Here is a Russian icon of Ioann Zlatoust — John the “Golden-mouthed,” better known as John Chrysostom:

(Photo courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

We are today primarily interested in the text on the book he holds:

(Courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

Here it is, with the portion seen on the book in bold type:

Вы есте соль земли: аще же соль обуяет, чим осолится? Ни во чтоже будет ктому, точию да и-[зсыпана будет вон и попираема человеки.]

It is the text of Matthew 5:13:

You are the salt of the earth. If however the salt loses its strength, how shall it be salted? It will then be good for nothing but to be t[hrown out and trampled by men.]”

Perhaps you noticed some slight spelling variations in the text.  These are common in old inscriptions.

Now why should this text be included on an icon of John Chrysostom?  Well, most likely because he included a discussion of it in one of his homilies:

What then? did they restore the decayed? By no means; for neither is it possible to do any good to that which is already spoilt, by sprinkling it with salt. This therefore they did not. But rather, what things had been before restored, and committed to their charge, and freed from that ill savor, these they then salted, maintaining and preserving them in that freshness, [633] which they had received of the Lord. For that men should be set free from the rottenness of their sins was the good work of Christ; but their not returning to it again any more was the object of these men’s diligence and travail.

John seems not to have understood the original meaning of the saying, and in fact there is much controversy even today about what was meant by salt losing its strength or savor, because salt remains — well, salt, no matter how old it is.   It does not lose its strength or savor.  Some think that the “salt” mentioned was not at all what we know as salt, but rather a kind of substance used to fertilize the fields — a fertilizer that could lose its strength.  But no firm and definitive solution to the puzzle of this text seems yet to have been found — so it remains obscure.


Here is a Russian icon with a large crowd of figures:

(Photo courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

The inscription at the top tells us who they are;



All together it reads:



You may recall that a Sobor — an Assembly — is also the name used for a commemoration of a group of saints or angels, and in fact there is an “Assembly of the Holy Seventy Apostles” commemorated annually in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar.

The problem is that their names — and even their numbers — vary from account to account.

If one reads older Bible translations, one finds the Seventy mentioned in Luke 10:1 (and 10:17), for example in the King James version:

“After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.”

That is essentially what we find  in Church Slavic Bibles as well, for example in the “Elizabeth” Bible:

По сих же яви Господь и инех седмьдесят, и посла их по двема пред лицем Своим во всяк град и место, аможе хотяше Сам ити:

And we find it in the traditional Byzantine Greek text:

μετα δε ταυτα ανεδειξεν ο κυριος και ετερους εβδομηκοντα και απεστειλεν αυτους ανα δυο προ προσωπου αυτου εις πασαν πολιν και τοπον ου εμελλεν αυτος ερχεσθαι

However, if we look at more recent translations, we find something different — for example in the English Standard Version:

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.

And if we look at more recent editions of the Koine Greek text of Luke 10:1, we also find that has changed to “seventy-two,” for example in Tyndale House SBL:

Μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα ἀνέδειξεν ὁ κύριος καὶ ἑτέρους ἑβδομήκοντα δύο καὶ ἀπέστειλεν αὐτοὺς ἀνὰ δύο δύο πρὸ προσώπου αὐτοῦ εἰς πᾶσαν πόλιν καὶ τόπον οὗ ἤμελλεν αὐτὸς ἔρχεσθαι.

So in the newer texts and translations of Luke, seventy has become seventy-two.

This is not, however, a new problem, and it originates in the variant readings found in old Greek manuscripts of Luke.  Some say there were seventy apostles sent out in Luke 10, while others say seventy-two.  Modern critical Greek texts of the New Testament tend to prefer the “seventy-two” reading, because it is found in Papyrus 75 ( Papyrus Bodmer XIV–XV ), as well as attested in Papyrus 45 (Chester Beatty Papyrus) for Luke 10:17; and it is the reading also found in Codex Vaticanus and several other manuscripts, while the reading “seventy” is found in some such as Codex Alexandrinus.  Modern manuscript scholars presume that “seventy-two” was likely the earlier reading, and that “seventy” came from revising the number to fit the frequent use of the number seventy for various purposes elsewhere in the Bible, while seventy-two is an uncommon number found mentioned only once in quite another biblical context.

In any case, though in its calendar and liturgy the Eastern Orthodox churches prefer to use the number “Seventy” for the apostles sent out in Luke 10, writers such as Dimitriy Rostovskiy were familiar with the discrepancy.  In his discussion of the “Assembly of the Holy Seventy Apostles” commemoration, he noted that some of the Seventy had fallen “from the faith and dignity of their office,” one even becoming a pagan priest; and he mentions two names that were added to the list — Dionysius the Areopagite, and Simeon Niger.  The old lists naming the Seventy or Seventy-two do not always agree on all the names.  You will find Dimitriy Rostovskiy’s discussion of the matter here:


If we look more closely at the icon shown above, we can see that the “Seventy” are all clustered around a symbolic central church building that is “founded on a rock”:

(Courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)


In a recent posting, I mentioned the belief common in Protestantism (and contrary to that in Eastern Orthodoxy) that the newly-married Joseph and Mary were quite poor rather than wealthy.  That notion of their poverty is also found often in European Catholic art and folk song.

You may not know it, but there is a reliquary in the Cathedral at Aachen, Germany, which purported (though some may still believe it, who knows?) to contain the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus.

Even more interesting is the belief  — an old tradition — that these swaddling clothes were made by Joseph, who, seeing that Mary had nothing else for the purpose, took off his long socks (his hose in old terms) and cut them up so that Mary might wrap the child in them.

Here is an example of that motif in a painting from around the year 1400.  We see elements in it rather like those in the traditional Eastern Orthodox Nativity icons, but notice that Joseph sits with his bare foot sticking out as he cuts up his hosiery with a knife to make swaddling clothes:

(Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp)

Of course, just as there are differences in the New Testament Nativity accounts, there are also differences in these old traditions.  Some say it was his shirt that Joseph took off and cut up, and others say Mary used her own veil.

It was the custom in old German churches at Christmastime to have a kind of Nativity play,  “Das Kindlein Wiegen” — “The Rocking of the Child.”  Local people played the parts.

In Das Rollwagenbüchlin from the middle of the 1500s — a book one could read while traveling in a Rollwagen or pre-stagecoach wagon — Jörg Wickram gave a highly entertaining narration of such a Christmas pageant gone wrong.  Here is my loose translation of the German original:

Of a Christmas Child and Joseph, how he Cooked him Mush in the Church, and they Slugged Each Other in the Church.

In the Bishopric of Cologne it once happened at Christmastime — on Christmas Eve — that they “Rocked the Child” on the same night.  And they took a big choirboy, who was to be the Child, and they lay the Child Jesus in a cradle, and Mary rocked it.  And the Child began to cry very loudly.  As it would not be quiet, Joseph ran hastily to cook the Child some mush or porridge, and gave it to him to eat, so he would be quiet.  But because he still would not be silent, the good Joseph took a spoon full of hot mush, ran with it to the cradle, and shoved the spoon with the hot mush down the Child’s throat, and burnt the Child’s mouth so badly that he stopped screaming and weeping.  The Child hastily climbed out the the cradle, grabbed Joseph’s hair, and they slugged each other.  But the child was so much stronger than Joseph, that he threw him to the floor and dragged him around, so that the people in the church had to come to Joseph’s aid.

It was not exactly a “Silent Night.”






The Bible is full of paradoxes and discrepancies, which has contributed to the very large number of Christian denominations with their varying interpretations.  On one hand we find the words put into the mouth of Jesus in Matthew 26:32:

“Then Jesus said to him, Put up again your sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

And yet in he is recorded as saying in Matthew 10:34:

“Do not think that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

And in Luke 22:36, he even advises any of his disciples not having a sword to sell his garment and buy one:

“Then he said to them, But now, he that has a purse, let him take it, and likewise his bag: and he that has no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”

In Ephesians 6:7 we find:

“And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

And in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Given these (and there are more) biblical connections between the sword and Jesus — who is also known as the “Word” — we find this unusual depiction — a 14th century fresco at the Vysoki Dechani Monastery in Kosovo, Serbia:
Let’s look at what can be read of the inscription from the photo:

After the faded first line, it appears to say:


“This Sword [is the] Cutter of Sins.”

It is difficult to discern just what was in the mind of the originator of this image, but given the volatile politics of the region, it would be easy for an ordinary person to get the impression that it justifies religious violence, which is a very dangerous possibility.

Even the image as a fresco was unusual, and it was not adopted as a standard icon type, so we do not find old painted icons of it.   Some contemporary painters, nonetheless, are making new icons of it — though they may add a different inscription, such as this one, which as we have seen, comes from Hebrews 4:12:

Живо бо слово Божие и действенно, и острейше паче всякаго меча обоюду остра, [и проходящее даже до разделения души же и духа, членов же и мозгов, и судително помышлением и мыслем сердечным.]

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, [piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” ]

Given the problematic ambiguity of representing Jesus with a sword, it seems odd that anyone would want to revive such an image.  There is, however, this recent and different Greek-inscribed example, also showing Jesus with a sword:

ὀ εκδικητηςa.jpg

It bears the title:

Iesous Khristos ho Ekdiketes

“Jesus Christ The Avenger.”

The text on the book he holds is from Isaiah 45:21-22:

… δίκαιος καὶ σωτὴρ οὐκ ἔστιν πάρεξ ἐμοῦ. 22 ἐπιστράφητε ἐπ᾿ ἐμὲ καὶ σωθήσεσθε, οἱ ἀπ᾿ ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς· ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ Θεός, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλος.

“… a just one and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and you shall be saved, you from the end of the earth: I am God, and there is no other.”

Sadly, in the history of the “Abrahamic” belief systems, religion and violence are seldom far apart.


Here is an icon that on one side depicts the “Not Made by Hands” image that, by the evolution of a legend, came to be called the “first icon.”  Jesus is said to have made it during his life by pressing a wet cloth to his face, and the image of his face was supposedly imprinted on it.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Consequently, it is one of the most common icon types.  The inscription at the top identifies the icon:



As is customary, some words are abbreviated.  Here is the translated inscription in full, with missing letters added:

“Not-Hand-Made Image [of the] Lord of-us Jesus Christ”

In normal English,
“The Not Made by Hands Image of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Holding the cloth at upper left is the Archangel Mikhail/Michael:

And at upper right is the Archangel Gavriil/Gabriel:

There is an additional inscription at the base not typical of this type:

Вся Мне предана суть Отцемъ Моимъ. И никто же знаетъ Сына, токмо Отецъ, ни Отца кто знаетъ, токмо Сынъ… [ и емуже аще волит Сынъ открыти.]

It is taken from Matthew 11:27:
“All things are committed to me by my Father.  And no one knows the Son except the Father, nor anyone knows the Father, but the Son… [and to whomever the Son wants to reveal him.]

The svyet — the bright background of this icon, as well as the halo — is gold leaf.  Gold leaf is gold that has been beaten so thin that the slightest puff of air will blow it away.  Here are some of the terms used in relation to gold leaf on icons.

First, you will want to know that the Russian word for gold is

ЗОЛОЧЕНИЕ ЛИСТОВОЕ/zolochenie listovoe is gold leafing — as in gold leafing a surface.  The same term is also loosely applied to the use of other kinds of metal leaf not actually gold.

ЗОЛОТЧИК/zolotchik is the gilder, the person applying gold leaf to an icon or other surface.

АССИСТ/assist is the term for the sticky adhesive applied in thin lines, to which gold leaf is then adhered to create bright gold highlights.

ИНАКОПЬ/inakop is the term for thin highlight lines made when gold leaf is applied to the assist.

ПОЛИМЕНТ/poliment (a term borrowed from French via German) is a mixture of (usually) red clay with other substances,  applied when liquid and used when dry as the base on which gold leaf is applied on icons from about the beginning of the 17th century.  Its effect is not only to provide a very smooth surface on which the gold leaf may be laid and polished, but given the thinness of the leaf, the poliment also enhances its appearance.  The earthy-red poliment base is often seen on old gold-leafed icons where the leaf has been scratched or damaged.

ЧЕКАНКА/chekanka is the ornamental embossing of the gold leaf (or other metal leaf) background, halo, garments, etc. on an icon.  It was particularly common on late 19th century Russian icons.  It is also used for the embossing on metal icon covers, etc.  The metal tool used for this purpose is a


And of course as mentioned earlier, the
СВЕТ/svyet  is the bright gold leaf background (ФОН/fon) of the icon, though the term svyet (meaning “light”) is also used for backgrounds that are merely painted in a light color.

Here is a video showing the process of gilding (zolochenie) over the poliment.  Note that the gilding of an icon is done before the image is painted:

If you wonder how chekanka — the embossing of the levkas/gesso on the icon panel — is done, here is a video showing the process

Here is a video showing the application of gold highlights using the assist method: