We have a lot of fun on this site (well, at least I do; the rest of you may just be suffering in silence), but do not underestimate what you will find here.  If you are seriously interested in icons, first, you have my deepest sympathy, and second, you will find huge amounts of information here.  I think I can honestly say that on this blog you will find more practical information about understanding and identifying icons than you will find in any existing book.

Because of that, if you are a serious student of icons, I suggest reading the archives of this site from the very beginning.  If you learn all that is there, you will soon know more about icons than many museum curators, more than most Eastern Orthodox priests, and certainly far, far more than the average person.  But keep in mind that those who find icons interesting are a special class of people.  No offense, but you are all a bit peculiar.  So if you think sharing your new-found icon knowledge with just anyone is a good idea — well, it is not likely to get you a date on Friday night.  In fact it may do just the opposite.  It may cause people to make all kinds of excuses for why they do not have time to listen to you talk about icons, and how they forgot an appointment and have to be somewhere else in a hurry.

If you have been a serious student here — if you have read the archives — first, don’t you have a life?  And second — you will remember an icon type called the “Three Joys.”  It was originally brought to Russia from Italy in the 18th century, and was likely based on Italian paintings such as Raphael’s Madonna with Child and John the Baptist.

Ordinarily, icons of the “Three Joys” type depict Mary with the child Jesus, the young John the Forerunner (the Baptist) on the right, and often but not always, Joseph, husband of Mary, is on the left. 

But (and this is another one of the “big buts” of icon studies. Watch out for big buts) — keep in mind that icons of the same or similar titles often show variations.  They may not look at all like the most common examples.

Today’s icon shows no trace of an Italianate style.  It has been made thoroughly Russian, and is painted in the old stylized manner.  And surprisingly, though it looks very little like conventional examples of the “Three Joys” icon, nonetheless, that is what it is; just a variant of the “Three Joys” type:


Here is the title inscription. Note how the writer has scratched lines into the icon surface to guide his writing:

It reads:



The child Jesus with his identifying IC XC inscription, and “Holy John the Forerunner” are both shown in an unusual manner, depicted as very small children held behind Mary’s hands.

Below them, as we find in some Marian icon types but generally not in “Three Joys” icons, is a ladder — a symbol of Mary as the bridge from earth to heaven, the “ladder on which God descended” to become incarnate as Jesus in Mary, according to Eastern Orthodox theology.

The two border images in this icon — which as you will remember, are not part of the central icon type — are:

At left: Michael Arkhistrategos — the Archangel Michael as Chief Commander of the heavenly armies.

At right:

The Angel Khranitel’ — the “Guardian Angel,” that generic figure found not only as a main figure in some icons, but also as an added figure in countless icons of many types:


In the previous posting, we saw an icon of three angels associated with protection in life and death — the Guardian Angel, the “Wednesday Angel,” and the “Friday Angel.”  Now we will look at another icon of three angels with similar associations.

Here is the image portion of an old Russian icon showing three angels below the circle at top depicting Jesus as Christ Immanuel:


At left is the Guardian Angel; at center is the Archangel Michael as Arkhistrategos (Chief Commander); and at right — well, at right is a very unusual angel.

Here he is:



We can translate that as the “Holy Death-giving Angel,” or to put it in simple English, the “Holy Angel of Death.”

Well, as we saw in the previous icon, the Guardian Angel is associated by tradition with watching over a believer from birth through death. And the Archangel Michael we have already seen in icons where he acts as the “psychopomp” — the leader of the soul into the afterlife. And with the addition of the Angel of Death, we can tell that the person who ordered this icon was considerably worried about the afterlife, and wanted some kind of “insurance” — thus the three angels depicted here.

Now in Orthodox tradition, there is the odd notion that the Archangel Gabriel is also the “Angel of Death.” That connection came about because of the old tale that three days before the death (the “Dormition”) of Mary, Gabriel came to her and told her of her coming death. One might think, then, that the angel on the right would be named Gabriel, but that is not the case here. He is just titled, as we have seen, the “Holy Death-giving Angel” — the Angel of Death.

Now there is mention of an Angel of Death in the writings of Theodore Studite, and mention of the coming of an Angel of Death in Theophan the Recluse: “The Angel of Death will grab the soul and carry it where there is no return.” But there is no detailed or consistent teaching about an Angel of Death in Eastern Orthodoxy — at least not that I have found so far. Nonetheless we can see from this icon and from the brief mentions in Eastern Orthodox literature that there is a tradition of an Angel of Death — though to see him on an icon is very rare.

There is also a line of tradition holding that at the time of death two angels appear to the dying person — one the Guardian Angel, the other not clearly identified. Perhaps that notion influenced this icon, and being unsure whether at the time of death the believer would be met by the Arkhangel Michael or the Guardian Angel or the Angel of Death, or a combination of two or more of them, the person ordering this icon chose all three, to be on the safe side.

Aside from all that, did you notice the clouds on which the angels are standing? One often sees them depicted in Russian icons as they are here, looking like a cluster of white snails.


Well, not really what makes the wind blow. We know better now. But in the past, people had other ideas about physical phenomena, including the weather. And one of those was that the four directional winds (North, South, East, West) are made and “blown” by the angels of those winds.

Here are four panels from the old wooden church at Kizhi.

They depict the angels of the four directional winds:

ANGEL OF THE NORTH WIND (SEVER); the moon (Luna) is at right.
ANGEL OF THE EAST WIND (VOSTOK); the sun (Solntse) is at left.


Now if we read the King James version of the Bible (the most poetic of translations in English, though now considered quite old-fashioned), we find this in Hebrews 1:7, speaking of the Christian God:

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

If we look at the text in Greek, we find this:

Καὶ πρὸς μὲν τοὺς ἀγγέλους λέγει, Ὁ ποιῶν τοὺς ἀγγέλους αὐτοῦ πνεύματα, καὶ τοὺς λειτουργοὺς αὐτοῦ πυρὸς φλόγα·

The bold portion reads Ὁ ποιῶν τοὺς ἀγγέλους αὐτοῦ πνεύματα / “The one who makes his angels pneumata.”

Well, in Greek this is one of those words that can be translated in two ways in English. A πνεύμα/pneuma is primarily a wind — and because the breath is wind, it can also mean “spirit,” because early people thought of the “spirit” as the breath. You will recall that in John 3:8, the two notions are intimately connected:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it comes, and whither it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ’ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος

To pneuma hopou thelei pnei, kai ten phonen autou akoueis, all’ ouk oidas pothen erkhetai kai pou hupagei; houtos estin pas o gegennemenos ek tou pneumatos.

So when you read “spirit” in the Bible, keep in mind that its original meaning was just “wind,” “breath.”

That is why we read in mark 15:37:

And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.

But the term here for “the ghost” in the Greek is to pneuma — “the wind,” “the breath.” So Jesus gave up the “breath of life,” or as we say in English, he “breathed his last.” Nonetheless, one often sees it translated as “spirit” here. That is because the Latin translation of Greek pneuma is spiritus — which also originally meant “wind” or “breath” — given that both are wind.

Finally, you may have realized by now that these “angels of the four winds” are just the later Christian versions of the earlier Four Winds of the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world — the four gods who made the winds: Boreas, the North Wind; Notos, the South Wind; Euros, the East Wind; and Zephyros, the West Wind. Of these, Boreas was the wind of winter; Zephyros was the wind of spring; and Notos was the wind of summer. Euros later became associated with autumn.


Today’s icon is an Old Believer image (as the most interesting of the post-17th century icons often are).   It dates to the middle of the 19th century.

It is a very unusual type, one you are not likely to easily find examples of.

The title inscriptions read (from left, top):



Well, you should all be very well familiar by now with the image of the Angel Khranitel’ — the “Guardian Angel,” seen in the middle. He is the generic figure who in Eastern Orthodoxy watches over every believer from birth onward. The smaller image on his breast is Christ as Immanuel. Here the Guardian Angel is really a dangerous guy, carrying both a sword and a long dagger. But who are the other angels? Well, that is somewhat fascinating — and it is what makes this icon type so unusual.

The angel at left is the “Holy Angel on Wednesday (Sreda).” And the angel at right is the “Holy Angel of Friday” (Pyatnitsa).

You have probably never heard of the “Wednesday Angel” and the “Friday Angel.” They are found in an incident from the traditional life of St. Pakhomiy/Pachomius:

“Once having encountered a funeral procession, Abba Pachomius saw two angels accompanying the dead man from behind the bier, and, thinking on them, asked God to reveal them to him. Two angels came to him, and he asked them: ‘Why do you, being Angels, accompany the dead?’ And the Angels said to him: ‘One of us is the Angel of Wednesday, the other is of Friday. And because until his death, his soul did not stop fasting on Wednesday and Friday, we accompany this body. Since even to death he kept fasting, we also glorify him, who fought well for the Lord.'” The tale comes from Слово св. отца Пахомия о среде и о пятке / “The Word of the Holy Father Pachomius concerning Wednesday and Friday“).

So this icon depicts the Guardian Angel, and the special angels of Wednesday and Friday, who keep track of the pious believers who fast on those days, and accompany the souls of such people into the afterlife — where during their journey, the angels protect and testify to the piety in fasting on those days of the departed soul.

Such an icon is likely to have been ordered by a very strictly pious Old Believer who carefully observed those fasts, and wanted to make sure he could get all the protection he could in this life and in the afterlife.

Some in Russian Orthodoxy believed that the Guardian Angel watched over a believer during the day, and an “Angel of the Lord” watched at night — taking the “night shift.”

The border saints, you will recall, are not part of the main icon type, but instead are added commonly to represent the name saints of family members as well as sometimes saints specially invoked by those members.

Here they are Priest-martyr Kharlampiy/Kharalampos; Priest-martyr Sadofiy/Sadof/Sadok of Persia; Great Martyr Varvara/Barbara; and the nun Martyr Evdokiya/Eudocia.


Students who plunge deeply into the study of icons — including languages used on icons such as Church Slavic and Greek — frequently find themselves consulting Lexicons/Dictionaries of Classical, New Testament and Septuagint Greek. That category of severe iconoholics will be interested to know that the standard lexicon of ancient Greek since the 19th century — the Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon of H.G. Liddell and Robert Scott — has finally been replaced.

This is good news for a number reasons, one of which is that the new replacement — the Cambridge Greek Lexicon — no longer obscures the meaning of a great many Greek words with archaic definitions. The new Lexicon (editor James Diggle) uses blunt and clear explanations — which of course include lots of plain and easily-understood “four-letter words” when discussing any Greek terms having to do with sexual matters. So searchers of the lexicon will no longer have to try to puzzle out the often evasive “Victorian English” definitions found in Liddell and Scott.

The new dictionary consists of two volumes and 1,000 pages. It is published by Cambridge University Press — and is currently available in hardcover at a pre-order price under $100 (American).

A reader (thanks, Steven!) kindly sent me this link, which gives more information: