This icon type — the Akhtuirskaya — is one of the so-called “miracle-working” Marian icons. Its origin story relates that it “appeared” on the 2nd of July, 1739, when a priest named Vasiliy Danilov was out cutting grass with a new scythe near the Pokrov Church at the village of Akhtuirka. It is said he saw the icon lying before him in the grass, shining with a brilliant light.
Icons of the Akhtuirskaya (Akhtyrskaya) type are commonly painted in the more realistic manner of the State Church, given that the icon “appeared” after the Old Believers — the more traditional painters — had separated. It was officially placed among the recognized “miracle-working” Marian icons by the so-called “Holy Governing Synod” of the Russian Orthodox State Church in 1751.
The type is unusual in that Mary is usually shown with long, uncovered hair. That is a sign that the image was adopted from Western European art, because in Eastern Orthodoxy, uncovered and long hair is usually found on “loose women” or reformed prostitutes. That is why in most Marian icons, she is shown with the maphorion covering her hair. But Roman Catholic art had no such stigma. Occasionally one will find an icon of the Akhtuirskaya in which Mary has been given a headcovering.
Let’s look at the inscription:
Истинное ображение и мера Ахтырския икона Богоматериия
которая явилась въ 1739м году июля 2m дна
Istinnoe obrazhenie i myera Akhtuirskiya ikona Bogomateriiya kotoraya yavilas v 1739m Godu Iiulya 2m dna
“The true representation and measure of the Akhtuirskaya icon of the Mother of God
which appeared in the 1739th year, July, 2nd day.“
Note that the date here uses the Western European numbering system instead of the old Cyrillic letter-numbers.
The Akhtuirskaya type is easy to recognize. Mary is at left, with hands in the prayer position. Her head inclines toward the image of the crucified Jesus at right, which is usually set on a base of hills. The image of Mary is customarily much larger than, and out of proportion with, the Crucifixion in this type.
Here is a Russian icon of the Crucifixion, as the title at the top, РАСПЯТIЕ ГОСПОДНЕ — RASPYATIE GOSPODNE — “CRUCIFIXION OF THE LORD” tells us. But as you can see, it is not only of the Crucifixion. There are many secondary scenes included.
The main image, of course, is the Crucifixion:
At the very top is the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, which indicates this is likely a “Priestless” Old Believer image. Below it is the cross, bearing several of the usual inscriptions — IC XC for Jesus Christ, “King of Glory,” “Son of God,” “We Honor (lit. bow before) Your Cross, Lord, and Praise Your Holy Resurrection,” and NIKA — “[He] Conquers.” Soldiers at left and right raise the spear and the sponge atop a reed.
We see the sun and moon. Below the sun is the inscription СОЛНЦЕ ПОМЕРЧЕ — SOLNTSE POMERCHE — “The Sun Darkens….” And below the moon is ЛУНА В КРОВЬ ПРЕЛОЖИСЯ = LUNA V KROV PRELOZHISYA “The moon becomes as blood.”
At the left of the cross is the “Eden” story, showing the creation of Adam and Eve, their eating of the forbidden fruit, and being cast out of the garden:
At upper right is Noah, with the dove returning after the “worldwide” flood:
At left is the Tower of Babel — a scene not often found in Russian icons:
At right again is the sea monster vomiting up Jonah:
Then we can look to the left for the scene of Joseph having been cast into the pit by his brothers (Genesis 37:23-24). He is called ИОСИФЪ ПРЕКРАСНЫЙ — Iosif Prekrasnuiy — “Joseph the Beautiful.”
Also on the left side, we find the birth and circumcision of Jesus:
Next — at left — we find the “Meeting in the Temple,” the reception of Jesus by the aged Simeon and the Prophetess Anna:
At right we see the baptism of Jesus by John:
Beside it is the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness:
Above that we see the Transfiguration of Jesus, and the healing of the infirm man at the Pool of Bethesda:
At lower right is the “Mystic Supper” — the “Last Supper.”
Moving back up to the right side of the Crucifixion, we see the removal of Jesus from the cross, and the placing in the tomb:
At the base of the Crucifixion we see the skull of Adam. According to tradition, he was buried in the same place where Jesus was later crucified, and the blood ran down upon the bones. Tradition also says that King Solomon once found the skull exposed, and out of respect for the Forefather Adam, had it covered up with stones, as seen here. To the left of that scene is the “Western-style” Resurrection image that came into Russian iconography late, and running along the bottom and up the right side is the “Descent into Hades,” the traditional depiction of the Resurrection used in Eastern Orthodoxy. The lower right scene in this image is the resurrected Jesus meeting his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias:
Next we move all the way to the top of the left side for the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles…
And the final image — at bottom left — is the Dormition of Mary:
Because it essentially shows the basic images of the whole tale of the so-called “Plan of Salvation,” this icon could have truly been a “Bible of the poor,” as church images used to be regarded for the illiterate — except that an icon this detailed, and with so many scenes and persons, would have been rather expensive to buy when it was new — so a poor person could not have afforded it.
Many “Old Testament Trinity” icons are very basic, showing only the three angels who appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in the Old Testament story. Rublyov’s famous Old Testament Trinity is a good example:
In later icon painting, things became more elaborate. Some painters liked to show much more of the story, as in this example:
First, let’s look at the title:
СВЯТАЯ И ЖИВОНАЧАЛНАЯ ТРОИЦА SVYATYA I ZHIVONACHALNAYA TROITSA
“[The] HOLY AND LIFE-GIVING TRINITY.”
Zhivonachalnaya means “to initiate or begin life — to be the source of life.” But we can translate it loosely into English as “life-giving.”
At upper left Abraham has met the angels and is bringing them home (here “home” is one of the stylized buildings called “palaces” in Russian iconography, rather than the biblical tent):
In the next image, he washes the dust from the feet of his angel guests:
On the right side, dough is being kneaded to make bread for the visitors:
At left, a calf is being slaughtered to provide meat for the angels (not a very angel-friendly thing to do, one would think now):
At lower center is the main image, with the angels seated at a table, and Abraham and his wife Sarah waiting on them:
Finally, at upper right we see Abraham and his wife seeing the departing guests off.
Here is the major portion of the story as related in Chapter 18 of Genesis in the King James Version:
And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.
And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.
There is an interval in which the angels predict that Sarah will have a son, and then the guests arise and begin to leave, but Abraham goes with them a short way, to see them off. As he does so, he is told about the problems in Sodom, makes a deal, and then the angels leave and Abraham returns home.
In the structure of the story, it is made clear that the three angels are really manifestations of Yahweh, the god of Israel. That is why in later Christian thought, the three angels came to represent the concept of the Trinity.
Here is the same icon with a silver and gilt riza dated 1881 placed over it:
It bears a porcelain plaque reading simply Svyataya Troitsa — “Holy Trinity.”
Today we will look at a pleasantly-painted image of Gospod Savaof — “Lord Sabaoth” — as God the Father is generally titled in Russian Orthodoxy.
If you have been reading here for any length of time, you will know that contrary to what is sometimes stated by conservative religious sites, the image of God the Father has been common and very widespread in Eastern Orthodoxy for many centuries. He is shown as an old man with a long white beard, as in the example below. He has the “eight-pointed slava” (slava means “glory” here) behind his head, which symbolizes his eternal nature (the eight points traditionally signify the days of Creation, with the eighth day being the “Day of Eternity”).
In this example, he holds a globe surmounted by a cross, symbolizing universal rule:
He blesses with his right hand. And if we look at the position of the fingers, we can see this is not an Old Believer icon, because the fingers (beginning with the second finger — the one next to the thumb) form the letters IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ” (the finger and thumb touching are loosely interpreted as the “X”).
The Old Believers however –as you know — use the “two-fingered” blessing, as in this illustration. That is characteristic of Old Believer icons.
Though at first this icon of Lord Sabaoth looks to be painted in the old manner, nonetheless we can see signs of the influence of western European art in it. Let’s look more closely at the face:
There is a strong attempt to make the flesh and its wrinkles look more realistic in subtle shading, though there is still sylization. Look particularly at the inner corners of the eyes. There we see that little dot of flesh (technically the lacrimal caruncle) that eyes really have. It is a significant realistic, naturalistic touch, and as I have said before, that little detail is not found in Russian icons before the latter part of the 1600s. Also, you probably noticed that the folds of the garment are more flowing and somewhat less rigid than they would be in the strict old manner. So this is a kind of transitional icon, standing between the old highly stylized manner of painting and the more realistic “Western” style, while incorporating elements of both. The “Western” style (sometimes called “Italianate”) gradually came to predominate in the Russian Orthodox State Church, while the very conservative Old Believers kept the earlier and more stylized tradition alive into modern times.
In the later and most prolific period of Russian icon painting — the 18th to early 20th centuries — one frequently finds dated icons with inscriptions telling the year and month and even the day on which the icon was completed. Often the name of the painter is included, as well as other information. That is a tremendous help in determining precisely when an icon was painted, which is somewhat more tricky if one must go by style alone, because styles could extend themselves over many decades.
Such dates were written in Cyrillic letters used as numbers. To read them, one must learn that numbering system. The same system was used in books such as the Bible and in podlinniki (painter’s manuals). So knowing this system is essential knowledge for a student of icons.
Here, for example, is a text from a book printed in Moscow. It contains a year date. Such dates include three or four letters, and they are usually recognizable as “year” dates because a little double-barred cross precedes the first letter number. The date is the last four letters at bottom right:
So here is the date:
How do we read it? To know that, we have to know what Cyrillic letters mean as numbers. Here is a useful chart:
Numbers in general are written with a titlo (the little horizontal line placed above the letter-number).
The numbers from 1-10 are simple.
The numbers from 11-19 are written as “one [and] ten,” “two [and] ten” “three [and] ten” and so on — meaning 11, 12, and thirteen, respectively.
At 20 the system changes, written as “twenty [and] one,” “twenty [and] two,” twenty [and] three,” and so on.
When we reach the hundreds, each number from 100 to 900 has its own letter.
When we get to the thousands, the numbers are again simple, but a thousand number has a little “double-barred cross” preceding it, as in these two examples for the numbers 1,000 and 2,000.
A higher thousand number just follows the same sequence as the first 1-9 numbers on the first chart above, but of course preceded by the little “double-barred cross” to indicate it is read as one of the “thousand” numbers:
Let’s look again at the date on the book:
We can see that the first letter — З — is a thousands number because it is preceded by the “double-barred cross.” Looking at the first chart above, we see that used in the first line it would mean 7, but because it is preceded by the “thousand” sign, we read it as 7,000.
The next letter — У — is found in the line for “hundreds” numbers. we can see that it means 400.
The third letter — K — is 20.
The fourth letter — Г — is 3, as we see in the first line of the chart.
So all together, we have this, reading the number from left to right:
7,000 and 400 and 20 and 3,
or in the common form, 7,423. And that is the date when the book was printed.
You are perhaps thinking, “What?!! That can’t be right!” Well it is right, and to understand why, you need to know that dates on old icons were commonly written using a different system of numbering years. Old Russian years were calculated from the supposed date of the Creation of the World, which in those pre-scientific times was believed to be 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus. So any date after the supposed birth of Jesus was given by adding more years onto the 5,508.
That means the date on the book — 7,423 — was the date from the supposed Creation of the World.
To put that into our modern year numbering system, we need only do some simple math. Here is the formula:
Old year date – 5508 = date in modern years
So in the case of our book date,
And that is the date on the book — the date when it was printed: 1915. So now that you know this, you can read the dates on Russian icons and on books using the old numbering and year system.
Now let’s look at another number (just assume it has a titlo above it):
It would read:
7000 and 200 and 8
That makes it the year 7,208.
Let’s do the calculation:
7,208 (old year system)
minus 5,508 (supposed date of Creation)
equals 1700 (modern year system)
That year, 1700, is important in Russian history. That is the year when Peter the Great changed Russia’s official calendar, bringing it closer to the Western system. That means for the Russian government, it was suddenly no longer the year 7208 from the Creation of the World; it was now the year 1700 from the (supposed) Birth of Jesus. The New Year was set at January 1st instead of September 1st. But because both systems continued to be used, dates may be written in one or the other system.
That is useful to know, because it explains why some icons — usually those not painted by Old Believers — were dated using the modern year system, but still written in old letter-numbers. In such dates, up to the year 1999, the first number will be the “one thousand” number:
Dates on icons may be presented in a number of formulaic ways, from the very simple to more complex. For example:
написася [year] го года в месаце июне
Napisasya [year] -go goda v m[esa]tsye iiunye
“[Was] painted [ year ]-th year in month (of) June” Or it may say something like:
Napisasya sia svyataya ikone v leto ___ genvarya __ dna
“[Was] painted this holy icon in the year ___January ___ day”
Then there is the form beginning with Mira (of the world).”
That is a shortened version of this:
Napisasya sia svyataya ikona ot sozdaniya mira ______ -go Maia ____ den’
“[Was] painted this holy icon from creation of world _____ -th May ____day”
“This holy icon was painted from the Creation of the World ________(year) May _____ day”
As one example, it might read:
“This holy icon was painted from the Creation of the World 7360, month August, 10 day.”
meaning it was painted in 7360 (1852 modern system), August, on the 10th day.
So those are the basics of reading old dates on Russian icons and in books using the old letter-number system. It is actually quite simple once one becomes accustomed to it.
To find the date in this photo of an inscription on the reverse side of an icon, just look for that “double-barred cross” and the titlo over three or four lettes:
The inscription says that “Before this icon prayed the Moscow merchant Lavrentiy Ivanov, son of Osip, and acquired for him this icon in the year ____________.
To find out what that year was, let’s look more closely:
You will find that the year is 7,318;
equals 1810 (the date in our system)
Here is another chart on which you will find examples of both an old system ( as 7506) and a new system (as 1998) date in letter-numbers in the right-hand column:
Note that the number 800 may be written like the word “ot” (meaning “from”) in some examples, as in the right-side line on that chart.
Now that you have that basic information in mind, you should know that using 5,508 as the base date applies generally to calculating dates for years after 1492 (the year the September 1st date for the New Year was adopted).
Now there is one confusing element to all this. For general purposes, using the 5,508 year of Creation as our base for calculations is close enough. But keep in mind that since the old system year began on September 1st, icons with old system dates having a month from September through December will be off if calculated by the 5,508 base. So for icons with the month given as September, October, November, and up to December 31st, subtract 5,509 as the base, instead of 5,508. If the month is not given on an icon (as in the Lavrentiy Ivanov example given above), technically the calculated date should be given as 1809/1810, because either is possible, and we cannot tell just which it is without knowing the month as well. But for general purposes, we just go with the 5,508-callculated date, given that it has an 8 out of 12 chance of being correct, and it is close enough when one does not have to be exactly on the mark.
Finally, you will of course find that some icons painted from the 18th century onward may use our ordinary Arabic numbering system (1,2,3,4,5, etc.). It is more commonly found on very late icons.
(THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO COMMENTED DURING “PUBLIC COMMENTS” WEEK. NOW WE WILL GO BACK TO OUR USUAL PRIVATE COMMENTS POLICY, WHICH MEANS I WILL SEE COMMENTS SENT TO THE BLOG, BUT THEY WILL NOT BE VISIBLE TO OTHER SITE READERS AFTER NOVEMBER 17, 2017.)
I began this icon blog in 2011. At that time, I had no idea whether such a blog would interest anyone. Writing it was the result of remembering my frustration when I first began to study icons decades ago. There was a severe lack of any practical information that would help one learn how to read icons, and to understand the history behind them. Remembering that, and all the work I had to go through to learn over the years, I decided to begin a blog that would quickly make any interested person more of an expert on icons than a great many “professionals” in the field.
My approach was not — and is not — religious. I see icons as representatives of earlier times and cultures, extending all the way back to the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods. I had read a lot of nonsense over the years in “religious” books about the history of icons, and I decided to dispel many of the myths they repeat again and again from book to book and website to website.
I have to say, I have been very surprised by the large numbers of people reading this site, and the friendly messages I often receive from them.
Now as you know, I ordinarily do not post comments on this site (as many web sites do). However, given the amount of time this site has existed, I decided to stop posting for about a week, to give readers a chance to comment publicly if they wish. What kind of comments? Well, anything you want to say. If you like the blog, and why — if you don’t like the blog — if you want it to continue — if you would like more information on a certain aspect of icons or a certain related subject. Of course I know there are some very conservative religious people out there who don’t like the idea of a non-religious blog on icons at all — but given that I provide more useful information than any other English-language site, they seem to read the blog anyway.
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