In a previous posting, I talked about the conflict in the Russian Orthodoxy of the 1500s over two opposing approaches to monasticism.  On the one hand were the Non-possessors like Nil Sorskiy, who thought monks should live an ascetic, hesychast life based on the “skete” or hermitage model of Mount Athos in Greece:  a small dwelling for the spiritual guide and a disciple or two, with the others living nearby in community, all being self-sufficient, accepting donations, and offering religious counsel to those lay people in the area.  They also promoted religious tolerance rather than forcing people to accept their beliefs.

But opposing this view were Joseph of Volokolamsk and his followers, the Possessors, the “establishment” monks, who were were accustomed to owning wide tracts of land (about a third of Russian land at that time was held by monasteries), being masters — as was the Russian nobility of the time — of the peasants who worked on it, and receiving from their lands the produce, services and goods of those basically enslaved peasants.  These were the advocates of monastic wealth. And they were religiously intolerant, believing those with different beliefs should be arrested and punished, with the State acting as the punishing arm of the Church.

Knowing that background, we can turn now to the life of  Michael Trivolis (Μιχαήλ Τρίβολης), c. 1480–1556, a young man born to wealth in Greece.  In the same year that  Columbus stumbled upon the New World — 1492 —  Michael (then about 20-22) traveled to Italy, which of course was a Roman Catholic country.  He studied in Venice, in Padua, Ferarra, Bologna,Milan, and even in that most noted of Renaissance centers of art and learning, Florence.  He knew the famous printer Aldus Manutius and moved in the humanist circles of the time.  He listened eagerly to the fiery sermons of the reforming monk Savonarola, who preached against what he felt were the excesses of the Renaissance — sermons which led to the noted Bonfire of the Vanities, in which books, manuscripts, paintings and other works of art, musical instruments and secular compositions, fine dresses, mirrors, and so on, were all thrown into the flames and burned for being too “worldly.”  It is said that even the great painter Sandro Botticelli destroyed some of his own works (which if true, is a great loss to art).

Michael Trivolis was highly impressed by the ascetic preaching of the Dominican monk Savonarola, and though he may never have actually spoken with him, Michael nonetheless chose to become a Dominican monk about 1501, and even entered the Monastery of San Marco, which had formerly been Savonarola’s monastery.  So this young man from a wealthy and highly-connected Eastern Orthodox family became a Roman Catholic Dominican monk.

Sometime during his two-year stay at San Marco, he changed his mind, and though he had spent some twelve years in Renaissance Italy, by about 1505-1506 he had left it, and in 1597 he was living as a monk in the Greek Orthodox Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece, under the name Maximos.  Eventually (after some twelve or more years), he was sent to Russia in 1518, where he was to translate patristic commentaries on the Psalter and other Greek writings. He did not know Church Slavic (the literary language in Russia), so he translated from Greek to Latin, and Russians who knew Latin translated into Church Slavic.  Eventually he learned enough Slavic to translate directly, though not without imperfections.

In Russia he not only translated, but also began to criticize the lifestyles of the Russian clergy and the wealthy land-owning monasteries and the abysmal treatment of peasants, taking the side of the Non-possessors, which is not surprising given the strong influence the ascetic sermons of Savonarola had on him in Italy.  Maxim favored poverty and simplicity in monasticism. He did not, by the way, tell his Russian hosts he had once been a Roman Catholic Dominican monk.  They would not have liked it, given the disdain of Russia for the “Latins” and their presumed heresies.

With his strong and outspoken views on many topics, Maxim eventually fell afoul of Church and State in Russia — partly because he opposed the desire of Vasili III to divorce his wife and remarry (shades of Henry VIII!).  A sobor (“council”) condemned him for heresy in 1525.  He spent approximately the last 30 years of his life imprisoned or confined because of his views, though in the last five years his circumstances eased.  He died at the Trinity-Sergiyev Monastery in 1556, never having been allowed to return to Greece after his fall from grace, because, it is said, he “knew too much” about Russia.  Within a century of his death he was being regarded as a saint, particularly among the Old Believers, no doubt partly due to his persecution by Church and State, which the Old Believers also suffered.

Maxim is said to have brought the news of the discovery of the New World to Russia.  And though he preached against aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine once he returned to Eastern Orthodoxy, he never lost his high regard for the Dominican monk Savonarola, saying that if he had not been a “Latin” by faith, he would have been numbered among the ispovedniki — the Confessors of the Church.

He is called in Russia Максим Грек — Maksim Grek  — “Maxim the Greek,” and in Greek Μάξιμος ὁ Γραικός.

In icons, Maxim the Greek can be recognized by his remarkably wide, pizza-paddle-shaped beard.  As already mentioned, because of his long years of suffering for his beliefs, Maxim early on became a hero saint to the Old Believers, which is why his icons were common among them.  Paradoxically, he is also now a saint of the State Church that persecuted him, though not officially accepted as such until 1988, 432 years after his death.


A common text on books or scrolls held by Maxim in Russian icons is the so-called “Prayer of Maxim” — this line, taken from his Canon to the Holy Spirit, which he is said to have written in charcoal on the wall of his prison:

“Иже манною препитавый Израиля в пустыни древле, и душу мою, Владыко, Духа наполни Всесвятаго, яко да о Нем благоугодно служу Ти выну…”

“Who manna did feed to Israel in the wilderness of old, also fill my soul, Master, with the All-holy Spirit, through whom I may give favorable service to you always…”



By now, I hope readers have discovered that if this site is read from the first postings onward, it provides a useful course in identifying icons and reading their inscriptions.  Being able to read inscriptions is a very important part of the study of icons, and it is not difficult.

Today we will look at another icon of Ioann Predtecha —  Иоанн Предтеча — John the Forerunner — commonly called John the Baptist in the West.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

This type is commonly known by the title inscription we see at the top.  We will take it in two parts:



So it reads, all together,


You may remember from previous lessons that the Church Slavic СОБОРЬ — Sobor — means “council,” “assembly” “gathering” and it is even the word used for a cathedral.  Here it is appropriate to translate it as “assembly.”  In Orthodox Church calendrical usage, a sobor (Greek synaxis) was originally (in Constantinople) an assembly for liturgical purposes at a church, in honor of a saint or saints involved in a particular event (often a day after an event celebrated as one of the major feasts)  These calendar celebrations were later generally adopted in Orthodoxy.  So we find, for example, the Sobor of John the Forerunner celebrated on January 7th, the day after the Feast of the Bogoyavlenie — the Theophany (the baptism of Jesus).

So this icon is the “Assembly” of John the Forerunner, and it depicts visually the account we find in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Бы́сть Иоáн­нъ крестя́й въ пусты́ни и проповѣ́дая крещéнiе покая́нiя во от­пущéнiе грѣхóвъ.
Buist Ioann krestyay v pustuini i propovyedaya kreshchenie pokayaniya vo otpushchenie gryekhov.
“John was baptizing in the wilderness and preaching baptism of repentance in remission of sins.”

And in this next detail, we find illustrated these words:

И исхождá­ше къ немý вся́ Иудéйская странá и Иерусали́мляне…
I iskhozhdashe k nemu vsya Iudeyskaya strana i Ierusalimlyane…
“And there went out to him all the country of Judea and the Jerusalemites…”

We see the people of Jerusalem coming out of their city, on their way to John.

And in this detail we see illustrated these words:

и крещáхуся вси́ во Иордáнѣ рѣцѣ́ от­ негó, исповѣ́да­ю­ще грѣхи́ своя́.
i kreshchakhusya vsi vo Iordanye ryetsye ot nego, ispovyedaiushche gryekhi svoya.
“…and were all baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins.”

Here we see the people removing their clothes on the banks of the Jordan, in preparation for baptism:

Here John is described:

Бѣ́ же Иоáн­нъ оболчéнъ власы́ велблýжди, и пóясъ усмéнъ о чреслѣ́хъ егó….
Bye zhe Ioann obolchen vlasui velbluzhdi, i poyas usmen o chreslyekh ego….
“John was clothed in camel hair, and a leather belt around his waist….”

It is interesting to note that among the beasts surrounding John, we find a lion, a donkey, a camel, and even a unicorn.  Because the word used to describe John’s desert in the new testament means “wilderness,” (a wild, deserted place) Russian painters — who did not know what the Judean desert was like — just painted a kind of forest instead.  That is typical of this type in Russian iconography.

John is looking upward toward Lord Sabaoth in the sky, who is blessing him with the fingers of the blessing hand in the position used by the Old Believers, so that just confirms what we already suspect from the style of the painting — that this is an Old Believer icon.  We can see Lord Sabaoth’s inscription just above him:

Господъ саваофъ
Gospod savaof
“Lord Sabaoth.”

It is interesting to note how the landscape is painted.  As I have mentioned before, the Old Believers — while keeping the abstraction of “human” figures, nonetheless borrowed techniques for painting landscapes from the more realistic art of Western Europe.  The foliage of the trees and bushes consists of progressively lighter leaves superimposed on a darker background, a technique also used in the landscapes of Western Europe.The water is composed of background washes of shades of blue, with horizontal strokes of dark to light superimposed upon it.

From all of the characteristics of this icon — including the strong use of bright gold with a bright red inscription upon it, as well as the abstract manner of painting the human figures, combined with the somewhat “westernized” landscape, and the Old Believer blessing sign of “Lord Sabaoth,” we can reasonably assume that this attractive icon is from one of the number of Old Believer icon workshops once found in various cities and towns of the Urals.  Today the icons then produced in those Ural workshops are generally known under the blanket term “Nevyansk School” (Невьянская школа — Nevyanskaya shkola ), after the city of Nevyansk (Невьянск), the largest center of the Old Belief in the Urals — though Nevyansk icons were painted in a number of places in the region (such as Nizhniy Tagil/Нижний Тагил, Staraya Utka/Старая Утка, Krasnoufimsk/Красноуфимск).  Large numbers of Old Believers from parts of Poland, northern Russia and the Volga settled in the important mining region in the early 18th century, bringing with them influences from various schools of icon painting.  The “Nevyansk School” of icon painting that developed out of this was largely active from the second half of the 18th through the first half of the 19th century (though there are earlier examples), and benefited from the patronage of those involved in the rich Ural mines.  But with the economic downturn in the Urals and other changes, the school went into a decline in the second half of the 19th century.

Sverdlovsk Oblast (Province), Russia

In the map below, the large black dot in the circle at lower right is the city of Sverdlovsk.  Going northward, we see Nevyansk, and some distance above it, Nizhniy Tagil.  Krasnoufimsk is at lower left.


It is hard to overestimate the importance of learning to read basic Church Slavic for the student of Russian icons.  Without that essential knowledge (and it is not difficult to gain), mistakes in identification can very easily happen.

Take for example this icon.  One might assume on first look that it represents the “pillar saint” most often seen in icons — called in Russian Simeon Stolpnik — Simeon Stylities — or Simeon “the Pillar Guy” to put it loosely.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

And even if one reads the title inscription a bit too hastily, concentrating only on the first three words, one might also make the same error.  After all, as we can see from a closer look, they read СВЯТЫЙ ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ СИМЕОНЪ  — SVYATUIY PREPODOBNUIY SIMEON “Holy Venerable Simeon.”

And we can certainly see that he is standing atop a pillar, so the logical conclusion would be that this is Simeon Stylites, the fellow whose description comes first among saints in the old Church year in the old painters’ manuals —  on September 2nd.  But that is because we have ignored the last word in the title inscription.  Here is a larger image of it:

Those of you who have learned the Church Slavic alphabet (you have, haven’t you?) will see that it is written as:

And you can see that it has a curved line of abbreviation above it.  It abbreviates

Divno- means “wondrous,” “marvelous,” and “-goretz” means “mountain person,” related to the word gora — “mountain.”  So this title is generally translated ” of the Wondrous Mountain” or “of Marvelous Mountain,” or something similar.

So this particular saint is

So he is named Simeon, and he is a Stylite — but he is Simeon Stylites the Younger, NOT Simeon Stylites the Elder, who is the better-known of the two.  In Greek, this “Younger” Simeon is called Όσιος Συμεών ὁ Θαυμαστορείτης — Hosios Symeon ho Thaumastoreites — “Venerable Simeon of the Marvelous Mountain” (“Marvelous,” incidentally, in that it is a place of marvels — of miracles, not that it is just a “marvelous” place to live).  You will recall that the Greek title Hosios is the equivalent of the Church Slavic Prepodobnuiy, which we loosely translate as “Venerable” — and it indicates a male “monk” saint.

An important stylistic point:  If we look at the background of this icon, we see that the sky is painted in graduated shades of blue, from dark at the bottom to light at the top.  This manner of painting the sky is typical of certain Russian icons painted in the last years of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th.  We find this graduated sky in the works of such noted Mstera (pron. Mstyora) -trained iconographers as Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev (pron. Dikaryov) and Osip Semyonovich Chirikov, etc.  It is a useful point in dating.

But what about this “other” Simeon Stylities — Simeon of the Marvelous Mountain?  Well, the first Simeon Stylities  “the Elder” — lived from near the end of the 300s until 459 c.e.  But the one in today’s icon — Simeon Stylities “the Younger” — lived 521-597 c.e.

This “of the Marvelous Mountain” Simeon — according to his “life” as written by Dmitriy Rostovskiy — was destined before birth to be an ascetic.  Keep in mind that these lives of saints are often highly fictionalized.  It happened that a young man of marriageable age named John went with his parents from Edessa to Antioch.  There the parents were taken with a lovely young woman named Martha.  Martha really did not want to marry, wanting instead to devote her life to religion.  She went to a church and prayed in tears to be delivered from marriage.  But there she had a vision in which she was told to do as her parents told, and marry John.  So she married, but this time kept praying to John the Forerunner (“the Baptist”) that she might have a male child, and that this boy’s life would be consecrated to God.  One night while praying in church, she fell asleep and John the Forerunner appeared to her, saying her prayer was accepted.  He gave her a censer with burning incense, and told her to take it to her house.  She woke to find the fragrant censer in her hand.  She had a second vision in which John told her to go to her husband (and essentially to conceive a child).  He said her child — to be called Simeon — would only drink milk from Martha’s left breast, not touching the right at all; and that he would not eat meat or drink wine, but his food would be only bread, honey, salt, and water.  And she was to bring the child to that church two years after his birth, to be baptized.

After the child was born, on days when Martha ate meat and drank wine, the infant would refuse her breast milk entirely, waiting until the next day.  When two years had passed, Simeon was taken to the church and baptized, and as soon as he was baptized, the child spoke, saying, “I have a father, and I do not have a father;  I have a mother and I do not have a mother” (Имею отца, и не имею отца; имею матерь, и не имею матери).  And he kept saying it for seven days.

When the boy was six years old, there was an earthquake that killed his father.  Simeon, being in a church at the time, survived, but when he walked out of the church, he could not find the way to his home amid all the rubble.  A pious woman found him, and took him to a mountain not far from the city.  His mother did not know where he was, but John the Forerunner appeared to her and told her where to find him.

Martha settled in Antioch with her child Simeon, who began to have visions too.  And so did a certain other John, the abbot of a monastery on a mountain.  He saw — from atop his pillar — a boy who would come to the monastery.  Simeon did come to the monastery at age six, finding his way there alone through a desert region.  And he took up his destined life there.

His life from this point was extremely ascetic, filled with visions, and the boy was said to receive the power to drive out demons from people, and to perform other miracles.  Simeon began living atop a pillar, living a life of extreme asceticism and self-deprivation and mortification, healing people, casting out demons, and even raising the dead.   And of course his visions continued.

Eventually, Simeon decided that the crowds of people coming to him were interfering with his spiritual life, so he decided to go to another mountain that was without water entirely, so people did not go there.  It was populated only by wild animals and snakes.  With this in mind, Simeon had another vision in which the Lord appeared to him and said,
– Потрудись, Симеон, взойти на эту Дивную гору, ибо с этого времени гора эта назовется сим именем; на ней Я явлю на удивление всем благодать Мою тебе.  “Labor, Simeon, to ascend this marvelous mountain, since from this time the mountain will be called by that name.  On it I will reveal my grace to you in marvels” — thus the name of the mountain and the title by which this Simeon is known, distinguishing him from the others.  And there are others, not only Simeon Stylites the Elder, but also the obscure 5th century Simeon Stylites III, who lived in Cilicia, and a Simeon Stylites of Lesbos, who lived in the latter 700s and first half of the 800s.

But back to our “Marvelous Mountain” Simeon.  When his crowds of admirers heard he had moved to another mountain, they all flocked there in crowds as well, so Simeon failed in his effort to live a more isolated life.

One day, when one of these Simeon fans was on his way to see his hero, a lion appeared, and was about to tear him apart when the man said, “Do not harm me, for the sake of Simeon, a saint of God.”  And it is said that on hearing this, the lion did not harm him.  Nonetheless, when it was reported to Simeon that a lion was living on his mountain and troubling his visitors, he sent one of his disciples — Anastasiy — to the lion’s lair to tell the beast that he was to leave the mountain and to stop frightening the visitors.  Hearing this, the lion went away to live in another place.

The rest of Simeon’s life — as these hagiographic tales go — was filled with many other such wondrous events — visions of the future, healing all kinds of diseases, etc. etc.   At the age of 33 he decided to become a priest, and at the age of 75 he died.

Oddly enough, the “Marvelous Mountain” on which Simeon lived (near Antakya, Turkey, the former Antioch on the Orontes) is now the site of a number of electricity-producing wind turbines, one placed right at the ruins of the monastery built by his followers.  The Turks still call the mountain Samandağ — “Simeon’s Mountain.”


I have often said that when one follows any thread in the study of icons, it leads to countless others in an endless tapestry of related information.

This is particularly obvious in the transformation of a brief biblical story into a long string of varying legends.  That story is of the “woman with the issue of blood” found in Mark 5:25–34, Matthew 9:20–22, and Luke 8:43–48.  Here is the Lukan version:

 “And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, who had spent all her living on physicians, neither could be healed of any,came behind him [Jesus], and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood staunched.  And Jesus said, ‘Who touched me?’   When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master, the multitude throng you and press you, and do you say, ‘Who touched me?’  And Jesus said, Somebody has touched me: for I perceive that power is gone out of me.  And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him, she declared to him before all the people for what cause she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately.  And he said to her, ‘Daughter, be of good comfort: your faith has made you whole; go in peace.‘”

This woman is not given a name.  Here is a Russian icon depicting the story:

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)In

Eusebius (circa 260/265 – 339/340), in his Ecclesiastical History (Book 7, chapter 18) tells about a statue in the town of Caesarea Philippi, also called Paneas (now Banias):

“Since I have mentioned this city, I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Savior deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Savior to her remain there.

 For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if supplicating. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases.

They say that this statue  is an image of Jesus. (τοῦτον τὸν ἀνδριάντα εἰκόνα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φέρειν ἔλεγον ) It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city.

Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

The essence of this story is that there is a statue of a man dressed in classical style, reaching out his hand toward a woman kneeling before him, hands out as though in supplication.

Now as  John Francis Wilson points out in his book Caesarea Philippi: Banias, the Lost City of Pan, such an image of a kneeling, supplicating woman and a man in classical garb standing, with hand out to her, is a very good description of the image found on those coins of the Roman Emperor Hadrian called Restitutor (“Restorer”) coins.  These show the Emperor helping the province (represented as a kneeling figure) raise itself again.  So what Eusebius saw, in spite of the fanciful story associating it with Jesus, is more likely to have been a statue depicting such a symbolic scene of kneeling province and standing Emperor.  Keep in mind that Eusebius says the statue was made, as was the habit of the “ancients” as “gentiles,” to  erect statues in honor of those regarded as deliverers.  That again would well describe a Restitutor image.  You will find a good depiction of such “Restorer” coins on the right side of this page:

In the Church History of Sozomen (circa 400-450) book 5, chapter 21, the statue is no longer presented as “said to be” Jesus, but as Jesus.  He uses it to take a dig at the Emperor Julian, who abandoned Christianity for “paganism,” and so became abhorred by Christians:

Having heard that at Cæsarea Philippi, otherwise called Paneas, a city of Phœnicia, there was a celebrated statue of Christ which had been erected by a woman whom the Lord had cured of a flow of blood, Julian commanded it to be taken down and a statue of himself erected in its place; but a violent fire from heaven fell upon it and broke off the parts contiguous to the breast; the head and neck were thrown prostrate, and it was transfixed to the ground with the face downwards at the point where the fracture of the bust was; and it has stood in that fashion from that day until now, full of the rust of the lightning. The statue of Christ was dragged around the city and mutilated by the pagans; but the Christians recovered the fragments, and deposited the statue in the church in which it is still preserved.

In the apocryphal 4th century Acts of Pilate (5:26), the “woman with the issue of blood” testifies before Pilate at the trial of Jesus, and is given a name:

And a certain woman named Veronica, said, I was afflicted with an issue of blood twelve years, and I touched the hem of his garment, and presently the issue of blood stopped.  The Jews then said, We have a law, that a woman shall not be allowed as an evidence.

So this originally anonymous woman came to be known as Veronica, and she is so identified in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Russian depictions of her healing by Jesus are generally known as Исцеление кровоточивой жены — Istselenie krovotochivoy zhenui — “The Healing of the Blood-flowing Woman,” or some slight variation of that.

In this 14th century Serbian fresco, the title is “Christ Heals [the] Blood-flowing [Woman]”:

In Greek iconography, she is called Ἡ αἱμοῤῥοοῦσα γυνή — He haimoroousa gyne — “The Blood-flowing Woman,” or simply He Haimorroousa.

Now oddly enough, this tale of Veronica eventually became tangled, in garbled fashion, with the tale of the “Abgar Image” of Jesus — the “Image Not Made by Hands” — which as we saw in an earlier posting, evolved over much time.

You may recall that in western Catholic tradition, Veronica was said to have wiped the face of Jesus with a cloth on his way to  be crucified, and the image was imprinted on the cloth.  This again is a variation on the later version of the “Abgar” tale, in which Jesus pressed a cloth to his wet face, and his image miraculously was imprinted upon it — becoming, supposedly, the first Christian icon.

All of this again reminds us how completely unreliable these old religious traditions generally are.  They are more legends and pious fables than actual history.  But to those who made and used icons, they were considered to be fact.

There is far more to the history of these various “Veronica” tales than I have space for today, but for those who want to investigate further, I suggest, as a good introduction, the book Veronica and Her Cloth; history, symbolism and structure of a “true” image, by Ewa Kuryluk.



Anyone familiar with Russian art will have seen the remarkable painting (completed in 1883) by Ilya Repin (1844–1930) called Крестный ход в Курской губернии — Krestnuiy khod v Kurskoy Gubernii loosely, “Religious Procession in Kursk Province.”  It is fascinating not only because of the skill of the artist, but also because it is a look at Tsarist Russia, warts and all.  With a slight change of costume, it could be a scene out of the Middle Ages:

To the left, we see the poor and humble walking as best they can, and above them, mounted on horses, the civil authorities.

In the center we see the well-to do and the clergy.  Note the many tree stumps on the slope behind them:

At right — in front of the fellow striking at the crowd with his whip — men carry an elaborate structure, decorated with flowers and beribboned.  It contains an icon, though we see only the golden glints of light reflecting off its case.  Some of those carrying it are shod in woven bark shoes, which was common among the peasantry of those days:

Though many are familiar with the painting, most do not know that it depicts the annual procession carrying the Курская Коренная — Kurskaya Korennaya — the “Kursk Root” icon — from the monastery where it was kept to the city of Kursk.

Today we will take a look at that somewhat controversial icon type.  Here is the “Kursk Root” image as it appears today, in its enameled and filigreed cover in the style of the beginning of the 20th century.

It is said that the Kursk Root icon originally consisted only of the center image of Mary and the Christ Child, in the form known as the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of god.  Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the inscription across the bottom of the icon.  It is long, so I will divide it.  Here is the beginning:

It reads:

“[The] Representation and Measure of the Wonder-working Image…”

“[Of the] “Sign” Most-Holy Mother-of-God  Root-Kursk.”

So all together,

The origin story of the icon tells us that its “appearance” took place in the 13th century (the 1200s), when Russia had been devastated by the plundering and burning Mongol hordes.  The tale is set in the vicinity of Kursk, a place some 280 miles south of Moscow.

Kursk was destroyed by the invading Tatars under Batu Khan about 1237-1240, and was not rebuilt again until 1586.  After the invasions of the Tatars, what had been a city became a wilderness.

In the autumn of 1295 (September 8th, so the story goes), a hunter from Rylsk, a city down the Sem River to the West, came wandering through the forest in the vicinity of Kursk, looking for game.  On the banks of the Tuskar River near Kursk, he found a small icon lying face down at the roots of a tree.  When he turned it over, he found it to be a copy of the “Sign” Mother of God.  And it is said that as soon as he picked it up, a spring of water bubbled out of the ground where it had lain (remember the Catholic story of Bernadette and the spring at Lourdes?).  That is supposed to have been the icon’s first miracle.

Here is a map showing Kursk ( Курскъ ) at right center, and at the far lower left is Rylsk (Рылскъ)

If we look more closely at Kursk, we see the River Tuskar (Тускар ) flowing northward just to the right of it, and bending eastward near the top of the image:

A little wooden chapel was built for the icon there, and its reputation as a miracle-working icon began to spread.  Soon people were coming all the way from Rylsk to venerate the image and to hope for miracles.

Hearing all the news, Prince Vasiliy Shemyaka of Rylsk ordered that the icon be brought to Rylsk, and crowds of citizens went out to greet the icon on its arrival, but the Prince himself was not among them.  Because of this sign of disrespect, the legend says Prince Vasiliy was struck blind, until (as these stories go — another common motif), he repented with prayer before the icon, and was healed.  He then had a church dedicated to the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God” built at Rylsk for the icon, and established a feast to be held annually in its honor.

But here we encounter yet another common motif in the hagiography of icons.  You will remember that traditionally these “wonderworking” icons behave like conscious persons, and can move under their own volition.  Well, the story tells us that the icon from Kursk disappeared from the church at Rylsk, and was found to have returned to the little chapel originally built for it at Kursk.  The citizens of Rylsk went to retrieve it, but when they brought it back to Rylsk, it disappeared again.  This happened several times, until finally the people of Rylsk accepted the inevitable and let the icon stay where it wanted to be, at Kursk.  A priest named Bogoliub (literally “God-Love”) came and undertook the care and rituals of the chapel.

In 1383 the Tatars came back to Kursk, and tried to burn down the chapel.  It would not burn, so they suspected Bogoliub of magic.  The priest told them it was the icon that was protecting the chapel, so they took the icon, cut it in two pieces, threw the pieces off in different places, burnt the chapel (it worked this time), and took Bogoliub prisoner.  He worked as a captive sheepherder until rescued by some ambassadors from Moscow who heard him singing songs to Mary as they passed by.  Bogoliub returned to the site of the chapel, found the pieces of the icon, and they are said to have miraculously grown back together, with no sign of the cut showing except the presence of something like dew.

Hearing of these wonders, the people of Rylsk took the icon back to their city, but again the icon disappeared and was found back at Kursk.  So they rebuilt the burnt chapel at Kursk for the icon, and it stayed there for some 200 years.

In 1597 Tsar Feodor of Moscow ordered the rebuilding of the city of Kursk, heard of the “miracles” of its icon, and had it brought to Moscow, where it was received with great acclaim.  The Tsaritsa Irina had a rich covering of pearls, precious stones, etc. made for the icon.  It was at this time that the Tsar is said to have had the original icon placed in a gilt silver frame, with the image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) at the top, and Old Testament prophets at the sides (as in the icon type “The Praise of the Mother of God”).  Then the icon was sent back to Kursk.  A monastery and church were built on the site of the old chapel, and a new church dedicated to Mary as the “Lifegiving Fountain” was constructed where the spring had appeared when the icon was found.  The Monastery came to be known as the “Root Desert,” after the root where the icon was originally discovered.  “Desert” (Пустынь/Pustuin) is used in Russian Orthodoxy to signify a monastic settlement, recalling the Theban Desert of Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated.

When another Tartar invasion threatened, the icon was taken to a larger church in the city of Kursk, and a copy was left in its place in the chapel.

In the 17th century, the “Pretender” Dmitriy (eventually Tsar of Russia from 1605-1606) claimed to be the son of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” and to have survived an assassination attempt.  His army fought to put him on the throne, and during his battles he knew the propaganda value of the Kursk icon, and had it brought to his military camp in Putivl.  He eventually took it with him to the palace in Moscow.  The icon was there until 1615.

In 1612, a Polish commander besieged Kursk, but it is said the inhabitants prayed to Mary, who supposedly appeared on the walls with two shining monks to fend off the attackers.  The citizens of Kursk promised in their prayers that they would build a monastery in the city in the name of the “Sign” icon.  They petitioned the Tsar (then Mikhail Feodorovich), and in 1615 the icon was returned to Kursk and placed in the cathedral there.  In 1618 it was moved to the “Sign” Monastery in Kursk.

In the intervening years, the icon (or copies of it) was further used in one conflict or another — including a copy sent to General Kutuzov by the City of Kursk in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.  This again is an example of the belief that icons can aid in battle and defense (or be used as propaganda devices to inspire soldiers, depending on one’s point of view).

It is said that Revolutionaries tried to blow up the icon in 1898, but it somehow survived the explosion undamaged.  It was stolen from the “Sign” Monastery in April of 1918 and stripped of its valuable covering, but it was found and returned in early May.

In 1919 (this is after the Revolution) the icon was taken to Serbia, briefly to Crimea in 1910, then back to Serbia, and eventually to Munich (Germany), and in 1951 to the United States, settling eventually at the New Kursk Hermitage in Mahopac, New York and the  Cathedral Church of the Mother of God of the Sign in New York City, which is the residence of the First Hierarch of the very conservative division of Orthodoxy called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).  It is treated by present-day Russian Orthodox much as it was in the past, as a “miracle-working” icon, and as such it continues to add new stories of its “miracles” to its traditional history.

 Now, as mentioned earlier, it is said that the original icon found at Kursk was a small copy of the Znamenie/”Sign” type, and that later the image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father) and nine Old Testament Prophets were added to it in 1597 when it was brought to Moscow.

In recent times there has been much controversy over the presence of God the Father on the image.  Some of the more conservative Russian Orthodox (there is a strong, very conservative element in Eastern Orthodoxy) consider it to be heretical, which always amuses me, given the widespread and centuries-long use of the image of God the Father in Eastern Orthodox icons.  And of course it is paradoxical that an icon with a supposedly heretical image atop it should nonetheless be considered “miracle-working” through more than four centuries after the additions were supposedly made.

In any case, it is standard for copies of the icon to depict all of the figures, including God the Father right at the top.  So common is this practice that I have never seen an old copy without them.

Here is an example in which the image of Lord Sabaoth (with the Dove of the Holy Spirit) at the top center is plainly labeled Б[о]гъ О[те]цъ — Bog Otets — “God the Father.”  The longer inscription at the base reads:  “The Representation and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the “Sign” Most Holy Mother of God of Kursk.

(Courtesy of

Interestingly, an example of the “Kursk Root” type in the collection the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts was recently called to my attention.  Here it is:

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton Ma)

This particular icon is interesting and unusual because someone, at some time, apparently removed the image of God the Father that should be in the clouds at the top, leaving an oddly blank space never found in such icons:

The  images of the prophets on examples of the type vary slightly from image to image.  The example just above shows (King) David, Moses, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, at left, Habakkuk at the base, and (King) Solomon, Daniel, Isaiah, and Elijah at right.  The example shown first on this page depicts David, Moses, Isaiah and Gideon at left, Habakkuk at bottom center, and Solomon, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Elijah at right.


Today we will take a very brief look at another of the so-called “Wonder-working” icons of Mary — the Rostovskaya (“Of Rostov”) image.  There is little information about it, but it is easy to recognize.  The “Rostov” of the title is one of two large Russian cities by that name.  This one is the Rostov north of Moscow, in Yaroslavl Oblast (Region).  The other is Rostov on the Don.  The northern city, which is very old, is often distinguished from the other by the title Ростов ВеликийRostov Velikiy — “Rostov the Great”

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

This type depicts Mary standing on clouds at left.  She holds the Christ Child, who blesses those standing on the right, which vary in number from example to example.  Here there are three, which is standard in many examples.  From left to right they are the Bishops of Rostov Leontiy (Leontius, died 1073), Isaiya (Isaiah, died 1090), and Ignatiy (Ignatius, died 1288).

It is said that Leontiy, who was born in Constantinople, was killed in 1073 at the instigation of sorcerers, which shows that this period was a time of conflict between the indigenous beliefs of the region and the expanding authority of the Orthodox Church. Isaiya was born in Kiev/Kiyev, and became a monk at the famous Monastery of the Caves there (Pecherskaya Lavra). Ignatiy was born in the Rostov area. Tradition says that at his funeral, two pious nuns, as well as other particularly pious people, saw the saint rise out of his coffin and walk up into the air above the church, where he blessed the people and the city; then he descended into the church, where his coffin lay prepared.

Here is another example of the type, which expands the number of saints at right to fifteen:



From past posting here, you are already familiar with the standard Deisis icon type depicting Jesus enthroned in the center, with Mary approaching him on the left and John the Forerunner on the right — showing the heavenly court.  And of course there is the variant in which Mary is robed like a Queen, commonly called Predsta Tsaritsa odesnuyu Tebe  — The “Queen Stands at your Right,” after Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Slavic Bible)  There is also the extended Deisis, which adds more saints to the basic form.  And you will perhaps recall  the “Savior with Bystanders” Deisis that is sometimes called “The Week,” (though it is not the usual type by that name).

There is also the “Trinity” Deisis.  In this variant, the central figure of Jesus is replaced by the “New Testament Trinity” image — Jesus seated at left, God the Father as an old man at right, and the Holy Spirit as a dove between them.

Here, however, is an example of a less common Trinity variant in which the “New Testament Trinity” is replaced by the  Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” (or “Paternity”) image — showing God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) as an old man seated on a throne, with Christ Immanuel (Jesus in child or youth form) seated on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove before the Father’s chest.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)


God the Father holds the orb of authority, and has the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) as his halo, signifying the Eighth Day — the Day of Eternity.  We see Mary in royal robes at left, and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) also crowned, standing at right.  Beside Mary is the Archangel Michael, and the Archangel Gabriel stands by John.  The two little monks at the foot of the throne are commonly the founders of the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea in northern Russia, Zosim (Zosima) at left, and Savvatiy (Sabbatius) at right.  You may recall that they are also the patrons of beekeeping.

Let’s take a look at the title inscription (slightly enhanced):


Words are abbreviated, but with missing letters added, it reads (in modern font):

“[The] Image of the Most Holy Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

If you add this knowledge to what you have learned from previous “Deisis” postings on this site, you should now have a very good grasp of the basic type and its variations.