In movies, an “extra” is an actor who appears in a scene — often in the background — but is not a major character and generally has no lines to speak and is not named in the credits.

Icons too have their “extras,” persons who appear in the scene but are generally given no name.

We often find such an “extra” in icons featuring the “Flight to Egypt.”  In fact we saw one in a previous posting:

The main characters in the narrative are Joseph at right, and Mary with the child Jesus, both riding.  However in this example there is a fourth character walking behind.  This is the “extra.”  He appears in some icons, but is omitted in others.  Notice that he has no halo, and no name title above his head.  He is often identified in discussions of iconography simply as their “servant.”  However, in the apocryphal texts, the single male accompanying Joseph, Mary and Jesus is identified as a son of Joseph.  We read of Joseph in the Protoevangelium:

And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed.

And indeed, in some examples of the “Flight to Egypt” we do find the youth leading the ass, instead of walking behind it and carrying the traveling bag on a stick, as shown above.

We see the boy leading the ass in this early Italian painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, more closely reflecting the excerpt from the Protoevangelium:

There is another tradition, however, which says the the person who goes with Joseph and Mary is not Joseph’s son, but rather Salome — often identified as the woman present at the birth of Jesus in the apocrypha.  This is found in The History of Joseph the Carpenter:

Joseph was told by my Father in a vision.  He rose up, took me and my mother Mary, I sitting on her lap, Salome walking behind us, and we went down to Egypt.

There are still more variations on just who accompanied the family to Egypt in apocryphal texts, but I will not go into that now.  Suffice it to say that in some icons, Joseph and Mary and Jesus go unaccompanied, but we often find that boy or young man as an “extra,” sometimes in front, sometimes behind.

We encounter another “extra” in icons of the “Visitation,” the visit of the pregnant Mary to her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth.  This extra is female, and commonly appears as a young woman holding up the curtain of Elizabeth’s house, peeking out as Elizabeth and Mary meet.  This young woman has no name, but she is generally understood to be Elizabeth’s servant.  In fact in discussions of Russian iconography, she is generally identified only as a sluzhanka (служанка), a female serving maid.

We find her in Western Catholic iconography as well.  Here she is in a c. 1320 stone carving at the Cathedral of Orvieto, in Italy — the young woman holding up the curtain at right, watching Elizabeth and Mary embrace.

Here is the young female “extra” again, in the mosaic of the “Visitation” in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice:

She also pops up in the Sofiya Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine — this time peeking out at left:

Just as movie extras may appear in different movies, we also find the “peeking maid” in this mosaic segment depicting a quite different event — “The Prayer of the Holy Anne” (Ἡ Προσευχη Της Ἁγιας Αννης / He Proseukhe Tes Hagias Annes), in the monastery at Daphne/Daphni, Greece.  This St. Anne is by tradition the Mother of Mary:

It is worth mentioning that  while Protestants tend to think of Joseph and Mary as being rather poor, that is not the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Poor people could not afford the servants (more literally slaves) that we sometimes see in icons of the family members and relatives of Jesus.


I have discussed icons of the birth of Jesus in previous postings, but today we will look at an interestingly detailed Russian icon of the type, which combines elements of the biblical narratives with elements taken from the Protoevangelion of James.  We have seen this icon before, but focused only on the Magi in one case: (see https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/eastern-wise-guys/);  and in another, we looked at some of the imagery but not all (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/a-traditional-mixture-the-birth-of-christ-in-russian-iconography/).  Today we will examine all of its elements.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The image bears the usual title:

Birth [of] Lord of-us Jesus Christ
In normal English:
“The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The central image is the birth of Jesus, depicting Mary on her pallet, the child Jesus lying in the manger, and three angels standing over the child, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.

Just below at left is the washing of the newborn infant Jesus by midwife Baba Solomiya (Salome), taken from the Protoevangelion. She is assisted by another known in tradition as Geloma. And at right is Joseph looking dismal, listening to the words of the “shepherd,” who by tradition is the Devil tempting him to doubt the virgin birth.

Note the fellow bending and speaking to Joseph at right in the segment shown above.  While in popular Russian belief he is often said to be the Devil in disguise, in this icon he has a title above his head that simply identifies him as пастырь/pastuir’ — “shepherd.”

Next we turn to the story of the Volsvi  — the Magi who follow the star seen at the top to Bethlehem, and there kneel before the child Jesus, held in the arms of his mother:

At upper right we see the Magi warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod, and above that they are seen mounted again on horses, returning to their own country by another road:

At lower left we see Herod consulting the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Messiah is to be born.  Beside that is the “Massacre of the Innocents,” the soldiers, killing by Herod’s order, all children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem:

At middle left we see an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take mother and child and flee to Egypt:

At middle right Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus are on the “Flight to Egypt”:

Now we move again into apocryphal material from the Protoevangelion.  The top image is Elizabeth — Mary’s cousin — being pursued by Herod’s soldier.  She flees with the child John (the future Baptist) to the  mountains, and there she asks a mountain to hide her.  The mountain splits open, revealing a cave into which Elizabeth escapes with John.

At the base, the priest Zachariah is killed by Herod’s soldier at the entrance of the Temple, because he would not reveal to the soldiers of King Herod where his son John was to be found.

Narrative icons such as this were like modern “graphic novels” in that they enabled the viewer to see the main elements of a story.

As I have mentioned before, only two of the New Testament gospels have birth narratives of Jesus — “Matthew” and “Luke,” and these two differ significantly.  The Protoevangelion not only took elements from each narrative, but added more material.  The sum of all these accounts was “gospel truth” to the average Russian Orthodox believer, who simply uncritically accepted the narratives as presented in icons and in the church liturgical writings as history, when in fact they were something quite different.


Today we will look at a Marian icon type suggested by a reader curious about its inscriptions.

The main inscriptions (aside from the usual abbreviations for “Mother of God” and “Jesus Christ”) are unusual in that they rhyme, forming a rather odd poem — but of course they do not rhyme in English.  Here is a very loose translation of those inscriptions, as well as the originals, for those who may wish to make a more literal translation:

Very-well chosen Mary, the bride,
Prayer to her leads one to the good place.
O sweetest Jesus my savior,
Grant that I may always be your lover.

Преизбранная Маріа невѣста
Молящимся ей даетъ в пользу мѣста.
О пресладчайшій Христе мой спаситель
Даждь мнѣ да буду присно твой любитель.

With your ruling scepter Mother everywhere
Guide me that I may stand before you
Of this the Mother with the Son converses
That all believers may inherit Heaven.

Скиптро начальствой мати повсюду
Управляи мя да при тебе буду
Мати съ сыномъ о томъ бесѣдуетъ
Да всякій верный въ небе царство наслѣдуетъ,

With the son, the mother in blessing
Protects people, directing them to Heaven.

С сыномъ мати в благодати
Людей сохраняютъ въ небе оуправляют.

Beautiful as the moon, Virgin
Sweet-sounding [musical] string.

Красна яко луна дева
Доброгласна струна Мария

Contemplate now the virgin and Mother with the Son
Turn mind and heart to them, people.
That is what Christ God desires from us;
Mary the Virgin will help us with that.

Зде деву и матерь съ сыномъ созерцати
умъ и сердце ним моди обращати
Зане Христосъ Богу от насъ то желает
Мария дева въ томъ намъ помогает

Birth-giver of God, most holy Virgin
Save me from evil and give us all good
Who keeps all creatures
In his hand
Keep me in purity
Unto Heavenly rest.

Богородице дево пресвятая
Спаси мя от бедъ и дажд намъ всемъ благая
Содержай тварь всякую
Своею рукою
Держи мя въ чистоти
Къ небесному покою

Радуися богоневесто жезле таины цветъ неувядаемый процветший
Rejoice, bride of God, mystic rod, blossoming with the unfading flower

There is some confusion about just how far back this image goes, but the image as it is generally depicted was painted in 1765 by a monk (or priest) named Evfimiy, at the Savior Cholnskiy Monastery in the town of Trubchev, in what was then Orel Province — thus the title of this icon type.  It is said to have first come to notice at the end of the 18th century, when it was carried in procession and credited with ending a cholera epidemic, and so became considered “miracle-working.”

Under the Communist regime, the icon was carelessly treated when placed in a local history museum, but was “rediscovered” in 1994.

The icon was in rather bad condition:

It is said to have since been restored.


Today we will look at an icon primarily for its Vyaz inscription.  Learning to read these “condensed” inscriptions is very important  — in fact essential — for serious students of icons, but it is not difficult.

We can see that this icon is a kind of schematic image (without natural perspective) of a group of buildings within a wall, and we can see a few monks and clerics standing within it:

The small inscriptions in red identify the various buildings, but we need not bother with those.  Our interest today is in the large title inscription at the top, which identifies the image.

Here it is, in two parts due to its length:

It reads:



Let’s look at it word by word:

OBITEL‘:  An obitel’ is a cloister — a monastery.  Notice that the third vertical on the omega-like O is shortened, so that the Б (b) can be fitted in above it and above the shortened first vertical in the letter И (i).

S[VYA]TUIYA:  “Of the Holy.”  Note the omitted letters in the abbreviation, shown in brackets in the transliteration.  Also note the form of the final “ya” sound, made by a letter combining I and A — represented by Я in the modern Russian font.

ZHIVONACHALNUIYA –  “Life-initiating,” commonly translated as “Lifegiving”; the “of” form is used here — without abbreviation


TR[OI]TSUI:  “TRINITY”; again in the “of” form.  The Т is placed above the Р (R), and the first vertical on the Ц (ts) is greatley shortened to fit close to the first two letters.

PR[E]P[O]D[O]BNAGO:  “Venerable” — the loose English translation of the word meaning “most like,” and used as the title for monks.  Note the strong abbreviation.  Note also the transformation of the second vertical in the letter П (p) curving it out to make the Р (r) — thus getting two letters out of one.  Note also how the Д (d) is written above the word — here in the “of” form.

OTSA:  “FATHER” — meaning here a spiritual father.  Here it begins with another omega-form O.  There is another joined letter, made by shortening the second vertical in the Ц (ts) to make it also the lower vertical in the final letter A.  In the “of” form.

NASHEGO:   “OF US” — rendered as “our” in English.  By now you should be accustomed to seeing verticals shortened to fit other letters in.  The first three letters – НАШ (nash) are a very good exmaple of that.

IGUMENA:  “HEGUMEN” — a clerical title used for the head of a monastery, like an abbot in Catholicism.  the second vertical on the beginning letter И (i) is drastically shortened to make room for the Г (g) above it.  Note the form of the third letter — the “ou/oo” sound — found as У in the modern Russian font.  In the “of” form.

SERGIYA:   “SERGIY/SERGEI — in the “of” form.

RAD[ONEZHSKAGO]:  “OF RADONEZH.”  It is very common for only the beginning letters of a “place” title to be used, with the rest omitted in the abbreviation.

So we see the inscription identifies this icon as:


“The Monastery of the Holy Life-giving Trinity of Our Venerable Father Hegumen Sergiy/Sergei of Radonezh.”

It is the most noted monastery in Russia — even today.  And now you also know why there is a little icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” separating the two parts of the inscription.



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 Jacksonsauction.com)

And here is a “Lord Almighty”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And finally a “John the Forerunner”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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.