Here is an icon from the year 1896:
There are some things we can tell immediately. first, from the realistic “westernized” style of painting, we know this is a State Church icon, and not an Old Believer image.
Second, from the style of painting and the elaborate gilt incised decoration and the ornate enamel and gilt silver cover, we know that it was painted sometime near the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th. And in fact that icon is dated in two places — both in a handwritten inscription attached to the reverse and in the silver hallmarks stamped into the metal cover.
Here is what the icon looks like with its ornate cover removed:
It shows the incised intertwining border ornamentation and slightly arched border top characteristic of many icons of the late 19th to beginning of the 20th century.
If it were not for the title inscription, we would likely have no idea who the saint represented is — though what he is holding gives a slight clue.
He holds a pen and a scroll — but there is no writing visible on the scroll. And prayer beads hang from his left wrist.
To see who he is, let’s look at the title inscription. It is on the left and right sides of his head.
Here is the left side:
Well, I hope you remember that Prepodobnuiy — which we loosely translate as “Venerable,” though it really means “Most-like” — is the title used for male monastics — for monks. So this fellow is a monk named Nestor
And here is the right side:
Leto in Church Slavic means “year,” though in later Russian it means “summer.” Here it is spelled with that Church Slavic letter ѣ for the “ye” sound that is not used in modern Russian, so though it looks like leto in the transliteration, it is actually pronounced lyeto. A pisets is a writer. And Pecherskiy tells us this fellow was associated with the famous Pecherskaya Lavra — the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv/Kiev, Ukraine.
So if we put it all together, we get:
“Venerable Nestor Year-writer.”
But what is a year-writer? He is one who keeps the records of events of the years — in other words, a chronicler, and in fact that is how he is known in English: Nestor the Chronicler.
Very little is known for certain about Nestor. He is said to have been a monk for almost 40 years at the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv/Kiev, in the principality ruled by Svyatopolk II that was then known as Rus’ — in what is now Ukraine. But because the culture of Rus’ spread northward and eastward, he is popularly known as the “Father of Russian History” — though the events he chronicled long preceded the development of the Russian state. His life is placed in the late 11th to early 12th century. He is considered a saint in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and in the Russian Orthodox Church. Supposedly he and some other monks were also the discoverers of the remains of the two founders of the Monastery of the Caves, the monks Antoniy and Feodosiy.
It is to Nestor that the chronicle known as The Tale of Bygone Years — Povyest’ Vremennuikh” Lyet (Повѣсть времяньныхъ лѣтъ;) — is attributed, and he is thought to have written it about 1112-1113, and he died about 1114 and was buried in the “Near Caves” of the Pecherskaya Lavra. This book — also sometimes called the “Russian Primary Chronicle” — tells us of the early beginnings of what later became Ukraine — and by cultural extension, of Russia. In it we learn of how Great Prince Vladimir converted (by enforced decree) the people of Rus’ to the Eastern Orthodox belief, and of the lives of such people as the dangerous Princess Olga and the first Russian princely martyr brothers Boris and Gleb — and much more.
It begins “Here is the tale of bygone years, concerning the origin of the Land of Rus’, who first were princes in Kiev, and how the Land of Rus’ came to be.” And then (rather amazingly, to modern eyes), it begins with the division of the “lands of earth” after the flood of Noah, by his sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth.
Now there is some controversy as to whether Nestor actually wrote the Chronicle himself, or whether he edited it together from various earlier writings by others. Additional events were added after his death. There is also ongoing controversy over whether the events recorded in the Chronicle actually happened as told, or whether they were heavily fictionalized.
Here is the depiction of the baptism into Christianity of Great Prince Vladimir (who is a saint in Russian Orthodoxy). It comes from the 15th century Radziwiłł Chronicle, which expands The Tale of Bygone Years with additional information.