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 TYRON [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.