I always enjoy seeing iconography that requires a little thought to identify.  Here is such an example — a fresco saved from the Kalyazin Monastery, which was flooded by a new reservoir built during the Soviet period.  Fortunately, in the middle of the winter of 1940, at least a very small percentage of the monastery’s many frescos were removed and placed in museums.

Here is one of them:

(© Государственный научно-исследовательский музей архитектуры имени А.В. Щусева / Shchusev State Museum of Architecture)

We can brighten the image a bit:

What does it represent?  Well, we see Jesus wearing a crown, and out in a field cutting with a sickle:

And we see a couple of angels busy in the foreground, one also wielding a sickle.  But the inscriptions are a bit worn and faint and difficult to make out.

And here is where we see again how important familiarity with the Bible is to students of icons.  Those who have read the rather gloomy and violent Apocalypse — known to Protestants as the book of Revelation — will perhaps recall Revelation 14:14-19.  Here it is in the King James version:

14 And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle.

15 And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe.

16 And he that sat on the cloud thrust in his sickle on the earth; and the earth was reaped.

17 And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle.

18 And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe.

19 And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.

20 And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.

And there we have it.  That is what the fresco scene represents — a few lines from the Apocalypse.  It took several centuries for the book (attributed to the Apostle John, but the actual authorship remains unknown) to be accepted as canonical in both Western and Eastern churches.  In Protestantism, Luther and the Swiss reformer Zwingli were suspicious of it.  It was, however, very popular among the Old Believers, with their very “apocalyptic” mentality, and hand-written and illustrated Old Believer copies of the book in Church Slavic — often with explanations — are still to be found in various collections.

Here is an illustration  of the same subject from such an Old Believer book — the Apocalypse with commentary by Andrew of Caesarea/Andreas of Caesarea/ Ἀνδρέας Καισαρείας; 563 – 637):


The example omits the angels and the burning, but includes a little image of Ioann Bogoslov/John the Theologian at lower right — the Apostle John, to whom the Apocalypse was traditionally attributed.




Here’s something you don’t see every day — a 1298 Eastern Orthodox fresco from the Church of St. Nicholas in Prilep, Macedonia, showing Jesus voluntarily climbing onto the cross.  And yes, he is climbing up, not down, as we can see from the Greek title inscription:

(from original photo by P. S.Pavlinov)

Here it is:

Ι[ησού]ς Χ[ριστό]ς ἀναβενωντός ἐν το σταυρο (standard spelling ἀναβαίνοντός ἐν τῷ σταυρῶ)

Iesous Khristos anabenontos en to stauro/anabainontos en to stauro

The verb here is ἀναβαίνω anabaíno, meaning “to ascend, to go up, to climb.”  So we can translate as:

“Jesus Christ Ascending the Cross,” or more colloquially as “Jesus Christ Climbing Up Onto the Cross.”

Now if you are familiar with the New Testament accounts of the Crucifixion, you will know there is nothing at all in them about Jesus climbing a ladder onto his cross. It is a theme that developed outside the Bible, and one that seems to have been restricted to a certain period in its popularity.

Now remember that the island of Crete became a possession of Venice (Italy) in 1204-1205, and we know that Italian influence on icon painting only increased through the appearance of the Cretan School from the 15th to the 17th century. But the Macedonian fresco dates to near the beginning of the 1300s, much earlier than the Cretan School.  Yet as I often say, there was never a “pure” Eastern Orthodox iconography untouched by outside influences.

Let’s look at a Crucifixion with associated scenes attributed to the Italian Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo  (1225–1276):

(Museo civico di San Gimignano, Italy)

Such medieval Italian crucifixes always remind me of St. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226.  Probably too many viewings of the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

If we look at the bottom scene on the left side, we can see a relation with the fresco:

There Jesus is, standing with one foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, as though getting ready to climb up it.

We can jump to about 1300-1320 to look at an Italian miniature by Pacino di Buonaguida/Bonaguida:

There we see Jesus climbing resolutely up onto his cross, though by modern standards of perspective, the ladder is at an angle that would cause a nasty fall.

We can move on to the image likely painted about 1270-1280 by Guido da Siena — much more reminiscent of the Macedonian fresco:

(Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecth, Netherlands)

I do not know just how the iconography of Jesus ascending the Ladder got to Macedonia, but it certainly appears that it was due to Italian influence and the appearance in the 13th – early 14th century of this apparently then new visual representation.  How and why did it begin?  We are not certain of that either, and as we see in the example by Guido da Siena, Jesus was not always shown ascending the ladder entirely voluntarily; notice the man atop the crossbeam reaching down to grasp the left hand of Jesus and pull him up:

There are, of course, speculations as to the possible origins of the rather uncommon depiction of Jesus climbing the ladder onto the cross, and if you would like to begin exploring that topic, you might like to read this paper, though it has really nothing to say about the presence of this iconography in a Macedonian church fresco from the end of the 1200s.  It is by Anna Anna Eörsi, and titled “Haec scala significat ascensum virtutumRemarks on the iconography of Christ Mounting the Cross on a Ladder.

I had barely posted this article when I received a comment from a clever reader in the Netherlands, mentioning the very relevant “Dream of the Rood” (Rood means cross here), an Old English poem in which the cross speaks these lines about the Crucifixion:

Then saw I mankind’s Lord
Hasten with great zeal, as though he wanted to climb on me.

(Geseah ic þā Frēan mancynnes
efstan elne micle,⁠ þæt hē mē wolde on gestīgan.)


This example of the “Novonikitskaya” Marian icon type was painted in 1678 by “Feodot Feofanov, son of Protopopov.”

As you can see, it is very much in the new “Western” style that became popular with the State Russian Orthodox Church in the latter part of the 1600s, after the schism with the Old Believers.

The Novonikitskaya type has a rather unbelievable (a lot of them are, in part or in whole) origin story that ascribes its “appearance” to the 4th century, when supposedly it came about as the result of a dream had by the martyr saint Nikita “the Goth.”  Yes, this is the same St. Nikita who appears in painted and cast metal icons beating the devil.

Supposedly — even before he was baptized a Christian — Nikita had a dream in which he saw a youth holding a cross.  He could not figure out what the dream meant, but a Christian girl named Juliania, inspired by God, told him to look at his own chest.  When he did so, he found there an image of Mary holding her child Jesus, who held a cross.  Nikita recognized it as what he had seen in his dream, and so was baptized and eventually martyred.

Here is an old paper icon painters’ pattern for the Novonikitskaya icon type:

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

As you can see, it has letters abbreviating the colors to be used — K for kinovar (red), З for zelen (green), etc.  And of course it is a reversed image, as such patterns commonly were.


Today we will look at another of the so-called “Wonderworking” Marian icons.  This one is called the Молченския /Molchenskiya, or in standard Russian form Molchenskaya.

It is one of several types in which Mary commonly holds a ladder — but there are often other and varying symbols in it as well.

The original icon is said to have been brought by two monks from the Kyiv region to a hill called the “Miraculous Mountain,” not far from the Molchenskoe Swamp, in a forested wilderness.  There they are said to have performed their prayers before the icon, and when they died, they were buried in a cave they had constructed, and all was forgotten.

Then in 1405, one of several beekeepers looking for wild beehives in the region supposedly saw a very bright light coming from an icon hanging in a linden tree (there is that motif of an icon in a tree again, something found several times in the “appearance” accounts of Marian icons).  On seeing the icon, the beekeeper is said to have heard a voice saying that a church dedicated to the “Mother of God” was to be built at that place.  The beekeeper hurried off to the town of Putivl to report his encounter, and a crowd of people, including town authorities and clergy, went to the linden tree, where again the icon was seen shining with light in a linden tree.  They held a prayer service before it, and the origin story says various people were healed.

First they built a small chapel, later followed by a more elaborate church and a monastery.  Both were destroyed during the chaotic period in Russian history called the “Time of Troubles”  The abbot and his monks took the icon to a new-built monastery in Putivl called the “Large Molchensk Monastery.”

The original icon is said to have disappeared in a fire at the Monastery in 1752.  Today there are two supposedly “wonderworking” icons called “Molchensakaya” in the area.  One is at the Sofronievo-Molchenskaya Bogorodichno-Rozhdestvenskaya hermitage, and another in the Molchensky Birth of the Mother of God convent.  Both are in Putivl, Ukraine — formerly considered in Kursk Province.

In the example below, the child Jesus is held at Mary’s left arm, and she faces to the right.  In other examples this may be reversed.

On Mary’s maphorion we see three stars represented as angel heads, along with stylized clouds.  She holds a mountain before her breast, a ladder is in her right hand, and stylized rainbow is above it.  In some examples, painters seem not to have known what the rainbow is, so it may be represented in peculiar colors and ways.

In any case, the clouds, mountain, ladder, and rainbow are all Marian symbols.

  1. The Ladder:  Hail, Heavenly Ladder, on which God has descended ” (Akathist); this symbolizes Mary giving birth to the heavenly Jesus as a being on earth, in human flesh.  It is derived from the Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-17.
  2. The rainbow:  It represents the covenant between heaven and earth, God and man, as in the biblical story of Noah and the flood.   This is applied to Mary as the link between heaven and earth through giving birth to Jesus and so renewing a divine-human covenant.
  3. The clouds:
    Behold, the Lord sits on a swift cloud, and shall come to Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and their heart shall faint within them. ” (Isa. 19: 1).Also, Akathist, Oikos/Ikos 6:
    “Rejoice, shelter of the world, broader than a cloud.”And we may also look to these words of John of Damascus from the Liturgy of St. Basil:

    Hail, you who are full of grace, in you rejoices all creation — the assembly of the angels and all the human race.  O hallowed temple, mystical paradise, and the glory of maidenhood, of whom God, our God before all worlds, was incarnate and became a child.  He made your womb his throne and the same he made wider than the heavens” [Greek Platytera ton Ouranon / Πλατυτέρα των Ουρανών]

  4. The mountain: “You saw until a stone was cut out of a mountain without hands, and it smote the image upon its feet of iron and earthenware, and utterly reduced them to powder” (Daniel 2:34); “Whereas you saw that a stone was cut out of a mountain without hands, and it beat to pieces the earthenware, the iron, the brass, the silver, the gold; the great God has made known to the king what must happen hereafter: and the dream is true, and the interpretation thereof sure” (Daniel 2:45).  The “stone cut without hands” represents in Eastern Orthodoxy the birth of Jesus from Mary as “without seed [human sperm] made flesh of the Virgin” — i. e. the supposed virgin birth.5.  The  stars:  They traditionally represent the assumed perpetual virginity of Mary before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, as well as the Trinity.

It may easily be seen that the Molchenskaya type with its ladder, clouds, mountain and rainbow is related to another Marian icon type, the “Uncut Mountain” or “Stone of the Uncut Mountain.”  Here is an example of the latter:

There is frequently some iconographic confusion between the Molchenskaya type and the related Putivlskaya type, which supposedly “appeared” in the city of Putivl on May 2, 1635.  In the latter the child often holds a large orb.  Their titles are often confused by painters, and sometimes combined as “Molchenskaya-Putivlskaya.”  In fact there may have originally been two Putivlskaya icons that were said to have appeared at the city gates at different times.  In any case, the Putivlskaya icons one sees today are generally either recent renderings or pre-Revolutionary depictions printed in old books.

While there is some variation in representations of the usual Molchenskaya icon type, there is also a well-known variant type depicted below.  It is characterized by the crown on Mary’s head, by the presence of the Apostle James (Iakov/Jacob), son of Zebedee to the left of Mary and child, and a church at Mary’s breast instead of a mountain.


This is a seldom-encountered icon type.  It can be a bit confusing, because more than one image is associated with the title in some way:

Here is the title inscription, in the wording used by the Old Believers:

It reads:

Честнейшую Херувим и славнейшую воистину Серафим
Chestneyshuiu Kherubim i slavneyshuiu voistinu Serafim
“More honorable than Cherubim and more to be praised in truth than Seraphim”

The words are taken from the Marian hymn called  Достойно есть /Dostoino est’, which begins “It is worthy that in truth we should bless you ….”

The icon depicts Mary and the child Jesus in the center of a cross, set against an eight-pointed slava.  In the boxes around them are depicted cherubim and seraphim and the other ranks of angels.

Here is another example, in which the surrounding angels are placed in circles, and are more clearly visible:

(Far Eastern Art Museum, Khabarovsk)

Some late and obvious “Westernized” State Church examples under this name simply depict Mary and child in an oval ring of roses — reminiscent of Roman Catholic “rosary” images — and have a number of images of saints lined up along the outer borders:

(Theophany Church, Krasnousol’sk)

Other arrangements with Mary and child in the center — and angels about them — are also found in some State Church icons under this title.

You perhaps notice the relationship between the central image of Mary and child and the “Apocalyptic Woman” in icons, discussed in this earlier posting: