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:

Now that we have seen the scene depicted in this simple and hasty manner, let’s look at the same event as painted with care in an icon that would have been considerably more expensive, though also from near the end of the 19th century:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The icon 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.


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