It is not hard to tell that this icon dates to the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  That is when this kind of geometrical pattern was common in icon borders.  We can also tell it was not an expensive icon when made.  It is in a heavily Westernized style, rapidly painted, with very simple forms in strong and repeated colors

The inscription at the base — which varies from example to example — reads here:
GROBYE GOSPODEN — “The Tomb of the Lord”

The subject of the icon is not a common one, and examples tend to be very late and to look much the same.

Here is another icon of the type, painted with more sophistication and care, though also in a heavily westernized manner.

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

The inscription on this example is “The Placing of the Seal on the Stone.”

Both icons depict the event recorded in Matthew 27:

59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,

60 And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.

61 And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.

62 Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together to Pilate,

63 Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.

64 Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say to the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.

65 Pilate said to them, You have a watch: go your way, make it as secure as you can.

66 So they went, and made the sepulchre secure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.

It is common for the tomb in these examples to look like it is behind doors, upon which the seal is being placed.   Two Roman soldiers are sitting beside the entrance to the tomb, while the two Jewish fellows are standing, one placing the seal.

In the background of the first image we see Joseph of Arimathea and the “Myrrh-bearing Women” looking on.  In the second icon they are Joseph of Arimathea, John “the Theologian” (looking uncharacteristically old here for the event), the “Mother of God” (Mary) and Mary Magdalene.

Now interestingly, the Gospel called “of Matthew” (no one knows who wrote it; the original manuscripts are anonymous) is the only one of the four Gospels to tell the story that a  Roman guard was placed at the tomb, and that a seal was put upon it.  Matthew is also the only Gospel to include that those watching the tomb were frightened by an angel coming down from Heaven, who rolls away the stone from the tomb entrance and sits upon it.

There is, however, another account of a guard placed at the tomb, found in the rather extravagant extra-biblical Gospel of Peter, which says that seven seals were placed on the tomb:

8. But the Scribes and Pharisees and elders, being assembled together and hearing that the whole people murmured and beat their breasts, saying, If these exceeding great signs were wrought at His death, see how righteous He was – the elders were afraid and came to Pilate, beseeching him and saying, Deliver to us soldiers, that we may guard His sepulchre for three days, lest His disciples come and steal Him away, and the people suppose that He is risen from the dead, and do us mischief. So Pilate delivered unto them Petronius the centurion with soldiers to guard the tomb; and with them there came elders and scribes to the sepulchre, and having rolled a great stone, the centurion and the soldiers, and all who were there together placed it at the door of the sepulchre; and they spread upon it seven seals, and pitched a tent there and kept guard. Now when it was morning, at the dawning of the Sabbath, there came a crowd from Jerusalem and the country round about to see the sepulchre, how it has been sealed.

9. Now on the night when the Lord’s Day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard by two and two in a watch, there was a great voice in heaven, and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend form thence with much light and draw nigh unto the tomb. And the stone which had been cast at the door rolled away itself and made way in part, and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in. The soldiers, therefore, when they saw it, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they were also there keeping watch); and as they told the things that they had seen, again they see three men coming forth from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, and a cross following them; and the head of the two reached the heaven; but that of Him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, Thou didst preach to them that sleep; and a response was hear from the cross, Yea.



Most of my time here is used for discussion of icons from Greek and Slavic Orthodox regions.  There are, however, other icon traditions:  the Coptic tradition of Egypt, and the Ethiopian tradition.

When we look at Ethiopian icons, we find them quite different, but with an easily recognizable style.  In general, the color palette is limited, and the images reduced to simple forms.  The iconography varies from the familiar to images found only in Ethiopian icons.

Here is an example of Ethiopian iconography in the form of a wooden triptych:

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

The icon consists mostly of scenes from the story of Jesus — for example at the base of the central panel we see the Nativity:

We can also see a saint we easily recognize on the upper left panel — St. George, with his dragon.  He is a remarkably popular saint in Ethiopia.

However, in Ethiopian icons we also encounter a number of saints not found at all in the iconography of Greece and Russia — saints who are distinctively Ethiopian.  Take, for example, this fellow at the bottom of the right-hand panel:

Why does he have six wings, and why is his foot, at lower left, separated from his leg?

To answer such questions, a good place to look is the Synaxarium of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which you will find (without charge) online here:

If you are a student of Egyptian art and antiquities, you will recognize the name of the translator, Sir Wallis Budge, who also wrote books on Egyptian hieroglyphs, etc.

A synaxarium (Latinized form of Greek synaxarion) is a book giving the lives of saints.  If we look in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, we find some very odd tales, including the story of a saint named Takla Haimanot.

Listed on the date Nehasse 24 (August 30), we find these words:

“On this day died the head of the monks and father of all the world, Abuna Takla Haimanot.  The birthplace of this saint was Zarare, in the country of Showa.”  The story tells us that one night the Archangel Michael appeared to a husband and wife, telling them that “they should produce a son whose righteousness should be heard of in all the ends of the earth, and that the heavens and the earth would not be sufficient [to contain] one of his excellences.”

On the third day after the child was born, he spoke, saying, “One is the Holy Father, one is the Holy Son, one is the Holy Spirit.”  And the parents soon found the boy had the ability to multiply food.  All he had to do was to smile and touch a bit of flour, honey, fat, or wine, and suddenly the whole house would fill up with that food.

When the boy grew to be a young man, he became a hunter out in the wilds, but one day Jesus appeared to him at noon, sitting on the wings of the Archangel Michael.  Jesus said, “O my beloved, henceforward thou shalt not be a hunter of wild beasts, but thou shalt catch many souls in [thy] net.”  Jesus told him his name would be Takla Haimanot, and that he was giving him the power to heal and to drive out evil spirits.

After his parents died, Takla Haimanot became a priest, and began preaching.  He baptized seventy thousand people, destroyed the shrines of idols, and cut down trees in which demons were living, forcing them out.

One day when he was journeying to another region, he met a group of magicians and got into a quarrel with them.  They beat him with an iron rod until he died, but God brought him back to life.

The tale of Takla Haimanot continues on like this, but we will jump forward to the part that relates to his iconography, permitting us to identify his images.  Some time later, when he had accumulated disciple monks, Takla Haimanot built himself a cell, and it had a wall he could stand by, but if he leaned against the wall, sharp spikes on it would pierce his body.  There he stood so long that one of his thigh bones broke, and his leg fell off.  That did not deter him.  He continued to stand on one foot for seven years, and finally Jesus came to him with Mary and prophets and apostles and the angels Michael and Gabriel, and told Takla Haimanot he would take him into everlasting life.  Then the saint got the plague and died at age 99 and eight months.

Now, what we see in icons of Takla is the saint with six wings and with his separated foot.  The wings come from a tale that when he was living at a monastery atop a high mountain, an angel appeared and told him to go down and live in a cell at the bottom of the mountain.  The monks were letting him down the mountain on a rope when it suddenly broke, and he began to fall.  Suddenly six wings appeared on his body, enabling him to fly safely to the bottom.  So that accounts for why Takla Haimanot is depicted with wings.  And if you look carefully at the icon, you will see the painter even put wings on the separated foot!

Such extravagant and unusual tales are typical of Ethiopian hagiography, reflected in the distinctive style of Ethiopian icons.

It is interesting to note that the Ethiopian Bible is the largest in Christianity, containing 81 books.  Of these, 46 are Old Testament, and 35 New Testament.  Ethiopia also has the oldest known existing illuminated Christian manuscript, one of two early books called the Garima Gospels, said by tradition to have been translated into the Ethiopian Ge’ez language  by a monastic founder from Constantinople named Abba Garima.  The story goes that he completed the whole work in one day, because God kept the sun from going down.  Here is a page from it:


Ever heard of St. Sisinnios?  Most people have not.  Nonetheless, there exist icons of a tale associated with him — and also with an archangel most people have not heard of either, named Sikhiel.

But first you need to know that there is more than one St. Sisinnios.  In fact, there are as many as nine.  The Sissinios as seen in today’s icon combines elements from more than one, including a Sissinios of Antioch who is said to have killed his sister, because she was possessed by the demon Gyllou (Lilith), and was trying to murder her own children. He is also sometimes blended with one of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste.

The various versions of the tale of Sissinios are remarkably tangled, confused and widespread throughout the Eastern Orthodox realms, from Greece through the Balkans to Russia — and even beyond.

Unravelling all the strands mixed into the story of St. Sissinios is not easy, and it would take a book to detail them all.  In “official” church tradition he was a a bishop who lived in Kyzikos (now in Turkey) and was tortured and martyred for his faith in the time of the Emperor Diocletian.

In variable religious folk tradition, however, Sissinios stood on a mountain called “Sinai,” (or in some versions a marble pillar) by the sea.  There he kept watch to make sure that the 12 demons of fever (or sometimes 7 or 40, or 77 in other versions) were prevented from coming out of the sea to spread their sicknesses among people — particularly among children.  It is said that Sissinios could force the demons to reveal their secret names (often all are named for some kind of feverish illness or symptom), and so he gained power over them.  They are sometimes called daughters (or wives) of King Herod, sometimes daughters of Cain.   It is said that Sisinnios, seeing the fever demons trying to come out of the sea, called on God, who sent the demon-fighting Archangel Sikhael (in some versions also the archangel Enos and the four Evangelists) down to conquer the demons, who promise not to enter any dwelling where the name of the the Archangel Sikhael is spoken.  So confused has this all become that in some icons the archangel is Michael, in others Raphael or some other angel.  In any case, prayers, rituals, charms, icons and amulets associated with Sissinios and the Archangel were intended to protect households from fever diseases, worst of all, from the Black Plague.  Magic and spells — often containing odd prayers or requiring peculiar rituals — were a significant part of folk belief in the Eastern Orthodox countries.

Here is the basic type, which in this example replaces Sikhiel with the Archangel Raphael.  The fever demons are here depicted sitting in flames:

Here is a more elaborate version with additional saints:

For our purposes, the essential elements of the icon are three:

First, St. Sissinios, dressed as a bishop:

His abbreviated inscription reads SVYATUIY SVYASHCHENNOMUCHENIK SISINIY — “Holy Priest-martyr Sisiniy [Sisinnios in Greek].

Second, the angel (actually an archangel) standing at left, and thrusting his spear into the  third element — the sea/pool/cave below Sissinios, which contains demons. In some versions the angel holds birch rods that he uses to whip them.  As we have seen, his name varies from example to example:

All the other saints depicted are just additions, but of course they were thought to make the icon more powerful and useful.

At upper right are Venerable Paphnutiy of Borovsk, Wonderworker; below him at left is Martyr Ouar, and at right the martyress Oulitta and her son, Kirik.

At lower left is Venerable Much-suffering Job:

And at lower right is Venerable Ioann the Much-suffering.

Though the title of such icons varies, for convenience we can call the type Явление архангела Сихаила святому Сисинию — Yavlenie arkhangela Sikhaila svyatomu Sisiniu— “The Appearance of the Archangel Sikhail to Holy Sisiniy/Sissinios” — keeping in mind, of course, that the angel in such icons may not always be Sikhail.  Some amulet/medallion icons simply depict the Archangel and Sissinios without the demons.


If you are a long-time reader here, you will recall that the “appearance” of something — whether an icon or a vision — is a yavlenie in Russian icon terminology.  And you may recall from a past posting that there is also the related form yavisya, meaning “appeared.”

That should help you with today’s icon.  Here it is:

Let’s look at the title inscription:

As you see, it abbreviates some words with certain omitted letters written above the line as superscript letters.  If we add all missing letters, it reads (modern Russian font):


There are certain forms of letters to note in the original:

You should recall that the above letter — written like an I and an A together — is one of two ways of writing the sound ya in Church Slavic.  The other form is like a capital A with a vertical line descending from the middle of the crossbar.  Both are represented in the modern Russian font by Я.  Note also that when it appears at the end of the first word, yavisya, it appears like this:

That is because the left I of the IA combination is made much smaller, and inserted into the space in the preceding letter, C.  Together, these form –sya.

Also note that in the name Aleksandr, the following Slavic letter is used for the –ks– sound, like our x in English Alexander.  In the modern Russian font it would be written as КС


Finally, the second part of Alexandr’s name — Svirskiy — is written here in the “to” form as Svyerskomu, using that convenient letter for –ye– that was dropped from the modern Russian font:

Don’t be surprised that the writer chose the ye sound instead of the normal i sound to write Svirsk– as Svyersk-.  Such variations in spelling are not unusual in icons.  And notice that the Р (r) in Svyersk– is written smaller and above the letter.

So, all together the title inscription is:

Appeared Holy         Trinity     Venerable-to            Aleksandr   Svyersk
Or in normal English,
Note the dative (or “to” form) suffixes on Prepodobnomu, Aleksandr and Svyerskomu.

If we look above Alexandr’s head (he is the fellow kneeling at the right in the image), we see his name written:

It appears as:

“Venerable Alexander”

So much for the title.  But what is this icon type about?

The three angels at left are the members of the Holy Trinity –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — though they are not distinguished as to which is which:

And, of course, here is Alexandr Svirskiy:

Alexandr Svirskiy (1448-1533) was one of the monks of the northern Russian forests — the so-called “Northern Thebaid.”  He is called Svirskiy because he settled some 12 miles east of Lake Ladoga, in the vicinity of the Svir River, which runs between Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga. There he led an ascetic and rigorous life.  It is said that in 1508 an angel appeared to him, telling him to build a church and a monastery.  He did not do so.  Later, the angel again appeared, repeating the  instructions.  Again he did not.  Finally (here again is the “third time is the charm” motif we find repeatedly in these old tales of saints and icons) the Trinity appeared to him as three men in shining garments, each with a staff in hand, telling him to build a monastery and a church in the name of the Holy Trinity (Svyataya Troitsa).  This of course recalls the appearance of Yahweh, manifested as three men, to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre, according to the Old Testament story in Genesis 18.

That is the traditional account of the origin of the Trinity Cloister at what is now called the Alexandr Svirskiy Monastery (Александро-Свирский монастырь).  A body said to be that of Alexandr, and reputed to be “incorrupt” and to manifest miracles, was returned to that monastery in 1998.


Some icon types have commonly-used names that are nonetheless generally not written on the icon as a title.  There are several types of Jesus that fit into this category.

Here is one example, the “Wet Beard Savior” (Спас Мокрая Брада — Spas Mokraya Brada/Boroda):

The distinguishing feature of this type is that the beard looks wet, with the tip of the beard often (though not always) bending to the right.  The tip may be single or slightly forked.  This image of Jesus with the wet beard goes back to the legend that Jesus once pressed a cloth to his wet face, and his image was miraculously transferred to the cloth, thus creating the supposed first Christian icon.  This tale is generally referred to as the Abgar Legend  For more on this, see the earlier posting:

The “Wet Beard Savior” may appear as just the head of Jesus, or as the head superimposed on a cloth, in which case it may have the “Not Made by Hands” inscription, as in the following example:

The inscription at the base reads (it is abbreviated on the icon)

Nerukotvorennui Obraz Gospoda Nashego Isusa Khrista
Not-hand-made Image {of} Lord of-Us Jesus Christ
The “Not Made by Hands Image” of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Here is another version:

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

Another type in which the common name is generally not written on the image (though there are exceptions) is the “Angry Eye Savior” (Спас Ярое ОкоSpas Yaroe Oko ).  The identifying characteristic of this type is that Jesus looks distinctly angry or severe, as in this example:

The third type we will look at today is a “Lord Almighty” icon commonly known as the “Golden Hair Savior” (СПАС ЗЛАТЫЕ ВЛАСЫ — Spas Zlatuie Vlasui).  Icons of this type are likely to be modern, and they are based on a particular old and damaged icon that was kept in the Dormition Cathedral of the Kremlin in Moscow.  In this icon, the hair of Jesus is rendered in gold, rather than the usual dark color.  Here it is:

As you know, the use of gold in icons indicated heavenly light, or as the Hesychasts called it, the “Uncreated Light.”  This old icon has a damaged inscription taken from John 8:12:

Аз есмь свет миру: ходяй по мне не имать ходити во тме, но имать свет животный.
“I am the Light of the World.  Who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

Copies may add the inscription:

Дондеже свет имате, веруйте во свет, да сынове Света будете
“While you have the light, believe in the light; [that you may become sons of the light].”