Here is a rather standard Greek icon of St. Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

He is shown an a very hieratic posture, dressed in his bishop’s garments, and seated on a cushion with his feet on another cushion. 

His chair is technically a bishop’s kathedra (καθέδρα) commonly known as a bishop’s throne — a symbol of his office.  Our word cathedral comes from it — originally the church in which the main seat of the bishop was found.

He holds the open Gospels in his left hand, and if we look closely we can see the text:

Though it is a bit dark, we can nonetheless see it well enough to know that it is written not in the majuscule (capital) letters of older Greek icons, but largely in a more cursive minuscule (lower case) text.  And we can see that it begins

Εἶπεν ὁ Κύριος …
Eipen ho Kyrios …
“The Lord Said …”

Kyrios is abbreviated, as it often is in Greek icon inscriptions.

That is a beginning often used in Russian icons for quotes from Jesus, though of course written in Church Slavic rather than Greek.

Then comes the quote, which as we can see from what is legible, repeats the beginning part of this portion of John 10:9:

Εγώ εἰμι ἡ θύρα· δι’ ἐμοῦ ἐάν τις εἰσέλθῃ σωθήσεται καὶ εἰσελεύσεται καὶ ἐξελεύσεται καὶ νομὴν εὑρήσει.
Ego eimi he thura di emou ean tis eiselthe sothesetai kai eiseleusetai kai exeleusetai ka nomen euresei.

“I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” 

We don’t really need the title inscription to identify this image as Nicholas, but here it is nonetheless.

At left:


It is the standard HO HAGIOS — “The Holy” — but written here with ligatures.  And on the other side is the personal name:


Nikolaos — the Greek form of Nicholas. 

So together it reads

“(The) Holy Nicholas.”

Or as we would say in English, “Saint Nicholas.”

Nicholas was an immensely popular saint in Greece, as he was in Russia.


Here is an interesting icon.  You should be able to recognize the type from past postings.

(Courtesy of

From the style, one might think it is from the Vetka/Vyetka “school.”  There certainly are strong Vyetka characteristics.  Nonetheless, because of the quality of the painting and the prominence of the roses, it has been attributed to Nevyansk — the Old Believer settlement in the Urals.  It is sometimes difficult to tell Vyetka and Nevyansk icons apart, and there is a good reason for that.  There was much communication between the two Old Believer communities.

Let’s look at the title inscription, which begins to the left of Lord Sabaoth at the top:



And the remainder of the inscription right says:



If we put it together we have:



In other words, this is an image of the Znamenie (“Sign”) icon of Mary that became known on its own as the supposed wonderworking icon of Kursk.  As you know, copies of famous Marian icons often received their own titles when they too were believed to have worked miracles.  For convenience, we can just use the Russian form of the name, and call it the Kurskaya Marian icon type.

You will recall that I discussed the Znamenie type here:


And I discussed the Kurskaya “spinoff” type here:



Now as you can see, the Kurskaya type adds prophets and Lord Sabaoth to the central image of the “Sign” Mother of God.

Here is Lord Sabaoth:

The number and names of saints on the Kursk type vary.  Some have more, some less.  In general, they are saints considered to have been prophetic of the birth of Jesus from Mary.

Let’s look at those on this example, beginning at top left, and going down that side:


At the top is  “Holy Tsar (King) David.”  He holds a scroll reading:

Воскресни, Господи, в покой Твой, Ты, и Кивот святыни Твоея.
Voskresni, Gospodi, v pokoy tvoy, tui, i kivot svyatuini tvoeya.
“Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified.  It comes from Psalm 131:8, and the “ark” here is understood in Eastern Orthodoxy as a reference to Mary.

Next is Moses:


His scroll reads:

Аз тя купину прозвах ….”
Az tya kupinu prozvakh …
“I called you Bush ….”
That refers to the “Burning Bush” Moses saw in the Old Testament.

Then comes Isaiah:


His scroll reads:

Се, Дева во чреве приимет и родит Сына.
Se, Deva vo chreve priimet i rodit suina.
“Behold, the virgin has conceived and shall give birth to a son….”  It comes from Isaiah 7:14.

Then follows Nahum. 


His scroll reads:

Горы потрясошася от Него, и холми поколебашася.
Gorui potryasoshasya ot nego, i khlmi pokolebashasya.
“The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away.”
Nahum 1:5

At upper right is Tsar Solomon — King Solomon:


His scroll reads:

Премудрость созда себе храм.
Premudrost’ sozda sebe khram.
“Wisdom has built herself a temple.”
It comes from Proverbs 9:1.

Now I hope you know that “Wisdom” is Jesus, in Eastern Orthodox interpretation.  And perhaps you will recall that while some icons say Wisdom built herself a temple (khram), others say house (dom).  The Old Believers liked to say “temple.”

Next comes the prophet Daniel:


His scroll seems to have a little error in it.  The text written is:

Азъ Тя прозвах Дево чистая гору разумех
But the writer seems to have mixed two variant texts.  Usually it should read:

Аз гору тя разумех дева чистая
Az goru tya razumekh deva chistaya
“I contemplated you as a mountain, pure virgin.”
It refers to the story of the stone cut from a mountain, found in Daniel 2:31-36. 

Next comes the prophet Ezekiel. 


Here too the writer of the text seems to have erred.  Ezekiel’s scroll here reads:

Се Бог наш, и не приложится ин к Нему
Se Bog nash, i ne prilozhitsya ni k nemu.
“Behold our God, and will not be added to him.”  One could also say “Behold our God, and there is no other like him.”
That comes from the Kontakion, voice 3, for the commemoration of Jeremiah on May 14th Old Style, May 1 New Style.  So of course it is a text commonly found with Jeremiah, not Ezekiel. It comes ultimately from Baruch 3:36:

Сей Бог наш, не вменится ин к Нему.
Sey Bog nash, ne vmenitsya ni k nemu.
Behold our God, and no other can be compared to him.”

Below Ezekiel is the prophet Elijah:


His scroll has the text commonly associated with him:

Ревнуя поревновах по Господе Бозе Вседержители ….
Revnuya porevnovakh po Gospde Boze Vsederzhiteli ….
“I have been very jealous for the Lord God Almighty .…”
It comes from 1 Kings 19:10.

An finally, at bottom center, is the prophet Avvakum/Habakkuk:


His text too is standard for him:

Бог от юга приидет ….
Bog ot iuga priidet ….
“God comes from the South ….”
It comes from Habakkuk 3:3.

Here is the central Znamenie image of Mary:


And here is the image of Lord Sabaoth at the top:


Now if you look at the clouds and leaves around Lord Sabaoth, you will see that there is noticeable loss of paint.  There is a good reason for that.  Gold leaf actually makes a very unstable surface on which to paint, and the difference in expansion with heat and cold often loosens the paint from the gold leaf beneath it, and makes the paint scratch and flake very easily.

Perhaps you noticed the similarity of the Kurskaya icon and the “Praise of the Most Holy Mother of God” (Похвала Пресвятыя Богородицы / Pokhvala Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui) type, which also has prophets around an image (usually seated) of Mary.  Be careful not to confuse them.




Today’s image is not strictly an icon: instead, it is Western European religious art — part of an impressive “Jesse Tree” (genealogy of Jesus in “tree” form) mural on the wooden ceiling of the Michaelis Kirche (St. Michael’s Church) in Hildesheim, Germany. A reader recently asked me a question about one segment of the ceiling — the image of Mary:

The question was this: Who are the four figures in the corners?

Well, first a bit about the central image of Mary. She sits holding a spindle in her right hand and a ball of reddish yarn in her left — a notion that goes back to the apocryphal story that she wove the purple thread for the curtain in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Now, as to the figures in the corners, one might mistakenly think they are saints because each has a halo. That is not the case. Actually they are symbols of the Four Cardinal Virtues. At upper left is Courage, dressed as a warrior. At upper right is Justice, holding the scales. At lower left is Temperance, pouring water from one jug to another; and finally at lower right we see Prudence, holding a dove in the right hand and a serpent in the left. The symbolism for Prudence comes from Matthew 10:16:

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

The word the King James Bible here renders as “wise” is found in the Latin Vulgate Bible as “prudent”:

Ecce ego mitto vos sicut oves in medio luporum estote ergo prudentes sicut serpentes et simplices sicut columbae.

“Behold, I send you as sheep amid wolves; be therefore prudent as serpents and simple as doves.”

The 13th century wooden ceiling was painted for the Romanesque church by an anonymous artist about 1230. Fortunately, the ceiling was protected during the 2nd World War, and survived allied bombing. War was ever the enemy of art.


For those of you beginning to learn to read Church Slavic icon inscriptions, this is a good practice icon. It is a 19th century Old Believer icon, so the painting is traditional.

(Courtesy of

As you see, some name inscriptions are in the halo; others are above a saint, and still others are in the outer border. This icon has a recessed “ark.” If you don’t know what an “ark” (kovcheg) is, look it up in the archives search box.

Here are the saints on the left side:

At top is the “Holy Guardian Angel.”

Below are “Holy Venerable Evdokiya (Eudocia)” and “Holy Martyr Iustiniya (Justinia).”

Then come “Holy Martyr Trifon (Triphon)” and “Holy Great Martyr Artemiy (Artemios).”

On the right side:

“Holy Martyr Agafiya (Agatha)”

“Holy Great Martyr Varvara (Barbara); “Venerable Mariya Egipetskaya (Mary of Egypt)

“Holy Great Martyr Dimitry Solunskiy (Demetrius of Thessalonika); “Venerable Anufriy the Great (Onuphrios).

At the top is Jesus in the clouds, blessing with both hands.

Venerable Priest-martyr Kiprian (Cyprian); “Venerable Priest-martyr Zinoviy (Zenobius) of Aegea.”

And finally, at bottom center, is “Holy Vasiliy (Basil) the Great,” with his right hand blessing in the position characteristic of the Old Believers.


Russian Orthodox believers can range from the liberal to the ultra-conservative — the latter being essentially Fundamentalists with robes and incense and icons.  And there are the Old Believers that went their own way when the Russian Orthodox Church split in the middle of the 1600s.

I always find it peculiarly amusing that icons painted in the traditional stylized manner are so popular today.  That manner was — after the middle of the 17th century — kept alive largely by the Old Believers, and most people have no idea how very ultra-conservative the Old Believers were.  They were (and generally are), in modern terms, radical fundamentalists.  Their world view was largely medieval, and they became stuck, mentally, in the middle of the 17th century.

Some might liken them, in certain respects, to the Amish of the United States, who like to keep themselves separate from “the world.”  Old Believers traditionally consider those not of their belief system to be part of the evil world, and that extends even to the Russian Orthodox State Church, which caused the schism  when Patriarch Nikon began “reforms” that changed Orthodox Church rites and symbols and texts to fit what he thought were the “correct” forms of the Greek Orthodox of the time.

To Old Believers, changes that we would consider unimportant today were a horrifying sign that heresy had entered the Russian Orthodox Church.  After Nikon’s changes were pushed through against Old Believer protests, they did not immediately give up hope of returning Russia to the old ways.  And because there was no real separation of Church and State in the Russia of those days, the Old Believers were terribly persecuted, and had their martyrs.  The leader of the anti-reform movement — the Protopop (Archpriest) Avvakum — was eventually burnt at the stake.

After Nikon was deposed, his “reforms” were carried on.

Here we need to pause and look at the succession of Patriarchs of Moscow and All Russia from Nikon:

Nikon: Patriarch from 1652-1666
Pitirim: Temporarily filled the duties of office after Nikon voluntarily left Moscow:
Ioasaf II:  Patriarch from January 1667-February 1672
Pitirim: Formerly temporary, appointed as Patriarch July 1672-April 1673
Joachim: Patriarch from July 1674-March 1690

We also need to know what was going on in the Tsarist regime:

Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich: July 1645 – January 1676
Tsar Feodor III Alekseevich: January 1676 –  May 1682
Tsar Peter I Alekseevich (Peter the Great):  May 1682 – November 1721

But in the reign of Peter, there is a complication.  There was a regency controlling Russia.  That took place thus:

Tsaritsa Dowager Natalia, Regent: 7 May – 2 June 1682
Princess Sophia, Regent: 8 June 1682 – 17 September 1689
There was also a co-ruler: Ivan V, Peter’s half brother: from 26 May 1682-8 February 1696

Now there was lots of political and religious (which also tended to be political) jockeying for power in this period, both in the Patriarchate and in the Tsarist regime.  If you read the history of the times, it is full of “Byzantine” intrigue and political murders and conspiracies.

For now, however, we need to know that In July of 1682 Princess Sophia was Regent — for all practical purposes, though not officially — Tsaritsa — “Empress.”

In the time from Nikon’s patriarchate to that of Joachim, these significant events happened:

The uprising of the Old Believer monks of the Solovetskiy Monastery, supported by the workers and peasants of the region (yes, that is the monastery associated with Sts. Zosima and Savvatiy), and the siege of the Monastery by Tsarist forces from the summer of 1668-1676.  In January of 1676 a monk named Feoktist betrayed the monks, and the Tsarist forces entered the monastery with great violence.  Out of some 600 monks, only 50 were left alive.

The Boyarina Morozova, a wealthy advocate of Avvakum and the Old Belief, died of starvation in prison with her sister and fellow noblewoman Maria Danilova.

1682:  Protopop (Archpriest) Avvakum Petrov, the chief opponent of Nikon and his “reforms” after years of exile, imprisonment and suffering, was burnt at the stake April 14, 1682.

Along with other tortures and executions, these were just the tip of the iceberg of the persecutions of the Old Believers by the joint actions of the State Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist regime.

  There was an attempt on July 5th, 1682 by the Old Believer leader and priest Nikita Dobrynin to argue the Old Belief against the Nikonian reforms supported by the new Patriarch Joachim.  It took place in the Imperial Chambers of the Faceted Palace in Moscow, and it appeared for a brief time that the Old Believers had been successful in gaining the upper hand; but this was not just about religion.  It was also about power and politics, and though quite a number of the Streltsy (the Russian firearm infantry) had supported Nikita and his Old Believer views, there was heavy bribery of both officers and soldiers by Princess Sophia, backed by the nobles.  The Streltsy changed sides, and betrayed the Old Believers.

Here is a later painting depicting the confrontation in the Faceted Chamber between the fervent Old Believer advocate Nikita Dobrynin and Patriarch Joachim.  Accounts of the event say that Nikita became rather violent, and in a rage hurled insults at the Patriarch — but it is not easy to tell what is historically factual, and what is State Church/Tsarist propaganda about the confrontation.


(Artist: Vasiliy Grigorevich Perov, 1834-1882: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

On one side we see Patriarch Joachim and Princess Sophia with nobles:


And on the other we see Nikita, being held back in his fervent advocacy of the old ways.  Note that Nikita — with his wild and intent look — holds the “eight-pointed” cross that Old Believers consider to be one of the marks of the true belief.  The fellow with ragged garments and a long beard beside Nikita wears the lestovka — the Old Believer prayer rope — at his waist.


Behind them are even more supporters of the old ways, holding icons and a very large processional “eight-pointed” cross.  And we see one of the Streltsy in his red cape and helmet, his rifle in his left hand:


The Old Believers read their petition concerning the changes made in the liturgical books, though Princess Sophia kept interrupting with negative remarks.  Then when the matter of the position of the fingers in blessing was raised (remember that this position is a key characteristic of Old Believer icons), the Old Believers all simultaneously raised their right hands in the old blessing position and shouted “Сице, сице…”  — “Thus, thus,” which startled the opposition.

The ultimate result of the palace “debate” was that Nikita Dobrynin was beheaded on July 11, 1682, for his attempt to restore the old ways; his remains were thrown to the dogs. Other supporters were sent into exile.  Prince Ivan Khovanskiy — who had also favored the Old Belief, was also executed. The Old Believers — having neither political sophistication nor strong support among the nobility — recognized that they had failed.  A new law instigated by Princess Sophia in 1685 severely punished those who dared hold to the Old Belief with whippings, imprisonment, and confiscation of their goods.

It was at this time the Old Believers saw clearly — in their way of thinking — that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist regime had fallen to the Antichrist.  Old Believers regarded themselves as the last true Christians in the world. They left Moscow and other major cities where they were in danger of arrest, and fled to regions where they might be safer from the persecutions of Church and State.  Some went deep into the Russian forests.  Others began communities in the far northwestern Pomore (“On the Sea”) region, where a community of the Old Belief was founded on the Vuig/Vyg River.  Other communities were formed, as readers here already know because of their icon painting, in places such as Nevyansk in the Urals, and Starodub in what today is Belarus, as well as the many other settlements extending even into the wilds of Siberia.

In spite of centuries of persecution, the Old Believers still survive today, both in Russia and outside it.  I am in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and there is an Old Believer community about a 45-minute drive south of where I live.  There they still speak Russian and wear old-style Russian garments, and preserve the old rituals and preference for the old manner of icon painting.