Here is a pleasant Russian icon of an angel, most likely once the right panel in a group of at least three related icons:
Here is a closer look at the title inscription:
We see from the curved horizontal line above each word that they are abbreviated. Here is the inscription with the missing letters added:
“Angel of the Lord”
Remember that when you see two Gs together in Church Slavic — ГГ — they are pronounced like “ng” in “tangle.” Also remember that Church Slavic has no words corresponding to English “the” or “a.” So ANGEL’ GOSPODEN’ can be translated as “Angel of the Lord” or “The Angel of the Lord.” АГГЕЛЬ is the singular form of angel — used for only one.
You may recall that the curly ribbons at each side of the angel’s head represent divine hearing.
The angel holds a zertsalo — a stylized mirror — on which is written the word
СВЯТЬ/SVYAT’ — meaning “Holy.” Sometimes shown as a sphere, sometimes as a disk, the zertsalo represents divine seeing — a kind of heavenly television set or surveillance camera. Notice the stylized clouds around the edge.
Of course if there is more than one angel, the word changes to make it plural, as we see in this icon of the Old Testament Trinity:
Here are the inscriptions on the three central angels (representing the Trinity in Eastern Orthodox belief):
Instead of writing “Angel of the Lord” on each halo, the painter has instead used the plural form for each:
АГГ[Е]ЛИ Г[ОСПО]ДНИ ANGELI GOSPODNI
“ANGELS OF THE LORD.”
If you are curious about the title inscription on the top of the roundel, here it is:
It reads (modern Russian font):
ОБРАЗ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ ЖИВОНАЧАЛЬНАЯ ТРОИЦА
OBRAZ PRESVYATUIYA ZHIVONACHAL’NAYA TROITSA
“Image of the Most Holy Life-giving Trinity.”
If you are a long-time reader here, there is no Church Slavic word used today that you have not seen before, so this is just a little review.
If you are a long-time reader here, you will recall that the “appearance” of something — whether an icon or a vision — is a yavlenie in Russian icon terminology. And you may recall from a past posting that there is also the related form yavisya, meaning “appeared.”
That should help you with today’s icon. Here it is:
Let’s look at the title inscription:
As you see, it abbreviates some words with certain omitted letters written above the line as superscript letters. If we add all missing letters, it reads (modern Russian font):
There are certain forms of letters to note in the original:
You should recall that the above letter — written like an I and an A together — is one of two ways of writing the sound ya in Church Slavic. The other form is like a capital A with a vertical line descending from the middle of the crossbar. Both are represented in the modern Russian font by Я. Note also that when it appears at the end of the first word, yavisya, it appears like this:
That is because the left I of the IA combination is made much smaller, and inserted into the space in the preceding letter, C. Together, these form –sya.
Also note that in the name Aleksandr, the following Slavic letter is used for the –ks– sound, like our x in English Alexander. In the modern Russian font it would be written as КС
Finally, the second part of Alexandr’s name — Svirskiy — is written here in the “to” form as Svyerskomu, using that convenient letter for –ye– that was dropped from the modern Russian font:
Don’t be surprised that the writer chose the ye sound instead of the normal i sound to write Svirsk– as Svyersk-. Such variations in spelling are not unusual in icons. And notice that the Р (r) in Svyersk– is written smaller and above the letter.
So, all together the title inscription is:
ЯАВИСЯ СВЯТАЯ ТРОИЦА ПРЕПОДОБНОМУ АЛЕКСАНДРУ СВЕРСКОМУ YAVISYA SVYATAYA TROITSA PREPODOBNOMU ALEKSANDRU SVYERSKOMU Appeared Holy Trinity Venerable-to Aleksandr Svyersk
Or in normal English,
“THE HOLY TRINITY APPEARED TO VENERABLE ALEXANDER SVIRSKIY.”
Note the dative (or “to” form) suffixes on Prepodobn–omu,Aleksandr–u and Svyersk–omu.
If we look above Alexandr’s head (he is the fellow kneeling at the right in the image), we see his name written:
It appears as:
ПР[Е]П[ОДОБНЫЙ] АЛЕКСАНДРЪ PR[E]P[ODOBNUIY] ALEKSANDR
So much for the title. But what is this icon type about?
The three angels at left are the members of the Holy Trinity –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — though they are not distinguished as to which is which:
And, of course, here is Alexandr Svirskiy:
Alexandr Svirskiy (1448-1533) was one of the monks of the northern Russian forests — the so-called “Northern Thebaid.” He is called Svirskiy because he settled some 12 miles east of Lake Ladoga, in the vicinity of the Svir River, which runs between Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga. There he led an ascetic and rigorous life. It is said that in 1508 an angel appeared to him, telling him to build a church and a monastery. He did not do so. Later, the angel again appeared, repeating the instructions. Again he did not. Finally (here again is the “third time is the charm” motif we find repeatedly in these old tales of saints and icons) the Trinity appeared to him as three men in shining garments, each with a staff in hand, telling him to build a monastery and a church in the name of the Holy Trinity (Svyataya Troitsa). This of course recalls the appearance of Yahweh, manifested as three men, to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre, according to the Old Testament story in Genesis 18.
That is the traditional account of the origin of the Trinity Cloister at what is now called the Alexandr Svirskiy Monastery (Александро-Свирский монастырь). A body said to be that of Alexandr, and reputed to be “incorrupt” and to manifest miracles, was returned to that monastery in 1998.
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.
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.
Learning a little basic Church Slavic is essential to the study of Russian icons. Do not think you have to learn the entire language in order to read most icons. Icon inscriptions are very repetitive, so a little learning brings big results.
What you will learn here will be very easy and practical, and will really advance your understanding of icons, so do not be intimidated by the unfamiliar.
Here is an important Church Slavic word and its meaning:
Святъ Svyat — holy
Sometimes you will see this inscription on icons:
Свя́тъ, свя́тъ, свя́тъ Svyat, svyat, svyat
And now you already know how to read it. Yes, it is “Holy, holy, holy.” It comes from the Bible, found both in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.
By the way, the letter ъ at the end is just a so-called “hard mark.” It is silent, and I usually omit it in transliteration.
Now let’s expand our knowledge. From the word Svyat, we get more icon words. Two of the most common and very important are:
They are the words used to mean “saint” in icons. Both words literally mean “holy.”
Svyatui is the form of the word used for the title of male saints.
Svyataya is the form of the word used for the title of female saints.
When an icon inscription says “of” this or that saint – “of the holy” — the word “of” is not actually written. Instead, it is indicated by changing the ending of Svyatuiy or Svyataya, like this:
Svyatago – means “of the Holy” for a male saint or male noun.
Svyatuiya – means “of the Holy” for a female saint or noun.
You can see that all we are doing with these words is changing the ending of the word Svyat. So to the root Svyat,
We add –ui for a male: Svyatui.
We add –aya for a female: Svyataya.
We add –ago for “of the holy” for a male: Svyatago.
We add –uiya for “of the holy” for a female: Svyatuiya.
And for completeness, if the noun is neuter, we add the –oe ending. The neuter “of the holy” ending is the same as the masculine: -ago. So it becomes Svyatago.
Church Slavic often uses abbreviations. Both Svyatuiy and Svataya are commonly abbreviated as S or SV or ST, but abbreviation can vary in the number of letters used. Remember that abbreviated words are generally indicated by a curved horizontal line above the abbreviation.
If we want to say “of the holy” for several saints, we add the ending -uikh for male saints:
Святыхъ Svyatuikh – “of the holy” (male plural)
And for “of the holy for several female saints, we add the same ending:
Svyatuikh – “of the holy” (female plural)
There is a prefix – pre-, used to mean roughly “most” or “very,” or “extremely.” Look what happens when we add it to the word Svyataya for a female saint:
Пресвятая Presvyataya – “most holy.”
Presvyataya is an absolutely essential word to know, because it is used in one form or another on countless icons of Mary. Why? Because on icons, Mary is titled the “Most Holy Mother of God.’
You will remember that the female form of “of the holy” is Svyatuiya. It only makes sense then, that the female form of “of the most holy” is Presvyatuiya.
Now let’s add more to our vocabulary:
Богъ Bog – God
A roditsa is a female who gives birth, a birthgiver. If we add Bog – “God” — to that, it becomes:
Богородица Bogoroditsa – God-birthgiver, or more commonly, “Birthgiver of God.”
Bogoroditsa is the standard title for Mary in icons, because in Eastern Orthodoxy, she is considered the one who gives birth to God, that is, to Jesus. It is simply the Church Slavic translation of the Greek title ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟC – Theotokos.
Now we can use two words together:
Presvyatuiya – Most Holy Bogoroditsa – Birthgiver of God
That gives us the title of Mary found on countless icons. Because “Birthgiver of God” sounds awkward in English, it is generally translated more loosely as “Mother of God.” So we get:
Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsa – Most Holy Mother of God.
Marian icons generally have an identifying title, like “of Kazan,” “of Vladimir” and so on. If we add such an identifier to “Most Holy Mother of God, we get the title found on such icons:
Remember that neither Church Slavic nor Russian has the word “the,” so we have to supply it when translating into English; and because English word order is different, we move things around a bit, like this:
“The Image of the Three-handed Most Holy Mother of God”
Now if we look again at the icon at the top of this page, we find it is titled:
КОРСУНСКИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ (the last two words are abbreviated)
Korsunskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui
From what you have learned today, you should be able to translate that as:
“The Korsun Most Holy Mother of God.”
You may wish to know that the Korsun type is another of those Marian images quite mistakenly attributed by tradition to St. Luke. It is said to have been brought from Korsun to Kiev in 988 c.e (the year of the conversion of Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict). Then over the years, it went from Kiev to Novgorod in the North, and then on to Moscow. Another tradition says that it came to Russia at the end of the 12th century. But as we have learned, icon traditions should not be taken too seriously.
Korsun, also known as Kherson and Cherson, is in Crimea, the area of the Ukraine recently invaded and claimed illegally in 2014 by Russia. It is said to be the place where Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized into Eastern Orthodoxy. He is the fellow who made conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy obligatory for his people.