I have always thought the “red” icons produced in the region of the Russian icon painting village of Kholuy to be quite pleasant.  They are simple enough to look like folk art, but when done by an experienced painter, they have a charm often missing in more sophisticated icons.  They were once rather inexpensive, but that is changing as more people have come to appreciate them.

You will recall that many of them have a silver background that was generally originally tinted with a colored varnish to make it appear gold.  Often this varnish is removed when the icon is cleaned, and that of course also removes the “gold” effect, leaving the silver background instead.

Here are some good examples.

First, a “Smolensk” type icon of Mary:

(Courtesy of

And here is a “Lord Almighty”:

(Courtesy of

And finally a “John the Forerunner”:

(Courtesy of

These “red” icons, with their bright borders and stamped floral decoration, were very popular and widely sold.  They even turn up in the Balkan countries, including Romania — having been there for many long years.

If you are a regular reader here, you should be easily able to read the inscriptions on book and scroll, because the texts are common and we have seen them in previous postings.  The three icon types seen here were also previously discussed, and you will find those postings in the site archives.



The Sporuchnitsa Greshnuikh –– the “Guarantor/Surety of Sinners” type of Marian icon — was popular in the 19th – early 20th century.  The icon is characterized by the inscription that borders the central image.  The position of the hand of the Christ Child in this example is a bit unusual, in that he holds a scroll; generally he just touches his mother’s hand with both of his.

(Courtesy of

The inscription around the central image is:

Аз Споручница грешных к Моему Сыну; Сей дал Мне за них руце слышати Мя выну, да тии, иже радость выну Мне приносят, радоватися вечно чрез Меня испросят

Az Sporuchnitsa greshnuikh k moemy suiny; Cey dal mne za nikh rutse sluishati mya vuiny, da tii, izhe radost’ vuiny mne prinosyat, radovatisya vechno chrez menya isprosyat.

“I am the Surety/Guarantor of sinners for My Son; he has given me for them the hand [i.e. the assurance] to hear those who come to me;  that those who bring joy to me in coming shall rejoice eternally through me.”

No one really knows the origin of this icon.  An example, long ignored, was in the chapel behind the gates at the Nikolaevsk-Odrin Monastery in Orlov diocese.  It was old and dusty, and the icon had become so dark that its image was barely visible.

In the summer of 1844 the wife of a merchant named Pochepin, whose two-year-old son was having seizures, had a prayer service (moleben) before the icon, and her son got immediately better, so that gave the icon a reputation for miracle working.  Consequently the icon was cleaned up.  Later — in 1847-1848 — the icon was credited with saving people from a plague of cholera in the region, as well as with other supposed miracles.

There are two other icons under the same name celebrated in the Russian Orthodox calendar.  The first — the “Moscow” Surety of Sinners — is a copy of the Nikolaevsk-Odrin Monastery icon, and the copy also gained a reputation is miracle working.    Eventually placed in the Nikolo-Khamovnicheskaya Church in Moscow., it is said to have developed drops of healing oil on its surface in 1848, and a number of other cures are attributed to it by Russian Orthodox believers

There is also the “Koretskaya” Surety of Sinners icon, kept at the Holy Resurrection-Trinity Convent in Korets, Ukraine, where it is said to have been since the 17th century.  Examples of this type generally lack the inscription characteristic of the icon from Orlov diocese.


We recently examined an icon that included the image of Bishop Kyrill of Turov.  Today we will look at an uncommon icon type from the 16th century, based on a text by Kyrill.

(Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg)

The subject of this icon is Притча о хромце и слепце / Prichta o khromtse i sleptse —  “The Parable of the Lame Man and the Blind Man.”

If you look for the parable in the Bible, you will not find it.  It is a motif, however, found early on from India to Greece to Jewish literature — and of course it pops up again in the writings of Kirill of Turov.   In Kirill it is a sermon called “The Discourse on the Soul and the Body.”  Kirill intended it, however, as an attack on Bishop Feodor/Theodor of Rostov.

Kirill conflates the old tale of the lame man and the blind man with the story told in Matthew 21:33-46 about a man who puts others in charge of his vineyard while he travels, but they are dishonest and not only refuse to give the owner what is due him, but also kill his servants and his son.

The Parable depicted on the icon, however, is this:

A certain man (depicted as Jesus in the icon) made a vineyard, and put a fence and a gate around it.  He is afraid that if he puts an ordinary guard at the gate to protect it, it will not be secure.  So he decides to place a lame man (the body) and a blind man (the soul) at the gate, thinking that if a robber comes, the lame man will see him and the blind man will hear him.  And the owner thinks that the lame man and blind man will not be able to steal the grapes (blessings/wealth) themselves, because the lame man cannot walk into the vineyard, and the blind man cannot see what is there.  So putting these two in charge, the owner thinks the vineyard secure from theft.

It happens, however, that the two guards smell the delicious grapes, and the blind man devises a plan:  The blind man will take the lame man on his shoulders, and the lame man can direct the blind man.  If the owner suspects them, the blind man will say that of course he cannot see to steal, the the lame man will say that he is obviously unable to walk into the vineyard and steal.  Thus the two enter the vineyard — with the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders — and steal the grapes.

When the owner discovers the theft, each blames the other, one saying that if the blind man had not carried him, he would have been unable to steal, and the other saying that if the lame man had not ridden on his shoulders and directed him, there would have been no theft.

In spite of their protestations, the owner had his slaves beat them both and cast them into prison.

Kirill’s surface interpretation of this parable is that the owner of the vineyard is God, seen in the person of Jesus; the vineyard is the world and the blessings and wealth in it, which belong to God to dispense;  the fence around the vineyard is the commandments of God.  The servants of the owner are the angels.

The lame man is the human body, and the blind man the soul.  Placing them at the vineyard gate meant God gave them power over the earth, within the bounds of his commandments.  When man broke those commandments, his soul is brought before God, and says it is not he, but rather the body that has committed the offense.  So the soul is kept in prison until the Second Coming, when the dead will be resurrected and soul and body will be judged together, and sent into everlasting torture in Hell.

In the icon, we see all of this illustrated.  In the center we see Jesus putting lame man and the blind man at the gate to guard the vineyard.  Then we see the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders, as they steal grapes (blessings and wealth) inside.  At right, Jesus expels the untrustworthy pair from the vineyard.

At the top, we see the judgment by Jesus.  At right the soul is kept in a dark place until the resurrection.

At the bottom of the icon, we  see the man — as the unity of body and soul — being driven into Hades by a punishing angel.  And finally — in Hades — we see the body and the soul there for eternal punishment.

The real meaning hidden behind the allegory, however, was the bitter conflict between Kirill and Bishop Feodor/Theodore of Rostov.  It is all a fight over religio-political control, and as we know, from the time of Kievan Rus to present-day Russia, religion and politics have never been separate in that part of the world.

The situation was, some accounts say, that Prince Andrey Bogoliuskiy wanted  to have a bishop in Vladimir who would be entirely independent of the control of the Metropolitan of Kiev.  He and Feodor supposedly cooperated in a scam in which Theodore went to the Patriarch in Constantinople to be consecrated, telling the Patriarch that the Metropolitan of Kiev was dead, so the place was without a Metropolitan.  When the Kiev Metropolitan found out what had happened, he excommunicated Theodore of Rostov, and so the plan failed.  In Kirill’s text,  Feodor is the blind man (the soul), and the lame man is Andrey Bogoliubskiy, whom Feodor talks into the deception.  Feodor was eventually accused of heresy and condemned to death.  He died c. 1170.


In contemporary English-speaking society, even those quite unfamiliar with the Bible know the term “Good Samaritan,” used to describe a kind stranger who offers help to someone in need.  It originates in a parable told by Jesus in the Gospel called “of Luke,” (10:30-37) in the New Testament.  In Russian iconography, it is generally called Притча о добром самарянине / Pritcha o dobrom samaryanine — “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

The point of the parable is that one’s neighbor is whoever shows concern for one’s well-being by actually helping.

Traditional Eastern Orthodox iconography, however — based on opinions of various Church Fathers, etc. — distorts the parable into something quite different — an historical allegory from the supposed “fall” of humankind to the resurrection of Jesus and beyond.

There is a very interesting 14th century example found in the narthex of the Pech Patriarchate, in Serbia.  You can see it here — the narrow and long bottom segment on the ceiling, just above the curve of the arch:

It illustrates the tale in brief, beginning at left, as the inscription says:



“A certain man going from Jerusalem to Jericho among thieves fell…”

We see the man setting out at far left.  Then he is attacked by — not ordinary thieves in this fresco, but by demons — devils.  We can see that they are devils because they not only have naked, hairy bodies, but they also have the hair standing up to a point high above their heads, which is the stereotypical way of depicting demons in Slavic Orthodoxy, though in traditional Russian iconography they are commonly quite black.  So this is not a straightforward illustration of the parable, but an allegorical interpretation.

This transformation of the parable began as early as John Chrysostom, who in his Homily 15 on Matthew mentioned the Samaritan, and then talked of people fallen not among thieves but among demons and beset by anger.

The interpretation of the parable in Orthodoxy became that the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam — the first man, and representative of humanity.  He leaves Jerusalem — interpreted as Paradise — when he falls into sin.  He then travels through the dangers of the fallen world (represented by the road to Jericho), beset by demons — who also represent sin and human passions — and is overcome by them.

Next we see the man left beaten and near naked by the side of the road.  Two men  pass by, see him, do nothing, and walk on.  The one at left is identified by title as
СВЯЩЕННИК/SVYASHCHENNIK,  a priest.  The second at right is titled ЛЕВИТЬ/LYEVIT’ — a Levite.

This is interpreted as Adam/Man falling wounded under the assaults of demons, of sin and the passions on his journey through life.  They rip the “garment of grace” from him.  The Priest and Levite represent the Old Testament Law of Moses and the Priesthood of Aaron, which cannot ultimately help the wounded man in Eastern Orthodox belief.  In some examples, they are represented by an Old Testament prophet — Moses or another, depending on the version — and by John the Forerunner or Baptist — who supposedly do not stop to help the wounded man because God has another planned helper.

That other helper — a Samaritan — comes walking along, sees the poor man lying by the road, and begins to aid him.  Just as the iconography has transformed the thieves into devils, it now transforms the Samaritan into Jesus, with the distinctive cross in his halo.

Jesus treats the man’s wounds — the effects of sin — by pouring on oil and wine, which are interpreted as the New Testament and the mercy of God.   He bandages the man and takes him along.  Though in the biblical parable he places the man on a beast to carry him, the iconography here uses another interpretation — that the “beast” is the body of Jesus.  That is why we see Jesus carrying him, rather than the man being placed on an ass.

In the final scene, Jesus has brought the man to an inn, where in the morning he gives two coins to the innkeeper, telling him to take care of the wounded man, and promising that later when he returns, he will pay the innkeeper for any additional expenses for that care.  The two coins are interpreted as the Bible and Tradition (or by others as the Old and New Testaments).  The inn represents the Church, and the innkeeper the clerics and teachers of the Church.  The morning is interpreted as the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and his promise to return is seen as the Last Judgment, when people will be recompensed according to their deeds.

In some examples, the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is shown as young at the beginning of his journey, but as old, grey, and bearded as he progresses — he is aged by sin.

Now all of this rather convoluted interpretation is cobbled together from the opinions of various early “Church Fathers,” etc.

Clement of Alexandria identified the Samaritan with Jesus in his treatise on the rich man in Mark 10, and the two coins as the reward the angels will receive for their services to mankind.

Origin — as described by Jerome — said he received an interpretation of the parable from an “old presbyter.”  This interpretation is much the same as that found in Eastern Orthodoxy, with these equivalencies:

The man traveling = Adam
Jerusalem = Paradise
The robbers = “the hostile powers,” i.e. demons
The Priest = the Law of Moses
The Levite = the prophets
The Samaritan = Jesus
The wounds = disobedience
The beast on which the Samaritan places the man = the body of Jesus
The inn = the Church
The two coins = the Father and the Son
The innkeeper is the “chairman” or authority of the Church
The Samaritan’s promise to return = the Second Coming

Origin recognized this as an allegory rather than the primary meaning of the parable, and did not agree with everything in the “old presbyter’s” interpretation.

Now interestingly, the roots of the allegory may lie in docetic and Gnostic sources.  An old Syriac manuscript — attributing docetic views to Marcion — says that Jesus

“…first appeared between Jerusalem and Jericho, like a human in form, image and likeness, but without our body” (British Museum cod. Add. 17215, fol. 30).

So there we have the Jerusalem and Jericho elements of the story, though of course much was to be added.

The Church Fathers had varying interpretations of the elements of the parable.  Those wishing a more complete study of the opinions of early Christian writers on the matter will find it in The Good Samaritan in Ancient Christianity, an article by Riemer Roukema in the publication Vigiliae Christianae: A Revew of Early Christian Life and Language, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 56-74 (19 pages).