Most of us have never heard of the the saint depicted in this recent icon:  “Holy Vyacheslav, Prince of the Czechs”: (Святый Вя­че­слав КнязьЧеш­ский / Svyatuiy Vyacheslav Knyaz’ Cheshskiy).  Sometimes his name is found as Vecheslav.

He was always rather obscure in Eastern Orthodoxy.  In the Svodnuiy Ikonopisnuiy Podlinnik, he is not even given mention of a day of commemoration, other than that of the moving of his relics on March 4th.  So there are very few icons of him, and almost all you will see are quite recent.


Though we do not know him under that Russianized form of his name, he is actually very familiar to most of us in English-speaking countries — particularly at this time of the year — under the name “Good King Wenceslas.”

In 1853, a new Christmas carol appeared in the book Carols for Christmastide.  The words were written by the Englishman John Mason Neale, but the music to which it was set was the 14th century Latin song Tempus Adest Floridum.

Here are the words:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou knowst it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes fountain.
Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went
Forth they went together,
Through the rude winds wild lament
And the bitter weather.
Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winters rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his master’s step he trod
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing.
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

As you see, this song not only tells us of the goodness of Wenceslas, but also gives us the “miracle” of his footprints that warmed his following helper.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.”  Well, the Feast of Stephen is on December 26th, commemorating the traditional first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, whose death is described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles.

Now we must begin by saying that very little is known for certain about this Wenceslas/Vyacheslav.  In the Czech lands he would have been known by the name Venceslav, now found in the form Václav, pronounced Vatslav.

All the legends surrounding him are based on the life of Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, who is said to have lived from 907 to about 935.  This was in the days before the Great Schism split Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, but even in those times there was a struggle going on between the Eastern Orthodox and western Latin rites and authority in the Czech lands.

The life of Duke Wenceslas — posthumously given the title “King Wenceslas” by the Holy Roman Emperor, is sadly rather violent and took place in the midst of power struggles.

When Wenceslas reached the age of 18, he banished his regent mother and became ruler of half the country.  The other half was given to his younger brother Boleslaus, generally known as Boleslaus the Cruel.  Not without reason.  He formed a plot to kill Wenceslas.  On September 28, 935, Boleslaus and three cohorts attacked Wenceslas at the door of the church as he was going to mass, the three stabbing him and Boleslaus his brother thrusting a lance though his body.

Almost immediately after his death, the reputation of Wenceslas as a holy martyr began.  There were reports of miracles happening at his tomb.  And with that reputation went tales of his kindness and goodness, as expressed in the remarks of Cosmas of Prague in 1119:

His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Some think that because Wenceslas — according to tradition — so loved his page and valet Podiven, who was also later killed by Boleslaus for his devotion to Wenceslas, that he must have also been “Gay King Wenceslas.” My view is that in our time too strong a division is made between “straight” and “gay.” Those are rather artificial boxes into which we place people. Really it is not often an either/or matter, because sexuality is more a wide scale than a simple division, with people found at various points on it. Some prefer their own sex. Some prefer their own sex and the other sex. And some prefer only the other sex. And of course one can love someone of the opposite gender or the same gender without sex even entering into it. There can be love without sex; there can be sex without love. People are just people, whatever their sexual orientation or gender preference. What matters is not who you love or how you love, but that you love.

In the earliest account of the good deeds of Wenceslas, the squire who assisted him is not named. Later accounts give him the name Podiven. Remains said to be those of “Blessed” Podiven are interred in the same St. Vitus Cathedral where those of Wenceslas are kept.

So little is known historically about Wenceslas and his page that much of what is said of them comes from legend rather than history, but in any case the tale has provided us with one of the most beloved old Christmas carols.

Here is a Russian icon of Vyacheslav painted by Osip Chirikov close to 1900:


(State Hermitage Museum)

The inscription at the base reads:  Month of September, 28th Day.  That is the traditional date of the death of Vyacheslav.


As readers here already know, there was a huge split in the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 1600s.  Those who wanted to keep the traditional Russian Orthodox forms and rites and symbols considered the reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of the State Church to be heretical.  The State Church in turn considered the refusal of the Old Believers to accept the changes heretical, and severely persecuted the Old Believers.

In the painting of icons, these disagreements often were made very obvious after that schism.  The State Church began to paint icons in a more realistic manner similar to that used in Western European religious art.  The Old Believers kept to the old stylized manner of painting saints and scenes.

Oddly enough, today collectors and even neo-Orthodox in the West often prefer Old Believer icons to the more realistic State Church icons.

There are signs and clues that may be used to tell if an old icon is an Old Believer icon or a State Church icon  Among them is the frequency with which saints such as Kirik and Oulitta (Cyricus and Julitta) and St. Sophia and her daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity are found in Old Believer icons, as well as the frequency of icons of the Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah.

However there are also other and often more definitive signs to watch for.

Here are the most important:

First, an Old Believer icon will present the saints in a stylized manner rather than a realistic manner, as we see in this icon of St. Nicholas from the Vetka/Vyetka region:


Second, an Old Believer icon will use the IC XC abbreviation for the name of Jesus, not the IИС ХС of State Church icons.

Third, persons in an Old Believer icon will use the “two-fingered” sign of blessing, not the IC XC finger position used in State Church icons.

Here are more:

Old Believer icons often use the “animal” depictions of the Four Evangelists.  This was prohibited in State Church icons after 1722 by the Synodal Council of 1722.

When using the “animal” symbols for the Evangelists, Old Believers tend to depict Mark as an Eagle and John as a lion.  Late State Church icons tend to make John the eagle and Mark the lion.

When crosses are found in icons held by saints or on the domes of churches, etc., the Old Believers always use the “eight-pointed” cross, not the simpler “latin” cross.

Icons with a large amount of written text in the borders tend to be Old Believer icons.  That means text far beyond the usual name inscriptions of saints and the title of the icon.  Of course not all Old Believer icons included extensive border text, but when you do find it, it is likely from the Old Believers.

Because the Old Believers and State Church separated in the middle of the 17th century, Old Believer icons will not depict saints “glorified” (canonized) by the State Church after that time.  Nor will they depict icons of Mary new to the State Church after that time.

There are also differences in subject matter and preferences.

The Old Believers kept the old way of painting saints Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus) with horses and three riders given names.  The State Church prohibited the inclusion of horses and riders after 1722.

Icons of Christopher “Dog-head” (St. Christopher with the head of a dog) were prohibited by the State Church in 1722.  The Old Believers continued to use this traditional depiction.

The Old Believer saints Proto-priest Avvakum and the nun Feodora (Morozova), who defended the Old Belief at the time of the schism, are not found in State Church icons, because they were thought to be heretics.  The “Priestless” Old Believer saint Andrey Denisov is also not found in State Church icons.

The Old Believers continued certain traditional depictions of Jesus that were generally no longer favored by the State Church after the schism.  Prominent among these are:

The Wet-bearded Savior (Spas Mokraya Boroda).
The Fierce-eyed Savior (Spas Yaroe Oko), also called “Burning-eyed.”

Depictions of St. Nicholas “The Turner” (Otvratnuiy), showing Nicholas with an angry look and his face turned slightly to the right while his fierce-looking eyes look strongly toward the left are a distinctively Old Believer subject.

Icons of the Birth of Jesus depicting Mary as recovering from the birth while the midwife Salome washes the newborn Jesus were prohibited by the State Church Synodal decree of 1722, but this very old form continued to be used by the Old Believers.

Old Believer icons of the Resurrection depict it as the “Descent into Hades,” not as Jesus risen above his empty tomb, which the State Church painters borrowed from western European religious art.

The State Church also took a negative view in 1722 of icons depicting God the Father, among them the Otechestvo  — the “Fatherhood” or Paternity, icons depicting God the Father in the days of Creation, and God the Father breathing out from his mouth down to Mary in icons of the Annunciation.  The earlier “Stoglav” Council of Moscow had also prohibited the painting of God the Father, but large numbers of painters ignored the decree, and painted “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — in the way they had learned to paint him and had always done — as an old man.  And God the Father remains to this day a common image throughout the Eastern Orthodox countries, as it has been for many centuries.

In addition, certain subjects were favored by the Old Believers, while avoided by many State Church painters, among them:

The Ognevidnaya (“Fiery-faced” or “Seen as Fire”) icon type of Mary.

Similarly, the State Church in the 18th century frowned on icons of Mary as the “Unburnt Thornbush,” shown amid angels of the elements — a form that began in the second half of the 17th century — but it continued to be avidly painted by the Old Believers and was still beloved by many State Church buyers of icons as a supposed protection from fire.  Sometimes one finds greatly simplified versions of this type as a State Church form.

If you see an icon of Alexander Nevskiy clothed in royal or military garb, you will know it is not an Old Believer icon.  The Old Believers painted him in a monastic habit.

In icons of Modest/Medost, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Old Believers would paint him with cattle.  This was forbidden to State Church believers by decree in September of 1724.

Similarly, the State Church from about 1722 frowned in icons of Mary in the Troeruchitsa (“Three-handed”) type showing her with three “natural” hands, instead of making clear that the third hand was just an added votive emblem.  Of course the depiction of the third hand on Mary as “natural” began as a painter’s misunderstanding of the prototype.

The now very popular image of the Blessed Silence Savior (Spas Blagoe Molchanie) — Jesus depicted in angel form — is a typical Old Believer image not favored by the State Church, which did not like depicting Jesus in angel form.

Of course one must be careful, as the divisions between Old Believer and State Church icons were often not followed strictly by State Church painters and State Church believers buying new icons.  There were controversies even with the State Church, such as those who frowned on John the Forerunner being painted with wings, or icons including Mary painted with wings.   But these general guidelines should offer help in recognizing Old Believer icons as distinct from State Church icons after the 17th century schism and particularly after the State Church Synodal decrees of 1722.



(Courtesy of

Fantasy and superstition are heavily woven into the fabric of icon history and veneration.  Among all the various beliefs associated with icons are a number of superstitions about their use that continue even today.  The student of icons should be aware of these.

Here are some of them:

If a man wearing a hat comes into a room in which an icon is kept, he must remove his hat, otherwise the owners of the house will have misfortune.  Also the person wearing the hat will have bad luck and may go insane.

One should not curse or swear or spit anywhere near an icon, or there will be supernatural punishment.

Icons are preferably placed on a shelf rather than hung.  Some say that hanging an icon is too much like Judas hanging himself, and in any case, a shelf is believed to be more secure and respectful.

An icon that falls from a wall or shelf is a bad sign.  If it does not break, it is a warning to change one’s ways.  If it is an icon of Mary, it means troubles or disease will strike the family.  The same if an icon of Nicholas falls, which can also signify material loss.  If an icon breaks apart from the fall, it means death is coming to the family.  Some think a falling icon is a sign that evil has tried to enter the house, so those in the house must repent and behave.  This is particularly associated with the “Semistrelnaya” type of Mary.  A fallen icon should be asked for forgiveness, with a candle burned before it.

If one is writing a will or bequeathing one’s possessions, the first decision to be made is who will get one’s icons.

If a crack appears in an icon,  it is a serious warning of misfortune coming, so one should repent and pray.

If an icon is found, it might be a good event or a bad event.  Because one does not know who owned the icon previously, and whether it was consecrated, it is a risky matter.  The icon might transmit bad influences if it came from an evil person or was not consecrated.  To be safe, the found icon should not be brought into the house or it might bring bad luck.  It should be handled with a cloth or gloves, and must first be taken to a church to be consecrated, then it may be taken home.

If an icon is bought anywhere other than a church, it must be taken to a church for consecration.  Otherwise the icon “will not work” when one prays to it.

Icons should be accepted as gifts only from very close people such as parents and grandparents, etc.  However, if the icon is known to have been consecrated, it may be accepted from someone else.  Some also say it is acceptable to receive an icon as a gift if the one giving has “pure thoughts.”

Icons should not be given as gifts to those who might not appreciate them or to non-Eastern Orthodox believers.  Icons should not be given to people of bad behavior in the belief that it might cause them to change their ways.  Instead they may just disrespect the icon.

Old or damaged icons should not be thrown away, broken up, or burned, because that brings serious misfortune and unhappiness.  Instead, such icons should either be restored or else put into storage, or placed in a tree somewhere, or be allowed to float away on water.  This belief likely accounts for those tales of supposedly “miraculous” icons found in trees or in or by rivers, etc.

When a house is to be built, an icon should be placed on the construction site, along with bread and water.

When the new house is built, before the residents move in, an icon should be first brought into the house  and placed in the icon corner before any people enter.

If a house catches on fire, the icon or icons should be taken out first.  If the icon is then carried around the house, the fire might then go out on its own.  But as one source cautions, “You should not particularly expect that to happen.”

Many Russian Orthodox believers still take these warnings very seriously, and often experience severe worry and stress if one of the negative icon “omens” occurs.


As you know, the most famous icon in Russian history and legend is the Vladimirskaya, which is believed to have come to Russia via Kyiv from Byzantium. The date of painting is generally considered to be about 1131-1136.

And also as you know, very little of the early painting remains. Almost nothing is left of the original but the face of Mary and the face of Jesus seen in the detail below. So old and supposedly “miracle-working” icons, in spite of their legendary status, do not hold up very well over centuries of veneration and overpainting.


Similarly, you may recall another legendary supposed “wonderworking” icon:  The Znamenie Novgorodskaya — or to put it in plain English, the “Sign” icon type of Novgorod.  It was discussed in the earlier posting on palladium icons:


The Znamenie icon is generally dated to the first half of the 1100s, and was painted in the northern trading city of Novgorod. It is in even worse condition than the Vladimirskaya. Of the icon you see below, only fragments of the headcovering of Mary (the maphorion) and bits of her other clothing, as well as parts of the circle in which the image of the child Jesus is set, remain of the original. The rest is later overpainting:

The Znamenie was originally a processional icon atop a long handle, and it is painted with another image on the reverse side.  The main figures are male and female saints, and because they have no titles, no one is quite sure who they are, though speculation is that they might be Joachim and Anna (the parents of Mary), or they might be St. Peter and St. Natalya. 


In any case, it was the side with the “Sign” image of Mary that became famous.

Now it is not hard to see that the “Sign” icon is a shorter version of the standing type of Mary known as the “Great Panagia,” also known in Greek iconography as “Wider than the Heavens.  Here is a 13th century example:


Note that in the “Great Panagia,” the hands of the child Jesus are stretched out to the sides in blessing, unlike the position in the “Sign.” 

We find the same thing in this Yaroslavl icon from the 13th century of the type known as Воплощение/Voploshchenie — “The Incarnation.”  Notice that there is no circle around the child Jesus.


In the Znamenie type however, Jesus has his right hand raised in blessing, and he holds a rolled scroll (signifying teaching) in his left.

But now to the real subject of today’s posting.  In the image of the original Znamenie icon above, you will note four saints at the sides.  It is believed they were later added to the image in the 1500s, and there are no name inscriptions remaining with them. There are many copies made of that “Sign” icon, and most of them just ignore the saints on the sides, omitting them and showing only the central image — like the example below:

(Courtesy of

  There are, however, some icons that do include the four saints, though the painters making the copies were often not entirely sure who they were, so sometimes they are named differently.

We see them in this example of the Znamenie Novgorodskaya painted in 1727:

They are:

Top left:  Great Martyr George:


Top right:  Great Martyr Iakov/Jacob/James of Persia:

Lower left:  Makariy/Macarius of Alexandria


And at lower right: Onufriy/Onuphrios the Great:


Now as mentioned, there are no remaining name inscriptions on the four border saints in the original Znamenie Novgorodskaya, so the titles given them in various copies are later guesses.  And painters sometimes guessed differently, or even deliberately changed one saint to another.  For example, instead of Makariy of Egypt, we may find Peter of Athos/Peter the Athonite.

Here is a later example giving the same identification of Georgiy, Iakov/Jacob/James, Makariy and Onuphriy:


Here, however, is an icon in which  Georgiy and Iakov have been replaced by the unmercenary saints Kosma/Cosmas and Damian, and Makariy is replaced by Petr/Peter of Athos:


(Belgian Private Collection)

Here is Kozma/Cosmas. As you can see, his garments are much like those of Georgiy:

And here is Damian:


At lower left is Onufriy/Onuphrios the Great:


And at lower right is Petr/Peter of Athos:


In spite of these border variations, such icons are still classified from the main central image as Znamenie Novgorodskaya icons.

As is sometimes the case with icons that became famous for their reputed abilities to work miracles, the Znamenie type has several “spinoffs” — icons of the type that have become noted on their own.  In fact there are at least 13 of these, so one must be aware of that when identifying individual icons. Continue reading “BORDER VARIATIONS”