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:
КАЗАНСКИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ
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:
ОБРАЗЪ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ ТРОЕРУЧИЦЫ
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 Kiev in 988 c.e (the year of the conversion of Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict). Then over the years, it went from Kiev 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.