Here is a pleasant 19th century Deisis set, which traditionally consists of a central icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty,” an icon of Mary approaching from the left, and one of John the Forerunner approaching at right:
Jesus has the common inscription from Matthew:
“Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):
Прiидите ко мнѣ́ вси труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́ Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui
Mary, however, has an uncommon inscription for a Deisis panel:
It is the beginning of the text known in the West as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55):
Величит душа моя Господа и возрадовася дух [мои] о Бозе Спасе моем. яко при(зре на смирение рабы своея…)
Velichit dusha moya Gospoda i vozradovasya dukh moi o Boze Space moem. Iako prizre na smirenie rabui svoeya…
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…”
And here is the John the Forerunner panel:
The scroll of John is a bit odd too, because it uses John 1:29, but stops at the beginning letters of the usual “Behold the Lamb of God” text:
[Во утрий же] виде Иоанн Иисуса грядуща к себе и глагола: се, Аг[нец Божий, вземляй грехи мира]
“[And in the morning] John saw Jesus coming to him and said, behold the La[mb of God who takes away the sins of the world].”
One often sees individual side panels from Deisis sets that have lost their accompanying two panels.
Today we will look at two Russian icons that were once the side panels on a three-panel Deisis set. As you know, the icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty” would have been the central icon, with Mary approaching him at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right. They are painted very much in the old and traditional manner:
Deisis icons reflect a royal court in which the ruler sits enthroned, and petitioners come to him with requests.
If we look more closely at the panel of John, you will find — if you are a long-time reader here — that you can easily translate his scroll:
The common inscription can quickly be recognized by its first two Church Slavic words — АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ/AZ VIDEKH — “I saw…” You will recall that it continues “…and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God, who takes [away the sins of the world].”
The scroll held by Mary bears a very common text given her in Deisis icons, though sometimes we find variants.
VLADIKO MNOGOMILOSTIVE GOSPODI ISUSE KHRISTE SUINE MOI PRIKLONI UKHO…
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, my son, incline [your] ear….”
So Mary is asking Jesus to bend his ear to her and hear her petition on behalf of humans.
A владико/vladiko is a master or ruler. In Eastern Orthodoxy, one often finds the term vladiko or vladika used when addressing a bishop.
These two Deisis panels are attributed to vicinity of Syzran/Suizran (Сызрань), a town on the Volga River, which was a center for traditional icon painting by Old Believers in the 19th century. The Old Believers seem to have been in the region from the latter part of the 18th century. In the year 1878, it was noted that between Simbirsk and Syzran there were 14 parishes of “State Church” believers, but 29 parishes of raskolniki — “Schismatics,” the deprecatory State term for Old Believers.
In this map of a segment of the Volga, we see Syzran at left, and Samara (Самара) at right:
In the second half of the 19th century, there were said to be at least 70 icon painting masters and establishments doing a flourishing business in the Syzran area. The majority of them were Поморцы-Беспоповцы/Pomortsui-Bespopovtsui — that is, members of the Old Believer sect called “priestless” Pomortsui/Pomortsy. They elected lay persons to conduct their services instead of priests. In spite of this, their high-quality icons were commissioned not only by their own sect, but by others as well — including members of the State Church. That does not mean, however, that there were no religious conflicts between the State Church and those holding other beliefs in Syzran.
One characteristic often found in Syzran icons is a kovcheg/ark with a wide and dark luzga — the bevel separating the ark from the outer border. The luzga was often painted with gold or silver floral, etc. ornament, as we see in this detail from the “Mary” panel:
Syzran icon painting flourished from the late 18th to early 19th century.
I always enjoy the photos readers send for identification. I recently received some of a very well-painted old Russian triptych. It appears to be in untouched condition, still with its original varnish. That makes the surface a bit dark, but it also is interesting to see icons that have not had the varnish removed — as long as it has not darkened too much.
Here it is:
Let’s look more closely at the central image:
We can see that it is an icon of the New Testament Trinity type, showing Jesus enthroned in heaven, with Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) to his right, and the Holy Spirit as dove between their heads. In the center is an orb surmounted by a cross, symbolizing their cosmic rule. At left is Mary, called “Mother of God” in Eastern Orthodoxy, and to the right is John the Forerunner (the Baptist), both approaching the throne with their petitions on behalf of human believers. Their presence — along with the saints in the outer two wings of the triptych — make it a New Testament Trinity in the Deisis form. In the four corners are the symbols of the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At the base is a seraph, and the odd kind of ring-shaped, winged angels called “Thrones.”
The saints in the two side panels are all quite notable saints:
Here is the left side:
Here is another view of the left:
The saints depicted are, from top left to right:
1. Holy Venerable Makariy (Macarius)
2. Holy Venerable Feodor (Theodore)
3. Holy Venerable Evdokiya (Eudocia)
4. Holy Great Martyr Georgiy (George)
5. Holy Filipp, Metropolitan of Moscow (Philip)
6. Holy Petr, Metropolitan of Moscow (Peter)
7. Holy Aleksiy, Metropolitan of Moscow (Alexei)
8. Holy Nikolai Chudotvorets (Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra)
9. Holy Apostle Andrey (Andrew the First-called)
10. The Holy Guardian Angel
And here is the right side:
And another view of the right side:
The saints depicted are (from top left):
11. Holy Venerable Feodosiy Pecherskiy (Theodosius of the Pecherskaya Lavra)
12. Holy Sergiy of Radonezh (Sergius)
13. Holy Mariya Egipetskaya (Mary of Egypt)
14. Holy Antoniy Pecherskiy (Anthony of the Pecherskaya Lavra)
15. Holy Venerable Zosima Solovetskiy (Zosima of Solovetsk Monastery)
16. Holy Savatiy Solovetskiy (Sabbatius of the Solovetsk Monastery)
17. Holy Great Martyr Dimitriy (Demetrius)
18. Holy Vasility Velikiy (Basil the Great)
19. Holy Grigoriy Bogoslov (Gregory the Theologian)
20. Holy Ioann Zlatoust (John Chrysostom)
You perhaps noted that there are some common linkings in this image of noted saints usually found together, often in their own icons. They are:
1. George and Demetrius, the warrior “great martyrs”;
2. Zosima and Savatiy/Savvatiy of Solovetsk Monastery in the White Sea;
3. Antoniy and Feodosiy of the Pecherskaya Lavra in Kiyev/Kiev;
4. Petr, Aleksiy and Filipp, Metropolitans of Moscow (often shown with Metropolitan Iona);
5. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, commonly known as the “Three Hierarchs.”
On the reverse of the central panel, a “Golgotha Cross” (Голгофский Крест / Golgofskiy Krest) is painted:
I have discussed the Golgotha Cross in earlier postings. The abbreviations on this one are:
ΙC XC ISUS KHRISTOS [Old Believer form]
Then the abbreviation for СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ /SUIN” BOZHIY —
“Son of God.”
K, for Kopie — “spear,” and T for T for Trost’— “reed.” The former identifies the lance at left, and the latter the long reed at right, bearing a sponge at its top. Note that in old icon inscriptions “T” often looks rather like an “M,” so that is a very helpful tip.
НИКА NIKA “[He] Conquers.”
Then come the letters
МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ РАЙ БЫСТЬ MESTO LOBNOE RAI BUIST’ “The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”
ГОРА ГОЛГОФА GORA GOLGOFA
“Hill [of] Golgotha”
Finally, by the skull of Adam, we see
ГОЛОВА АДАМА GOLOVA ADAMA
“[The] SKULL [literally “head”] [of] ADAM”
My thanks to Gj. Bledar for permission to use the photos of his icon.
From past posting here, you are already familiar with the standard Deisis icon type depicting Jesus enthroned in the center, with Mary approaching him on the left and John the Forerunner on the right — showing the heavenly court. And of course there is the variant in which Mary is robed like a Queen, commonly called Predsta Tsaritsa odesnuyu Tebe — The “Queen Stands at your Right,” after Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Slavic Bible) There is also the extended Deisis, which adds more saints to the basic form. And you will perhaps recall the “Savior with Bystanders” Deisis that is sometimes called “The Week,” (though it is not the usual type by that name).
There is also the “Trinity” Deisis. In this variant, the central figure of Jesus is replaced by the “New Testament Trinity” image — Jesus seated at left, God the Father as an old man at right, and the Holy Spirit as a dove between them.
Here, however, is an example of a less common Trinity variant in which the “New Testament Trinity” is replaced by the Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” (or “Paternity”) image — showing God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) as an old man seated on a throne, with Christ Immanuel (Jesus in child or youth form) seated on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove before the Father’s chest.
God the Father holds the orb of authority, and has the eight-pointed slava (“glory”) as his halo, signifying the Eighth Day — the Day of Eternity. We see Mary in royal robes at left, and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) also crowned, standing at right. Beside Mary is the Archangel Michael, and the Archangel Gabriel stands by John. The two little monks at the foot of the throne are commonly the founders of the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea in northern Russia, Zosim (Zosima) at left, and Savvatiy (Sabbatius) at right. You may recall that they are also the patrons of beekeeping.
Let’s take a look at the title inscription (slightly enhanced):
Words are abbreviated, but with missing letters added, it reads (in modern font):
ОБРАЗ ПРЕСВЯАТЫЯ ТРОИЦА ОЦА И СЫНА И СВЯТАГО ДУХА OBRAZ PRESVYATUIYA TROITSA OTSA I SUINA I SVYATAGO DUKHA
“[The] Image of the Most Holy Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
If you add this knowledge to what you have learned from previous “Deisis” postings on this site, you should now have a very good grasp of the basic type and its variations.
Here is a Marian icon, still with its discolored varnish:
I hope you recognize it as the left panel from a three-panel Deisis set of icons. As you will recall, the central icon in such a set is the image of the “Lord Almighty,” and the right panel is John the Forerunner, or John the Baptist as he is called in the West.
The image shows Mary approaching Jesus, acting as go-between in praying for the world (and in the mind of the believer, approaching Jesus with the prayers of the person praying before the icon).
We should take a look at her scroll in this type, because it has a common inscription that you should add to your repertoire of standard texts. It reads (put into modern Cyrillic):
Владыко Многомилостиве, Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне и Боже Мой, Vladuiko Mnogomilostive, Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine I Bozhe Moi, “Master -most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, Son and God of-me, приклони ко Мне ухо Твое, ибо аз молю за мир. prikloni ko Mne ykho Tvoe, ibo az moliu za mir. bend to me ear of-you, for I pray for [the] world.”
In normal English,
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, My Son and my God, incline your ear to me, for I pray for the world.”
You can see that several words are abbreviated in the icon text, as is common. This “left panel” type of Mary is of course just a smaller form of her image in the more detailed Desis icon found in a church iconostasis (the big icon screen separating congregation from altar in Russian Orthodox Churches). But this type is also very closely related to the image of Mary in the type known as the Bogoliubskaya: There are several Bogoliubskaya variants, depending on figures added to the right of Mary. In the example shown here, there are several saints associated with Moscow, such as the four Metropolitans of Moscow Petr (Peter), Alexiy, Iona (Jonah), and Filipp (Philip) as well as the Holy Fool Alexiy, Man of God.
Added at the top are the two popular saints and patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus) The “Moscow” saints give this Bogoliubskaya variant the secondary name “Moskovskaya” — “Of Moscow.” So this is the “Moscow” variant of the Bogoliubskaya type. But look at Mary’s scroll. It begins exactly the same as the Marian “left panel” icon, only in this example it is shortened for reasons of space, and every word except mnogolostivе is abbreviated:
Владыко Многомилостивый, Господи Иисусе Христ[е]…
“Master most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ….
If we look at the right panel from this Deisis set, we find it is the standard type of John the Forerunner:
John is holding a scroll with one of the two most common texts used not only in this right-panel type but also in icons of John in general. It is:
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”
The other common text for John is “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
As you see, John is pointing at the child Jesus lying in the liturgical vessel, representing the “Lamb” — the piece of bread considered to be the “body of Christ” in the Eastern Orthodox Eucharist.
Finally, let’s take a look at the central Deisis panel, which is the “Lord Almighty,” Jesus seen as ruler in the heavenly court:
Now we might expect the text on his book to be the most common “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):
Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́ Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui
Obviously, however, this example does not have that most frequent text. It cannot be, because the text on this icon is prefaced with the words
Речé Госпóдь свои́мъ ученикóмъ … Reche Gospod’ svoim” ychenikom” …
Spoke [the] Lord [to] of-him disciples…
“The Lord said to his disciples…”
And then it quotes the text of Matthew 11:27:
Вся́ мнѣ́ преданá сýть Отцéмъ мои́мъ: и никтóж[е знáетъ Сы́на, тóкмо Отéцъ]…. Vsya mnye predana sut’ Otsem” moim” : i niktozh [e znaet” Suina, tokmo Otets”…]
All [to] me handed-over is [by] Father of-me: and no one [ knows the Son but the Father…] “All things have been committed to me by my Father: and no one [knows the Son except the Father…]
So this particular icon of the “Lord Almighty” uses the verse just preceding the most common text used on the Russian type.
As an added note, a reader asked me why Russian icons, as in this example, put a little T above the letter that in a Greek icon would be the standard letter omega (ω) in the customary Ho On (ὁ ὢν = “The One Who Is”) inscription on “Jesus” icons.
The Russians have come up with all sorts of fanciful explanations for this, saying the three letters abbreviate this or that Church Slavic phrase. Some priests even tell children that the T is the “cross atop the crown of Christ” — the omega roughly forming the “crown.” But the real answer is apparently that a few centuries ago, Russian iconographers did not commonly understand Greek, so when they saw the accented omega in ὢν on a correctly inscribed icon, they just replaced it (apparently beginning in the early 1400s) with the Slavic letter that had a little T mark above it, which happens to be the abbreviation for the word ot (“from”) in Church Slavic:
And the miswriting was perpetuated in countless copies. From the ordinary Russian point of view, if that was the way it was passed down, that was the way it should be. A fundamentalist Protestant likes to respond to religious questions with “It’s in the Bible.” A traditional Russian Orthodox believer would respond, “That’s the way our fathers handed it down to us.”
You might not yet have noticed another little difference between the inscriptions on the Greek Pantokrator halo and the Russian Gospod’ Vsederzhitel (“Lord Almighty”) halo. While the three letters in the three bars of the cross are read from left to top to right in Greek icons, in Russian icons they are generally moved so that the O is at the top, the OT is at left, and the N is at right.
Now you have an easy, rule-of-thumb way of distinguishing Russian icons of Jesus from Greek. But of course the text in the open book is another obvious tip-off.