Marian icon types can sometimes be a little confusing because there are so many of them, in addition to variations on a standard type.

Today we will look at an image very popular in the 19th century.  It is called Умягчение Злых Сердец — Umyaghenie Zluikh Serdets.  It means literally the “Softener” (Ymyagchenie) “of Evil” (Zluikh) “Hearts” Serdets.  It is often translated more loosely into English as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.”

Here is the type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

I hope you know by now that the border images are not part of the icon type.  They are usually the “name saints” of family members for whom the icon was painted.  So the important part here is the central image of Mary, with seven swords all pointing to her breast.

Now if you are of Roman Catholic background, or at least familiar with Catholic art, you are probably thinking, “Hey, isn’t that just a borrowing from images of the “Seven Sorrows of Mary”?  Well, you are right.  A number of so called “miracle-working” Marian icons in Eastern Orthodoxy do come originally from Roman Catholic use.  Of course the average Russian had no idea they were anything but “pure” Eastern Orthodox.

The standard “Softener of Evil Hearts” type appeared in Russia about 1800.  Here is an enamel on copper image — a Catholic rendering of the Seven Sorrows (with each sorrow in a circle) from 1541:

Perhaps you recall the common girl’s name “Dolores.”  It is actually the Spanish word for “sorrows,” and it comes from the Virgen de los Dolores, the “Virgin of the Sorrows,” meaning Mary, and of course in Catholic tradition there were seven “sorrows.”  Another Spanish name for her is Nuestra Señora de los Dolores — “Our Lady of the Sorrows.

The “Seven Sorrows of Mary” in Catholic tradition are:

The Prophecy of Simeon (in some lists the Circumcision of Jesus);
The Flight into Egypt;
The loss of the boy Jesus in the Temple;
Mary sees Jesus on the way to Calvary;
The death of Jesus on the cross;
The piercing of the side of Jesus, and Mary receiving his body of Jesus in her arms;
Jesus placed in the tomb.

This list may seem rather irrelevant to Russian icons, but I mention it because the icon type of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” also has an alternate title based on the first of the Seven Sorrows.  It is Симеоново проречение — Simeonovo Prorechenie — the “Prediction of Simeon.”  This refers to the meeting of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, as given in Luke.  The important part for this icon type is found in Luke 2:34-35

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35 Yes, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Now to muddle matters a bit, there is also another Russian icon type very much like the “Softener of Evil Hearts.”  It is called the Семистрельная — Semistrel’naya, “Seven Arrows.”  Russians have the notion that the reason there are seven is that the number indicates fullness, completeness, like the seven days of the week, so this represents Mary’s “full” sorrow.  Though the title says “arrows,” nonetheless swords are usually shown.  A folk tradition has arisen that this icon  — with Mary and the swords — is a kind of “protector” talisman for homes, so some people hang it over the front door to ward off evil. In contemporary Russian Orthodoxy, the Semistrel’naya icon is also invoked by believers who are dealing with the discord arising from law suits, quarrels, and other such disputes.

Now the difference between the “Softener of Evil Hearts” and the Semistrel’naya type lies simply in the number and placement of the swords.  In the “Softener,” there are three swords at left, three at right, and one coming up from below.  In the Semistrel’naya, there are four swords on the left side and three on the right.

Here are two 20th-century enamel icons showing each type.  At left is the “Melter of Evil Hearts,” and at right the Semistrel’naya:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Another difference is that in contrast to the “Softener,” the Semistrel’naya has an origin story.  It is said that a peasant of the Vologda district had a bad and chronic limp.  Though he spent much money on attempted cures, it did not improve.  Finally he had a dream  (that “it came to me in a dream” motif again) in which he heard a voice telling him to go to the bell tower of the Church of John the Theologian and to pray before the image of Mary there, and he would be healed.

The peasant set off for the church, but when he arrived there and told of his dream, he was not believed, and was not allowed into the bell tower.  He came a second time, and again failed.  So he tried once more (there is the old “third time is the charm” motif).  This time, seeing his persistence, they relented and let him into the tower.  He climbed up the stairs and at a turn in the stairs saw an old board on floor, where it could be walked upon.  Picking it up, he found it was an icon of Mary.  The image was taken into the Church and cleaned, and a moleben, a formal prayer service, was held before it.  The peasant prayed earnestly, and some time after discovered that his limp was gone.

It is said that after this event, the icon was nearly forgotten until in 1830 Vologda was struck by a plague of cholera.  The local people took up the Semistrel’naya icon and also an old icon of the Dormition painted in 1437 and called the Semigradskaya or Semigorodnaya (“Seven Cities,” also known as the “Transylvanian” icon), and carried them both around the city in formal procession.  Gradually, it is said, the number of people sick with cholera diminished, and eventually the plague stopped.

The Vologda Semistrel’naya icon was painted on canvas glued to a board.

There is also an icon type depicting Mary with swords at left and right of her breast — usually three to the left and four to the right — called the Жиздринская Страстная — Zhizdrinskaya-Strastnaya — the “Zhizdra ‘Passion'” icon, named after the city of Zhizdra in Kaluga Province, where the original was kept in the Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral.  This icon differs from the others in showing Mary with her swords above the dead body of Jesus. The original “Zhizdra” icon — purported to be very old — was lost, and the current icon under that title venerated in that city was painted in 2003 after old photographs, and is kept in the John of Kronstadt- Holy Protection church.  That accounts for the recent date of most icons of this type.  The Zhizdrinskaya-Strastnaya icon also is called  “A Sword Shall Pierce through your Own Soul Also” (И Тебе Самой душу пройдет оружие/I Tebe Samou Dushu Proidet Oruzhie).


You think we are done?  No, you will have to endure a bit more of this.

There is an uncommon variant of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” that has three swords at left, four at right, and the child Jesus where usually the seventh sword is found below:


Now to confuse matters further, there is a variant of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” called the Умягчение Злых Сердец, Скорбящая — Umyagchenie Zluikh Serdets Skorbyashchaya — the “‘Suffering’ Softener of Evil Hearts.”


This variant has only a single sword piercing Mary’s heart from the right.  Compare this with the one-sword type known as the Vasilkovskaya:


If you can just manage to hold on a bit longer before you leave your keyboard and run to have a snack, here is something to confuse matters even more:

There is another icon type also called the “Softener of Evil Hearts.”  And it is nothing like the type with swords.  Here it is:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This type is actually a copy of the  Рудненской-Ченстоховской — Rudenskaya-Chenstokhovskaya — icon that has become known under this “Softener” title.  It is said to have “appeared” in 1687 in the village of Rudnya in Mogilev Province (now in Belarus).

You will notice that in the crown of Mary in this type we see a representation of Mary mourning over the body of her dead son Jesus, which of course takes us right back to the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a slight variation on #7, Mary holding the body of her son.

Now as you can imagine, Russian icon painters occasionally got confused by the differences in titles and the number and placement of swords, so expect variations in this group of icon types, as well as some misidentification in the literature.

Now go have your snack.  And ask yourself why you spent so much time reading this, though it probably won’t do any good.  You will likely be back for the next posting on another esoteric subject.


A frequent secondary figure in icons, as well as having her own icons, is Mariya Egipetskaya — Mary of Egypt.

She is usually easily recognized from her ascetic appearance.  She is often depicted partly or completely nude, though any trace of sensuality is absent due to abstraction of the form, as is common in traditional icons.

Here is the central portion of an icon of Mary of Egypt:

The image typifies the tendency of later Old Believer images to maintain stylization of the human form while moving toward more realism in background landscapes, an influence from western European painting.  We can tell this is an Old Believer image by looking at the position of the fingers of Mary’s right hand.  This blessing position was a mark of “Old Ritualist” belief in contrast to the innovations of the State Church.    People tend to forget that the majority of icons one thinks of as “typically Russian” from the late 17th through early 20th centuries were actually painted by Old Believers, generally considered heretical by the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, which favored increasing realism during that period.

But back to Mary.  Who exactly was she?  Her dates vary from the 4th to the 6th century. Her story was supposedly not written down until the first half of the 7th century.   Suffice it to say that there is much room for historical doubt.

The traditional hagiographical story of her life relates that an elder named Zosima, as the result of advice from an angel, went first to a monastery near the Jordan River, then out into the desert beyond.  There, after 20 days of wandering and praying, he saw a strange form off in the distance, with sun-darkened skin and very white hair.  He walked to meet the person, but whoever it was ran away from him.  Zosima chased after the stranger, and when he got close enough to be heard, he shouted out to it to stop in the name of God.

The figure paused and replied that she (it was a woman) could not turn to face him because she was naked.  She asked to borrow his cloak so that she might come to him and receive his blessing.  He threw her his cloak and turned away as she put it on to partly cover herself, and then the two came together and talked.

First there was a bit of “no, you go first” over who was to bless whom.  Then Zosima asked Mary to pray, and closed his eyes as she did so.  The prayer seemed to go on and on, and Zosima, wondering when it was going to end, opened his eyes and looked at Mary, and was astonished to see that she was floating in the air some two feet off the ground.  He thought she might, after all, be some kind of spirit, but Mary finished her prayer and assured him she was just a “sinful woman.”

Zosima asked her to tell who she was and why she was there.

She did not tell him her name, but said she was born in Egypt.  When young and attractive, she had gone to the great city of Alexandria, and there she led a life of unrestrained sensuality.  She was rather a nymphomaniac, and had sex with countless men, not for money, but just because of the urge to do it.

One summer day she saw a large crowd of people going to the sea.  She asked what was happening, and found they were taking a ship to Jerusalem to be present at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  Mary was suddenly seized with a desire to go, and though she had no money, she planned to pay her passage by sex.  Mary spent the journey having sex with men aboard ship, and when she got to Jerusalem she continued, with as many men as she could get.

She was still chasing after young men in Jerusalem when she saw a crowd of people on their way to the church for the Festival of the Exaltation.  She followed them, and when they went into the church she tried to follow, but for some reason found she could not enter.  She could only get as far as the porch.  No matter how she tried, something would not let her through the church doorway.

It finally dawned on Mary that she was not being allowed to enter the church and see the ritual of the Elevation of the Cross because of her sensuous lifestyle.  She was very repentant, and, seeing an icon of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the porch, she prayed to her in tears, saying she was sorry for her sensual habits, and that if she were allowed to go in and see the true cross, she would give up her life of sex.

As these stories go, when she tried again to enter the church after her prayer, she found it possible.  She went in and saw the cross and the ceremony, and when she came out again, she went to the icon of Mary in the porch of the church, the place where she had made her vow. Then, while praying before it she heard a voice.  It said,

Go beyond the Jordan and you will find glorious rest.

A stranger gave her three coins, and with them she bought three loaves of bread.  Then Mary set off, and when she came to the Jordan River she took a boat across and went into the desert.  There she lived a life of extreme asceticism for some 17 years, fighting her “worldly” desires with prayer and lack of food.  Her clothes wore out, so she went naked, burned by the sun and chilled by the cold.  Eventually, she at last seemed so see a light that filled her with peace.

Zosima asked her about her reading of holy books, and she replied she had none, that  she did not learn from books or from men; in fact she had seen no one at all since she came to the desert.  She said what she knew came from the “Word of God, which is alive and active.”

Zosima was of course terribly impressed by all of this.  Mary seemed to even know the rules of the Monastery near the Jordan from which Zosima had come into the desert, and asked him to bring her some of the monastery Eucharistic bread and wine a year from then, but not to tell anyone about her during that time.  Then she walked off into the desert again.

A year later Zosima did as she had asked.  He took some of the Eucharistic bread and wine, as well as some other food, and went alone to the Jordan river to wait for her arrival.  While he waited, he wondered how she would get to him, because there seemed to be no boat anywhere in sight.

It was a moonlit night, and eventually he saw Mary appear on the opposite bank.  She made the sign of the cross, then stepped onto the river and walked across, her feet treading the surface as though it were solid.

Zosima, filled with reverence, gave Mary the Eucharist, but of the other food she took only three grains.  Then she asked him to come again the same time the following year and said he would see her again.  Then she once more made the sign of the cross, walked across the water back to the opposite side of the river, and vanished into the desert.

The next year, when he returned to the desert to look for her, he saw a body lying on the opposite bank.  It was Mary.  He wept and said the appropriate prayers, and found she had left a note written in the soil for him, telling him her name was Mary, and that she had died after receiving the Eucharist the previous year.  So her body had not only been preserved for a year, but it had been transported (miraculously, we are to suppose) to where it was found by Zosima.  The note asked that he bury her body.  He was not sure how to go about it, being old and without any tools.  He found a piece of wood and tried to scrape into the ground, but it was hard and dry.  He kept at it, scratching away and sweating, but with little result.  Then he raised his eyes, and saw a lion was standing by Mary’s body, licking her feet.

At first Zosima was very afraid, but the lion made no sign of being anything but friendly, and walked over to him.  Zosima spoke to the lion, explaining that he was asked to bury the body but had great difficulty in doing so; he requested that the lion use his claws to dig a grave.  The lion was amenable, and with his great paws scraped away enough soil to make a grave.  Mary was laid in it with the cloak Zosima had given placed over her, then the body was covered up with earth.  The lion wandered off back into the desert.

Zosima returned to the monastery and told the whole story of Mary, her life, miracles, and death.  The monks passed the tale on orally,  until eventually, it is said, a certain Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote it down.

Such stories as this were the novels of pre-modern Eastern Orthodox (though of course large numbers could not read at all).  These tales of saints had sex, danger, adventure (if heavily on the ascetic side), and wonders.  So it is not surprising that a story like that of Mary of Egypt made a big impression, causing her to be painted in many icons.

In the central image above, we see Mary and Zosima conversing together in the background, as well as Mary walking across the Jordan and the lion licking Mary’s feet and digging her grave.

If we look at the whole icon of which this is a part, we see many more scenes of her life in the cells of the outer borders, from her seeing the crowds going to the ship at Alexandria  to her inability to enter the church in Jerusalem, and on through the whole tale of her discovery by Zosima and their meeting.  Icons such as this one “with the life,” that is with all the scenes illustrating the story, were the equivalent in those days of our modern “graphic novels,” what used to be called comic books.

Here is the cell showing Zosima wandering in the desert and seeing Mary for the first time.  Do not be surprised that the desert does not look much like a desert.  Russian icon painters only knew a desert as a “deserted” place, a wilderness, and so there are often lots of trees and shrubs in icon desert scenes.

It is common practice in icons to show the same person more than once in a scene to indicate continuing, narrative action.  So at right we see Zosima casually walking along, and at at left we see him discovering Mary off in the distance (which does not look so distant here).







Today we will take a look at the icon type of the Terrible Judgment.  Some versions are simple, others, like this one, more complex.  This example bears the title inscription OBRAZ STRASHNAGO SUDA BOZHIYA — “Image of the Terrible Judgment of God.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the discussion today we will look at elements both from that icon and from another similarly complex but slightly different example.  We will begin with the icon shown below, which bears the longer title inscription VTOROE PRISHESTVIE GOSPODA NASHEGO IISUSA KHRISTA SUDITI ZHIVUIM I MERTVUIM — “The Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to Judge the Living and the Dead.”

The iconography of the “Terrible Judgment” comes from both the New and Old Testaments, primarily from the Apocalypse (“Revelation of John”) and the book of Daniel.  It also uses elements from Patristic tradition, etc.

Let’s look at the upper segment:

In the center circle sits enthroned  Lord Sabaoth, God the Father represented as an old man.  The Holy Spirit as a dove is just to the left of his head.  Ranks of angels are in the circle around him.  To his left is the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Righteous seated at banquet tables within it.  To the right of the central circle two angels hold a scroll upon which are the sun and moon.  This represents the heavens being “rolled up like a scroll” at the end of the world.  Below that, Jesus, in a cloudy mandorla approaches God the Father before going to preside over the Last Judgment.  In the smaller circle at right, we see “war in Heaven,” with the good angels defeating and casting out the evil angels.

Let’s move down to the next segment:


In the central circle Jesus is enthroned as the Judge.  To the left of the circle stands Mary, and to the right John the Forerunner (the Baptist); they are interceding with Jesus, asking mercy for humanity.  Just below Mary kneels the “first man” Adam (according to the Genesis story) and kneeling below John the Forerunner is the “first woman” Eve.

Standing at left and right are angels, and seated below the angels are the Twelve Apostles, who take part in the judgment, holding opened books.

Now to the next segment:

At center two angels stand by the altar table, the “Throne” of judgment, on which are placed the spear, sponge, and cross of the Passion of Christ, with the book containing the record of the good and bad deeds of humans, and also on the table is the “garment of Christ”; just below, a great hand — the “Hand of God” — holds a scale suspended, weighing the good and bad deeds of humans.  This is an ancient notion that can be traced to ancient Egyptian art and belief, in which the “heart” of the dead was weighed against a feather, representing righteousness, “truth.”

Held in the curved fingers of the great Hand of God are souls of the righteous.

At left is a crowd of Eastern Orthodox, while at right, just beyond the Old Testament Prophet Moses, is a group of “Heterodox,” those with other beliefs.

Here is the central image:

It depicts a great serpent, representing Sin, which twists all the way from Hell up to the altar “Throne.”  All along it are rings that represent the tollhouses of the afterlife, places high in the air where the soul of the departed is examined by demons for various sins, each of which is represented by a different tollhouse circle.  If the soul has committed that sin but has not sufficiently repented and does not have the defense of angels and the prayers of the living, it is taken to Hades for punishment.  This serpent with tollhouses apparently began appearing in Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” in the latter part of the 1400s; previously it was absent.

The notion of stages of examination of the soul after death also comes from ancient Egyptian belief, in which the soul was examined by 42 judges, each for one of 42 different misdeeds, before the weighing of the heart in the balance.  The early Gnostics had a belief that the soul, in order to reach the divine Pleroma (“Fullness”) after death, had to rise through the air and get past the seven hostile archons (“rulers”), which were derived from the seven planets (the moon and sun were numbered among the planets, though only five were known then).

Here is a detail from the first icon above, showing the weighing of the soul’s bag of good deeds against his bad, with little red devils doing their best to weigh down the scale in the favor of evil:

For comparison, here is an ancient Egyptian depiction of the weighing of the heart:

The figure at left is Anubis, a god of the afterlife.  At right is the god Thoth, scribe of the Underworld, ready to record the results.  The monster by the scale waits to eat the heart if the result is unfavorable.  The heart is in the scale at left (in a jar), and in the pan on the right is the feather of Truth.

But back to the Russian type:

In the circle at left, the Prophet Daniel is shown a vision of the Four Kingdoms, represented by the animals in the pinkish circle at upper right.  In the large circle at right, earth and sea give up their dead.  In the following image (from the first icon above) a lion coughs up people he has eaten as a man at right rises from his tomb

The rings on the serpent are inscribed with the names of sins.

In another detail from the first icon, fish vomit up the people they have eaten:

On to the next segment:

At left, Mary is seatied between two angels.  In the upper circle at right as already mentioned, are the animal symbols of the four kingdoms seen in the Old Testament vision of Daniel, and at right earth and water giving up their dead.

Here is the bottom segment:

At right, the Devil is seated on a monster in Hell, bearing the naked soul of Judas Iscariot on his lap.  Judas is holding the bag of silver he received for betraying Jesus.  Here is a detail of that from the first icon above:

Below him are subterranean chambers with condemned souls being tortured for various sins.  At center is a figure naked except for a loincloth, and bound to a pillar.  At left the righteous stand at the Gates of Paradise, beyond which are seen the Repentant Thief Rakh inside Paradise, and seated there are the Old Testament Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  You will recall them from the icon type of the “Forefathers in Paradise,” as seen in this detail from the first icon above.  Each holds a crowd of righteous souls against his bosom:

In the right side panel we see angels casting “dark angels” out of Heaven and into the fiery Hell below.

In the left panel we see monks, given wings and flying up to heaven.

We can finish this discussion of the iconography of the “Terrible Judgment” with a closer look at the odd little figure in the center of the bottom segment.  Naked except for a cloth about his waist, he is bound to a pillar.  Placed outside the punishments of Hell, he is also outside the joys of Paradise.  He is the so-called “Gracious Fornicator” ( Милостивый блудник/Milostivuiy Bludnik):

His story comes not from the Old or New Testament, nor even from the Apocrypha.  Instead, it is found in the old Russian Prologue (Greek Synaxarion), an account of Church Saints and festivals, under August 12th.

There it is said that in Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Leo the Isaurian, there was a wealthy man who was very active in charitable donations to the the poor.  But it seems he had a great deal of trouble “keeping it in his pants,” as the saying goes.  He spent much of his life having repeated sex without benefit of marriage.

When this charitable man died, there was a lot of  speculative discussion; Herman, Patriarch of Constantinople, and other bishops conversed and discussed, trying to decide what the fate of this man in the afterlife would be, if he would be “saved” or not.  They could not agree on whether he would go to Paradise for his good deeds, or to Hell because of his fondness for sex.  Finally the matter was settled when a  hermit, after much prayer, supposedly had a vision of the fellow’s fate.  He said that he saw the man tied to a pillar between Paradise and the flames of Hell, and the man was bitterly weeping.  An angel appeared and told the bound man that because of his charitable deeds he was spared from Hell, but because of his repeated sex outside marriage, he was also excluded from Paradise.  The Patriarch used this as an object lesson to show that people should avoid extramarital sex.


Today’s icon type, the Derzhavnaya (“Reigning”) image, was painted at the end of the 18th-beginning of the 19th century. It is very westernized in appearance.

Its form, with the rounded top, shows that it was once in an iconostasis, the big icon screen that separates the congregation from the altar in Russian churches.

It is not difficult to see that it was painted on three boards joined together; the cracks separating them are quite obvious, and the image itself shows considerable signs of wear on the paint surface.  Unlike traditional icons, it seems to have been painted in oils.

As for the iconography, it depicts Mary seated on a throne, holding a scepter in her right hand and a large globe in her left; these are symbols of ruling authority.  Christ Immanuel is seated on her lap, blessing with his right hand and holding his  left palm facing upward above the globe.  There is no inscription other than the common abbreviation MP ΘΥ (Meter Theou = “Mother of God”) written in the style of the period.  In the clouds above Mary is an unusually large depiction of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth”).

Though it was painted near the beginning of the 19th century, this icon did not “appear” until the year 1917.  You will recall that “appearance” (yavlenie) in the jargon of Eastern Orthodox Marian icons, means the time when an icon first manifests itself as supposedly miraculous.  It generally has nothing to do with when the icon was first painted.

A common motif in the appearance of Marian icons is the message received in a dream, and that is what we find in the origin story of the Derzhavnaya type.

The story tells us that a woman named Evdokia Adrianova had a dream on the 13th of February in the year 1917.  In it, she heard a voice saying:

“In the village of Kolomensk there is a big, black icon.  Take it, make it red, and let there be prayer.”

Two weeks later on February 26th, she had another dream.  In it she saw a white church, and in the church was a majestic woman whom Evdokia felt to be Mary.  So she traveled to Kolomensk, and there saw the Ascension Church, which she recognized as the white church in her dream.  She went to the home of the rector, Nikolai Likhachev, and told him her dream and asked what to do.

He took her to the church, and they began to search among its icons.  At first, in the sanctuary and on the iconostasis, nothing was found to match the dream image.  So they began searching up and down, and eventually, in the basement, stored with all kinds of junk, they came across an old and black icon.  They cleaned it up and an image of Mary seated on a throne and  holding signs of imperial authority, with her son on her lap, was revealed — and her robe was a bright red.  Krasnuiy in Russian means both “red” and “beautiful.”

The image, according to church records, had been brought to Kolomensk for storage in 1812, the year of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.

Word of the supposedly miraculous event quickly spread, and soon pilgrims began coming to the Ascension Church to see the icon. Additional miracles began to be attributed to it.  The icon was taken out now and then to make “royal visits” to various sites in the area, including other churches and factories.  Because Mary wears a crown and holds the symbols of royal authority, the image came to be called Derzhavnaya — “Reigning.”

Now it happened, so the story goes, that the day of the “appearance” of the icon — of its finding in the Church of the Ascension — happened also to be the day (March 2nd or 15th, depending which calendar is used) on which Tsar Nicholas II abdicated.  This is taken by Russian monarchists and nationalists as a sign that when Nicholas laid down his imperial authority, it was taken up by Mary, as shown by the imperial symbols she holds.  Mary was now guiding and ruling “Orthodox Russia.”  Of course the new Soviet regime was not pleased by “monarchist” stories accompanying the icon; they put it away in a museum storage facility, and tried to prevent the adulation accorded it and its copies.  But things changed in Russia as decades passed, and on July 27, 1990, the icon was placed in the Kazan Church in Kolomensk.

All of this makes the Derzhavnaya icon type a subject of importance today to Russian nationalists and monarchists and to the extremists among them.





When I began this site, I did not know if anyone would read it. Now I am surprised at the numbers who do.

So far, I have tried to include information I would have wanted to know when I first began to research icons decades ago. Now is your chance to make suggestions about possible future topics here. What aspect of icons and their history would you like to see postings about? I make no guarantees, but I am certainly open to your ideas.

I am also, of course, interested in WHY people are reading this site. I already know that some of you are art restorers, some artists, some dealers in icons or collectors of icons, some are in educational institutions and some are interested in the history and interpretation of icons for various other reasons. So if you are a subscriber to the site or a regular reader, I would appreciate a note from you letting me know WHY you are here, with any other comments you may wish to make. Just click on the “Leave a Reply” link at the bottom of any posted article (including this one). And of course as usual, your comment will only be seen by me, unless you request otherwise.

Now, so that there will be at least some educational content in this posting, here is a late Russian icon. If you are a long-term reader here, you should be able to translate the inscriptions identifying the saints.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is the saint at left:


The inscription reads: Св МАРΘА — Sv[yataya] Marfa (“Holy Martha”); remember that the letter Θ, which is pronounced “th” in Greek, is pronounced “f” in Church Slavic and Russian, which have no “th” sound.

And here is the saint at right:


The inscription reads: Св МАРИЯ — Sv[ataya] Mariya (“Holy Mary”). Notice that in the icon inscription, the second to last letter is written as an I with two dots above it, and the last letter looks like a capital “A” with a vertical line down the center of the bottom; that is the old letter form for writing the “ya” sound. It is sometimes also written as an I connected by a horizontal line to an A.

If you are familiar with the Bible (which is a tremendous help in the study of icons), you will recognize these two women — Martha and Mary — as the subject of a well-known story:

Luke 10:38-42

38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he [Jesus] entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was bothered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said to her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Martha and Mary are also found in John 11:1-44 and 12:1-8


In yesterday’s posting,  I gave some quick tips on beginning to decipher “difficult” Church Slavic inscriptions — those that are not common and repetitive.

Church Slavic, however, is not used on Greek icons, which (rather obviously) use Greek in inscriptions.

Today we will look at a Greek icon useful in learning to transliterate and ultimately read Greek inscriptions.  It has many ligatures (letters joined together) common on Greek icons.

Before we look at the whole image, let’s examine the title inscription at the top:


It reads:

The Synod      of-the  Holy        Fathers

Keep in mind that the little apostrophe facing right above a letter means that in Classical Greek pronunciation it is preceded by an “h” sound.  But in later and modern Greek pronunciation that “h” sound is omitted.  And obviously, HAGION  is abbreviated here.

But what is the Synod of the Holy Fathers?  A Synod is a council.  This image represents the main figures involved in the First Council of Nicea, which declared that Jesus is God.  Of course the icon only shows us the winners.  Those who disagreed automatically became heretics.  The winners make the rules.  So essentially this is an image of the “Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea,” and examples often bear that title.

Here is the icon, a type associated with the “Sunday of the Holy Fathers” in the Eastern Orthodox Church Year:


We need only briefly examine the iconography.  The saints are not identified by title, but by appearance; they are:

At center: Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and became its patron (and incidentally also murdered his wife Fausta and had his son Crispus put to death as well as having his brother-in-law strangled and his nephew flogged to death; not a nice guy).

At far left with the “beehive” hat is Spyridon of Trimythous (though his beard is somewhat darker here than usual, and his hat, though its usual shape, is made more “fancy” than the customary shepherd’s “woven  basketwork” texture found in most of his images);

At left beside Constantine is (with the flat-ended beard) Athanasius the Great of Alexandria;

At right (beside Constantine) is Paphnutius the Confessor;

At far right is Alexander, Patriarch of Constantinople.

My real focus today, however is not on the iconography but rather on the large scroll with its lengthy inscription.

Common sense is a tremendous help in deciphering icon inscriptions.  We already know that this is an icon of the First Ecumenical Council.  And the ultimate result of that Council, traditionally, was the Nicene Creed, which Eastern Orthodox call the “Symbol of Faith.”  So it does not take a genius to guess that an icon of that council bearing a long text would be likely to feature the text of the Nicene Creed, and indeed that is precisely what we see here:

The whole point of this posting is to give you some practice in transliterating Greek and its ligatures.  I do not expect you to translate it, though you will probably recognize a word here and there if you have been paying attention to my postings on Greek icon inscriptions.

Here is the first line.  I have put joined letters in brackets and put expanded abbreviations in parentheses:




Now here is the whole thing (at least as much of it as is written on the scroll).  It is given first in capital letters, then in upper and lower case Greek with accents.  I have divided the lines to match the scroll so you will have an easier time in transliterating, and I have given a rough line-by-line translation so you will have an idea of what it all means.  You will notice that I have used the “modern” form of the letter Omega, which in the old inscription is Ѡ, but in modern Greek Ω:

Πιστεύω εἰς ἕνα Θεόν, Πατέρα, Παντοκράτορα, ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς,
Pisteuo eis hena Theon, Patera, Pantokratora, poieten ouranou kai ges,
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,

ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων.  Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν
horaton te panton kai aoraton.  Kai eis hena Kurion Iesoun Khriston, ton Huion
and of all things visible and invisible.  And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son

τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων·
tou Theou ton monogene, ton ek tou Patros gennethenta pro panton ton aionon.
of God the only begotten, the one from the Father born before all the ages.

ΦΏC ΕΚ ΦΩΤΌC, ΘΕΌΝ ΑΛΗΘΙΝΌΝ ΕΚ ΘΕΟΎ ΑΛΗΘΙΝΟΎ ΓΕΝΝΗΘΈΝΤΑ, ΟΎ φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ
phos ek photos, Theon alethinon ek Theou alethinou, gennethenta ou
light from light, true God from true God, begotten not

ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο.  Τὸν δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς
poethenta, homoousion to Patri, di hou ta panta egeneto.  Ton di hemas tous
made, of-same-substance-as the Father, through whom all things were made.   Who for us

ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν
anthropous kai dia ten hemeteran soterian katelthonta ek ton ouranon
men and for our salvastion came down from the heavens

καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς Παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρω-
kai sarkonthenta ek Pneumatos Haiou kai Marias tes Parthenou kai enanthro-
and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and Maria the virgin and became-


πήσαντα.  Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου,
pesanta.  Staurothenta te huper hemon epi Pontiou Pilatou,
man.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,

καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα…
kai pathonta kai taphenta…
and suffered and was buried…

Now if you have gotten through all of that, I shall be truly amazed.  Fortunately, most Greek icon inscriptions are much shorter. But keep in mind that this is just practice in learning to recognize and transliterate the letters of Greek, which is the step necessary to begin reading inscriptions.    And for that, recognizing ligatures (joined letters) is essential.

Most people have no idea at all how to transliterate a Greek inscription written in the old style with ligatures, so you can “be the first on your block,” as the old ads used to say.  Of course whether anyone else on your block will care or not is quite another matter.  They might just look on you as being a bit odd, and well, perhaps you are, given that you are reading this site!


Unless you are very interested in learning to read Church Slavic icon inscriptions (the kind of inscriptions found on most old Russian icons) you will probably want to overlook today’s posting.  You will likely be bored to tears.  And if you do find you have enough curiosity to read on, perhaps even all the way through, well, as psychologists say, recognizing your problem is the first step to overcoming it.  I am blameless.

Here is a Russian icon of the physician saint Panteleimon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

I have already discussed Panteleimon in a previous posting.   So my reason for showing this particular example is  not the saint himself, but rather the long border inscription.  It is useful in learning how to approach an unfamiliar Church Slavic inscription.  This inscription is not easy for beginners, but that is the point;  its difficulty enables me to tell you how to approach such a puzzle.

First you will want to know that most full-border icon inscriptions begin at upper left, then are read to the right, down the right side, and across the bottom from left to right (unless the bottom inscription is upside-down), and finally the left side is read from bottom to top. There are variations on this scheme, but even then the inscription usually begins at upper left.

Knowing that, we can put the whole border inscription together as it would commonly be read:





In attempting to translate this, we face the common difficulties found in Church Slavic inscriptions.  First, there are the individual peculiarities of calligraphic style.  Second, as is usual, all the words in the inscription run together, with no space between them to tell us where one word ends and another begins.

The key to solving such little mysteries is this:

1.  First, start at the beginning and look over the whole inscription from that point

2.  Look for any familiar words anywhere in the inscription.

If we follow that advice, we will begin at the upper left hand corner:


I hope by now you have learned to read the Church Slavic alphabet.  If you have not, you will find yourself of little use in reading icons.  So we begin by transliterating the first part of the inscription.  I will put it into modern Cyrillic letters:


Now into the Roman alphabet:


The first letter of the first word, P (“R” in  English) is in red.  If we transliterate the first four letters, we get


That is a very useful word to know.  it means “spoke,” as in “he spoke.”  It should be part of your basic inscription vocabulary.

Next comes a word you already know, though you may not know that you know it at first, because it is abbreviated.  It is, transliterated:


That abbreviates GOSPOD’, meaning  “Lord” or “The Lord” (remember that Church Slavic has no separate word for “the”).

So now we have two words:


Church Slavic word order is not the same as English.  Here the verb RECHE (“spoke”) comes before the person doing the speaking, GOSPOD’.  So the meaning of RECHE GOSPOD’ is “The Lord Spoke.”

The word following GOSPOD’ is missing one letter, which I will add.  The word is


An uchenik is a disciple.  UCHENIKOM not only tells us that there is more than one disciple by its ending, but it also tells us that it is the object of the verb “spoke.”  It means
“to disciples.”

The next word is SVOIM:  that means “his.”  So in the word order of Church Slavic, we now have:


We would say in English, “The Lord spoke to his disciples.”

The next word is also an abbreviation:


In modern Cyrillic it is


The last letter in the original that looks like “I” followed by “a” is actually a single sound, “YA.”  So we can transliterate the abbreviated word as


But we must know what it abbreviates.  It is the word


It means “saying.”

So now we know what the first five words of the inscription are:



Now that may not seem like much, given the length of the border inscription, but it is of tremendous help in determining what the rest of the unfamiliar inscription says.  Because it begins with “The Lord spoke to his disciples, saying…” we know it must be something Jesus said.  And of course what Jesus said is found in the New Testament, so we know that the inscription as a whole is likely to be found somewhere in the New Testament.

This is where knowledge of the Bible comes in handy.  There are many places in the New Testament where Jesus speaks to his disciples, saying something.  But what is that something here?  To find out, we return to step two of the translation key, which is to look for any familiar words anywhere in the inscription.

You might, for example, recognize this word in the right border:

It is ВЛАСТЬ, transliterated as VLAST’.  It means “power.”  So we know that “The Lord” (meaning Jesus) spoke to his disciples, and what he said had something to do with “power.”

The next step is simply to look up everywhere Jesus said something to his disciples about power.  And if we look it up first in an English Bible, that will give us the book, chapter and verse.  We can then use that to go to the same book, chapter and verse in the Church Slavic New Testament (these are available from the United Bible Societies and elsewhere).

Going through those two steps, we find this first in English:

Matthew 28:18-20 (King James Version)

18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.

19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

So now we have a chapter and verse to look up in the Church Slavic version.  The beginning is not literally the same as in our five-word icon inscription beginning, but it has much the same meaning, Jesus speaking to his disciples.   Going to the Slavic Matthew (Matfei), we find:





Now we just compare that, word by word, with the icon border inscription.  The result is that we find this is in fact what the inscription is saying, though the icon version begins with “AND THE LORD SPOKE TO HIS DISCIPLES, SAYING…” instead of  “AND COMING NEAR, JESUS SPOKE TO THEM, SAYING….”  Nonetheless, what Jesus said to his disciples is there and the same in both in the icon inscription and in the Church Slavic New Testament account in Matthew 28-20.  If we are careful, we can even see that the icon inscription ends at the top of the left-hand border with the broken-off word


meaning “[I] commanded.”

So the mystery is solved.  The whole icon border inscription can now be recognized and translated, and it says:


This process may seem rather tedious, and it often is, but hey, who said that anything beyond the most common inscriptions would be easy?  No one asked you to become interested in icons, did they?

Perhaps you would like to take up Chinese vegetarian cooking instead.