Today we will look at an icon type (or more specifically, two related variants of a type) that was and is venerated both as a Roman Catholic sacred image and as an Eastern Orthodox icon.  There are historical reasons for this.

Nothing definite is known about the origin of the icon.  But according to tradition, the Berdichev icon had long been in the family of a fellow named Janusz Tyszkiewicz.  That wealthy land-owning family had originally been Eastern Orthodox, but over time they became first Uniates, then Roman Catholic. In July of 1642, at the consecration of a church in Berdichev (now in Ukraine), Janusz — who was Roman Catholic — donated the icon to that church, which had an overly-lengthy name:  the Church of the Immaculate Conception of St. Mary the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, Archangel Michael and St. John the Evangelist.

The icon seems to have been a loose version of the noted old Catholic icon Salus Populi Romani — the “Health of the Roman People.”  The Berdichev version was painted in oils on canvas, likely in the 1500s.  The canvas was glued to a panel of cypress wood.  Over the years it gained a reputation as being “miraculous,” and was visited and venerated by Orthodox as well as Catholic believers.

In Roman Catholicism there is a peculiar rite authorized by a Pope and called “Canonical Coronation.”  It is the ceremonial crowning of an image — usually but not always a Marian image — that is the subject of particular devotion and is given a specific title.  This “crowning” of religious images originated at the beginning of the 1600s, but it was not until 1756 that the Berdichev icon received such a coronation.  In fact it was crowned three times over the years, up into the middle of the 19th century, because the valuable crowns kept being stolen.

In 1941 the original old Berdichev icon donated to the church by Janusz Tyszkiewicz is believed to have been destroyed by a fire in the monastery complex of the Barefoot (“Discalced”) Carmelites, where the icon was kept.  Over the years various copies of the original had been made and spread around, however, and after its loss new icons of the Berdichev type were painted, the most famous being a modified version created in 1991 and consecrated by Pope John Paul II at the St. Jadwiga Church in Krakow, Poland.

Versions of the Berdichev icon began to appear in “Orthodox” Russia as early as the 18th century.

There are generally two main types of the Berdichev icon.  First, there is the “simple” version showing the Mother and Child:

The more interesting of the two, however, is the more complex and very militaristic-appearing version, of which this is an example:

It illustrates how the shrine where the Berdichev icon was kept was converted into a fortress — seen at the base of the image.  The Mother and Child sit atop a tower above the fortress, surrounded by flags and banners, cannons, halberds, swords, shields, other kinds of weapons.  St. Michael holding a sword appears in a little niche just below the top of the tower, flanked by cannons.

The two saints appearing at the sides are additions generally not found in other versions.  They are the Martyr Adrian and the Martyr Natalia.  Some examples have instead the military saints Alexander Nevskiy at left, and George at right, but many have no saints added to the main image.

If you are a long-time reader here, you can easily translate the ΜΡ ΘΥ  and IИС ХС abbreviations on the image as Meter Theou (“Mother of God”) and Iisus Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”

The inscription at the top is one that commonly goes with this “Military” variant of the Berdichev type:

Яко столп Давидов выя твоя, [создан в Фалпиофе:] тысяща щитов висит на нем, вся стрелы сильных.

Yako stolp Davidov vuiya tvoya, [sozdan v Falpiofe:] tuisyashcha shchitov visit na nem, vsya strelui sil’nuikh

“Like the Tower of David is your neck, [built for an armoury:] a thousand shields hang upon it, all arrows of the mighty.”

The source of the quotation is identified on the inscription as:

Pyesney Glava 4 Stikh 4
Song [of Songs] Chapter 4, verse 4.”

The inscription at the base of the icon identifies the image as the “Representation of the “most-blessed wonder-working Mary” that stands in the Berdichev Church of the Carmelites, “ornamented with golden crowns by Benedict, Pope of Rome.”

It is interesting how the “Song of Songs”  also called “Song of Solomon” — originally a Hebrew erotic love poem — became transformed by centuries of bowdleristic interpretation into both Christian Marian symbolism — and, as the Protestant tradition has it, “an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church.”



Every now and then I like to pause and post a request to new readers here — and quite a number of new readers have joined us in the past few months.  I ask you to send me a message via the “comments” link on any page, and tell me what has brought you here and what your interest in icons is (as psychologists say, recognizing your problem is the first step toward overcoming it).  Yes, I have a peculiar sense of humor.

If you do not feel comfortable writing in English, you may write in Dutch or Russian or German or French or Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Romanian, etc. etc.  I can probably decipher it, and if not, well — I would rather hear from you in any language than not hear from you at all.

(Courtesy of

When I began this blog several years ago, I did not know if anyone would be interested in such an esoteric subject as a “non-religious” icon blog — but more and more wanderers on the Internet kept arriving here as time passed, to my amusement and amazement, and whatever the reason, all were and are welcome.

If you are a long-time reader here, but have not yet let me know what brought you to this secluded inn of icon information, please do so.  What you tell me is all kept private — just like a psychoanalyst’s office.  I know some of you are art restorers, some museum staff, some icon dealers, some artists, some art historians, some clerics of various titles, some just curious people or lifelong learners — and who knows what else?  Of course you need not be a “professional” to read here — just a person afflicted with that quirky interest in icons and their interpretation.  And of course whether you are an old or recent or new reader here, if you just want to express an opinion or offer a suggestion about the site, you are welcome to do that as well.

As for the icon on this page, it represents Martha at left and Mary at right.  If you are a regular reader here, you will probably recognize from the style and the graduated coloring of the background that it dates to the period around the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century.

These are the Martha and Mary of the account in Luke 10:38-42, which has given rise to endless discussions about the virtues of the active vs. the meditative life:

38 Now it happened, as they went, that he [Jesus] entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

40 But Martha was hindered by much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.

41 And Jesus answered and said to her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things:

42 But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.





Here is a cast metal Russian icon:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

We can tell from his hood that he is a monk of some kind.  Let’s look more closely at the inscription at his head:

It reads:




We have seen Niphont before in an earlier posting: (

We learned there that he could supposedly see angels and devils.  This icon focuses on his presumed ability to drive away devils — so in that sense he is like the other devil-driving saint, Nikita.

What is most interesting and unexpected about this fellow however, is what we find written on his scroll:

It reads:




Now that is very interesting indeed, because it illustrates the centuries-long conflict between native Russian folk belief/religion and the Russian Orthodox Church.  To understand how that applies here, we must first know a little about the Rusalia.

In Russian folk belief, lakes, rivers and ponds were the dwellings of  alluring supernatural females called Rusalki.  They had long greenish or blond hair.  Every year in June the Rusalki would emerge from the waters and wander naked or revealingly clothed on land, climbing into trees.  At this time — the time of Pentecost or Trinity Sunday — was  a Russian folk festival, the week of Rusalia — which seems to have been related to the fertility of the land, and commonly where fertility is invoked, there is a lot of — well — lively behavior.

Rusalia celebrations were condemned by the Stoglav Council for their “defilement of youth and corruption of virgins.”  The excitement of the celebrations went on into the early hours of the morning.  It was believed that the Rusalki were particularly interested in luring young males.  They could tickle them to death, or dance with them until the males would fall exhausted.  They could lure them into water and drown them.  If a male managed somehow to escape, he was never quite right again, not really part of this world mentally.

All sorts of things were forbidden for Russians during Rusalia.  They were to avoid the fields, where Rusalki might be encountered; they were to avoid the rivers or pools where they bathed or washed clothes, because of the danger of Rusalki.  It was also wise to leave offerings of food, white clothing, or wreaths at places where Rusalki were likely to find them.  There was a special ritual involving an effigy to end the Rusalia.

There is much more to the rather complex folklore of the Rusalki and of Rusalia, but that should give you a general idea.

Here is Russian artist Ivan Bilibin’s representation of a Rusalka: