Here is a 19th century icon from a private collection:

You will recognize from a past posting that the central figure, wearing the crown of thorns here, is that of  the “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” (Спас в темнице / Spas v temnitse,  Спас Полуночный / Spas Polunochnuiy). 

The more elaborate icon on this page combines that basic image of Christ imprisoned with the Instruments of the Passion.  So we can title this expanded icon Христос в Темнице с Орудиями Страстей — Khristos v Temnitse s Orudiyami Strastey — “Christ in the Dungeon with the Arms of the Passion.”  “Arms” or “weapons” here is to be understood in the sense in which it is used in a “coat of arms.”  In other words these are symbols — the instruments of the Passion story of Jesus.  These symbolic Arma Christi (in Latin) — “Arms of Christ”  date as far back as the Middle Ages in Catholic Christianity.

As you might have guessed, this late Russian icon type is derived from Roman Catholic imagery.

On it, we see a number of inscriptions.  Most just identify the various objects, but we will look at one more closely.  We have to turn this part of the image sideways to read the inscription:

It reads:

Разделиша ризы моя себе и даша в снедь мне [мою] желчь
Razdelisha rizui moya sebe i dasha v sned’ mne [moiu] zhelch’

“They parted my garments among them and for my raiment cast lots.”

Though based on Psalm 22:18 (21:18 in the Church Slavic Bible), repeated in Matthew 27:35, the text here is closer to a variant in liturgical use.

It is not difficult to identify all the other objects.

At left is the pillar to which Jesus was tied when flogged.  Atop it, we see the rooster that crowed three times as Peter denied Jesus:

At bottom left is the scourge used to beat Jesus.
To the right of the base of the pillar is the chalice of the Last Supper.
Below it is the robe of Jesus.
Below that are the hammer and nails used to crucify Jesus,  and the pincer with which the nails were removed.

Between the chained legs of Jesus we see the dice cast for his garment, and below his feet is the pouch that held the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed him, with the silver pieces scattered beside it.  Below them are rods used to whip Jesus.  Above the coins is the knife/sword Peter used to cut off the ear of the the servant of the High Priest.

Above the sword is the pitcher of water Pilate used for washing his hands.

On the right side we see the lance with its point at left, the sponge on a reed at right, and the ladder of the “Removal from the Cross.”

The only remaining object is the hand at lower right, which represents the hand which slapped Jesus.

This is not a common icon type.





In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is an ornate, rectangular cloth used in the services of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  It is placed on the altar and on a table in the center of the church, and it is also carried in ritual procession.

In ritual use, it represents the removal from the cross, burial, body, and tomb of Jesus.

In Greek it is commonly called an Epitaphios (Ἐπιτάφιος) or Epitaphion, meaning “on/over the tomb.”  Russians call it a Plashchanitsa (Плащаница) — a “Shroud.”

It is decorated — commonly embroidered but sometimes painted, or both — with either the iconographic type of the Deposition (the “Placing in the Tomb”) or with the dead body of Jesus alone.

On Russian examples, there is generally an embroidered inscription around the outer border.  Usually it is the Good Friday Vespers Troparion, tone 2:

Благообразный Иосиф с древа снем Пречистое Тело Твое, плащаницею чистою обвив, и вонями во гробе нове покрыв положи.

Blagoobraznuiy Iosif  s dreva snem Prechistoe Telo Tvoe, plashchanitseiu chistoiu obviv, i vonyami vo grobe nove pokruiv polozhi.

“The noble Joseph took from the tree your most pure body, wrapped it in a clean shroud, and with spices laid it in burial in a new tomb.”

When that troparion is sung, the plashchanitsa is carried in procession before being placed on a table in the center of the church.  Often that table is ornamented with flowers and candles, and is the symbolic “tomb” in which the plashchanitsa (“the body”) is placed.

Sometimes, however, there is a different inscription, particularly on older examples.

Here is a plashchanitsa from the year 1662.  As you see, it has a long vyaz (meaning with some letters linked and others and pushed close together — “condensed” — by using larger and smaller letters) inscription around the outer border:

(Vologda Oblast Regional Museum)

In the center is a rather standard “Placing in the Tomb” (Положение во гроб  Polozhenie vo Grob) icon type, which the Greeks call Επιτάφιος Θρήνος — Ho Epitaphios Threnos — “The Weeping/Lamentation over the Tomb.”

In the four inner corners are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

Let’s look closer to see some inscriptions:

By the angel symbol at left, we can make out МАТФЕ for МАТФЕИ –Matfei — “Matthew.”

Next comes МАРФА — Marfa — “Martha.”

Then МАРИЯ –Mariya — “Mary.”

And the woman below is ΜΡ ΘΥ  abbreviating Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”

By that inscription, we see the common IC XC abbreviation for Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”

At right we see the inscriptions for ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ — Gospod Savaof — “Lord Sabaoth,” God the Father.  And below him is the СВЯТЫ ДУХЪ — Svyatui Dukh — “Holy Spirit” in the form of a dove.

The face at the right is that of ИОАН–Ioan — “John” the Apostle.

Here is the right portion of the central image:

We see ИОСИФЪ —Iosif — “Joseph” at left.
Beside him is НИОДИМЬ —Nikodim — “Nicodemus.”  And at right is an eagle, the symbol here for МАРКО — Marko — “Mark” the Evangelist.

Now there is the long border inscription to deal with.  It might seem intimidating at first, but remember that when you see an inscription you do not recognize, the first step is not to throw up one’s hands in dismay, but rather to begin looking for any familiar words.

So let’s see what we can do by that methodology.  Here is the inscription separated into parts for easier viewing.  Remember that inscriptions usually begin in the upper left-hand corner, so that is where we shall start:

Let’s look closer at the very beginning.  It is helpful, when trying to decipher an inscription, to write the letters down:


We can put it into all large letters too, and transliterate it:

Wait — doesn’t that beginning DAMOLCHIT sound vaguely familiar?  It should.  We have seen it before in this earlier posting (and of course you remember everything in earlier postings here, don’t you?):

There we see it as the beginning of this text:

Да молчит всякая плоть человеча, и да стоит со страхом и трепетом, и ничтоже земное в себе да помышляет; Царь бо царствующих, и Господь господствующих, приходит заклатися и датися в снедь верным. Предходят же Сему лицы ангельстии со всяким Началом и Властию, многоочитии Херувими, и шестокрилатии Серафими, лица закрывающе, и вопиюще песнь: Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя.

Da molchit vsyakaya plot chelovecha, i da stoit so strakhom i trepetom, i
nichtozhe zemnoe v sebe da pomuishlyaet; Tsar bo tsarsvuiushchikh, i Gospod
gospodstvuiushchikh, prikhodit zaklatisya i datisya v sned vernium.  Predkhodyat zhe Semu litsui angelstii so vsyakim Nachalom i Vlasiiu, mnogoochitii
Kheruvimi, i shestokrilatii Seraphimi, litsa zakruivaiushche, i vopiiushche pesn:
Alliluya, Alliluya, Alliluya.

Let all human flesh be silent, and let it stand with fear and trembling, and let itself consider nothing earthly; for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords comes forth to be sacrificed and given as food to the believers; and there go before him the choirs of Angels, with every Dominion and Power, many-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces, and singing out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

And if we look at the inscription, we can see that even though our embroidered version says vsyaka plot as the third and fourth words instead of vsyakaya plot, we can consider that just a shortening of the word — such differences are common in old inscriptions.  But the important thing is that if we go on and write down and transliterate the rest of it, we find it to be very much the same as the “Da molchit” inscription we see in the earlier Eucharistic icon.  And we know from that posting that this text is the excerpt from the Liturgy of St. Basil, used in the Eucharistic celebration on Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter Sunday) in place of the usual “Cherubic Hymn.”

Here is the remainder of the border inscription, in case you want to practice your vyaz.  It is  read from top to the right border to left border to bottom:

Right side:

Left side:

Bottom left:

Bottom right:

If we look at the right half of that last bottom part — beginning near the middle, we can see this sequence:


It is not difficult to recognize three repetitions of ALLILUIYA — in English form Alleluia/Hallelujah.  So that just confirms that we have the right text, as we could see if we transliterate the whole thing bit by bit.

Да молчит всякая плоть человеча, и да стоит со страхом и трепетом, и ничтоже земное в себе да помышляет; Царь бо царствующих, и Господь господствующих, приходит заклатися и датися в снедь верным. Предходят же Сему лицы ангельстии со всяким Началом и Властию, многоочитии Херувими, и шестокрилатии Серафими, лица закрывающе, и вопиюще песнь: Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя, Аллилуйя.

There still remain some inscriptions we must deal with.  Of course you will easily read the ИОАНЪ/IOAN/JOHN and  ЛУКА/LUKA/LUKE inscriptions beside the symbols of the two Evangelists at lower left and right, but there are two longer inscriptions as well.

There is:


That is a variation on an icon title with which we are already familiar — ПОЛОЖЕНИЕ ВО ГРОБЪ/POLOZHENIE VO GROB/”[the] PLACING IN THE TOMB”

Here it is a bit longer:


[The] Placing in [the] tomb [of the] Lord God and Savior of-us Jesus Christ.”

In normal English, “The Placing in the Tomb of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Having disposed of that one rather easily, we can go on to the last inscription:


It means essentially that Dmitriy Andreyevich Stroganov (Дмитрий Андреевич Строганов, died 1670) had this plashchanitsa (siya plashchantisa) made as a donation to a church.  Dmitriy was  a member of the very wealthy Stroganov family that gave its name to a school of icon painting.  In the year 1647, Dmitriy and his father Andrey owned — among other holdings — towns, villages, and 1, 488 serfs.


In Russian iconography, “Avvakum” usually means one of two things.  Either it is Avvakum the Prophet (Prorok Avvakum), or it is the unfortunate martyred Old Believer saint Archpriest Avvakum (Protopop Avvakum) who resisted the revisions of Church books and practices pushed through by Patriarch Nikon in the middle of the 17th century, and was killed for it.

Today we will look at Avvakum the Prophet.

Avvakum is just the Slavic form of the name of the Old Testament prophet found in the King James Version of the Bible as Habbakuk.  In the Greek Septuagint version, he is called Ἀμβακοὺμ ὁ προφήτης — Ambakoum ho prophetes — “Ambakoum the Prophet”.

Here is an 18th century image of Avvakum from the Prophets Tier of a Karelian Church.

(Kizhi Monastery, Karelia)

It is a folkish and pleasant image with a very nicely-written scroll.  The text is one often found on icons of Avvakum:

It reads:


Then in small letters at the base:
приосененныя чащи

priocenenuiya chashchi

AND [the] HOLY [one] F-
of shadowy thickets.

We could also transliterate IUGA (the South) as Yuga, and if we do it that way, it may remind you of the former country known as Yugoslavia — “South Slavia.”  That may help you to remember the meaning of ЮГ IUG/YUG “the South.”  The A added to the end of IUG in the inscription is a grammatical ending.

As you see in the icon, Avvakum is pointing to a thicket of trees.

Here is an earlier and more sophisticated icon

We can see that the inscription is much the same, but with the  absence of the word chashchi — “thickets/thick forests” at then end:



“God from the South comes, and the Holy One from the mountain of shadowy…

The text is taken from Avvakum/Habbakuk 3:3:

Бог от юга приидет, и святый из горы приосененныя чащи

“God from the South comes, and the Holy One from the mountain of shadowy thickets.”

The Septuagint Greek text is a bit different:

3 ὁ Θεὸς ἀπὸ Θαιμὰν ἥξει, καὶ ὁ ἅγιος ἐξ ὄρους κατασκίου δασέος.

Ho Theos apo Thaiman hexei, kai ho hagios ex orous kataskiou daseos

“God from Thaiman comes, and the Holy One from the mountain of  the shadowy thicket.”

The latter part of the Greek phrase is sometimes translated as “the mountain overshadowed by forests.”

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the “mountain of the shadowy thicket” or “overshadowing thicket” or “overshadowed by forests” is seen as a symbol of Mary, from whom God comes — i.e. from whom Jesus was born.  The Ode 4 First Canon from the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple says:

The overshadowed mountain that Habakkuk foresaw and announced prophetically in days of old has come to dwell within the sanctuary of the temple; there she has put forth flowers of virtue and with her shadow she covers the ends of the earth.

Of course this is really fanciful interpretation, and the King James version of Habbakuk 3:3 — based on the Masoretic Hebrew text — has no “shadowy thicket” or “overshadowing forest” at all:

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran.”

Both Teman and Paran, in the Old Testament, seem to be places associated with the desert region south of Israel — the direction of Edom and Sinai.

One of the bothersome things for students of iconography is that painters did not always give a prophet the same scroll text.  The following image of Avvakum has a scroll with a text that is obviously not the “mountain of shadowy thickets” one we have just seen:

Here is a closer view:

It reads:


It is adapted from the text we find in Avvakum 3:1 in the Ostrog Bible — the old version used by Old Believers:


We find another adaptation of it used in the Ode 4 Irmos of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:

Песнь 4 Ирмос: Услыша пророк пришествие Твое, Господи, и убояся, яко хощеши от Девы родитися и человеком явитися, и глаголаше: услышах слух Твой и убояхся, слава силе Твоей, Господи.

Ode 4: Irmos:
The prophet heard of your coming, Lord, and was afraid that you were to be born of a virgin and appear to men, and he said, ‘I have heard the report of you and am afraid.’ Glory to your power, Lord.
So whether a thicket/thickets or overshadowed forest or a prophet afraid, both  texts found on Avvakum icons are considered to relate, in Eastern Orthodoxy, to Mary, who gave birth to Jesus.  She is the “thicket” or “forest” to which Avvakum points in the first icon on this page.



Every now and then, someone asks me about the letters sometimes seen on Greek icons of Nicholas of Myra — specifically on his omophorion, the stole bishops wear about the neck.

Let’s look more closely:

They can be quite mystifying, but the mystery is easy to solve.

First, the most common are those seen on the right in the image above.  They should be read in this order:


Τhey abbreviate the Greek words


In full,

Φως Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι
Phos Khristou Phainei Pasi
“The light (PHos) of Christ (KHristou ) Shines (PHainei) on all (Pasi )

“The Light of Christ Shines Upon All.”

You may also see the last word in Greek as Πάσιν/pasin, with the same meaning.

During the weekdays of Lent, the Eucharistic liturgy — that is, the one in which the bread and wine are consecrated — is not used.  Instead the evening liturgy used is called the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.”  When communion is given during this vespers liturgy, the “gifts” used — that is, the bread and wine — were previously consecrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of the preceding Sunday.  That is why they are called “presanctified gifts.”

Now at one point in that Vespers communion liturgy, the priest looks at the icon of Christ and says:

Φώς Χριστού…
Phos Khristou
“The light of Christ…”

Then he turns to the congregation and says:

…φαίνει πάσι
phainei pasi.”
“…shines upon all.”

So that is the origin of the  ΦΧΦΠ.

Another abbreviation is also sometimes seen on the omophorion, as in the image on this page.  It is:


You may have already guessed that the IC is for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”  You will of course remember that on Greek icons the older form of “S” is C and the newer form Σ.

You might at first be puzzled by the N K, until you recall the very common cross abbreviation:

Iesous Khristos Nika
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”

And that is what the N K on the omophorion stands for:  N[I]K[A] — “[he] Conquers.”


If we were playing a “who is it” game, and I said to you, “Warrior saint, dragonslayer, saved princess,” you would probably answer “St. George.”  There is, however, another saint in icons who fits that description.  We would call him Theodore in English, though the Russians call him Feodor and the Greeks Theodoros.

In his “Lives of the Saints,” Dmitriy Rostovskiy (who was himself declared a saint) identified the dragonslayer Theodore as Theodore Stratelates (meaning “General”); but there is another warrior saint Theodore called Theodore Tiron (“Recruit”).  Here is a fresco from the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria depicting both:

(Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov )

Let’s look a bit closer.  Here is Theodore Tiron:

If you are a long time reader here, you should be easily able to read the title inscription as:
SVYATUIY FEODOR TIRON — “Holy Theodore Tiron.”

Tiron is just the transliterated Greek word Τήρων, meaning “Recruit.” 

Here is the other one:

SVYATUIY FEODOR STRATILAT — “Holy Theodore [the] General.”  Again, Stratilat is just a Slavicization of the Greek Στρατηλάτης, meaning “General.”  So this Theodore has a higher rank than the first:

The consensus of scholars, however, is that the second and higher ranked Theodore — Theodore Stratelates — Theodore the General — never existed, but is another of those fictional saints created in error.  He was mistakenly duplicated from Theodore Tiron, but given a higher rank.

The Bolshakov Podlinnik describes them like this:

Here is Theodore Stratelates, on February 9th:

Of holy Martyr Feodor Stratilat, rus hair like George, beard of Nikita the Martyr, in armor, robe cinnabar with white, cloak white, in the left hand a shield, on the head a reddish-purple helmet highlighted with cinnabar, in the hand a cross.

Then, on February 17th, we have Theodore Tiron:

Of the Holy Great Martyr Feodor Tiron, rus (light brown/dark blond), hair on the head curly, beard the length of Florus, in armor, armor all checkered gold, outer [robe] cinnabar, under armor green, leggings purplish black, in the right hand a cross, and in the left a sword.

Now we can easily see these descriptions do not fully match the Bulgarian depictions, but painters in different places often used other colors, so do not expect the Bolshakov Podlinnik to accurately describe all saints as they were depicted by different painters.


(Prepare yourself; get cup of tea and a cookie or twenty, because this is mind-numbingly long)

In the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodoxy, there are five pre-Lent Sundays, followed by five Lent Sundays.  There is an iconographic image associated with each.

The pre-Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography are;

Here is a 14th century Serbian Fresco showing Jesus and his disciples at left, and at right Zaccheus up a tree.

Here is the title inscription:

It reads:

“Christ calls Zacchaeus out of the Sycamore.”

I have transliterated the Church Slavic inscription using a modern Russian font, but note that the original uses the old symbol for ot (meaning “out of,” “from”), which looks like a Greek omega with a small T atop it — in other words, a combination of o and t:

And in the word Sikomorie/Sycamore, it uses that same “omega” symbol — minus the T — for the letter o.

The story of the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus — a staple of Sunday School classes for little children — is found in Luke 19:1-10:

And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.

And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, who was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.

3 And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.

And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.

5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said to him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at your house.

And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.

And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.

And Zacchaeus stood, and said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.

And Jesus said to him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.

10 For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.


Here is another 14th century Serbian fresco, the image for this Sunday:

The title inscription, which is rather difficult to see in this illustration, reads:

“[The] Parable of [the] Publican and [the] Pharisee.”

If you are wondering what all those brackets are about, remember that Church Slavic — like Russian, has no definite or indefinite articles — no “the” or “a,” so we have to supply them for good English.

The  short words above the two figures are just abbreviations of “Pharisee” (Фарисей; the central figure at left) and “Publican” (Митар; the central figure at right).

Note that the icon is really divided into two halves, and we see two images of the Publican and two of the Pharisee.  At left the proud Pharisee is praying and thanking God that he is not like that miserable Publican, toward whom he gestures with his left hand.  Below him is the Publican, shown humbly striking his breast with both fists.

In the right half of the icon we see the Publican, represented as the righteous one of the two by the halo that is now given him.  Notice the ray of heavenly light extending to his head.  Below him is the Pharisee, skulking out of the Temple with no halo — a sign of his divine rejection because of his pride.

In the upper portion of the image, we see the long reddish cloth hanging from building to building.  This is the velum — the old standard symbol telling us the scene is taking place in an interior.  At the center of the image is the temple altar, shown in the form of an Orthodox Church altar.

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is found in Luke 18:10-14:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.

Perhaps you noted the similarity between the prayer of the Publican and the “Jesus Prayer” repeated over and over in Russian Orthodoxy:
Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне Божий, помилуй мя, грешного.
Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine Bozhiy, pomiluy mya,greshnogo
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”


Ιcons of the Prodigal Son vary in their details and complexity.  Here is a modern page showing one Greek example:

The incriptions above the two figures in the foreground are:
Left:  ὁ άσωτος ὑιός — ho asotos huios — “the prodigal son”

In modern Greek, it is pronounced “o asotos eeos.”

Right: ὁ φιλόστοργος Πατήρ — ho philostorgos Pater — “the loving father”

At upper left the Prodigal Son is shown sitting depressed and hungry among the pigs, and at right we see him leaving the pigs and walking back to his home.

The rather lengthy and well-known story of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32.  I won’t repeat it here.

Note the signature in the lower right corner of the image.  It reads:

Χειρ φωτιου Κοντογλου
Κheir Photiou Kontoglou
“Hand [of] Photis Kontoglou”

If you are a long-time reader here (I keep saying that, don’t I!), you will not only be able to read that inscription on your own, but you will also recognize the name Photis Kontoglou (Φώτης Κόντογλου, 1895-1965).  He is noted for his 20th-century revival and adaptation of earlier iconographic styles and the creation of a new “retro” movement in modern Greek icon painting, which had a wide influence.


Another name for this day is “Meatfare Sunday,” because it is the last day on which believers can eat meat before Lent.

The icon for this Sunday is the Страшный суд Strashnuiy Sud — “Terrible Judgment” as the Russians call it, representing the judging of all the living and dead at the second coming of Jesus. Here is a 15th century example from Novgorod:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Here is the link to my previous discussion of this icon type:


The icon for this day (as you might have guessed from the heading) is the “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise”/Изгнание Адама и Евы из Рая/Izgnanie Adama i Evui iz Raya.  The tale is found in Genesis 3:22-24.

Here is a 17th century Russian example — a fresco from the portal of the Church of Nicholas Nadeina in Yaroslavl (in case you are wondering where the Nadeina comes from,  it derives from the name of the wealthy merchant who paid for its construction — Епифаний Свешников/Epiphaniy Sveshnikov, who was nicknamed  Надей/Nadey.  The church was so called to distinguish it from other St. Nicholas Churches in that city.

It depicts Adam and Eve exiting through the gate of Paradise, and an angel making sure they leave and do not return.  This image is often found in combination with other scenes relating to Adam and Eve.

The rather odd English name of this Sunday derives from the Church practice of making this the last day on which believers are allowed to eat dairy products such as cheese (as well as eggs) before the beginning of the Lenten fasting (they are already fasting from meat).    The Russian name for this day is Масленичная неделя/Maslenichnaya Nedelya — “Butter Sunday,” and the week before Lent is celebrated as МaсленицаMaslenitsa — from the Russian word for “butter” (масло/maslo).  Maslenitsa is a very old Slavic celebration dating to pre-Christian times, when it was the festival welcoming the sun and the beginning of spring.  The standard Russian food for Maslenitsa is блины/blinui/bliny — the little round thin pancakes made of flour, eggs, milk and butter or oil.  Their round shape represented the sun.

Another popular Russian name for this Sunday is Прощёное Воскресенье — Proshchonoe Voskresen’e — “Forgiveness Sunday.”

The Greeks call Cheesefare Sunday Κυριακή Της Τυροφάγου — Kyriake Tes Tyrophagou — “Sunday of Cheese-eating.”

Now we move onto the The Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography.  They are:


This celebrates the triumph in the year 843 c.e.  of those who favored the making and veneration of icons (the Iconophiles) over those who decried it as an unchristian survival of paganism (the Iconoclasts).  The main figures in the icon are the byzantine Empress Theodora, shown crowned at left, with her son Michael III.  In the center is the Hodegitria (“Way-shower”) icon.  To its right stand the Patriarch of Constantinople, Methodios, and Bishop Theodoros.

(British Museum)


As one might expect from the name, this Sunday commemorates Gregory Palamas (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς/Gregorios Palamas, c. 1296 – 1359).  Gregory was an Athonite monk and prominent defender of Hesychasm — the meditative practice in Eastern Orthodoxy — and its theology.  He later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and was glorified as a saint in 1368.  Here is a 15th century Greek icon of him:

(Pushkin Museum)

The inscription is rather worn, but still legible.  The top line is read from the left to right sides, and the remainder also from left to right.  Here is the left side:

At the top is the partly-obliterated Ὁ Άγιος/Ho Hagios/”The Holy,” followed by a word divided into two parts — Αρχιεπί-σκοπος/Arkhiepiskopos/”Archbishop.”

And here is the right:

At top is the name Γρηγόριος/Gregorios/”Gregory,” followed by two divided words.  The first is Θεσσαλονί-κης/Thessalonikes/”of-Thessaloniki, and the second is  Ὁ Παλα-μάς/Ho Palamas/”the Palamas.”

If we put them together as they are meant to be read, we get:
Άγιος Γρηγόριος Αρχιεπίσκοπος Θεσσαλονίκης Ὁ Παλαμάς
Ho Hagios Gregorios Arkhiepiskopos Thessalonikes Ho Palamas
“The Holy Gregory, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, (the) Palamas”

It may seem peculiar that there is a major Sunday commemoration just for Gregory; the thinking behind it is that the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the Iconophiles over the Iconoclasts (considered “heretics” in Eastern Orthodoxy), and Gregory’s triumph over those opposing the practice of Hesychasm similarly was another victory of what came to be considered Orthodoxy over opposing doctrines.


There are two icons generally associated with this day.  The first is the same as that for the Major church feast called the “Elevation of the Cross.”  Here is a 19th century Russian example:

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

The Inscription at the top reads:
“Elevation of the Honorable Cross of the Lord.”

The icon depicts the raising of the cross on which Jesus was crucified for the veneration of the people of Jerusalem.  St. Helena — mother of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized and supported Christianity in the Roman Empire — according to legend discovered the cross of Jesus buried in Jerusalem in 326 c.e.  In the icon Helena stands at left, and on the left side of the cross is Bishop Makariy/Makarios/Macarius of Jerusalem, and on the other side another bishop.

The second icon associated with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross is the type generally called simply ПОКЛОНЕНИЕ КРЕСТА — POKLONENIE KRESTA — “Veneration of the Cross.”  Here is a 12th century Russian example.

(Tretyakov Gallery)

It depicts the empty cross ornamented with a wreath, standing on Golgotha with the skull of Adam visible within the hill.  At left is the sun, and at right the moon.  The Archangel Michael is at left, holding the spear of the crucifixion, and at right is the Archangel Gabriel, holding the sponge on a reed.  In the sky above are six-winged cherubim at the sides, and at each side of the upper bar of the cross are seraphim bearing ripida — the ceremonial fans used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.

The liturgical phrase associated with the Veneration of the Cross (and found on countless Crucifixion icons) is:



“We bow before your cross, Master, and praise your holy resurrection.”


This day commemorates the 6th-7th century monk and writer Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος/Ioannes tes Klimakos/John of the Ladder.  The Russians call him Иоанн Лествичник/ Ioann Lestvichnik/John the Ladder-guy.  He is discussed — along with the icon of the “Ladder of John Klimakos” — in this previous posting:

This commemoration celebrates the effort and virtue needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here is a 13th century icon of John Klimakos from the St. Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, where he was abbot:

The title inscription is easy; it reads:

Ὁ ἉγιοςἸωάννης ὁ τῆς Κλίμακος
Ho Hagios Ioannes ho tes Klimakos
“The Holy John the [one of the] Ladder”


Mary of Egypt is one of the most common figures in Russian icons.  Traditionally, she was a desert ascetic living in the wilds in the region of the Jordan River.  She and her iconography are discussed in this previous posting:

This commemoration calls to mind the importance of repentance (Mary was once a raging nymphomaniac).

Here is a Russian icon of her:

Here is the title inscription:

It reads simply:
“Holy Venerable Mary of Egypt.”

If you managed to get through this posting, you are either a very serious student of icons, or you have nothing else at all to do.  I hope it is the former, but I have my suspicions.



Here is a 12th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai:

It represents an allegory of the spiritual ascent of monks.  The image is derived from a book written by Ioannes tes Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος) — John of the Ladder.  He is also called Ιωάννης ο Σιναϊτης/Ioannes ho Sinaites — “John the Sinaite.”   Almost nothing certain is known about him, not even his precise dates.  He is said to have died in 649 at age 80.  His standard life says he became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai.  His book is called Ἡ Κλῖμαξ/He Klimax  — The Ladder, also  Ἡ Κλίμαξ Θείας ανόδου — The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  First intended for monks as an instruction book in ascetic virtues, it eventually became a popular book of religious counsel in Eastern Orthodoxy.  In Slavic it is called Лествица/Lestvitsa, and John himself is Иоанн Лествичник/Ioann Lestvichnik.

It is not hard to guess where the inspiration for this subject came from.  In Genesis 28:10-12, we find the story of Jacob’s Ladder:

“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.  And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

Here is a 17th century fresco of Jacob and his Ladder from the Slivnitsa Monastery in Macedonia.  It includes the scene of Jacob wrestling with the angel at right:

The angels on the ladder in the biblical story are replaced in the icon of the Ladder of John Kliakos by monks climbing or falling, while the icon angels are just onlookers.

Now the Ladder as a book has 30 chapters, each corresponding to a rung on the ladder in the icon.  As you see, the icon ladder has 30 rungs.  So this icon depicts monks using the moral steps prescribed in the Ladder in order to ascend to heaven.  Some them fail to keep those standards, and are pulled off the ladder and down by demons, shown here as winged black figures.  These failed monks fall into the mouth of a dark head at the bottom, representing Hades.  Those who make it all the way meet Jesus, shown at top right.

Here is the first fellow to make it to the top in the icon:

He is identified by the Greek inscription (the first two words are heavily abbreviated) above him as:

άγιος Ιωάννης τις (της) Κλί-
Ho Hagios Ioannes tes Klimakos
“The Holy John of-the Ladder”

Next up the ladder — and just below John, is this fellow:

His inscription identifies him as:

Ὁ Άγιος Αντώνιος Αρχιεπί-

Ηο Hagios Antonios Arkhiepiskopos
“The Holy Antonios, Archbishop.”

Some scholars assume that this Archbishop Antonios was likely the abbot of the Monastery at the time when the icon was painted, following John of the Ladder both in succession and up the Ladder — but that is not certain.

A group of monks at lower right contemplate the lesson provided by the ladder.  The first among them — at left — is interpreted in many examples of the type as John himself, looking toward his ladder, and often holding a scroll:

Here is an interesting later Greek example of the type:

It adds many interesting little details:

Jesus at the top end of the ladder holds a scroll:

It is Matthew 11:28:

Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι, κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς.
“Come to me, all you are labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest.”

On the top of Mount Sinai at left, we see
“The Dormition of the Holy Catherine.”

Below that is Mary shown with Christ Emmanuel in the Burning Bush, here bearing the title Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΒΑΤΟC — HE HAGIA BATOS — “The Holy Bush.”

Just below the Burning Bush is a kneeling figure identified by inscription as:

This scene of Mary within the Burning Bush and Moses kneeling before it is an icon type in itself; it is the usual Greek way of depicting the Burning Bush as a prefiguration of Mary’s bearing of Jesus; just as the Old Testament bush burned but was not consumed, so Mary is considered in Eastern Orthodoxy to have been filled with the fire of divinity, but not consumed thereby.  In Greek this type may be titled Ἡ φλεγόμενη και μη κατακαιόμενη βάτος — He Phlegomene kai Me Katakaiomene Batos — “The Burning and Not Consumed Bush,” or it may be called simply — as here — Ἡ Ἡαγια βατος — He Hagia Batos — “The Holy Bush.”  Russians preferred a different image to show this — the often complex icon type called Неопалимая Купина — Neopalimaya Kupina — the “Unburnt Thornbush.”

Below that we find this scene of a hooded angel talking to a man:

Now if you have been a careful reader of this blog over time, you will recognize this scene as a specific icon type, and even be able to easily read the inscription.  It is the image of the hooded angel and the monk Pakhomios, and you will find it described here:

The inscription is the words of the angel to Pakhomios, and it reads:

In   this          the     skhima      shall-be-saved all       flesh    O    Pakhomios

Or in more normal English,
“In this skhima shall all flesh be saved, O Pakhomios.”  The skhima, you will recall is the habit/garment of an Eastern Orthodox monk.

So that scene is the icon type called “The Vision of Pakhomios.”

In the lower right corner of the icon we see a demon pitchforking one of the fallen monks into Hades at left, and to the right of that stands John of the Ladder himself, gesturing toward the ladder and holding a scroll in his hand that reads:

Αναβαίνετε, αναβαίνετε, αδελφοί
Anabainete, anabainete, adelphoi
“Climb, climb brothers.”

For simplicity, we may call icons of this type “The Ladder of John Klimakos.”  Russian examples generally call it (with some variation) Видение преподобного Иоанна ЛествичникаVidenie prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika  “The Vision of  Venerable John of the Ladder.”  Russian examples vary in detail and complexity, but we shall examine those another day.