Kyiv in the modern Ukraine was the center of the old Kievan state of Rus, and a focal point for the promulgation of Eastern Orthodoxy in medieval times.  Kyiv (Kiev) was also the site of a major monastic community founded in the 11th century,  the Monastery of the Caves, the Pecherskaya Lavra. It was a center of both piety and fanaticism, and a number of its inhabitants were later declared to be saints.

The two most noted figures associated with the Pecherskaya Lavra are the monks Antoniy and Feodosiy.  Antoniy, born in Chernigov, went to Mt. Athos in Greece and became a monk there.  He was sent back to Kievan Rus to help in the conversion of its people to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Instead of joining any of the existing Greek monasteries, he instead decided to live in a cave dug in the side of a hill.  There he became noted for his ascetic lifestyle, and others joined him, among them Feodosiy, who had come from his home in Kursk.   As the community grew, Antoniy moved to a new cave not not far away, while Feodosiy remained in the old location.  In both locations, the number of monks increased, living in the so-called coenobitic manner. Today’s icon had its origin in the Kievan Pecherskaya Lavra.    It is often called the Pecherskaya-Svenskaya:

(Tretyakov Gallery)
(Tretyakov Gallery)

The origin story of the icon relates that it was painted by St. Antoniy, who is said to have learned icon painting from Byzantine artists working in the church at Kiyev.

In it we see Mary enthroned and holding her son at center.  At left is St. Antoniy (Anthony) and at right St. Feodosiy (Theodosios)  Each holds a scroll.   The scroll of Antoniy often reads:

Молю убо вы, чада, держимся воздержания и не ленимся. Имамы в сем Господа помощника
Moliu ubo vui, chada, dershimsya vozderzhaniya i ne lenimsya.  Imamui v sem Gospoda pomoshchnika
“I pray you therefore, children, hold to abstinence and do not be lazy, you shall have in all the help of the Lord.”

The scroll of Feodosiy often begins:

Владыко Господи Боже Вседержителю, tворче всея твари видимых и невидимых,…
Vladuiko Gospodi Bozhe Vsederzhiteliu, tvorche vseya tvari vidimuikh i nevidimuikh…
“Ruler Lord God Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible —

Be aware, however, that other inscriptions are sometimes used on the scrolls of the two saints in the Svenskaya type.

Now, to confuse matters, there is another “Pecherskaya” icon type that also shows Antoniy and Feodosiy, but in this case the two saints are kneeling before the enthroned Mary and Jesus, one saint on each side, usually holding prayer ropes instead of scrolls.

If you have been reading this site carefully (you have, haven’t you?), then you should be able to read the title of the icon, and you should be able to tell whether it is an Old Believer or a State Church icon.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The title of the image is: ПЕЧЕРСКИЯ ПРЕС[ВЯ]ТЫЯ Б[ОГОРО]ДИЦЫ — Pecherskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui, “[The] Pecherskiya Most Holy Mother of God.”  The title is usually given in its Russian form, Pecherskaya, in icon books and other literature.

So there are two major variants of the Pecherskaya type:

  1. In the “standing” type — the Pecherskaya ‘Svenskaya’ type — (also called Свенская-Печерская — Svenskaya-Pecherskaya and Kievo-Pecherskaya)  Antoniy and Feodosiy stand, holding scrolls, at each side of Mary, who is seated on a throne, the Christ Child on her lap  Mary’s hands are on her child. Some examples add two angels (though they more properly belong to the second type), some do not.
  2. In the regular Pecherskaya type, Antoniy and Feodosiy kneel at the sides of the enthroned Mary with her child, usually holding prayer ropes, and two attending angels often stand at the sides of Mary enthroned, though sometimes the angels are omitted.  In this type the hands of Mary rest on the shoulders of Antoniy and Feodosiy.

The “kneeling” type of Pecherskaya icon was very popular in the Ukraine, and there it is often found painted in the folk manner.  In the example shown here, it is of course painted in the Westernized manner, and therefore would be a State Church and not an Old Believer icon.

Please be aware that it is common to find the names of these two icon types confused, with some calling the “kneeling” Pecherskaya icon type the “Svenskaya-Pecherskaya.”  The confusion arises because both have the same saints, Antoniy and Feodosiy, both have Mary seated with her child, and both have the “Pecherskaya” name, though the added word “Svenskaya” properly qualifies and distinguishes the “standing” type.

The student of icons should also be aware that there are some icons — far less common — that combine the basic image of either of the two types listed above with two or more additional saints; in such versions, Antoniy and Feodosiy may either stand holding scrolls or kneel with prayer ropes.  Because of the additional saints from the Pecherskaya Lavra pictured with them, such an icon is generally referred to as the “Pecherskaya with Kievo-Pecherskaya Wonderworkers,”

Now perhaps you are left wondering, as one reader did, why the first type is called not just “Pecherskaya,” but also “Svenskaya.”  Where did the “Svensk-” part come from?

Well, the traditional story told about this icon tells us.  It is said that Prince Roman Mikhailovich of Chernigov lost his sight. He had heard of miracles done by the icon of Mary at the Pecherskaya Lavra, so he sent a messenger to ask that the icon might be brought to him in Bryansk, in hope of a cure. The Archimandrite of the Lavra sent the icon, in care of a priest, who travelled on the Desna River. During the journey, the boat carrying the icon stopped suddenly. Those traveling in the boat decided to then spend the night on the Svin River, and the boat began moving again. So they went on shore and stayed for the night on the Svin River, which means “Swine River,” a few miles from Bryansk. When morning came they went to the boat to pray before the icon, but it was gone. The searched for it, and climbed a nearby mountain. There they found the icon in the branches of an oak tree (you will recall that this “icon in a tree motif” is found in other such origin stories.

This was seen as a miracle, and when Prince Roman Mikhailovich was notified that the icon had stopped there, he travelled to the place where the icon was found in the tree.

Prince Roman prayed before the icon and his eyes began to be healed, so the tale goes, but only partly; so he prayed again, and his vision was said to have gotten better. So a prayer service was held before the icon. Then the Prince had the trees in that place cut down, and used them to build a church in honor of the Dormition of Mary. The oak in which the icon was found was cut down also, and from its boards other icons were made for the church, as well as other church objects.  Eventually a monastery was built there.  The icon is said to have been kept at this monastery since 1288.

But what about the “Svenskaya” name of the icon?  Well, as we have seen, the icon was said to have gone of its own volition to an oak tree on a hill above the Svin River, and a monastery was  later erected there too.  You will recall that icons deciding themselves where they will be and going there of their own volition is also a common motif in these old stories.

Now they could hardly call the monastery  built on the site the “Monastery of Swine,” after the name of the Svin River, nor could they call the icon that manifested its will there the “Most Holy Mother of God of Swine,” so they did a euphemistic change to the name, calling it “Svenskaya” instead of “Svinskaya,” — “…of Svensk” instead of “…of Swine.”

So that is the story. The “Svenskaya” name comes from the Svin River.  And that is the second name of the “standing” Pecherskaya type as well as the name of the Svenskaya Monastery built there.


It is almost too ridiculous to mention, but some Internet sites actually use this image, from the Serbian Vysoki Decani Monastery, as “proof” of early visitations by aliens from space.  They tell the gullible that the two odd figures at far upper left and right are “flying saucers” piloted by space men, with one following the other across the sky.

Anyone who knows the basics of Eastern Orthodox iconography, however, should recognize that those two images are just stylized representations of the sun (at left) and the moon (at right).

The sun and moon have long been common additions to icons of the Crucifixion, and this is very obviously a Crucifixion icon.

At left is the sun, which is commonly personified by placing a face within it, or sometimes, as here, the body as well.  You can see that aside from the rays emanating at left, the image of the sun has a round shape.

Here is the moon, with another little figure within to personify it.  It has the shape of the crescent moon.  Two stars are added to show the connection with night.

Here is a 13th century Macedonian example from the Church of St. Nicholas near Prilepe, again showing the sun personified at left and the moon personified at right of the crossbeam.


The inscriptions below the standard IC XC for “Jesus Christ” are:

Above the crossbeam:  He Staurosis/”The Crucifixion:
On the crossbeam:  “The King of Glory”
By the figure at left of Jesus:  “Holy John the Theologian”
By the soldier figure at right of Jesus:  “Holy Longinos the Centurion”

And here is a 16th century example from the St. Nicholas Church at the Toplički Monastery in Macedonia, again showing the personified sun at left and the personified moon at right above the crossbeam:


If we look at this 12th century Novgorod icon, we see the same personification of sun (left) and moon (right), this time with just the faces showing.  And beside them, in Church Slavic, is written “Sun” and “Moon.”  Identifying them by title is very common in Crucifixion icons.

The Vysoki Decani Crucifixion follows the biblical accounts,  but the Novgorod example is more an icon of veneration of the cross, which is shown empty.  Above it are seen Cherubim at far left and right, and closer to the top crosspiece are two Seraphim holding ripida, the ceremonial fans used in the liturgy.

At left, identified by inscription, is the Archangel Mikhail (Michael) and at right the Archangel Gavriil (Gabriel).  Michael holds the spear of the Crucifixion, and Gabriel holds the reed with a sponge atop it.


In the opening in the hillock just below the cross (which is decorated with a simple wreath of victory), is a skull — by tradition the skull of Adam, who was supposedly buried at the precise spot where the Crucifixion later took place.  Eastern Orthodoxy is filled with such mythic traditions, theologically symbolic rather than actual history, though many “believers” took them quite literally, and some still do.

So now you know.  Those are not flying saucers manned by aliens, just elements common in medieval to modern icons of the Crucifixion — simply the sun and moon.  They are taken from the Gospel called Matthew, chapter 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:

Also Luke 23:44-45:

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.
And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

And it derives also from the following, which account for why in many icons of the Crucifixion, the sun is painted in a dark color such as blue, and the moon is painted red:

Joel 2:31
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.

Acts 2:20:
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come:

Revelation 6:12:
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

Sun and moon are thus present in icons of the Crucifixion to signify that it is an event of cosmic importance.

The sun and/or moon personified are found in other icon types as well.  Here is the sun personified (at left) as a winged angel — from a sun-moon pair in an image from a “Terrible Judgment” fresco at Dechani in Serbia:

But no flying saucers.


While serious readers here want to learn to read “condensed” icon inscriptions, technically called “Vyaz”” or “joined/linked” inscriptions, some also want to learn to write it as a calligraphic form.

This page show the letters of Church Slavic in a “pen” form, with wide vertical strokes and thin horizontal and angular strokes.

Vyaz’ inscriptions vary widely.  One can make the vertical strokes very long and narrow, which enables more letters in a smaller space, or one may make them shorter.  One may make the letters very simple (like the basic forms shown above), or one can make them as ornate as desired, with lots of little added flourishes.  And of course they can be written in various colors, red being a common choice for icons.

In combining letters, some vertical strokes in a letter may be shortened to allow the insertion of another letter written small.  We see that in the following incription.  I will transliterate it with the small letters within and above the inscription in lower case.  Omitted letters are in brackets.

It reads:  Obraz Neopalimuiya Kupinui Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui
OBrAz  NeOpAlIMuiiA KupinuI Pres[vya]t[ui]ia B[ogoro]d[i]TSuI


We have seen the inscription in an earlier posting on that icon type, “The Image of the Unburnt Thornbush Most Holy Mother of God.”

Here the beginning of another inscription:

It reads:

“Image of the Elevation of the Venerable Cross of the Lord”

Notice how the writer of the inscription has used strong vertical lines, and very thin triangular lines to form the “horizontals” at top and bottom of letters.  And notice the little flourishes he has placed on the letters here and there.  His T letters consist of three, full-length verticals with triangular “horizontals” at the top, but this form is less common.

The best way to learn Vyaz’ calligraphy is to look at lots of different examples, and to copy those one finds most appealing.  Some people find it helpful to use graph paper at the beginning, so that the size of varying letters can be carefully measured while writing.  And keep in mind that there are lots of variations in just how a particular letter may be ornamented.

Here is a link to a Russian calligraphy video, showing Slavic letters being written:

Here is another, showing the manner in which letters may be ornamented:


Today we will take another look at the letters of the Church Slavic alphabet, which one MUST know to read icon inscriptions from Russia and other Slavic countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, etc.

I will repeat that it is VERY IMPORTANT not to confuse Church Slavic, which is also called Church Slavonic, with OLD Church Slavonic.  OLD Church Slavonic is an earlier and somewhat different form of the language.  But to read Russian and other Slavic icons, we want CHURCH SLAVIC/SLAVONIC, not OLD Church Slavonic, which will just confuse you.  I emphasize this because some readers here have already had problems from mixing the two.

So here is the CHURCH SLAVIC alphabet — the one we use for reading Russian icons.  Do not be intimidated by it.  It is actually easy to learn.  Just remember that for reading icon inscriptions, all you need to remember is the letters and their sounds.  All the little “rules” at the end are just for your information, and you need not bother with them unless you want to learn to write Church Slavic calligraphy.

(Courtesy of Matthew Bielawa’s Halga: Genealogy of Halychyna/Eastern Galicia site:

Now for some notes and clarifications on that:

If you are using Church Slavic as pronounced in Russia, then the letter Г sounds like hard “g” in English “go.”


There are two forms of the “z” letter (as in English “zoo”); the first form is used for some words, but the second is the most commonly used.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the second form is used for both (З).

There are two forms of the “i” letter, pronounced like “ee” in English “see”; the first is used before consonants, the second is written before vowels, as well as used before consonants in words derived from Greek.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (И ).

There are two forms of the “o” letter, pronounced like “o” in English “so.”  The first is used at the beginning and middle of words.  The second, which looks like Greek omega, is used to begin a prefix, and used in some words derived from Greek, as well as in other grammatical situations (not important to remember for reading).  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (O)

There are two forms of the “ou” letter, pronounced like “oo” in English “moon.”  The first is used to begin words, the second is used within or at the end of words.  The second form is just the o and y of the first form combined.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the form У is used for both.

There are two forms of the “ya” letter, pronounced like “ya” in English “yard.”  With few exceptions, the first is used to begin a word, and the second is used within or at the end of a word.  As you can see, the first is an i followed by an a; the second is rather like an Roman A, but with the added i placed just below the crossbar.  An easy way to remember it is to think of it as “ia,” pronounced “ya.”  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Я form is used for both.

There are two forms of the “f” letter, pronounced like “f” in English “for.”  The first is the usual form, derived from the Greek letter phi.  The second is used for words derived from Greek (etc.), and is actually the Greek letter theta, but in Slavic it is pronounced “f” instead of “th.”  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Ф form is used for both.

Finally there is this letter.  It is pronounced “v” as in English “vat” when used after “a” or “e.”  But elsewhere it is pronounced “ee” as in “see,” primarily in words derived from Greek, etc.  When written in modern Russian, the form  И is used.

For reading, you do not have to remember all the little details of where one or the other form is used.  You just have to remember its sound, so you can transliterate it.  Of course if you want to write calligraphic  VYAZ’, the linked form of Church Slavic letters, then you will want to keep these little rules in mind.

PLEASE REMEMBER that the writers of many icon inscriptions did not follow the standard placement rules for using these letters.  They often just went with the phonetic sound of a letter and their personal whims.  And of course one finds words misspelled.

Just for completeness, you may wish to know what those little accent marks are that one sees above words in Church Slavic inscriptions.  You do not need to know them to read, but if you want to pronounce Church Slavic correctly, they are helpful.  The marks are:

´  The acute accent, which leans to the right; it is placed over a vowel at the beginning or middle of a word.  It often indicates the emphasized syllable.

`  The grave accent (pronounced “grav” to rhyme with “slav”) leans to the left; it is placed over a vowel at the end of a word.

ˆ  The circumflex accent, which looks like a little half moon when written.  It is placed above a vowel to distinguish dual and plural nouns from an identical singular form of the noun

Further, there is a mark that looks like a circumflex accent facing left.  It is used over a vowel that begins a word, and is sometimes followed on the same letter by an acute or grave accent.  All of this will mean little to you if you just want to read Church Slavic (except for the dual/plural-singular distinction), but for those who just want to learn to read enough Slavic to read common icon inscriptions, you can safely ignore this accent information unless you want to impress (or more likely bore) your friends.

You already know that an abbreviation in Church Slavic is indicated by a horizontal, curved line that looks a little like the Spanish tilda (~), written above the abbreviated word.

Let’s take a look at a Church Slavic prayer to see alphabet and accents in use:

Here it is transliterated and rather literally translated:

Ts[a]riu n[e]b[e]snuiy, outyeshiteliu, d[u]she istinui,
O-Tsar      heavenly,      comforter,     spirit     of-truth
izhe vezdye suiy i vsya ispolnyayaiy,
who everywhere are and all fill,
sokrovishche bl[a’gikh’ i zhizni podateliu,
treasury      of-blessings and of-life giver,
priidi i vselisya v’ nui
come and abide in us
i ochisti nuiy ot vsyakiya skvernui,
and cleanse us from every impurity
I spasi, bl[a]zhe, dushui nasha 
and save, Good-one, souls of-us

In better English:

“O heavenly Tsar, comforter, spirit of truth, who are everywhere and fill all, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save, Good One, our souls.”

You can see that in the word Ts[a]riu (O Tsar) has an abbreviation mark above it.  Such a mark is called a titlo (plural titla).  It is rather angular here:

Above the word nebesnuiy we also see a an abbreviation mark, a titlo, but it is more curved than angular here.  A little letter c (“s” in English) is written under its curve, to show it is inserted into the word below.  And as you see from my transliteration, the reader must supply the two missing e letters:

Note also the И letter at the end of nebesnuiy.  I customarily transliterate it as “iy” or “y” when it has the little half moon facing upward accent above it.

And the second to last letter in nebesnuiy I customarily transliterate as “ui” (others often use “y”).  It is like an “ee” sound, but not quite; it is more like the sound in the English word “me” when pronounced with an American southern accent, like a quickly spoken muh-ee, with the first “uh” as in “push” gliding swiftly into the stronger “ee.”

Remember, as mentioned previously, that there there is a letter combining the “o” and “t” sounds, and is pronounced “ot” as in English “note.”  It means “of” or “from,” and you will see it often in icon inscriptions:

You will also want to be aware of the letter pronounced “ye” as in English “yea” (rhymes with “say”).  In modern Russian Cyrillic it is not distinguished in form from an ordinary е:

Finally, remember that the “oo” sound is written somewhat like a “v” or “u” atop an “o.”  It combines the letters o and u, as in the word dushui (“souls”):

Please note the two letters that do not really indicate sounds.  They are Ь and Ъ .

Ь just indicates that the previous letter is “soft,” that is, you pronounce it with an added little “ye” sound that is just hinted at, not fully spoken.  And Ъ just means the previous consonant does not have that added litte “ye” sound.  The technical terms for these effects are “palatized” or “soft” for the first and “non-palatized” or “hard” for the second.  I often omit them in simple transliteration here, but they can indicate a difference in meaning, so more fully,  Ь is transliterated as ‘  and Ъ as “.


Thanks again to Matthew Bielawa for kindly letting me borrow from his genealogy site.