I have talked in previous postings about how olifa — the linseed oil mixture used to “varnish” icons — initially makes them bright and colorful, but darkens over the years, eventually obscuring the painted image to such an extent that one is left with a black board.  The old practice in such cases was to paint another icon over the darkened image — and sometimes there are several such overpaintings in very old icons.

Here is a 19th century Russian icon.

(Courtesy of

In the left top corner we see an area that has been cleaned of varnish; much of the rest remains as it was, so you can see how the darkening of the olifa affects the image over time.

The icon is signed on the reverse:

It tells us that this icon was painted in the Moscow Gubernia (now called an Oblast), in the Bogorodsky Uyezd, Zaroporskaya Volost, in the village of Antsiferovo by the Ikonopisets Ivan Anikin Mironov.

Now one often encounters the italicized terms in Russian iconography, so you should know what they mean:

Gubernia (Губерния) literally a “Government,” was a major subdivision of Imperial Russia; it was under the authority of a governor. The system of “Governments” was begun by Peter the Great, and the number of Gubernias was later expanded..

An Oblast (Область) is the term used for administrative divisions of Soviet (now Russian) republics. The word existed earlier, but came to replace the old Gubernia system.

An Uyezd (Уезд) is a smaller and secondary subdivision, rather corresponding to an American county.

Volost (Волость) was an even smaller subdivision, consisting of several villages.

And I hope you know by now that an ikonopisets (иконописец) is an icon painter.

The icon is painted in the old stylized manner.  As you know, that was the manner preferred by the Old Believers, who kept that traditional way of painting alive into modern times.

That this icon was painted in Antsiferovo is significant, because that village — located some 50 miles from Moscow — was largely populated by Old Believers, and at one time it had some 25 icon painters. Icon painting in the village is said to have begun as early as the 1730s. In addition to painted icons, cast metal icons were also made there. And oddly enough, the area was also known for counterfeiting money! Antsiferovo was part of the so-called Guslitsy region, a big center for Old Believers and their crafts. The main icon painting villages in the region were Antsiferovo, Gora, and Davydovo.

If you are a long-time reader here, you should be able to identify every element of this icon.

The presence of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) with the Holy Spirit as a dove confirms that this is a “Priested” Old Believer icon.

Everything about this icon is very traditional, including the inscriptions. At upper left we see “The sun darkens,” and at right “The moon becomes as blood.” And you probably noticed the “snail” shapes used to form the clouds, something we often find in Old Believer icons.

You will also recall that the cloth-covered hands of the angels are a very old sign of reverence.

Aside from the central Crucifixion, we see at left the image of Svyatuiy Nikola — St. Nicholas:

At right is the “Unburnt Thornbush” image of Mary:

At the base is a Deisis image:

I won’t go through every detail of this icon, because I have explained all the main images and inscriptions used here in previous postings, and all that information can be found in the archives. As you can imagine, after some 10 years of writing these postings, one gets a bit tired of being repetitive. And of course I want to encourage new followers here to read the archives from the beginning, which is an excellent way to become a self-made icon “expert.” I often say that students of icons will find more practical information on icons on my blog than can be found in any printed book at present.


Every now and then you may see a posting that has nothing whatsoever to do with icons.  Usually it will appear, then disappear a few minutes later.  No, you are not having a paranormal experience.

The explanation is simple.  I have another blog on which I discuss various forms of verse, literature, etc.  And occasionally I accidentally post to the wrong blog (i.e. this one).  I usually quickly discover the mistake, and remove the posting and place it on its correct blog site.

For the incurably curious, that other blog site is:


Here is a pleasant icon of a saint you might find a bit confusing.

His name inscription identifies him as:


Svyatuiy is of course “Holy,” and Prepodobnuiy — loosely translated as “Venerable” — is the title generally used for monks in Russian icons. So this saint is, both from his title and from the garments he wears — a monk.

His name, as written on this icon, is Sampsoniy. That is the part that is likely to confuse people, because when looking down the list of Russian Orthodox saints, you will likely have some difficulty finding that name. What you will find is a saint named Сампсон/Sampson. Well, to make it short, they are both the same saint; his name is commonly found as Sampson, but less commonly as Sampsoniy. And the CT/ST on the end is the abbreviated word Странноприимец / Strannopriimets. It means literally “stranger receiver” — or we could translate it as “friend of strangers,” but here again it is generally translated into English as “the Hospitable” or “the Innkeeper.”

Further, though this fellow is a saint in Russian Orthodoxy, he was by tradition born in Rome, and lived later in Constantinople. So he is a saint found also in Greek Orthodoxy as Σαμψὼν ὁ φιλόξενος /Sampson ho Philoxenos — meaning literally “Sampson, the Friend of Strangers” — but it is generally understood to mean “the Hospitable.” You may remember the related title of Greek icons of the Old Testament forefather Abraham meeting the three angels at the Oak of Mamre — the Philoxenia type — usually translated as the “Hospitality” of Abraham.

Now perhaps you noticed that this icon has a kovcheg — an “ark” — the recessed area on which the image is painted. Even though the kovcheg is characteristic of early icons, it is important to note that later icons also sometimes have a kovcheg; so simply having an “ark” does not mean that the icon is early unless the style of the painting and panel, etc., also fit the period.

We should also note that the treatment of the gold on the garments is characteristic of some icons from the latter part of the 19th century. So this is a later icon, even though its style is traditional rather than the “Westernized” style adopted by the State Russian Orthodox Church after the separation of the Old Believers.

And speaking of Old Believers, you noticed, I hope, the position of the fingers on Sampsoniy’s blessing hand. As you will recall (you will, won’t you?), that is the position used by the Old Believers. That tells us this is an Old Believer icon.

The traditional story of Sampsoniy/Sampson is rather confused, with some placing him at the end of the 4th century, others in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (482-505). He was said to have been from a rich and noble Roman family, and to have studied medicine. He gave large sums of money to help the poor, and used his medical skills to treat their ailments. He is reputed to have freed his slaves, and moved from Rome to Constantinople, where he established a free inn/hospice and hospital. At some point he became a monk. Another source says the inn/hospital was established by the Emperor Justinian after Sampsoniy healed him, and Sampsoniy was put in charge of it. Obviously these dates and events are not clear or entirely reliable. Sampsoniy is also said to have been made a priest by the Patriarch of Constantinople.


Hello again, Iconoholics.  I particularly wanted to show you today’s icon because it is such an excellent example of traditional stylization of the human form in Russian icon painting.

(Belgian Private Collection)

As you know, traditional icon painting uses layers of color. The base color — called sankir — is generally brown in Russian icons. The features of the face and hands are formed by adding progressively lighter layers of color. And of course realism is not the intent. Traditional Russian painters came to consider realism too offensively “worldly” to use for saints. So by painting a saint with his traditional characteristics of hair and beard and garments, and by severely stylizing his features, painters thought they were removing the saint from this world and presenting him in a “heavenly” form. Of course that is just a convention that developed over time.

The owner of this icon kindly sent me very large photos, and that enables us to look closely at various details of the image.

As you can see, there is a very dark outline around the head, but the base color, the sankir, is that kind of deep chestnut brown seen in his hair and in his eyes. His hair is created by a combination of the sankir with a simple dark outlining, and on the sankir itself by thin streaks of white It is a very simple but effective technique.

Similarly, his eyes are indicated by white highlights over the brown sankir base.

The features of the face are created by lighter layers of brown over the dark base, and are finished off by streaks of brown lightened almost to white — but not quite. That is how the painter has created the “ascetic” look found in so many Russian saints. The same kind of highlighting is used on the nose of the saint.

If we look at his beard, we find it is mostly just the base brown color highlighted with streaks of white, with darker lines here and there to clarify the form.

Now if we look at the decorative “frame” of the icon, we find that it is just strips of embossed metal, cut and nailed around the outer edge, and cut out where it fits above the halo. This is the old basma form of metal icon covering that was gradually replaced near the end of the 17th century by the one-piece riza, sometimes also called an oklad.

Perhaps you also noticed that this icon has a recessed kovcheg or “ark” — the area on which the saint is painted, in contrast with the raised outer border.

The style of painting — along with the basma and kovcheg — are signs that this is a 17th century icon.

As you have perhaps learned by now, it is often impossible to identify many saints without a name inscription. So let’s look at it and see who this fellow is. We already can tell by his robe that he is a monk.

It begins at upper left, in large and very clear Vyaz (“joined”) lettering:

We see these letters:

ПРЕП – and then there is a superscript (“written above”) Д — then БНЫ and a З that begins the next word. So far we have ПРЕП Д БНЫ

The word is abbreviated. If we expand it, we get:


And of course Prepodobnuiy — very loosely translated into English as “Venerable” — is the Church Slavic title used for a monk.

We already have the first letter of the next word: З (Z). So let’s go to the right side to see the rest of it:

We see:

ОСИ and a superscript М. If we put it all together, we get:


And Zosim — generally found as Zosima — is the name of a very famous monk in the history of Russian Orthodoxy.

But before we go on with that, did you notice the lines scratched into the icon above and below the letters, to act as a guide for the writing of the inscription? We often find such “guide” lines on Russian icons.

Now that we have discussed the icon image, who exactly was Zosima? Well, his name is often connected with that of another monk, Savvatiy; and not only are the names connected, but the two saints are very commonly paired together in countless icons such as this one:

Zosima is at left and Savvatiy at right. We see them holding a walled monastery between them, and that monastery is the reason why their names and images are connected. And here is a photo of the same monastery in recent years:

(Photo: Aleksey Zadonskiy)

It is the Solovetskiy Monastery (Solovki Monastery). Its history began when the monk Savattiy moved there with another monk named German, and there they built a monastic cell. Savvatiy died in 1435.

In 1436 a monk named Zosima met German (Herman) on the mainland. German told him of his life on Solovki with Savvatiy, and the two of them journeyed to the island together and settled there in a religious life. Later more monks came to the Island to join in a community with Zosima, and permission was obtained to build a monastery there.

So, even though Savvatiy died a year before Zosima ever came to Solovki, they are nonetheless connected in accounts of the founding of the Solovetskiy Monastery, and that is why they are so often depicted as an icon “couple.” Of course to Russian peasants, the importance of Zosima and Savvatiy was that they became the saints to pray to when keeping bees for honey and wax.


In the last posting, we looked at a “mystery” icon depicting a saint that we were able to identify as the northern monastery founder Aleksandr Oshevensky of Kargopol. Icons of him are likely to have been painted in that part of Russia, because people often favored their “local” saints.

Here is another icon that includes Aleksandr. It is painted in the heavy, “primitive-looking” style found in many northern Russian icons — that is often so appealing:


Here is the saint at left:

His title inscription jumps from the first two words down to the words in the recessed “ark” (kovcheg) of the icon. It reads:



He holds a scroll reading:

Ревнуя поревновах по Господе Бозе Вседержителе
Revnuya porevnovakh po Gospode Boze Vsederzhitele

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.”

(1 Kings 19:10)

In the center is, as the title inscription reads:


Michael holds a disk on which is this abbreviation;


In full it would be:


You will recall that is the form of the name “Jesus” that was used in the State Orthodox Church after the great split that severed the Russian Orthodox Church into two main factions in the middle of the 1600s — that of the conservative Old Believers, who kept the rites and practices of old Russia, and the State Orthodox Church, which accepted the revisions to rite and ritual of Patriarch Nikon. So though this icon looks to be painted in a traditional manner, it is nonetheless obvious that it is not an icon intended for Old Believers, who kept the old ISUS spelling of the name “Jesus.” It also tells us this icon was painted after the time of the schism, in fact near the end of the 17th century.

And finally we come to the northern Russian saint we met in the previous posting. His title inscription identifies him thus:




Did you notice that instead of using the KS in his name, this writer has used the old symbol that is pronounced like the English X? They both have exactly the same sound phonetically.

Alexander holds a scroll with the text


“Do not grieve therefore, my brothers, but by this know ….”

One final thing to note: the painter has given the Archangel Michael a golden halo, while the other two are silver.

These saints were part of the new pantheon — the new “gods” that replaced the old pre-Christian deities in the minds of the people. They served the same purposes, but under different names and forms.