It is not difficult to identify this icon, because we have seen another of the same type in an earlier posting:

So we know that this is essentially an icon of the patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr — in Latin form Florus and Laurus:

(Courtesy of

Eastern Orthodoxy continued the polytheism of the pre-Christian world in its veneration of saints, assigning them different roles, such as were held by the old gods, major and minor.  And we know that if one had a particular concern with the raising and well-being of horses, Flor and Lavr were the saints who had authority in that field.

Let’s take a look at the saints in the upper half of the icon:

We see at center “Holy Archangel Mikhail/Michael.”  He holds the “Image Not Made by Hands,” by Eastern Orthodox tradition the first icon of Christianity.

At far left is “Holy Flor/Florus, Martyr.”

And at far right is the fellow with whom he is usually shown, “Holy Lavr/Laurus, Martyr.”

Now let’s look at the fellow in bishop’s robes beside Lavr:


Now I hope you will recall that we have seen Vlasiy before, as a protector of herds and flocks:

So here he is, adding his “power” to this icon of the patrons of horses.

The fellow I really want to concentrate on today, however, is the last saint depicted, the one just to the left of Michael:

His title inscription is a bit worn, but we can nonetheless easily decipher it as SVYATUIY MEDOST P[ATRIARKH]/HOLY MEDOST/MODEST, PATRIARCH.  This Medost was Патриарх Иерусалимский/Patriarkh Ierusalimskiy — “Patriarch of Jerusalem.  So what is this 7th century Patriarch of Jerusalem doing in this icon of patrons of horses and herds and flocks?

It all goes back to stories from his legendary biography.

One tale relates that a farmer was on the road with his oxen when the devil attacked them, and they fell dead to the ground.  The farmer prayed for Modest, who came and raised them up again.  But as the farmer proceeded on his way, the devil attacked them once more, and again they fell to the ground.  Modest appeared again, raised them up, and this time he tied his belt to them, so that the devil could no longer trouble them.

It is said that a poor widowed woman was very distressed because her five pairs of oxen were seriously ill.  Distraught, she prayed in tears to the “unmercenary” saints Comas And Damian to heal her oxen.  However, Cosmas appeared to her in a dream telling her essentially that the healing of oxen was not in his job description:

“O woman, we are not empowered by God to give healing to cattle.  This grace is given to Modest, the great hierarch of Jerusalem.  He — if you approach him — will heal your oxen.”

Now not being able to find him directly, she began to pray earnestly to Medost/Modest. He then appeared to her in a dream, saying:

“O woman, why  are you so weeping?  I am Modest, whom you seek, and hearing your prayer I appeared to make healthy your oxen.”

He then instructed the woman to rise up, to cut pieces of iron from metal tools, and to take the pieces to the place called Lagina, where there was a church dedicated to the Arhistrategos Michael (the Archangel Michael as Heavenly Commander).  There lived a man named Evstafiy (Eustathios), who would make her a cross from them.  She was then to return to her  home and call seven presbyters, who were to perform religious services in her house, and with incense and candles they were to take the cross and pour oil over it,  and then the oil was to be sprinkled on the oxen, and they would be healed.  And of course as these old tales go, the oxen were made quite healthy again by the ritual.

That explains why Medost/Modest is in this icon.  His ability to cure oxen and livestock used in ploughing (and even other farm and domestic creatures) is added to that of the other two healers of horses and flocks, to cover even better the needs of an owner of livestock.

Now let’s look at another icon that has Medost/Modest as its main image:

The title inscription says: Svyatuiy Myedost, Patriarkh Ierusalimskiy.  We can see from the second letter in his name that the writer is pronouncing it with a  “ye” sound — so “Myedost.”

We also see a winged serpent by the water on the right side.  A demonic serpent is said to have killed animals in Jerusalem by poisoning the water with his venom.  Medost/Modest got rid of him.

There are various other animals in the icon, including a dog.  It is said that Modest once adjured the devil, who had appeared in the shape of a dog.

We can see from the saints included that this icon was oriented specifically toward those needing protection for herds, horses and other livestock in the days before one could just call a veterinarian.

There were all kinds of folk beliefs about the day of Modest’s commemoration, one of which was that women were not to play card games on it.  If they did, then when summer came, the chickens would peck holes in the cucumbers in the garden.



Many people wonder why Eastern Orthodox icons tend to look so stylized and so similar — why often they just seem to be slightly varying copies of the same image, though differing according to the styles of place and time, and the level of skill of the painter.

Icons, in general, are quite different from Western European religious art, whether Catholic or Protestant.  Let’s look at a detail from The Calling of Matthew, by the Italian painter Caravaggio:

This looks quite realistic — and in fact if that face were in another kind of painting — say of a scene from Greek mythology,  and if its halo were absent, we would not know it was intended to be Jesus.  Caravaggio has chosen a quite handsome model.

Now let’s look at a rather typical Russian Orthodox icon of Jesus:

(Courtesy of

Here is a closer view of the face:

(Courtesy of

It does not look like anyone who ever lived.  There is no mistaking it for the portrait of an actual person.  It is not a realistic portrait, but rather an abstraction recognizable by the style of head and facial hair and the traditionally long, narrow nose.  The final mark of identification would come in the title and halo inscriptions, which in this example have been worn away.

The stylization so common in Eastern Orthodox iconography is actually something that developed over time in Byzantium.  This trend toward stylization began in the 6th century, and was relatively fixed in Byzantine iconography by the 9th.  And yet when one looks for some decree or canon of the Eastern Church as a whole demanding such stylization, it is nowhere to be found.  It is just a tradition that developed late in Christian iconography, and was perpetuated by painters who became stuck in the practice of copying what came before — a practice which, by the time of the icon painting workshops of the last centuries of old Russian icon painting — reached its logical conclusion in the “assembly line” painting of icons, with one person doing garments, another faces, etc.

It came to be thought that stylization somehow represented the features of Jesus and the saints in a more acceptable manner than realism.  It made them less “earthly” and supposedly more “heavenly,” though of course that notion was just a concept that developed, and in reality an abstraction of a face is no more “heavenly” than a realistic portrait — it is just a “symbol” of the heavenly that came to be accepted and conventionalized as such, not because it inherently is so.  That is why I always say that when people talk of icons as “windows to heaven,” that is really a misnomer; they are really windows into how the painters thought one should paint saints and other “heavenly” persons, and that thought is simply a convention that developed over time.

Even when the Russian State Church abandoned such abstract traditionalism and added more naturalistic shading, it kept the same general form, as in this later icon from 1896:

(Courtesy of

That was their way of preserving the prototypical standard, in spite of stylistic change.

What it comes down to is that any rather long face, with a long and rather narrow nose, and long, not-too-full hair parted in the middle, and limited moustache and beard, came to be understood as an image of Jesus, unless otherwise identified.  And though Jesus is not the only person depicted with that same face, he is clearly identified as Jesus by added title inscriptions, etc.  In fact to carry this further, some saints who share the same general appearance of garment and hair as others are identifiable as a particular saint only by the title inscription.

But getting back to our contrast with Caravaggio and other Western European painters,  in neither case — whether the icon is painted in the traditional old style preserved by the Old Believers or in the more realistic “Western” manner favored by the State Church from around the end of the 17th century — has the painter used a living model for Jesus.  Each has kept — in its own style — the same basic image. And that, again is a part of the tradition that catalogued the iconography of deity and saint by characteristics of hair style, hair color, and garments, along with the “seal” of identification — the title inscription.

In stylized Eastern Orthodox art — from the development of stylization as an unwritten “canon” in Byzantine art onward — we find not representations of real persons — not realistic depictions — but rather symbols of persons. — abstractions of them.  And yet paradoxically, the theological principle on which the veneration of icons is founded is that the veneration offered to an icon goes to its prototype — from the painted icon to the saint or spiritual being in heaven — due to the likeness of the image with the person. 

That is rather an insoluble problem in the veneration of icons, because not only is an abstraction of a saint’s face not a likeness, but also it is common knowledge that huge numbers of the faces of saints and other “heavenly” persons depicted in icons are simply conventions that developed over time, rather than actual, accurate depictions of the features of a person who once may have existed.  If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how icon painters knew what the features of the various Old Testament prophets and patriarchs were.  The answer is that no one knew — no usable contemporaneous descriptions existed — and so the painters simply made up the features of these and many other saints, and those made-up features became gradually standardized until they were thought to represent the actual features of a given saint. Great numbers of icons, truth told, simply depict saints with imaginary features, not actual likenesses of them.

So icons are not really “windows to heaven.”  They are windows to an historically developed form of artistic conventionalization — a conceptualized artistic system with the premise that to make a saint or holy person look like a “real” human individual  — as done, for example, by Caravaggio — is not “spiritual” but “carnal,”

The notion developed that when one depicts in paint a saint or holy person according to the basic descriptions or conventions for that person passed down through the tradition, one thereby depicts the saint in material form, but also — somehow —  transmits his hypostasis — his “person” as not merely a material human being but beyond that, as a spiritual being — his personhood as a saint, or the personhood of Jesus as God incarnate — both human and divine.  But of course this again is merely a mental concept placed upon the icon through the conventions of abstract form, halo, and title inscription.

Now interestingly, what the “canon” of Eastern Orthodox icon painting comes down to is — as previously stated — not definitely stated anywhere.  It is basically what has come to be considered theologically acceptable.  That means where there are disagreements in theology, there are also disagreements in what is or is not permissible in iconography — such as the controversies over icons of God the Father, or whether to put the cross halo of Jesus on the central angel in the Old Testament Trinity, or even how the fingers of the blessing hand are to be shown. And of course that distinction extends also to just how realistically an icon may be painted.  The Old Believers, following a strict interpretation of the Stoglav Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1551, held that one must continue the abstraction practiced by their fathers and grandfathers and earlier ancestors, and must paint icons according to the ancient models, as the Greek painters did — and that they should paint as did Rublyov and other famous iconographers, not changing anything by their own imagination.

The post-schism State Russian Orthodox Church, however, developed a different view, and that is why its painters began to adopt elements of Western European realism in its icons, leaving much abstraction behind, though still keeping the general concept of the standard “prototype,” as we have seen.  Still, it was considered improper to stray too far from the old patterns, or to use living human models for depicting Jesus and the saints.  And that was very much the condition in which the old period of icon painting ended in Russia not long after the Russian Revolution.  and though there are a few exceptions, not much has changed in “approved” Russian Orthodox iconography since the revival of icon painting in Russia after the fall of Communism.

This attitude toward icon painting in Eastern Orthodoxy also explains why icon painting is often thought of as a “craft” rather than an art.  Caravaggio unquestionably is thought of as an artist — but one can easily understand why the painters of Eastern Orthodox icons generally tend to be regarded more as craftsmen than as artists — with the exception of the more extraordinarily skilled among them.



Here is an icon of Nicolas of Myra “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his traditional “biography.”  Keep in mind that the biographies of many saints are heavily fictionalized, and should not be taken as literal history.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

Most of you (I hope) are now at the stage where you know a basic vocabulary of Church Slavic “icon” words that you are able to use in translating titles and inscriptions.  You need not know all the grammar of Church Slavic to make use of them.  If you pay close attention to key words, and to the “root” forms of words, you can often determine how they fit together grammatically, even if the endings of the words change.  You may expand your vocabulary with the key words found in the outer scenes in this icon.

We will start at upper left, where most of the border scenes in icons usually begin:

We can see that it is a typical, stylized “birth” scene.  So it is not surprising that the key word in its title is РОЖЕСТВО/ROZHESTVO, meaning “birth.”  Right after that we see the Ст abbreviation that we know is for some form of the word Svyatuiy/Holy, and following that is НИКОЛЫ/NIKOLUI, which is not difficult to recognize as the grammatical “of” form of the name Nikola — “Nicholas.”  Then comes the abbreviation ЧЮД (ЧУД), which you already know in the form ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ/CHUDOTVORETS, meaning “wonder-worker,” someone who can work miracles.  We don’t need to know the grammar of all this in order to make sense of it.  We just put it together as “Birth of Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker,” and that is in fact the correct translation of the title.

Here is the second scene:

The key word here is КРЕЩЕНИЕ/KRESHCHENIE, meaning “Baptism.”  You already recognize the rest of it, so you can easily translate it as “Baptism of Holy Nicholas.”

Here is the third scene:

You can see that it begins with the Ct abbreviation for Svyatuiy/Holy, and you can see that the second word is НИКОЛА/NIKOLA, which is a common spelling for Nikolai/Nicholas in old Russian icons.  The key word here, however, is the third word ИСЦЕЛИ/ISTSELI, meaning “Heals.”  So in this scene Nicholas is healing something, as the rest of it tells us what РУКУ жене/RUKU zheneRuku is a form of Ruka, meaning “hand.”  And the zhene — written in smaller letters here — is a form of the word жена/zhena, meaning “woman.”  So you would be right in translating this title as “Holy Nicholas Heals the Hand of the Woman.”  In some icons you will encounter the word istselenie, which means “healing,” and it usually begins a title that is the istselenie of this or that person — the healing of this or that person.

In the next scene, the writer has made a little error.

He has written ПРИВЕДоАШ , but two letters are out of order.  It should be our key word here,  ПРИВЕДОША/PRIVEDOSHA, meaning “Bringing” or “Is brought.”  And he is brought Ко Учителю/Ko Uchiteliu — “to the teacher.”  This scene depicts Nicholas being brought to a teacher to learn his letters.

Here is the scene at far right in the top row:

The first word is the key word: ПОСТАНОВЛЕНИЕ/POSTANOVLENIE. It means “Ordination.”  So in this scene we see Nicholas being ordained as something, and that something is Во ДИАКОы/VO DIAKONUI, “as Deacon.”  So this scene shows the “Ordination [of Nicholas] as Deacon.”

The next scene is a famous act of Nicholas in tradition:

It depicts Nicholas outside a building, and inside it, we see three maidens sleeping on a bed.

The first word in this inscription is Чюдо/Chudo, which as you know means “miracle.”  Then comes the abbreviation for the “Holy” title, followed by a form of the name of Nicholas — НИКОЛАЕ/Nikolae here, and then the word КАКО, meaning “how.”  And then comes the key word: ИЗБАБИ/IZBABI, meaning “he saves,” or “he rescues.”  And who does he rescue?  He saves  “three maidens.”  And what does he save them from?  ОТ БЛУДА/OT BLUDA — “from fornication.”

So this scene represents “The miracle of Holy Nicholas, how he saved three maidens from fornication.”

What you just learned will immediately be of use, as we see in this next scene:

You can now read the beginning of this as “The miracle of Holy Nicholas, how he saves …”  And then we are told who he saves — ТРЕХ МУЖЕЙ/MUZHEI — “three men,” and he saves them ОТ СМЕРТИ/OT SMERTI — “from death.”  So this is “The Miracle of Holy Nicholas, how he saves three men from death.”

The next scene is this:

You know that chudo means “miracle,” and you know that St Nikolui means “of Holy Nicholas.  Next comes what this miracle is about.  It is about (o in Church Slavic) the “man” (муже/muzhe) Dimitriy/Димиттрий, “whom” (егоже/egozhe) “he-saves” (избаби/izbabi) “from” (ot) потопления/potopleniya (“sinking”).  So Nicholas saved this fellow from drowning.

Now we are going out of sequence to the  left-hand image in the bottom row:

You can of course now read the first three words:
Svyatuiy/”Holy” Nikola/Nicholas Izbabi/”Saves” … but what does he save?  He saves КоРАБл/Korabl the “Ship” ot/”from” — and then we have an abbreviation:  ПОТоП-   What does it abbreviate?  Well, you already know that too, because you have just seen the segment in which Nicholas saves Dimitriy from Potoplenie/”Sinking,” and that is what Potop– abbreviates here.  Remember how I keep telling you that icon inscriptions are very repetitive?  So we can translate the title of this scene as “Holy Nicholas Saves the Ship from Sinking.”

Now usually in icons with border scenes of the “acts” of a saint, we read them from upper left, then continue clockwise all the way around.  But the painter of this icon jumbled them up a bit — and in fact icons of Nicholas often do this — so now we will move to the second image down in the left-hand column:

Here we encounter another repetition — the first word, Postanovlenie.  You already know it means “Ordination.”  So this scene is the Postanovlenie/”Ordination”  vo /“as” Arkhepisopui /”Archbishop” of Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.

The next scene down is this:

You can easily read the firs three words as “Holy Nicholas — how.”  How what?  The key word here is ЯВИСЯ/Yavisya– “appeared.”  So this scene shows us how Nicholas yavisya/”appeared” царю/tsariu “to Tsar/Emperor” Konstantinu/Constantine vo/”as” (or “in”) сне/sne “dream”/”sleep.”  So we may translate this title as “Holy Nicholas…how he appeared to the Emperor Constantine in a dream.”  In some icons of Nicholas, a related scene of Nicholas appearing to the Prefect Eulavios/Ablabius in a dream appears in place of Constantine.

The next image down:

This title begins with “Holy,” then comes the word ОБРАЗ/obraz, meaning “Image.”  It is a word often used for an icon.  This scene depicts the “Holy Image (obraz) of [the inscription uses the word for “from”) the three (trekh) icons (ikon’) of Christ (there is a misspelling here for Христа/Khrista — “Christ”) —  and the Most-Holy Mother of God (Пресвятыя Богородицы/Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

Now comes another “miracle”:

This is another Chudo/”miracle” of Nicholas — the one in which he returns the son of a man named Agrikov from Saracen captivity.  But the inscription says only “The Miracle of St. Nicholas about Agrikov’s son..”  Some examples mention the son’s name — Vasiliy.

The scene to the right of that one is the selling of the carpet:

In this Chudo, we see Nicholas buying the Ковер/Kover — “carpet,” and returning it to the seller’s wife.

We will take the final two border images together:

The key word in the left image is: ПРЕСТАВЛЕНИЕ/PRESTAVLENIE, meaning literally “transfer.”  It is the word used in Orthodoxy for the death of a saint, when his soul is “transferred” from earth to heaven.  One often finds the English word “translation” used for this purpose.  But for all practical purposes, we may just render this inscription as “The Death of Nicholas the Wonderworker.”

And finally we come to the last scene.  The key word here is ПРИНЕСЕНИЕ/PRINESENIE — and it is the word we already saw used when the child Nicholas was brought to his teacher.  So prinesenie means “bringing.”  And this scene is the Prinesenie/”Bringing” Мошей/moshchey — “of-the-relics”  B/v  — “to” — BAR’ GRAD’.  Moschey literally means “pieces,” but it is the term used in Russian Orthodoxy for relics — parts of the body of a saint or pieces of anything that has touched the body.  By “Bar grad,” the writer just means Bari City — that is, the city known as Bari, in Italy, where by tradition the remains of Nicholas were taken (well, actually stolen by some sailors and taken there, according to the story).  Remember that relics were considered valuable items in those days, because an important saint could bring lots of pilgrim money to a city, not to mention having the saint’s body close at hand in hope of possible miracles.  So the stealing of relics was not an unusual event.

If you remember the key words in bold type in this posting, you will find them helpful in translating icons showing the lives of other saints and clerics.



Today we will look at a Russian icon of nine saints.  It offers a good opportunity for practicing the reading of title inscriptions in Church Slavic.  Inscriptions on old icons are often abbreviated, and also frequently damaged by time.  That means the student of icons should become familiar enough with titles and names to be able to fill in what may be missing in the inscription as written on an icon.  But again, this is not as difficult as it sounds at first, because names and titles are very repetitive.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

Fortunately, each saint in this icon still has most of his title inscription.  Those in the top row have titles written in the upper border, and those in the bottom row have them in the halo.

Let’s examine them one by one, beginning at top left:

First, we see that he is dressed in the skhima — the robe of a monastic.

His inscription begins with the three-letter abbreviation at the top:

П р

You should recognize the П р (Pr) as the beginning letters of Prepodobnuiy, the common title of a monastic, usually rendered in English as “Venerable,” though it really means “Most like” — most like Christ that is, or like Adam before the Fall.  The  д above the two letters is the “d” in Prepodobnuiy.

Next comes his actual name:


And finally comes the “locator” part of his title that tells us which Antoniy he is — that is, the place with which he is associated.  The first letter is partly missing, but from the rest we can easily restore it:


If we put it all together, we see that this monastic is Prepodobnuiy Antoniy Siyskiy — Venerable Antoniy Siyskiy, or if we want to anglicize it, Venerable Anthony of Siya.  Antoniy (1479–1556) founded the Antonievo-Siyskiy Monastery on the Siya River, in what is now Arkhangelsk province in northern Russia.  You may recognize the “Siyskiy” part from the title from the name of the well-known illustrated painters’ manual, the Siya Icon Painting Manual (Сийский иконописный подлинник/Siyskiy ikonopisnuiy podlinnik)

From this point on, I will just transliterate the I in Church Slavic by the И used for it in the modern Russian font.

To his right is a fellow dressed in the garments of a bishop:

His title begins:



The first abbreviation is of course the very common Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy/Saint.”  Note that the Slavic t is written very small to the right of the C (S), and the partial crossbar of it curves back and above the C, to indicate abbreviation.

It does not take effort to read this line as Svyatuiy Arkhiepiskop — “Holy Archbishop.”

The second line gives us first his name:


Then comes his “locator”:


“OF SERBIA.”  You will recall from previous postings that the -ago ending indicates the “of” form of a word, so that is why we translate this as “Of Serbia.”  Sava of Serbia, who died in 1236, was the first archbishop of the “independent” Serbian Orthodox Church.  Such an independent regional church is referred to by the adjective autocephalous, meaning literally, “self-headed,” — that is, under its own ecclesiastical authority.  For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was formerly under the authority of the “Patriarch of Russia and all Rus,” is now autocephalous — self-ruling and independent, under the title “The Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

The next fellow is also dressed as a bishop:

We see that same Ct (St) abbreviation at the beginning, for Svyatuiy — “Holy.”  That is followed by ЕПИСКОПЪ/EPISKOP”,  meaning “Bishop.”  Just think of the English word “episcopal,” which comes from the same Greek root as this Slavic form.

Next come his name:


That is followed by his “locator” title:


The -skiy ending is another way of telling us that a person is from a certain place, and this fellow is from Perm, so he is Permskiy.

Assembling all the words, we get Svyatuiy Episkop Stefan Permskiy, “Holy Bishop Stefan/Stephen [of] Perm.”  Stefan of Perm (1340–1396) was the first bishop of Perm, near the Urals.

We can see that the fellow holding the scroll at far right is also dressed as a monastic:

And as we might expect, his title also begins with the letters Prd, which as you already know abbreviate Prepodobnuiy/”Venerable.”

Next comes his name:


And at the end comes his “locator” title, partly obliterated by a scratch (this kind of thing is common in old icons) and abbreviated, but we can nonetheless read it as:


So this fellow is Venerable Makariy Zheltovodskiy, or anglicized, “Venerable Macarius of Yellow Waters” [Lake].  You may also sometimes find his title given in longer form as Преподобный Макарий Унженский Желтоводский Чудотворец/Venerable “Makariy Unzhenskiy [‘of Unzha’] Zheltovodskiy Wonderworker.”  He lived circa 1399-1444, and was the founder of monasteries on the Volga River.

Now we move to the first fellow at left in the bottom row.

The beginning of his inscription has been partly obliterated by time, but from what we have already seen, we can easily amend the first word to the Prd we already know, for Prepodobnuiy — “Venerable.”

Next comes his name, and though the beginning letters are damaged, we can easily emend it as:


After that comes his abbreviated “locator” title:


So this fellow is Venerable Dimitriy Prilutskiy, or anglicized, Venerable Demetrius of Priluki.  He was a 14th century monastic founder in the Vologda area.

To the right of Dimitriy is this person:

His title is given as:


Evfimiy was a 15th century cleric noted for his reconstruction of many old churches.  He died in 1458.

The brackets indicate letters left out in the abbreviation or difficult to see because they are tiny superscripts.

Now we come to the angel.  He is easy to identify, even though some letters are gone from his title:

He is:


In normal English, “The Holy Guardian Angel.”  Remember that the ГГ (“gg”) combination of letters in Slavic is read as “ng.”  He holds the cross and sword typical of the “Guardian Angel” type.

To his right we see this fellow:

His inscription is:


Nikita died in 1108, and was reputed to be a “wonderworker.”

Now we come to the last figure:

He is:


From his inscription we can see how very important the “locator” portion of a title is in accurately identifying a saint, because as noted in this icon, there is more than one Sava — and in fact there are often multiple saints with the same name.  So we need the “locator” title to tell just which Sava this fellow is — and we see he is Sava of Vishersk, not Sava of Serbia or some other Sava (often anglicized as Sabbas).  Sava (generally spelled Савва/Savva) of Vishersk was the very ascetic founder of a monastery on the Vishera River.  He died in 1460.

Now you have had some helpful practice in reading and translating Church Slavic titles of saints in Russian icons.  If you have been reading here from the beginning, you should be able to translate the titles on a great many saints with ease.


Part of the fun of icons is in trying to translate some of the roughly or oddly written inscriptions.

Here, for example, is a Greek-inscribed icon you will recognize as John the Forerunner — John the Baptist.  Greek icons of John often have a “wild and wooly” appearance, almost like a combination of primitive art and more abstract art:

(Courtesy of

But it is his scroll that interests us today:

The texts used on John’s scroll in icons are usually quite limited, so one might guess at what it says, but it is best to be able to read it, though some of the spelling is phonetic rather than standard.  Also, it is a little worn, but nonetheless we can make out what was intended.  Here is what it looks like:








Well, with a little imagination, we can tell that the painter’s intention was a standard inscription:

Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Metanoeite, engiken gar he basileia ton ouranon
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawn near.”

The painter did some (for us) odd things, for example using OI where we would expect I or H in Greek, but that is easily explained — all three have the same  “ee” sound in later Greek, so again, he was just writing phonetically.

The title inscription is a bit odd in its arrangement.  We see it in the upper left-hand corner:

It is meant to be read from lower left to upper left to upper right.

At lower left we have


The bottom letter above is not quite clear in the inscription, but nonetheless we can easily see that the inscription is to be understood as  Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC — Ho Hagios — “The Holy…”

The name Ιωάννης/Ioannes/John at top left is abbreviated to only two letters — Ιω.

When we get to his title at upper right, we see the beginning Ὁ/Ho/”The” followed by a very elaborate ligature intended to represent — when joined to the ΟC/os ending, the word Πρόδρομος/Prodromos/ “Forerunner.”

So we see that the title intended by the abbreviations and fancy ligature is Ὁ Άγιος Ιωάννης ο ΠρόδρομοςHO HAGIOS IOANNES HO PRODROMOS — “THE HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”

From earlier postings here on John, you will already know why he is shown with wings.  If you don’t remember, or if you are new here, you will find the answer in this posting:



We have seen Resurrection icons here previously, but today we will look at a rather remarkable example, extraordinary in its detail and the number of related scenes included.  It is Russian, from the 19th century.

(Collection Tóth Ikonen)

At the top we see a heavily abbreviated title inscription.  Here is the left side of it:

It reads in large vyaz lettering:


Notice how cleverly the left vertical of the K as been shortened at top and bottom to fit within the arms of the C (“S”).

It finishes at top right:

“[of] CHRIST”

That strange letter in the middle is the T, with the left vertical shortened to fit below the top of the P (“R”), and the right side extended into a long vertical.  Remember that in some icon inscriptions, T looks very much like an English “M.”  That is the case here, though it has the left vertical shortened.

Now you will recall (I hope) that early icons of the Resurrection depicted it as the descent of Jesus to Hades, where he releases the righteous men and women of the Old Testament from their imprisonment .  Later Russian icons, however, often add to that the “Western” image of the Resurrection — Jesus rising above his empty tomb.  And that is what we see in the center of this example.  At top is the “Western” Resurrection, and at bottom the earlier “Descent to Hades” form:

Taken as a whole, however, the icon is meant to tell the Resurrection story from the Crucifixion to the Ascension of Jesus.  It begins top left with the Crucifixion:

The smaller inscriptions identify each scene.  At top is the Raspyatie Khristovo — the “Crucifixion of Christ.”  Below that is the Snyatie so Kresta — the “Removal from the Cross.”  Then comes the Polozhenie vo Grob — the “Placing in the Tomb.”  And at the base we see that Peter has come to the tomb, and sees the linen graveclothes lying there.

Then we have to jump to the right of Jesus in the upper “Western” Resurrection, where the painter has squeezed in two more small scenes — at right the “Myrrh-bearing Women” listening to an angel at the tomb, and at left the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (as previously mentioned, this is an amalgamation of discrepant Gospel accounts of the Resurrection).

At lower left, we see the angels who have been commanded to subdue Hades, along with various devils, and the mouth of Hades depicted as the open jaws of a frightful beast — another borrowing from Western European art.

In the “Descent to Hades” form of the Resurrection, we see Jesus freeing the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve:

At right we see the long line of freed prisoners rising up to the Gates of Paradise, notable among them the “Repentant Thief” who is called Rakh in Russian icons.  He is the fellow in white pants, holding a cross.  In the lower part of this segment we see Jesus giving Rakh the cross that will be his “ticket” into Paradise:

So we see Rakh with Jesus and his cross, and above that at the Gates of Paradise, and then he is inside the Garden of Paradise with other saints and Old Testament worthies.  Note the Seraph with flaming swords who guards the gates.

Now if we look at the “Western” Resurrection, we see Jesus rising above the tomb (note the sarcophagus with the empty graveclothes).  Below him is a group of astonished Roman guards (found only in the Gospel called “of Matthew”), fallen to the ground.

At lower right we see two post-Resurrection scenes.  At top is Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and beside that the scene of their recognizing him while sitting at table, when he breaks the bread.

Below that is the scene of the resurrected Jesus meeting the disciples (that is Peter coming out of the water) at the Sea of Tiberias.

Finally, we have to jump back to the upper left side to see the small scenes of Jesus being touched by Thomas at left, Thomas bowing before him at lower left (with the other disciples), and the end of the whole tale at upper left, where the disciples and Mary, standing with angels, see Jesus ascending to heaven — the Voznesenie — the “Ascension.”

An icon such as this is, as I often say, a kind of graphic novel in paint.  A believer could move his or her eyes about the icon to follow the story, noting each incident and its participants.

As I have mentioned before, the iconography of the Resurrection is a conglomeration of elements from various sources, both biblical and extra-biblical.  And even using those sources found only within the Bible requires glossing over their incompatible discrepancies to make an attempt at a unified story.  But keep in mind that Russians — until quite recent times — were not Bible readers.  Most people were illiterate.  At the end of the 18th century, only somewhere between 1 and 12% of peasant males could read.  Around a quarter of city dwellers were literate.  Nobles had the highest literacy rates at about 84-87%, and  about 75% of merchants were literate.  By 1897, about a quarter of the population of the western part of Russia was literate, with the highest rates still among the wealthy, the nobles, merchants, and clergy, and peasants far below them.  Bibles were not easy to obtain or affordable, though the New Testament was more often to be found than the Old.  Most people learned the Bible stories through the readings in the liturgy and through the images on icons, so there was much less chance of noticing all the “holes” in the sewn-together account as seen in icons such as this one.

The spread of the New Testament in Russia was largely made possible by the efforts of Protestants, via at first the British and Foreign Bible Society — which led to a Russian Bible Society.  Even when New Testaments began to appear at affordable prices, they were often in Church Slavic, and finding a Bible also containing the Old Testament often proved difficult even into the 20th century.  The reading of the Bible in Russian rather than Church Slavic is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

In spite of all these difficulties, we nonetheless find that in the 19th century religious classic often known in English as The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim — poor as he was — mentions owning a Bible:

Я по милости Божией человек-христианин, по делам великий грешник, по званию бесприютный странник, самого низкого сословия, скитающийся с места на место. Имение мое следующее: за плечами сумка сухарей, да под пазухой Священная Библия; вот и все.

I am by the grace of God a Christian man, by my deeds a great sinner, by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth, roaming from place to place.  My belongings are the following:  on my back a knapsack of dried bread, and in my breast pocket the Holy Bible — and that is all.”


Here is an interesting example of a Marian icon:

(Courtesy of

It has a familiar name, as we see in the title inscription:

It says:



Now we have seen this “Joy to/of all Who Suffer” icon type before — in fact it is a very common Marian icon type.  But what is unusual about this example is the absence of the angels and of the suffering people usually depicted on both sides of Mary, along with banners bearing a related text.  This icon, however, focuses in on the central image of Mary with crown and scepter, holding the Christ Child — the main element in many “Joy of all Who Suffer” icons — though many also picture Mary without the Child.

This example of the type is particularly unusual in that it depicts Mary to the waist, instead of full length.

Notice that this icon has a kovcheg — an ark — meaning that the main area of the image is recessed below the level of the outer border.  It is characteristic of early icons, but as we see from this example, it was still used now and then even, even into the 19th and beginning of the 20the century.

For more information on the conventional “Joy of All Who Suffer,” type, here is a link to the earlier posting: