Do you recall the recent posting on the tantalizing icon from Count Stroganov’s collection depicting the moving of the relics of St. Nicholas from Myra in Turkey to Bari in Italy?  You will find it here:


It is interesting to compare that older example —

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

… with this more recent example from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century:

(Courtesy of

The saints in the border of the second icon are Venerable Antoniy, Venerable Evdokiya/Eudocia, Right-believing Prince Alexander, and the Martyr and Unmercenary Physician Panteleimon.

The “Moving of the Relics of St. Nicholas” is commemorated on May 9th in Russian Orthodoxy, and the Svodnuiy Ikonopisnuiy Podlinnik entry for that day tells us it is to be painted like this:

“The city of Bari stands by the sea, and on the sea is a ship; in the city are churches, palaces and towers. From the city stream bishops, priests, monks, deacons, and all churchly ranks, with candles, censers and with crosses, and a multitude of people, men, women, and children. And the casket with the body of Bishop Nicholas is carried by priests and deacons.”

It adds a number of the physically afflicted kneeling and crawling on the ground toward the casket of Nicholas.

Now if we compare the two icons, we can see that the later example omits the ships on the sea at left, and the earlier example omits the kneeling afflicted.

Now what is the “Moving of the Relics of St. Nicholas” type all about? Well, actually it is a kind of historical whitewashing job. The relics were not simply “moved.” They were stolen. The theft of the bodily remains of Nicholas was a part of the huge trade in relics that developed in Christianity. Relics were a valuable commodity, and the more famous the saint, the higher the value of the relics.

Nicholas is known as the patron of sailors. His remains were kept in the port city of Myra in Turkey, now called Demre. Relics were money in the bank for the place that had them, because they drew pilgrims and wealthy donors. And they were extremely important status and prestige symbols for the town having them. The story is that sailors from the Italian town of Bari were in Antioch. There they heard a rumor that Venetians were planning to sail to Myra and steal the relics of the most venerated saint in Christianity below Mary — St. Nicholas. There was much competition among cities at that time for important relics, and the enterprising sailors of Bari — later said to have been hired by their home town — or even by the Pope — decided that they would prevent the Venetian theft by stealing the relics themselves. The Venetians had already earlier stolen the body of St. Mark the Evangelist (well, at least something that was so identified — fakery was a big part of the relic trade). The merchants and sailors of Bari were not about to let their more northerly rival have the body of Nicholas as well.

So it is said that in the spring of 1087, three ships from Bari arrived in the port of Myra. A host of well-armed men came from the ships by night, slipped into the city and to the church where the relics were kept. There they subdued and tied up the monks keeping watch, broke into the sarcophagus and removed the bones, which they then took aboard ship and sailed back to Bari. Apparently they did not quite get all the bones, because later the Venetians showed up and took what was left. So Bari and Venice both claimed relics of St. Nicholas, though today Bari seems to get the greater credit. Sometimes the excuse for the theft is made that it was to save the relics from the Turks.

An anonymous and detailed account of the theft is found in a 13th century Greek manuscript, and you will find a translation of it here:

One might therefore reasonably call the icon type “The Successful Theft of the Purported Relics of St. Nicholas.” But of course no one is going to be so blatantly honest on an icon.


Today we will look at a well-painted late example of a very popular icon type:  “The Fiery Ascension of the Holy Prophet Elijah,” as the title inscription tells us:


(Courtesy of

It reads:


Now as I have mentioned before, the Bible has a very simplistic, pre-scientific view of the cosmos.  Heaven is the sky.  God lives in the sky.  So to get to heaven, one has to rise up into the sky.  That is what we see in the story of the Ascension of Jesus — who rises up into the sky and is hidden by a cloud — and that is what we find in the tale depicted at the top of this icon of Elijah.  Of course astronomy has shown that one can travel vast interstellar distances and still find no Heaven, but the Bible comes from a time when people did not know that.  So it seemed possible then for someone to ride up to Heaven in a fiery chariot. 

The icon shows us three scenes from the Old Testament tale of Elijah.  Chronologically, the first is the feeding of Elijah by a raven, as described in I Kings 17:

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except according to my word.

And the word of the Lord came to him, saying,

Go you forth, and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.

And it shall be, that you shall drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.

So he went and did according to the word of the Lord: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.

And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank of the brook.


The second scene is the angel waking the sleeping Elijah, as found in 1 Kings 19:

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.

And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said to him, Arise and eat.



The third scene is the parting of the waters of the Jordan River when Elijah strikes the river with is mantle, as described in 2 Kings 2:

And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood to view afar off: and they two stood by Jordan.

And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.

Note how the painter has depicted the river in a downward flowering series of lines and swirls.  And look also at the miniaturized trees in the background landscape.


Finally we come to the scene that gives the icon its title: Elijah ascending to Heaven in a fiery chariot, as described in 2 Kings 2:

11 And it happened, as they still went on and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and tore them in two pieces.

13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;


In this example, the reins of the fiery horses are held by a flying angel.


Elijah, sitting in his boxy little chariot, drops his mantle down to his disciple Elisha:


Elisha reaches up to catch the mantle dropped down by Elijah:


Lord Sabaoth in the clouds at upper left blesses and waits to receive the ascending Elijah:


In Russia, Elijah became essentially the very grouchy god of thunder, lightning and rain, replacing the old pre-Christian god Perun.  One had to be very careful not to offend Elijah.  His fiery chariot made thunder as it rolled across the sky, and it contained barrels of water that held the rain.  If Elijah saw demons on earth, he would send down lightning to strike them.  It was believed that during a thunderstorm one should go inside, because outside demons were running about to escape Elijah.  They would take the forms of animals and snakes.  So  pets should not be allowed in the house during a thunderstorm, because they might bring demons indoors. People prayed to Elijah when rain was needed for the crops, and they prayed to him when there was too much rain.  They believed Elijah existed in two manifestations.  If clear and sunny weather was needed for the fields, they prayed to Илья Сухой/Il’ya Sukhoy — “Dry Elijah.”  And if the fields were too dry and rain was needed, they prayed to Илья Мокрый/Il’ya Mokruiy — “Wet Elijah.”  In Pskov even two churches dedicated to Elijah were built: one for Dry Elijah and one for Wet Elijah.

Il’ya’s Day — the commemoration of the Prophet Elijah — takes place on July 20th, August 2nd by the old calendar.

To finish with today’s icon, we need only identify the “family” saints in the left and right borders.  At left is the Guardian Angel:


And at right is Great Martyr Dmitriy Solunskiy — Demetrios of Thessaloniki.



On seeing this fellow with his gaunt face, ragged long hair, and scraggly beard, one might easily think it is an icon of John the Forerunner (the Baptist). 



If we look at the whole icon, however, two things tell us this is not John: his garments and his name inscription.  John the Forerunner wears a wild and hairy garment and a green outer robe, while this fellow is in tidy clothing with a collar.  And the title inscription tells us exactly who he is intended to be.


(Courtesy of

Here is the left part of the inscription:


And here is the right side:


Together — wIth the abbreviations expanded — they read:



You may find the name in various sources as Alexiy, Aleksiy, Alexei, Alexios, or Alexius.

So do Alexiy and John the Forerunner look alike? Truth told, their faces are exactly the same. Take the head of John the Forerunner, put him in a single garment with hands in the position shown in the icon above and you have Alexiy; or take Alexiy, put him in a hairy garment and green robe, and you have John the Forerunner.  

The Svodnuiy Ikonopisnuiy Podlinnik says of Alexiy, Man of God that he is to be painted with:

брадою и власами аки Иоаннъ Предтеча
Bradoiu i vlasami aki Ioann” Predtecha
“Beard and hair like John the Forerunner.”

As I have said many times here, most depictions of saints in icons are entirely imaginary, so don’t be surprised at this re-use of faces.  When you look at the saints in icons, for the most part you are not looking at the actual features of real people, though there are a few and mostly very late exceptions.

So who was Alexiy? Well, first of all, in the earliest description he is anonymous — not even named. It is supposed that his origin is to be found in a Syriac legend written in the latter half of the 400s. It tells that a poor begger lived in the Christian city of Edessa when Rabula was bishop (412-435). There he begged at the door of the church, and divided what he was given among the poor, only keeping a little for himself for basic needs. Eventually dying in a hospice, he was given a pauper’s burial. Supposedly before he died, he told an aid at the church that he was the only son of wealthy parents in Rome. And when the Bishop heard of this and went to investigate the grave, only the rags the beggar had worn were found there.

As happens with hagiography, the legend was later expanded in a Greek version written as a hymn by the hymnographer Josephus (died 883). It gives the previously anonymous begger the name Alexios, and says his father was a well-to-do Roman named Euphemianos. This Alexios/Alexiy was to be married, but at night he ran away from his father’s palatial home and went all the way to Edessa in Syria. There he lived a poor and ascetic life for some seventeen years. As obvious pious ascetics were often the rock stars of their day, Alexios escaped his fame by going back to Rome, where for another seventeen years he lived in secret as a beggar under the stairs in his parent’s house. When he died — supposedly in 417 — a document revealing his parentage was found on his body. Consequently the home became a church dedicated to Alexios/Alexiy.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, prayers are made to Alexiy for healing of illness and grief, help in poverty, release from attachment to material things and to pride and vanity.

What do you learn from this? Don’t go by the face alone in identifying a saint. Look also at the clothing, and particularly at any name inscription that may be present. That is where knowing how to read basic Church Slavic and Greek icon inscriptions is very important and essential to any serious student of icons.