We have seen in previous postings that it is not at all uncommon for Eastern Orthodoxy to have adopted iconography from Western European Roman Catholicism.  The average Orthodox person is usually quite unaware of these borrowings, and some of these icons also have reputations as “miraculous” images within E. Orthodoxy.

Today we will look at one such borrowing.  It is the rather detailed Marian icon type known as the Zvyesda Presvyetlaya (Звезда Пресветлая) — the “Star Most Bright.”

Now we have seen in previous postings how the details of icons are often “revised” over time to fit theological preconceptions.  That has happened also in the case of this icon.  Note that in the late 17th century example below (from the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Balakhna, Nizhniy Novgorod), Mary wears a white headcovering below her crown:

It is likely, however, that as in the Murom example below, from roughly the same period, the original form depicted Mary with long, loose hair below her crown, and no other headcovering.

Now we know already from previous postings why this change would have been made.  In traditional Eastern Orthodox thought, long hair was a sign of a “loose” woman.  So at some point, an icon painter decided to revise the type to fit this preconception.

What is considered to be the earliest Russian example of the “Most Bright Star” type was kept in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God in Murom, and dated to near the year 1700.  It bears an inscription on the banner below the image of Mary, reading:

Сии пречу[д]ныи образ звезда пресветлая прес[вя]тая влад[ычи]цы Б[огоро]д[и]цы н[е]б[е]снии ц[а]рицы

Siy prechudnuiy obraz Zvezda Presvetlaya Presvyataya Vladuichitsui Bogoroditsui Nebesniy Tsaritsui

This is the Most Miraculous Image of the ‘Star Most Bright’ Most Holy Mistress Mother of God, Empress of Heaven.

The words Nebesnuiy Tsaritsui would sound more familiar to Catholics if we put them in the western form — “Queen of Heaven.”

The title of the image comes actually from a book — a collection of  Roman Catholic stories of the “miracles” of Mary — titled simply Звезда Пресветлая/Zvyesda Presvyetlaya — “The Star Most Bright,” which began to appear in handwritten copies in Russia in the second half of the 1600s.

Now it is not difficult to determine that the “Star Most Bright” iconography must have been based ultimately on Roman Catholic icons of “Our Lady of the Rosary,” depicting Mary and the Christ Child surrounded by 15 scenes of contemplation for the Rosary   — the “Fifteen Mysteries”:

Благовещение / Annunciation

Встреча Марии и Елисаветы – Meeting [Visitation] of Mary and Elizabeth

Рождество Христово / Birth of Christ

Сретение / Meeting [in the Temple –the Presentation of Christ]

Преполовение / Mid-Pentecost [Christ among the Doctors]

Моление о чаше / The Prayer of the Cup [Jesus in Gethsemane]

Бичевание Христа / The Scourging of Christ [The Flagellation]

Коронование терновым венцом / Crowning with the Crown of Thorns

Несение креста / Bearing the Cross

Распятие / Crucifixion

Воскресение / Resurrection

Вознесение / Ascension [sometimes replaced by the Transfiguration of Jesus]

Сошествие Св. Духа / Descent of the Holy Spirit [Pentecost]

Вознесение Богоматери / Ascension of the Mother of God [Assumption]

Коронование Богоматери / Coronation of the Mother of God


On the Balakhna example, however, we find 17 scenes:

Рождество Богоматери / Birth of the Mother of God

Благовещение у колодца / Annunciation at the Well

Рождество Христово / Birth of Christ

Сретение / Meeting [in the Temple]

Преполовение / Mid-Pentecost

Омовение ног / Washing of the Feet [of the Disciples]

Моление о чаше / Prayer of the Cup

Взятие под стражу Христа / The Arrest of Christ [ The Taking into Custody]

Распятие / Crucifixion

Положение во гроб / Placing in the Tomb

Восстание из гроба / The Rising from the Tomb

Явление Марии Магдалине / Appearance to Mary Magdalene

Сошествие во ад / Descent to Hades

Вознесение Христово / Ascension of Christ

Сошествие Св. Духа / Descent of the Holy Spirit

Коронование Богоматери / Coronation of the Mother of God

Страшный Суд / Terrible Judgment

We find similar Western European Catholic examples in paintings of various periods, such as this one:

And this one:

Of course the old Russian version of the image has been “Orthodoxified” by removing or altering the rosary held by Mother and Child or both, and by replacing any attendant Catholic saints with Eastern Orthodox saints.

Those in the Murom example consist of the princes of Murom Konstantin, Mikhail and Feodor at left, and at right Prince Pyotr, Princess Fevronia, and Righteous Iulianiya Lazarevskaya.

In the Balakhna example, we find instead these saints:  at left, Iakov (James), Brother of the Lord; Muchenik (Martyr) Kondrat (Codratus/Quadratus), and the Apostle Ioann Bogoslov (John the Theologian).  At right are the Apostle Simeon (Bishop of Jerusalem, sometimes also called a brother of Jesus), and Righteous Ioakhim (Joachim) and Anna (parents of Mary).

The Balakhna example has an inscription below Mary that is too small be legible in the photo.  It reads:

О Дево, Госпоже, Мати Господа моего, Творца всех, Ты – Корень девству и Неувядаемый цвет чистоты, Небесным чином радование и человеческому роду Благословенная Помощнице, Моли Сына Своего о спасении всех христиан

O Virgin, Lady, Mother of my Lord, Maker of All, you are the Root of Virginity and the Unfading Flower of Purity, the Joy of the Heavenly Choirs and the Blessed Helper of the Race of Man, Pray to your Son for the Salvation of all Christians.”




Here is a 13th century fresco from the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery (Đurđevi stupovi) in Serbia:

It depicts three angels seated a a table.  You may recall that we have seen this basic image before, as part of more detailed icons of the “Old Testament Trinity,” also called “The Hospitality of Abraham” (Гостеприимство Авраамово/Gostepriimstvo Avraamovo).  But in this example, Abraham and everything else found in the more elaborate images of the Old Testament Trinity is absent.

We can see the title inscription written at both sides of the halo of the central angel:

It reads:


From past postings here, you will recognize that curved line above the first three letters as the sign of abbreviation, and so you will know that СТА with that line above it is the abbreviation for СВЯТАЯ — SVYATAYA — meaning “Holy,” except of course that the third and last letters would be given in the old Slavic form instead of the later Russian Я form for the “ya” sound.

You will probably also easily recognize the separated ТРО    ИЦА as the word ТРОИЦА — TROITSA — meaning “Trinity.”  So this image is titled Svyataya Troitsa — “Holy Trinity.”  You likely also easily noticed that the letters ТР (“TR”) are linked — they form a ligature, with the curve of the Р (“R”) about halfway down the vertical line from the top bar of the T.

Now the second significant thing to note is that this same central angel has the cross in his halo.  I hope you remember that a halo with a cross in it is used for images of Jesus.  Here that means the central angel of this Trinity is identified as Jesus — the Son, and the other two angels would then be the Father and the Holy Spirit.

One of those inter-factional quibbles eventually arose over giving the central angel the cross halo, thus identifying him as Jesus.  The Russian Stoglav Council in 1551 forbade this practice, and decreed that the title of such icons should be Svyataya Troitsa, and should follow the model of Andrey Rublev; and even today Eastern Orthodox bicker over whether the practice of giving the central angel the cross halo is “uncanonical” or not.  That does not matter to students of art history, however, because we are more interested in what was actually done than in what various factions think should have been done.  In any case, the painter of this image had not yet adopted the then relatively recent (in Slavic lands) practice of placing the Ho On — “The One Who Is” — inscription that also eventually became characteristic of the halo of Jesus.  He just used the simple form with no inscription on the cross in the halo.

Interestingly, there was not always agreement in earlier Christianity as to who the three angels were.  Procopius of Gaza (465–528) wrote that some considered them to be three angels, while the “Judaizers” held that only one of them was God, and the other two were angels; still others considered the three angels a “type” for the Holy Trinity (See his Commentary on Genesis XVIII).

Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho LVI, asserted that one of the three was God, and the other two angels, while his opposition held a common Jewish view that the “three men” of the Genesis story were three angels, and that they appeared to Abraham only after God appeared to him, following the text of Genesis 18:1-2:

“And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him…

The consensus in Eastern Orthodoxy, however, came to be that the three angels were the Trinity — or more vaguely, that the three show the “relationship” among the persons of the Trinity.






A reader requested a discussion of this detailed image:

(National Museum, Athens)

If we look in the lower right corner, we see this Latin inscription:


That really tells us a lot.  First, it reveals the name of the painter — Andreas Pavias; — Pinxit means “painted it.”  And de Candia — “of Candia”– tells us where he worked.  Candia was both the name for the island of Crete when it was a colony of the Venetian Republic, and of the island’s capital city.  So we know this is an icon from the Cretan school of icon painting.  And because we know it is by Andreas Pavias, we know also his dates — 1440 to somewhere within or near the first decade of the 1500s.  That it is written in Latin rather than Greek tells us that this image was intended for a “Latinate” customer — A Roman Catholic rather than a Greek Orthodox, and we already know that icon painters on Crete worked for both kinds of customers, and did a very large business in selling icons to Venetian buyers.

As you can see, there is a great deal of information condensed into this icon.  Let’s begin by looking at the focal center of the icon — the image of Jesus on the cross.  Around him are grieving angels, some catching his blood in chalices:

Let’s begin with the inscriptions and the upper portion of the cross:

On the titulus — the “name board” of the cross — we see the letters VNRI.  This is a variant of the standard spelling INRI — abbreviating Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum — “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  Below that — written in red letters — we see the Greek inscription identifying the image.  It is divided by the vertical beam of the cross:

We read it as:


And of course you recognize the IC XC abbreviations for Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”

But look at the image just above the very top of the cross.  That is something we do not ordinarily see in Greek iconography.  It is a popular Western Christian symbol — a pelican tearing open her own breast with her beak, in order to feed the blood to her young, and thus give them life.  It is put here as a symbol of Jesus giving his blood in the Crucifixion, to give life to believers.  If you look at what is supporting the nest in which the pelican and her brood are found, it appears to be a branching coral.  In Christian symbolism, coral was associated with the blood and Passion of Jesus, which is why it was also used as a protective talisman for children.

Let’s move down to the base of the cross:

We see the blood dripping down the shaft, and a woman in grief embracing the cross.  She is Mary Magdalene.

The redemptive blood drips all the way down to the skull in a hollow below the cross.  It is the skull of Adam — the legendary first man — who was said to have been buried on the site of the Crucifixion.  This of course is a symbol for the reversal of the “Fall,” at least for Christian believers.  Below the skull we see devils/demons in Hades, upset by the redemptive act taking place above them.

We must not overlook this fellow with his long pole, at the top of which is a sponge.  He used it in giving Jesus vinegar to drink, as mentioned in Mark 15:36, Matthew 27:48, and John 19:29. :

Behind him is a soldier with a lance.  A lance was used to pierce the side of Jesus.

Just to his left (but notably on what would be the side at the right hand of Jesus) we see the distraught Mary being held up by the other women, and by the youthful-looking disciple John (called “the Theologian” in Eastern Orthodoxy):

Moving up to the top on the “right hand of Jesus” side, we find one of the malefactors crucified with Jesus — the one who supposedly repented (though not in all accounts:  see this posting:  In Latin Christianity he was called Dismas. Note that he is crucified facing the viewer.  Above him — among the grieving angels, we not only see the image of the sun, but just below it an angel holding an infant.  This is the soul of Dismas being carried to Paradise.

The man with a club, standing on the ladder, is breaking the legs of Dismas to ensure death.

If we look on the opposite side of the cross — the left-hand of Jesus side — the “sinister” side — we find the unrepentant malefactor Gestas.  Above him is the moon.  Below the moon is a winged devil, who has caught the departing soul of Gestas — again in the form of an infant —  on a long hook, and will take him off to punishment.

In contrast to the repentant Dismas, who is crucified facing the viewer, Gestas is crucified facing away.  On the ladder at left we see another man with a club, breaking the legs of Gestas, and to his right is the scene of Judas — who traditionally betrayed Jesus — hanging himself from a tree (though actually there are two discrepant Gospel accounts of how Judas died).

Returning to the lower right-hand of Jesus side, we see the dead rising from their graves, as described in Matthew 27:52-53:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

On the “sinister” lower side of the icon, we see the soldiers who had “cast lots” for the garment of Jesus, as described in Matthew 27:35:

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.

The soldiers are dividing the cloth with a sword.  Note the three dice at the bottom of the image:

Andreas Pavia has filled the remainder of the painting with crowds of people, both on horseback and on foot.  He does this not only to show the importance of the event, but also to add visual interest for the buyer, who can take his time in looking from face to face and scene to scene, and feel he is getting his money’s worth in this very detailed icon.






A reader asked why, as we see in some “Creation” icons,  Jesus as the Logos is depicted as creating while seated upon a circle — in short, what is the circle?

We find an example in the 12th century mosaics of Monreale, Palermo, Sicily:

The circle on which Jesus sits represents the throne of God:

Οὕτως λέγει Κύριος· ὁ οὐρανός μοι θρόνος, ἡ δὲ γῆ ὑποπόδιον τῶν ποδῶν μου·
“Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne, and earth a footstool for my feet.” (Isaiah 66:1, also Acts 7:49)

Κύριος ἐν ναῷ ἁγίῳ αὐτοῦ· Κύριος ἐν οὐρανῷ ὁ θρόνος αὐτοῦ.
The Lord is in his holy temple; the throne of the Lord is in Heaven.”
(Psalm 10:4 Septuagint numbering, 11:4 KJV)

ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ· μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ·

“But I say to you, do not swear at all, neither by Heaven, which is the throne of God, nor by the earth, which is a footstool for his feet.” (Matthew 5:34-35)

Simultaneously, the circle depicts the heavenly realm in contrast to the earthly realm.  It is often composed of three concentric circles — as in the Monreale mosaics.  Some like to think of these as  symbolizing the three persons of the Trinity.  We might think of them as white for the Holy Spirit (the outer circle), blue for Jesus (the middle light blue circle), and the deepest blue circle for the Father, hidden in the darkness of Eternity.  That understanding may not fit all examples.



This fellow is Tikhon of Zadonsk (Тихон Задонский/Tikhon Zadonskiy), also called Tikhon of Voronezh (Тихон Воронежский/Tikhon Voronezhskiy).

His partly-abbreviated title inscription reads:



(Courtesy of

The more naturalistic depiction of his features as well as the position of the fingers of his right hand as it blesses tell us that this is a State Church icon, not one painted by the Old Believers.  And in fact he would not be numbered among Old Believer saints, because he was not officially “glorified” (somewhat the Russian Orthodox equivalent of canonization) until 1861, and then only by the post-Schism State Church, whose authority was not accepted by the Old Believers.  We know from all this that his icons will be from the latter part of the 19th century or later.

Tikhon (born Timofei in 1724) had a miserable, very poor and very difficult childhood, but later studied at the Novgorod Seminary.  He became a monk in 1758, then a year later Rector of the Tver Seminary.  He was made a bishop in 1761, at the age of 37, being first in Novgorod, then in Voronezh.

Now very interestingly, even though this was in the latter half of the 18th century, the people of Voronezh still celebrated an annual holiday in the late spring in honor of the deity Yarilo (Ярило) — a god of the return of spring, of growth of vegetation and fertility.

The holiday was observed in rather riotous fashion — and had been so carried on since the days before the arrival of Christianity.  Now as one might imagine, Bishop Tikhon did not like this at all, and he showed up in the public square in the middle of the festivities, denouncing the celebration with such vehemence that the fun stopped, and that was the end of the Yarilo celebrations each year in Voronezh — at least according to the traditional story of Tikhon’s life.

Tikhon’s health declined, and he spent the years from 1767 until his death in 1783 at the Zadonsk Monastery, where he lived in a small stone house attached to the bell tower by the monastery gate. His health was likely not helped by his sleeping only four or five hours in the day, and his difficult lifestyle.

If accounts of his life are to be believed, he was a very humble person with a sincere care for the poor and suffering, visiting prisoners and donating his pension to charity.  Supposedly he was telepathic, able to read people’s minds, and clairvoyance is also attributed to him, as it is said he predicted (in so many words) the later invasion of Russia and defeat of Napoleon.  Whatever the truth may have been, Tikhon was credited in popular belief with the ability to work miracles.

Tikhon died on August 13, 1783.  His relics — meaning his bodily remains — were said to be incorrupt (you will remember that in Russian folk belief, that indicated either a saint or a vampire), and in 1861 his official “glorification” as a saint took place.

Icons of Tikhon of Zadonsk are rather frequently encountered.


Today we will look briefly at a very uncommon icon type.  It is related to those icons we have seen in previous postings, representing the Guardian Angel and a person at death; but this particular type is based upon a collection of prayers:

(Russian State Museum)

As you can see, it consists of lots of little scenes, each with a bit of text beneath it.

The title inscription should tell us what this is all about:

It is a bit fuzzy, but we can nonetheless read it.  It says:

Изображение Канyна На Исход Души

Though the writer has spelled Kanona as Kanuna, we nonetheless know what he meant, so we can easily translate the title as:


So we know this icon represents a particular liturgical collection of funereal prayers relating to the departure of the soul from the body at death and its journey in the afterlife, as believed in Eastern Orthodox tradition.

This appears to be an Old Believer icon from the 19th century.  It is not a type you are likely to encounter, but if you do, you will be able to recognize it now.



In earlier postings we looked at icons of Holy Wisdom depicted as a red-faced angel sitting upon a throne often supported by seven pillars.  Today we will look at a 16th century Novgorod icon that again depicts Wisdom, but in a different manner.

Customarily, when looking at icons here, we look at the whole image first, then look more closely at various details.  Today, however, we shall begin with details, which will enable you to understand the icon as a whole when seeing it.

Here is the first detail:

We see a circle with a robed figure in the center, holding a chalice in hand.  Beside the head is a faint inscription reading:

Божия Сила Божия Премудрость
Bozhiya Sila Boshiya Premudrost’
“Power of God — Wisdom of God”

In the red surrounding circle are the winged wheels that are the class of angel called “Thrones” — commonly found in icons of the Trinity.  Also faintly visible in the red circle are representations of Seraphim and the symbols of the Four Evangelists — Man, Eagle, Lion, Ox:

In the darker, cloudy circle enclosing that, we see other angels, as well as a eucharistic container and an altar table.

Not only does the robed central figure have the “Thrones” underfoot — usually a sign of divinity — but also has an eight-pointed halo, another common sign of divinity,  a symbol of the days of Creation with the Eight Day — the Day of Eternity.  Below the seat on which Wisdom sits, we see seven slender supporting pillars.  That takes us back to the fundamental text on which Wisdom icons are based.  Proverbs 9:1:

Wisdom has builded her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars.

The illustration of the text continues:

“She hath killed her beasts…”

Those words are indicating by the two figures slaughtering two cattle beneath them.

She has mingled her wine; she has also furnished her table.

Here we see the wine and the table:

She has sent forth her maidens: she cries upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wants understanding, she says to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.

So in the detail above, we see all the people coming to receive the wine of wisdom.  And “crying from the highest places of the city” is a crowned figure in the tower, holding a scroll:

He is King Solomon, the traditional author of the book of Proverbs.  He is considered a prophet in Eastern Orthodoxy.  He holds a scroll that begins:

Premudrost’ sozda sebye kh[ra]m i outverdi…
“Wisdom built herself a temple and set up…”

So of course he is telling us  — as in Proverbs 9:1 — that Wisdom built herself a temple and set it up on seven pillars.

You may recall that older Orthodox translations say  — as here — khram/”temple,” which is also used in Slavic to mean “church.” Later translations use дом (dom), meaning “house.”

At right, above those coming for wine, we see a red circle of seraphim in which Mary is seated with Christ Immanuel, who is considered to be Wisdom:

Below her at right is a turbaned figure  — Kozma/Cosmas of Maium — holding a scroll that has a variant version of  an excerpt by him from the Canon of Holy Thursday:

Всепричинная подательница жизни безмерная мудрость Божия создала себе храм из чистой, не знавшей мужа Матери: ибо в храм телесный облекшийся славно прославился Христос Бог наш»

“The Cause of All, Giver of Life, the immeasurable Wisdom of God, created for himself a temple from the pure, husbandless Mother: for clothed in the temple of the body, gloriously has been glorified Christ our God.”

That illustrates Mary with Christ Immanuel above him — that the child Wisdom, through Mary, was clothed in the temple of a human body.

So that is the main part of the icon, which symbolizes not only the pre-existence but also the incarnation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom — and along with that it represents the Eucharistic sacrifice.

At the top of the icon, we see a seven-domed church:

The scenes beneath the smaller domes represent the Seven Ecumenical Councils, arranged chronologically from left to right:

At left is the Council of Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian controversy and the nature of Jesus.  Beside it is the Council of Constantinople in 381:

Next come the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, and beside it the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

Following that are the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553, under Emperor Justinian, and beside that the Sixth, the Council of Constantinople in 681.

Last — on the far right — is the Seventh Ecumenical Council under Empress Irene and her son Constantine, in 787.

At the very top of the icon are circles with angels bearing scrolls, but the inscriptions are too small to read in the photo. Often these are interpreted as the gifts of the Spirit.

That should go far in enabling you to understand the whole icon: