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.
Today we will take another quick look at how to approach interpreting an icon. For that exercise, we will use this image:
The first step is of course to look at the whole icon, noticing what looks familiar and what does not. If you have been reading all the postings here, about two-thirds of this icon will already be familiar.
The second step is to look at and translate the inscriptions. That too should present no great difficulty if you have been reading this site.
Let’s begin with the top three images. You should already know that the image of Jesus in the center, with Mary at left and John the Forerunner (the “Baptist”) at right comprises a grouping known as the Deisis (from the Greek for “beseeching); the Russian term is just a variant of that, Deisus. The Deisis represents Jesus enthroned like an emperor in his heavenly court, with petitioners approaching at left and right to ask favors of him — in this case favors on behalf of humanity.
Now for the top inscriptions:
At left is the usual four-letter Greek abbreviation MP ΘΥ for Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God,” the standard identifying inscription for Mary in both Russian and Greek icons. You will notice that it is right above the image of Mary.
Next is the inscription over Jesus. it reads ГДЬ ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ. By now, you should recognize the first three letters as abbreviating the Church Slavic word GOSPOD’, meaning “Lord.” ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ — VSEDERZHITEL’ — means “Almighty,” the equivalent of the Greek Pantokrator. So we can translate this as “The Lord Almighy,” which is the standard title for icons of Jesus seen as he is here, blessing with one hand and holding the Gospels in the other.
The inscription at upper right reads: СТ ИОАНН ПРЕ. CT abbreviates SVYATUIY, meaning “Holy/Saint.” IOANN is “John.” And ПРЕ abbreviates PREDTECHA, meaning someone who goes before, a “forerunner.” So this is “Holy John the Forerunner.”
At lower left is СТ КОЗМА БЕЗСРЕБР and at right СТ ДОМИАНЪ БЕЗРЕ. I mention them together because, if you have been reading recent postings, you will know they generally belong together. The inscription at left, in full, is Svyatuiy Kozma Bezsrebrenik, and that at right is Svyatuiy Domian Bezsrebrenik. Bezsrebrenik, I hope you recall, means “without silver,” usually translated loosely into English as “unmercenary.” So these two are the pair of physician saints Kosma and Domian, Cosmas and Damian.
That leaves only the lower central image, which is quite interesting. The letters above the saint’s head are quite small, but they read НИКИТА ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК — Nikita Velikomuchenik. Usually the second word precedes the name, but in this icon it follows. Nikita is the saint’s given name, and Velikomuchenik means “Great (veliko-) Martyr (muchenik). So this is the Great Martyr Nikita.
The strange, greyish figure to his left has no halo, so we know he is not a saint. But what is he? Well, such figures with tail, long beard, and hair swept upward are the Russian way of depicting a devil. Often they are painted darker than here. And though it is rather difficult to see in this image, Nikita is holding a chain in his right hand as he grasps the devil’s beard with his left.
What does it mean? To know that, we have to know both the “official” story of Nikita (called Nicetas in the West) and the folk story.
It is said that Nikita was born into a wealthy family of the Gothic people who lived near the Danube River in the 4th century, in what is now Romania. He was baptized by Bishop Theophilus, said to have been a participant in the First Ecumenical Council. An intertribal war broke out, and Nikita became a soldier on the Christian side, that of the leader Fritigern. Their opponent was the leader Athanaric.
Fritigern’s forces defeated Athanaric, and Christianity was further spread among the Goths by Wulfila (Ulfilas), an Arian bishop who created a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible into Gothic, an early Germanic language. Nikita also worked to spread Christianity and convert others to that belief. Given that both Wulfila and Fritigern were Arian Christians (not believing Jesus to be equal to God the Father) who did not accept the Nicene Creed, it appears that Nikita was also an Arian Christian, though of course that was downplayed when his cult was adopted into Eastern Orthodoxy. Some even think Nikita was ordained an Arian priest.
Over time, however, Athanaric regained power, massed forces and returned to attack and persecute the Christian Goths. Nikita was captured and tortured, and finally thrown into a fire (some say burnt at the stake in Moldavia in 378). In E. Orthodox tradition, he is said to have been martyred on September 15th in 372 (there is considerable difference in sources for dates in Nikita’s life and death). His relics were taken to Mopsuestia in Cilicia. After his cult of veneration spread, some of his relics were later sent to Constantinople, and some to Decani Monastery in Serbia, which still claims to have his “incorruptible” hand.
Now as to the tale of Nikita beating the devil, that is not part of the “canonical” story of Nikita. It is instead a product of the Byzantine Middle Ages that was adopted into Eastern Orthodox iconography. By this account, Nikita was actually the son of the Roman Emperor Maximilian. Persecuted by his father for holding the Christian faith, Nikita was severely tortured and cast into a prison for three years. While there, the Devil appeared to Nikita and tried to tempt him. But Nikita stepped on the Devil’s neck, and, broke his chains, and began beating the Devil with them. Then, called before the Emperor for questioning, he took the Devil with him to show the Emperor what he had been really worshiping. He also raised a couple of people from the dead, but Maximilian was still not convinced. Then his Queen and the people rose against the Emperor, and Nikita managed to baptize a huge number of people.
Because of this legend, in Slavic popular belief Nikita became Никита Бесогон — Nikita Besogon — “NIkita the Devil-beater,” and he became a very important saint because of his presumed power to drive away devils. Cast metal images of him, worn around the neck, were very popular.
Here is another example of Nikita beating the Devil:
The title inscription reads:
АГ ВЕ МУ НIИКИТА
It abbreviates: ΑΓΙΟC ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК НИКИТА [H]AGIOS VELIKOMUCHENIK NIKITA
“Hagios” (Holy/Saint) is the Greek equivalent of the Slavic Svatuiy. One often finds it used in Russian icons. The remainder of the inscription is Church Slavic, and all together it reads:
“[THE] HOLY GREAT-MARTYR NIKITA”
Interestingly, the Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, as part of his changes in the Church, declared that there was no “Devil-beater,” and that the name should not be connected with St. Nikita the Goth. However, the Old Believers saw this as just another deceit of the Devil, and they adopted the image of Nikita the Devil-beater as another sign of their “pure” faith, and so this type was preserved among the Old Believers right up to the present day.
Knowing that, let’s consider the icon pictured above again. We can see that not only is it painted in the stylized manner rather than the “Westernized” manner of the State Church, but the blessing hands of both Jesus and John the Forerunner show the fingers in the position used by and characteristic of the Old Believers, with the first finger straight up, the second finger slightly bent, and the thumb touching the bent last two fingers.
So, we see that:
1. The icon is in the stylized manner favored by Old Believers;
2. The icon uses the Old Believer finger position for the blessing hand;
3. The icon uses an iconography of Nikita preserved by the Old Believers as a sign of their “true belief” in contrast to the State Church.
All of those things tell us that is an icon painted by an Old Believer, not by a State Church painter.
Further, we should consider why the person ordering this icon would have asked for these particular figures to be painted on it. With the Deisis, the patron would have before him Jesus to receive his prayers; but also he would have the most important intercessors for humans, Mary and John the Baptist, to convince Jesus to answer his prayers. Then he would also have, to deal with any physical problems or illnesses, the two very important physician saints, Kozma and Domian (Damian). And finally, to keep away the powers of evil, he would have the most noted driver-away of devils, Nikita the Devil-beater. So to the Old Believer, this icon would have been a very good insurance policy for the difficulties of life.
Incidentally, you may sometimes see Nikita Besogon called Никита Чертогон — Nikita Chertogon (pronounced Chortogon); Chort is just the Russian term for “devil.” Both mean essentially the same thing — Nikita “Devil-beater.”
Here is an early 19th century Russian icon of Nikita”
We see the Nerukotvorrenuiy Obraz /”‘Not Made by Hands’ Image” of Jesus at the top, and the “family” saint Agripena/Agrippina in the left border.
The Russian female music group Pussy Riot got in the news (and in considerable trouble) in 2012 by staging a protest prayer to Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin (a request with considerable validity, given Putin’s subsequent actions). Video clips were shown on the major news networks, and it was reported along with the video of the event that the young women “danced on the altar” in the Spasskiy Cathedral (Cathedral of Christ the Savior) in Moscow.
It was a reporting error, and I wonder how many news sources bothered to correct it. Anyone familiar with the layout of Russian Orthodox churches could see from the video that though the group did make their protest in the church, it was in front of the large icon screen, not behind it, where the altar is always to be found.
Because this was obvious in the video coverage of the event, it was rather careless reporting, but it did show how unfamiliar the media were with Russian Orthodoxy. In a Protestant church, the raised area in the front is where one finds the pulpit in evangelical churches, and often both the pulpit and altar in such denominations as Lutheran and Episcopal. But in Russian Orthodox churches, that is where one finds the large screen inset with many icons — the иконостас — ikonostas — as Russians call it.
The word is adapted from Greek, in which it means simply “icon stand,” and that is what an iconostasis (the usual spelling used in English) is — just a large and wide wooden framework into which rows of icons are set. In a small church it is small, but in a large church the iconostasis can be very large and high. In Western terms, it separates the congregation in the nave from the altar, being placed in the sanctuary and forming a wall behind which the altar is hidden from the congregation by the Royal Doors.
Not only is the iconostasis found in Russian Orthodox churches, but also on icons. In its icon form, the iconostasis may be painted on a single wooden panel, or it may be painted on multiple panels that may all fold together for easy transport and use in travel or “field.”
To get an idea of the arrangement of an iconostasis, let’s look at an example painted as an icon:
We are looking at a cut-away view of a Russian church. That is why we see the domes of the church at the top, though they are of course not part of the icon screen (nor are the added saints in the outermost borders and corners). But below the domes we see the screen itself, divided into rows or ranks (row is ряд (ryad) and rank is чин (chin). I will spare you a pun about iconostases with multiple chins.
So beginning just below the domes, the sixth and highest row of icons we see comprises scenes from the Passion of Jesus. These are not found in all iconostases.
In the next row down, the fifth, we begin a look at the biblical history of the “plan of salvation”; so here is the sequence followed from that point:
Fifth row: праотеческий (praotecheskiy): A praotets is a forefather, and so this is the row of the “forefathers,” the patriarchs of the Old Testament from Adam to Moses. In the very center one finds a Trinity icon. Some examples use the Old Testament Trinity type showing the Trinity as three angels, others use the New Testament Trinity, with God the Father depicted as an old man, Jesus either as the youth Emmanuel or as the mature Christ, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.
Fourth row: пророческий (prorocheskiy): A prorok is a prophet, so this is the row of the prophets, who in Eastern Orthodoxy are seen as predictors of the role of Mary and of Jesus. In the center is usually a Marian icon showing the Znamenie Mother of God, or as it is generally called in English, the “Sign” Mother of God, but in some examples it is replaced by a different (but generally similar) icon, such as the Pecherskaya Mother of God.
Third row: праздничный (prazdnichnuiy): A prazdnik is a festival, so this row depicts major church festivals from the Birth of Christ to the Elevation of the Cross.
Second row: деисусный (deisusnuiy) : The Deisus or “Deisis” is the icon type showing Christ on his throne in the heavenly court, with rows of supplicant saints approaching from both sides.
Here is an icon of the Martyr Lavr (Laurus) from the Deisis chin.
First and lowest row: местного (mestnogo): Mesto means “place,” (often called the “local” rank in English) so this row shows various icons favored by a particular church in a given locale, consequently these vary. Nonetheless, in the center one always finds the “Tsar Doors” that give entrance to the altar hidden behind them. Above the Tsar Doors is an icon of the Тайная вечеря (Tainaya Vechera) — the “Mystic Supper,” which is the name given in Eastern Orthodoxy to what in the West is called “The Last Supper.” The Tsar Doors themselves are ornamented with icons, which, from top to bottom, are:
1. The Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right;
2. Icons of the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Sometimes these are replaced by two icons of the creators of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom.
To the left of the Tsar Doors one customarily finds an icon of Mary, and to the right an icon of Jesus. To the right of Jesus is found the icon that depicts the church’s namesake icon or “temple icon” (храмовая икона —khramovaya ikona); for example, a Transfiguration icon shows that the church in which it is found is named for the Transfiguration, etc. In the icon shown above, the “temple icon” is the Dormition of the Mother of God.
The number of icons in the “Place” or local row varies according to the size of the church. There is a second door found on the left side in this row that is called the “Northern” Door, and another on the opposite side called the “Southern” Door. These secondary or “deacons'” doors are usually ornamented with icons of deacons or of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. In some iconostases they are merely curtained doors.
Of course the number of ranks and type of icons present in an iconostasis will vary depending on the size and nature of the screen. A very large iconostasis may follow the description just given rather closely, but a church may also have an abbreviated and far less elaborate icon screen.
Here is an example of a portable iconostasis:
Here is another portable iconostasis:
The high icon screen is a creation of Russian Orthodoxy; in Greek Orthodox churches the icon screen was and is typically much lower. And of course even a very small Russian Orthodox Church will have room only for a rather low screen with barely a handful of icons, but in a large cathedral the iconostasis may seem gigantic, giving somewhat the grand impression one gets in large Spanish Catholic churches by the carved, gilt, and image-set reredos behind the altar.
The Spasskiy Cathedral in Moscow, in which the Pussy Riot protest took place, has an icon screen of particularly unusual form, appearing somewhat like an icon-decked, eight-sided temple placed within the large building.
The Cathedral was built originally to commemorate the saving of Russia from the armies of Napoleon. Stalin had it destroyed, and for a time the site was a public swimming pool; but with the fall of Communism it was rebuilt and was consecrated again in August of 2000. It was notably the site of the “glorification,” that is, the official recognition as saints, of the last imperial Russian family –Tsar Nicholas II and his wife and daughters. An Orthodox priest once commented to me on hearing of Nicholas spoken of as a saint, “How can they say a man who had a mistress is a saint?” No doubt those who know the history of Nicholas and his disastrous incompetence as Tsar would have similar views.
So when Pussy Riot made their protest against Putin in the cathedral, they chose a site significant in Russian history and significant also for making an elaborate statement about the post-Soviet re-establishment of the traditional alliance of Orthodox Church and State and the power of religion-backed autocracy in Russia. They paid for it by being sent to prison, which serves only to confirm their view of Putin.