Do you remember Merkurios Abu-Seifein — Merkurios of the two swords, the one whom Mary, mother of Jesus supposedly sent to assassinate the Emperor Julian?

Well, in his traditional story the father of Merkurios had a couple of very interesting buddies. He made their acquaintance when they ate his own father, the grandfather of Merkurios/Mercurius. Now of course most saints — even before their conversion — do not go about eating people’s relatives, but these two were an unusual pair. We find them in Egyptian Christianity, as in this icon from the Museum of Coptic Art in Cairo, said to have been painted in the last quarter of the 18th century by Ibrahim al-Nassikh:

They appear also in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, which has a good account of them and how they met the father of Merkurios. Remember that St. Merkurios was also called Philopater. Here is how the story goes in Budge’s translation of the account for his day of commemoration — Hedar 25 — December 4th. The English of Budge is a bit archaic, but understandable nonetheless:

On this day became a martyr Philopator (which is being interpreted “lover of the Father”)
Mercurius, and this name also being interpreted is “servant of Jesus Christ.” This holy
man was a native of the city of ‘Asletes, which was also the city of his father, and his
grandfather who were born therein, and he was brought up in the city of Rome.

Now the occupation of his father, and grandfather, and his kinsmen was that of hunters of wild
beasts. One day they went out hunting, according to their custom, and they found two men
with the faces of dogs, and they ate his grandfather, and they also wanted to eat his father,
but the angel of the Lord prevented them from doing so. And the angel said unto them,
“Touch him not, for from him shall go forth good fruit.” Then the angel of the Lord
surrounded them with fire, and being in tribulation, the two Dog-faces came to the father
of Saint Mercurius, and they bowed low before him. And straightway God changed their
[savage] nature to one of gentleness, and they became like sheep and went with him to the

And after he had begotten the holy man Mercurius, and called his name “Philopator,”
the Dog-faces lived with them for many days, and then they became Christians; now the
ancestors of the holy man had been in days of old pagans. And when they received the gift
of Christian baptism, they called the father of the holy man “Noah,” and his mother
“Tabot,” and Philopator “Mercurius.”

And the Dog-faces, according to what the angel ofthe Lord said unto them when he appeared unto them, were in subjection to the holy man Mercurius, and his father. And when the king heard the story of the Dog-faces and how God had changed their savage natures, [he ordered his soldiers to bring in wild beasts]before the king, and the Dog-faces destroyed all the wild beasts, which the king broughtbefore them. When the king saw this he was afraid of them exceedingly, and he asked the father of Saint Mercurius to entreat God to remove from them their savage nature, and to
make them to possess the nature of men; and he asked God, and God changed their nature
and they became like men.

Then the king took the holy father Mercurius and appointed him governor and captain of the army, and these Dog-faces were subject unto him, and all the people were afraid of them. After this a certain wicked king rose up and he wished to make war upon another king, and the king sent his soldiers to entice those Dog-faces and to bring them to him. And that wicked king, who wished to make war on the king of the city wherein the father of Saint Mercurius lived, enticed them. And straightway he was angry at the Dog-faces, and he punished one of them, who became a martyr thereby, and the other fled.

When the father of Saint Mercurius returned to the city he sought for his
son and his mother and found them not. Now the king, having heard that the father of
Saint Mercurius was killed in battle, decided to take the mother of Saint Mercurius and
marry her. And one of the soldiers of the king knowing what the king intended to do, went
and told the mother of Saint Mercurius what the king had decided concerning her. When
she heard this she asked him to take [her] out secretly, and she went out with her son the
blessed Mercurius. And his father having sought for his wife and his son, and found them
not, knew not in the least what had become of them.

And the king was afraid because he thought that the Dog-faces lived with him, and that he would become angry and would turn them loose, and they would destroy all the city. And the king commanded his servants not to tell him that he intended to marry his wife.

After this war broke out against the king, and the father of Saint Mercurius went out to fight, and the king took him prisoner. Now by the Will of God the king of Rome was a Christian. And when he knew that the father of Saint Mercurius was a Christian, he spared him and did not kill him, and he made him governor of all the city of the Mardosaweyan. And by the Will of God Saint Mercurius
and his mother were in the city of Rome, and when his father came into the church the
mother of Saint Mercurius saw him and knew that he was her husband.

One day when they were sitting in the guest house the father of Mercurius and his soldiers rode out, and the mother of the blessed Mercurius dressed her son in the fine raiment which he used to
wear in the royal city, and commanded him to go and mount the horse of the governor, that
is to say of his father. And having mounted the governor’s horse, the soldiers seized him
and brought him before the governor, that is to say his father, who did not know that he
was his son, and he was angry with him. And the mother of Mercurius came to her
husband, now he did not know that she was his wife, and she said unto him, “We are
strangers, and when I knew that thou was a stranger I thought that my son might be with
thee”; and when he asked her questions and enquired concerning her journey she told him
that she was his wife.

And straightway he knew her and he knew his son Mercurius, and
he placed [him] in the church, and they lived there together. When the father and mother
of Saint Mercurius died, the king took him and made him governor of the city of the
Mardosaweyan in his father’s stead; and the one Dog-face that had remained with him up
to the time he was appointed governor, used to go forth with Mercurius in battle. When
they wanted to fight God used to restore to the Dog-face his original savage nature, and
there was none who could stand before him. And there were given to this Saint Mercurius
power, and great strength, and he was more renowned and more exalted than all the other
officers of the kingdom.

So you can add these two fellows to the ranks of dog-headed saints. Their names by tradition are given variously as Akhrax and Augani or Ahrauqas and Augani.

I hope you have realized by now how full of myth and legend Eastern Christianity is, whether Slavic, Greek, or in regions farther south. Christianity itself is largely based on myth, but that is something seldom told to the laity. It will, however, eventually become obvious to the serious student of the iconography of the Eastern Church.


Today’s icon depicts a very interesting fellow we have seen before — Christopher “Dog-head.” Yes, he is the saint who was believed to have the head of a dog, having come from a race of dog-headed men.

A university professor, who had made a name for himself locally as an “expert” on Russian icons in the absence of anyone who knew better, once criticized me in print many years ago for referring to “myth” in Russian Orthodoxy. I then presented him with the very obvious case of the prevalence of icons of Christopher “Dog-head,” to which he of course had no response, because Christopher is such an obvious example of myth in Eastern Orthodox iconography. But of course as you now know, much of what is presented as fact in Eastern Orthodoxy is actually merely tradition and legend and folklore. Eastern Orthodoxy is very slow in acknowledging that, but Christopher — being such a glaring example — is now no longer painted with a dog’s head in the icons of “State Church” Russian Orthodox painters, though he is of course still found in those of the conservative Old Believers, who maintain the old Russian iconographic traditions.

Though one might think it an early icon at first glance because of its similarity to the 17th century Stroganov style, it was actually painted by the Mstera/Mstyora iconographer Mikhail Iosipovich Kirikov (Михаил Иосифович Кириков) sometime between 1910 and 1920. Mikhail and his brother Vasiliy came from a family of icon painters. Mikhail began learning to paint icons at age 10. His brother Vasiliy later worked on the restoration of old icons, and cleaned overpainting from the famous Old Testament Trinity attributed to Andrey Rublev, revealing the original.

(Vladimir Art Museum)

The title inscription reads:


Christopher is dressed in warrior’s garments, with the image of Christ Emmanuel on his breast  He is armed with sword, shield, and lance, and stands on a demon he has subdued.


As is traditional in Russian iconography, the demon (chort) is depicted as very dark and blackish, with hair that stands high up on his head.

At the top of the icon, two “Angels of the Lord” present Christopher with the crown of victory.

You will find more about Christopher here:




First, let’s look at this icon of Grigoriy Dvoeslov (Григорий Двоеслов) — Gregory the Dialogist.  The abbreviated inscription on the icon tells us he was Papa Rimskiy —  Pope of Rome.  Now before you wonder why a Russian Orthodox icon is depicting a Roman Pope, remember that Gregory was Pope from 590 to 604, long before the 1054 Great Schism in Christianity that finally divided Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism in the West.  After that time, newly-canonized Roman Catholic saints were no longer added to the Eastern Orthodox lists.

  The icon — as the signature at bottom left tells us — is by Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev,  a Mstera/Mstyora-born painter who later moved to Moscow, like Osip Semyonovich Chirikov.  

(State Hermitage Museum)

If we look at icons by Dikarev and Chirikov, we can see similarities to the icon discussed today:



(Courtesy of

We can immediately know two things about it: First, the style is strongly influenced by that of the late 19th-early 20th century Mstera/Mstyora and Moscow painters Chirikov and Dikarev. We see that in the graduated coloring of the background sky, in the gold highlighting of the garment, and in the background buildings. Nonetheless, we can also easily tell from the manner in which the face is depicted (as well as the condition of the icon) that this image is modern — quite recent.

Another obvious clue telling us this is not an old icon is the saint depicted. She is, as the abbreviated title inscription tells us, Svyataya Blazhennaya Matrona — “Holy Blessed Matrona,” often better known as St. Matrona of Moscow or Blessed Eldress Matrona. Though she was born about 1881 (there is some uncertainty about her birthdate), she was not “glorified” (the Eastern Orthodox version of canonization) — not made an official saint — until 1999.

Matrona is an excellent example of the problems one always encounters when trying to sift fact from fiction in the lives of saints, because as you already know if you are long-time reader here, many of the saints venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy and depicted in icons never existed at all, and some who may have existed have biographies so heavily fictionalized that the historical person has been completely lost. In the absence of extensive evidence, it is often extremely difficult to separate what facts might exist about a saint’s life from the often extensive fiction embroidered over and through them.

A similar situation exists with Matrona.

Given that Matrona lived so recently, we know what she actually looked like, unlike the bulk of Eastern Orthodox saints, whose images are generally just imaginary (yes, even icons of Jesus fall into that category):

Matrona was born Матрона Дмитриевна Никонова / Matrona Dimitrievna Nikonova in the village of Sebino in the Tula Oblast (Province). She was blind from birth. Then at age 17, Matrona’s legs became paralyzed. Her life from 1925 was lived Moscow. Having constant trouble with the Soviet police, she moved from apartment to apartment. She died on the 2nd of May, 1952, and was interred in the Danilovsky Cemetery. Later, in the 1990s, her remains were transferred to the Intercession Monastery.

Nonetheless, in spite of her recent date. there is the same problem of separating fact from fiction in her life as we find with a great many saints from centuries earlier. The main source of Matrona’s story is an account written by Matrona’s neighbor in a communal apartment, Zinaida Zhdanova. The account is titled Сказание о житии блаженной старицы Матроны — The Tale of the LIfe of Blessed Eldress Matrona.

As the traditional story goes, Matrona was born to a very poor family. Her mother had decided before the birth to give the newborn child to an orphanage, but then she supposedly dreamed of a white bird with a human face and eyes closed. Seeing this as a sign, she decided to keep the infant. After birth it is said that the girl had a cross-shaped convex shape on her chest, and when she was taken to be baptized, a fragrant steam is said to have risen up over the font all the way to the ceiling. Remarkably, by the time she reached the age of seven or eight, Matrona was said to have the gift of unceasing prayer, of healing, and clairvoyancy — she gained the reputation of “miracle worker,” and visitors began arriving from near and far asking for her counsel and help.

Though blind, she is said to have been very fond of the icons, and took them down and played with them. One day she supposedly told her mother to go to the priest, and in his library on a certain shelf she would find a book with a picture of the the “Seeker of the Lost” icon. Matrona said an actual icon of this type should be painted. The local women managed to scrape together enough resources to pay for the painting, and an icon painter was engaged to do the job. The painter, however, kept hesitating in his task, unable to begin. Matrona told him that he must repent, because she somehow knew he had killed a man. So the painter repented, and the icon was completed.

Matrona then told the people a prayer service was to be held in a field. It was July and in the middle of a drought, but Matrona predicted that before the people returned home from the service, it would rain. So the new icon was brought in procession to the field with other religious banners. After the service, when the people were returning to Sebino, it suddenly began to rain.
Eventually, because of the persecution by her brothers, who were Communists and did not like all the visitors coming for “miracles,” Matrona moved to Moscow.

There are many more incidents in the tale of her life and supposed miracles. However, as one writer has said of Matrona’s life, “There is too much information, but there is almost no absolutely reliable information.”

What is certain is that Matrona has become an extremely popular saint in modern Russia, with thousands of people visiting her relics at the Intercession Convent in Moscow to pray for the saint’s assistance for a multitude of problems. All kinds of “Matrona” religious knickknacks are sold there, along with icons of her, and the gifts of visitors and the trade in such items has made the Convent and its abbess very wealthy.  Just as St. Xenia has become the “talisman” of the city of St. Petersburg, so Matrona has become the talisman of Moscow. It is said that visitors should bring flowers which are placed by the relics, then taken home and put with the icons as a blessing, or made into a tea to cure illness, or sewn into pillows.  Not surprisingly, there is a lot of folk superstition mixed in with the veneration of Matrona, and not all has “official” Church approval.

In the account of Matrona’s life, there was originally an incident in which the dictator and mass murderer Stalin came to visit her in 1941, to ask about the war.  Matrona supposedly blessed him for the defense of Moscow and predicted a Russian victory. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, holds that this somewhat embarrassing incident is just a legend, that it never actually happened, and it has been removed from “Church” versions of her life. There was, however, an icon painted of the reported incident that is often reproduced:


So again we are left with all kinds of stories about Matrona and the difficulty of knowing which are true and which are simply fiction.  The student of icons should always keep in mind that though the lives of the saints are helpful in determining why an icon was painted and what was believed about the person in the icon, they should not be uncritically accepted as reliable.