In the later and most prolific period of Russian icon painting — the 18th to early 20th centuries — one frequently finds dated icons with inscriptions telling the year and month and even the day on which the icon was completed. Often the name of the painter is included, as well as other information. That is a tremendous help in determining precisely when an icon was painted, which is somewhat more tricky if one must go by style alone, because styles could extend themselves over many decades.
Such dates were written in Cyrillic letters used as numbers. To read them, one must learn that numbering system. The same system was used in books such as the Bible and in podlinniki (painter’s manuals). So knowing this system is essential knowledge for a student of icons.
Here, for example, is a text from a book printed in Moscow. It contains a year date. Such dates include three or four letters, and they are usually recognizable as “year” dates because a little double-barred cross precedes the first letter number. The date is the last four letters at bottom right:
So here is the date:
How do we read it? To know that, we have to know what Cyrillic letters mean as numbers. Here is a useful chart:
Numbers in general are written with a titlo (the little horizontal line placed above the letter-number).
The numbers from 1-10 are simple.
The numbers from 11-19 are written as “one [and] ten,” “two [and] ten” “three [and] ten” and so on — meaning 11, 12, and thirteen, respectively.
At 20 the system changes, written as “twenty [and] one,” “twenty [and] two,” twenty [and] three,” and so on.
When we reach the hundreds, each number from 100 to 900 has its own letter.
When we get to the thousands, the numbers are again simple, but a thousand number has a little “double-barred cross” preceding it, as in these two examples for the numbers 1,000 and 2,000.
A higher thousand number just follows the same sequence as the first 1-9 numbers on the first chart above, but of course preceded by the little “double-barred cross” to indicate it is read as one of the “thousand” numbers:
Let’s look again at the date on the book:
We can see that the first letter — З — is a thousands number because it is preceded by the “double-barred cross.” Looking at the first chart above, we see that used in the first line it would mean 7, but because it is preceded by the “thousand” sign, we read it as 7,000.
The next letter — У — is found in the line for “hundreds” numbers. we can see that it means 400.
The third letter — K — is 20.
The fourth letter — Г — is 3, as we see in the first line of the chart.
So all together, we have this, reading the number from left to right:
7,000 and 400 and 20 and 3,
or in the common form,
7,423. And that is the date when the book was printed.
You are perhaps thinking, “What?!! That can’t be right!” Well it is right, and to understand why, you need to know that dates on old icons were commonly written using a different system of numbering years. Old Russian years were calculated from the supposed date of the Creation of the World, which in those pre-scientific times was believed to be 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus. So any date after the supposed birth of Jesus was given by adding more years onto the 5,508.
That means the date on the book — 7,423 — was the date from the supposed Creation of the World.
To put that into our modern year numbering system, we need only do some simple math. Here is the formula:
Old year date – 5508 = date in modern years
So in the case of our book date,
And that is the date on the book — the date when it was printed: 1915. So now that you know this, you can read the dates on Russian icons and on books using the old numbering and year system.
Now let’s look at another number (just assume it has a titlo above it):
It would read:
7000 and 200 and 8
That makes it the year 7,208.
Let’s do the calculation:
7,208 (old year system)
5,508 (supposed date of Creation)
1700 (modern year system)
That year, 1700, is important in Russian history. That is the year when Peter the Great changed Russia’s official calendar, bringing it closer to the Western system. That means for the Russian government, it was suddenly no longer the year 7208 from the Creation of the World; it was now the year 1700 from the (supposed) Birth of Jesus. The New Year was set at January 1st instead of September 1st. But because both systems continued to be used, dates may be written in one or the other system.
That is useful to know, because it explains why some icons — usually those not painted by Old Believers — were dated using the modern year system, but still written in old letter-numbers. In such dates, up to the year 1999, the first number will be the “one thousand” number:
Be aware that sometimes a painter will omit the double-barred cross (ǂ) before the initial “thousands” number of an icon date, in which case the initial number is still read as a “thousands” number.
Dates on icons may be presented in a number of formulaic ways, from the very simple to more complex. For example:
написася [year] го года в месаце июне
Napisasya [year] -go goda v m[esa]tsye iiunye
“[Was] painted [ year ]-th year in month (of) June”
Or it may say something like:
Napisasya sia svyataya ikone v leto ___ genvarya __ dna
“[Was] painted this holy icon in the year ___January ___ day”
Then there is the form beginning with Mira (of the world).”
That is a shortened version of this:
Napisasya sia svyataya ikona ot sozdaniya mira ______ -go Maia ____ den’
“[Was] painted this holy icon from creation of world _____ -th May ____day”
“This holy icon was painted from the Creation of the World ________(year) May _____ day”
As one example, it might read:
“This holy icon was painted from the Creation of the World 7360, month August, 10 day.”
meaning it was painted in 7360 (1852 modern system), August, on the 10th day.
So those are the basics of reading old dates on Russian icons and in books using the old letter-number system. It is actually quite simple once one becomes accustomed to it.
To find the date in this photo of an inscription on the reverse side of an icon, just look for that “double-barred cross” and the titlo over three or four letters:
The inscription says that “Before this icon prayed the Moscow merchant Lavrentiy Ivanov, son of Osip, and acquired for him this icon in the year ____________.
To find out what that year was, let’s look more closely:
You will find that the year is 7,318;
1810 (the date in our system)
Here is another chart on which you will find examples of both an old system ( as 7506) and a new system (as 1998) date in letter-numbers in the right-hand column:
Note that the number 800 may be written like the word “ot” (meaning “from”) in some examples, as in the right-side line on that chart.
Now that you have that basic information in mind, you should know that using 5,508 as the base date applies generally to calculating dates for years after 1492 (the year the September 1st date for the New Year was adopted).
Now there is one confusing element to all this. For general purposes, using the 5,508 year of Creation as our base for calculations is close enough. But keep in mind that since the old system year began on September 1st, icons with old system dates having a month from September through December will be off if calculated by the 5,508 base. So for icons with the month given as September, October, November, and up to December 31st, subtract 5,509 as the base, instead of 5,508. If the month is not given on an icon (as in the Lavrentiy Ivanov example given above), technically the calculated date should be given as 1809/1810, because either is possible, and we cannot tell just which it is without knowing the month as well. But for general purposes, we just go with the 5,508-calculated date, given that it has an 8 out of 12 chance of being correct, and it is close enough when one does not have to be exactly on the mark.
Finally, you will of course find that some icons painted from the 18th century onward may use our ordinary Arabic numbering system (1,2,3,4,5, etc.). It is more commonly found on very late icons.