On June 21, 1547 a disastrous fire swept through Moscow, destroying its wooden structures, displacing some 80,000 people and killing around 2,500 – 3,000.  It nearly destroyed the Kremlin.

Popular rumor of the time had it that the fire had been called forth by witchcraft practiced by Anna Glinskaya, the grandmother of Tsar Ivan IV — “Ivan the Terrible.”  She was said to have gone through through Moscow, casting a destructive spell by sprinkling the streets and houses with an evil potion made of water in which human hearts had been steeped.  Such were the times.

One result of the fire was the need for new religious paintings — frescos and icons — for the imperial palace and for the Blagoveschchenie/Annunciation Cathedral, etc.  in the Kremlin.  Iconographers from Pskov and Novgorod were assigned to undertake the task.

About three years later, the State Secretary Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovatiy (also transliterated as Viskovatyi) began to publicly criticize the new religious paintings.  His motives seemed to be a mixture of religion and politics.  But in any case, his open criticism over time led to serious trouble.  Remember that the Russian Orthodox Church was (and still is to a great extent) a Church-State affair, and Tsar Ivan himself apparently had approved the new religious paintings.

The essence of the controversy was that Viskovatiy declared a number of the new iconographic paintings heretical.

A classic example of what he detested was this surviving four-part icon:

It consists of four icon types.

At top left is “And God Rested on the Seventh Day” (И почи Бог в день седьмый/I pochi Bog v den’ sedmuiy):

At top right is the “Only-begotten Son and Word of God” (Единородный сыне и Слове Божий/Edinorodnuiy suine i Slove Bozhiy):

At lower left is “Come, People, Worship the Three-hypostatic Godhood” (Приидите, людие, Триипостасному Божеству поклонимся/Priidite, liudie, Triipostasnomu Bozhestvu poklonimsya):

And at lower right is “In the Grave Fleshly” (Во гробе плотским/Vo grobe plotskim)

Now as one can tell from the titles, this was evidence of a growing trend in icon painting toward depicting religious texts in visual form — icons that expressed concepts in Eastern Orthodox theology in an often allegorical manner.  Such icons are often called “mystical-didactic,” or to use the more currently popular Russian term, Богословско-дидактические иконы/Bogoslovsko-didakticheskie ikonui — “Theological-didactic” icons.

His complaints about such icons being introduced to Moscow did not do Viskovatiy any good.  In 1553 he was brought before an ecclesiastical council on charges of heresy, and was found guilty of blasphemy against the icons he scorned.  Seeing the way things were going, Viskovatiy repented and recanted — and so the icons he considered heretical innovations became a part of the regular iconographic repertory of Russian Orthodoxy.



As I have mentioned previously, the prophets can be a real pain for students of icons.  The problem is not in identifying them.  That is usually easy.  It is in their scroll inscriptions.

The podlinniki — the manuals of icon painting — give descriptions of how prophets are to be painted, and they also generally give scroll inscriptions for each.  One would think that would make the matter easy, but it does not.  The podlinnik instructions for prophets’ scroll inscriptions are frequently not the inscriptions we encounter on actual icons of them, so one never knows what inscription might be used on an old icon for a given prophet.  That is where the difficulty lies.

The best one can do then — aside from being familiar with the podlinnik inscriptions — is to take each icon case by case, and that is not always easy, particularly if a scroll inscription is damaged or fragmentary.

Nonetheless, let’s have a go at an example:

Here is a 16th century fresco of a prophet from the Dionysiou Monastery at Mt. Athos:

As usual, he is easy to identify by his title inscription:


He is the prophet ΜΑΛΑΧΙΑC / MALAKHIAS — the Greek form of Malachi.

Now we come to his scroll inscription:

As is common in old inscriptions, there are some abbreviations and some ligatures — joined letters.

It begins with these words:

The first letter is I; the second letter that looks like an A in Roman lettering is actually one way of writing a D (Δ) in Greek.  And the third letter is a combination of two letters —  ΟΥ — OU in English — with the O below and the Y on top.  So all together, they make the Greek word

ΙΔΟΥ — Idou — meaning “Behold.”

The second word — a bit worn in the inscription — is ΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ/ERKHETAI, meaning (he/she/it) “comes.”  It begins on the first line and ends on the second.

Then we find the first abbreviation:

It is a Κ and C  — K and S in English — and that little horizontal curved line above is, you may recall, the sign of abbreviation.  Those two letters together signify the word ΚΥΡΙΟC/KURIOS, meaning “Lord.”

And then comes a real give-away word:

The first three letters of the word are squeezed into the end of the line:

ΠΑΝ — with the A smaller and a small N written above it.

Then comes T and O, with the O written beneath the T.  Then comes the end of the word:

All together, they spell a very common icon word: ΠΑΝΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ/PANTOKRATOR — meaning “Almighty.”  Remember that the ω here is the same letter as Ω in the modern Greek alphabet, and it is pronounced the same as the letter O.

Thus far we have IDOU ERKHETAI KURIOS PANTOKRATOR — which is easy to translate as:
“Behold, comes [the] Lord Almighty…”

And if you are clever (you must be, if you are reading this peculiar blog site), you will then suspect that it is likely to be something written in the Old Testament book of Malachi.  So the next step — given that the inscription is in Greek — is to look for those words in the Septuagint Greek version of the book of Malachi.

And behold, what we find there in Malachi 3:1-2 is:

ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ …

Idou erkhetai legei kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

It reads just the same as the icon scroll text except for the third word λέγει/legei, meaning “[he] says.”

If we put it into English, we get this:

“Behold, he is coming, says the Lord Almighty.  And who will endure the day of his coming?”

So, if we remove the word legei/”says” from the text in the book of Malachi, we will have the text on the icon scroll:

Idou erkhetai kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

Behold comes Lord Almighty and who will-endure the day coming-of his

Or in normal English,

“Behold the Lord Almighy comes, and who will endure the day of his coming?”

It is not uncommon to find that the writers of icon scrolls vary a text slightly, as has been done here by removing one word.

You may recall that this abbreviation in the latter part of the inscription  — a K with a diagonal stroke at right bottom …

… is the word και/kai, meaning “and.”

And you should also remember this ligature — the one that looks rather like a 9 in English:

It is the joined letters ει/ei, and in the inscription we find it in the word

ὑπομενεῖ / hupomenei — meaning “endure,” and also at the beginning of the word

εἰσόδου /eisodou — meaning “entrance,” or more loosely, “coming.”

If you recall the two similar ligatures

— which joins A and N,


— which joins A and U —

that should take care of the scroll inscription — except to note, as mentioned at the beginning, that it is not the scroll inscription given — for example — in the Greek painter’s manual known as the Hermeneia of Dionysios of Fourna:

According to that manual, his inscription should be:

Tade legei Kurios:
apo anatolon heliou kai eos dusmon to onoma mou

“Thus says the Lord:
‘From the rising of the sun and until setting my name …'”

That is a fragment from Malachi 1:11.

Now having gone through all that, you might pause and ask yourself what on earth you are doing here wasting your time with all this esoteric stuff about translating Greek icon inscriptions. Well, if you are a regular reader of this site, it is a rather hopeless question.  People are what they are, and some find themselves interested in and curious about the strangest and most useless things.  So don’t worry.  Don’t bore your neighbors with it, and you will be fine.  Just continue to act normal in public.






This icon appeared as unidentified on a Russian forum site (cirota.ru).

It is a very uncommon type, yet in spite of the seemingly garbled inscription at the top, it is clear that what it represents is a story found in the traditions associated with the garments of Mary.

You may recall an older posting here on supposed “garment” relics, among them the robe of Mary:


In that posting, there was brief mention of a tradition that the robe of Mary is said to have saved the city of Constantinople from invasion in the year 860.  Well that is the event depicted here.

The tradition from Greek chronicles and from the Russian Tale of Bygone Years (Повесть временных лет/Povyest’vremennuikh lyet) relates that on June 18, 860, a fleet of “Rus'” ships under Prince Askold was raiding in the Black Sea and even as far as the Bosphorus, and came to Constantinople intent on plunder and siege.

Patriarch Photios of Constantinople then took the robe of Mary from the shrine where it was kept, and going in procession outside the walls of the city, he came to the shore beyond which lay the invading fleet.  He dipped the robe in the water, and a great storm miraculously arose that raised great waves that began to dash the ships on the rocks, breaking them apart and sinking them.  Discouraged by this disaster, the Rus’ invaders gave up their siege and departed with their remaining ships.

If we look at the image, we see Photios standing on the shore in his clerical garments at left, holding the robe of Mary in his hands.  And to the right, we see the helmeted and armored warriors in the Rus’ ships of Askold on the waves of the sea:

Here is a more detailed Russian fresco image from 1648 of the same event:




Many people have the impression that Church teaching on the nature of Jesus was generally accepted until a fellow named Arius came along in the 4th century and and upset things by foolishly teaching something different, so the Church decided to have an all-Church council at Nicaea (in present day Turkey) to condemn Arius and make the Church’s teaching on the matter official.  Everyone then accepted the  Council’s Nicene Creed that explained the nature of Jesus in clear terms, and things returned to normal.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  If you would like to know all the details of the origins of the controversy and the overwhelming effect of the Council and its linking of the power of the State with Church on the historical development of Christianity (and thus of Christian art and iconography) I suggest you read Charles Freeman’s very interesting and helpful book The Closing of the Western Mind, which contains chapters offering a very good summary of the events leading to the Council of Nicaea, of the Council itself, and of its transforming consequences.

However, if we clear away all the clutter and dust of centuries-old argument overlaying the controversy, we find that it originated in a simple fact:  the writings of the New Testament as a whole were never adequate in providing a clear and unequivocal statement of Christian doctrine.  If you have any doubt of that, just remind yourself of the great number of warring sects and denominations in Christianity from ancient times until today.  But that is a vast topic, and our focus here is on iconography.

Let’s look at a pattern for an icon of the Nicene Council — or as the Russians call it, Первый Вселенский Собор/Pervuiy Vselenskiy Sobor — the “First Universal Council,” or to use more churchy language, the “First Ecumenical Council.”

There is considerable variation among icons of this council, but the Stroganov Podlinnik pattern above gives us a good idea of elements often included.  Though no identification of figures is given in the Stroganov Podlinnik, we can turn to the textual Bolshakov Podlinnik for help.  It begins like this:

First, a palace; in the palace on a golden throne sits Tsar [Emperor] Constantine in imperial clothing ornamented with gold and pearls, in the hand a scepter.

Constantine is the crowned figure we see at top center:

The Bolshakov then goes on to mention figures  often found near Constantine in such icons:  Eustaphios of Antioch, Makarios of Jerusalem, Hosius of Cordoba, Spyridon of Trimythous, Alexander of Alexandria, Paphnutios of Thebes, Palamon of Egypt, Athanasius the Great and other Church fathers.

In the foreground of the pattern, we see a group at left, headed by St. Nicholas, who is conversing with Arius, who stands just behind Emperor Constantine seen a second time at lower right.  Arius and his followers are identifiable by the absence of halos.  So this icon makes quite clear the Eastern Orthodox view of who are considered the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” in this icon and event.

On the  left side of the pattern is an image we have seen and discussed previously:

Perhaps you will recognize it as the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria,” who tradition claims saw Jesus as a boy with torn garments, symbolizing the tear in the fabric of the Church caused by the teachings of Arius.  For more information, see this previous posting:

On the right is an image of the death of Arius as told by his bitter enemy, Socrates Scholasticus.  We see Arius seated in a toilet enclosure, and his insides are pouring out — supposedly a punishment from God for his “heresy.”

If we look at a recent fresco of the Council of Nicea in the Megalo Meteoron Monastery in Greece, we see similar elements, but also some differences.

(Photo J. Jensen: (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, Wikimedia Commons –photo enhanced here)

Let’s look at the top inscriptions:

The first — at top center — identifies the church in the background as that of

Below that and divided into two parts at each side is the title of the icon:


In the “power position” at center, we see the Emperor Constantine, titled here


Above him, as in the Stroganov pattern, we see a rendering of the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria.”

And at the base of the icon, in a position of weakness and submission, we see a fallen figure titled


Such icons then, are intended to support  a particular ecclesiastical view of the Council of Nicaea and its significance.




When we find saints in icons who are somewhat generic in appearance and not easily identifiable, the reason is often that they are the “name” saints of members of the family that ordered the icon. Those saints are frequently among the less known and less popular figures in the Russian Orthodox calendar.  Sometimes, however, there are generic-appearing saints who are on an icon not because they are “name” saints of members of the family, but because they are among the “special needs” saints — those saints who took the place of the old pre-Christian gods by specializing in certain services to Orthodox believers — for example, sending rain or dealing with a toothache.

Today’s icon features two of those generic-appearing but “special needs” saints.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

As painted here, the two could be twin brothers.  Not only are their faces, hair and beards remarkably similar, they are even dressed identically in the same garments of the same colors, and both hold identical Gospel books.

We can see from their garments — particularly the long stole called an omofor/omomphorion each wears about the neck, as well as from the book each has in hand, that they are bishops of some kind.  But what are two bishops doing at opposite sides of an icon with lots of animals and a well between them?

It is, of course, easy to identify the figure of Jesus in the clouds above — something that is a very common addition to icons of saints.  But let’s look more closely at the saints themselves to see if we can identify them.

Certainly we cannot do so by appearance alone in this case.  There are lots of bishops with long beards in Russian iconography.  That means we shall have to read the title inscriptions that identify each.

First, the fellow on the left:

His Church Slavic title reads:

Note how the writer ran out of space, so wrote the last part of the last word in smaller letters below the end of the first part.

Now the fellow on the right:

His title reads:


And then in small letters written below due to lack of space is the rest of his title:

So all together, he is:


Now that we have identified both saints, let’s look at the scene between them:

Below some stylized hills among which are a few trees, we see a group of goats, and below them some cattle, and below them is a well.  But what are those two creatures below the well and beside the stream?

First, we see a horned serpent/dragon:

Notice that Vlasiy is stepping on the dragon’s tail.

Just to the right of the dragon is a dog, but we can tell from his fiery-looking tongue that he is not an ordinary dog:

What does all this mean?  Well, it goes back to traditions associated with each saint.

In the old Slavic world, Veles/Volos was the god of cattle.  Because the name was so similar to that of the old 4th century bishop of Sebaste Vlasiy/Blasios/Blaise — who was said to have been kind to animals — Vlasiy took over the duties of Veles/Volos as the people became Christianized.  So in Russia, Vlasiy became a saint one invoked for protection of livestock.

Have you recalled yet that we have seen these two saints before, in the discussion of a previous icon?


If so, you may recall the reason for the dragon and the dog.  Here it is again:

A demonic serpent is said to have killed animals in Jerusalem by poisoning the water with his venom. Medost/Modest got rid of him.  It is also said that Modest once adjured the devil, who had appeared in the shape of a dog.

You may also remember that Medost is associated with the healing of oxen:

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.”

Sometimes Vlasiy or Medost/Modest/Modestus appear alone in icons, sometimes — as here — together, and at other times they are combined with other saints associated with animals, such as Flor and Lavr the patrons of horses, or even with other saints such as Nikolai/Nicholas.

Now oddly enough, the “Holy Governing Synod” that in 1721 took over the duties previously held by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia prohibited the depiction of cattle and horses and other animals and such creatures in icons in 1722.  They held that because one prayed before icons,  such non-human creatures had no place in them.  But as we have seen, such declarations could be ignored.  They would not have made any difference to the painter of this icon in any case, and if we look again at the image of Modest, we can see why:

Look at the position of the fingers in his blessing hand.  They are in the form used by the Old Believers, who did not accept the declarations of the State Church in Russia, but kept up the old ways.  They often used the position of the fingers on the blessing hand in their icons to verify that their icons were of the “pure” Old Belief, and not icons of the State Church, which they believed had fallen into heresy.  If you remember that important point, you will be able to distinguish many Old Believer icons from those of State Church painters.

As I have said before, polytheism never really ended in old Russia.  The people just transferred the duties of the old gods to the Christian deity and the saints we find in icons.