LEFT OR RIGHT, IT’S THE SAME TYPE: THE “LOOK UPON THE HUMILITY” MARIAN ICON

You may recall my recent posting on the icon type “My Soul Magnifies the Lord,” a mystic-didactic icon based on the biblical words in Mary called the “Magnificat” in the West, from the Latin version of that text.

You may also recall that in discussing that type, we looked at the whole Magnificat, which begins with these words:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

For he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden….”

In Church Slavic that is (modern font):

Величит душа моя Господа и возрадовася дух мои о Бозе Спасе моем.
яко призре на смирение рабы своея…
Velichit dusha moya Gospoda i vozradovasya dukh moi o Boze Space moem.
Iako prizre na smirenie rabui svoeya…

The words we want to emphasize today are Iako prizre na smirenie rabui svoeya, which rather literally translated are “For he has looked upon the humility of his female-servant.”

Those words are the source for the title for the Marian icon type we will examine today.  It is commonly called Призри На Смирение — Prizri na Smirenie — “Look Upon the Humility.

In fact if we look at the title of this icon of that type, we find it is just the quote from the Magnificat:

 

The origin story of this Marian icon, which is regarded in Eastern Orthodoxy as one of the supposed “miracle-working” icons, states that it appeared at Stony Lake in the Pskov region, in the year 1420.

It can be recognized by the standing Christ Child (Christ Immanuel), with a globe symbolizing authority in one hand, the other touching Mary’s face or head.  Mary holds a scepter in her other hand.

In most versions of this Marian icon type, the Christ Child stands on the right of the icon, but as painters often got their pattern stencils reversed, in some icons (as in this one) he is found standing on the left.

The little female figure in the left-hand border is СВЯТАЯ ЦАРИЦА ЕЛЕНА — Svyataya Tsaritsa Elena — the “Holy Empress Elena/Helena.

“IN THE GRAVE FLESHLY”: ANOTHER MYSTIC-DIDACTIC TYPE

Lately, I have been discussing the so-called “mystic-didactic” icons.  Remember that mystic-didactic icons illustrate Eastern Orthodox dogma, as well as biblical and liturgical excerpts.  In Russia the “classic” period for this kind of icon was the 16th-17th century.  Today we will look at another “mystic-didactic” icon from that period (17th century).

Here it is:

 

At first glance, it may seem just a random collection of random scenes, but it is not.  It actually illustrates lines from the latter part of the Liturgy of John Chrysostom:

Во гробе плотски, во аде же с душею яко Бог, в раи же с разбойником, и на престоле был еси, Христе, со Отцем и Духом, вся исполняяй неописанный.

Vo grobe plotski, vo ade zhe s dusheiu yako Bog, v rai zhe s razboinikom, i na
prestole buil esi, Khriste, so Otsem i Dukhom, vsya ispolnyayay neopisnnuiy

In the grave fleshly, and in Hades with the spirit as God, and in Paradise with the Thief, and on the throne you were, Christ, with the Father and Spirit, all-filling, unlimited.

Here is how the scenes illustrate it:

In the grave fleshly…

It depicts the standard scene Russians call the “Placing in the Tomb” and Greeks the “Lamentation.”  Jesus lies in the tomb with Mary holding him as his other followers lament.

And in Hades with the spirit as God…

This shows a variant of the old “Descent into Hades” type.  At left is Jesus, who has broken down the Gates of Hades.  In the center is the “Spirit” as a nude, winged angel, and at right is Adam, and behind him Kings David and Solomon.  Some examples eliminate the “Spirit,” and just show the conventional “Descent to Hades” type, which was the original Russian manner of depicting the resurrection of Jesus.

And in Paradise with the Thief…

At right we see John the Forerunner and Kings David and Solomon and others exiting Hades and moving toward Paradise.  At left we see the Gates of Paradise, and inside the Garden is Jesus (at right), an angel, and the Repentant Thief Rakh, holding his cross.  A red six-winged angel guards the gates with a sword.

And on the throne you were, Christ, with the Father and Spirit, all-filling, unlimited.

This depicts Jesus sitting on a throne inside the “Royal Doors” of Heaven.  He is seated with God the Father (at right), and above them is the Holy Spirit as a dove.  They are surrounded by angels.  It is very much a “New Testament Trinity” image.

The “In the Grave Fleshly” type is another of the less common mystic-didactic types, unlike others such as “Wisdom has built Herself a House” and “The Only-begotten Son,” which are frequently seen.

 

ILLUSTRATIVE ICONS: MY SOUL MAGNIFIES THE LORD

Near the end of the 15th century, a new trend began in icon subjects.  These new types were not simply depictions of saints, but often rather complex theological compositions of one kind or another, giving visible form to Church dogma or to biblical or liturgical excerpts.  This kind of icon is generally called a “mystic-didactic” icon, meaning it is intended to teach one or another aspect of the “mysteries” of Church dogma by visual representation.

Such icons are often truly a mystery to those who see them for the first time, because it would be quite difficult to understand what they are about, were it not for identifying title inscriptions.

Today we will look at such a complex icon type from the 17th century.  Here, in very condensed vyaz’ form, is its title:

 

It reads:

ВЕЛИЧИТЬ ДУША МОЯ ГОСПОДА  И ВОЗРАДОВАСЯ ДУХЪ МОИ О БОЗЕ СПАСЕ МОЕМЪ
VELICHIT’ DUSHA MOYA GOSPODA I VOZRADOVASYA DUKH MOI O BOZE SPASE MOEM”

Literally,
Magnifies soul my  [the] Lord and rejoiced spirit my in God Savior my

In normal English,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior.”

Now if you are familiar with the Bible (which is extremely helpful in the study of icons), you will recognize that as the speech of Mary commonly called the “Magnificat,” found in the first chapter of the Gospel attributed to Luke.

So that is the title of this type:  “MY SOUL MAGNIFIES THE LORD.

Here is the icon:

As you can see, there are lots of creatures in it, and several different scenes, intended to illustrate various parts of the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55:

And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted those of low degree.

He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

At upper right, we see the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary to tell her she will bear a son.  This illustrates “For he has regarded the humility of his handmaiden.”

Below that is a large crowd of various kinds of people looking up tward the central image of Mary and her son,  illustrating “ from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”:

 

Here is “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”  We see devils, the large one being the Antichrist.  Some versions show proud monks in Hell for this scene.

Here we see “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones”:

On the left side we see monks flying up to Heaven illustrating “And exalted the humble.”

Below that is “He has filled the hungry with good things…”

And below that we see some gloomy wealthy people, alone with their money, illustrating “And the rich he has sent away empty”:

At the very top of the icon we see Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) with ranks of angels, two of whom hold the Scroll of Heaven, with the Sun and Moon on it.

Icons of “My Soul Magnifies the Lord” are not common, but nonetheless one should expect some variation in how the scenes are shown from example to example.

“TO JUSTIFY THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN”: THE VISION OF TARASIY

In a previous mention of “Vision” icons, I listed the type known as the “Vision of Tarasiy.”  Today we will take a look at that very detailed type through an example from Novgorod, dating to the 16th century.

First, we need to know that in the years 1506 to1508, the great trading city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia (and neighboring Pskov) was severely afflicted by the “Black Death” — the bubonic plague.  Following that, in August of 1508, the large trading area of Novgorod (remember that it was a great trading city with links to Western Europe) was destroyed by a great fire, killing some 2000 people, added to the large numbers who had already died in the Plague.

Those unfortunate events are the basis for the “Vision of Tarasiy” type.  It is based on a legend (found in the Life of St. Varlaam Khutuinskiy, who died in 1192).  It relates that Tarasiy, the sexton of the Transfiguration Cathedral, was in it at prayer one day.   As the legend goes, he saw Varlaam rise up from his tomb, go before the icons, and begin praying, with tears flowing from his eyes.

The risen saint then told Sexton Tarasiy to climb up to the top of the church three times, and look out.  On doing this, Tarasiy on his first climb saw Lake Ilmen towering over the city, threatening to inundate it with flooding.

On his second ascent, Tarasiy saw angels in the sky, shooting fiery arrows down upon the citizens of Novgorod.

On his third ascent, Tarasiy saw a flaming cloud above the city of Novgorod.

Terrified by what he had seen, Tarasiy listened as Varlaam interpreted the vision.  He said that because of the sins of the people of Novgorod, God wanted to flood the city as punishment.  But because of prayers made to Mary (“Mother of God,”) and the intercession of other saints, God decided to be merciful.  He would only send the plague, which would spare those who sincerely repented their sins.  And the plague would be followed by a fire.  All of this, theoretically, was a lessening of the “flood” punishment because of the intercession of Mary with her son Jesus — a notion very much in keeping with the medieval Western Catholic idea that Mary was constantly “staying the vengeful hand” of God.  It shows us why Mary was so popular among Russians — because she was believed to be more merciful and forgiving than God the Father or his son Jesus, and so was the reliable advocate of humans in the severe heavenly court.

(Novgorod State Museum)

In the upper part of the icon, we see the heavenly court, with  Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) seated on the throne, and Christ Immanuel sitting on his lap.

Mary at left and John the Forerunner at right are interceding with God for the city of Novgorod, and along with them various groups of other saints.

In the lower heavenly clouds, we see Tarasiy’s second sight: an army of angels shoots arrows of plague down upon the Novgorodians.  At right, we see the first sight of Tarasiy, the waters of Lake Ilmen looming over and threating to flood the city.  And in the center is the third sight of Tarasiy, the fiery cloud that was to set the city aflame.

If we look closely at the white church on the left, we can see Tarasiy climbing up a ladder to its roof; and we see him depicted twice on the roof, all representing his three trips up.  In the church its iconostasis is visible, as is Varlaam Khutuinskiy talking with Tarasiy.

In the city below, we see the arrows of plague falling on the inhabitants, and angels with books everywhere, looking in them to see the deeds of the inhabitants, deciding who lives and who dies.  There are people in boats on the Volkhov River that flows through Novgorod, and men crossing the wooden bridge on horseback.

vidtar5

The “Vision of Tarasiy” icon type gives us an insight into the pre-modern Russian mind and a way of thinking that lasted right into the early 20th century there (and still in some individuals), which is that disease is a punishment of God for sin, with no knowledge of the part played by germs, viruses, and tainted food and water, and natural disasters also are God’s vengeance for human misbehavior, whether fire or flood or famine.  It was the old (and rather futile) attempt — as Milton wrote — “to justify the ways of God to men.”  It is the world before science, and that is what we see in Eastern Orthodox iconography in general — the world before science.

VISION OF PETER OF ALEXANDRIA

In a previous posting, we looked at a fresco at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted by the Cretan iconographer Tzortzis Phouka.  Today we will examine another of his works from the same place, and the year 1547.  In Greek and Russian iconography, there are a number of types called the “Vision” of this or that person.  There is the “Vision of Pakhomios,” the “Vision of Tarasiy,” etc. etc.  Today’s example is another of those “vision” types.  It is commonly called “The Vision of St. Peter of Alexandria.”  This type began appearing in churches in the 13th century, though an illustration of it (combining the vision with Peter’s martyrdom) is known from as early as c. 1000, in the Menologion of Basil II, and another illustration is the miniature found in the late 11th-early twelfth century liturgical scroll from the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

First, let’s look at the Greek inscriptions:

We can tell from his garments that the fellow at left is a bishop.  His identifying inscription reads:

Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΠΕΤΡΟC ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΕΙΑC
HO HAGIOS PETROS ALEXANDREIAS
[the] HOLY PETER [of] ALEXANDRIA

You will notice in the inscription several ligatures (joined letters) that we have seen here in previous discussion of Greek ligatures.

The next inscription is a bit more tricky.  Peter is speaking, and what he says is:

ΤΙC CΟΥ ΤΟΝ ΧΕΙΤΟΝΑ CΟΤΕΡ ΔΙΕΙΛΕΝ
TIS SOU TON KHEITONA SOTER DIEILEN
WHO YOUR THE GARMENT SAVIOR TORE

It is a question:  “Who tore your garment, Savior?”

The phrase is found in Vespers for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, written as

Τίς σου τόν χιτώνα Σώτερ διείλεν.
Peter is asking the question of the little guy in the skimpy clothes at upper right.  We can easily identify who this little fellow is from his inscription:
IC XC  — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”
So the little figure is Jesus, and he answers the question of Peter by saying,
ΑΡΕΙΟC Ο ΑΦΡѠΝ
AREIOS HO APHRON
“ARIUS  THE FOOL”
The small figure with the turban cowering below the feet of the diminutive Jesus is identified by inscription as
ΑΡΕΙΟC
AREIOS
“ARIUS”

Now this is one of those icons having to do with the history of Eastern Orthodox dogma, and the bitter interclerical battle over whether Jesus is God and equal to God the Father, and of the “same substance,” which resulted in the declaration of the First Nicene Council that Jesus is fully God, equal to the Father, “of the same substance.”  However the text upon which this icon is based is another of those fictionalized accounts of saints’ lives, in this case the Acts of Peter of Alexandria.  The relevant portion deals with the answer of Peter to clerics who came to him, asking that Arius be reinstated in the Church:

“For in this night, while I was solemnly pouring forth my prayers to God, there stood by me a boy of about twelve years, the brightness of whose face I could not endure, for this whole cell in which we stand was radiant with a great light. He was clothed with a linen tunic divided into two parts, from the neck to the feet, and holding in his two hands the rents of the tunic, he applied them to his breast to cover his nudity. At this vision I was stupefied with astonishment. And when boldness of speech was given to me, I exclaimed: Lord, who has rent your tunic? Then said he, Arius has rent it, and by all means beware of receiving him into communion; behold, tomorrow they will come to entreat you for him. See, therefore, that you be not persuaded to acquiesce: nay, rather lay your commands upon Achillas and Alexander the priests, who after your translation will rule my Church, not by any means to receive him. You shall very quickly fulfill the lot of the martyr.”

The general idea is that Arius “tore the garment of the Church,” that is, he caused a schism in the Church — the “body of Christ” — by his disagreement with those who believed Jesus to be fully God and equal to the Father, and so Arius was not be be allowed back in the Church.

Peter was Bishop of Alexandria in the early 4th century, and was the person who excommunicated Arius over doctrinal differences in 311 regarding the nature and divinity of Jesus.  Peter was executed on orders from the Emperor Maximian.

Oddly enough, given its subject matter, the type “Vision of St. Peter of Alexandria” became associated with the Eucharistic Liturgy.  That is likely due to the semi-nude image of the 12-year-old Jesus in the “Vision,” reminiscent of the image of the Child Christ lying on the diskos (paten) as the “Lamb of God,” the Eucharistic bread that Eastern Orthodox believe is the body of Jesus.

THE “OUR FATHER” ICON TYPE

In the third quarter of the 17th century, and under the influence of Western European  religious engravings, icons of the type called Otche Nash — “Our Father” — began to appear in Russia, first in the Armory School of Moscow, then elsewhere.  Icons of this type were never common, and those one finds are somewhat variable in the scenes included.

Here is an example from 1813, painted in the village of Pavlovo na Oke, in Nizhny Novgorod Province:

(Private Collection)

(Private Collection)

Let’s examine the rather formidable-looking Church Slavic inscription at the top:

It reads (put into the modern Russian font):

ОТЧЕ НАШЪ ИЖЕ ЕСИ НА НЕБЕСЕХЪ ДА СВЯТИТСЯ ИМЯ ТВОЕ ДА ПРИИДЕТЪ ЦАРСТВИЕ ТВОЕ
OTCHE NASH” IZHE ESI NA NEBESEKH” DA SVYATITSYA IMYA TVOE DA PRIIDET”
TSARSTVIE TVOE

As I have said many times, one does not have to learn the whole Church Slavic language in order to read the great percentage of icon inscriptions.  They are very repetitive, so a vocabulary of words commonly used in such inscriptions proves surprisingly useful in the number of icons one is able to read.  So don’t waste your time trying to learn the whole language unless you want to go deeply into Slavic studies; learn something else that is pleasant, like Italian, or Romanian, or anything reasonably practical or pleasant.

How then, are we going to translate that long-looking icon inscription?  Well, it is not really as intimidating as it looks, and here’s why:  We already know it is an icon of the “Lord’s Prayer” — Otche Nash.  That is a huge clue, because if we look at the first two words of the inscription, we see they are precisely that — OTCHE NASH.

To translate the remainder of the inscription all we have to do is look at the “Lord’s Prayer” in Church Slavic, and here it is:

otchenash

I will transliterate and translate it rather literally:

OTCHE             NASH”     IZHE      ESI      NA   NEBESYEKH”     DA    SVYATITSYA
FATHER           0F-US       WHO      IS        IN   [the] HEAVENS   MAY-BE    MADE-HOLY
Note:  Previously, we have seen otche in the form otets — “father.”  when da (the common Russian word for “yes”) is followed by a verb in Church Slavic as here, it takes on the sense of “may it be…”  “let it be…” — so “Da Svyatitsya” means basically “let it be made holy” — “May it be sanctified.”  You already know its root Svyat, meaning “holy.”  This “da + verb” usage is known as the “optative” form, which expresses a wish that something may be so.  Izhe means literally “which,” but we can say “who” here.

IMYA             TVOE       DA     PRIIDET”         TSARSTVIE      TVOE:    DA    BUDET”
NAME         OF-YOU   MAY    COME            KINGDOM         OF-YOU MAY BE
Note:  There are two “da” form phrases in this line:  da priidet” — “may [it] come,” and da budet”, “may [it] be.”

VOLYA           TVOYA      IAKO       NA     NEBESI        I     NA     ZEMLI.        KHLEB”
WILL          OF-YOU      AS            IN     HEAVEN      ALSO    ON    EARTH        BREAD
Note:  Notice that the word i, normally meaning “and”, means “also” in this line.  “As in heaven [so] also on earth.”

NASH”          NASOUSHCHNUIY  DAZHD’        NAM”       DNES’        I       OSTAVI
OF-US          NECESSARY           GIVE             US      TODAY      AND       FORGIVE

NAM”              DOLGI        NASHYA      IAKOZHE      I        MUI        OSTAVLYAEM”

US                   DEBTS      OUR            JUST-AS      ALSO  WE        FORGIVE

DOLZHNIKOM”                      NASHUIM”:           I       NE     VVEDI           NAS”      VO

DEBTORS                               OF-US               AND   NOT    LEAD          US        INTO

ISKOUSHENIE             NO    IZBABI          NAS”   OT    LOUKAVAGO       AMIN’

TEMPTATION           BUT      DELIVER        US     FROM [the] EVIL-ONE   AMEN”

So we can see that the title inscription at the top of the icon reads basically, “Our Father, who is in the heavens, may your name be made holy, may your kingdom come….

In the icon shown above, each scene depicts part of the prayer:

Here is : “Our Father, who is in the heavens…”

“Let your name be made holy”

“May your kingdom come…”

“May your will be done on earth as in heaven…”

“Give us this day our necessary bread…”

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”

“And lead us not into temptation…”

“But deliver us from the Evil One.”

The very last and astronomical scene has the text of Psalm 103:24 (104:24 KVJ):

ИАКО ВОЗВЕЛИЧИШАСЯ ДЕЛА ТВОЯ ГОСПОДИ ВСЯ ПРЕМУДРОСТИЮ СОТВОРИЛЪ ЕСИ
IAKO VOZVELICHISHASYA DELA TVOYA GOSPODI VSYA PREMUDROSTIIU
SOTVORIL” ESI

“How manifold are your works, Lord; in Wisdom all is made.”

MORE CROSS TALK

A reader in Croatia kindly sent me photos of this cast brass and enamel cross.

If you read my previous posting on cross inscriptions ( https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-instant-expert-in-russian-crosses), you will find some of that material repeated here.

First, this is a “Priestless” (Bezpopovtsy) Old Believer cross of the type called an “altar cross” (напрестольный крест — naprestol’nuiy krest).  One can tell it is a “Priestless” cross by looking at the image at the very top.  It is the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus on the cloth, the so-called “Abgar” image that resulted from the old story that Jesus once pressed a cloth to his face, which became miraculously imprinted on the cloth, and was thus the first Christian icon.  If this had been a “Priested” (Popovtsy) Old Believer casting, it would instead have a top image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit as a dove; and it would also have the I. N. TS. I inscription that abbreviates Pilate’s text “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Исус Назорянин, Царь Иудейский ).

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Let’s take a closer look at the top of the cross:

We see the “Not Made by Hands” image, with the halo of Jesus having the HO ON inscription, meaning “He Who Is.”  Just below it is a Church Slavic inscription identifying the image:

ꙌБРАЗЪНЕРУКОТ
ВОРЕННЫЙ

OBRAZNERUKOT
VORENNUIY

If we join the two lines as they should be, they read:
Obraz Nerukotvorrenuiy, menaing “[the] IMAGE NOT-HAND-MADE,” or in more normal English, “The Image Not Made by Hands.”

Below that are two flying angels, bowing toward the crucified Jesus, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.  Their abbreviated inscription reads:

АГГЛИ Г{ОСРО}ДНИ
ANGLI GOSPODNI (remember that a doubled Г Г is pronounced like English “ng”)
“Angels of the Lord”

And just below the two angels is the abbreviated inscription:

Ц[А]РЬ СЛ[А]ВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

1 Corinthians 2:8 reads:
Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Now let’s look at the middle portion.  At the top, we see the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,”   Remember that while the Old Believers use the , Ісусъ [Isus] spelling, the Russian State Church uses Іисусъ [Iisus]. and “Christ” is Христос — Khristos.

krestmiddle

Below the IC XC are these words:

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

At left we see the sun, and beneath it is its name:
С[О]ЛНЦЕ
SOLNTSE
“Sun”

At right is the moon, with its name:
ЛУНА
LUNA
“Moon”

Below is a long inscription that runs all the way along the main crossbar.  We will begin with the left side:

It reads:

КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛАНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО
KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLANAEMSYA VLADIKO
Literally,
Cross Of-You We-Bow-Before Master, or in better English,
“We bow before your cross, Master…” (Vladiko means “Ruler,” “Master.”)
It is often translated simply, “We honor/venerate your cross, Lord…”

And it finishes on the right side:

И СВЯАТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ ТВОЕ СЛАВИМЪ
I SVYATOE VOSKRESENIE TVOE SLAVIM”
Literally,
…And your holy resurrection we-praise
More smoothly,
“…And praise your holy resurrection.”

So all together, the inscription reads:
“We bow before your cross, Master, and Praise your holy resurrection.”

It is a common text, found in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom as well as in that of Basil, and repeated in the liturgy of the Third Week in Lent, etc.

In the lower portion of the upright beam, we see at left a spear, and at right a sponge on a reed.  By the spear is the letter K, abbreviating КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear.”   And by the sponge is the letter T, abbreviating  ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod, with the sponge at its top.

In and near the lower crossbar, we see the walls and roofs of Jerusalem, and the letters НИКА — NIKA — Greek for “He Conquers.”

At the base of the upright we see these letters:

М  Л
Р  Б

They abbreviate

МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ
MESTO LOBNOE

РАЙ БЫСТЬ
RAI BUIST’

meaning,

[The] Place [of the] Skull Paradise Became

In normal English, “The Place of the Skull became Paradise.”  “Lobnoe” is often more loosely translated as “Execution” or Judgment,” but Mesto Lobnoe refers to the place commonly called Calvary in English, from the Latin Calvariæ Locus, “Skull Place.”

That leads us to the final two inscriptions.

At the sides of the base of the cross are the letters

Г  Г

They abbreviate

ГОРА ГОЛГОФА
GORA GOLGOFA
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

“Golgotha” ultimately derived from the Aramaic Gagultâ, meaning “skull.”
Remember that Church Slavic (like Russian) has no “th” sound, so it is replaced with the “f” sound.

Just below the base of the cross is an opening in which lies a skull.  This follows the tradition that the Crucifixion happened at the center of the earth, and that was supposedly where the biblical first man, Adam, was buried.  So the skull is that of Adam.  And at the sides of the skull are the letters

Г  А
abbreviating
ГОЛОВА АДАМА
GOLOVA ADAMA
[the] SKULL (literally “head”) [of] ADAM

Some crosses (like this one) have a little plant at the base, a sprout of new life.

Now let’s look at the reverse inscription, which is the one most commonly found on these Old Believer brass crosses:

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Though it has some variations in spelling (these are common), it is the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the Prayer of the Praise of the Cross (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — which is:

Крест хранитель всей вселенной;
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy

Крест красота церковная;
Krest krasota tserkovnaya

Крест царем держава;
Krest tsarem derzhava

Крест верным утверждение;
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

Крест ангелом слава;
Krest angelom slava

Крест бесом язва.
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe,
the Cross is the beauty of the Church,
the Cross is the might of kings,
the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful,
the Cross is the glory of angels and scourge of demons

(Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins — Festal Matins for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

At the base of the inscription we see another eight-pointed cross (the Old Believers would not accept the Latin cross).  Though again the spelling is off, it has the usual abbreviations:

Ц[А]РЬ СЛ[А]ВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

And

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

Also:

IC XC
IСУСЪ ХРИСТОС
ISUS” KHRISTOS
“Jesus Christ”

We see the letters K and T for Kopie and Trost‘ (spear and reed/rod).

Note that they have reversed the positions of the letters in the М  Л / Р  Б abbreviation for Mesto Lobnoe Ray Buist, but the meaning is the same — “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.”

Finally there are the letters Г Г for Gora Golgofa, “Hill of Golgotha.”

I mentioned earlier that the example discussed in this posting is an “altar cross.”  It is useful to know that cast metal Russian crosses are generally classified as follows:

1.  The altar cross (Напрестольный Крест — Naprestol’nuiy Krest):  it is placed on the altar beside the Gospel book.  These are the large crosses one often sees.

2. The pectoral cross (Нагрудный Крест — Nagrudnuiy Krest, or Наперсный Крест,  Napersnuiy Krest)These are the small to medium-sized crosses with a loop or hole at the top, so they may be worn on a cord or chain about the neck.  They are worn both by the clergy (priests, monks) and by certain pious people.

3.  The kiot or “arkcross ( Киотный КрестKiotnuiy Krest):  These are the crosses placed on the shelf in the “beautiful corner” of a room, along with the family icons.  They are of medium size, and have no hole or loop at the top.  They may also be taken on trips as a kind of temporary prayer focus.  They include those crosses one sees with side panels showing Martha and Mary (“Mother of God”) on the left of the Crucifixion and the Apostle John and Centurion Longinos (Login) at the right.  Kiot crosses are sometimes commonly known as “house crosses.”

4.  The body cross (Тельный крест — Telnuiy Krest):  These are the usually quite small crosses with a hole or loop at the top, worn around the neck on a cord or chain, and given to each person at baptism.  So any Russian Orthodox person wore a body cross.