Here is today’s icon type:

To find out what it is, we need only read the title inscription on the banner that is at the top:

As you can see, it is rather long — so we shall take it part by part:

The first word is ОБРАЗ, with the final З written lying just above the A.  If you have been reading this site for some time (or you can go to the archives for older postings), you will recognize ОБРАЗ/Obraz as the word for “image.”  The saints below are Vasiliy Velikiy (Basil the Great) and the Meter Theou (Mother of God);

ЧЕСТНАГО — CHESTNAGO (remember that the -ago suffix indicates an “of” form);

И ЖИВОТВОРЯЩАГО КРЕСТА –– I ZHIVOTVORYASHCHAGO KRESTA, with the IC XC abbreviation for Jesus just below);

ГОСПОДЬНЯ НА ИСТОЧНIКЬ (ИСТОЧНИКЬ ) — GOSPOD’NYA NA ISTOCHNIK’, with John the Forerunner and Grigoriy Bogoslov (Gregory the Theologian) just below;

Now if we put the whole inscription together, we get:




So this icon type is the “Image of the Procession of the Honorable and Life-creating (we can say “life-giving” in English) Cross of the Lord to the Wellspring” (or in English we can just say spring or fountain).

We can call it:
The Image of the Procession of the Honorable and Life-giving Cross of the Lord to the Fountain.”  It represents the origin of a minor church festival that takes place on August 1st (August 14th in the “new style” calendar).

The festival has a rather confused origin, being associated with four different events.

The first two were victories in battle:

1.  The victory of the Russian forces of Great Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy against the Bulgarians on August 1st, 1164; an icon of Mary and an image of the cross were used by the Russians in the Battle.

2.  The victory of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel (1143-1180) over the Saracens — also on August 1, in which an icon of Mary and an image of the cross were also said to have been used.

3.  The annual practice, in the city of Constantinople, of taking what was supposed to be the wood of the cross of Jesus from the Royal Treasury on July 31st, and carrying it through the streets to dispel disease, placing it on the altar of the Church of Holy Wisdom, then, on the following day, taking it to the Dormition Church, and letting it be venerated by the people.  Then on August 14th it was taken back to the Imperial palace.

4.  There was also a custom in Constantinople of consecrating the waters and the springs, generally on the 1st of each month, and with this the celebration of the supposed “true cross” was also associated.

In any case, what we see in the icon is the blessing of the waters in Constantinople with the cross, as depicted in this portion, with the Emperor and Empress and a crowd of people and clerics looking on as the cross is used to bless the  waters in a stone wellspring from which a stream flows:

All kinds of people come to the sanctified water flowing from the wellspring, reminiscent of the crowds coming to the waters in the Живоносный источник/Zhivonosnuiy Istochnik/”Life-giving Fountain” type.  Here we see one fellow dipping water from the stream, two others giving it to a prostrate ill woman, and a crippled man with pads on his legs and hands:

Here an ill girl, holding her cup, is brought to the stream in a wheelbarrow;

At right, a boy bathes in the waters as a standing man drinks them from a glass.  And at far right, a demon is expelled from the mouth of a possessed man:

All of this elaborate scene takes place outside the walls of Constantinople.  Note the figure holding the icon of Jesus, with its decorative cloth hanging below it.

If we return to the sky above, we see Jesus blessing from Heaven, with Mary at left and John the Forerunner at right:

Below him are three cherubim, with their title in Slavic separated among the three halos, like this:


Херувими/Kheruvimi — “Cherubim.”

Below those three is an angel identified only as a “Holy Angel of the Lord” (with “Holy” and “Lord” abbreviated).

There is some variation from example to example of this type, most notably in who dips the cross into the wellspring in the central scene.  While in this example it is done by a поп/pop — a “priest,” as the Filimonov Podlinnik describes him, in others the cross is dipped by a standing “Angel of the Lord,”


in some by an “Angel of the Lord” flying down,


and in others by three “Angels of the Lord.”


The use of an angel is reminiscent of the story of the angel troubling the waters of the Pool of Bethesda in John 5, 1-5, and some icons of that type (the icon for the Sunday of the Paralytic) depict the angel.  Also, some examples depict the wellspring as cross-shaped instead of square or rectangular, as found also in some icons of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman — the “Woman at the Well.”

In Russia, this festival became associated also with the “Baptism” — the conversion — of Russia (actually that of originally Kyivan Rus, not what we know today as Russia) to Orthodox Christianity in 988 c.e.  On this day there is a lesser blessing of the waters in Russia.  Also, on August 14th now, “Honey Savior” (Медовый Спас/Medovuiy Spas) is celebrated.  It is a pre-Christian festival that was carried on into Christian times.  “Honey Savior” is the first of three such ancient autumn festivals, the following two being “Apple Savior” on August 19th and “Nut Savior” on August 29th.  On “Honey Savior,” people bring their honey from the hives to the church to be blessed, and believe it should not be eaten before that time.  So August 1st is, in folk belief, the beginning of autumn.

Because of its association with the “Baptism of Russia,” August 1st was also Мокрый Спас/Mokruiy Spas — “Wet Savior” — the day on which the waters were blessed, and people took their horses and cattle to the rivers and streams to be bathed.


If you have been reading this site from the beginning — and learning from it — it is very likely that you are now your town or city’s expert on icons — and perhaps even the expert in a wider region.  You should be able to deal with the greater percentage of the icons you encounter — able to read the title inscriptions on saints and recognize a great many icon types — even many of those less common.

But what are you going to do if you encounter an icon like this carved wooden example?

Well, you may recall that the thing to do when you encounter an unfamiliar icon is not to worry, but rather to look carefully at it to see if there is anything you might recognize from what you have learned.

Applying that to this image, you will quickly find it is not as unfamiliar as it appears at first glance.  For example, you should already be able to identify this portion and its inscriptions from our previous discussion of cross descriptions:

The letters may look a bit odd because they are carved instead of written, and rather stylized, but nonetheless a little thought will enable you to recognize them, from top to bottom, as abbreviating:


ISUS KHRISTOS [Old Believer form]

What looks like KM is actually
K, for Kopie — “spear,” and T for T for Trost’— “reed.”  The former identifies the lance at left, and the latter the long reed at right, bearing a sponge at its top.  Note that in old icon inscriptions “T” often looks rather like an “M,” so that is a very helpful tip.

Then comes

“Son of God.”

After that we find:

“[He] Conquers.”

Then come the letters


They abbreviate

“The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”

And finally at the base, beside the skull, we find at left:
Г  А
“[The] SKULL [literally “head”] [of] ADAM”

And at right:
Г  Г
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

So already — just from what you have learned in previous postings, you will have made great progress in interpreting this icon.

Now let’s turn our attention to the long carved inscription at the top:

If you look at it carefully, it will gradually seem familiar.  Do not be deceived by the beginning two letters at upper left:

Here is another helpful tip.  We already saw that in old inscriptions, T often looks like “M.”  Similarly, Д (D) often looks like “A.”  So do not mistake the first letter for an A — it is actually Д (D) — and the second letter is the “A.”  So together these two letters form the word ДA (Da)

Now you may recall that ДA is not just the Russian word for “Yes.”  In Church Slavic, it is used to introduce a “let” sentence, like “Let him be called John.”  And if you think a moment, you may recall that there is a “Da” inscription that is often found on metal crosses and on painted icons of crosses.  Here it is the Old Believer form:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomu Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

If we compare that with the carved text, we can see that aside from insignificant variations, it is precisely the same text.  So now we have translated that text on the icon as well.

Next come these abbreviations.

We can see they are:

КВУ (remember the o with a v atop it is “ou” the “oo” sound,  У in modern Russian.)
КЦД (Yes, the Д here looks like “A,” but remember the tip given above.)
КБЯ (The inscription uses the old Church Slavic form of Я, which looks like an “A” with a vertical line below the crossbar.)

Now what on earth can we make of that?  Well, it is not as difficult as it looks, because you should already be familiar with the words abbreviated here.  They are found on the back of a great many of those large, cast brass Russian crosses, though you have probably not seen them in this abbreviated form.

They are the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the “Prayer of the Praise of the Cross” (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — so the abbreviations and their meaning are:

КХВВ = Крест Хранитель Всей Вселенной
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy
“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe”

ККЦ = Крест Красота Церковная
Krest krasota tserkovnaya
“The Cross is the beauty of the Church.”

КЦД  = Крест Царем Держава
Krest tsarem derzhava

“The Cross is the might of kings.”

КВУ = Крест Верным Утверждение
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

“The Cross is the confirmation of the faithful.”

КАС = Крест Ангелом Слава
Krest angelom slava
“The Cross is the glory of angels.”

КБЯ =Крест Бесом Язва
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the scourge of demons.”

So we find that those abbreviations, which looked quite mystifying at first, were really something you already knew.

Now we come to the most difficult part — those rows of letters at the outer sides:

The dark ones at the top, which we will read from the left to right sides, are:

Twice we see (in the carved version) the letter T written somewhat like M, but remember the tip above — we know they are both T.  And here is the meaning:





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

So even though the abbreviation omits the usual word svyatoe (“holy”), we can see this abbreviation is just the very common inscription usually found below the crossbeam in icons of the Crucifixion and on brass crosses  — again something you already know.

So we have passed that hurdle successfully.  Now comes the really cryptic part — the side inscriptions in red.  These will likely be new to you:


“Cryptic” of course means “hidden” or “secret,” and these really are mysterious, because there are often several ways of interpreting them, some quite peculiar.  I suspect that even the believers who used these icons often did not know what they meant, and just regarded them as a kind of magic charm.  Nonetheless, we will do what we can, giving some of the most commonly-found interpretations:

Бич Божий Бьёт Бесов
Bich Bozhiy b’yot Besov
“The scourge of God beats demons.”
Божия Благодать Биет Бесы
Bozhiya blagodat’ biet besui (from Maxim the Greek)
“God’s grace beats demons.”

Всей Вселенной Возвещает Веру
Vsey vselennoy vozveschchaet veru
“The whole universe announces the Faith.”
Возвращение В рай Всем Верным
“The return to Paradise of all the faithful.” (from Maxim the Greek)
Возвращение Вечное Верным В рай
Vozvrashchenie vechnoe vernuim v rai
“The eternal return of the faithful to Paradise.”
Велие Веселие Верующим В тя
“The great joy of believers in you.”

Всем Верным Возвращение В рай
Vsem vernuim vozvrashchenie v rai
“The return of all believers to Paradise.”

Древо Добро Досада Дьяволу
Drevo dobro dosada d’yavolu
“The Good Tree [i.e. the cross] is the sorrow of the Devil.”
древо добро диаволу досада
Drevo dobro diavolu dosada
“The good tree is the Devil’s sorrow.”

Древо Дарует Древнeе Достояние
Drevo daruet drevnee dostoyanie
“The tree [i.e. the cross] bestows the ancient inheritance.”

Нощь Неведения Не светла Неверным
Noshch’ nevedeniya ne svetla nevernuim
“The night of ignorance is not bright to unbelievers.”
Нощь Невидения Неверующих Низлагает
“The night of ignorance does not disprove unbelievers” [does not show them the error of their ways.”

Обрете Обретен От Бога От Елены
Obrete obreten ot Boga ot Elenui
“A finding [i.e. discovery] found from God by Helen” [referring to her supposed discovery of the cross].
Обретены Обретатель Обретен От бога
Obretenui obretatel’ obreten ot Boga
“The finding [discovery] of the finder is a find from God.”
оружие одоления ограждает обручники
“The weapon of victory protects the betrothed.”
обретены обретатель, обретен царицею Еленою от Бога
Obretenui obretatel’ obreten tsariteiu Elenoiu ot Boga
“The find of the finder is the finding [discovery] of Empress Helen, from God.”

Крест Крепость Константина К вере
The cross is the bastion of Constantine for the faith.”
Крест Христов Крепость царем Крепкая К вере (Максим Грек)
“The cross of Christ is the bastion to the emperor strong in faith.” (Maxim the Greek)

Пою Почитаю Поклоняюся Подножию Твоему [Владыко… ]
Poiu pochitaiu poklonyaiusya podnozhiu tvoemu [Vladiko…]
“I sing honoring, bowing at your feet, [Master…]”

Паки Подает По роду Поклоняющимся Ему.
Paki podaet po rodu poklonyaiushchimsya emy
“Still he offers to those bowing before him.”

Now as you might guess, given the variations — some quite odd — in interpretation of these last cryptograms, one cannot take their meaning in too limited or definite a fashion, because another “believer” may offer yet another and different interpretation familiar in his circle.  But at least these give an idea of some of the meanings that have been attached to these abbreviations.  As with similarly odd Greek abbreviations, it is likely that some of what we see has been corrupted over time or misunderstood.

This icon is a variant of the Голгофский крест/Golgofskiy krest/”Golgotha Cross,” and is usually referred to as the “Golgotha Cross in a Church,” or some slight variant of that.  It is called “in a Church” because as you see, the cross and its abbreviations are set within the design of a many-domed Russian church.



In traditional Russian and Greek Orthodox belief, the image of the cross is believed to be apotropaic.  If you have never seen that five-dollar word before, don’t worry.  You already know what it means if you have watched old vampire movies.  It means that it “turns away” and repels something — in this case, evil.  Traditionally, Greek monasteries liked to have a cross at the door to — in their belief — repel demons.

In a previous posting, I gave very detailed explanations of the usual inscriptions on Russian crosses.  Today I am going to inflict upon you explanations of  some common and less common Greek cross inscriptions and abbreviations.  These can be totally mystifying if you do not know the standard interpretations — and often equally mystifying in the differing interpretations given of the same abbreviation in various sources.  So this is your warning that this is likely to be — for most — quite a boring posting.

The most common are often found with ordinary Greek crosses and icons of the crucifixion.  The less common are usually found with such things as crosses carved in stone near old monasteries, as well as on the monastic habit called the Great Skhima.

First the common ones:

The inscription written above the head of Jesus:

(Biblical form)
᾿Ιησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν ᾿Ιουδαίων.
Iesous ho Nazoraios ho Basileus ton Ioudaion
Jesus the Nazarene the King of-the Jews
(Later form)
Ιησούς Ναζωραίος Βασιλεύς [των] Ιουδαίων.
Iesous Nazoraios Basileus [ton] Ioudaion
“Jesus Nazarene King [of-the] Jews”

The next is extremely common, found on crosses and even on old Byzantine coins:


It abbreviates
ΙΗCΟΥS ΧΡΙCΤΟC ΝΙΚΑ (Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά
Iesous Khristos Nika
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”

Often simply this form is found:
“[He] Conquers.”

At the base of the cross:
Topos Kraniou Paradeisos Gegonen
“The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”

Υἱός Θεοῦ
Huios Theou
“Son of God”

On more elaborate versions, one may find the letters

Phos Khristou Phainetai Pasi[n]
Φῶς Χριστοῦ φαίνει πᾶσιν
Phos Khristou phainei pasin

“The Light of Christ Shines [upon] All.”

Some give ΦΕΓΓΕΙ (phengei — also meaning “shines”)_ instead of phainetai. or phainei.

You may have seen my earlier posting on the occasional appearance of the Φ Χ Φ Π in icons of Nicholas of Myra, where the letters appear on his bishop’s stole (omophorion).

Stauros Kyriou
“Cross of the Lord.”

Now we come to the less common abbreviations.  I should caution you that several of these have become somewhat confused in how they are understood, and the less common they are, the more the interpretations tend to vary.  Some barely make sense, which is an indication of how time has likely obscured the original meaning.

There is variation in how this has been interpreted:

Ek Theou Edothe Eurima Helene
“From God was given a Finding for Helena.”
This refers to the supposed discovery of the “True Cross” in Jerusalem by Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena.

Among other variant forms is:
Εὕρεμα ἐδώθη ἐκ Θεοῦ Ἑλένης
Eurema Edothe ek Theou Helenes
“Discovery (finding) given by God to Helena.”


Ἑλένης εὕρημα Ἑβραίων ἔλεγχος
Helenes eurema Hebraion elengkos
“Helena’s discovery Hebrews reproof”
Meaning the finding of the cross was a refutation of the Jews.

It may also be found as simply
Eurema Eure Helene
“A Finding (discovery) Found Helena,”
that is, “Helena made a discovery.”
Eurethi Eurema Helene En Golgotha
which adds the words “in Golgotha” —
“Found a Discovery Helena in Golgotha,” or in better English,”
“Helena made a discovery in Golgotha.”

Another interpretation is:
Ελένης εύρημα εύρηκεν Εδέμ
Helenes eurema eureken Edem
“Helen’s Discovery Revealed Eden.”

And yet another:

Ἐλένη εὔρηκεν ἔρεισμα εὐσεβείας
Elene eureken ereisma eusebeisas
“Helen found the support of piety”


“This Wood the Demons fear.”

Τύπον Σταυρού δαίμονες φρίττουσιν
“The Sign of the Cross Demons Fear”


Kharin Khristianois Kharizei Khristos
“Grace to Christians Bestows Christ.”
Khristos Khristianois Kharin Kharizei
“Christ to Christians Grace Bestows”
or in this order:
Χριστός Χριστιανοίς Χαρίζει Χάριν
“Christ to Christians Bestows Grace”

Theou Thea Theion Thauma
“Vision of God, Divine Wonder.”

Ρητορικοτέρα ρημάτων δακρύων ροή.»)
“More eloquent than orators the flow of tears”
Also found in this order:
Ρητορικοτέρα ρητόρων δακρύων ροή

“The Deliverer Delivers Delivrance [to the] Ruined.”

Xylon Staurou
“Wood of the Cross.”

Ξύλον Ζωής
Xylon Zoes
“Tree of Life.”

Σταυρού Ξύλω ζωήν εύρομεν
Staurou Xylo Zoen Euromen
Through the Cross’s Wood Life We-have-found.”
“We have found life through the wood of the cross.”

Ξύλου γεύσις θάνατον ηγαγεν
Xylou geusis Thanaton egagen
“The taste of the tree brought death”

Σταυροῦ ὄπλον πολεμίους ταράττει
Staurou oplon polemious tarattei
“The cross repels the weapon of the adversary”.

Σταυρὀς βασιλέων τρόπαιον
Stauros Bsileon tropaion
“The cross is the trophy of kings.”

Σταυρὀς ἀγγέλων ἥδυσμα
Stauros angelon hedysma
“The cross is the fragrance of angels.”

Τούτο το Τίμιον Ξύλον λυτρώσεως δούλων
Touto to timion xylon lytroseos doulon
“This precious wood is the ransom of slaves.”

Χριστού Μεσσίου Μεγαλόδωρου Σταυρού Τόπος
Khristou Messiou Megalodorou Staurou Topos
“The Great Gift of Christ the Messiah — the Place of the Cross.”

Χριστού Τάφος Τόπος Κρανίου
Khristou Taphos Topos Kraniou
“The Tomb of Christ — the Place of the Skull”

Finally, an inscription often found on modern Greek crosses is read from top to bottom as ΦωC /Phos, meaning “Light.”
And it is read from left to right as
ZωΗ / Zoe, meaning “Life.”

It is meant to signify that Jesus is both Light and Life.  A cross with this inscription is commonly called a Phos Zoe cross.


Today we will look at a moralizing “didactic” — that is, “teaching” icon type.   It is a kind of equivalent of the western European “Memento Mori” depictions — “Remembrance of Death” images, in this case showing a wealthy man dressed in rich clothing, along with the symbol of death.

In Russia, this type commonly is called Бренность Жизни/Brennost’ Zhizni or Бренная Жизнь/Brennaya Zhizn’ — “The Frailty of Life” or “Frail/Mortal Life,” or alternatively by the first words of the inscription it often bears:  Смертный человек/Smertnuiy chelovek — “Mortal Man.”

(Ikona i blagochestie, Tarasov, Progress-Traditsiya Press)

The key to understanding this icon type is found in the inscription held by the central figure:

Line by line, it is:

Смертный человек бойся того кто над тобою.
Smertnuiy chelovek boisya togo kto nad toboiu.
“Mortal man, fear him who is above you.”

Не уйдёшь от того, кто за тобою.
Ne uidyosh’ ot togo kto za toboiu.
“You will not escape from him who is behind you”

Не надейся на то что пред тобою.
Ne nedisya na to cho pred toboiu.
“Do not rely on that which is before you.

Не минуешь того, что под тобою.
Ne minuesh’ togo, chto pod toboiu.
“Do not overlook that which is beneath you.”

The line arrangement may differ from version to version, and sometimes it ends with:

Жизнь наша яко свеча весело светит и яко дым скоро исчезает.
Zhizn’ nasha yako svecha veselo svetit i yako duim skoro ischezaet.
“Our life is like a candle that cheerfully shines, and like smoke it soon vanishes.”

We see lines of the text illustrated in the icon.

At center is the figure symbolizing “mortal man”:

“Mortal man, fear him who is above you.”

“Him who is above you” is Jesus, shown in the clouds of heaven.

“You will not escape from him who is behind you”

“Him who is behind you” is Death (Смерть/Smert’), shown as a skeleton wielding a scythe, about to cut down the person before him.

“Do not rely on that which is before you.”

“That which is before you” is earthly power and wealth, symbolized by a crown and scepter, and by a pile and full box of сребро и злато/srebro i zlato — “silver and gold.”

“That which is beneath you” is Гробъ/Grob — the coffin — the grave, the tomb.

This icon then, is warning the believer to fear God, because one will not escape death, and cannot rely on earthly power and wealth for protection, and no one evades the grave.

Here is another rendering of the type.  In this icon, the text is placed at the base rather than on a scroll in the hand of the man, and “him who is above” is depicted as Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in the heavens above, instead of Jesus.

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Icons of this type are generally from the 18th-19th centuries, likely based on western European engravings.



In addition to painted icons, many icon workshops also produced cloth banners.  These were essentially icon images on cloth, frequently a mixture of needlework and painting.  Such banners were used in religious processions and for other church purposes.

There was, however, another category of banner — military banners.  Given the mutual relationship between Church and State in old Russia, these banners too often bore religious images, but with a military purpose.

In battle, such a banner became the symbol of the army or regiment possessing it.  When soldiers assembled for battle, their banner would usually be taken out of its protective travel storage,  be affixed to a tall staff, and then the whole placed upright in a prominent place like a hill.  The banner  — given its symbolism — would be heavily protected during the battle, and if the soldiers fighting under it were unsuccessful, the banner would be captured and taken by the opposing army as a trophy of war — signifying the defeat of the opposition

Such a military banner was originally called a styag (Стяг), plural Стяги (Styagi).  Near the end of the 1300s, Russian banners commonly bore the face of Jesus in the “Not Made by Hands” type:

That is when the term znamyona (знамёна), singular znamya (знамя) also came into use for them.   Both styag and znamya were used until the beginning of the 17th century, at which time znamya (banner, pennant, ensign, standard) became the common term.  As you may have guessed, the word znamya is related to znamenie (“sign”), which we have seen as the name of an important Marian icon type — the Znamenie Mother of God, the “Sign” Mother of God.

Today — thanks to Karin Tetteris of the Swedish Army Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, we will take a look at some old Russian military banners that show very clearly the importance of Eastern Orthodox iconography in their design.

Here, for example, is what remains of a silk infantry banner or ensign made in Kiev in 1693-4 for a regiment of Moscow streltsy under the command of colonel Alexey Lavrent’evich Obukhov. The paintings were made by the local artist Pyotr Kirilovich Tichovbon. It was taken as war booty by Swedish troops in the battle of Saladen, near Saločiai, Lithuania on March 19, 1703, part of the so-called Great Northern War.   In English common usage, such a banner was referred to as the “colors,” which led to the expression “striking the colors,” meaning to surrender, particularly in naval jargon.

(Courtesy of the Swedish Army Museum, Stockholm)

In the center we see the double-headed Russian eagle — symbol of the Russian Empire, and at its center is St. George slaying the dragon.  You will recall that George was an extremely popular military saint.

At the top is an image of the Coronation of Mary, with Jesus (the Son) at left, and God the Father at right, with the Holy Spirit as dove just above the crown.

Mary holds an open book:

Here is the text on it:

Мною царие царствуют[ъ]
Mnoiu Ts[a]rie ts[a]rstvuiut”

It is from Proverbs 8:15:

Mnoiu tsarie tarstvuiut”, i silniy pishut” pravdu

By me kings reign, and the powerful decree [literally ‘write’] justice.

The infantry banner below was made in 1693-4 for a regiment of Moscow streltsy under the command of colonel Boris Fedorovich Dementiev. It too was taken by Swedish troops in the battle of  Saladen, near Saločiai, Lithuania in 1703.

Readers here should recognize the iconography:

(Courtesy of the Swedish Army Museum, Stockholm)

At the top we see two angels, and between them is the image of Christ Immanuel:

Below him is  the main image, which we have seen before as an icon type:

We can identify it if we look more closely at the mounted figure on the left:

We can see he holds a club — so, combined with the angel at right holding a sword, we can recognize it as the same type we saw earlier in a fresco from the Dechani Monastery in Serbia — the image of the Prophet Balaam and the Archangel Michael:

Michael is, of course, considered the Chief Commander of the Armies of Heaven, so an important military figure — and here he stops the Prophet Balaam in his tracks, a sign of his supposed power to halt advances — though of course Balaam was not a soldier.

The reluctant ass of Balaam is depicted in a quite pleasant way:

In other military banners from other sources, we sometimes find a similar image of the Archangel Michael standing sword in hand, but in this case the other figure is not riding but kneeling, and he is not Balaam, but rather Isus/Iisus Navin — Joshua, son of Nun, the military leader in the Old Testament who fought the legendary Battle of Jericho.

Perhaps the oldest Russian military banner in the collection of the Swedish Army Museum is this silk example, a large cavalry banner made in the Kremlin workshops, probably in the first half of 17th century or possibly even late 16th. It was taken as a war trophy by the Polish army in a battle near Smolensk, on June 5, 1654. Then, when the Swedish army took Warsaw in 1655, the flag was captured by Swedish troops. It is 5 meters wide and 1,63 m high:

(Courtesy of the Swedish Army Museum, Stockholm)

It depicts a gathering of saints at left, looking up to Jesus, who blesses them from Heaven:

The figure in the forefront at right is St. Nicholas/Nikolai, an extremely popular saint in Russia:

On the right side of the banner is an angel with seraphim.

Finally, here is another banner.  It was made in 1695 for a regiment of Moscow streltsy under the command of Colonel Semyon Matveevich Krokov. It was taken by Swedish troops in the battle of Saladen, near Saločiai, Lithauania, in 1703:

(Courtesy of the Swedish Army Museum, Stockholm)

The main image is that of the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists, and accompanied by four saints.  You will recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous Russian “palladium” icons, meaning it was considered a protector of cities, and was thought to have the ability to repel enemies.

Above the “Sign” type is the image of  God the Father (Lord Sabaoth), with the Holy Spirit as a dove on his breast:

Those who would like further information on banners in the Swedish Army Museum may wish to contact Karin Tetteris at this address:

Box 14095, 104 41 Stockholm
Street address: Riddargatan 13
Tel 08 51 95 63 82 Fax 08 662 68 31