There are a number of what we might call “calendar” icons in Russian iconography.  There are “Year” icons, and “Month” icons for each month of the year, showing the main saints and festivals and their days of commemoration.  There are also “Week” icons.   Here is an example of the latter:

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

At first glance, it may appear to have nothing to do with the week; but that is because it represents the days of the week through standard iconographic types of church festivals.

There are also icons of the “Old Testament” days of Creation, ending with the seventh day on which God rests.  The type shown here may be considered the “New Testament” seven days.  Sometimes the two types are combined to make a more elaborate “Week” icon.

If you look carefully, you will see that the standard “Week” type contains seven separate images, one for each day of the week.  Six are at the top and upper sides, and the seventh takes up most of the lower half of the icon, as well as extending up between the lowest two of the upper “day” images.

Here is how they are arranged, with their corresponding days:

At top left is:
1. The Resurrection, representing Sunday.  Moving right, we come to
2.  The Assembly of the Archangels, representing Monday.  Then comes
3.  The Beheading of John the Forerunner, representing Tuesday (or John Baptizing, in some examples). Then
4.  The Annunciation, representing Wednesday.  Moving down to the left side, we have
5.  The Washing of the Feet [of the disciples of Jesus], for Thursday, then opposite it is
6.  The Crucifixion, representing Friday.  Finally, the large lower image is
7.  All Saints, representing Saturday.

In the “All Saints” portion, we see Jesus seated on his throne at the top (in Deisis form), and below him is the altar “throne,” prepared for the end of time and beginning of eternity.

At left and right are groups of saints, each group categorized by the Church Slavic term ЛИКЪ — lik, which we can loosely translate as “choir.”

Here is the left side:

The inscriptions identify them from top to bottom as

1.  The Choir of Prophets

2.  The Choir of Princes

3.  The Choir of the Holy Fathers

Here is the right side:

The inscriptions identify them as:

The Choir of Venerable Martyrs (monastic martyrs)

The Choir of the Blessed (holy fools, etc.)

The Choir of the Apostles

The “Saturday” or “All Saints” portion of the “Week” icon is also found, like the other “day” images, as a separate icon.  Here is one example of it, the type called Суббота всех святых — Subbota Vsekh Svyatuikh — “The Sabbath of All Saints.”  Subbota may be translated either as “Sabbath” or as “Saturday.”

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

To avoid confusion, you may also wish to know that there is another and quite different icon type sometimes popularly called a “Week” (Sedmitsa) icon.  It is the Deisis grouping   more properly classified in Russian as  “Спас с предстоящими” — Spas s predstoyashchimi, meaning roughly “The Savior with Bystanders,” the bystanders being the saints and angels grouped around the throne, rather than being in the strictly horizontal arrangement found in the Deisis of an iconostasis.  Here is an example of such an icon:

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

Figures commonly found in such a grouping (their number varies), in addition to Jesus, Mary, and John the Forerunner, may be the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, the Apostles Peter and Paul, Nicholas of Myra, John Chrysostom, John the Theologian (the Evangelist), Sergiy of Radonezh,  and as in this icon, the kneeling figures of Zosima and Savvatiy Solovetskiy at the foot of the throne.


One often sees later icons of certain members of the Russian Orthodox State Church clergy, saints not accepted by the Old Believers.  Given that they are State Church icons, they tend to have a very strong western European influence, which means they are painted more realistically than the traditional stylization in iconography favored by the Old Believers.  One of the commonly-seen figures is Mitrofan (Mitrophan) of Voronezh (1623-1703).

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

The very clear title inscription on this icon identifies him as:
S[vya]tuiy Mitrofan Voronezhskiy Chudotv[vorets]
“Holy Mitrofan, Wonder-worker of Voronezh”

He is called a “Wonder-worker” because it was said he could work miracles.

Voronezh is a city in southwestern Russia, and Mitrofan was made first bishop of that city.  Here is an 18th century view of it.  Note the abundance of churches:


There are cannons and stacks of cannonballs in the foreground, as well as a boat and another under construction.  This was the time of Peter the Great, who used Voronezh as a boat-building site for the fleet he used in the Russo-Turkish War in the campaign to capture the Turkish fortress of Azov.  Mitrofan was a strong supporter of Peter’s activities in that war.

Originally a married parish priest, Mitrofan became a monastic in 1663, after the death of his wife.  Three years later he was made head of a monastery, then in 1675 became an archimandrite.  In 1682 he was consecrated bishop of Voronezh.

Though Mitrofan was an avid supporter of the reforms and the military campaign of Peter the Great, he refused to visit the Tsar in his court, because he said there were “pagan idols” there — statues of classical deities.  It was only when Peter removed the statues that Mitrofan would come.  Not only an advisor of the Tsar, Mitrofan even contributed monetarily to the building of the Azov fleet.

At this point it is worth briefly mentioning the Azovskaya icon of Mary, even though it was created after the Russian victory on the Sea of Azov in a later campaign, the Austro-Russian–Turkish War (1735–39).  One can hardly find a more obvious symbol of how intimately connected Church and State had become in Russia:

Mary, with the child Jesus on her breast, stands before the Russian double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Russian State.  At left just above here is St. Peter, who calls to mind Peter the Great.  On the opposite side is the Evangelist John.  At her left and right stand the monks Antoniy and Feodosiy and Alipiy Pecherskiy as well as Moise (Moses) Ugrin, Prokhor, and Mark Pecherskiy.  At lower left, St. George slays a dragon, used here as a symbol of the defeat of the Ottoman Turks by Russia.    At the base is the Fortress of Azov.  It is the kind of icon favored by nationalists.

But back to Mitrofan.  Here is another icon of him:

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

Let’s take a quick look at the title inscription:

We see an abbreviated Svyatuiy for “Holy,” then Mitrofan is written in full (note the “t” above the “r”.  And it finishes with the abbreviated words Episko for Episkop, meaning “Bishop”  and Vorone for Voronezhskiy, meaning “of Voronezh.”  Remember that when you see the curved horizontal line above a word, it indicates an abbreviation.

Finally, let’s take a look at the text on the book he is holding:

It is a partial variant of one of Mitrofan’s best-known maxims:

Употреби труд, храни мерность — [богат будеши.] Воздержно пий, мало яждь — здрав [будеши. Твори благо, бегай злаго — спасен будеши].

“Do labour, keep a balance, and you will be rich. Drink temperately, eat little, and you will be healthy. Do good, shun evil, and you will be saved.

And here is another and similar icon, with the “Smolensk” Mother of God icon at upper left.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The inscription at the base reads:






Unless you are of Serbian background, it is unlikely that you have ever heard of the saint depicted in this fresco:


The pose is typical of that used in the Balkans for royal persons who have paid for the building of a church or monastery.  Here the saint offers to Jesus (seen at right) the Monastery of Dechani, in Serbia.

But who is this fellow?  If we look at a detail in an icon of him, we will soon find out.  And looking at the inscription is the point of this posting, because it will not only introduce a Serbian variant term, but also will remind you of the other aspect of Cyrillic letters.


Yes, this is a Serbian icon.  But if you have been keeping up with the postings on how to read inscriptions on Russian icons, this one should present only a couple of problems.

The title inscription, put all together, reads:


You should recognize СТЫИ as Svyatuiy, “Holy.”  And you should recognize СТЕФАН as the name Stefan, or “Stephen” in English form.  That leaves only КРЛЬ, ОУРОШЬ, and the lone letter Г.

КРЛЬ (abbreviation for КРАЉ), transliterated Kral’ (Kralj), means “monarch” or “king.”  The feminine form is краљица —kral’itsa  So when you see that word in that spelling used on an icon, the image is likely Serbian, not Russian, because Russians commonly use the word tsar’ (which also means “emperor”) for “king,” even though Russian does have the related word король — korol’ — meaning “king” (and sometimes “baron”).  Oddly enough, kral’ is related to the English name Charles, or in its Latin form Carolus/Carol.  Some people may think “Carol” only a female name, but originally it was a masculine name, which accounts for the 20th century King Carol of Romania.

ОУРОШЬ Ourosh — is a dynastic name, the name of a family.

Г — the single letter G — might really mystify you unless you recall that in Church Slavic, letters are used not only as sounds but also as numbers.  So the first three numbers in Church Slavic are:

А – 1
В – 2
Г – 3

Perhaps you have already figured it out.  The inscription reads:

“HOLY KING STEFAN UROSH [THE] THIRD,” the “3” here being for “Third.”

Stefan Urosh III (c. 1275-1331), was a Serbian king later made a saint in Serbian Orthodoxy.  He is also known as Стефан Дечански — Stefan Dechanski — Stefan of Dechani — because of the important monastery he built there (in Kosovo). Dechani Monastery, called Visoki –“High” Dechani), is today noted for its 14th century frescoes on the interior of a romanesque structure.

Stefan Urosh III had an interesting life (I won’t go into that today), though the story is somewhat barbaric in detail.




There is a term anyone studying Russian or Ukrainian icons should know.  In Russian it is:

БОГОМАЗ — Bogomaz

The plural is богомазы — bogomazui (in common transliteration bogomazy).

Bogomaz was a colloquial term for an icon painter.  It comes from the word  Бог (Bog), meaning “God,” and the verb мазать (mazat’), meaning “to daub or smear on something greasy or oily.”  It is the word used, for example, in smearing butter on bread.

The common English translation of bogomaz is “God-dauber.”  Though sometimes used (rather slightingly) of icon painters in general, it has come to be more specifically applied to painters without professional training, “self-taught” artists.  They were the kind we would refer to as “primitive” artists, because they were generally untaught or unskilled or both.  As I often say, the saints and other “holy” persons in Russian icons were the replacements for the old non-Christian gods, continuing polytheism in another context, so I like the term bogomazui because it reflects that.

Bogomazui, in the context of the modern study of icons, generally refers to “folk” or “village” icon painters who did not work in professional studios, and were likely not even to be full-time painters.  Instead they were often workers in other professions such as carpentry or blacksmithing.  They painted icons in their spare time to earn some extra money.

The bogomazui did not paint for a high-class, wealthy market, or for sophisticated customers.  Instead, they painted for ordinary people, for peasants with little money who nonetheless wanted to have an icon.  And as most peasants were illiterate in those days, the painter did not have to worry too much about mistakes in spelling and even the occasional mistake in iconography.

The likelihood of painter’s mistakes was increased by their habit of painting directly, without using a preliminary outline stencil or pattern, instead brushing on the figures freehand, generally using only a very small number of colors.  So there was a derogatory saying that the bogomazui were likely to paint

…Егорья пешком, а Пятницу на коне
“…Egoriy [Georgiy] on foot, and Pyatnitsa [Paraskeva] on a horse.”

That means they might get the iconography of even common saints wrong, such as by painting St. George, who is traditionally shown on horseback, on foot; and contrariwise, by painting the female patron saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa on horseback, though that is not at all her correct iconography.

They liked painting popular “folk” saints, such as Mary, Ilya (the prophet Elijah), Nikolai (St. Nicholas), and has we have seen, St. George and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, the kind of common saints prayed to for the daily needs of peasants, such as rain or good weather, for safety on rivers, in childbirth, for the protection of animals and fowl, and so on.

The bogomazui also sometimes used subjects that were not considered entirely “Orthodox” in the traditional sense, subjects picked up from Western religious art — the kind of thing present-day Eastern Orthodox fundamentalists like to call “uncanonical.”  But of course Western art had long had an influence on icon painting in one way or another.

Some Russians like to define bogomaz icons as simply “bad” icons, but in my opinion that is far too snobbish and certainly not always true, any more than self-taught painting from any country is always “bad.”

Bogomazui worked in many places, from Belarus in the West eastward through the Urals to Siberia, and as far south as the present-day Ukraine.  The range of their works is wide in quality, and can be stretched to include even some of the less expensive icon production in Kholui, one of the three main icon painting villages in Vladimir province.  Among them is a class of icons that are often quite pleasing — those icons with bright red borders and foliage-filled backgrounds and garments that look like old gold, but are really cheap silvery metal leaf covered with a tinted varnish to make it appear gold.  Real gold leaf was far too expensive for the “peasant” market, so on “God-dauber” icons it is either such false gold leaf or else tinfoil, or to make them even cheaper, no metal ornamentation at all.

Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, 19th c. (Kostroma Museum)
Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, 19th c. (Kostroma Museum)

Such Kholui “folk” icons were sold both locally and shipped off to far distant fairs and public markets, and that was where the works of the bogomazui were generally found — ready-painted in places where the peasant with a little money and a desire for an affordable “holy icon” could easily find and buy them.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
The Feodorovskaya type (Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Just as the geographical range of production of “folk” icons was wide, so was the range of styles; there is not just a single folk style.  A Ukrainian folk icon will look quite different than one painted in Siberia.  What they all have in common is that “primitive” look, and of course even among untrained painters there were those more naturally talented than others.

Though some folk icons were painted on the traditional gesso-covered cloth glued to a wooden panel, some bogomazui cut costs by either substituting paper for cloth, or else by eliminating the gesso ground entirely.  It was not uncommon for thinned oil paints to be used instead of the more traditional tempera.

Officials occasionally made attempts to somehow control the production of inexpensive folk icons, as in 1809 and 1858, when efforts were made to prohibit such icons in the Ukraine, or when in 1872 the Diocese of Orenburg attempted to prohibit the sale of “ugly-painted” icons (“безобразно писаных икон”).  But of course the key to the popularity of such icons was their low price, and so production was merely responding to and filling popular demand.  And high-quality icons were not, in any case, easily available in more isolated regions, even if one could afford them.

There was a time when all the icons of the bogomazui were looked upon with scorn by collectors, but just as icons of the 18th and 19th centuries were originally not appreciated but have since become quite desirable, the same has begun to happen with “folk” icons.  Some are easily able to take their place as pleasing and colorful examples of popular art, but one cannot say that of all of them.  So one must be discerning in judging among them, with many of the better examples having artistic and monetary value as folk objects, but some remaining merely of interest as “antique” — and still of little worth.  A great many inexpensive and quickly-painted icons were produced just in the marshy village of Kholui in the 19th century — some two million icons a year, it is estimated.

There is an interesting and rather bizarre rumor that spread about among the Old Believers in the 19th century.  It was said that one had to be careful, because some bogomazui involved in Black Magic would paint a kind of icon called a “Hades-painted” icon (Адописная икона), often translated into English as a “Hell” icon.  It was said that such a sly and evil person would first paint an icon with the image of the Devil or devils, and would then apply a ground of gesso over that to hide it.  On top of this second ground, he would paint a saint or saints, so that when one prayed before such an icon, one was actually praying to the Devil.  Though there seems no solid evidence to confirm the existence of such images, the story gives a good idea of the kind of thinking among less-educated believers in the 19th century.  And of course it would have been a useful story for the higher-priced professional studios to promote about their cheaper rivals.

Never forget that icon painting was a business, and a very big one in Russia.




Here is a Marian icon, still with its discolored varnish:

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

I hope you recognize it as the left panel from a three-panel Deisis set of icons.  As you will recall, the central icon in such a set is the image of the “Lord Almighty,” and the right panel is John the Forerunner, or John the Baptist as he is called in the West.

The image shows Mary approaching Jesus, acting as go-between in praying for the world (and in the mind of the believer, approaching Jesus with the prayers of the person praying before the icon).

We should take a look at her scroll in this type, because it has a common inscription that you should add to your repertoire of standard texts.  It reads (put into modern Cyrillic):

Владыко Многомилостиве, Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне и Боже Мой,
Vladuiko Mnogomilostive, Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine I Bozhe Moi,
“Master -most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ,  Son  and God of-me,
приклони ко Мне ухо Твое, ибо аз молю за мир.
prikloni ko Mne ykho Tvoe, ibo az moliu za mir.
bend to me  ear of-you, for I  pray for [the] world.

In normal English,
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, My Son and my God, incline your ear to me, for I pray for the world.”

You can see that several words are abbreviated in the icon text, as is common. This “left panel” type of Mary is of course just a smaller form of her image in the more detailed Desis icon found in a church iconostasis (the big icon screen separating congregation from altar in Russian Orthodox Churches).  But this type is also very closely related to the image of Mary in the type known as the Bogoliubskaya: There are several Bogoliubskaya variants, depending on figures added to the right of Mary.  In the example shown here, there are several saints associated with Moscow, such as the four Metropolitans of Moscow Petr (Peter), Alexiy, Iona (Jonah), and Filipp (Philip) as well as the Holy Fool Alexiy, Man of God.

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

Added at the top are the two popular saints and patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus)  The “Moscow” saints give this Bogoliubskaya variant the secondary name “Moskovskaya” — “Of Moscow.”  So this is the “Moscow” variant of the Bogoliubskaya type.  But look at Mary’s scroll.  It begins exactly the same as the Marian “left panel” icon, only in this example it is shortened for reasons of space, and every word except mnogolostivе  is abbreviated:

Владыко Многомилостивый, Господи Иисусе Христ[е]…
“Master most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ….

If we look at the right panel from this Deisis set, we find it is the standard type of John the Forerunner:

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

John is holding a scroll with one of the two most common texts used not only in this right-panel type but also in icons of John in general.  It is:

Покáйтеся, при­­ближибося цáр­ст­вiе небéсное…
Pokaitesya, priblizhibosya tsarstvie nebesnoe
Repent, has-drawn-near [the] kingdom [of] heaven

In normal English,

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”

The other common text for John is “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

As you see, John is pointing at the child Jesus lying in the liturgical vessel, representing the “Lamb” — the piece of bread considered to be the “body of Christ” in the Eastern Orthodox Eucharist.

Finally, let’s take a look at the central Deisis panel, which is the “Lord Almighty,” Jesus seen as ruler in the heavenly court:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Now we might expect the text on his book to be the most common “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):

Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéн­нiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́
Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui

Obviously, however, this example does not have that most frequent text.  It cannot be, because the text on this icon is prefaced with the words

Речé  Госпóдь сво­и́мъ ученикóмъ …
Reche Gospod’ svoim” ychenikom” …
Spoke [the] Lord [to] of-him disciples…
“The Lord said to his disciples…”

And then it quotes the text of  Matthew 11:27:

Вся́ мнѣ́ преданá сýть Отцéмъ мо­и́мъ: и никтóж[е знáетъ Сы́на, тóкмо Отéцъ]….
Vsya mnye predana sut’ Otsem” moim” : i niktozh [e znaet” Suina, tokmo Otets”…]
All [to] me handed-over is [by] Father of-me: and no one [ knows the Son but the Father…] “All things have been committed to me by my Father: and no one [knows the Son except the Father…]

So this particular icon of the “Lord Almighty” uses the verse just preceding the most common text used on the Russian type.

As an added note, a reader asked me why Russian icons, as in this example, put a little T above the letter that in a Greek icon would be the standard letter omega (ω) in the customary Ho On (ὁ ὢν = “The One Who Is”) inscription on “Jesus” icons.

The Russians have come up with all sorts of fanciful explanations for this, saying the three letters abbreviate this or that Church Slavic phrase.  Some priests even tell children that the T is the “cross atop the crown of Christ” — the omega roughly forming the “crown.”  But the real answer is apparently that a few centuries ago, Russian iconographers did not commonly understand Greek, so when they saw the accented omega in ὢν on a correctly inscribed icon, they just replaced it (apparently beginning in the early 1400s) with the Slavic letter that had a little T mark above it, which happens to be the abbreviation for the word ot (“from”) in Church Slavic:


And the miswriting was perpetuated in countless copies.  From the ordinary Russian point of view, if that was the way it was passed down, that was the way it should be.  A fundamentalist Protestant likes to respond to religious questions with “It’s in the Bible.”  A traditional Russian Orthodox believer would respond, “That’s the way our fathers handed it down to us.”

You might not yet have noticed another little difference between the inscriptions on the Greek Pantokrator halo and the Russian Gospod’ Vsederzhitel (“Lord Almighty”) halo.  While the three letters in the three bars of the cross are read from left to top to right in Greek icons, in Russian icons they are generally moved so that the O is at the top, the OT is at left, and the N is at right.

Now you have an easy, rule-of-thumb way of distinguishing Russian icons of Jesus from Greek.  But of course the text in the open book is another obvious tip-off.