If you are familar with the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, this cathedral in St. Petersburg will look rather familiar:

For comparison, here is an old depiction of St. Peter’s in Rome:

Though they are not identical, the similarities are obvious.

The reason for this is that Tsar Paul I of Russia (1754-1801) once visited Rome as Tsarevich in 1782 and was mightily impressed by the basilica of St. Peter there.  He wanted to create something similar in Russia.  The architect Andrei Voronikhin was chosen to carry out the project in 1800, but Tsar Paul was assassinated in 1801 so never saw the completion of the cathedral in 1811, which was dedicated to the “Kazan” icon.

The new St. Peter’s-like cathedral was built on the site of the former church dedicated to the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God, which was the court church of the House of Romanov, the ruling dynasty.

The old Nativity church had been the repository of a famous copy of the “Kazan” icon of Mary — larger than the original — that had belonged to Paraskovia Feodorovna (born Saltykova), wife of Tsar Ivan V and sister-in-law to Tsar Peter I “the Great.” The new church was built to house this icon, thus its name.

Here is the Petersburg “Kazan” icon:

There is yet another icon in Saint Petersburg associated with Tsar Peter I.  It had previously been owned by Natalia Kirillovna Naryshkina, second wife of Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich (1629-1676), Peter’s mother.  It is said to have been before this icon that Peter prayed for the blessing of his construction of the new capital, St. Petersburg.  It is now kept in the Transfiguration Cathedral in St. Petersburg.  It is also said to have been kept in Peter’s dining room, the first building constructed in what was to become the city.


While some investigators have attributed this icon to 1676 and the famous Armory painter Simon Ushakov, it differs considerably from his usual style, as we can see if we look at this icon more securely attributed to Ushakov, which gives a far less realistic depiction:


Given that both the “Kazan” and “Not Made by Hands” icons once owned by Tsar Peter I were very famous in St. Petersburg, many copies were made of them in that area in the latter part of the 19th century, often preserving a painted, rich golden appearance and painted jewels in imitation of the original riza (metal icon cover), which had since been changed.

(Rybinsk State Historical Museum)

Often these two icons — the Petersburg “Kazan” icon and the Petersburg “Image Not Made by Hands” icon were bought as a pair. Both of Peter’s icons were popularly believed to be “miracle-working,” but as you know, that is a common belief with many icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, so use your sense of reason.

You may recall that Peter I was the fellow who ended the Russian Patriarchate and put in its place the “Holy Governing Synod” which kept the authority in the Russian Orthodox Church securely under Peter’s thumb, just as the recreated Patriarchate today serves the will of Vladimir Putin.


Today we will take a brief look at an obviously Old Believer icon from the Vetka School (if you don’t know what the Vetka School is, use the search box on the right of any page to find previous postings in the archives).

The image might at first confuse you because the two attendant saints are much larger than the central image, and there is no title inscription:

Why is it obviously an Old Believer icon?  Well, there are three main clues:  First, look at the blessing hand on the saint at the left, and you will see it is in the position characteristic of Old Believers.  Second, it is in the style of the Vetka School, and Vetka icons are Old Believer icons.  Third, it is painted in the old stylized manner, rather than in the westernized manner favored by the State Orthodox Church.

So what does it depict?  The central image is an interesting vertical arrangement and slight variation on a scene commonly found in “expanded” or “narrative” versions of the Resurrection that include the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias, as told in the gospel called “of John,” chapter 21:

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and in this way he showed himself.

There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.

Simon Peter says to them, I am going fishing. They say to him, We also go with you. They went forth, and entered a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.

But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.

Then Jesus says to them, Children, have you anything to eat [in this case fish to eat with bread]? They answered him, No.

And he said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to pull it for the multitude of fishes.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved says to Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he fastened his fisher’s coat to him, (for he was naked,) and cast himself into the sea.

And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.

It is common in expanded Resurrection icon depictions to show Peter after he has leaped into the water, but in this example we only see Peter (the third figure in the boat from left) standing and preparing to jump into the water.

Jesus stands on the shore above the disciples, and above Jesus we see Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

The saint to the left of the central scene is Nicholas the Wonderworker, and on the right is “Holy Parfeniy/Parthenios, Bishop.”  You will know all about Nicholas from past postings here.  Parthenios/Parthenius is generally known as Parthenius of Lampsacus.  He is said to have lived in Melitopolis of Asia Minor (now Turkey) and to have been a fisherman by trade.  That of course connects him with the central scene in the icon.  He supposedly gave the income from his fishing to the poor.  Though he was not well educated, he gained a reputation as a miracle worker, and his hagiography says that is the reason why he was first ordained a presbyter, then in 325 — during the reign of Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire — Parthenius was consecrated as bishop of Lampsacus. 

Given that Vetka is on the Sozh River, which was rich in fish, it is possible that the person ordering this icon was associated with fishing there.  That would account for the importance given the “Miraculous Catch of Fishes” in the icon, as well as the presence of St. Nicholas, who was often associated with safety on the water, and with Parthenius, who was once a fisherman.


Ha! Thought we were all finished with Nativity icons for now, didn’t you? Just when you least suspected it, there is more tedium in store. But mercifully this posting will be brief.

First, here’s a 19th century Russian Nativity icon:

There is no need to explain the details again, because you are by now all experts on them, including the name of the little fellow talking to Joseph at lower right.

I began this posting with the intention of discussing the association of newborn Greco-Roman deities with caves (Zeus, Dionysus, etc.), and how the birth of Jesus is in keeping with that infant deity-cave association in the classical world.   However, I suddenly noticed something different and interesting on the icon above that I would rather add to your store of totally useless knowledge.

It is an uncommon inscription, barely visible because the letters are dark and in part almost fade into the background.  If you look closely, you will see it as a line of letters following the sloped edge of the cave at left, just where the ox and ass are placed:


It reads:

сия животная парою согреваю отроча
siya zhivotnaya paroiu sogrevaiu otrocha
“This animal pair warms the boy.”

That reflects a tradition that the ox and the ass kept the the infant Jesus warm with their breath.

And now I hope that is the last I will have to say about Nativity icons for some time, but one never knows.