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:
“KING OF GLORY.”
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.
“Son of God.”
After that we find:
Then come the letters
МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ РАЙ БЫСТЬ
MESTO LOBNOE RAI BUIST’
“The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”
And finally at the base, beside the skull, we find at left:
“[The] SKULL [literally “head”] [of] ADAM”
And at right:
“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:
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.
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:
КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛОНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО
И СВЯТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ
KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLONAEMSYA VLADIKO
I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM
“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.