I have mentioned before that Nikolai/Nicholas is one of the most common icon saints, and also one of the easiest to recognize.  Here is a well-painted example from the year 1908:

(Courtesy of

One of the things that always amused me about icons of Nicholas is that his head down to the lips is a circle.  Have you noticed that?  Look at it:

(Courtesy of

To paint Nicholas, all the iconographer had to do in beginning was to make a large circle for the main part of the head, and then add a smaller, partial circle to the base of that for the bearded portion.

The smaller, lower circle is sometimes not quite so obvious, either because of the shaping of the beard added over it, or because the painter was a bit more adventurous.  But if we look at the following example, the lower portion of the face (with beard) is quite obviously just a smaller circle imposed upon the larger to form the structure of the face of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

Now let’s return to the first example.  As you know, Nicholas is known in Russian iconography as Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Nicholas the “Wonderworker.”  A “wonder” (чудо/chudo) is a miracle.  It is the Slavic equivalent of Greek θαύμα/thauma, so in Greek a wonderworker is a θαυματουργός/thaumatourgos. We can see that Chudotvorets (Чудотворец) title written on the right side of the image:


One often finds little variations in spelling (usually phonetic), such as the use here of Ю (the “iu” sound) instead of У (the “oo” sound) — often written as the combined o and у:

You will remember that in this “Nicholas of Velikoretsk” type, Jesus is seen at left with the Gospel book he gave to Nicholas, and Mary at right with her donation, his bishop’s stole (Russian omofor, Greek omophorion).

Now this Nicholas icon (the first example shown on the page) is painted considerably “fancier” than most.  And the inscription, instead of calling Nicholas Svyatuiy (Holy) Nikolai Chudotvorets, instead uses the Greek equivalent Άγιος/Hagios, though the rest of the title is written in Church Slavic.

Not only that, this icon in giving the standard Gospel text for Nicholas on the book he holds, actually identifies it in smaller letters at the top of the text, which is rather unusual in such icons.  It says on the left page:

Еvангелiе от луки
Evangelie ot luki
Gospel  of/from Luke

And on the right:
зачало к д е
Zachalo k d  e

Зачало/zachalo in Church Slavic means literally “beginning,” but it also has the sense here of an extract or quote from the Bible.  It is the equivalent of the term pericope (pronounced puh-RI-cuh-pee) used in biblical studies.

But what about the к д  (we can omit the “e” for now)?  Well, as you may recall, Church Slavic letters can also be used as numbers.  And note that on the icon, there is a curved line above the кд.  That means it is to be read as the number 24.  The problem, however, is that the text given is not from Luke 24, but rather is Luke 6:17.  So did the writer of this icon text get it wrong?  No, because here he is not going by the verse numbering of the Bible, but rather by the numbering of Gospel excerpts from the Lectionary, the book of readings to be used at various services during the Church year.  This is one of those tricky little things about icons involving the complex Eastern Orthodox liturgical books, and believe me, that subject gets really boring fast, so no need for details here.  Just remember that in the Eastern Orthodox Church services, there is another numbering system for Gospel texts other than that found in the Slavic Bible.  And in that system, this common Lukan excerpt is “Zachalo/Pericope 24″:

Here is how it is arranged on the pages (with a literal translation).
Во время оно                At time that
ста Исус на ме-            stood Jesus on [a] pl-
сте равне и                   ace level and
народ ученик                crowd of disciples
Его, и множе-                of him, and a multi-

-ство много                   -tude of many
людей от всея                people of all
Иудеи и Иерусали-        Judea and Jerusale-
ма, и помория                -m, and the coast
Тирска и Сид[онска]….  of Tyre and Sid[on]…..

The date inscription is found at the base:

It is given in an imitation of much earlier writing.  It says:
“This holy image was painted in the year 1908, the month of February, finished on the 15th day.”




Today’s icon type is based upon a phrase from Psalm 150.

Here it is, from the King James Version, with the relevant phrase in bold type:

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.

Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.

3 Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.

Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

In Church Slavic the phrase (and the title of this icon type) is:

Всякое дыхание да хвалит Господа.
Vsyakoe duikhanie da khvalit Gospoda

Vsyakoe means “All.”
Duikhanie means “things that breathe.”
And then comes that construction I advised you to remember for your basic knowledge of Church Slavic — da, followed by a verb.  You may recall that it has the sense of “may it be,” “let it be.”  So if we combine that with the next word,
Khvalit — meaning “to praise,” we get the meaning “let praise.”  Gospoda of course means “[the] Lord.”

So the meaning of Vasyakoe duikanie da khvalit Gospoda is literally,
“Let All That Breathe Praise the Lord,”
or as it is often rendered,
“Let All That has Breath Praise the Lord.”

And that is the title of this icon type.

At the top, in the starry heaven, we see Jesus enthroned, holding the open Gospels, and surrounded by angels.  Below him, Mary stands at left, with more angels, and at right is John the Forerunner, also with angels.

Below them are rows of saints (note the halos), and below them crowds of more ordinary people (without halos).

Around the stylized hill in the center, with its rather abstract trees, we see flights of delightfully-speckled birds, and on and below the hill is an assortment of various kinds of animals and birds, ending with geese swimming in the pool at the base.

This is an easy type to recognize:  just look for all the birds and creatures.



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):


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:


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):


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


Today we shall look at a very uncommon icon type.  Why then discuss it?  Because uncommon types are the “spice” of the subject of iconography — something that catches our interest after seeing countless copies of such common icon types as the “Kazan” Mother of God and the “Lord Almighty.”  But there is also another reason to look at it.  Its title gives us more words to add to our practical Slavic vocabulary for reading icons.

This icon is Russian, from the 16th century.  We might guess it is early,  because instead of having the usual one-piece riza (metal cover), it has the kind of ornate frame-shaped covering called a basma ((басма) around its outer edges.  A basma is composed of sheets of embossed or engraved metal nailed to the surface of an icon.  Use of the basma faded out near the end of the 17th century, when it was gradually replaced by the one-piece metal cover called a riza (literally “robe”).  A riza was usually fastened to an icon by nails inserted at the outer sides of the wooden panel, but a basma was just nailed right onto the icon surface, which is why we often find nail holes in the surface of very old icons where a basma cover was once placed.

Note the added metal halos nailed onto the icon above the figures at both sides of the lower portion.

The common title of this icon type (which begins in the larger inscription seen near the top of the basma), is:


Videnie means “vision.”

Proroka is the “of” form of prorok, “prophet.”

Iezekiilya is the “of” form of Iezekiil’ (Иезекннль)  the name Ezekiel.

Na means “on/at.”

Reke is a form of reka, “river.”

Khovar is the name of the river, called Chebar in the King James translation of the Bible.

So the title all together means:


The text relating to this icon type comes from the first chapters of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament.  Here are some relevant excerpts:

Now it happened in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God…

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.  And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.  As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.

And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2And the spirit entered into me when he spoke unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spoke unto me.

And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that you find; eat this roll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.  And he said to me, Son of man, cause your belly to eat, and fill your bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.

So that is basically it.  The man on the throne in Ezekiel’s vision becomes the image of Christ Immanuel in the icon itself.  And down below, Ezekiel is seen standing on the left side, observing the vision.  He is seen a second time at the lower right side, eating the scroll (“roll”) that is being handed down to him from Heaven.

The fluffy things at both sides of the circles enclosing Christ Immanuel are stylized clouds, showing that portion is in the sky.  Then come the stylized rocks representing the ground, and in the middle of the bottom portion is stylized water, representing the river Chebar.

Having said all that, perhaps you may remember that in a much earlier post on the icon type called the “All-Seeing Eye of God,” we also find Ezekiel and his vision of wheels within wheels, and his eating of the scroll, in the more elaborate versions of that type, also known as the “Coal of Isaiah.”


Here is a 19th-century Russian icon of a saint.  The long text written on the both sides is his hagiographic “life,” his “vita,” to use the Latin term:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Who is he?  The title inscription at the top of the image tells us.  Let’s take a look at it.  Here is the left side:

(the small letters are those written above and in one case within the others).

Here is the continuation on the right side:


So the whole inscription — in abbreviated form — is:



Let’s provide the missing letters to see it in non-abbreviated form:

С[вя]ТЫИ С[вя]ЩЕн[но] М[у]Ч[е]н[ник] ЕВъСЕВIИ ЕПисКоПЪ САМОс[атский]

So it gives us the title in its usual spelling:

Святый Священномученик Евсевий, епископ Самосатский 

If you have been paying close attention to previous “lessons” here in reading Church Slavic, you should only have trouble with a couple of those words.  Don’t worry about the extra letter ъ in ЕВъСЕВIИ as written on the icon.  Such spelling variations are not uncommon.

СвятыйSvyatuiy means “Holy.”  It is the word used for a male saint.

СвященномученикSvyashchennomuchenik means “Priest-martyr,” or to use its partially Greek form, “Hieromartyr.”  You will recall that мученикmuchenik — by itself means “martyr” when used of a male.

Евсевий, — Evseviy — is the saint’s name.  It will look a bit strange until we recall that when Greek names are put into their Russian/Church Slavic forms, “eu” in Greek commonly becomes “ev” in Russian; and Greek “b” becomes “v” in Russian.  And the “-ios” ending common for many Greek names becomes the ending -ий — iy— in Russian/Church Slavic.  So keeping all that in mind (it is not as difficult as it sounds at first) — we can put the name back into its transliterated Greek form like this:

Евсевий — Evseviy = Eusebios 

And if we want to put it into its Latin form, we need only recall that the Greek name ending –ios becomes –ius in Latin.  And that gives us the usual form of this saint’s name as commonly found in English, because English often uses the Latin forms of Greek names that end in -ios.  In this case it is Eusebius.

So this is a saint named Eusebius.

The next part of the title tells us he is an

епископ — episkop.  That means “bishop.”

And the final word tells us what he was bishop of or where he was from:

СамосатскийSamosatskiy — means he was of Samosata.  Remember that the -skiy ending on a Church Slavic place name means “of” that place.  So now we have the full title and name of the saint:

Святый Священномученик Евсевий, Епископ Самосатский Svyatuiy Svyashchennomuchenik Evseviy, Episkop Samosatskiy.

And that means:

[The] Holy Priest-martyr Eusebius, Bishop [of] Samosata.

You may be asking yourself (if you are not forgetting the whole thing and turning off your computer by now) WHY this saint is dressed in the conventional garb of a Roman warrior if he was a bishop.  Because as you know, bishops are usually depicted wearing their ornate robes and an omophorion, the long stole around the neck that hangs down in front and is characteristic of bishops.  Could it be a painter’s mistake?

In this case it is not, and the reason why this bishop is dressed in Roman armor is found in the traditional story of his life.  I should remind you that these stories of saints’ lives are not history; they are pious legends that are sometimes a mixture of fiction and fact, and sometimes entirely fiction.

In any case, it is said that the bishop Eusebius took part in the First Ecumenical Council — the Council of Nicaea; and there he was a staunch defender of the so-called “Orthodox” position — that Jesus is God and equal to and of the same substance as God the Father.  He held this position against the Arians, who asserted that Jesus was not equal in status to the Father.  This council took place in 325 c.e., when Constantine was emperor.

For his opposition to the Arian position, it is said that Eusebius was removed from office and banished.  And the Emperor Constantius, who succeeded Constantine, ordered Eusebius to give up a decree authorizing the election of the non-Arian bishop Meletius as bishop of Antioch.  The Emperor threatened to have Eusebius’ right hand cut off if he did not hand it over.  The tradition says Eusebius refused, and stretched out both his hands to be cut, but the Emperor was impressed by his courage and did not carry out the threat.

When the Emperor Julian (361-363) became emperor (the Christians like to call him “the Apostate”), it is said that Christians were persecuted again, so Eusebius dressed himself in the garb of a Roman soldier as a disguise, and travelled through Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine, preaching the “Orthodox” non-Arian concept of God and creating non-Arian bishops and deacons among the Christians.

Julian was killed in battle, and was succeeded by Emperor Jovian (363-364).  Under this Emperor persecution of Christians came to an end, and the bishop Eusebius had protected — Meletius — at the urging of Eusebius, convened a council of 27 bishops at Antioch, where they confirmed the non-Arian “Orthodox” belief.

However, Jovian died, and Valentius (364-375) became Emperor, giving reign of the East to his co-emperor Valens (364-378).  Valens was an Arian.  You can see that there was an ongoing struggle back and forth in the Empire about whether it was to be Arian or “Orthodox.”  Under Valens the Arian approach was again favored, and Meletius was sent into exile to Armenia.  Eusebius, now Bishop of Samosata,  was ordered into banishment in Thrace.  He urged his tearful congregants, on leaving, to keep to the “Orthodox” belief.  The Arian Eunomios was made Bishop of Samosata in his place, but it is said the followers of Eusebius refused to accept his authority or attend his services.

Then the pendulum swung again.  The Emperor Gratian (375-383) came to power, and the Arian bishops were out and the “Orthodox” bishops were restored to their offices.  Eusebius returned to being Bishop of Samosata, and worked to put “Orthodox” clergy back into power in other regions.  In the year 388 he was in the Arian city of Dolikhina, where he intended to oust the Arian bishop and install an “Orthodox” bishop.  One Arian woman was having none of it.  She picked up a roof tile and hurled it at Eusebius’ head.  It was a mortal blow, and he died of it, after saying that the woman should not be punished.  He was buried in Samosata.

So that is the traditional story.  If nothing else, it emphasizes that Christian doctrine was often the result of much bickering, infighting, and political and power struggles, and the Roman Emperors were very important in this, supporting whichever side they happened to favor.  And eventually, as we know from history, the “Orthodox” position on the status of Jesus became the imperially-favored position, and holds its place in Eastern Orthodoxy to this day.

That story explains why Eusebius is wearing Roman armor instead of  a bishop’s robes.  But perhaps you noticed that in his hand, where a warrior saint would often hold a lance or a sword, Eusebius holds a book of the Gospels, to show that he is, like other bishops, a teacher of the Church.

One more small detail.  On the right side — at the very end of the long “life” story written on the icon — we see this in larger letters than the preceding text:

It reads (in modern font):


Pamyat‘ as used here means Memory/Commemoration;
Ego means “his/of him”;
Iiunya here means “June”;
KB is a number written in letters; K is 20 and B is 2, so together they form the number 22.
Evseviya means “of Evseviy/Eusebius.”

All together, it means “The Commemoration of Eusebius is on June 22nd,” and in fact that is his annual day of commemoration in the “Old Style” Church calendar.

Above the image of Eusebius, we see a typical image of Jesus blessing him from the clouds of Heaven (remember that in these times, Heaven was believed to be in the sky above the earth).  If you look at Jesus’ blessing hand, you will see that the fingers are held in the position favored by the Old Believers, who separated from the politically-supported “State” Church in the mid-1600s.  That tells us this icon was painted by someone in the tradition of the Old Believers.  That is not surprising, because by this late date, the State Church favored icons that were much more realistic and “Western European” in appearance than this example.



Today we will take another look at the letters of the Church Slavic alphabet, which one MUST know to read icon inscriptions from Russia and other Slavic countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, etc.

I will repeat that it is VERY IMPORTANT not to confuse Church Slavic, which is also called Church Slavonic, with OLD Church Slavonic.  OLD Church Slavonic is an earlier and somewhat different form of the language.  But to read Russian and other Slavic icons, we want CHURCH SLAVIC/SLAVONIC, not OLD Church Slavonic, which will just confuse you.  I emphasize this because some readers here have already had problems from mixing the two.

So here is the CHURCH SLAVIC alphabet — the one we use for reading Russian icons.  Do not be intimidated by it.  It is actually easy to learn.  Just remember that for reading icon inscriptions, all you need to remember is the letters and their sounds.  All the little “rules” at the end are just for your information, and you need not bother with them unless you want to learn to write Church Slavic calligraphy.

(Courtesy of Matthew Bielawa’s Halga: Genealogy of Halychyna/Eastern Galicia site:

Now for some notes and clarifications on that:

If you are using Church Slavic as pronounced in Russia, then the letter Г sounds like hard “g” in English “go.”


There are two forms of the “z” letter (as in English “zoo”); the first form is used for some words, but the second is the most commonly used.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the second form is used for both (З).

There are two forms of the “i” letter, pronounced like “ee” in English “see”; the first is used before consonants, the second is written before vowels, as well as used before consonants in words derived from Greek.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (И ).

There are two forms of the “o” letter, pronounced like “o” in English “so.”  The first is used at the beginning and middle of words.  The second, which looks like Greek omega, is used to begin a prefix, and used in some words derived from Greek, as well as in other grammatical situations (not important to remember for reading).  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (O)

There are two forms of the “ou” letter, pronounced like “oo” in English “moon.”  The first is used to begin words, the second is used within or at the end of words.  The second form is just the o and y of the first form combined.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the form У is used for both.

There are two forms of the “ya” letter, pronounced like “ya” in English “yard.”  With few exceptions, the first is used to begin a word, and the second is used within or at the end of a word.  As you can see, the first is an i followed by an a; the second is rather like an Roman A, but with the added i placed just below the crossbar.  An easy way to remember it is to think of it as “ia,” pronounced “ya.”  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Я form is used for both.

There are two forms of the “f” letter, pronounced like “f” in English “for.”  The first is the usual form, derived from the Greek letter phi.  The second is used for words derived from Greek (etc.), and is actually the Greek letter theta, but in Slavic it is pronounced “f” instead of “th.”  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Ф form is used for both.

Finally there is this letter.  It is pronounced “v” as in English “vat” when used after “a” or “e.”  But elsewhere it is pronounced “ee” as in “see,” primarily in words derived from Greek, etc.  When written in modern Russian, the form  И is used.

For reading, you do not have to remember all the little details of where one or the other form is used.  You just have to remember its sound, so you can transliterate it.  Of course if you want to write calligraphic  VYAZ’, the linked form of Church Slavic letters, then you will want to keep these little rules in mind.

PLEASE REMEMBER that the writers of many icon inscriptions did not follow the standard placement rules for using these letters.  They often just went with the phonetic sound of a letter and their personal whims.  And of course one finds words misspelled.

Just for completeness, you may wish to know what those little accent marks are that one sees above words in Church Slavic inscriptions.  You do not need to know them to read, but if you want to pronounce Church Slavic correctly, they are helpful.  The marks are:

´  The acute accent, which leans to the right; it is placed over a vowel at the beginning or middle of a word.  It often indicates the emphasized syllable.

`  The grave accent (pronounced “grav” to rhyme with “slav”) leans to the left; it is placed over a vowel at the end of a word.

ˆ  The circumflex accent, which looks like a little half moon when written.  It is placed above a vowel to distinguish dual and plural nouns from an identical singular form of the noun

Further, there is a mark that looks like a circumflex accent facing left.  It is used over a vowel that begins a word, and is sometimes followed on the same letter by an acute or grave accent.  All of this will mean little to you if you just want to read Church Slavic (except for the dual/plural-singular distinction), but for those who just want to learn to read enough Slavic to read common icon inscriptions, you can safely ignore this accent information unless you want to impress (or more likely bore) your friends.

You already know that an abbreviation in Church Slavic is indicated by a horizontal, curved line that looks a little like the Spanish tilda (~), written above the abbreviated word.

Let’s take a look at a Church Slavic prayer to see alphabet and accents in use:

Here it is transliterated and rather literally translated:

Ts[a]riu n[e]b[e]snuiy, outyeshiteliu, d[u]she istinui,
O-Tsar      heavenly,      comforter,     spirit     of-truth
izhe vezdye suiy i vsya ispolnyayaiy,
who everywhere are and all fill,
sokrovishche bl[a’gikh’ i zhizni podateliu,
treasury      of-blessings and of-life giver,
priidi i vselisya v’ nui
come and abide in us
i ochisti nuiy ot vsyakiya skvernui,
and cleanse us from every impurity
I spasi, bl[a]zhe, dushui nasha 
and save, Good-one, souls of-us

In better English:

“O heavenly Tsar, comforter, spirit of truth, who are everywhere and fill all, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save, Good One, our souls.”

You can see that in the word Ts[a]riu (O Tsar) has an abbreviation mark above it.  Such a mark is called a titlo (plural titla).  It is rather angular here:

Above the word nebesnuiy we also see a an abbreviation mark, a titlo, but it is more curved than angular here.  A little letter c (“s” in English) is written under its curve, to show it is inserted into the word below.  And as you see from my transliteration, the reader must supply the two missing e letters:

Note also the И letter at the end of nebesnuiy.  I customarily transliterate it as “iy” or “y” when it has the little half moon facing upward accent above it.

And the second to last letter in nebesnuiy I customarily transliterate as “ui” (others often use “y”).  It is like an “ee” sound, but not quite; it is more like the sound in the English word “me” when pronounced with an American southern accent, like a quickly spoken muh-ee, with the first “uh” as in “push” gliding swiftly into the stronger “ee.”

Remember, as mentioned previously, that there there is a letter combining the “o” and “t” sounds, and is pronounced “ot” as in English “note.”  It means “of” or “from,” and you will see it often in icon inscriptions:

You will also want to be aware of the letter pronounced “ye” as in English “yea” (rhymes with “say”).  In modern Russian Cyrillic it is not distinguished in form from an ordinary е:

Finally, remember that the “oo” sound is written somewhat like a “v” or “u” atop an “o.”  It combines the letters o and u, as in the word dushui (“souls”):

Please note the two letters that do not really indicate sounds.  They are Ь and Ъ .

Ь just indicates that the previous letter is “soft,” that is, you pronounce it with an added little “ye” sound that is just hinted at, not fully spoken.  And Ъ just means the previous consonant does not have that added litte “ye” sound.  The technical terms for these effects are “palatized” or “soft” for the first and “non-palatized” or “hard” for the second.  I often omit them in simple transliteration here, but they can indicate a difference in meaning, so more fully,  Ь is transliterated as ‘  and Ъ as “.


Thanks again to Matthew Bielawa for kindly letting me borrow from his genealogy site.




Here is an icon of one of the “special needs” saints, Kharlampiy.  The Greeks call him Χαράλαμπος  — Kharalambos.  He was considered the fellow to pray to for protection from plagues and fevers, etc.  As with the old pre-Christian gods, it was considered risky not to properly commemorate him, because he was likely to take revenge for the slight by releasing the plague on you.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The image shows Kharlampiy in the center, and at the sides are four scenes from the traditional account of his martyrdom in the 3rd century.

We are looking at Kharlampiy today for a different reason, however.  We want to to translate the Church Slavic title at the top of the icon.  The little image in the center is the icon type known as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, which I have discussed in a previous posting.

The first word is slightly worn, but nonetheless we should be able to determine that it is an abbreviation (see the horizontal curved line above it that tells us so?).

The obvious letters in it are ОБР –OBR.  The O is the old “omega” form, this letter:

If you were paying attention yesterday (didn’t you have anything else to do?), you will recall that ОБ and Р are the first three letters of the word oбразъ — obraz — meaning “image.”

Yesterday we also looked at some useful Church Slavic words based on the root cвятъ — svyat — meaning “holy.”  The next word in Kharlampiy’s inscription is another of those “svyat” words.  It is slightly abbreviated here as СВТИТЛЯ —SVTITLYA.  In full, the word is СВЯТИТЕЛЯ — SVYATITELYA.  This is an “of” form of the word Святитель — Svyatitel.  It means “archpriest,” but it is also often used for “bishop.”  You can see that Kharlampiy is wearing a bishop’s stole or omophorion.  So here we can translate it as “bishop.”  The word svyatitel is related to the verb that means “to make holy, to consecrate.”  And of course a bishop is consecrated in a special ceremony.

I hope you noticed that when I type Church Slavic, I put it into a modern Russian font that is basically the same as Church Slavic except for a few letters.  One of those letters is the Russian Я, pronounced “ya.”  But if you look at the inscription on the icon, you will see that the letter used looks very different.  It is the Church Slavic form of “ya”, shown here in upper and lower case:


There is also another Church Slavic letter that has the same “ya” sound.  It looks like this:


Sometimes writers of Slavic inscriptions use one form, sometimes the other.  But in the modern Russian font, both of these are represented by Я.

Now let’s look at the last word in the inscription.  It is the saint’s personal name, and it is written in full:


You can see that for the final letter, the writer has used the second form of the Church Slavic “ya”:


This name, like the word SVYATITELYA preceding it, is in the “of” form.  You can see that both have a -ya ending to show this.  In its normal form, it would be written as ХАРЛАМПИЙ — KHARLAMPIY.

Now let’s put it all together to translate the title inscription:

“Image [of] Bishop Kharlampiy”

Even though both Svyatitelya and Kharlampiya have the ending indicating they are in the “of” form, we only need to use “of” once when translating into English.  And we can also add the word “the,” which as you know, Church Slavic does not have.  So we can give the English meaning of this icon inscription as:


So you see, reading Church Slavic inscriptions is not difficult.  It is just that in learning a bit of Church Slavic, we have to keep in mind that it is one of the most useless languages in existence for most anything practical except reading icon inscriptions — and we can hardly even call that practical now, can we?  But what practical person is likely to read this site?  Or for that matter, write it?