Today we will look at the iconography of one of the saints of the island of Crete:

(Byantine and Christian Museum, Athens)

In the center we see the large image of the saint himself.  If it once had his title, it is worn away.  But we see it abbreviated in another similar icon of the same fellow:

We see:


abbreviating  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC/Ho Hagios — “The Holy”;

And we see

It has a mark of abbreviation above it.  It abbreviates ΙѠΑΝΝΗC/Ioannes — “John”:

And finally, divided into two parts at the sides of his head, we find:

Ὁ ΕΡΗ               ΜΙΤΗC   — Ho Eremites — “The Hermit.

If we put it all together, we get:



Because he was a monk, John is often titled Όσιος Ιωάννης ο Ερημίτης/Hosios Ioannes ho Eremites.  You will recall that Hosios is the Greek equivalent of the Russian Prepodobnuiy; it signifies a male monastic.

You may have recognized that the Greek word ΕΡΗΜΙΤΗC/Eremites is already found in English as “eremite,” and in fact our English word “hermit” comes ultimately from the Greek eremites, which in turn is derived from Greek ἔρημος/eremos — meaning a deserted, wild place.  It is the word used in the New Testament for the “desert” where John the Forerunner/Baptist preached.  So an eremite or hermit was originally one who went out to live in wild, uninhabited places — like the Judean desert, or the Nitrian Desert in Egypt.

The icon of John the Hermit tells the hagiographic tale of his life in condensed form.  We will look at elements of this tale taken from two similar icons.  Remember that these lives of the saints are not literal history, but rather tales to inspire and entertain believers — so they are often a mixture of history and fanciful fiction — and sometimes entirely fiction.

The tale tells us that in the year 1600 (others say it may have been even some two centuries earlier) 36 monastics came with John from Egypt to lead ascetic lives on the island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea.  There they made such a local impression that they were joined by 39 more — this time Cypriots.  By this time, things were so lively around them that they wanted to find a quieter place to live a monastic life.  First they tried going to Antalya in Asia Minor (now in Turkey), but again they were pestered by lots of religious “groupies.”  Nonetheless, another 24 monastics joined them, so now they were, all together, 99 monks.  They decided that number was enough, and would not accept more, because they considered Jesus to the the 100th member of their community — a nice round number.

To find a quieter place for their ascetic lifestyle, they got on a ship and headed for the island of Crete, but the weather was bad and the sea rough, so they only managed to make it to the island of Gavdos, which is about 26 miles south of Crete.   There they stayed only for 24 days, and then set off again, sailing to Crete.

When they got there, they discovered that John was missing.  According to the tale, he had fallen asleep on Gavdos, and so missed the boat when all the others got on board to sail for Crete.

When they found John was gone, they went to the beach and waited there for him.  And John was supposedly able to miraculously put his mantle on the sea, and using his staff as a mast, he stepped onto the cloth and sailed across the waters to join the other monks on Crete.

That is what we see in this part of the icon.  At the top is the ship.  Below it, John stands at right on the island of Gavdos.  Another monk stands on the shore of Crete, opposite him.  And then below that we see John sailing across the sea from Gavdos to Crete on his cloth mantle:

Below  that, we find the old monks all gathered together, and above them is a Greek inscription identifying them as ῾Η Σύναξις τῶν Γερόντων/He Synaxis ton Geronton — “The Assembly of the Elders.”

The remainder of scenes on the left side of the icon deal with the death of John.

The monks, having arrived on Crete, lived in caves.  John eventually went off to find a place by himself.

So he left the 98 other “Fathers,” and went to Akrotiri on Crete.  There he managed to live in a cave he found for many years.

It is said that John prayed so much on his knees that at last he had trouble standing, and would crawl about on all fours.  It happened that one day when he was out gathering greens for food, a hunter passing by with his bow and arrows mistook John crawling in the bushes for a beast, and shot him with an arrow.

He begged and received John’s forgiveness.

John is said to have breathed his last in his cave, and in the icon we see his koimesis/”dormition” there — his death, with an angel on each side of his body.

Here is the second of the two icons of John the Hermit, which as you can see, is much the same as the first.

There is a particularly peculiar element in John’s hagiography.  He is supposed to have made an agreement with the other 98 monks that when one of them died, they would all die.  And it is said that when the hunter who accidentally killed John went to inform the other monks of John’s death, he found that they had already died at the time when John died.



Here is yet another “icon in a tree” image.  If you look closely, however, you will see that there is also a large fish and a round loaf of bread in the tree:

It all relates to the story of another of the monastic founder monks of the “Northern Thebaid” — one of those who wandered off into the forested wilds of northern Russia.  This one is “Holy Venerable Martyr Adrian Poshekhonskiy, Wonderworker.”

Adrian was a monk at the Vologda-Korneliev Monastery.  He supposedly had a vision in which Mary appeared to him, telling him to go into the northern wilds and build a church there.  An alternate account says that while at that monastery, Adrian met a strange old starets (religious elder) named Bestuzh, who told Adrian his future was to build a church in a wild place, and also told Adrian he knew where that place was to be found.

With the permission of his abbot, Adrian set off into the forests with his fellow monk Leonid, and the strange starets travelled with them, guiding their way into the swampy, forested region.  when they arrived at their destination, the starets mysteriously vanished — and they determined from this that he must have been an angel sent to guide and protect them.

They had brought with them an icon of the Dormition (Uspenie) of the Mother of God, and this they hung in an oak tree.  Then they went off into the forest — some say to look for whatever mushrooms and berries they might find to eat.

While they were gone, some local fishermen from the village of Beloselsk came into the area, fishing on the Vetka River at the same place where the monks had hung the icon of Mary.  There they were able to catch two extraordinarily large pike (a kind of fish).  One of them found the icon — some say shining with a bright light —  and climbed up and attempted to take the icon from the tree, but a strong unseen force pushed him away.  Impressed by all this, the fishermen left offerings at the tree, in the form of fish and bread.  That accounts for the large fish we see lying across a branch of the tree in the icon, and it also accounts for the round loaf near it.

When Adrian and his companion returned, they were surprised to find the food left at the tree.

Feeling this was the spot for their church, the monks set to work.  Other people in the region came to them and helped, and eventually a church and monastery rose on the site.

There was trouble, however.  In the year 1550, robbers came from the village of Beloye to the monastery, thinking that there must be wealth inside.  They tried to get Adrian — now the abbot — to reveal the wealth, but when he told them there was only 40 Rubles for the construction work, they strangled him with a rope and killed other monks as well.

The story is that that the robbers carried away Adrian’s body.  Some say they just threw it aside in the forest, and that later a priest found it, buried it, and planted a rowan tree over the grave.  The killing of Adrian is why he has the title Prepodobnomuchenik — “Venerable Marytr,” that is, a monk-martyr.

As these tales go, however, that was not the end.  It is said that people in one of the local villages on the Ukra River began to notice something odd.  If they were ill and happened to eat the berries from a certain rowan tree (rowan trees, by the way, were often considered sacred in pre-Christian times), they would suddenly find themselves well again.  Of course word about this miraculous tree got out, and some priests finally came to investigate in the year 1625.  They dug under the rowan tree, and there, it is said, they found the incorrupt body of Adrian.  And of course the usual tales of miraculous healings associated with the remains of Adrian followed.

Though icons of Adrian have the same general form, depicting Adrian on one side and the tree with the the icon of the Dormition, fish, and loaf in it on the other, some examples — like the one above — also include the fishermen with their nets in the river, and one of them finding the icon.  Other examples show an additional monk or monks standing with Adrian  Some also show in the background the monastery he founded, as in this icon:

Here is a simpler version of the image, dated 1902 — one of those lithographs printed by the Fesenko firm in Odessa.  For more information on Fesenko, see this earlier posting:




There are a number of icons related to Russian history.  This is one of them, painted near the end of the 18th century:

(Tserkovno-Arkheologicheskiy kabinet Moskovskoy Pravoslavnoy Dukhovnoy Akademii)


As you can tell, it is another of those icons using the motif of the “icon in a tree.”

If we look at the inscription at the base, we find it tells us what the scene represents:

Како Яавися Икона Свяыителя Николы Чюдотворца
Великому Князю Димитрию Иоанновичу Донскому
на Месте нзываемом Угреша В лето [date]
В походе на Мамая

“How the icon of Bishop Nicholas the Wonderworker appeared to Great Prince Dimitriy Ioannovich Donskoy at the place called Ugresh in the year 1379-9 in the campaign against Mamai.”

The date in Cyrillic letter numbers in the inscription appears to read 1379 — 9[th month, i.e. September] though the conventional date given for the event is September of 1380.

In any case, the legend is that Dimitriy had brought his soldiers out to do battle with the Tatar Khan Mamai.  But before the battle,  an icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker “miraculously” appeared in a tree.  That, of course was seen as a divine sign that Dimitriy and his army would be successful in overcoming the forces of Mamai.

Dimitriy is said (though that too appears to be just a legend) to have founded the Nikolo-Ugreshkiy Monastery on the site of the appearance, which came to be called Ugresh, because Dimitriy had supposedly exclaimed on seeing the miraculous appearance of the icon, “This all has warmed [ugresha] my heart” (Сия вся угреша сердце мое).

Here is a closer look at Dimitriy kneeling before the icon in the tree:

It is interesting to see how the painter has stylized the “hills”:



Even before identifying who is depicted in this icon, we can nonetheless immediately tell certain things about it.

First, because of the arched border decorated with geometric designs, and incised and painted to imitate enamel, we know it dates in the period from the latter part of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century.

Second, because it is painted in a semi- “realistic” manner, we can tell that it is a State Church icon and not an Old Believer icon.

Now as to who it depicts, well, there are lots of rather obscure female saints in the Eastern Orthodox calendar, and many of them are shown in just the same way, with the same kind of garments.  So her appearance does not tell us much.  And of course her features are entirely the product of the imagination, given that no one has the slightest idea what she really looked like.

(Courtesy of

The saint depicted is:


She is Galina of Corinth.

Given that there are no characteristics other than the generic in her iconography, the painter has given her same scroll text as held by the similar-appearing and more noted female saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa — the so-called “Symbol of Faith” that begins:

“I believe in one God the Father Almighty… [etc. etc.]”

In icons of Paraskeva, however, it is more common for the unrolled scroll to extend upward from her hand, instead of downward.

There is not much to Galina’s hagiographic tale, given that she is included among a group said to have been martyred at Corinth in the 3rd century.

She was supposedly instructed in Christianity by the Elder (and later martyr) Kodrat (Quadratus).  It is said that in the persecution under Emperor Trajan Decius (249-251), a hegemon named Jason came to Corinth, where he imprisoned Kodrat and his disciples, one of whom was Galina (her name is given as Calla in one account).   It is said that she and the others were beheaded, and on the spot of their execution a clear spring of water burst forth out of the ground.

Well, that is one version.  Another says that she was martyred under Emperor Valerian (253-260).  In this account, instead of being beheaded, she and other women, along with the male martyr Leonidas, were thrown into the sea to drown.  However they did not sink, but instead walked on the waves, singing Christian hymns all the while.  So their persecutors caught up with them by boat, tied stones around their necks, and that way they were finally drowned and martyred.  Now as one can tell, her hagiography is not reliable as history.

There is another Saint Galina celebrated on a different day, but she is titled Pravednaya (“Righteous”) or sometimes Blazhennaya (“Blessed”) rather than Muchenitsa (“Martyress”).  By tradition she was the daughter of Emperor Severus, and was moved to become a Christian by exposure to the noted saint Kharlampiy/Haralambos of Magnesia.  She can generally easily be distinguished from Galina the Martyress because “Righteous”  Galina is commonly depicted wearing a crown.



I do not know by whom or where this contemporary icon in the Neo-byzantine manner often used in modern Greek Orthodoxy (whether in Greece or abroad) was painted:

Nonetheless, I was quite amused to see it, because it exemplifies the ongoing borrowing of iconographic imagery from non-Eastern Orthodox sources — whether Catholic or Protestant — that we have seen so often in the earlier history of icons.

Most Eastern Orthodox are not likely to know the source of this icon, but I recognized it immediately.  It is from a painting by that most ubiquitous 20th century painter of Protestant religious art — Warner Sallman (April 30, 1892 – May 25, 1968).  His paintings — in countless printed reproductions — were widely found in Protestant churches and homes in the last century, and are still reproduced today:

Yes, the icon painter has added a traditional halo containing the cross and Greek  Ho On inscription to the head of Jesus, and he has changed the hair style of the boy at the wheel by making it less mid-20th century American, but these and the other small changes do nothing to disguise the source of the image.

The original title of the Sallman painting is “Christ our Pilot.”  It calls to mind the once-popular Protestant hymn by Edward Hopper (1816-1888), first published in  The Sailor’s Magazine and Seaman’s Friend in the March 3, 1871, and later found in Protestant hymnals.  Hopper’s inspiration came from the accounts of Jesus stilling the storm on the sea of Galilee in the Gospels (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25).  The melody added to the verses was composed by John Edgar Gould (1822-1875), of Bangor, Maine.  The first verse of the hymn is:

Jesus, Saviour, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee—Jesus, Saviour, pilot me.

Just as Western European religious engravings found their way into Eastern Orthodox iconography from Mount Athos to Russia in earlier centuries, this mid-20th century painting by a Protestant from Chicago seems to have found its way into modern Eastern Orthodox iconography — or at least an icon painted in the Eastern Orthodox manner.



It is not difficult to identify this icon, because we have seen another of the same type in an earlier posting:

So we know that this is essentially an icon of the patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr — in Latin form Florus and Laurus:

(Courtesy of

Eastern Orthodoxy continued the polytheism of the pre-Christian world in its veneration of saints, assigning them different roles, such as were held by the old gods, major and minor.  And we know that if one had a particular concern with the raising and well-being of horses, Flor and Lavr were the saints who had authority in that field.

Let’s take a look at the saints in the upper half of the icon:

We see at center “Holy Archangel Mikhail/Michael.”  He holds the “Image Not Made by Hands,” by Eastern Orthodox tradition the first icon of Christianity.

At far left is “Holy Flor/Florus, Martyr.”

And at far right is the fellow with whom he is usually shown, “Holy Lavr/Laurus, Martyr.”

Now let’s look at the fellow in bishop’s robes beside Lavr:


Now I hope you will recall that we have seen Vlasiy before, as a protector of herds and flocks:

So here he is, adding his “power” to this icon of the patrons of horses.

The fellow I really want to concentrate on today, however, is the last saint depicted, the one just to the left of Michael:

His title inscription is a bit worn, but we can nonetheless easily decipher it as SVYATUIY MEDOST P[ATRIARKH]/HOLY MEDOST/MODEST, PATRIARCH.  This Medost was Патриарх Иерусалимский/Patriarkh Ierusalimskiy — “Patriarch of Jerusalem.  So what is this 7th century Patriarch of Jerusalem doing in this icon of patrons of horses and herds and flocks?

It all goes back to stories from his legendary biography.

One tale relates that a farmer was on the road with his oxen when the devil attacked them, and they fell dead to the ground.  The farmer prayed for Modest, who came and raised them up again.  But as the farmer proceeded on his way, the devil attacked them once more, and again they fell to the ground.  Modest appeared again, raised them up, and this time he tied his belt to them, so that the devil could no longer trouble them.

It is said that a poor widowed woman was very distressed because her five pairs of oxen were seriously ill.  Distraught, she prayed in tears to the “unmercenary” saints Comas And Damian to heal her oxen.  However, Cosmas appeared to her in a dream telling her essentially that the healing of oxen was not in his job description:

“O woman, we are not empowered by God to give healing to cattle.  This grace is given to Modest, the great hierarch of Jerusalem.  He — if you approach him — will heal your oxen.”

Now not being able to find him directly, she began to pray earnestly to Medost/Modest. He then appeared to her in a dream, saying:

“O woman, why  are you so weeping?  I am Modest, whom you seek, and hearing your prayer I appeared to make healthy your oxen.”

He then instructed the woman to rise up, to cut pieces of iron from metal tools, and to take the pieces to the place called Lagina, where there was a church dedicated to the Arhistrategos Michael (the Archangel Michael as Heavenly Commander).  There lived a man named Evstafiy (Eustathios), who would make her a cross from them.  She was then to return to her  home and call seven presbyters, who were to perform religious services in her house, and with incense and candles they were to take the cross and pour oil over it,  and then the oil was to be sprinkled on the oxen, and they would be healed.  And of course as these old tales go, the oxen were made quite healthy again by the ritual.

That explains why Medost/Modest is in this icon.  His ability to cure oxen and livestock used in ploughing (and even other farm and domestic creatures) is added to that of the other two healers of horses and flocks, to cover even better the needs of an owner of livestock.

Now let’s look at another icon that has Medost/Modest as its main image:

The title inscription says: Svyatuiy Myedost, Patriarkh Ierusalimskiy.  We can see from the second letter in his name that the writer is pronouncing it with a  “ye” sound — so “Myedost.”

We also see a winged serpent by the water on the right side.  A demonic serpent is said to have killed animals in Jerusalem by poisoning the water with his venom.  Medost/Modest got rid of him.

There are various other animals in the icon, including a dog.  It is said that Modest once adjured the devil, who had appeared in the shape of a dog.

We can see from the saints included that this icon was oriented specifically toward those needing protection for herds, horses and other livestock in the days before one could just call a veterinarian.

There were all kinds of folk beliefs about the day of Modest’s commemoration, one of which was that women were not to play card games on it.  If they did, then when summer came, the chickens would peck holes in the cucumbers in the garden.

Here is another example of a “farm insurance” icon:

Here is Flor at upper left:

And Lavr at upper right:

Between them are the horses, though with only one rider instead of the usual three.  And this icon adds a wooden fence around the herd:

We see Vlasiy with cattle at lower left:

And Medost with an ox at lower right:

Between them we see the demonic serpent/dragon poisoning the water from which the cattle drink:


Many people wonder why Eastern Orthodox icons tend to look so stylized and so similar — why often they just seem to be slightly varying copies of the same image, though differing according to the styles of place and time, and the level of skill of the painter.

Traditionally-painted icons, in general, are quite different from Western European religious art, whether Catholic or Protestant.   Let’s look at a detail from The Calling of Matthew, by the Italian painter Caravaggio:

This looks quite realistic — and in fact if that face were in another kind of painting — say of a scene from Greek mythology,  and if its halo were absent, we would not know it was intended to be Jesus.  Caravaggio has chosen a quite handsome model.

Now let’s look at a rather typical Russian Orthodox icon of Jesus, painted in the old manner:

(Courtesy of

Here is a closer view of the face:

(Courtesy of

It does not look like anyone who ever lived.  There is no mistaking it for the portrait of an actual person.  It is not a realistic portrait, but rather an abstraction recognizable by the style of head and facial hair and the traditionally long, narrow nose.  The final mark of identification would come in the title and halo inscriptions, which in this example have been worn away.

The stylization so common in Eastern Orthodox iconography is actually something that developed over time in Byzantium.  This trend toward stylization began in the 6th century, and was relatively fixed in Byzantine iconography by the 9th.  And yet when one looks for some decree or canon of the Eastern Church as a whole demanding such stylization, it is nowhere to be found.  It is just a tradition that developed late in Christian iconography, and was perpetuated by painters who became stuck in the practice of copying what came before — a practice which, by the time of the icon painting workshops of the last centuries of old Russian icon painting — reached its logical conclusion in the “assembly line” painting of icons, with one person doing garments, another faces, etc.

It came to be thought that stylization somehow represented the features of Jesus and the saints in a more acceptable manner than realism.  It made them less “earthly” and supposedly more “heavenly,” though of course that notion was just a concept that developed, and in reality an abstraction of a face is no more “heavenly” than a realistic portrait — it is just a “symbol” of the heavenly that came to be accepted and conventionalized as such, not because it inherently is so.  That is why I always say that when people talk of icons as “windows to heaven,” that is really a misnomer; they are really windows into how the painters thought one should paint saints and other “heavenly” persons, and that thought is simply a convention that developed over time.

Even when the Russian State Church abandoned such abstract traditionalism and added more naturalistic shading, it kept the same general form, as in this later icon from 1896:

(Courtesy of

That was their way of preserving the prototypical standard, in spite of stylistic change.

What it comes down to is that any rather long face, with a long and rather narrow nose, and long, not-too-full hair parted in the middle, and limited moustache and beard, came to be understood as an image of Jesus, unless otherwise identified.  And though Jesus is not the only person depicted with that same face, he is clearly identified as Jesus by added title inscriptions, etc.  In fact to carry this further, some saints who share the same general appearance of garment and hair as others are identifiable as a particular saint only by the title inscription.

But getting back to our contrast with Caravaggio and other Western European painters,  in neither case — whether the icon is painted in the traditional old style preserved by the Old Believers or in the more realistic “Western” manner favored by the State Church from around the end of the 17th century — has the painter used a living model for Jesus.  Each has kept — in its own style — the same basic image. And that, again is a part of the tradition that catalogued the iconography of deity and saint by characteristics of hair style, hair color, and garments, along with the “seal” of identification — the title inscription.

In stylized Eastern Orthodox art — from the development of stylization as an unwritten “canon” in Byzantine art onward — we find not representations of real persons — not realistic depictions — but rather symbols of persons. — abstractions of them.  And yet paradoxically, the theological principle on which the veneration of icons is founded is that the veneration offered to an icon goes to its prototype — from the painted icon to the saint or spiritual being in heaven — due to the likeness of the image with the person.

That is rather an insoluble problem in the veneration of icons, because not only is an abstraction of a saint’s face not a likeness, but also it is common knowledge that huge numbers of the faces of saints and other “heavenly” persons depicted in icons are simply conventions that developed over time, rather than actual, accurate depictions of the features of a person who once may have existed.  If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how icon painters knew what the features of the various Old Testament prophets and patriarchs were.  The answer is that no one knew — no usable contemporaneous descriptions existed — and so the painters simply made up the features of these and many other saints, and those made-up features became gradually standardized until they were thought to represent the actual features of a given saint. Great numbers of icons, truth told, simply depict saints with imaginary features, not actual likenesses of them.

So icons are not really “windows to heaven.”  They are windows to an historically developed form of artistic conventionalization — a conceptualized artistic system with the premise that to make a saint or holy person look like a “real” human individual  — as done, for example, by Caravaggio — is not “spiritual” but “carnal,”

The notion developed that when one depicts in paint a saint or holy person according to the basic descriptions or conventions for that person passed down through the tradition, one thereby depicts the saint in material form, but also — somehow —  transmits his hypostasis — his “person” as not merely a material human being but beyond that, as a spiritual being — his personhood as a saint, or the personhood of Jesus as God incarnate — both human and divine.  But of course this again is merely a mental concept placed upon the icon through the conventions of abstract form, halo, and title inscription.

Now interestingly, what the “canon” of Eastern Orthodox icon painting comes down to is — as previously stated — not definitely stated anywhere.  It is basically what has come to be considered theologically acceptable.  That means where there are disagreements in theology, there are also disagreements in what is or is not permissible in iconography — such as the controversies over icons of God the Father, or whether to put the cross halo of Jesus on the central angel in the Old Testament Trinity, or even how the fingers of the blessing hand are to be shown. And of course that distinction extends also to just how realistically an icon may be painted.  The Old Believers, following a strict interpretation of the Stoglav Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1551, held that one must continue the abstraction practiced by their fathers and grandfathers and earlier ancestors, and must paint icons according to the ancient models, as the Greek painters did — and that they should paint as did Rublyov and other famous iconographers, not changing anything by their own imagination.

The post-schism State Russian Orthodox Church, however, developed a different view, and that is why its painters began to adopt elements of Western European realism in its icons, leaving much abstraction behind, though still keeping the general concept of the standard “prototype,” as we have seen.  Still, it was considered improper to stray too far from the old patterns, or to use living human models for depicting Jesus and the saints.  And that was very much the condition in which the old period of icon painting ended in Russia not long after the Russian Revolution.  and though there are a few exceptions, not much has changed in “approved” Russian Orthodox iconography since the revival of icon painting in Russia after the fall of Communism.

This attitude toward icon painting in Eastern Orthodoxy also explains why icon painting is often thought of as a “craft” rather than an art.  Caravaggio unquestionably is thought of as an artist — but one can easily understand why the painters of Eastern Orthodox icons generally tend to be regarded more as craftsmen than as artists — with the exception of the more extraordinarily skilled among them.