The Pokrov or “Protection of the Mother of God” is a church festival that is celebrated in Russia on October 1st.  Its origin lies in the story that in the year 902 (some say 911) c.e., the people of Constantinople gathered in the Church of the Vlakhernae (Blachernae), fearing a military invasion; some say the invaders were saracens (muslims), some say a fleet of northerners from what was then called Rus.  During the all-night prayer vigil, Андрей Юродивый — Andrei Yurodivuiy — Andrei  the “Holy Fool” — supposedly had a vision in which he saw Mary standing in the church, taking off her veil, and holding it over the congregation as a covering sign of her protection.  With her were various saints and angels.

The Vlakhernae Church was the repository for several supposed relics of Mary — her veil, her robe, and at least a portion of her belt.

The Feast of the Protection/Covering was promoted in Russia by the 12th-century Andrei Bogoliubskiy (later declared a saint), who is said to have had his own vision of Mary protecting Russia, so the Pokrov is also seen as a “national” icon.

Let’s look at the title inscription:

It reads:

The bracketed letters are those omitted by abbreviation.
Transliterated, it is:

You should remember the word Obraz, meaning “image.”
Pokrova is the “of” form of Pokrov.  Pokrov means “protection,” but also “covering” or “shroud.”
Presvyatuiya, as you will recall from previous postings, is the “of” form of Presvyataya (f.), “Most Holy.”
Bogoroditsui is the “of’ form of Bogoroditsa, meaning “God-Birthgiver,” or in English order, “Birthgiver of God.”  It is the Slavic equivalent of the Greek Theotokos.  Because “Birthgiver of God” is awkward in English, it is usually loosely translated as “Mother of God.”  So, putting all of this together, the inscription reads:


The Pokrov may be sparingly depicted, with only a few figures, sometimes only with Mary holding her veil; but many examples are quite detailed, such as that shown here:

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

We see Mary appearing in the air in the center of the church (it is an interior view), with apostles at left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at right with more saints, including various Church Fathers, and above them are angels.  In this example Mary looks toward Jesus at upper left.  She holds a scroll, which the podlinniki tell us should read:

Царю небеснии сыну и боже мой приими всяаго человека призывающаго имя твое и мое на всяком месте…

Heavenly King, my son and God, receive every man who calls on your name and mine in every place…

Below, crowded between the fellow on the  ambo (dais) and the separate scene at lower right, stands the Holy Fool Andrei (Andreas/Andrew), pointing out the vision to his disciple Epifaniy (Epiphanios)

There are two odd things about the Pokrov type:  first, it is given far more importance by Russians than by Greeks.  Second, it contains scenes some four hundred years apart.

The Pokrov, as already mentioned, is said to have happened in the early 900s.  But that fellow in deacon’s garments standing on the dais at lower center is Roman (Romanos) the Melodist, called in Russia Роман Сладкопевец — Roman Sladkopevets — “Roman the Sweet-singer” —  who lived in the late 400s-early 500s c.e.  His story is that he led the singing in an all-night vigil, but after the others left he was unhappy with his talents, and prayed to have a voice worthy of singing the praises of Mary.  He fell asleep in the church and had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and gave him a scroll to eat (that is the scene at bottom right).  He awoke, and later again sang in the church, and all were amazed at his voice.  He wrote a great many church melodies with words (kontakia).

To the left of Roman stands Patriarch Tarasiy (Tarasios) of Constantinople, and to his left is the byzantine Emperor Leo VI, in whose reign the pokrov supposedly happened; and just above Leo is his wife, Empress Zoe.

Here is a rather grand rendition of the “Pokrov” icon that adds the figure of Jesus with angels and seraphim above Mary.  This example places Emperor Leo at lower left, and wife Empress Zoe at lower right.  On the church we see the five domes of a Russian-style church, and at right an additional dome on the bell tower.

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

Here is a version painted with more flatness of color and less sparkle.

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

Now we have to consider why the Pokrov was considered an important festival in Russia.  The reasons might surprise you.

First, coming in the autumn, it happened when the harvesting of crops had ended, and ordinary people finally had time for other things, chief among them weddings.  So the Pokrov marked the beginning of the “marrying season” in Russia.

This, of course, put the thought of future marriage in young girls’ heads, and so on the Pokrov they would light a candle before the icon in church.  It was said that the first girl to light her candle would be the first to marry.  Prayers were said to “Father Pokrov” (note how the festival is anthropomorphized) and to Paraskeva Pyatnitsa (a patron of marriage), asking that the girl’s head might be “covered” (thus the connection with Mary covering the congregation with her veil).  But by this they were asking to be married, because married Russian women covered their hair in public.

So this concept of pokrov — of covering — took on a symbolic meaning in Russian life, and was associated with nature, because the October date of Pokrov made it the time of year with the earth began to be covered in dead leaves, and the early snow fell to protect the ground through the harshness of winter, white as the cloth covering a maiden’s head at marriage.

There is much more to be said about the Pokrov and the customs and beliefs associated with it in Russian folk life.  If such things interest you, an excellent book to read is Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, (Glas, English translation 2007) by Andrei Sinyavsky.  The book is rich in information relating to icons in Russia.

The liturgical phrase generally associated with the Pokrov is the kontakion for the feast, tone 3, generally found on the scroll held by Roman the Melodist:

“Дева днесь предстоит в Церкви, и с лики святых невидимо за ны молится Богу: ангели со архиереи покланяются, апостоли же со пророки ликовствуют: нас бо ради молит Богородица Превечнаго Бога”

“The Virgin today stands in the church, and with choirs of invisible saints prays to God for us.  Angels and bishops [literally arch-priests] venerate her, apostles with prophets rejoice, because for our sake the Mother of God prays to the God before the ages.

In icons of Roman shown alone (not Pokrov icons), the text on the scroll he holds is usually the Christmas (Nativity) kontakion, considered his first composition:

“Дева днесь Пресущественнаго раждает, и земля вертеп Неприступному приносит, Ангели с пастырьми славословят, волсви же со звездою путешествуют, нас бо ради родися Отроча Младо, Превечный Бог”.

“The Virgin today gives birth to the One Above all, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable; angels with shepherds praise, and Magi journey with the star.  For our sake is born the youthful boy, God before the ages.”

The story that Mary gave Romanos a scroll to eat, after which he could sing and compose well, relates to the word for his verse/hymn form, and later to that of others as well — kontakion.  It is said to come from the Greek κόνταξ — kontax — meaning the wooden rod around which a scroll was wound.  It could thus be used to mean a scroll or a writing on a scroll, and so from the legend of the scroll Romanos supposedly ate, we get kontakion as a name for the verse/hymn form.  At least that is the supposition.

As you can see from the examples on this page, the saints and their numbers in Pokrov images vary from icon to icon of the type.

As mentioned earlier, the Pokrov is celebrated on October 1.  Further, Andrei the Holy Fool is celebrated on October 2nd, and Romanos the Melodist is celebrated on October 14th.


Here is an icon of one of the “special needs” saints, Kharlampiy.  The Greeks call him Χαράλαμπος  — Kharalambos.  He was considered the fellow to pray to for protection from plagues and fevers, etc.  As with the old pre-Christian gods, it was considered risky not to properly commemorate him, because he was likely to take revenge for the slight by releasing the plague on you.

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

The image shows Kharlampiy in the center, and at the sides are four scenes from the traditional account of his martyrdom in the 3rd century.

We are looking at Kharlampiy today for a different reason, however.  We want to to translate the Church Slavic title at the top of the icon.  The little image in the center is the icon type known as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, which I have discussed in a previous posting.

The first word is slightly worn, but nonetheless we should be able to determine that it is an abbreviation (see the horizontal curved line above it that tells us so?).

The obvious letters in it are ОБР –OBR.  The O is the old “omega” form, this letter:

If you were paying attention yesterday (didn’t you have anything else to do?), you will recall that ОБ and Р are the first three letters of the word oбразъ — obraz — meaning “image.”

Yesterday we also looked at some useful Church Slavic words based on the root cвятъ — svyat — meaning “holy.”  The next word in Kharlampiy’s inscription is another of those “svyat” words.  It is slightly abbreviated here as СВТИТЛЯ —SVTITLYA.  In full, the word is СВЯТИТЕЛЯ — SVYATITELYA.  This is an “of” form of the word Святитель — Svyatitel.  It means “archpriest,” but it is also often used for “bishop.”  You can see that Kharlampiy is wearing a bishop’s stole or omophorion.  So here we can translate it as “bishop.”  The word svyatitel is related to the verb that means “to make holy, to consecrate.”  And of course a bishop is consecrated in a special ceremony.

I hope you noticed that when I type Church Slavic, I put it into a modern Russian font that is basically the same as Church Slavic except for a few letters.  One of those letters is the Russian Я, pronounced “ya.”  But if you look at the inscription on the icon, you will see that the letter used looks very different.  It is the Church Slavic form of “ya”, shown here in upper and lower case:


There is also another Church Slavic letter that has the same “ya” sound.  It looks like this:


Sometimes writers of Slavic inscriptions use one form, sometimes the other.  But in the modern Russian font, both of these are represented by Я.

Now let’s look at the last word in the inscription.  It is the saint’s personal name, and it is written in full:


You can see that for the final letter, the writer has used the second form of the Church Slavic “ya”:


This name, like the word SVYATITELYA preceding it, is in the “of” form.  You can see that both have a -ya ending to show this.  In its normal form, it would be written as ХАРЛАМПИЙ — KHARLAMPIY.

Now let’s put it all together to translate the title inscription:

“Image [of] Bishop Kharlampiy”

Even though both Svyatitelya and Kharlampiya have the ending indicating they are in the “of” form, we only need to use “of” once when translating into English.  And we can also add the word “the,” which as you know, Church Slavic does not have.  So we can give the English meaning of this icon inscription as:


So you see, reading Church Slavic inscriptions is not difficult.  It is just that in learning a bit of Church Slavic, we have to keep in mind that it is one of the most useless languages in existence for most anything practical except reading icon inscriptions — and we can hardly even call that practical now, can we?  But what practical person is likely to read this site?  Or for that matter, write it?




(Courtesy of Jacksonsuaction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsuaction.com)

Learning a little basic Church Slavic is essential to the study of Russian icons. Do not think you have to learn the entire language in order to read most icons. Icon inscriptions are very repetitive, so a little learning brings big results.

What you will learn here will be very easy and practical, and will really advance your understanding of icons, so do not be intimidated by the unfamiliar.

Here is an important Church Slavic word and its meaning:

Svyat — holy

Sometimes you will see this inscription on icons:

Свя́тъ, свя́тъ, свя́тъ
Svyat, svyat, svyat

And now you already know how to read it. Yes, it is “Holy, holy, holy.” It comes from the Bible, found both in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.

By the way, the letter ъ at the end is just a so-called “hard mark.” It is silent, and I usually omit it in transliteration.

Now let’s expand our knowledge. From the word Svyat, we get more icon words. Two of the most common and very important are:




 They are the words used to mean “saint” in icons. Both words literally mean “holy.”

Svyatui is the form of the word used for the title of male saints.

Svyataya is the form of the word used for the title of female saints.

When an icon inscription says “of” this or that saint – “of the holy” — the word “of” is not actually written. Instead, it is indicated by changing the ending of Svyatuiy or Svyataya, like this:

Svyatago – means “of the Holy” for a male saint or male noun.

Svyatuiya – means “of the Holy” for a female saint or noun.

You can see that all we are doing with these words is changing the ending of the word Svyat.  So to the root Svyat,

We add –ui for a male: Svyatui.

We add –aya for a female: Svyataya.

We add –ago for “of the holy” for a male: Svyatago.

We add –uiya for “of the holy” for a female: Svyatuiya.

And for completeness, if the noun is neuter, we add the –oe ending. The neuter “of the holy” ending is the same as the masculine: -ago. So it becomes Svyatago.

Church Slavic often uses abbreviations. Both Svyatuiy and Svataya are commonly abbreviated as S or SV or ST, but abbreviation can vary in the number of letters used. Remember that abbreviated words are generally indicated by a curved horizontal line above the abbreviation.

If we want to say “of the holy” for several saints, we add the ending -uikh for male saints:

Svyatuikh – “of the holy” (male plural)

And for “of the holy for several female saints, we add the same ending:

 Svyatuikh – “of the holy” (female plural)

There is a prefix – pre-, used to mean roughly “most” or “very,” or “extremely.” Look what happens when we add it to the word Svyataya for a female saint:

Presvyataya – “most holy.”

Presvyataya is an absolutely essential word to know, because it is used in one form or another on countless icons of Mary. Why? Because on icons, Mary is titled the “Most Holy Mother of God.’

You will remember that the female form of “of the holy” is Svyatuiya. It only makes sense then, that the female form of “of the most holy” is Presvyatuiya.

Now let’s add more to our vocabulary:

Bog – God

A roditsa is a female who gives birth, a birthgiver. If we add Bog – “God” — to that, it becomes:

Bogoroditsa – God-birthgiver, or more commonly, “Birthgiver of God.”

Bogoroditsa is the standard title for Mary in icons, because in Eastern Orthodoxy, she is considered the one who gives birth to God, that is, to Jesus. It is simply the Church Slavic translation of the Greek title ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟC – Theotokos.

Now we can use two words together:

Presvyatuiya – Most Holy
Bogoroditsa – Birthgiver of God

That gives us the title of Mary found on countless icons. Because “Birthgiver of God” sounds awkward in English, it is generally translated more loosely as “Mother of God.” So we get:

 Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsa – Most Holy Mother of God.

Marian icons generally have an identifying title, like “of Kazan,” “of Vladimir” and so on. If we add such an identifier to “Most Holy Mother of God, we get the title found on such icons:

Kazanskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

That gives us “Kazan-of Most Holy Mother of God,” or as we say in English,

“The Kazan Most Holy Mother of God.”

Often the Russian form of the identifier is used in modern writing. Where Church Slavic has the –iya ending for identifier words like Kazanskiya, Russian uses –aya:

“The Kazanskaya Most Holy Mother of God.”

Or we can just call it the “Kazanskaya” or the “Kazan” image in brief.

Finally, for today, one more common icon word:

Obraz – image

One finds obraz on many icons at the beginning of the title, used like this:


Obraz Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui Troeruchitsui

 It means, very literally:

 “Image [of] Most-holy God-birthgiver – Three-handed”

 Remember that neither Church Slavic nor Russian has the word “the,” so we have to supply it when translating into English; and because English word order is different, we move things around a bit, like this:

“The Image of the Three-handed Most Holy Mother of God”

Now if we look again at the icon at the top of this page, we find it is titled:

КОРСУНСКИЯ  ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ (the last two words are abbreviated)
Korsunskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

From what you have learned today, you should be able to translate that as:

“The Korsun Most Holy Mother of God.”

You may wish to know that the Korsun type is another of those Marian images quite mistakenly attributed by tradition to St. Luke.  It is said to have been brought from Korsun to Kyiv in 988 c.e (the year of the conversion of Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict).  Then over the years, it went from Kyiv to Novgorod in the North, and then on to Moscow.  Another tradition says that it came to Russia at the end of the 12th century.  But as we have learned, icon traditions should not be taken too seriously.

Korsun, also known as Kherson and Cherson, is in Crimea, the area of the Ukraine recently invaded and claimed illegally in 2014 by Russia.  It is said to be the place where Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized into Eastern Orthodoxy.  He is the fellow who made conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy obligatory for his people.