I often repeat that Eastern Orthodoxy has never taken a critical look at the saints in its voluminous calendar.  Many have heavily fictionalized lives, and some are entirely fictional.  That does not keep them from being very popular as “go-to” saints for praying Orthodox believers.

In discussing Eastern Orthodox saints, we should always remember that there is a point at which a saint’s life becomes so fictionalized that we cannot regard the saint as historical, because all we know of him or her is myth.  Even though a saint by a certain name may once have existed, the name with its fictional “biography” no longer describes an actual historical person.

One of the most prominent of the saints whose lives are fiction is St. Barbara — Varvara in Russian, who is given the classification Velikomuchenitsa — “Great martyr.”  The accounts of her life date from about the 9th to 13th centuries.  Since the 15th century, she became one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” in Catholicism.

By one tradition, Barbara was a maiden of the Syrian/Lebanese city of Heliopolis, in the time of the Emperor Maximian (305-311 — both her location — some place her in Nicomedia/Turkey — and her dates vary in the traditions).  Her father Dioscorus was very wealthy, and to guard the beauty of his daughter, he locked her away in a tower (compare this to the ancient Greek myth of Danae, who was locked away in a room by her father).  Secluded in her tower, Barbara pondered the world, and when her father finally allowed her freedom, she was converted to Christianity.  Her father constructed a bathhouse with two windows, but when he was absent, Barbara had a third window made, to symbolize the Trinity (her tower was also said to have three windows).  The bathhouse supposedly then had healing waters.  Her father was enraged by her conversion, and handed her over to authorities to be tortured.  Eventually she was, along with the maiden Juliana, beheaded.  Dioscorus himself killed Barbara.  The tale adds that fire/lightning fell from heaven and destroyed Dioscorus and the city prefect Martinianus as punishment.

Readers familiar with folktales will recognize not only Danae in this story, but also the later popular tale of Rapunzel, among others featuring a maiden locked in a tower — which became Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 310 “The Maiden in the Tower,” in the category of folk motifs.

Because of the “fire from heaven” destruction of her father, Barbara became the patron of artillery, explosives, etc.  Bizarre though it is, in 1995 the Great Martyr Barbara was declared patron saint of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces.

In the interesting 19th century icon below — painted in the old style — we see an unusual pairing.  At left is “Holy Prophet Micah,” and at right “Holy Barbara [the] Great Martyr.”  The third figure — in the clouds at top — is Jesus.  This icon teaches us another interesting little detail about Eastern Orthodox iconography.

The scroll held by Micah is not typical.  It begins by saying “I saw you as the true vine….”  You will recall that scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” of icons.  They are the figures in the icon speaking, and in this case Micah is speaking to Jesus up in the clouds.  But the content of the text — that Jesus is the “true vine” —  has a eucharistic symbolism that also links it to the figure of Barbara at right.

(Source: Alexey Smirnov:  https://vk.com/@alex_selfish-starinnaya-ikona-yavlenie-svyatogo-proroka-miheya-svyatoi-ve)

Barbara holds the white cross of martyrdom in her left hand, but in her right she bears something very unusual.  It is a eucharistic chalice — a “communion” chalice.  Now in Russian Orthodoxy, only a priest is permitted to touch a chalice, and (an example of sexism, believing that only a male can represent Christ) never a woman.  Nonetheless we see here a woman — Barbara — holding a chalice in her hand. The other and later saint commonly seen with a chalice in icons follows the “male only” notion — John of Kronstadt (1829-1909).

The reason for the eucharistic connection and chalice in icons of Barbara is that there is an odd story about her in Eastern Orthodox tradition.  It relates that before her martyrdom, Barbara prayed that all those who would recall her martyrdom and ask for her help would be saved from sudden death without confession and communion.  She heard a heavenly voice granting her request.  That is why she alone among female saints is sometimes depicted holding the eucharistic chalice in her hand.  In Russia it is believed that the best way to insure safety from death without communion is to take communion on the annual day of Barbara’s commemoration in the Church.

In her iconography, Barbara may also be crowned (as in this icon) and holding a palm branch.  There is sometimes an influence from Catholic art in late images depicting Barbara with a sword (representing her manner of death), or with a tower having three windows.  After 1576, it was generally considered inappropriate to depict Barbara with a chalice in Catholic art, though examples still occasionally appeared.  Catholic art may also sometimes include a cannon with Barbara (the “fire from heaven” notion again).


As you know, the painting of icons is largely a practice of replication of existing images.  It is true that there was some variation in how a given subject was represented, but in general it was believed that the essential attributes of a given icon “type” or pattern had to be followed, so direct replication of an existing icon was the easiest way to do that.  It gave icon painters patterns that could be used again and again to paint new copies of an icon type.

(Proris’ of the Konevskaya icon type; note that it is a “mirror image.”)

Such paper patterns were called прориси/prorisi.  A single pattern is a прорись/proris’.

To make a proris’ — which is essentially an illustration showing the main lines and contours of an existing icon — a certain methodology was used.

First, of course, one needed an existing icon from which the pattern/proris’ could be taken.  Here is how the process worked:

First, the painted surface of the icon to be copied was cleaned of any dust and dirt.  Then one needed certain materials to transfer the lines and contours of the image from the icon to the paper.

Those materials were:

  1.  AN EGG YOLK EMULSION.  This was the same kind of egg yolk emulsion used for making painting pigments.  An egg was broken at one end, and the yolk was poured out whole, separated from the white, and carefully rinsed clean in the palm of the hand.  Then the yolk sac itself was broken, and the liquid contents poured into a small glass jar.  The empty egg shell was then filled about 2/3 full of kvass (Russian rye beer); vinegar could be used as a substitute for kvass, if it was diluted half and half with water.  Whether kvass or water-diluted vinegar, it was poured from the shell into the glass jar containing the yolk liquid.  Then the yolk and kvass or diluted vinegar were carefully stirred with a brush until thoroughly mixed, but slowly, so as to avoid creating foam or bubbles.  The resulting egg yolk emulsion was brushed onto the entire painted surface of the icon, covering it with a very thin layer.  This emulsion layer was then allowed to dry.  This dried layer was the surface upon which the next step took place.
  2.   THE TRANSFER SUBSTANCE.  There were usually three options for what kind of substance one used:1.  GARLIC JUICE.  To make this, one needed about four or five cloves of garlic.  It is best to use stored, not fresh garlic, because fresh garlic juice is a bit too watery.  The cloves were peeled, then grated very finely.  The grated garlic was then placed on a cloth porous enough to allow the juice to pass through it when squeezed, but not porous enough to allow the garlic fibers to pass through with the juice.  The garlic juice was squeezed though the cloth into a small glass jar.  The jar is covered with a cloth — not a solid lid — to allow evaporation to take place, while keeping dust out of the jar of juice.  The more evaporation takes place, the thicker the juice will become, and it may dry completely.  If so, then it may be restored to the desired sticky consistency by the careful addition of water.

    2.  REDUCED BEER.  This was an alternate to garlic juice.  To make it, about a pint of beer was put in a container to be heated.  Then that container was then heated in another container filled with water — a kind of “double boiler” on a low heat — so that the beer slowly evaporated as the hours passed.  The more it evaporated, the thicker and stickier it became.  It was ready to use when thick enough to be still fluidly transferred by a brush, but not watery.

    3.  HONEY.  That honey could be used as a third alternative gives you a good idea of the consistency needed for either the garlic juice method or the reduced beer method.

    The next step was to make the transfer paint out of any one of the three substances — whether garlic juice, reduced beer, or honey.  This was done by mixing it with a dry black pigment.  Lamp black (soot) could be used for the purpose.  Mixing the black pigment with the garlic juice, or reduced beer, or honey, created the black paint used for tracing over the lines of the painted icon on the dry egg emulsion surface (which was there to allow the paint to stick to it).  Again the consistency of the paint mixture had to be fluid enough so that a black line could be easily drawn with it on the dry egg emulsion surface over the painted icon.  This was done by keeping the proportion of garlic juice (etc.) higher than that of the added dry pigment.

    The black paint thus made was used to carefully trace over the outlines and any other desired lines or contours of the original painted icon.  This made an outline pattern to be transferred to a sheet of paper.

    When all the desired lines and contours of the painted icon had been traced over, one then breathed heavily on the surface of the icon to make the black lines “sticky,” and the blank paper was then placed on the icon surface and carefully pressed down and smoothed all over it.  Then it was lifted from the icon, with the black traced lines having transferred to the paper.  This of course made a reversed “mirror image.”  That is why in old books of icon transfers, the images are generally “mirror image” patterns.

    After the pattern had been transferred, the dried egg emulsion was then completely removed from the surface of the icon with a moist cloth.

    I want to emphasize for those “do-it-yourselfers” who might want to try these methods that it can be very damaging to clean the surface of old icons with a moist cloth, particularly if there are any cracks or flaking in the paint surface.  And I would certainly not advise anyone to cover an old icon with an egg emulsion, and then try to remove the same.  There are more modern and non-damaging methods that can now be used to copy old icons.]

    To transfer the outline pattern to a new panel, the black lines of the “mirror image” had to then be gone over with hundreds of little pin-prick holes made by a sharp needle.  One this was done, the transfer paper was placed face down on the raw gesso of the new icon panel.  It was then “pounced.”  “Pouncing” was done by placing powdered charcoal in a cloth bag porous enough to allow the charcoal dust to come through when it was struck down softly over all the outlines on the transfer.  This caused the black powder to go through the pin-prick holes and onto the gesso surface of the icon, making many little black dots that could then be joined with pigment to make the pattern on the panel.  This “pouncing” method was also used, by the way, in Western Europe, where it could be used, for example, in transferring a pattern onto a wall to be painted as a fresco.

    The common old method, of course, was that when one had the outlines of the icon on the raw gesso panel, one then scratched them into the surface of the gesso with a metal needle.  This made a permanent outline of the icon that is often still seen on close examination of countless old painted icons.  These scratched outlines on old icons are one of the first things I noticed when I first began to study Russian icons.


    This is a modern method used by some contemporary painters to reverse the “mirror image” of an old pattern.   To do this, place a sheet of tracing paper over the transfer taken from the icon.  Using the same kind of black paint mixture used to make the transfer, trace all the lines of the underlying transfer on the sheet of tracing paper.  Then again breathing heavily on the lines painted on the tracing paper to make them “sticky,” place the paper surface-down on the blank gesso of the fresh icon panel.  Press all over to transfer the lines.  This corrects the “mirror image” as it transfers to the panel, and the new outline image thus created on the icon panel may be used as the pattern for painting the new image.