You already know that in Eastern Orthodoxy, there are lists of saints popularly believed to help with specific problems and saints who are “patrons” of this and that.  For example, Nicholas of Myra became a popular patron of Russian sailors, among other things.  And the Russian monks Zosima and Savvatiy were the patrons of beekeeping.  St. Triphon/Trifon was the fellow you prayed to if you had trouble with flocks of geese.

It is similar in other countries where Eastern Orthodoxy is found.  There is a female saint — almost unknown outside Eastern Orthodoxy — whose specialty in popular Greek thought is to make women pregnant.  How does she do this?  With apples.

Now throughout the world, in folk belief, different cultures had many different methods believed to help a woman conceive.  In Cornwall, a female who wanted a baby could have her helpers pass her — feet first — through a large Neolithic stone with a hole in it it called the Men-an-tol ring stone.  It had to be done during a full moon, and it had to be done seven times.

(Photo: Nilfanion, Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo: Nilfanion, Wikimedia Commons)

The saint who provides the same service — but with apples — dates to the ninth century.  Her name is Irene Chrysovalantou.  Her popularity, however, is rather modern, which accounts for the recent date of most of her icons.

You will recall that there was a huge controversy over the painting and veneration of icons in the 800s c.e.  It was not practiced by the earliest Christians, but seeped into Christianity from the “pagan” fringes, and it took centuries to be officially approved in the Church.  Finally the veneration of icons was officially enforced by the Byzantine Empress Theodora in the year 843.

Theodora had a son named Michael (aged twelve), and she wanted to find a suitable bride for him.  She sent out searchers who found an appropriately virtuous and beautiful girl of noble birth in Cappadocia.  On the journey bringing her back with them to Constantinople, the searchers allowed the girl — named Irene — to make a little side trip to visit a noted hermit who lived on Mount Olympus and get his blessing.  The hermit Ioannikos did not see just anybody, but Irene was special.  And when he met her, he not only blessed her but told her she should go to the Monastery of Chrysovalantou in Constantinople, where she would become the guide of the nuns there.  At least so the story goes.

As these things happen, when Irene arrived in the big city, she found her prospective husband, the pre-teen Michael, had already found another bride.  So Irene gave away her worldly possessions, went to the Monastery of Chrysovalantou, and became a nun there.  She was eventually made the treasurer and purchasing agent for the monastery.  As time passed, she began a very ascetic life.  And when the old Abbess died, the Patriarch Methodios of Constantinople chose Irene to be the new leader of the monastery.  Chrysovalantou, by the way, comes from χρυσος (Khrysos)  meaning “golden” and βαλαντιο (valantio) meaning “purse”).

Icons of Irene are not difficult to recognize, though one can generally expect them to be recent to quite modern.  Her icons are identified by the presence of an angel and by three apples, and often bending cypress trees.

The angel comes from the story that Irene prayed for clairvoyance so that she might better guide the nuns under her care.  God sent her an angel who stayed by her and told her everything about the private lives of the nuns — so no one in the monastery from that time on had any secrets the angel did not reveal to the Abbess Irene.

Irene continued her ascetic practices, with visions of demons, one of whom even set her clothes on fire.  She would stand all night in the yard of the monastery, praying with her arms raised, and they became so stiff that other nuns had to push them down in the mornings, and it is said one could hear the cracking noise as they were pushed down.

One day the nuns noticed handkerchiefs tied to the tips of two tall cypress trees in the yard, and wondered how anyone could have reached so high.  But a nun had seen Irene praying in the yard at night, and saw that not only was the Abbess levitated about six feet above the ground, but also that the two cypresses had bowed their tops toward the ground in veneration of her.  It was Irene who had tied handkerchiefs to the tops of the cypresses as they bowed to her.

But why apples, and how did that “eat an apple and get pregnant” belief begin?  It is said that one night Irene heard a voice telling her to welcome a sailor who would bring fruit to her that day.  Nuns found the sailor outside the gate, and brought him to the Abbess.    He told her he was from the Island of Patmos (where according to legend John the Evangelist had lived in a cave).  He and his shipmates were sailing past the far end of the island when they heard an old man shouting for them to stop.  But the coast was rocky, so the sailors made to continue on.  But the old man — who was John the Apostle and Evangelist — shouted again, and the ship stopped still in the water.  The old fellow walked across the waves to the ship, and took three apples out of his garments.  He told the sailors the apples were from Paradise, and that they were to give them to the Patriarch Methodios.  Then he took out three more very large and fragrant apples from Paradise, and asked the sailors to give them to Abbess Irene at the Chrysovalantou Monastery.  Then John disappeared and the ship moved forward in the water again.

It is said that Irene ate a piece of one of the apples every day for forty days, and no other food or water.  And when she ate a piece, her mouth became so fragrant that all the nuns in the monastery could smell it.  She gave the second apple to the nuns for them to divide and eat, and they too became fragrant and very happy.  The third apple she kept uneaten until finally she consumed it shortly before her death.

That accounts for the three apples seen in icons of Irene.  And in Greek Orthodoxy, it is believed that if a woman brings an apple to the church to be blessed on July 28th, the day of commemoration of Irene, that apple will have the power to make her conceive, if she fasts for three days before eating it (and paradoxically has no sexual relations during that time).

The original Chrysovalantou Monastery in Constantinople was destroyed some time after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.  A new monastery was founded in her name not far from Athens, in Greece, in 1930, with legends saying the nun had appeared and authorized its site during construction.

The new Irene Chrysovalantou monastery is in Lykovrisi.  Its apples are much in demand by women who want “really effective” sacred apples to make them pregnant, and Eastern Orthodox believers from all over the world still make donations to that Monastery, requesting in return a slice of the “sacred apple” to make them conceive or to supposedly heal other ills.  In the Monastery there is a kind of “no guarantees” sign in Greek reading Τρωος πιστευεις ελπηζεις — “You eat, you believe, you hope.”

Here is an icon painted (as the inscription says) by a monk named Mikhail at Karyes Monastery on Mount Athos in 1983.  The title inscription at the top reads:





In the icon, we see the angel, the three apples, the bending cypress with a handkerchief tied to its top, as well as the nun peeking out behind the door and seeing Irene with the tree bowing to her.

The Lykovrisi (Λυκόβρυση) Monastery also has a so-called “miracle-working” icon of Irene — decked out in coins and other votive objects —  painted by a monk of Athos named Nektarios in 1919.  He was later martyred by the Turks.  The recent founding of the Monastery dedicated to Irene and the publicity surrounding its “sacred apples” accounts for why St. Irene Chrysovolantou icons tend to be from the 20th century or later.  She is usually titled either Οσία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Hosia Eirene Khrysovalantou) or Αγία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Hagia Eirene Khrysovalantou).  You will recall that Hosia is the title for a nun, and Hagia means “holy” or more loosely “saint.”

By coincidence, today — August 19th — is an “apple” holiday in Slavic Countries.  It is a pre-Christian celebration that after the conversion to Christianity became known as Яблочный Спас (Yablochnuiy Spas), meaning “Apple Savior.”  It is also called “Second Savior,” because there is a “First Savior” holiday on August 14th, called “Honey Savior” ( Медовый Спас — (Medovuiy Spas).   Apple Savior is a popular seasonal marker, considered the beginning of cooler weather and Autumn (though the temperature where I am is expected to reach 102 degrees today).  Officially it is the Church celebration of the Transfiguration of Jesus, but as a folk celebration it is the day when one can begin to eat apples, which by this day have ripened in great abundance, and in folk belief should not be eaten before Apple Savior.

There are many folk customs associated with the day, one of which (aside from eating lots of apple foods) is to gather in the evening to watch the sun set and to sing songs.  And it is considered a duty that those who have apples should share them with relatives and with the needy, and apples are even taken to the graveyards, because there is a connection between Apple Savior and the deceased.

There is a third Slavic “Savior” holiday in August along with “Honey Savior” and “Apple Savior.”  It is Ореховый Спас — Orekhovuiy Spas — “Nut Savior.”  Nut Savior happens on the 29th of August this year.  It is not nearly as popular as “Apple Savior.”


Today we will take a look at part of the large and detailed “Last Judgment” fresco on the wall of the famous Church of St. George (Biserica Sfantul Gheorghe ) at the village of Voroneț in the county of Suceava (pronounced Su-cha-va) in northeastern Romania.  But first some useful things to know for students of icons.

First, in Romanian a Biserica is a church.  Sfantul is the Romanian equivalent of Svyatuiy (Holy, i.e. “Saint”) in Church Slavic.  And Gheorge, as you might guess, is the Romanian form of George.

As mentioned, the church is at Voroneț.  Do not be confused when elsewhere you may see it written either as Voronet or Voronets.  The reason is that Romanian has a distinctive letter — ț — with a little “tail” at the bottom.  That means it is pronounced “ts.”  Many sources spell it simply Voronet in English, because English does not have that letter; but that gives the mistaken impression that the last syllable is pronounced “-net,” while actually it is pronounced “-nets.”

Now, having taken care of those little but useful details, we can go on to the fresco.  It is painted on the exterior of the church.  In the photo below, you can see the protecting roof above it:

(Photo: Wikipedia)
(Photo: Wikipedia)

Though very elaborate, it is on the whole much like Russian representations of the Last Judgment.  The Romanians call this type the Judecata de Apoi,  literally the “Judgment of Afterwards” or more loosely the “Next Judgment.”

As we shall see, that notion of “next” is significant in regard to today’s image.  Here is the detail from the fresco on which we wish to concentrate now:


It shows us a huge crowd of the Righteous (males seem to get preference) coming in a long line to the Gate of Paradise, which is at left.   Note the winged “cherubim” just above the gate (remember that Slavic uses the plural for the singular).   Let’s look a little closer:

At the front of the line, we see the Apostle Peter, holding the key that opens the Gate of Paradise.  And holding his hand is St. Paul.  That distinguishes this “after” entry into Paradise from the “before” entry that we find in standard iconographic depictions of the Resurrection of Jesus, in which the figures seen winding up to the Gate of Paradise are the Righteous of the Old Testament.  In that depiction, we see the Righteous Thief (called Rakh in Russian iconography) at the head of the line, instead of St. Peter.

If we look to the left of the Gate of Paradise in this “after” depiction, we can see that it shows Mary seated in Paradise, with the Archangel Michael at left, and the Archangel Gabriel at right.  Just to the left of Michael  (and long inside the gate) is the Repentant Thief, still carrying his cross (his ticket to Paradise) after all this time — but of course icons do not deal with time in a rational fashion.

To the left of the Repentant Thief, we see a type occasionally found by itself in Russian iconography — the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seated in Paradise (see my earlier posting,


Here is a closer look at the patriarch on the right, Iakov — Jacob:


You can see his abbreviated title just above his head at left.  The writing just to the right of the head of the Righteous Thief is that of a tourist, and it is not the only graffito by visitors to be seen on this fresco, unfortunately.  As is traditional with the Patriarchs in this depiction, Isaac holds the souls of the righteous in his lap, a depiction derived from the biblical phrase “in Abraham’s bosom,” as in Luke 16:22:

“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried…”

So the souls of the righteous are to be in the lap/bosom of the patriarchs, so this iconography tells us.  In some examples, one or more of the little souls are seen climbing in the background trees.

Finally, if we take a look up on the garden wall behind the Patriarchs, we find two inscriptions:


We need not bother with the lower one.  It is another “tourist” graffito from 1903, someone named Larionescu who wanted to be immortalized (how I wish tourists had changed!).  The important one is the original inscription above, which is in Church Slavic:

Raiskoe Selenie

РАИ (Rai)  is the word for “Paradise.”  Rai-skoe makes it adjectival, and Selenie means a house or dwelling or residence.  So this portion of the larger fresco is identified as the “Paradise Dwelling.”

It is helpful to know why, in Romanian iconography, one sometimes finds inscriptions in Church Slavic, and other times in Romanian.  The reason is that Church Slavic was originally the liturgical and administrative language in Christian Romania.  But between the 16th and 17th centuries it was replaced by Romanian for administrative purposes.  Church Slavic continued to be used as the Eastern Orthodox liturgical language in Romania into the first half of the 18th century, but by the latter half of that century it had given way to Romanian  So one can get a rough idea of how old a Romanian icon is by whether it is inscribed in Church Slavic or in Romanian.  As a rule of thumb, a Church Slavic inscription often means it is older than about 1750, and a Romanian inscription generally means it is more recent (unless, of course, a modern painter has faithfully copied an older icon with its inscription).

And finally, you may wish to know that Church Slavic is of course a Slavic language, but Romanian is a Latin-based language with a strong admixture of Slavic elements.  That is why Romanian may seem more akin to Italian and French.


What does one do on encountering icon types one has not seen previously and cannot immediately identify?  Well, there is hope.

To find what steps to take, let’s look at a couple of adjoining frescos from the 11th century Church of St. George at Staro Nagoričane in Macedonia.  They were painted during a renovation in the early 14th century.  And by the way, the letter č in Nagoričane is pronounced as “ch.”


There are two problems with these images for the student of icons.  First, they are not a common subject for panel icons (though not unknown).  Second, the title inscriptions are in Greek.  What can be done?  Let’s take a closer look at the left-hand image:


The first step is to closely examine the depiction.  We see Jesus at left (identified by his cross halo and the IC XC Greek abbreviation of “Jesus Christ”).  But notice that his hands are bound, and the rope is held by the man to his right.  And farther right is a seated figure, obviously some kind of authority.

The next step is to look at the inscription for any familiar words at all.  For the beginning student, these will be limited.


As is common in old inscriptions, the words all run together.  But let’s transliterate it:



We can recognize the definite article H, meaning “the,” at the beginning.

The second word is ΠΑΡΑ (para).  In greek it means “beside,” “before,” “by.”

Then comes the word ΤΟΥ (tou), meaning “of,” “of the.”

Anyone familiar with the Bible should recognize what comes next.  It is a name:  KAIAPHA. This is the Caiaphas of the Gospels.  That is a huge clue, because we know the scene must have something to do with Jesus and with Caiaphas.  And given that Jesus is bound and standing before Caiaphas, it can only be this, from the Passion story:

Matthew 26:57:

And they that had laid hold on Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled.

We find it also in John 18:24:

Now Annas had sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest.

We see the word ΚΑΤΑ, which means “according to,” “down,” and “against.”

It is followed by the abbreviation for Christ in Greek, ΧΥ — for Khristou — “Christ.”

The final word is ΕΞΕΤΑCΙC (exetasis), meaning “examination.”

So if we separate out all these words, we get:


He Para tou Kaiapha kata Khristou Exetasis

Meaning roughly:
The by (the) Caiaphas against Christ examination

Or as we would say it in normal English,

“The Examination of Christ by/before Caiaphas”

Here is the right-hand image:


We see that Jesus is bound in this image also, and at right is another authority figure (as we can tell from his important chair).  And given that we already have determined that the left-hand image is Jesus before Caiaphas, we may rightly assume that this image is somehow related.

If we look at the inscription, we find this, which we can put through the same process:



He Para tou Anna kata Khristou Krisis
The by (the) Annas against Christ Judgment

Or in normal English,

“The Judgment of Christ by/before Annas”

That comes from John 18:13:

And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year. Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.

We find the fellow shown tearing open his robes in this excerpt from Matthew 26:59-66 (King James Version):

Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses, And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.

So what we see in these two fresco images is a mixture of elements from the story of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, as taken from the four Gospels.

That was not too difficult, was it?