints is filled with confused and dubious stories, and Cosmas and Damian exemplify that. Why?  Because in that calendar there are three different pairs of brothers with exactly the same names and titles, and all were physicians.

1.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on July 1, said to have been born in Rome.
2.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on October 17th, said to have been born in Arabia.
3.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on November 1, said to have been born in Asia Minor.

To confuse matters further, all three pairs are given the title ΑΝΑΡΓΥΡΟΙ (Anargyroi)  in Greek.  An– means “without” –Argyr– means “silver,” and the –oi ending indicates the plural.  “Without silver” means that they did not accept payment (think silver coins) for their medical services, something that would horrify today’s medical profession, at least in the United States.

In Russia they are called БЕЗСРЕБРЕННИКИ (Bezsrebrenniki).  Bez– means “without” “—-srebren-” means “silver,” –nik- means loosely “person” and the –i ending indicates the plural, so the meaning is much the same as in Greek, “those who are without silver,” again the significance is that they did not take money for their healing services.  Both the Greek and Slavic titles are generally translated loosely into Engish as “Unmercenaries.”

Modern scholars of hagiography tell us that these three pairs of physician brothers/twins/unmercenaries, all of whom are martyrs, are in fact the same original pair in triplicate, with differing biographies added to them over time.  They opine that this replication of the same pair of saints came about because churches in different locations where the saints were particularly honored came, over time, to assume that “their” Cosmas and Damian were different than the Cosmas and Damian commemorated elsewhere.  As we have seen, the ranks of Eastern Orthodox saints have never really been critically examined by the Eastern Orthodox, who have never had an investigative office such as the Bollandists in the Roman Catholic Church, and so the lives of the Eastern Orthodox saints are often confused and wholly or partly fictitious.

All of that is interesting background, but the thing to remember about the iconography of Cosmas and Damian is that those one generally sees in Russian icons are the Cosmas and Damian born supposedly in Asia Minor sometime not later than the 4th century, where also they were said to have been martyred for their faith in the 3rd century (as you can see, even their dates are confused and uncertain).

There is a rather bizarre story about the burial of the brothers.  It is said that a woman named Palladia was so grateful for her cure that she offered them her estate in payment, which of course they refused.  But later Palladia went to Damian and gave him three eggs.  Cosmas found that Damian had accepted the eggs, and was so opposed to receiving any payment for services that on his deathbed he said that he did not want Damian buried with him.

It happened, however, that the brothers had once cured a camel.  When Damian finally died, those with him were puzzled about what to do with the body, given that Cosmas had said he did not want Damian buried with him.  The matter was solved when the camel that had been healed showed up, and began speaking in a human voice, saying that Damian had not accepted the eggs as payment for medical services, but rather just as a symbol of honor to the Holy Trinity.  So, having heard the excuse direct from the camel’s mouth,  they buried Damian with his brother Cosmas.

As in the following Russian examples, the physician brothers are shown standing side by side,  Kozma generally on the left, and Domian/Damian on the right.  Each holds a medicine box.

In the first example below, we see them painted somewhat realistically in a State Church icon in the manner of the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  The background or “light” of the icon is gilded and elaborately incised with twining decoration, and a small image of the “Umilenie”  type of Marian icon is above them


The next example is a late icon painted in a much earlier style.  Again it shows Kozma and Domian holding their medicine boxes, with Jesus blessing from the clouds above:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

This third image again shows them in their typical forms, holding medicine boxes, and above them is an image of the Birth of John the Forerunner.  From the position of the fingers in the “blessing” hand of Domian, this appears to be an Old Believer icon rather than a State Church image.  Note the realistic background landscape, something borrowed from Western European art, and even found, rather uncharacteristically, in many Old Believer icons.

The medicine boxes held by these saints may include medicine spoons, or, as in this example, feathers; these were used to apply medicine.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

In painters’ manuals, the three pairs of “Cosmas and Damian” saints may be distinguished somewhat like this:

The “Asia Minor” pair are depicted as in middle age, with beards of equal length, feathers in hand, holding open medicine boxes, and ochre boots on their feet.

The “Roman” pair are depicted as young, with Cosmas having the face and hair of Demetrios of Thessaloniki, and Damian like the Great Martyr George with his curly hair, holding crosses of martyrdom in their right hands and a medicine box in the left.

The “Arabian” pair are depicted like the patrons of horses Flor and Lavr (Florus and Lavrus) with Cosmas in middle age and Damian younger.

There are several “unmercenary” saints in Eastern Orthodoxy, but the most famous and most often seen in icons are the brothers Cosmas and Damian, as well as the other prominent physician saint Panteleimon, who is discussed in a previous posting.