Today we will look at a Russian icon of nine saints.  It offers a good opportunity for practicing the reading of title inscriptions in Church Slavic.  Inscriptions on old icons are often abbreviated, and also frequently damaged by time.  That means the student of icons should become familiar enough with titles and names to be able to fill in what may be missing in the inscription as written on an icon.  But again, this is not as difficult as it sounds at first, because names and titles are very repetitive.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

Fortunately, each saint in this icon still has most of his title inscription.  Those in the top row have titles written in the upper border, and those in the bottom row have them in the halo.

Let’s examine them one by one, beginning at top left:

First, we see that he is dressed in the skhima — the robe of a monastic.

His inscription begins with the three-letter abbreviation at the top:

П р

You should recognize the П р (Pr) as the beginning letters of Prepodobnuiy, the common title of a monastic, usually rendered in English as “Venerable,” though it really means “Most like” — most like Christ that is, or like Adam before the Fall.  The  д above the two letters is the “d” in Prepodobnuiy.

Next comes his actual name:


And finally comes the “locator” part of his title that tells us which Antoniy he is — that is, the place with which he is associated.  The first letter is partly missing, but from the rest we can easily restore it:


If we put it all together, we see that this monastic is Prepodobnuiy Antoniy Siyskiy — Venerable Antoniy Siyskiy, or if we want to anglicize it, Venerable Anthony of Siya.  Antoniy (1479–1556) founded the Antonievo-Siyskiy Monastery on the Siya River, in what is now Arkhangelsk province in northern Russia.  You may recognize the “Siyskiy” part from the title from the name of the well-known illustrated painters’ manual, the Siya Icon Painting Manual (Сийский иконописный подлинник/Siyskiy ikonopisnuiy podlinnik)

From this point on, I will just transliterate the I in Church Slavic by the И used for it in the modern Russian font.

To his right is a fellow dressed in the garments of a bishop:

His title begins:



The first abbreviation is of course the very common Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy/Saint.”  Note that the Slavic t is written very small to the right of the C (S), and the partial crossbar of it curves back and above the C, to indicate abbreviation.

It does not take effort to read this line as Svyatuiy Arkhiepiskop — “Holy Archbishop.”

The second line gives us first his name:


Then comes his “locator”:


“OF SERBIA.”  You will recall from previous postings that the -ago ending indicates the “of” form of a word, so that is why we translate this as “Of Serbia.”  Sava of Serbia, who died in 1236, was the first archbishop of the “independent” Serbian Orthodox Church.  Such an independent regional church is referred to by the adjective autocephalous, meaning literally, “self-headed,” — that is, under its own ecclesiastical authority.  For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was formerly under the authority of the “Patriarch of Russia and all Rus,” is now autocephalous — self-ruling and independent, under the title “The Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

The next fellow is also dressed as a bishop:

We see that same Ct (St) abbreviation at the beginning, for Svyatuiy — “Holy.”  That is followed by ЕПИСКОПЪ/EPISKOP”,  meaning “Bishop.”  Just think of the English word “episcopal,” which comes from the same Greek root as this Slavic form.

Next comes his name:


That is followed by his “locator” title:


The -skiy ending is another way of telling us that a person is from a certain place, and this fellow is from Perm, so he is Permskiy.

Assembling all the words, we get Svyatuiy Episkop Stefan Permskiy, “Holy Bishop Stefan/Stephen [of] Perm.”  Stefan of Perm (1340–1396) was the first bishop of Perm, near the Urals.

We can see that the fellow holding the scroll at far right is also dressed as a monastic:

And as we might expect, his title also begins with the letters Prd, which as you already know abbreviate Prepodobnuiy/”Venerable.”

Next comes his name:


And at the end comes his “locator” title, partly obliterated by a scratch (this kind of thing is common in old icons) and abbreviated, but we can nonetheless read it as:


So this fellow is Venerable Makariy Zheltovodskiy, or anglicized, “Venerable Macarius of Yellow Waters” [Lake].  You may also sometimes find his title given in longer form as Преподобный Макарий Унженский Желтоводский Чудотворец/Venerable “Makariy Unzhenskiy [‘of Unzha’] Zheltovodskiy Wonderworker.”  He lived circa 1399-1444, and was the founder of monasteries on the Volga River.

Now we move to the first fellow at left in the bottom row.

The beginning of his inscription has been partly obliterated by time, but from what we have already seen, we can easily amend the first word to the Prd we already know, for Prepodobnuiy — “Venerable.”

Next comes his name, and though the beginning letters are damaged, we can easily emend it as:


After that comes his abbreviated “locator” title:


So this fellow is Venerable Dimitriy Prilutskiy, or anglicized, Venerable Demetrius of Priluki.  He was a 14th century monastic founder in the Vologda area.

To the right of Dimitriy is this person:

His title is given as:


Evfimiy was a 15th century cleric noted for his reconstruction of many old churches.  He died in 1458.

The brackets indicate letters left out in the abbreviation or difficult to see because they are tiny superscripts.

Now we come to the angel.  He is easy to identify, even though some letters are gone from his title:

He is:


In normal English, “The Holy Guardian Angel.”  Remember that the ГГ (“gg”) combination of letters in Slavic is read as “ng.”  He holds the cross and sword typical of the “Guardian Angel” type.

To his right we see this fellow:

His inscription is:


Nikita died in 1108, and was reputed to be a “wonderworker.”

Now we come to the last figure:

He is:


From his inscription we can see how very important the “locator” portion of a title is in accurately identifying a saint, because as noted in this icon, there is more than one Sava — and in fact there are often multiple saints with the same name.  So we need the “locator” title to tell just which Sava this fellow is — and we see he is Sava of Vishersk, not Sava of Serbia or some other Sava (often anglicized as Sabbas).  Sava (generally spelled Савва/Savva) of Vishersk was the very ascetic founder of a monastery on the Vishera River.  He died in 1460.

Now you have had some helpful practice in reading and translating Church Slavic titles of saints in Russian icons.  If you have been reading here from the beginning, you should be able to translate the titles on a great many saints with ease.


Part of the fun of icons is in trying to translate some of the roughly or oddly written inscriptions.

Here, for example, is a Greek-inscribed icon you will recognize as John the Forerunner — John the Baptist.  Greek icons of John often have a “wild and wooly” appearance, almost like a combination of primitive art and more abstract art:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

But it is his scroll that interests us today:

The texts used on John’s scroll in icons are usually quite limited, so one might guess at what it says, but it is best to be able to read it, though some of the spelling is phonetic rather than standard.  Also, it is a little worn, but nonetheless we can make out what was intended.  Here is what it looks like:








Well, with a little imagination, we can tell that the painter’s intention was a standard inscription:

Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawn near.”

The painter did some (for us) odd things, for example using OI where we would expect I or H in Greek, but that is easily explained — all three have the same  “ee” sound in later Greek, so again, he was just writing phonetically.

The title inscription is a bit odd in its arrangement.  We see it in the upper left-hand corner:

It is meant to be read from lower left to upper left to upper right.

At lower left we have


The bottom letter above is not quite clear in the inscription, but nonetheless we can easily see that the inscription is to be understood as  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — “The Holy…”

The name Ιωάννης/Ioannes/John at top left is abbreviated to only two letters — Ιω.

When we get to his title at upper right, we see the beginning Ὁ/Ho/”The” followed by a very elaborate ligature intended to represent — when joined to the ΟC/os ending, the word Πρόδρομος/Prodromos/ “Forerunner.”

So we see that the title intended by the abbreviations and fancy ligature is Ὁ Άγιος Ιωάννης ο ΠρόδρομοςHO HAGIOS IOANNES HO PRODROMOS — “THE HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”

From earlier postings here on John, you will already know why he is shown with wings.  If you don’t remember, or if you are new here, you will find the answer in this posting:



We have seen Resurrection icons here previously, but today we will look at a rather remarkable example, extraordinary in its detail and the number of related scenes included.  It is Russian, from the 19th century.

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

At the top we see a heavily abbreviated title inscription.  Here is the left side of it:

It reads in large vyaz lettering:


Notice how cleverly the left vertical of the K as been shortened at top and bottom to fit within the arms of the C (“S”).

It finishes at top right:

“[of] CHRIST”

That strange letter in the middle is the T, with the left vertical shortened to fit below the top of the P (“R”), and the right side extended into a long vertical.  Remember that in some icon inscriptions, T looks very much like an English “M.”  That is the case here, though it has the left vertical shortened.

Now you will recall (I hope) that early icons of the Resurrection depicted it as the descent of Jesus to Hades, where he releases the righteous men and women of the Old Testament from their imprisonment .  Later Russian icons, however, often add to that the “Western” image of the Resurrection — Jesus rising above his empty tomb.  And that is what we see in the center of this example.  At top is the “Western” Resurrection, and at bottom the earlier “Descent to Hades” form:

Taken as a whole, however, the icon is meant to tell the Resurrection story from the Crucifixion to the Ascension of Jesus.  It begins top left with the Crucifixion:

The smaller inscriptions identify each scene.  At top is the Raspyatie Khristovo — the “Crucifixion of Christ.”  Below that is the Snyatie so Kresta — the “Removal from the Cross.”  Then comes the Polozhenie vo Grob — the “Placing in the Tomb.”  And at the base we see that Peter has come to the tomb, and sees the linen graveclothes lying there.

Then we have to jump to the right of Jesus in the upper “Western” Resurrection, where the painter has squeezed in two more small scenes — at right the “Myrrh-bearing Women” listening to an angel at the tomb, and at left the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (as previously mentioned, this is an amalgamation of discrepant Gospel accounts of the Resurrection).

At lower left, we see the angels who have been commanded to subdue Hades, along with various devils, and the mouth of Hades depicted as the open jaws of a frightful beast — another borrowing from Western European art.

In the “Descent to Hades” form of the Resurrection, we see Jesus freeing the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve:

At right we see the long line of freed prisoners rising up to the Gates of Paradise, notable among them the “Repentant Thief” who is called Rakh in Russian icons.  He is the fellow in white pants, holding a cross.  In the lower part of this segment we see Jesus giving Rakh the cross that will be his “ticket” into Paradise:

So we see Rakh with Jesus and his cross, and above that at the Gates of Paradise, and then he is inside the Garden of Paradise with other saints and Old Testament worthies.  Note the Seraph with flaming swords who guards the gates.

Now if we look at the “Western” Resurrection, we see Jesus rising above the tomb (note the sarcophagus with the empty graveclothes).  Below him is a group of astonished Roman guards (found only in the Gospel called “of Matthew”), fallen to the ground.

At lower right we see two post-Resurrection scenes.  At top is Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and beside that the scene of their recognizing him while sitting at table, when he breaks the bread.

Below that is the scene of the resurrected Jesus meeting the disciples (that is Peter coming out of the water) at the Sea of Tiberias.

Finally, we have to jump back to the upper left side to see the small scenes of Jesus being touched by Thomas at left, Thomas bowing before him at lower left (with the other disciples), and the end of the whole tale at upper left, where the disciples and Mary, standing with angels, see Jesus ascending to heaven — the Voznesenie — the “Ascension.”

An icon such as this is, as I often say, a kind of graphic novel in paint.  A believer could move his or her eyes about the icon to follow the story, noting each incident and its participants.

As I have mentioned before, the iconography of the Resurrection is a conglomeration of elements from various sources, both biblical and extra-biblical.  And even using those sources found only within the Bible requires glossing over their incompatible discrepancies to make an attempt at a unified story.  But keep in mind that Russians — until quite recent times — were not Bible readers.  Most people were illiterate.  At the end of the 18th century, only somewhere between 1 and 12% of peasant males could read.  Around a quarter of city dwellers were literate.  Nobles had the highest literacy rates at about 84-87%, and  about 75% of merchants were literate.  By 1897, about a quarter of the population of the western part of Russia was literate, with the highest rates still among the wealthy, the nobles, merchants, and clergy, and peasants far below them.  Bibles were not easy to obtain or affordable, though the New Testament was more often to be found than the Old.  Most people learned the Bible stories through the readings in the liturgy and through the images on icons, so there was much less chance of noticing all the “holes” in the sewn-together account as seen in icons such as this one.

The spread of the New Testament in Russia was largely made possible by the efforts of Protestants, via at first the British and Foreign Bible Society — which led to a Russian Bible Society.  Even when New Testaments began to appear at affordable prices, they were often in Church Slavic, and finding a Bible also containing the Old Testament often proved difficult even into the 20th century.  The reading of the Bible in Russian rather than Church Slavic is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

In spite of all these difficulties, we nonetheless find that in the 19th century religious classic often known in English as The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim — poor as he was — mentions owning a Bible:

Я по милости Божией человек-христианин, по делам великий грешник, по званию бесприютный странник, самого низкого сословия, скитающийся с места на место. Имение мое следующее: за плечами сумка сухарей, да под пазухой Священная Библия; вот и все.

I am by the grace of God a Christian man, by my deeds a great sinner, by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth, roaming from place to place.  My belongings are the following:  on my back a knapsack of dried bread, and in my breast pocket the Holy Bible — and that is all.”


Here is an interesting example of a Marian icon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It has a familiar name, as we see in the title inscription:

It says:



Now we have seen this “Joy to/of all Who Suffer” icon type before — in fact it is a very common Marian icon type.  But what is unusual about this example is the absence of the angels and of the suffering people usually depicted on both sides of Mary, along with banners bearing a related text.  This icon, however, focuses in on the central image of Mary with crown and scepter, holding the Christ Child — the main element in many “Joy of all Who Suffer” icons — though many also picture Mary without the Child.

This example of the type is particularly unusual in that it depicts Mary to the waist, instead of full length.

Notice that this icon has a kovcheg — an ark — meaning that the main area of the image is recessed below the level of the outer border.  It is characteristic of early icons, but as we see from this example, it was still used now and then even, even into the 19th and beginning of the 20the century.

For more information on the conventional “Joy of All Who Suffer,” type, here is a link to the earlier posting:



In a previous posting, we looked at Dmitriy/Dimitriy Solunski, Demetrios of Thessaloniki — one of the noted warrior saints in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  In that posting we saw that the defeated figure fallen to the ground in his icons is often vaguely called the “King of the Infidels.”

In Serbia, however, he has a very definite name.   Let’s look at a 14th century fresco from Vuisokie/Vysokie Dechani:

The inscription at the top tells us,
“Holy Dimitriy Impales Tsar Kaloyan of Zagora.”  Kaloyan (c. 1170-1207) was a Bulgarian voevod.  He  died during the siege of Thessaloniki, killed in a plot, it is generally believed, involving the head of his mercenaries, a man named Menastra.  However another account suggests pleurisy as the cause for his death.  In any case, a legend soon arose that St. Dimitriy killed Kaloyan with a lance, which of course was impossible, given that Dimitry had supposedly been martyred in the early 4th century; so Kaloyan’s death became, in popular belief, a miracle attributed to the saint.

Here is Dimitriy again, seen in a 12th century carved stone relief from Kievan Rus.  And the other figure is understood to be St. Nestor — Nestor Solunskiy, that is Nestor of Thessaloniki.

Nestor was said to be a handsome young man who received his Christian belief from Dimitriy/Demetrios.  It happened that Emperor Maximian, who had imprisoned Dimitriy for his Christian belief, was also fond of games and spectacles.  He had a favorite wrestler named Lyaeos (Slavic Лий/Liy).  This man, from the Germanic Vandal people,  was of huge stature, very tall and immensely strong, and supposedly his strength was enhanced by demons.  He put on a performance in which he wrestled people — among them many Christians — on a wooden platform, then threw them onto the points of spears and other sharp weapons that were sticking up below the platform.

Nestor, seeing all this, went to Dimitriy in prison and asked his blessing to defeat Lyaeos in a contest.  Dimitriy gave him his blessing, and in doing so foretold not only Nestor’s victory but also that he would suffer for Christ.

Nestor went to where Lyaeos was doing his wrestling and killing, and taking off his outer garments, he loudly and publicly challenged him.  The Emperor warned Nestor against it, saying that the young man’s small size was no match for the huge Lyaeos.  But Nestor replied that he would fight in Christ’s name.

That angered Maximian, who then told Nestor to enter the platform.  Nestor overcame the much larger Lyaeos, and threw him down upon the upright spears, killing him as Lyaeos had killed so many others.

The Emperor was so upset by this that on learning Dimitriy had encouraged and helped Nestor defeat Maximian’s favorite by blessing the young man, he condemned both Dimitriy and Nestor to death.  Dimitriy was killed with spears, and Nestor was beheaded.  This is said to have happened in the year 306.

It is far from a “turn the other cheek” kind of Christianity, but that is how some of these hagiographic legends go.

Here is a 14th century fresco from Dechani showing Nestor defeating Lyaeos:

Nestor is ranked among the warrior saints in iconography, and he is often shown with armor and weapons, as in this 14th century fresco, again from Vysokie Dechani in Serbia: