In previous postings I discussed variations on the Otechestvo — the “Fatherhood” — or to use a Latin-derived term — the “Paternity” icon.

Here is another example:

(Courtesy of

God the father has the eight-pointed slava — “glory” — in his halo that signifies the seven days of Creation as well as the eighth day — the Day of Eternity.  Christ Immanuel is on his breast, along with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove — so this is also a “Trinity” icon.

It has a rather grand gold-washed riza in the neoclassical style.  That it adds a lot to the grandeur of the icon may be seen if we look at the icon with the cover removed:

The abbreviated inscription at the top reads (with missing letters added):

That is the standard name given God the Father in Russian Orthodox iconography.

If we look at the blessing hand, we can tell from the position of the fingers that, in spite of the very traditional style of painting, this is not an Old Believer icon.

If it were, the thumb and last two fingers would touch.  As it is, it forms the IC XC letters abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”


A reader kindly shared some photos of the dome fresco in the katholikon (main church) of the Pantokrator Monastery at Mount Athos.  The much earlier frescos in the katholikon were painted over in 1854 by Matheos Ioannou of Naoussa, so what we see is comparatively recent.

(Photo courtesy of Clemens Staphorst)

Our purpose in looking at this fresco today is to examine the Greek inscription.  Long-time readers here already know that icons of God the Father painted as an old man are extremely common throughout Eastern Orthodox iconography, with a history going back many centuries.

Here is a closer look at the inscription:

(Photo courtesy of Clemens Staphorst)
It reads:

Ὁ ΑΝΑΡΧΟC ΠΑΤΗΡ — HO ANARKHOS PATER — “THE BEGINNINGLESS FATHER.”  So the image represents God the Father.

The Pedalion (The Rudder, a treatise on  Orthodox Church canons by Nicholas the Hagiorite, 1749-1809) says:

ὁ άναρχος Πατήρ πρέπει να ζωγραφίζεται καθώς εφάνη εις τον προφήτην Δανιήλ ως παλαιός ημερών.

The Beginningless Father should be painted as he appeared to the Prophet Daniel, as the ‘Ancient of Days.‘”

You will recall from a previous posting here ( that there is an ongoing controversy in Eastern Orthodox circles as to whether the “Ancient of Days” type should be used to represent Jesus, or whether it should be God the Father.  But in the study of icons we pay no attention to modern doctrinaire quibbles over what this or that person thinks painters should have done.  Instead we simply go with historical reality — with what a painter actually did in a given case.  And in this case the image is quite clearly identified as the “Beginningless Father” — God the Father.  You will recall that in Russian iconography, God the Father is commonly titled “Lord Sabaoth.”

Note the triangle halo with the faint HO ON  (“The One Who Is” ) inscription in it — an inscription generally found on icons of Jesus.  The triangle with its three points is of course a “Trinity” symbol, and more often found in late Orthodox iconography.


Today we will look at a pleasantly-painted image of Gospod Savaof — “Lord Sabaoth”  — as God the Father is generally titled in Russian Orthodoxy.

If you have been reading here for any length of time, you will know that contrary to what is sometimes stated by conservative religious sites, the image of God the Father has been common and very widespread in Eastern Orthodoxy for many centuries.  He is shown as an old man with a long white beard, as in the example below.  He has the “eight-pointed slava” (slava means “glory” here) behind his head, which symbolizes his eternal nature (the eight points traditionally signify the days of Creation, with the eighth day being the “Day of Eternity”).

In this example, he holds a globe surmounted by a cross, symbolizing universal rule:

(Courtesy of

He blesses with his right hand.  And if we look at the position of the fingers, we can see this is not an Old Believer icon, because the fingers (beginning with the second finger — the one next to the thumb) form the letters IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ” (the finger and thumb touching are loosely interpreted as the “X”).

The Old Believers however –as you know — use the “two-fingered” blessing, as in this illustration.  That is characteristic of Old Believer icons.

Though at first this icon of Lord Sabaoth looks to be painted in the old manner, nonetheless we can see signs of the influence of western European art in it.  Let’s look more closely at the face:

There is a strong attempt to make the flesh and its wrinkles look more realistic in subtle shading, though there is still sylization.  Look particularly at the inner corners of the eyes.  There we see that little dot of flesh (technically the lacrimal caruncle) that eyes really have.  It is a significant realistic, naturalistic touch, and as I have said before, that little detail is not found in Russian icons before the latter part of the 1600s. Also, you probably noticed that the folds of the garment are more flowing and somewhat less rigid than they would be in the strict old manner.  So this is a kind of transitional icon, standing between the old highly stylized manner of painting and the more realistic “Western” style, while incorporating elements of both.   The “Western” style (sometimes called “Italianate”) gradually came to predominate in the Russian Orthodox State Church, while the very conservative Old Believers kept the earlier and more stylized tradition alive into modern times.


Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:


Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy). Now oddly enough, it was still commonly believed by many ordinary Russians — right into the early 20th century — that if a person suddenly committed some horrible deed, it was likely due to the influence of a devil.  Some no doubt still believe it.

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

Here is another example of the image of God resting on the seventh day:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

The inscription says, “The Lord Rested on the Seventh Day from All the Works that He Had Begun to Do.”

Here is a closer view of Lord Sabaoth resting on his bed:

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.



Icon painting was and is a business. In Russia it was an immense business, but near the end of the 19th century it was seriously threatened by the introduction of printed icons, which were far less expensive than painted images. Those icons printed on tin that one sometimes still sees were from that period. Printing sent icon painting into a precipitous decline, and of course the finishing blow was given by the transition from Tsarist absolutism to Communism.

The relative cheapness of printed icons compared to painted makes them still very popular among Eastern Orthodox today, and they have even spread into other denominations such as Catholic and Episcopalian. A chief characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy in the West, from the latter half of the 20th century onward, is the increasing prevalence of printed icons glued to “boards,” which vary from real boards to substitutes such as masonite. Icon prints on panels have become a staple of Eastern Orthodox gift shops, and are frequently found in Catholic and other denominational gift shops as well.

Icon prints are generally copies of old or recent painted icons, and are the logical outcome of a theory of icons in which the validity of an image depends not on the creativity of the painter but rather upon reasonable faithfulness to a prototype. Thus icon painting carried within its own theory the seeds of its own destruction. One painted icon can now be copied and reproduced in thousands or even millions of printed versions.

All of that is a lead-in to today’s discussion of a particular Greek Orthodox example of a painted original that has become a print on board.

A reader recently sent me a photo of this New Testament Trinity icon variant, asking for help in its interpretation. It is a printed copy of a (Macedonian) Greek Orthodox painting from a few decades ago.


As you see, the title inscription reads simply HE HAGIA TRIAS, “THE HOLY TRINITY.” Keep in mind that the little “apostrophe” just to the top left of a vowel (or above it in some cases) indicates that it is preceded (in the old pronunciation) by an “H” in transliteration, though in modern Greek it is silent. I am going to discuss the reading of Greek inscriptions a bit in this posting, for those students who are serious about learning to understand and interpret icons.

If you have been a regular reader of this site, you will recall that images of the Trinity consisting of the figures of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and of God the Father as an old man, which the Russians name “Lord Sabaoth,” are called “New Testament Trinity” icons to distinguish them from the “Old Testament Trinity” icon that depicts the Trinity as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre. New Testament Trinity icons are common throughout Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to the Balkans to Russia and beyond. They are found in churches, monasteries, and in private homes.

Today’s example is an interesting Greek variant of the New Testament Trinity type. The figure of God the Father, which, as mentioned, the Russians would call “Lord Sabaoth,” is here given the Greek title Palaios [ton] Hemeron, “The Ancient of Days.” He is also given a triangular halo, a symbol of the Trinity borrowed from western European religious art. So for the sake of convenience, we can call this example the “Ancient of Days” variant of the “New Testament Trinity” Type.

You should easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for Jesus Christ. So let’s look at the inscription on the dove:


It is TO HAGION PNEUMA, “THE HOLY SPIRIT.” Why is the word “the” HE in He Hagias Trias, but TO in To Hagion Pneuma? Because Trias is a feminine noun in Greek, and He is the feminine definite article. But Pneuma, “Spirit,” is a neuter noun in Greek, and To is the neuter definite article, just as Ho is the masculine definite article.

Look again at the odd triangle halo on God the Father. Within it the painter has given God the Father the HO ON abbreviation, generally found only in in the halo of Jesus; and the painter has placed the same HO ON abbreviation in the halo of the Holy Spirit represented as a dove, his intent being to show that all three persons of the Trinity are God, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

Here is the inscription on God the Father:


It is, again, HO PALAIOS HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS,” usually written as HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON” (literally “The Ancient of the days).” That title comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel, 7:21-22:

I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them;
Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.

The book of Daniel, by the way, is as scholars tell us (but which fundamentalists completely ignore) one of those with falsely attributed authorship, and was written considerably later than the period it purports to represent.

Notice how the painter has written the final -os on Palaios as what looks rather like an “at sign” (@) with a curving squiggle below:


That is very common in Greek icon inscriptions.

Let’s take a look at the text on the Gospels held by Jesus:


It is from John 14:23, the portion put in brackets below:

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, [Ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ με τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσει, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ἀγαπήσει αὐτόν, καὶ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐλευσόμεθα καὶ μονὴν] παρ’ αὐτῷ ποιησόμεθα.

“[Jesus answered and said to him] If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him [and make] our home [with him].”

Notice how the word mou (of-me/my) is written, with an M to the left and to the right a symbol that looks like an o with a v on top of it. It is a common calligraphic way of writing the two letters ΟΥ (ου) combined as one:


Note also how the painter has written the word kai (meaning “and”) in full in one place, while in another he writes it in a shortened form like this:


Also to be noted is the way the painter joins the letters Η and Ρ (e and r) in the word “father,” pater/ΠΑΤΗΡ. like this:


And here is the inscription on the scroll held by God the Father:


Because we only see a few letters showing in the partially unrolled scroll, it might be a bit of a puzzle at first. Here are the letters we see:

τός (there’s that -os ending written with the “at sign-squiggle” again)

The painter has shown us only one whole word (the first one), and the rest of the letters are only parts of words. But here is the intended phrase, which comes from Matthew 3:17:

Οὗτός [ἐ]στι[]ν [ὁ] υἱό[ς] [μου ὁ] ἀγ[απη]τός
Houtos estin ho huios mou ho agapetos

Literally, “THIS IS THE SON OF-ME THE BELOVED,” or as it is more commonly translated, “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON.”

And here is the “banner” inscription held by the angels. It is the phrase known as the Sanctus in the Roman Catholic mass, adapted from Isaiah 6:3, and used also in varying forms in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom and in the Liturgy of St. James. In Greek it is sometimes referred to as the “Hymn of Victory,” ἐπινίκιος ὕμνος, (Epinikios Hymnos).

Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
Hagios, hagios, hagios Kyrios Sabaoth pleres ho ouranos kai he ge tes doxes sou
Or less literally,

Left side:


Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ
“Holy holy holy Lord Saboth”

Right side:


πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
“Full are heaven and earth of your glory.”

Note how the painter joines the letters T and H (t and e) in the word THC (τῆς/tes), meaning “of”:


Learning to recognize such joined letters (ligatures) is very important when learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.

As is common in icons of the New Testament Trinity, Jesus and God the Father are enthroned on Seraphim and below their feet are the round wheels with many eyes in them that are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

Finally, it is worth mentioning again that there is a lot of bickering in modern Eastern Orthodoxy between factions who consider certain representations of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit “wrong,” and others who consider them legitimate, and there is even controversy over whether the “Ancient of Days” figure should be used to represent the Father or Jesus (as in Byzantine art). Those who favor the depiction as Jesus interpret the white-haired figure in Revelation 1:14 as being Jesus and the same as the figure in Daniel, while others disagree.

Here is a 12th century image of the “Ancient of Days” as Jesus, from the Church of St. Stephen in Kastoria, Greece:


The inscription writer has left no space between the words HO and PALAEOS (a variant spelling of PALAIOS), and for the final -s in PALEOS he has used a simple strong, downward stroke that looks nothing like the usual letter form.

Here is a fresco from the Monastery Patriarchate of Peć, in Kosovo, Serbia, which is above the narthex entrance door to the Church of the Holy Apostles.


If we look more closely, we see that it too depicts Jesus (titled this time in Slavic) as ВЕТХИ ДЕНМИ — Vetkhi Denmi — “Ancient of Days.”

In the quadrangular slava set into the round halo is the HO ON inscription — “He Who Is” — used in icons of Jesus, and in four circles at left and right are the letters I C X C, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”  In smaller white writing at both sides is the inscription СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ  ИСПОЛНЬ НЕБО И ЗЕМЛЯ СЛАВЫ ТВОЕЯ — “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.”  In Slavic practice it is called the Трисвятая песнь — Trisvyataya pesn” — “The Thrice-Holy Hymn.”

And here is a Byzantine page from the Cambridge University Library, again showing Jesus as the “Ancient of Days,” along with symbols of the Evangelists — Matthew as winged man, John as eagle, Mark as lion, and Luke as ox in this case. Note the similarity of the partially-rolled scroll in his hand to that in the hand of God The Father in today’s example:


The inscription on the page is divided not only between left and right sides, but the writer has also arranged it oddly. He has begun it at top left with HO, then moved to bottom left for PA-, to middle left for –LAI-, and to middle right of the first cluster for –OS. In the right-hand segment he began at top with TON, then moved to the bottom for HE-, to the middle left for –ME– and to middle right for the final –RON, but nonetheless it is just the standard “HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS” title.

Some say the Holy Spirit should only be shown as a dove in icons such as the descent of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, while others use the “dove” image, as in today’s example, in Trinity and other images. And of course there are those who say God the Father should not be represented at all in icons, in spite of the fact that it has been common Eastern Orthodox practice for centuries to do so.

Icon students should keep in mind that all of these little controversies are just theological bickering, and in the study of icons we pay attention not to what people say icon painters should have done, but to what they ACTUALLY DID. And icons of the Trinity represented as Jesus, the “dove” Holy Spirit, and God the Father as an old man have a history of many hundreds of years in Eastern Orthodoxy. So in the study of icons and their history, there is no “wrong” or “right” to images, there is only what was done at various periods and how it was understood by icon painters and those who venerated icons.