Today’s posting is brief.  It is here primarily to answer a question from a reader, and it is likely that others have the same question.  So here goes.

You are probably all familiar with the usual icons of the Annunciation — the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, telling her she is to bear a son.  Here is a 14th century Byzantine example, showing the usual elements.  It is standard to have Gabriel at left, and Mary at right.  Most of the Annunciation icons one sees, in spite of small variations in detail, just have the two persons.

(Skoplje Museum)


In some Russian and Greek icons of the 15th to 17th centuries, however, we find an added person.  Here, for example, we see it in a Novgorod icon of the 16th century:

There she is– the “extra” person at lower right, seated below Mary.  Here is a larger view:

If you look just to the right of her hands, you can see a vertical rod with round knobs at intervals.  It is a device used in spinning, and that is what this person is doing.  Though it is difficult to see, she is holding a thread in her left hand, attached to a spindle in her right hand.  She is an anonymous sluzhanka, as she would be called in Russia — a serving maid.  You can see she has no halo.

Such a pre- spinning wheel device (but it was still in use in rural areas in relatively modern times) is called a прялка/pryalka in Russian.  A small mass of tow (unspun flax fibers) was placed on a holder atop the rod.  The rod itself was fixed at the base into a long, flat, horizontal board, on which the spinner sat.  She pulled the tow with her left hand, and as it was twisted into thread, it was wound on the spindle.  Many later pryalki (plural form) had heavily decorated tops to hold the tow.  You see examples of various kinds in this photo taken from an article by Elena Svetoyarova (

By the way, tow used to be a common word in English, but now that most people have lost touch with the old crafts of spinning and weaving at home, it is seldom used.  It was the source of the term “towhead”, often used for a child with very light flaxen hair.  Perhaps you recall the pleasant French piano composition by Debussy — “La fille aux cheveux de lin” — “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

If we look closely at the image of Mary in this icon, we see that she too holds a thread that passes through her hands to the spool seen at left, but in her case, the thread is red:

You may recall the apocryphal tradition that Mary was chosen to weave the veil for the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here is another Russian example from the 16th century.  It too includes the sluzhanka as an “extra” person.

(Andrei Rublev Central Museum of Early Russian Culture and Art)

And there again is that tall, knobbly rod used in spinning, just to the right of the maid.

So now you know.  The answer is nothing mysterious, just the addition of an icon “extra” in the scene.  As you may recall from a previous posting, I like to compare the persons — such as this sluzhanka — who are occasionally found in icons, to “extras” in a movie — those persons who are in a scene, but have no name or credit — just as an icon “extra” generally is given no name or title.





There is something very peculiar to be found in Nativity iconography in certain medieval Cappadocian Churches.

Here is a Nativity fresco from the north aisle of the Eski Gümüş Monastery complex — a monastery and church carved out of the rock in Niğde Province, Central Anatolia, Turkey.

(Courtesy of Asaf Braverman:

Let’s examine the segments of the fresco.

In the center we see Mary reclining, her face turned away from the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger to her left.  Above Jesus are the traditional ass and ox.

Mary’s name inscription is abbreviated as  ΜΗΡ ΘΥ  for ΜΗΤΕΡ ΘΕΟΥ/Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”

The child Jesus has the usual IC XC abbreviation for Ιησούς Χριστός/Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.

Above the child Jesus, we see three attending angels, their hands covered as a sign of veneration:

Above the angel at right is their name inscription, written as ὉΙ ΑΝΓΓΕΛΥ/HOI ANGGELY — instead of the standard ὉΙ ΆΓΓΕΛΟΙ/HOI ANGELOI — “The Angels.”  Remember that in Greek, a double g (ΓΓ) is pronounced as “ng.”

At left we see the Three Magi approaching, depicted as young, middle-aged, and old.  They bear gifts in their hands, and above their heads, the name inscription is written as ὉΙ ΜΑΓΥ /HOI MAGY, instead of the standard ὉΙ ΜΑΓΟΙ/HOI MAGOI — “The Magi.”

Joseph sits below the Magi, looking rather gloomily thoughtful, as is customary:

At lower left, the midwife and her helper prepare to wash the newborn child Jesus.   The helper at right, pouring the water into the basin from a pitcher  — Salome — is commonly so named.  More unusual is the identification of the other woman in Cappadocian Nativity iconography.  She is identified in this fresco as Ἡ ΜΕΑ/HE MEA — in standard formἩ Μαῖα/He Μaia, meaning “The Midwife.”  In later Greek, the letters ai were pronounced as ay in “stay,” instead of the earlier ai as in “aisle.”  Some misinterpret the inscription as the personal name “Mea” instead of correctly as her descriptive title.   In the Protoevangelion of James and in Pseudo-Matthew, she is given the name Zelomi.

As with many things in Eastern Orthodoxy, this very old and traditional scene of the washing of the infant Jesus after his birth has become the cause of controversy, with some even painting the scene out of Nativity depictions.  The reason is that washing a newborn infant seems to imply a normal human birth, with all the messiness accompanying it.  There are those who feel that the birth of Jesus had none of this, so the “washing” scene is considered demeaning and “doctrinally incorrect.”  But as I have said many times, in the study of icons and iconography we pay attention to what painters actually depicted — not to what those with doctrinal interests feel they should have depicted.

Now we come to the most interesting part of the image.  We see at upper right an angel announcing the birth to the shepherds:

To the right of the angel is the identifying title for the whole composition, written here as Ἡ ΧΥ ΓΕΗΙCΗC/HE KH[RIST]OU GENISES instead of the standard Ἡ Χριστού Γέννησης/He Khristou Genneses — “The Birth of Christ.”

And here are the shepherds — three in number in this example:

Like the Magi, they are shown as being of three different ages — a boy at left, a young man at center, and an old man with a grey beard at right.

If we look closely, we can see their names.

Here is the boy:

He sits atop a hillock, playing a long transverse flute.  His name is CΑΤΟΡ/SATOR.

The fellow in the middle gestures upward toward the angel with his right hand.  His name is ΑΡΕΠΟΝ/AREPON.   His left hand is on the shoulder of the old man, who is named ΤΕΗΕΤΟΡ/TENETOR.

Now it is not difficult to recognize that these are words from the very old and supposedly magical “Sator Square”:


The last two names on the fresco have been Hellenized by the addition of the -n ending to Arepo and the -or ending to Tenet.

What is the Sator Square?  It is a mysterious ancient palindrome, traces of which pop up in regions as widely separated as Ethiopia and Northern Europe.  Here it is in its earlier and later arrangements:

R    O    T    A    S
O    P    E    R    A
T    E    N    E    T
A    R    E    P    O
S    A    T    O    R


S    A    T    O    R
A    R    E    P    O
T    E    N    E    T
O    P    E    R    A
R    O    T    A    S

Roman examples as early as 1st Century c.e. Pompeii have been found, which is a strong indicator that it may be of pre-Christian origin.

It is a palindrome — in fact the earliest double palindrome known — that can be read left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top.  It is generally thought to have been a magical formula of some kind, but no definite solution has yet been found to its significance, though various possibilities have been suggested. As we have seen, some connect it with pre-Christian beliefs, which would make sense, considering the age of the earliest known examples.   Others, however, think it is just a jumbled version of the first two words of the Christian Pater Noster — “Our Father” prayer.  I will not go into all the suppositions here, because there is abundant information available online.

Whatever the original significance may have been, it is known that it definitely had later use as a magical formula.  But just why we find evidence of it in Eastern Orthodox frescoes in Cappadocian churches remains puzzling.

Adding to the mystery is that in those churches, it is not used in its “block” form as the “Sator Square,” but rather as the names of shepherds present at the Nativity.

In the Eski Gümüş fresco, we saw that the boy shepherd Sator is playing a transverse flute.  In an outline illustration published in the Revue Archéologique (January-June 1965), pp. 101-102, Presses Universitaires de France), we find something similar:

(Revue Archéologique)

It is drawn after a fresco in the so-called Kokar Kilise — “Fragrant Church” — in the Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia.

On the left we see Salome pouring water, and opposite her, “He Mea” — the midwife washing the child Jesus, much as in the Eski Gümüş example.  But on the right, we find five shepherds instead of the three.  Four of them wear pointed hats.  But far more interesting is that the shepherds — two of which play end-blown flutes — have their name inscriptions above them.  They are, from left:


As you can see, aside from the added -e ending on Tenete, their names together comprise the complete Sator Square:

S    A    T    O    R
A    R    E    P    O
T    E    N    E    T    E
O    P    E    R    A
R    O    T    A    S

This odd “magical” naming of the Nativity shepherds in Cappadocian iconography seems to have taken place between the 9th and 12th centuries (the latter being the general dating of the Eski Gümüş Nativity).  At the Church of St. Eustathios in Göreme, there are again three shepherds named Sator, Arepo and Teneto[n?].  Additional Cappadocian examples of Nativity shepherds named from the Sator Square are known, but the  precise significance those names had for the iconographers of that period and region remains a mystery.

Many thanks to Asaf Braverman for kindly permitting me to use his photography done at the Eski Gümüş Monastery in 2008.


Here is an updated version of an article I originally posted several years ago.

The F-word, in regard to icons, is of course “FAKE.”

I don’t have to worry about icon fakes because I am not a collector of anything but knowledge. There are, however, those who buy icons for any number of reasons — as an investment, as an antique, as an art object, as a religious object — and for such people, fakery is a matter with which they have to be concerned, because the market value (don’t you dislike that term?) of a fake icon is remarkably less than that of an authentic old icon.

First of all, what is an icon fake or forgery? Well, it is simply an icon that is something other than it is represented to be. A fake icon can be a newly-painted icon made to look old; it can be an icon print glued to a board and varnished or painted over to make it look like a real painting; it can be a damaged icon so heavily repainted that little is left of the original; it can be a completely new icon painted on an antique board; it can be a new icon on a new board aged to make both look old. It can be a freshly painted icon coated over with a varnish tinted to make it look old and uncleaned. It can be an icon that is not of the age or origin it is represented to be.  The possibilities go on and on.

There are all kinds of methods for imitating the look of age, such as using special mixtures and treatments to make the paint surface craze in an attempt to fake the natural craquelure (those tiny cracks that appear in the surface of paintings) of age.  That can also be achieved by painting on a gesso ground on a cloth not yet glued to a wooden panel, and then pulling the finished painting over the edge of a surface to give it a network of cracks.  Another method is to roll the gessoed, painted cloth around a cylinder such as a bottle.  When then glued onto a panel, a dark substance is rubbed into the cracks to make them more obvious and “old” looking.  Or one may simply carefully paint the “craquelure” on with a fine brush.  Icons may be “aged” in chimneys or by heating in stoves, and even given a fake candle burn or crack at the base, or worn  or flaked paint or edges, or other signs of fake age “damage.”

Whatever the case, the intent behind a fake is to deceive.

Icon fakery is nothing new. In the 19th century, there was a thriving business of faking old icons, primarily for the Old Believer market. The Old Believers held that the Russian Orthodox Church had fallen into heresy in the middle of the 1600s, when certain reforms in the liturgy, in ritual, in Church books, and in icon painting were put into effect. Consequently, the Old Believers, who refused to accept these changes, did not want icons painted in what they considered to be an heretical manner, or icons painted by members of an heretical church. Such icons were, to them, fit only to be destroyed. One of the results of this was that Old Believers, who were sometimes quite wealthy, became avid purchasers of old, “doctrinally pure” icons painted in the days before the “reforms” pushed through by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon. And where there are willing purchasers, there is a market just waiting for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the situation.

That is why large numbers of fake “Pre-Nikonian” icons were painted in the 19th century in earlier styles. And then near the end of the 19th century, when the Russian intelligentsia began to realize that old icons were an important part of the Russian cultural heritage, and began to clean later paintings away to discover old and even medieval Russian icons beneath, that added yet another layer to the market for fakes of old icons.

In the 19th century, even the noted painting villages of the Vladimir Region — Palekh, Mstera, and Kholuiy — were not immune to the urge to fake.  Some icons painted there were to be sold as legitimate and careful copies of older icons — and some were made to be sold as fake “ancient” icons.  Such an icon is called a задурок/zadurok, meaning loosely “for a fool” — an icon to be sold to a naive buyer who cannot tell a fake from an authentic icon.  Today such differences at the time of painting mean little, because an icon once sold as a legitimate copy may now be sold as a “genuine” icon of the period it imitates — thus becoming a fake — by either an inexpert dealer or a dishonest dealer.

Do not think the Russian fakers were not clever. Some of them were (and are) excellent imitators of earlier styles. Of course one of the first things a purchaser did was to examine the back of the board on which an icon was painted to see if it looked old, if it looked “right.” That was an easy matter to fake, because all one had to do was to buy up and accumulate a good stock of old icon panels that had damaged or inferior paintings on them, and one had a ready-made “old panel” on which to paint a new “old” icon. Such old boards were not hard to find. In the year 1879 alone, just one icon painting village, Mstera, is recorded as having brought in over 28,000 old icon panels for re-use. And of course there were all sorts of clever if deceptive tricks to age the painted surface, to make it look old and even time-worn. So it took a real expert in those days to be able to tell a genuine old Pre-Nikonian icon from a fake new “Pre-Nikonian” icon. Remember that this was in the days before scientific analysis made detecting fakes more likely.

Many fake icons came from Russia to Western countries in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Soviets were selling off numbers of icons.

Museums have not been and still are not immune to fakes.  If you have seen a good-sized icon collection in a museum — no matter how prestigious — chances are that you have viewed one or more fakes among the museum icons.  The problem is this:  some fakes are crude and very easily recognized.  Others are recognized by certain signs good dealers quickly learn.  There is, however another category of fakes that are so good, so carefully put together, that a careful scientific analysis of chemicals in the paints and ground, and even of the cloth/canvas and board is necessary, along with a very advanced knowledge of changes in painting techniques and materials over time.  And by the way, this presence of fakes in museums applies not only to those outside Russia, but inside as well.

One interesting practice of fakers was to take in a valuable old icon for restoration.  Then they carefully sawed a thin slice off the front of the board — the slice holding the painting.  Then they would paint a new copy — a fake — of the original valuable icon on the board, and return it to the owner as “restored.”  Then they would glue the authentic old painting slice onto another board, touch it up a bit, and sell it to another customer at the high price for a valuable “ancient” icon.

Then there is the practice of “white-washing.”  Because gold leaf is worn away when icons are dusted and wiped year after year, eventually the ivory-colored gesso ground is revealed.  This became one sign of age.  So fakers got the clever idea to just remove the gold leaf background to artificially age an icon — or to paint a new “fake” icon with the background left as old-looking gesso, as though its gold leaf had worn away.  Every now and then one sees such icons on the market or in museums today.

With the late 20th century and the changes in the Russian economy and government, there was yet another incentive for icon faking — an international market for icons. The usual tricks were and are still used. Even the silver or gold-washed silver covers placed over old icons were (and are) cleverly reproduced, including fake makers’ marks and other silver hallmark stamps. So when you look at a lovely old icon with its gold-washed ornate silver cover, all that may really be old in it might be the board on which it is painted.

Of course that is why, if one is buying icons at high prices, one should not only become familiar with the characteristics of genuine old icons, but also with the tricks used by fakers. That way one will be less likely to pay an “old” price for what is really a new icon. That applies not only to Russian but also to Greek and Balkan icons. But keep in mind that the higher the price of a fake icon, the more difficult to recognize it as such it is likely to be — so even experienced dealers may be deceived.

As a general rule of thumb, the older and more valuable an icon is represented to be, the more care one should take to make certain that it is indeed old, and not just pretending to be so.

In that respect, the market for old icons is very much the same as the market for any kind of old paintings. The higher the cost of the painting, the more one should know one’s field in order to avoid fakes and forgeries.  And these days, one practically has to become a scientist to identify extremely clever fakes.  And do not think it is only  the very high-priced icons that are faked.  The forgers are quite willing to provide fakes to satisfy even buyers paying far more modest prices.

Recently, something new has entered the icon market.  Tourists visiting Russia and Greece, and buying “Russian” or “Greek” icons to bring back with them, are often in reality buying icons painted in China.  These Chinese icons may even come with certificates and stamps certifying that they are made in Greece, or made in Russia.  One Russian newspaper recently estimated that one in ten icons sold in Russia today is a Chinese fake.

And yes, who knows — perhaps even among the examples used on my site, not all may be authentically as the sources identify them by date or place of origin.  But because my interest is iconography and not collecting, no money is lost should that be the case.  The problem is for those who buy old icons.

Some recent estimates of the number of fake “old” icons on the market today vary from 50% to about 75%.

I often tell people who are collectors and inexperienced, that they should either find an extremely reliable dealer or expert to aid them, or they should follow a simple and practical method.  Just think of every old icon you intend to buy as if it were painted yesterday, and pay a price in keeping with that.  Pay by how much you like the painting and the image, not by how old it may (or may not) be.  Then you will never be disappointed if one of your “very old” Russian or Greek icons turns out not to be what you thought it was.

Of course there are very few who will follow such advice.


In previous postings I have frequently mentioned that what most people think of as the typical Russian Orthodox icon is actually usually an icon produced by the Old Believers.  They were the original Russian Orthodoxy from which the State Orthodox Church — which is now generally considered “Russian Orthodoxy” — removed itself when it made liturgical, textual, and other changes — causing the schism that divided the two in the middle of the 17th century.

The Old Believers were (and still generally are) the traditionalists of icon painting, preserving the stylized manner that represented the Russian Orthodox icon prior to the split.  The “State Church” painters were those who generally gradually abandoned the traditional stylized forms in favor of the artistic influences coming into Russia from the West — that is, from places like Italy, Germany, and Holland — countries that were Catholic or Protestant or a mixture of the two.

We can easily see what that means if we examine two representative icons.  Both are post-1800.

The first is an Old Believer icon in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of

If we look more closely at the three female saints at right — identified by name inscriptions as “Great Martyr Ekaterina” (Catherine), “Venerable Evdokiya,” and “Holy Martyr Antonida,” we can see the clear sign of Old Believer origin in the position of the fingers  in the “blessing hand” of Ekaterina and of Antonida.  This was to let viewers know that this was a “pure” icon of the Old Belief, not the product of an “heretical” State Church painter.

At left we see saints identified by their name inscriptions as “Holy Martyr Alexandra,” “Holy Great-Martyr Nikita,” and “Holy Mikhail/Michael Archangel.”

Above them in stylized clouds is Christ Immanuel:

Notice the “flatness” of the figures painted on the panel, with no attempt at realism.

By contrast, here is an example showing how far State Church Russian Orthodoxy had diverged from the old traditions of icon painting by adopting Western European artistic influences — an icon of John Chrysostom:

Notice that there is an obvious effort toward depth and use of light and shadow, as well as more realism in the face and garments, even a movement toward emotionalism.  By contrast, the Old Believer style is flat and hieratic, non-realistic and consciously stylized.  Instead of perspectival depth, figures behind are simply placed higher on the panel than those in front.  All of this was in keeping with traditional aesthetics.

Ioann/John is dressed in typical State Church bishop’s garb.  He stands on the ceremonial rug called an orlets — with its two-headed eagle design, and holds in his hand the dikirion (“two-candle”) and trikirion (“three-candle) liturgical candleholders used by bishops in blessing when celebrating the liturgy.  The two candles represent the dual nature of Jesus, and the three candles the Trinity.  Notice the ring-shaped “Western  style” halo above John’s head, contrasting with the flat, plate-shaped halos found on the Old Believer icon.

Western influence is also seen in the triangle in the clouds above John, which has the single word БОГЪ/BOG — “God” —  at its center.

It is a symbol of the Triune God borrowed from Western European art.

It is amusing to see how, in their choice of artistic styles for icons, modern Western converts to Eastern Orthodoxy generally prefer the traditional stylized painting of the Old Believers to the Westernized manner used by the State Russian Orthodox Church from the late 1600s onward.  Most have no idea they are admiring and buying the icons and reproductions of icons of the once so-called Raskolniki — “Schismatics” — though historically it was actually the State Church that caused the schism and abandoned the traditions of the Old Belief.