This 19th century Russian icon is interesting not only for its depictions, but also for its explanatory top inscription:

The central figure is the Angel Khranitel — the Guardian Angel, who symbolizes the angel believed to watch over every person:


At the top we see three images of Jesus, and in each an angel coming to him with a report on a scroll. 





And right:


What do these images signify?  The answer is in the long inscription at the top of the icon.  It is a summation of the account given in the little-known Apocalypse of Paul:

“Therefore, you children of men, bless the Lord God without ceasing at all hours and on all days; but especially when the sun sets. For in that hour all the angels go to the Lord to bow before him and present the deeds of men which every man does from morning until evening, whether they be good or evil. And there is an angel that goes forth rejoicing from the man in whom he dwells .

When therefore the sun is set, at the first hour of the night, in the same hour goes the angel of every people and of every man and woman, which protect and keep them, because man is the image of God: and likewise at the hour of morning, which is the twelfth hour of the night, all the angels of men and women go to meet God and present all the work which every man has wrought, whether good or evil. And every day and night the angels present to God the account of all the deeds of mankind. To you, therefore, I say, O children of men, bless the Lord God without ceasing all the days of your life.”

The inscription on the icon says that the angels reporting good deeds come before God happy and rejoicing, and those reporting bad deeds come lamenting and weeping.

To the left of the Guardian Angel we see a man praying before an icon of the Deisis by day, and below that we see him again, reading a godly book; and because of that the threatening devil cannot touch him.  Note the sun at upper left, signifying day:


To the right of the central Guardian Angel, we see the man praying at evening, and again below that we see him asleep on a bed, and because of his good deeds the devil flees from the man’s guardian angel.  Note the moon at upper right, signifying night:


To finish, we need only examine the border saints.  Here are the two at left:


The upper saint is “Holy Great Martyr Artemiy/Artemius.”
The lower saint is “Holy Kosma/Cosmas the Unmercenary.”

And lastly, the single border saint at right:


He is the other half of the common Cosmas-Damian pair — “Holy Damian the Unmercenary.”

This will be my last posting in 2022.  But if fortune frowns on you, I will probably be back to weary you with more tedious pedantry on the subject of icons again in 2023.


In the previous posting we looked at the “Vision of Isaiah.” Today we will look at a 10th century Byzantine miniature from the very famous Paris Psalter — the “Prayer of Isaiah.” It is of interest primarily because of its resemblance to classical Roman art — though it was created centuries later.

In the center we see the Prophet Isaiah looking upward in prayer, and the traditional “hand of God” showering blessing on him.
On the left is a woman with a starry mantle billowing over her head.  She is ΗΥΞ/Nyx — “Night.”  She holds a long torch pointed downward, representing darkness.  At right is a small boy carrying an upright flaming torch representing light.  He is ΟΡΘΡΟC/Orthros — “Dawn.”

The image has its origin in a line from Isaiah 26:9:

 ἐκ νυκτὸς ὀρθρίζει τὸ πνεῦμά μου πρὸς σέ θεός διότι φῶς τὰ προστάγματά σου ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς
ek nyktos orthrizei to pneuma mou pros se, ho Theos, dioti phos ta prostagmata sou epi tes ges.
“… Out of night at dawn my spirit rises to you, O God, for your commandments are a light on the earth.”

Now as I mentioned, the imagery and manner of depiction hark back to the art of Rome.  Look again at the image of Night:

Now look at this female image — a detail from a wall painting in the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii — that Roman city destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e.

The billowing garment over the head of a deity is a common feature in Roman art; it represents the inherent energy in the appearance of a deity, and can also symbolize the firmament as well as the revealing of an otherwise invisible deity — an epiphany.  It is found on deities of the sea and air, as well as in other circumstances.  The technical Latin term for it is velificatio — velification, meaning in this case the billowing like a sail of a cloth article of clothing.

Aside from the stylistic similarity, you already know — if you are a regular reader here — that elements of Roman art and belief are sometimes found in Eastern Orthodox iconography — survivals from pre-Christian times.  And of course the old gods and goddesses never really disappeared; they just came back disguised as saints and angels.  It makes one think you can take the people out of the gods, but you cannot take the gods out of the people.  That certainly applies to the history of icons.

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)  — the Alexandrian poet who wrote in Greek, has a poem reminiscent of this concept:


Because we smashed their images —
Because we cast them from their temples —
It does not mean the gods no longer live. 
O land of Ionia, they love you still; 
You enliven their souls still;
And when an August morn dawns upon you
Your atmosphere turns vibrant with the vigor of their lives;
And sometimes an etheric, youthful form,
Indefinite in moving swiftly by,
Will pass above the summits of your hills. 


In past postings here, we have seen several different videnie icon types — “vision” icon types — meaning the vision of this or that person. Today we will look at another, a 19th century image:

(Andrey Rublev Museum)


The title inscription written on the icon is a painter’s error.  It reads:


“Vision of Jacob/James”

It is a really glaring mistake,  because the subject is obviously the “Vision of Isaiah,” the Old Testament Prophet.

The story is told in Isaiah 6:

 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly.

And one cried to another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.

That is what we see in the icon:  Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) sits on a high throne with Christ Immanuel on his lap, and angels about him, some of whom carry disks inscribed with the word “Holy.”  A seraph has taken a hot coal from the flaming altar at right, and is holding it in tongs toward the lips of the Prophet Isaiah at left.  And there is plenty of smoke.

So yes, icon painters now and then got things wrong.  They sometimes  used a wrong title, and sometimes even painted the wrong image for a correct title.  Considering how widespread illiteracy was at the time, it is not surprising.  It is estimated that near the end of the 19th century, the literacy rate in Russia overall was about 21%, and among women only about 13%.

Thanks to all those who sent me holiday greetings.  I wish you all a very pleasant and rewarding New Year, and of course I wish that too for all the people of Ukraine now suffering under the Russian invasion.  To borrow biblical terminology, blessed are those Russians who refuse to participate in this unjust and criminal war against a sovereign country.





Today we will look at depictions of Gregory of Armenia, also known as Gregory the Illuminator (Григорий Просветитель/Grigoriy Prosvetitel) in Russian. He was born in Armenia about 257 c.e. When he was young, his father Anak was executed for assassinating King Kosrov II. His father’s act put Gregory in danger of death as well, but he was taken away to Cappadocia by his caretakers, where he was raised as a Christian.

When he matured, he married a noblewoman named Miriam and had two children, but he and his wife eventually separated so that he might become a monk.

He rather foolishly returned to Armenia, where Tiridates III, son of the man Gregory’s father had killed, was in power. When Gregory refused to offer a wreath to the goddess Anahit, Tiridates, finding of his own father’s assassination by Gregory’s father, had Gregory thrown into a pit for some twelve or fourteen years, and forgot about him.

While Gregory was in the pit, he survived because of a woman who came to the edge of the pit daily and threw a loaf of bread down to him.

Meanwhile, a group of nuns came to Armenia. One of them, named Rhipsime, was a great beauty. Tiridates wanted to marry her, be she staunchly refused. He had them all executed. Then Tiridates, so the story goes, went insane, and like Nebuchadnezzar in the Old Testament, he wandered around in the fields and forest behaving like a wild animal. It is said that all those involved in the slaying of the nuns went insane as well.

Here is a Stroganov School icon:

It depicts Gregory in his pit, accompanied by poisonous snakes and lions.  At left the widow woman who helped him survive throws down a loaf of bread.  To the right of the pit we see some wild boars, and with them is a naked man with a boar’s head.  That is King Tiridates.  In his life as recorded by Dimitriy Rostovskiy, we are told that Tiridates “lost not only his mind, but even the very likeness of a man, having become in his appearance as would be a wild boar.”  That is why he is a man with a boar’s head in the icon.

Now it happened, so the story goes, that the sister of Tiridates, Kusarodukta, had a dream in which a man appeared to her, telling her that her brother would not be made well again unless Gregory was taken out of the pit.  She made her dream known, and those with her went to the pit and found Gregory still alive after all those years.  He was taken out, and they implored him to petition God for the healing of Tiridates. 

Gregory told them to bring all the bodies of the slain nuns together, and told Tiridates to ask the nuns to pray to Jesus for his forgiveness.  When Tiridates did this, his human form and sanity were restored, and so he and all Armenia converted to Christianity.  And that is why Gregory is called “The Illuminator.”

A not quite so entertaining image of Gregory is found in this fresco by Tzortzis Phouka, painted in 1547 for the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:


We see Gregory in the pit with snakes and scorpions, the widow woman dropping bread down to him, and King Tiridates snoozing away on a bed at right. 

Let’s look at the Greek inscription at the top:


It reads:

“The Holy Gregory of Great Armenia Thrown into the Pit”



I have talked here previously about the icon called the “Four Births” (Четыре рождества/Chetuire rozhdestva). It is also popularly known, since the 1873 publication of the Christmas story The Sealed Angel (Запечатленный ангел/Zapechatlennuiy angel) by Nikolai Leskov, as the “Good Children” (Доброчадие/Dobrochadie). The connection comes in the story when an Englishman commissions an icon for his wife from a Russian icon painter named Sebastian. Here is the account:

The Englishman ordered that all necessary materials were to be provided for him in his house, but Sebastian would not work there, but sat by the window in the little garret in Luke’s lodging and began his work. And what he would paint, dear sirs, we could not imagine. As it was to be about children we thought that he would depict Roman the Wonderworker [Romanos of Cilicia], to whom mothers prayed for offspring; or the massacre of the Innocents in Jerusalem, which is always pleasing to mothers who have lost their children, for there Rachel weeps with them for her children, and will not be comforted. But this wise painter realized that the Englishwoman had children and would not ask for offspring, but rather pray that they might grow up with all good moral qualities. He therefore painted a subject that would correspond with her desire. He chose for this a very small old board, a span long, and began to sketch out his creative design. First of all, of course, he rubbed it well with strong alabaster of Kazan, so that the surface was smooth and strong like ivory. Then he divided this surface into four equal parts, and in each part he sketched out a separate tiny icon, and between them, on the ivory, he placed a line of gold, thus making each icon smaller still, and then began to paint. In the first division he painted the birth of John the forerunner. There were eight figures and the new-born child in a chamber. In the second division was the birth of the holy Virgin Mary, six figures and the new-born child in a chamber. In the third the birth of the Savior, and the stable and the manger, and the Virgin and Joseph standing by, and the Magi bringing offerings, and the woman Salome and herds of various beasts: oxen, sheep, goats, and asses, and a dry-footed bird [сухолапль-птица/sukholapl-ptitsa, a kind of seagull] forbidden to the Jews [in Leviticus 11], which was painted to show that Christ was sent into the world for all mankind, not to the Jews, but by God, who created all things. In the fourth division was the birth of St. Nicholas, and also the saint as a youth, and chambers with many persons standing around. And the meaning of these scenes was to bring before the eyes of the spectator the parents of such goodly offspring; and the scenes were also wonderful as works of art, for the figures were no higher than a pin, and yet were full of life and movement. For instance, St. Anna, in the birth of the Virgin, as the Greek original has it, lies on a bed. Before her stand girls playing the timbrels; one holds gifts in her hands, another a sunflower, and others have lights. One woman holds St. Anna up by the shoulders, Joachim watches in the upper chamber. The nurse washes the holy Virgin in a basin, while a maiden pours water out of a vessel into the basin. All the chambers are painted accurately as with a compass, the upper ones are greenish, but the lower ones are reddish. In this lower chamber sit Joachim and Anna on a throne, and Anna holds the holy Virgin on her knee, and around them are stone columns and golden network, and a wall snow-white and yellow.

All this Sebastian painted in a wonderful way, and in every tiny countenance there was an expression of divine contemplation, and underneath the icon was written, ‘Good Children,’ and he brought it to the English family. They looked at it, examined it closely, and each held it separately to observe it minutely. Never, they said, had they expected such imagination, and never had they heard of such delicacy of microscopic painting.

If you would like to read the whole story, which is well known in icon literature, you will find it in English translation here:

Here is an example of the “Four Births”:

At upper left is the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God,” depicting the birth of Mary, with midwife and attendants, St. Anna lying on a bed and again seated with her husband Joachim. At upper right is the “Birth of Christ,” with the usual  characters. At lower left is the “Birth of Holy St. Nicholas the Wonderworker,” with midwife and attendants, his mother Nonna (Нонна) on the bed and father Theophanes (Феофан/Feofan) seated.  And the last of the births, at lower right, is the “Birth of Holy John the Forerunner,” that is, the birth of John the Baptist, with the usual attendants and midwife, John’s mother Elizabeth on the bed and shown again standing with the infant beside the seated father Zachariah.

There is, however, an extremely uncommon icon also bearing the Dobrochadie title that is quite different.  Modern versions of it are being sold in Russia.  Here is an old example of the central portion, a Tver icon from 1809:


It is reminiscent of “Old Testament Trinity” icon, only instead of three angels seated at a dining table, we have Mary in the center with the child Jesus, Elizabeth at left with the child John the Forerunner (the Baptist), who holds a scroll with the usual “Behold the lamb of god  …” text common to icons of the adult John.  At right is Salome, mother by tradition of John the Theologian (the Evangelist John) with the child John on her lap.  His scroll has the beginning of the gospel attributed to him:  “In the beginning was the word…” etc.  There is much confusion in tradition about whether Salome was a sister of Mary or a daughter of Joseph “the Betrothed,” the husband of Mary.  She is considered to be the same Salome who was one of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” who came to the tomb of Jesus.

Here is a black and white image of the whole icon:


The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove appears above Mary and the child Jesus.

Here is another version of the same image, a modern Russian print: