In the traditional Russian home, in the right corner of the main room — generally on the east side near a window — was the “Beautiful Corner” (красный угол/krasnuiy ugol ).
In the Beautiful Corner was the Bozhnitsa /Божница — the shelf on which the icons were placed. Little lamps hung before them or candles were lit. It was not uncommon to ornament an icon in the Beautiful Corner with a plain white or colorfully embroidered towel. Any visitor entering the room would always first pause and cross himself/herself before the icons.
Some families, who had the space and could afford it, might set aside a separate room for icons and prayer called the Obraznaya/Образная, the “Image Room.” That term is now seldom used. Instead, one often finds the term Molennaya/Моленная, the “Prayer Room,” or to use an old Latin-based term, the Oratory.
The Old Believers who kept themselves separate from the State Church were particularly fond of the Molennaya, which served not only as a place to keep the icons, but also as a kind of prayer chapel where sacred books were kept and read, The photo below shows an example from a museum:
As we can see from a closer look, this typical Old Believer Molennaya displays both icons painted on wood and cast metal icons:
When icons were placed on their shelf in the Beautiful Corner or in a Molennaya, it was generally customary to place an icon of Jesus in the central area together with an icon of Mary to the left of it, as we see in the detail above. Next came the icons of popular saints such as Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, George, Nicholas, etc. — and beyond those were icons of the “name” saints of the members of the family — the same kinds of saints we often find in the outer borders of icons.
On the left side of this Molennaya we also see a wooden stand holding candles:
Such candles were traditionally made of fragrant beeswax. Many years ago, I learned from some very conservative Old Believers how to make the traditional long and thin candles they use in their rituals. It is really quite simple. One softens the chunks of beeswax on a tray in an oven to the consistency of molding clay, and then a good-sized piece of the softened beeswax is flattened, and a long string is placed in the center of the flattened beeswax, which is then folded around it. Then the wax with the string in it is then rolled out on a flat surface with the hands, just as a child rolls out a clay snake. It is important to try to keep the string — which is the wick — in the center of the wax “snake,” and when it is rolled to the desired length, one just trims the string and lets the candle cool and harden. Then it is ready for use. It was the first time I had seen candles made in this remarkably easy and quick way, instead of by the dipping or molding methods used in the West.
On the right side we see a table containing the book of the Gospels at left, and another stand on which is an open liturgical book with a text and musical notation in the Old Believer manner:
I was once in an Old Believer Molennaya very much like this one in layout, with icons on three sides. Relics of saints were also kept there.
Among the Bezpopovtsui/”Priestless” Old Believers, a Molennaya — including as a separate building — could take the place of a conventional church. In such a chapel — given that there was no Eucharist — a wall of icons with no altar behind it took the place of the iconostasis in a “State” Orthodox Church.
As you will know from those past postings, the inscription at the base of the cloth reads С[ВЯ]Т[ЫЙ] ОУБРУСЪ/SVYATUIY OUBRUS/OUBROUS/UBRUS — meaning “Holy Cloth/Towel.” There are variations in spelling, which is common in Russian icons.
When used as a primary image — which it very often was — the cloth is frequently held by angels, as in this example from the latter part of the 19th century:
My point in discussing it again today is simply to give you another title inscription variant to add to your Church Slavic vocabulary.
Here is the title inscription on the icon:
It is written very clearly, and only the last word is abbreviated. In full, it is:
In normal English, “The ‘Not Made by Hands’ Cloth of the Lord.” The “Not Made by Hands” part refers of course to the image on the cloth, not to the cloth itself. One does not often see it titled this way, but now when you do, you will recognize the variation.
You should be able to recognize all the other standard abbreviations found in this icon — the IC XC borrowed from the Greek Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ,” which in Russia is found as Исус Христос/Isus Khristos among the Old Believers and as Иисус Христос/Iisus Khristos in the State Orthodox Church. And by now you should know the Ὁ ѠΗ (ΗΟ ΟΝ) inscription commonly found in the halo of Jesus, meaning “The One Who Is” — the Septuagint translation of the title of God that is rendered in the King James Version of the Bible as “I Am That I Am” (Exodux 3:14).
It is important also to remember this abbreviation:
It is the letters А Г (A-G), which abbreviate Ангел Господень /Angel Gospoden’, meaning “Angel [of the] Lord.” It is an abbreviation found in countless icons with angels.
Finally, you probably noticed that this particular icon is a combination of traditional stylization and “Westernized” naturalism. It keeps the old form found in traditional painting, while using more natural folds to the cloth and robes, and more naturalistic coloring and color transitions, though still showing some of the more stylized traits of traditional painting.
Now and then the student of icons will encounter examples with substantial amounts of text on the painted surface, which can be quite intimidating. Here is an icon which does not have an obvious title inscription, but is clearly centered around the large central figure:
We can tell from his garments that he is a bishop of some kind, but we do not yet know who he is. And then we are faced with the four substantial portions of written text.
When one encounters large segments of text on an icon that are not scroll inscriptions or “signature” inscriptions, the text most commonly falls into one of these categories: it may be a biblical text; it may be a liturgical text; as a sub-category of the latter, it may be an akathist or some other kind of hymn or prayer. Another major category of text relates the story of the icon. We have seen examples of this in the frequent Marian icons called “Unexpected Joy.” The text may also relate incidents from the traditional life of a saint. The problem for the student who is no expert on Church Slavic or Greek is in determining which of these it is most likely to be.
When faced with the challenge of such large portions of text, a good place to begin is to use common sense. In the case of this icon, the first thing we want to know is who the large saint shown in the center is. So the next step is to look at the text for anything resembling a saint’s name — because given his halo, he is obviously a saint.
Let’s start with the segment of text at upper left:
If we look quickly through it, we will soon discover that in the middle of the first line is the name Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. And when we reach the last line, we find at its beginning the same name — Нифонтъ/Nifont/Niphont. So our logical hypothesis would be that the text is telling us something about a fellow named Niphont.
If we look at the lower left segment of text, we can expect — if we are right — to find the name repeated again somewhere:
Quickly scanning though the text, we find again near the end of the second line, a grammatical form of the name Niphont — in this case Нифонту/Niphontu; that tells us our hypothesis about the main saint being named Niphont is even more likely to be correct.
And if we move over to the beginning of the text segment next to it, we see this:
The second line begins with the words Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta — which we should recognize — even if our knowledge of Church Slavic is very basic — as “Venerable Nifont/Niphont”; and that makes us even more certain that our hypothesis identifying the main saint as Niphont is correct.
The next thing to do is to consider the context of the texts. If we look at the whole icon again, we can see that at both sides of the main saint are smaller secondary scenes. Given that the main figure on the icon is a saint, we would be justified in supposing that these secondary scenes depict events from the traditional life of that saint.
The scene at upper left depicts a saint kneeling before an icon of a haloed mother and child — which we may reasonably identify as a Marian icon — in a church:
The scene at lower left depicts the saint looking at a figure whom we can easily identify as Jesus by his physical appearance and the bars of the cross in his halo, standing in a mandorla of light. And we can see words coming from the mouth of Jesus, so he is obviously speaking to the saint:
At lower left in the icon we see a larger scene filled with saints of various kinds, along with angels:
We see in the midst of them a saint identified by the inscription in his halo as Nifont/Niphont (hey, our guess was right!) kneeling before a mandorla in which Jesus appears again, and to the left of Nifont is another mandorla in which stands a female figure we can reasonably assume to be Mary.
So now we have three scenes, which it would be logical at this point to conclude are scenes from the life of St. Nifont/Niphont.
Given that, it is also reasonable to conclude that the segments of text we find are likely telling us about events from the life of St. Nifont.
To explore that, let’s return to the first scene at upper left — the one with the man kneeling before the Marian icon:
And in the next scene, we see Jesus speaking to the man, and telling him something; so it looks like a vision the saint had at some point in his life:
And finally, there is that last scene, with saints and angels, Jesus and Mary, and Nifont kneeling in the midst of them.
Knowing all that, we have several clues to identifying the saint and the scenes. We already have determined his name is Nifont/Niphont, so the next step is to look through the lives of saints named Nifont to see which one has events that match those in the scenes. And we also know that this Niphont ended up as some kind of bishop, because we can tell that from his garments in the main image of him on the icon.
Well, to save you a lot of bother (and sometimes the identification of icons can require a lot of bother and many hours), there is a saint whose name is Niphont who was a bishop, and his traditional life describes events that match those in the scenes on this icon. His name is:
And lo and behold, in that name we find the same Prepodobnuiy Nifont (“Venerable Niphont) that we found in a grammatical form in the text as Преподобнаго Нифонта/Prepodobnago Nifonta; and we also see he has the secondary title of Episkop/Bishop. And that certainly fits with what we first determined from the garments of the main, central figure on the icon. This Niphont is also sometimes called Niphont of Constantia, a city on the island of Cyprus. He is listed as a Fourth-century saint who lived in the time of Constantine I.
Now on to how the scenes on the icon fit with events in the traditional life of Niphont:
Once Niphont went to church, and there he prayed before an icon of Mary in a very humble and contrite manner. When he looked at the icon, it returned his glance with a kind and gentle look. He went away feeling comforted. And on another occasion, he was on his way to the same church when he saw a man doing something sinful, and he criticized the man in his mind. Then, when he entered the church and was again before the icon of Mary, he saw her looking at him in a disapproving manner and turning away from him because of his judgmental attitude toward another human. So of course he repented, and as these stories go, Mary in the icon again turned toward him with a kind and gentle gaze.
Well, that takes care of the first scene from the life of Niphont.
But what about an appearance of Jesus to Niphont? Well, according to his hagiography, Niphont did have encounters with Jesus, who not only appeared to Niphont as alive in his icon — a repeat of the “living” icon of Mary — (notice the icon of Jesus in the background in the second scene at left) but also gave Niphon a long and extensive vision of the happenings to come in the Last Judgment. And in that vision Niphont is kissed by Jesus, who promises to favor those believers who call on the name of Niphont. He also makes a promise to come to Niphont at the bishop’s time of death and receive Niphont’s soul in his hands.
Well, if we look at the large text segment below that scene on the icon we find — if we know a bit of Church Slavic — that it refers to promises made by Jesus “to his beloved угодник/ugodnik blessed Niphont. An ugodnik in religious usage is one who endeavors to please God — a saintly, pious person. And it is also said in this text segment that when Niphont dies, Jesus will come “with ranks of angels” and receive the soul of Niphont in his own hands, and will give him rest “in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (you will recall the icon type called the “Bosom of Abraham). So we can see that this generally corresponds with the second scene. And at the end of this segment, we see something else that corresponds with the icon scene:
“And the Lord blessed him, and said, Миръ ти рабе мой Нифонте. And he departed for Heaven.” Those words I have put in bold type — Mir ti rabe moy Niphonte — meaning “Peace be unto you my servant Niphon” — are exactly the words coming from the mouth of Jesus in the painted scene.
Now for the more elaborate, saint-filled scene at right. Let’s look at it again:
Well, as we have seen, in the traditional story Jesus promised Niphont to be present at his death with ranks of angels. And the tale of Niphont adds that St. Athanasios/Athanasius was also present. We see him robed and crowned as a bishop at lower right. Also in the crowd were apostles, martyrs, Mary, as well as other kinds of saints. So that accounts for the figures we see in the scene above. Perhaps you also notice that Jesus is holding what appears to be an infant clothed in white in his right hand. That is identified by the abbreviation Д Н (D N) as the “Soul [душа/dusha] of Niphont.”
So there you have it. We know who the saint is, and we know what the scenes from his life represent.
We should also know a bit about the traditional vita (“life”) of Niphont, keeping in mind that such hagiographic tales are commonly heavily fictionalized and not reliable as history. They served as admonitory and entertaining tales for believers.
The tale of Niphont is no exception. Scholars commonly date the vita of Niphont as late as the eighth to eleventh centuries, with the preference generally for the latter.
He was said to have been from the city of Plagion in Paphlagonia, a region on the Black Sea. At age eight he was sent to Constantinople to be educated. Initially all went well, but as he neared and entered his teens, his behavior began to change. He proceeded to lead a lively and colorful life, going to entertainments, singing in theatres, enjoying an over-abundance of food and drink. Niphont was also given to ανδρομανια — andromania — which is a fancy term for saying he was crazy about other males and intimate relations with them — so a kind of homosexual.
Now Eastern Orthodoxy traditionally has not looked kindly on homosexuality, and of course in early times when Church doctrine was formed, there was no real understanding of it as a natural variation in human behavior. So then it was seen as something to repress and deny, which can and did sometimes lead to all kinds of peculiar psychological results, and repression is precisely what Niphont — feeling guilty — did. He turned to beating and slapping himself to try to weaken temptation, bruising and harming his body in the process.
He is said to have once met a friend, who looked at him long in an odd way. When Niphont asked him why, the friend replied that Niphont’s face was black, like that of an Ethiopian. This supposedly was interpreted by Niphont as revealing his own sinful condition.
Niphont blamed his temptations on devils, and began to do his best to live an ascetic life. During his life of struggles with his temptation, he had visions of devils and angels, and as we have seen, of Mary and of Jesus. Finally — when he had grown old — he was made Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus — but he died not long after.
Now rather appropriately for an icon of an ascetic, we find some interesting figures used as border saints.
At upper left is “Holy Andrey, Fool for Christ’s Sake”:
At lower left is “Holy Vasiliy/Basil, Holy Fool of Moscow”:
At upper right is “Holy Feodor/Theodore, Fool for Christ’s Sake” (of Novgorod).
And finally, at lower right we see the monastic saint “Venerable Ephrim Sirin/Ephrem the Syrian.”
All of these saints — the three “Holy Fools” and Ephrem of Syria — were all noted for ascetic lives.
Now as we have learned, when identifying icons it is important to pay close attention to details.
At first glance, one might think the above image is just another example of the “Vladimir” icon of Mary, and we would not be entirely wrong, though also not entirely correct in so identifying it, if we left it at that.
One can see a very good reason for a “Vladimir” identification. The position of the figures and their limbs fits that of the “Vladimir” type, of which the icon below is an example:
There is a reason why they look so similar. The first icon on this page began with a copy of the Vladimir icon.
Still, if we look again, we can see there are differences, specifically in the head-covering of Mary and in the “crown” that surmounts her halo in the first example. We can tell that even though the original gold leaf on them is now gone.
Those differences mark the icon as a sub-type of the Vladimir icon with its own name — the Volokolamskaya (Волокаламская) — or as it is sometimes even more specifically known, the Vladimirskaya-Volokolamskaya (Владимирская-Волокаламская) icon.
Identification can be a bit tricky though, because sometimes painters only mentioned the first part of the name, as in the following example.
In this icon the distinctive head-covering with its “crown” is quite obvious, but nonetheless the painter added only the “Vladimir” title inscription, which is rather misleading, though as already mentioned, not entirely inaccurate.
The Volokolamskaya subtype originated, as we have seen, as a copy of the “Vladimir” icon, and that copy was taken from the city of Zvenigorod to the Uspenskiy Cathedral of the Iosifo-Volotskiy Monastery on March 2, 1572. There it supposedly worked miracles.
In 1954 the Volokolamskaya icon was placed in the Andrey Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art in Moscow.
Now the Iosifo-Voltskiy Monastery is named for its founder, Iosif Volotskiy/Joseph of Volotsk, also known as Joseph of Volokolamsk. You may recall Joseph of Volokolamsk as the devilish advocate of the “Possessor” position, which held that there was nothing wrong in monasteries owning vast church lands and wealth, villages, peasants and slaves. He also asserted that those viewed as heretics (i.e. those with different beliefs than he) should be executed.
Many examples of the Volokolamskaya/”Volokolamsk” icon include two border figures — often the Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr and Iona (Peter and Jonah), but alternate saints may be found as well.
If you have been a diligent student of the postings on this site, you should be able to identify everything in this multiple icon. A multiple icon is an icon with several separate types placed together on a single panel. This example has four main types, a smaller central type, and of course the saints used as border images.
If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:
The inscription reads
СВЯТЫЙ НИКОЛА ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ SVYATUIY NIKOLA CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”
Aside from the inscription, one can tell from the facial characteristics (form, hair, beard), the costume, and from the accompanying figures of Jesus at left and Mary at right that this is an image representing St. Nikolai/Nikola/Nicholas of Myra. You will recall that Jesus is giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels, and Mary is presenting him with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion). If you notice that Nicholas is not shown full-face, but rather as though turning from the left, you may remember that such a Nicholas — though often with a harsher expression than here — is called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — and was thought to ward off evil.
Now you will have read in a previous posting that “Nicholas the Turner” is an icon type that appeared among the Old Believers in the 18th century, so that tells us something important about this icon too; and what it tells us is confirmed by the hand. As you see, the fingers are held in the blessing position used by the Old Believers, and that confirms that this is an Old Believer icon.
Of course you know that the MP ΘY letters in two circles at the top abbreviate the Greek words Meter Theou — which are common on Russian icons of Mary.
From the title inscription, we can tell that this is identified as the
ЗНАМЕНИЕ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ ZNAMENIE PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
the “‘SIGN’ MOST-HOLY GOD-BIRTHGIVER”
or in normal English,
The “‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God.”
And of course that is Jesus in the circle on her breast.
You may recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous “palladium” icons, considered to be city protectors, and that its legendary history says it saved the citizens of the great trading city of Novgorod in the northwest of Russia from the invading Suzdalians.
The inscription identifies this Marian icon type as the
It is sometimes also translated loosely as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.” It is important to remember, however, that this type is not the only Marian icon type to be found under that title.
Next comes a New Testament Scene that is also an annual Eastern Orthodox Church commemoration:
If you are familiar with the New Testament, you can probably identify it without the inscription below. Here is that inscription:
ОУСЕКНОВЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНЫЯ ГЛАВЫ СВЯАТАГО IОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧА USEKNOVENIE CHESTNUIYA GLAVUI SVYATAGO IOANNA PREDTECHA
“CUTTING-OFF [of the] HONORABLE HEAD [of] HOLY JOHN [the] FORERUNNER.”
And that is what the scene depicts: the execution of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and the presentation of his head to Salome.
Such an icon type was particularly important to Old Believers because it called to mind the terrible persecution they suffered under the State Orthodox Church.
In the center of the icon we find the image of — as the red title inscription tells us here — the
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ОБРАЗ ГОСПОДЕНЬ NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODEN’
“NOT-MADE-BY-HANDS IMAGE [of the] LORD”
It is the image traditionally considered the “first icon” in Eastern Orthodoxy, because the old legend that developed over time said that Jesus once pressed a wet towel to his face, and his image was miraculously imprinted on it. It is the “Abgar” image sent by tradition from Jesus to King Abgar of Edessa.
You will notice the other inscriptions written on the cloth — first the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and below the face, this inscription:
СВЯТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ SVYATUIY UBRUS
So in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Holy Cloth” is the cloth after Jesus supposedly transferred the image of his face to it.
Finally, there are four border saints in this icon:
First comes the
In ordinary English, the “Guardian Angel.” It is important to know that this is a generic figure who represents the Guardian Angel supposedly assigned to each person — It is often found as a border image, but is also found as an icon type on its own. He holds a sword in one hand and a cross in the other:
The others are:
2. St. Alexandra;
Such border saints as these three are generally found in icons as the “angel” saints of the members of the family for whom the icon was painted — the saints after whom each person was named.
A purchaser — in this case an Old Believer — could choose the icon types to be represented on such a multiple icon, and of course could tell the painter the names of his family members to include in the border, represented there by their “name” saints. And again, the “Guardian Angel” served as the generic figure representing each angel assigned individually to protect a family member.
Now you will find all this information — including a longer discussion of each main type shown — in the site archives.
There is a little-known icon type called the Неугасимая Свеча — Neugasimaya Svecha — the “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary. Here is an example:
It is a rather late icon type, which is why examples are generally painted in a “westernized” manner.
The story associated with this type relates that a fellow who was abbot of the Alekseevskiy Monastery in Uglich from 1864-1872 had a vision of Mary, in which she appeared to him with a candle in her right hand and an abbot’s staff in her left. An icon was painted of Mary as seen in his vision.
The traditional tale of the icon continues in the year 1894, when an ill merchant in St. Petersburg had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and told him to go to a certain place and pray in front of a specific icon there and he would be healed. Now as we have seen, that is a rather common motif in these origin stories of supposed “wonderworking” Marian icons. We can call it in its basic form the “it came to me in a dream” motif.
In this case the place to which he was told to go was the Alekseevskiy Monastery in the city of Uglich. It turned out that when the fellow talked to the abbot there about his dream, the icon he described was the same one painted after the vision of the earlier abbot Evangel. It was then being kept in the monastery pantry. According to the story, the man prayed before the icon and was healed (we would not be discussing it if that usual part of such tales were absent). On June 23 the icon was moved to the monastery’s Uspenskiy (“Dormition”) Church. The merchant also honored the icon by presenting it with a gilt silver riza (icon cover).
The title of this icon type is taken from Ikos II of the Akathist to the Dormition of Mary:
Радуйся, свеще неугасимая огня невещественнаго …” Raduisya, sveschche neugasimaya ognya neveshchestvennago …
Rejoice, Inextinguishable Candle of immaterial fire …”
The relation of the icon to the city of Uglich accounts for its alternate title — Вратарница Угличская — Vratarnitsa Uglichskaya — the “Uglich Gate-keeper” icon. Under this title, it should not be confused with the Iverskaya/Iveron icon of Mary, which is also sometimes titled Vratarnitsa/Gatekeeper after its Greek title, the Portaitissa (Πορταΐτισσα).
The distinguishing features of the “Inextinguishable Candle”/”Uglich Gate-keeper” icon, as we have seen, are that Mary, dressed as a nun, holds a lit candle in her right hand, and an abbot’s staff — usually along with prayer beads — in her left.
Now oddly enough, this “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary is sometimes confused with a somewhat similar-appearing icon of Mary as Ἡγουμένη του Ἁγίου Όρους/Hegoumene tou Hagiou Orous — “Hegumena/Abbess of the Holy Mountain,” the Holy Mountain being Mount Athos in Greece. There is a group of varying icons of this latter type depicting Mary as the Abbess of the kleros of Mount Athos. A kleros is, in this case, an assigned portion of land. According to tradition, the portion of land of Mount Athos belongs to Mary.
Now one would think that an icon showing Mary as Abbess of Athos would be a simple matter, but even the simplest matters are often the subject of doctrinal bickering among Eastern Orthodox factions. That is why some newer icons of this type are changed to depict Mary in her usual garments rather than in the clerical mandyas shown in the above icon, and with her right hand raised to the side, palm outward, instead of the right hand blessing with fingers in the IC XC sign seen above.
The little ship at lower right relates to the legend that in New Testament times, Mary came to Mount Athos in a boat with St. John the Evangelist.
This old icon pattern is for the type “John in Silence.” Well, don’t keep silent now, because it is time again for new subscribers here (and old ones too, if you wish) to let me know why you are bothering to read my peculiar little blog. Just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the top of any page (including this one), and write whatever you feel I should know about you and your interest in icons.
This is also a good time for those of you who have been restraining yourselves from making comments of one kind or another about this site — including suggestions for future topics — to feel free to express yourselves.
As usual, all comments sent me will be kept private (only I shall see them) unless otherwise requested by the sender.
You may write in English if you wish, and do not worry about your grammar if your English is not perfect. I am more interested in what you have to say than in how you say it. If you are not comfortable writing in English (I have a lot of readers from various countries), do not let that stop you. You may write to me in whatever your preferred language may be.
Having now removed all your excuses for not writing, I hope to hear from as many of you as possible in the next few days. That will help me to know what on earth all you people are doing here reading about this very odd subject — icons and their interpretation.