In the study of icons, one soon finds that the two most important things are type and title.  The “type” is the “pattern” of the scene or person(s) depicted, and the title identifies that scene or person(s).

Title inscriptions are particularly important in identifying individual saints.  Many saints look very much alike, and without a title inscription it is often very difficult to identify them.

You may recall that the modern Greek iconographic revival of the “Βyzantine” style of icon painting began with Photios/Photis Kontoglou (1895-1965).  He considered the work of the Cretan icon painters in the years after the fall of Constantinople (1483) to be the high point in Greek iconography, so he took them as the model for his revival style.  Modern Greek iconography is heavily reliant on the manner developed by the school of Kontoglou, and one can see it in the models chosen for the many printed icons sold in modern Orthodox gift shops.

Today we will look at an iconographic sketch by Rallis Kopsides (Ράλλης Κοψίδης — 1929-2010), who was a student of Kontoglou.  This design is so much like the work of Kontoglou that if it were not signed, one could easily mistake it for his work.

In very traditional fashion, it depicts the Egyptian ascetic Sisoe/Sisoes: The title inscription is on the right: sisoeinscript   It reads in transliteration: HO ABBAS SISOES pro tou taphou tou Megalou Alexandrou “THE FATHER/ABBOT SISOES before the tomb of the Great Alexander.”  Yes, that is Alexander the Great.

If we look in the lower right-hand corner, we can see the signature of the artist: It reads: δια χειρος Ραλλη κοψιδη εκ θρακης dia kheiros Ralli Kopside ek Thrakes “Through/by the hand of Ralles Kopsides of Thrace”

We also see a date given in Greek letter-numerals: 1958.

This type of “Sisoe Before the Tomb of the Great Alexander” is more often seen in frescos than in panel paintings, and more often in the Greek regions than in Russia.

To see how very conservative the style of this sketch by Kopsides is, we can look at a much earlier example of the same type, depicted on the wall of the St. John the Theologian chapel near the Moni Panagia Mavriotissa Monastery at Kastoria, Macedonia, Greece.  It dates to 1552:

Because this scene is just one part of several different images on the wall, one might mistake the first word at top left as part of its title, but actually that is the title for the saint just out of the image to the left — St. Merkurios, a warrior saint.  The inscription on the depiction of Sisoe is this:

If we ignore the Merkurios inscription for the next-door saint, It reads:


If you have been reading the lessons here on reading icon inscriptions, that should be easy for you.  Transliterated it is


You know that O (Ὁ) is pronounced “ho” in classical pronunciation, and “o” in modern pronunciation.  It is just the masculine form of “the.”

ὉCΙΟC (ὉΣΙΟΣ/ Ὁσιος in modern Greek) is “Hosios” in classical pronunciation, “Osios” in modern.  It means literally “pious/righteous/holy” but it is the title used specifically for monks in Greek iconography.  In Russia it is replaced by prepodobnuiy.  The English loose equivalent is “Venerable.”

The longer inscription at left, explaining the scene, varies somewhat from example to example, but the information is generally very much the same as in the Kopsides example.  I don’t expect you to read it, but you probably want to know what it means if you are at all curious:


It means, essentially,

Sisoes, the great among ascetics, before the tomb of the king of the Hellenes [Greeks] Alexander, who formerly shone with glory, trembles at the inconstancy of time and the passing of glory, tearfully, behold, he cries:
“Seeing you, O tomb, I weep tears from my heart, and lament the common debt of man; how then shall I bear this?  Ay! — Ay! — Death, who can escape you?

Σισώης ο Μέγας εν Ασκηταίς έμπροσθεν του τάφου του βασιλέως των Ελλήνων Αλεξάνδρου, του πάλαι λάμψαντος εν δόξει φρίττει και το άστατον του καιρού και της δόξης της προσκαίρου λυπηθείς, ιδού κλαίει.
‘Ορών σε τάφε δειλιώ σου την θέαν και καρδιοστάλακτον δάκρυον χέω, χρέος το κοινόφλητον εις νουν λαμβάνων, πως ουν μέλλω, διελθείν περας τοιούτον. Αι, αι θάνατε τις δύναται φυγείν σε;

The story behind this image is that the Egyptian ascetic monk Shishoy/Sisoes/Sisoe visited the tomb of Alexander in Egypt in the 5th century.  Oddly, we have no early manuscript on which this story is based.  Images of Sisoe (died 429 c.e.) at the tomb of Alexander only begin to appear in Greek iconography some years after the fall of Constantinople (1453).  How the story arose, no one knows, but there is apparently no trace of it until some thousand years after the time of Sisoe.  Early accounts do say that the body of Alexander was eventually laid to rest in Alexandria in Egypt, but what became of it no one seems to know.

The point of this icon type, however remains — that death is universal, glory transient, and not even the greatest of kings can escape the passage of time, let alone ordinary humans.

Most examples of the type show only one skeleton or dessicated body lying in a tomb –that of Alexander.   But the example in the St. John chapel shows three bodies, which some interpret as demonstrating that all are equal in death.

Be careful not to confuse the type of Sisoe at Alexander’s tomb with another but similar type called Рыдание над гробом с умершим — Ruidanie nad Grobom s Umershim — Weeping Over the Grave with the Deceased, or simply Надгробное рыдание — Nadgrobnoe Ruidanie — “The Over the Grave Weeping.”  It is sometimes called Зрю тя гробе и ужасаюсь — Zriu tya grobe i ushasaius — “I Look upon you, Grave, and am Terrified.”  That is the beginning of the inscription at the base of the following image:  Зрю тя гробе и ужасаюсь твоего видения, а сии лежит смерть человеческая — Zriu tya grobe i uzhasius’ tvoego videniya, a sii lezhit smert’ chelvecheskaya — I look upon you grave, and am terrified at your sight, but this is the death of man.”  That is from a funerary poem chanted by monks in commemoration of the dead.  An example of this type is found on the 17th century Russian Deacon’s Door (Ponomar’s/Sexton’s Door) from Zaozerye:


It is the lowermost of three images, as we see in a wider view:


At the top is the “Bosom of Abraham,” that is, the Old Testament Patriarchs in Paradise.  At central are Adam and Even in Paradise, and their expulsion.  And at bottom the “Weeping over the Grave.”  In the latter, the inscribed upper text relates to the writings of Gregory the Great (Григорий Двоеслов — Grigoriy Dvoeslov) on prayers for the dead.


If you have been keeping up with my previous postings on reading Church Slavic icon inscriptions, you are likely now the icon expert in your town — perhaps even your county or an even larger region.  So you should have little trouble reading today’s icon, which shows an assembly of various saints.

Such mixtures of saints were generally chosen by the purchaser of the icon, who often included not only family “name saints” but also the chief saints to whom the members of the family prayed for help with this or that problem.

Today’s icon is a good example for reading practice, not only because it shows different kinds of saints, but also because some of the inscriptions are a little worn or damaged here and there, so the reader has to fill in the missing parts:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Notice the variation in how the saints are labeled on this icon.  Some have their titles in the icon border, while others have it in or above the halo:

Let’s begin with the angel at the upper left side.  His inscription (partly worn) reads:

Ст Аггель Хранитель
St  Angel’  Khranitel’
In full,
Svyatuiy Angel’ Khranitel’
“Holy Angel Guardian”
Or as we say in English,
“The Holy Guardian Angel.”

Did you remember that the letter combination гг (gg) in Church Slavic is pronounced like “ng”?

You will recall that the Guardian Angel in icons is a generic figure representing the Angel believed to watch over each person.

The saint at left in the nun’s habit is:
Ст Прпдб мчнца Евдокиа
In full:
Святая Преподобная Евдокия
Svyataya Prepodobnaya Evdokiya
“Holy Venerable Evdokia”

I hope you recall that Prepodobnaya does not literally mean “Venerable”; that is just the English term commonly used, because literally Prepodobnaya means “Most-like,” that is, most like Christ, or some say most like humans before the “Fall.”
When you see the combination “ev” in a saint’s name, it often represents the Greek form “eu,” and “k” often becomes “c” in the English form of the name.  So if we were to put Evdokiya’s name into English form, it would be “Eudocia.”

Beside Evdokiya is:

Ст М Иоустиния
Святая Мученица Иоустиния
Svyataya Muchenits Ioustiniya
Holy Martyr Iustinia/Justinia

Iustinia is in the standard garb for a female.

To her right is:

Cт Сщнмчн Киприанъ
Святый Священомученикъ Киприан
Svyatuiy Svyashchenomuchenik Kiprian
Holy Priest-martyr Kiprian/Cyprian

Cyprian’s specialty is protection from demons, sorcery, and witchcraft.


Ст Мчнкъ Трифонъ
Святый Мученикъ Трифонъ
Svyatuiy Muchenik Trifon
Holy Martyr Trifon/Triphon

Note the cross in Triphon’s hand.  A white cross is generally held by martyr saints in icons.  You may recall that Triphon is the saint associated with a falcon and with geese, and is prayed to for problems with geese and rodents, etc.

Ст В М Артемий
Святый Великомученикъ Артемий
Svyatuiy Velikomuchenik Artemiy
Holy Great-martyr Artemiy/Artemios

Artemiy is dressed in Roman armor and holds a martyr’s cross and a lance.  His specialty is intestinal problems.

Ст Василий Велики
Святый Василий Великий
Svyatuiy Vasiliy Velikiy
Holy Basil [the] Great

Basil is dressed in bishop’s robes, with an omophorion around his neck, and the Gospels held in is left hand.  Basil’s specialty is aid with studies.

In the photo below, we see Jesus at the top in the clouds, with his usual abbreviation IC XC, Iesous Khristos in Greek — “Jesus Christ”:

Now the saints on the right side of the icon:

The female at top:

Ст Мчнца Агафия
Святая Мученица Агафия
Svyataya Muchenitsa Agafiya
Holy Martyr Agafiya/Agaphia

Agafiya is dressed in the standard garments for a female.

Ст Сщнмчн Зиновий
Святый Священомученикъ Зиновий
Svyatuiy Svyashchenomuchenik Zinoviy
Holy Priest-martyr Zinoviy/Zenobios

Ст В М Варвара
Святауа Великомученица Варвара
Svyataya Velikomuchnitsa Varvara
Holy Great-martyr Barbara

Barbara is dressed as royalty, wearing a crown, and holding a martyr’s cross.  Her speciality is aid in avoiding sudden death.

Прпдбна Мария Егип
Преподобная Мария Египетская
Prepodobnana Mariya Egipetskaya
Venerable Mary of Egypt

You will recall that Mary was a desert-dwelling ascetic, usually shown near-naked.  Her specialty is chastity and help in finding lost things.

The last two saints on this icon are:

Ст В М Димитрий Солу
Святый Димитрий Солунский
Svyatuiy Dimitriy Solunskiy
Holy Dimitriy/Demitrios of Salonika/Thessaloniki

Dimitriy/Dmitriy is one of the most prominent warrior saints.  His specialty is chastity, and he is a popular protector of the young.

Прпд Ануфрий Великий
Преподобный Ануфрий Великий
Prepodobnuiy Anufriy Velikiy
Venerable Anofriy/Onufriy/Onuphrios

As is obvious, Onufriy was another of the desert-dwelling ascetics.  He wears “leaf shorts,” a covering made of leaves.  His name is usually written with an “O,” but here the writer has used an “A” because it has the same pronunciation as an unstressed “O” in Russia.  One often finds this o/a confusion in Russian icon inscriptions.

This is not a very interesting page for the more advanced in reading icons, but for those still learning to read the letters of Church Slavic and basic inscriptions, it should be helpful.  And it should remind you how very repetitive these inscriptions are, so as I always say, a little learning goes a long way, enabling you to read many more icons than one would expect from the small amount of effort necessary to learn such basics.

For those who want to see closer views of the saints full-figure, here is the icon in three segments:





Here is a well-painted Russian icon with four figures:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

They are:

Left top:
Преподобны Даниилъ Столпникъ
Prepodbnui[y] Daniil Stolpnik
Venerable Daniel Stylite
Daniel the Stylite was a 5th century ascetic who spent 33 years atop a pillar after seeing a vision of Simeon the Stylite (Simeon Stolpnik).  He died in 493.

Свяаты Пророкъ Софония
Svyatui[y] Prorok Sofoniya
Holy Prophet Zephaniah
Zephaniah was a 7th century b.c. Hebrew prophet whose teachings are said to be represented by the Old Testament book of Zephaniah.

Преподобны Савва Звенигородский
Prepodobnui[y] Savva Zvenigrodoskiy
Venerable Savva of Zvenigorod
Savva of Zvenigorod was a disciple of St. Sergiy of Radonezh.  In 1399 he established a monastery near Zvenigorod (-gorod means “town/city”) on Storozhevsk Hill, thus his other title, Storozhensky (“of Storozhensk”).  He died in 1406.

Святы Мученик Иоаннъ Воин
Svyatui[y] Muchenik Ioann Voin
Holy Martyr John the Warrior

Today we will focus on the last.

John the Warrior (Ioann Voin or Воинственник — Voinstvennik) is said to have been a soldier in the Roman army  when Julian (the so-called “Apostate”) was Emperor (361-363).

You will recall from the previous discussion of St. Merkurios that Julian had been raised as a Christian, but as he grew older he left Christianity and, as Emperor, attempted to remove Christianity’s privileged status in the Empire, while maintaining freedom of religion.  Because of that, Christians hated him, and in iconography he is seen as a persecutor of Christians.

John’s story is that he was both a soldier in the army and secretly a Christian.   When he was sent out to deal with recalcitrant Christians under Julian’s new laws, instead of enforcing the laws, he helped the Christians.

The Emperor is said to have found out about John’s activities, and ordered that he be brought before him in Constantinople.  On the way, the guards abused and beat John.

When he arrived in Constantinople, the Emperor was away in the war with the Persians.  Meanwhile, John was imprisoned and placed in chains.

The Emperor Julian was killed in the war, and his successor, the Christian Emperor Jovian (363-364), restored the privileged position of Christianity in the Empire, and released John from prison.

John is said to have lived into old age, spending his time helping the sick and the poor and doing many pious deeds.  When he died he asked to be buried among wanderers and beggars, and the site of his grave was said to be lost.

Some time later, John was said to have appeared to a pious woman in a dream, revealing the site of his burial.  The site was found, and the remains were dug up and taken to be placed in the Church of John the Theologian in Constantinople.

Russian Orthodox traditionally prayed to him for aid in times of sorrow and difficulty, for finding lost or stolen objects, and as a patron of soldiers.

Here is a rather typical image of John the Warrior:

(Courtesy of

The title inscription reads:

Обаз Святаго Мученика Иоанна Воина
Obraz Svyatago Muchenika Ioanna Voina
“Image of the Holy Martyr John [the] Warrior”

As is common with warrior saints in iconography, he is dressed in a version of Roman armor.  He holds a lance bearing a banner in his left hand, and in his right a cross.  On his back are a helmet and shield.

It is common for traditional Russian icon painters to give standing male saints (including angels) a very “hippy” appearance, that is, the hips are often made to look wide in proportion to the chest.  He wears a cloak, leggings, and boots.

In images showing scenes from the “life” of St. John the Warrior, those scenes vary from image to image.  Often among them are some or all of these:

  1.  His birth;
  2. His baptism;
  3. The sending out of John by Emperor Julian;
  4. John “on campaign”;
  5. John warns Christians of persecution;
  6. John frees a pious husband from prison;
  7. John arrested under Constantine’s rule;
  8. John in prison;
  9. The dormition (death) of John;
  10. The burial of John;
  11. A pious woman has a dream vision of John, who reveals his burial site;
  12. Finding of the incorrupt remains of John;
  13. The translation (moving) of John’s relics.

You should now be able to read the title inscription on this icon of John:

(Courtesy of

The central figure of John in this example holds his right hand out, with the fingers in the blessing position characteristic of the Old Believers.

In Greek iconography, John is Ιωάννης ὁ Στρατιώτης — Ioannes ho Stratiotes — “John the Soldier.”

Here is a rather more “folkish” example:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of




Did you ever notice the many discrepancies in the Gospels?  Most people do not.  But an easy way to pick them out is to compare the four — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — line by line, in a good, rather literal translation.  Using the Greek text is even better, for those who can manage Greek.

I mention the matter of discrepancies, because that is something a perceptive person familiar with the Gospels will notice in the icon type discussed today.

It is the icon for the church festival generally called Palm Sunday in the West.  The Greeks call the icon type for that day Ἡ Βαϊοφόρος — He Baiophoros — meaning “The Palm-bearing.”  Βαϊον (Baion) in Greek means “a palm branch or leaf,” and the -φόρος (-phoros) part comes from the Greek word meaning “to bear, to carry.”   You already know that ending from the name of the legendary saint Khristophoros — the “Christ-bearer,” St. Christopher.


If we look more closely, we can see the Ἡ Βαϊοφόρος title at the top of the icon, with the C used for the last letter “s” (sigma) instead of the modern Greek Σ form:


The Russians called this icon type the “Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem,” —  ВХОДЪ ГОСПОДЕН ВО ИЕРУСАЛИМЪ — Vkhod Gospoden vo Ierusalim, or a similar variation on those words:

(Ostankino Museum)
(Ostankino Museum)


Here is the title inscription, with the colors altered to make it more easily readable.  It is worn and damaged; someone seems to have done a paint removal test strip at right to see what was beneath:

It reads:

Vkhod vo Ierusalim Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Khrista
“The Entry into Jerusalem of Our Lord Jesus

There is little difference in content between Greek and Russian versions of the type.  Many painters liked to place people in the background trees, which often look nothing like palms.  Both Greek and Russian examples show Jesus riding on an ass.  Behind him are his apostles, with a mountain in the background, and before him the people of Jerusalem, with the city gate.  Various people strew their garments beneath the hooves of the ass.

Now the problem with this icon, for those familiar with biblical discrepancies, is that there is only one ass.  So how is that a problem?

The problem arises in the gospel called “of Matthew” (no one really knows who, or how many people, were involved in the writing of the Gospels; the oldest  Greek manuscripts were anonymous). Matthew says that Jesus rode into Jerusalem “sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”  Riding on two asses?  It’s a good trick if you can do it.

None of the other gospel writers have this issue.  Mark, Luke, and John all say that Jesus only rode one ass.

Interestingly, however, both John and Matthew use a supposed prophecy of the messiah, found in Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes to you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”

John gives a very loose quote of it, saying.
Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, your King comes, sitting on an ass’s colt.”

So John has simply combined the ass and the foal into one animal.

Matthew, however, is much more literal.  He gives the quote as:
Tell the daughter of Sion, Behold, your King comes to you, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”

The root of the problem lies in the fact that Zechariah wrote using a literary technique of old Hebrew poetry called parallelism.  A writer would say the same thing twice, but in two different ways:

…riding upon an ass,
and upon the foal of an ass.

Only one ass was meant.

Matthew, however, either did not know about parallelism in Hebrew literature, or else he held the view that God did not waste words, so if two animals were mentioned, then Jesus must have ridden into Jerusalem on two animals.

We see how this error has affected what Matthew does with the text of Mark:

“Mark” says (Mark 11:2:

“And [Jesus ] says to them, Go your way into the village over against you: and as soon as you have entered it, you shall find a colt tied, whereon never man sat; unloose him, and bring him.”

But Matthew adds the extra animal (Matthew 21:2):

“…saying to them, Go into the village over against you, and right away you shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: unloose them, and bring them to me.”

That is not the end of difficulties with the “case of the missing ass,” but it is enough for you to know that Eastern Orthodox iconography decided not to follow Matthew in this.  So the standard icon type of the “Entry Into Jerusalem” depicts only one ass.  Western European art is a bit more varied.  We often find two asses, an older and a younger, with the younger either beneath the older or very close by.

Here is how the painter of Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (“The Very Rich Hours of the Duke du Berry”) did it in the early 1400s:

(Musée Condé, Chantilly, France )
(Musée Condé, Chantilly, France )




Today we will take a look at the Rudenskaya icon of Mary, another of the less common types:


It is not difficult to see that this Hodigitria (“Way-shower”) type is very much like the famous Polish Częstochowa image of Mary, which type is known in Russia as the Ченстоховская  — Chenstokhovskaya icon.


The title Rudenskaya (also spelled Rudnenskaya) comes from the town of Rudnya in Mogilev eparchy, today in Smolensk Oblast, Russia.  Ruda means “ore,” and Rudnya was an iron mining area.

According to its origin story, the Rudenskaya icon appeared at Rudnya in the year 1687.   Two years later, in 1689, the local priest, named Vasiliy, took it to the Kievo-Pecherskiy convent.  That later merged with the Kievo-Florovskiy monastery in Podol (Podil), where the icon was kept from 1712 until it mysteriously disappeared in the 1920s.  Whether that sudden disappearance had anything to do with its diamond-studded riza (icon cover) is not known.

This example of the Rudenskaya type has a Сhurch Slavic inscription below.  The first few words of it should be learned by serious students of icons, because one frequently finds them on other Marian icons.  They are:

Истинное подобие чудотворнаго образа пресвятыя богородицы
Istinnoe  podobie chudotvornago obraza presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

“True likeness [of the] wonderworking image [of the] most-holy Birth-giver-of-God”

Or in more fluid English,

“The True likeness of the wonderworking image of the most holy Mother of God”

One often sees the word мера — myera — added to such inscriptions.  It means “measure,” as in “size.”  It means the icon copy is made the same size as the original.  And instead of, or with the word подобие — podobie — “likeness,” we may find the word изображение —izobrazhenie — “representation.”

Knowing that, you should be able to read many inscriptions that begin like this:


In modern Russian Cyrillic font it is:
Iстинное изображение подобие и мера — Istinnoe izobrazhenie podobie i myera — “[The] true representation, likeness, and measure…”

Add to that the word самого — samogo — which in such inscriptions means loosely “of the same,” we can read inscriptions such as:

Истинное изображение, подобие и мера с самого чудотворнаго образа Знамения  пресвятыя богородицы

Istinnoe izobrazhenie, podobie i mera s samоgo chudotvornago obraza Znameniya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

“The true representation, likeness, and measure of the same wonderworking image of the Sign Most Holy Mother of God.”

The full lower inscription on this example of the Rudenskaya icon is:

Истинное подобие чудотворнаго образа пресвятыя богородице въ рудне идеже творящиися железо от блата, Тамо Дева вселися, дражайшая злата, Да людем жестокие нравы умягчает И железные к Богу сердца обращает

“The true likeness of the wonderworking image of the most holy Mother of God at Rudna; where iron is made from muck, there the Virgin dwelt, the most precious gold, who softens the brutal ways of people and turns the iron heart to God.”

The portion in italics comes from the writings of Dmitriy Rostovskiy.

To avoid confusion, it should be said that there is another and quite different icon type called Rudnenskaya-Ratkovskaya:

There is no origin story for this latter type.



A reader of this site asked about images of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which are commonly called “The Agony in the Garden” in Western European art,  But in Russia, icons showing this scene are generally called Моление о Чаше — Molenie o Chashe, which we can translate as “The Prayer” (molenie) of/about “the Cup” (chasha/chashe).  Why the discrepancy?

To answer that, we can take a look at a folkish and rather unsophisticated icon from the Ukrainian region.  Ukraine has long been an area where two main Christian traditions meet — The Russian Orthodox and the Western European Catholic.  Consequently there was a mixing of influences, and that is very obvious in this example, which not only is painted in a rather primitive Western manner, but is inscribed with a dedicatory inscription at the base in Slavic, yet signed in Latin Iohanes Mihalyi Depinxit — “Painted by Johanes Mihalyi,” and it is dated 1834.  We can see that it appears to have been removed from an icon screen, and in fact the Slavic inscription says that it was given to the Church of the Apostles Peter and Paul.

(Photo: Wiki Media)
(Photo: Wiki Media)

The icon scene of Jesus praying in the garden is not an old one in Russian or Greek Orthodox iconography, but it was not unusual in the West.  Even Duccio painted it in the first quarter of the 14th century.  Here is his Agonia nel Getsemani — “Agony in Gethsemane”:

So did the former icon painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco  — “The Greek” — in Spain, in this example from the end of the 16th century:

So this type was largely borrowed into Eastern Orthodoxy iconography from Western European art.

Instead of calling it “The Agony in the Garden,” Russians instead favored the “Prayer of the Cup” title.

Now obviously the titles are quite different, but the event depicted is much the same — the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The Western title is based on the general suffering of Jesus there, just before his betrayal, but the Russian title focuses on that suffering as manifested in the prayer he is said to have prayed in that place.  The account is found in Matthew, chapter 26:

36  “Then comes Jesus with them to a place called Gethsemane, and says to the disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go and pray yonder.’

37  And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.

38  Then he says  to them, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: wait here, and watch with me.’

39  And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.’

40  And he comes to the disciples, and finds them asleep, and says to Peter, ‘What, could you not watch with me one hour?

41  Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.‘”

So obviously the Russian “Prayer of the Cup” title is based on verse 39, in which Jesus asks that if it is possible, he may be spared drinking of the (metaphorical) cup of suffering, that is, having to endure his betrayal, passion, and crucifixion.  Russian iconography liked to show the cup, though in Western art Jesus is sometimes shown in prayer without it.

Here is a much more finely painted Russian example of the type, put into “traditional” form used by those trained in the Old Believer manner:

Courtesy of the Kampen Icon Museum:
Courtesy of the Kampen Icon Museum:

The scene, very stylized here, is the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives.  In the foreground, Jesus prays to God the Father (Lord Sabaoth), who is seen seated on his throne in the clouds at upper left.  He holds an orb surmounted by a cross — a symbol of royalty.  At upper right, three apostles sleep on the mountain while Jesus prays.

A fragment of his prayer is written extending up to the left, and it is upside-down, so I have flipped it in the following photo.  The inscription is read from Jesus’ mouth toward the flying angel bearing a cup just to the left of Jesus in the icon itself:


It reads:

Аще мимо идетъ чаше сия — Ashche mimo idet chasha siya — “…That this cup might pass away….”

Let’s look at the title inscription, written in ornate vyaz calligraphy, at the top:

You should already be able to read and translate the second half of the inscription, if you have kept up with postings on this site.  But to make the first part a little easier, I have divided the words.  First comes:

The symbols at each end of the whole inscription are just ornamentation, so we begin with the first large letter, which is an “M”  So we have:
MoLeNie = Molenie “The Prayer.”

The second letter is an O, written like a Greek omega.  It means “about,” but here “of” is a better English translation.

Next comes this:

It begins with the Slavic letter Ч, which we transliterate as “ch.”  So this word is Chashe, a grammatical form of chasha, meaning “cup” (it can also mean “chalice”).

We can look at the second half all together:

This part uses abbreviation:

GDA N[a]SHeGO I[iS[u[s]A KH[rist]A

With the missing letters added, it reads:

Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Khrista — “Of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  

If we put the whole thing together, it reads:

Molenie O Chashe Gospoda Nashego Iisusa Khrista,

which means:

“The Prayer Of the Cup of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Just to fill things out, the border saint at left is Ioann Zlatoust — John Chrysostom; that at right is the Priest-martyr Vlasiy (Blaise); both are robed as bishops.

Essentially, then, both Western and Russian depictions are about the “Agony in the Garden,” but Russian iconography sees that agony symbolized by the “Prayer of the Cup.”

It was not at all unusual in the later years of icon painting for painters trained in the stylized Old Believer manner to borrow patterns from Western Catholic and Protestant iconography, and to “translate” them from realism into the stylized manner preferred by those of the Old Belief.

Among other essentially “Western” types that were borrowed into late Russian iconography are “The Good Shepherd” and “Christ Blessing the Children.”  The “Good Shepherd” had been a common image in the first Christian art of the pre-icon period (as in the Roman catacombs), but was abandoned by Eastern Orthodoxy for well over a thousand years.  “Christ Blessing the Children” is not commonly found as an icon subject in Russian iconography until the late 19th-early 20th century.  It is based on Matthew 19:

13  Then were there brought to him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.
14  But Jesus said, let the little children, and forbid them not, to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
15  And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.
Parallels to this text are found in Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 18:15-17.

(Courtesy of

One may deplore the blandness of some State Church icons influenced by the devotional Catholic and Protestant art of the West, but one cannot deny that the influence of Western European models brought a gentleness into Russian iconography that helped to moderate its traditional severity.



Today we will take a look at another Marian icon.

Беседа — Beseda — is Russian for “talk” or “conversation.  So you can guess what the title of today’s icon means.  It is called the Besednaya (Беседная) icon.  So of course it means the “Conversation” icon, or we could call it the “Conversational” icon of Mary.

Here is one example of the type:

(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen:
(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen:

Though time has made it a bit difficult to distinguish, the icon depicts Mary sitting on a log, with the Sexton (Ponomar) Iuruish kneeling before her, and St. Nicholas (Nikolai) of Myra standing by, dressed in his bishop’s robes.

The origin story tells us that the event depicted supposedly took place in the year 1383, when Mary appeared to  the Sexton Iuruish (a nickname form of Georgiy, “George”).  St. Nicholas was with her.  She was sitting on a pine log, and told the Sexton that instead of placing an iron cross atop the church, newly-constructed in honor of the “Tikhvin” icon, a wooden cross should be used.  This little discussion is the reason for the “Conversation” title.  An alternate title for this type is “The Appearance of the Most Holy Mother of God to the Sexton Iuruish.”

Here is another example:

(Courtesy of

Now it is obvious from this brief account that one cannot discuss the Besednaya type without some mention of the “Tikhvin” icon, because in their origin stories, the two are connected.

We see that more clearly if we look at an old pattern for the “Conversation” type.  Such patterns were made by tracing the outlines of an icon in a sticky substance and then pressing a paper to it, so that the image was transferred in reverse.  Such patterns could then be used in creating new icons:

We can see that even the inscriptions are reversed.  But if one were to take such a pattern and make little needle holes all along its outlines, then one could use it as a stencil.  When placed over the blank surface of an icon panel, one could then pounce charcoal dust through the holes and scratch the stenciled image so produced into the gesso of the panel, making a permanent outline of the image to be followed in painting the new icon.

The essential Besednaya type takes up a good part of the right side of this pattern, but there are also other related images shown at the top and at the left side.  To understand those we now have to turn to the origin story of the “Tikhvin” icon.

Here is an example of the “Tikhvin” type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

We can tell its identity not only from its form, but also from its inscription, which reads Izobrazheniya Obraza Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui Tikhvinskiya — “Representation of the Image of the Most Holy Mother of God of Tikhvin”  Mary has the usual three stars on shoulders and forehead, representing virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

The “Tikhvin” image is one of the most prominent of the so-called “miracle-working” icons of Mary.  It’s origin story (remember that these are just stories for the most part, not reliable history) relates that it was originally brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople by the Empress Eudocia (Evdokiya) in the 5th century. It was said to have then been kept in the Church of the Vlakhernae, and during the Iconoclastic controversy was hidden away in the Resurrection Monastery. But some 70 years before the fall of Constantinople, the icon is said to have disappeared.

When merchants from the great city of Novgorod in Northern Russia were visiting Constantinople seventy years before its fall, the Patriarch of Constantinople engaged them in conversation, asking about rumors of a miraculous icon that had appeared in Russia.   The merchants told him of the appearance there of the “Tikhvin” icon, and the Patriarch concluded that the “Tikhvin” image was the icon of Mary that had mysteriously disappeared from Constantinople.  Talking of the missing icon, he remarked, ” “But now, due to our pride and unrighteousness it has left us completely.”

That remark is very much in keeping with the belief common in traditional Greek Orthodoxy and Russian Orthodoxy that icons of Mary behave like conscious, living beings, deciding where they wish to be, and moving themselves to a different location whenever desired.  It also reveals how Russians blamed the fall of Constantinople on the “sins of the Greeks,” which of course led to Russia becoming the new center of the Eastern Orthodox World, and Moscow the “Third Rome.”

It is said that the Tikhvin icon first was seen in Russia in 1383, when it was sighted by fishermen working their nets on Lake Ladoga.  They saw a bright light in the air, and looking closer, they saw the icon of Mary flying over the lake.  That is the scene depicted here:

Here is a painted icon of the appearance of the Tikhvin icon over Lake Ladoga:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

It went out of their sight, and later it appeared some 30 versts from the lake (a verst is the old Russian mile, which was equivalent to 0.6629 miles or 1.0668 kilometers).  There the icon was placed in a chapel and supposedly performed miraculous healings, but then it left again.  It made more stops on its journey, worked more miracles, but continued to move on.  Eventually the icon decided to settle in a swampy place near the Tikhvinka River, and when it appeared there, a church was built to house it.  But being made of wood, the church burnt three times, though the icon was said to have been undamaged.  Great Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich (1505-1533) then ordered that a stone church be built.  It was nearly completed when the arches collapsed on 20 workers.  But when the stones were cleared, all 20 were said to have been found alive.  Ivan the Terrible visited the icon, and had a monastery built there.

There is much more to the story of the “Tikhvin” icon, but that is enough for our purposes today.

Now back to the tale of the Sexton Iuruish.  When it was time to consecrate the church at Tikhvin where the icon was kept, and to install the cross on the dome, Iuruish was sent out to the people in the surrounding area to announce the event so that they might be present.  On his way back, some three versts from the church, he saw Mary sitting on a pine log, and St. Nicholas standing there with her.

Mary told Iuruish to inform the authorities that they were not to install an iron cross on the dome of the church, because her son Jesus was not crucified on an iron cross, but on one of wood.

Iuruish went to the church officials and told them of Mary’s appearance and wishes.  That is the scene shown here:



But when Iuruish told his tale of Mary appearing to him and talking with him, they did not believe him.  They sent the workman up to the dome to fasten the iron cross atop it.  But when he got up there and began his task, a great wind arose, blowing the dome off the church and the workman to the ground (though he was not harmed).  Here is that scene:

Having seen the results of not believing Iuruish, the church authorities decided to install a wooden cross on top of the church.

Later a chapel was also built on the site of the appearance of Mary and Nicholas to Iuruish, and from the log on which she sat, a cross was made for it.  In 1515 a monastery was established there called the “Nicholas-Conversation” (Никольско-Беседный–Nikol’sko-Besednuiy) Monastery.

If you look at top center of the pattern for the expanded Besednaya icon, you will see it has a small image of the “Tikhvin” icon.

The Besednaya type is easy to recognize, with Mary sitting on a log or bent tree, usually with flourishing branches coming out of it, or on what appears like a stump with fantasy foliage loaded with fruits or flowers coming out of it, as in the pattern example shown above.