Here is an icon type you will recognize if you have been a long-time reader here (and are still of sound mind, if anyone who has read this site thoroughly can be). The 19th century example is from the Guslitsa settlement of Old Believers who were largely popovtsui — “Priested” Old Believers. Guslitsa / Гуслица (in the Moscow area) was a village well known for its massive production of cast metal icons, but it was — along with other settlements like Vetka and Nevyansk — a center of Old Believer icon painting — the “Guslitsa School.”

One of the characteristics of many Old Believer icons is the use of a lot of text on and in the borders of an icon, and you can easily see that is the case here with the extensive writing on this image.

I will not dwell on the meaning of the iconography, which is self-explanatory if you have read my previous posting on the “Ladder” type:


It is worth noting, however, that this example gives numbers to the rungs of the ladder (the “steps to heaven”) in accordance with those in the book by John Klimakos/Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  The Cyrillic number letters are just to the left of the ladder, and their descriptions to the right:


Moving from the rather stiff and primitive-looking traditional Russian examples of the “Ladder” type to those of the Cretan School can be a bit of a jolt. Look at this Italo-Cretan example from 1663:

(Istituto Ellenico, Venice)

You will recognize this as also an icon of the “Ladder of John Klimakos/Climacus” type.

Let’s take a look at the inscriptions, first the one identifying the main figure seated at lower right:

The first two words at the top are abbreviations for:

And the next four words are:

Αnd indeed that is what John is doing; he is sitting there writing his book The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

But who painted this icon?  If we look just to the left of John’s feet, we can see a signature inscription:




Or in normal English, “Emmanuel Tzanes the Priest made it.”

Note the date in Greek number letters below the words. It gives us this:
α χ ξ Γ

It is dated by the Western calendar, not the old system from the creation of the world, and you can easily read it if you look at this table of Greek letter numbers. Just remember that γ is the small form of the letter Γ (gamma):

So this is an icon of the noted painter Emmanuel Tzanes (1610 – 1690), who was born in Rethymno[n], Crete, but left Crete about 1646 when it was captured by the Ottoman Turks (muslims). He lived eight years on Corfu, and then moved on to Venice, where in 1666 he was made priest of the Greek Orthodox church San Georgio dei Greci (St. George of the Greeks). He spent the rest of his life in Venice, and that is why — though he is a Cretan School painter, he is also referred to as an Italo-Cretan painter. As was common with Cretan School artists, he painted icons both for Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic customers.

Cretan School painters were influenced by Italian Renaissance art they were exposed to on the island of Crete, which at that time was under the control of Venice, and of course those who lived in Venice had access to Italian works there. We see that softening influence in this icon.

The little church on the hill looks like an Italian village church, quite unlike the impossible perspective we see in buildings in Russian icons:

His angels have a gentle, loving look, instead of the usual severity of angels in Byzantine and Russian traditional iconography:


And of course the lines and folds of their garments are loose and flowing, unlike the sharp angularity so often seen in traditional Greek and Russian icons.

Even the demons harassing the monks climbing the ladder to heaven look more western than eastern:

ioklimakiotzanesdet5Screen Shot 2022-01-28 at 12.25.30 PM

Though the hills in the foreground on the right still have a strong “stepped” look, they are softened a bit, and if we look at those in the background, they approach a realism quite unlike those in traditional Eastern Orthodox art:


At the top, we see the monks who have avoided all the pitfalls and temptations of life being welcomed to heaven by a gentle-faced Jesus:

And note the angel beside Jesus is holding a “Latin” style cross, not the eight-pointed cross found in traditional Russian iconography.

At bottom left we see a monk who has fallen from the ladder dropping head-first into the smoky, open Jaws of Hades.  This depiction of the entrance to Hades as the mouth of a giant monster — the so-called “Hellmouth” — was adopted into Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” (the “Last Judgment) from the West, and is common in Old Believer depictions of that type.  It is an image that seems to have first appeared in British and other western European medieval art.


So as you can see, Tzanes developed an interesting look to icons by his addition of a little “Italian seasoning.”

Now that you have read through this, you may go make yourself a big, steaming plate of spaghetti.


You will perhaps recognize the icon above as a Ukrainian folk icon. It depicts “The Lord Almighty,” and the text on the gospels is an unusual one, but appropriate for the present situation on the borders of Ukraine. It is:


It is taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and you may recall that it was these words that sent the Pilgrim in the book “The Way of a Pilgrim” (Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father” / Откровенные рассказы странника духовному своему отцу) off on his spiritual journey.

At present the difficulty is that Mr. Putin cannot seem to keep his hands off his neighbors. I am sure you all hope with me that the buildup of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border does not lead to invasion or the seizing of territory and the pointless loss of many lives — both Russian and Ukrainian — and all the usual horrific mutilations and suffering that are the result of war. Let us all hope that common sense prevails, and that peace returns to the region and the right of Ukraine and other countries to independence and sovereignty in their own affairs will be respected.


No, it’s not a new alcoholic bar concoction. It is a saint who can be extremely confusing.

Why? Because she is also called Svetlana. And that’s not the end of it. This Photiniya/Svetlana is only one of three dual-named Photiniyas/Svetlanas found in iconography. And sometimes both names are used on the same icon, because Svetlana is just the Slavic form of Photiniya. So with these saints we have the same double name situation we find with saint Friday-Friday — Paraskeva Pyatnitsa. The problem arises partly because of the dual names, but mostly because of careless icon painters who do not always make clear which Photiniya/Svetlana they have painted. The iconography of the three has become unfortunately often mixed over the years. Sometimes the name Photiniya is found as Photina or Photini/Fotini.

Of course one would think the simple way to make clear which saint is depicted is to add a locator title — usually the last word in a name inscription, telling with what place the saint is associated. You will see how that works as we go through the three different saints:

First we have Photiniya/Svetlana Samaryanka (Фотиния/Светлан Самарянка). The Greeks call her Φωτεινὴ ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς ἡ Σαμαρείτιδα/Photeine he Megalomartys he Samareitida — Photina the Great Martyr and Samaritan. You will likely know her as “the woman at the well” in the biblical tale of Jesus and the woman at the well. She acquired a fictional hagiographic “life” that takes her story beyond the biblical account, which is why she is sometimes given the other locator title Rimskaya — “of Rome.” I discussed her previously in this posting:

Here is an obviously recent commercial icon that one would think would make it easy to know which Photiniya she is:


She holds a scroll reading:

господи, даждь ми сию воду, да ни жажду

The words are taken from John 4:15, the account of the conversation of Jesus with the “woman at the well.” She often also holds the cross of martyrdom in her right hand, because tradition has her martyred in Rome under the Emperor Nero.

Unfortunately, not all icons include her locator title or her scroll. So be very careful. Some do not even include the cross she holds in her hand.

The second Photiniya/Svetlana is Photiniya/Svetlana of Palestine. She is said to have been carried by waves to a rocky island in the Mediterranean Sea during a shipwreck. There she met another Saint — Martinian — who was already living an ascetic life on the island. Martinian did not want to live on the same little island with a woman, so he left Photiniya of Palestine bread and water, telling her a boatman would bring further supplies. She decided to live as an ascetic on the island for the rest of her life, which only lasted some six years. Her remains were found by the boatman who brought her food, and they were taken to Caesarea in Palestine. Now given that she is called Photiniya/Svetlana of Palestine, it is not surprising that she is sometimes confused with Photiniya the Samaritan, because for Russians Palestine is the “Holy Land” where Photiniya the Samaritan — in her role as “the woman at the well” — met and conversed with Jesus.

To make matters worse, some painters give the second Photiniya/Svetlana the same scroll text as Photiniya/Svetlana the Samaritan. Why? Because most icons one sees of her are recent, and painters constantly seem to confuse Photiniya the Samaritan with Photiniya the Palestinian.

Further, there is no stable form painters use for Photiniya the Palestinian. Here is one example:

Sometimes — as above — Photiniya the Palestinian icons can be recognized because she stands on a rocky area with water flowing below it. The problem is that many painters just place her in a landscape without the water, making it easier to confuse her with Photiniya the Samaritan. And to make matters even worse, sometimes painters give her completely different garments — sometimes a distinctive headcovering, as in this modern example —

Or even a hair robe, as in this recent example:

Here is the third Photini/Svetlana, in a Greek Orthodox icon. This rather melancholy-looking lady in simple monastic garments is Ἁγία Φωτεινή ἡ Κυπρία/Hagia Photeine he Kypria — “Holy Photini the Cypriot.” She is often given the monastic title for nuns Ὁσία/Hosia. She is also known as Photini Karpasitida, because she was said to have been born in Rizokarpasia on the Karpasia Peninsula of northern Cyprus, and spent much of her life living in a cave near the village of Agios Andronikos Karpasias.

By tradition she is supposed to have lived sometime in the Byzantine period, but actually next to nothing is known about her. On reaching adulthood, she went to live a pious and ascetic life in a cave. Her remains were said to have been found in the cave where she lived when someone had a revelation in the first half of the 1400s. Then the remains were covered over and forgotten, until found again in the first third of the 1700s. In 1974 they were moved to the Archdiocese of Cyprus. Water at her cave was reputed to heal eye diseases. The oldest known wooden icon of her was not painted until 1811, when it was done by a Hieromonk Laurentios.

Now you can see that in this example she holds a cross, usually the sign of martyrdom; but she was not martyred.  That just adds to the problem.  Given that the iconography of the three saints Photiniya/Svetlana is in such confusion, the best course for the student of icons is to hope for a complete title with a locator name such as “of Palestine,” or “of Rome” or “the Samaritan,” and in the absence of one, to just do the best one can by other clues in the icon, such as water flowing at the bottom of an island, or a hair garment in some cases, or the presence of the cross of martyrdom, etc., though as we have seen, these too can be misused by painters.   In some examples it may be impossible to tell which Photiniya/Svetlana was intended, if the painter was careless or confused. 

Don’t let it drive you to drinking.


Yes, it’s that time again.  The time when I ask all new readers and subscribers here to send me a message and tell me a bit about themselves and why they are reading my site (I promise I won’t report you to any mental institution).  You can also make suggestions for topics, or whine and complain if that’s your thing.  Your message can be short or very long, but please write.  A lot of you have remained silent (no not a “Blessed Silence,” like the icon type — just a vacuous silence, though I know you are out there) — so come out of the closet, get it out of your system, write me — you will feel better.  It is all kept private, seen only by me.  And of course I always enjoy hearing from long-time readers here as well, whether they have written me before or not.  To write me just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the top of any page.  If you feel more comfortable writing in a language other than English, do that; I can usually manage to decipher many languages.

Oh, and here’s something new.  I have not the slightest idea what nearly all of you look like, so if you would like to email me a personal photo as well, just ask for my email.  Sending photos to the blog site won’t work, because the WordPress software cuts all photos from messages sent to my blog.  Of course your photos will be seen only by me.

And as usual, I am always open to dealing with your questions about icons, so if you have an icon you can’t identify or read, or something else you wish to ask, feel free.



(Courtesy of


Here is a fresco from Mount Athos:


Because it is common for icons to give the saints rather dark complexions, we might not realize at first glance that there is something different about this fellow.  But as the Svodnuiy Ikonopisnuiy Podlinnik says, Moses is to be painted “with a black face.”   That, however, was not always followed by painters, as we see from the light skin of the saint in this late Russian icon:


In Russian iconography he is called Моисей Мурин / Moisey MurinMurin is the Slavic equivalent of “Moor” and in English to call someone a “moor” originally meant they were dark-skinned, like Othello, the moor of Venice in Shakespeare’s play.  So right away we know this saint is identified, oddly enough, by his skin color.

In the Greek fresco depicted, he has a different name.  Let’s look at his title inscription:



Now Aithiops — “Ethiopian” in old Greek, did not necessarily mean someone was literally from Ethiopia. The word comes from αἴθω/aitho, to burn, and ὤψ/ops, meaning face. So in Greek an Ethiops was someone with a “burnt face,” that is, a dark or blackish complexion (seen, of course, from the perspective of light-skinned people of the time). So we are right back to the meaning of the Slavic word Murin for Moses.

Here is a fresco of Moses shared by a reader. It is from the early 18th century, in the church of Agios Panteleimon, Tsaritsani, Larissa, Greece:

In it, Moses is very clearly dark skinned.  The title inscription, which you should now be able to read, has interesting ligatures.  Note how the α in ἉΓΙΟC/Hagios is very small and connected to the following Γ, and how the -OC at the end is written as an ο with a long and very squiggly ς attached to the bottom; and the same squiggly ς — only sideways — is found at the end of ΜΟΥCΙC/MOYSIS — which in this image is written with o (omicron) as the second letter, instead of the omega Ѡ in the Athos example.  And note also that ΑΙΘΙѠΨ in the Athos example is  written as  ΕΘΗOΨ in the Tsaritsani fresco.  I hope you remember that the reason for this is that painters often wrote phonetically, and in late Greek the pronunciation of AI became the same as E, I the same as H, and Ѡ the same as O.

So where was this Moses born? It is rather confusing to read the various modern accounts of his life, because almost always they identify him as “Ethiopian,” but as we have seen, in old Greek that did not necessarily mean literally from Ethiopia. He lived in Egypt, and according to his story, he was born a slave in the family of an Egyptian noble. Given the location of Egypt, it is more likely that Moses would have been a Nubian in ancestry, Nubia being just to the south of Egypt — but his precise ancestry remains uncertain, beyond his very dark complexion. In modern iconography he is often known simply as St. Moses the Black.

Now as you already know, if you are a regular reader here, the lives of the saints cannot be trusted for historical accuracy, and it is well to keep that in mind. So when I talk about the “life” of a saint here, I am speaking of the traditional tale associated with that saint. And here, in brief, is that of Moses:

In youth the slave of a nobleman, he committed a murder, and his master expelled him. He joined a gang of robbers. Because of his great strength and fierceness he became their leader, and as such, he became widely feared for the murders and crimes he committed. Eventually he came to a desert monastery and repented of his evil deeds. At first the monks did not believe he was sincere, but over time his actions made them believe him, and he was accepted into the monastery. Supposedly, later four members of the robbers gang attacked the monastery, and Moses was so strong that he subdued all four, tying them up and carrying them on his shoulders to the elders for a decision as to their fate. The Elders released them, but having witnessed their former leader as a monk, they too decided to become monks. Later all the rest of the gang of robbers also repented and joined the monastery.

The tale relates that Moses had a very strong sex drive, and did not know how to deal with it, so he went for advice to Abba Isidore, the head of the monastery. Isidore told him to never eat to the point of being satisfied, but to always remain hungry. And as for the repeated sex dreams Moses had at night, Isidore told him to stay awake in nightly prayer vigils, so Moses did that, standing up so he would not fall asleep. It took a very long time, but gradually Moses is said to have overcome his great attraction to sex. The local demons, however, were not happy about this. Moses had a habit of bringing water from a distant well to the cells of his fellow monks at night, and one night while he was at the well, the demons knocked him down, and he lay there as though dead.

The monks found him unconscious and took him back to the monastery, where he spent a year in convalescence to recover. But persisting in his ascetic monastic life, and as a result of his experiences, Moses was said to have gained power over demons.

Eventually he was consecrated as a deacon, and when he was clothed in the white garment of a deacon, the bishop declared (rather disturbingly to modern ears), “Abba Moses is now all white.” Then comes an event also very troubling in how the account presents it:

“Wanting to test him, the archbishop told the priests, “When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out and go with him to hear what he says.” So the old man came in and they abused him and drove him out, saying, “Get out, black man (Aethiops)!” Going out, he said to himself, ‘They have acted correctly about you, because your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?'”

So not complaining, and remaining very humble, he passed the test and was then ordained as a presbyter. As such, he gathered 75 disciples around him.

When he was 75 years old, Moses told the monks that they would be attacked by robbers, and that they should leave to avoid being killed. They asked him to leave with them, but he would not go. So seven of the monks remained with him. When the robbers came, one of the monks hid away, but the other six were killed, along with Moses. Thus he is said to have been martyred about the year 400.

Now in spite of his eventually becoming a saint, there is some obvious racism associated with the story, as though the color of one’s skin has anything to do with one’s value as a person. It brings to mind the poem “The Little Black Boy,” by William Blake:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child: 
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree 
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say. 
Look on the rising sun: there God does live 
And gives his light, and gives his heat away. 
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love, 
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear 
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice. 
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
Thus did my mother say and kissed me, 
And thus I say to little English boy. 
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy: 
Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear, 
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee. 
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.