Here is a Greek icon from the 16th century:

It is quite a “busy” icon, with so many things happening that it reminds me of an assignment my high school art teacher once gave — to draw “many people doing many things.”

First, we need to know what it represents.  For that we can look at the title inscription.  It is rather long, so here it is in two parts:

And here is the last part:

Though the inscription appears faint does not stand out sharply, nonetheless it reads:



In normal English,
“The Dormition of Our Venerable Father Sabbas the Sanctified.”

We are accustomed to seeing the Greek word του as meaning “of,” or “of the,” but here it has more the sense of “the one.”

So this is a “Dormition” icon, but not the most common one, which is the Dormition of Mary.  This one is the Dormition of St. Sabbas/Savva the Sanctified, a prominent early monastic leader in the area of Jerusalem.

This image is essentially a copy of an earlier icon of the same type, an example of which is known from the 15th century.

In the foreground of the icon we see the liturgical service taking place at the bier on which the body of Sabbas lies, with an icon of Jesus resting on his chest.  One monk bends over to kiss Sabbas, while others stand all around.

The rest of the icon is essentially explained by the image of the monk just above the Dormition gathering.  He holds a semantron, which you will recall is the long wooden board beaten with a mallet, and acting as a kind of loud but dull-sounding gong to call monks to assemble.  So this fellow is going about beating his semantron to call the monks we see scattered over the remainder of the icon to come to the Dormition service of Sabbas:

We see some of the monks busy with various occupations.  Here they are weaving baskets, which Sabbas himself is said to have done.  Note the icon on the cave wall:

Here another monk is carving wooden spoons:

And here are monks as scribes writing books:

Near the top of the image, a monk sends provisions up to a stylite (pillar-dweller), using a woven basket on a rope, as another monk in his cave looks on:


We see various scenes of monks on their way to the Dormition service.  Here, by the semantron bearer, is a monk carrying an elderly monk on his back:

Here two younger monks carry an old monk on a litter:

Here is an old monk riding on a lion to get to the service.  A lion features in the hagiography of Sabbas, as well as in that of other monastic saints:

This one rides a donkey, while the fellow next to him is fishing:

Images in the icon are quite out of proportion, but that is just the old method of getting lots of things into an image without worrying about “real” perspective.  Notice that the body of water in the foreground has ships and birds on it, but both are the same size!

A number of creatures such as rabbits, a deer, birds, and so on have been included to add visual interest to the image, something the Cretan iconographers picked up from Italian art of the period, which helped to soften and enliven icons painted or influenced by the Cretan painters.

In the sky above, we see some black demons flying at right…


But at left we see an angel bearing the soul of Sabbas heavenward, in the form of an infant:


In earlier examples of the type, the figure to the left of the angel is generally interpreted as Christ Emmanuel, to whom the angel is bringing the soul of Sabbas — as in this 15th century detail:


The painter of the icon we are examining today, however, may not have clearly understood his model, because he makes the figure look rather like a personification of the sun:


As for Sabbas himself, he is said to have been a precociously pious 5th century Cappadocian boy who entered a monastery at the age of eight.  In Jerusalem he was a disciple of St. Euthymios, and eventually he founded the Mar Saba Monastery — quite a famous one that is generally seen on “map icons” of Jerusalem and its surrounding pious attractions.    There are all sorts of miraculous tales told about him, and interesting accounts of the monastery.

The Mar Saba Monastery, by the way, is the place where the biblical scholar and historian Morton Smith said he discovered a copy of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria in 1958, describing a “secret” Gospel of Mark that was only for certain advanced Christians, and not to be revealed to all.  Here is a photo of the Mar Saba letter:

Now as you can imagine, this caused great controversy in the world of biblical scholarship, with some accusing Smith of a hoax, while others regarded the text as authentic, revealing a previously unknown side to early Christianity.  To this day the matter remains unsettled.




In the Eastern Orthodox Calendar, Lazarus Saturday –which commemorates the raising of Lazarus — marks the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter (Paschal) cycle.  It is called Лазарева Суббота — Lazareva Subbota — in Russian, and in Greek Το Σάββατο του Λαζάρου (To Sabbato tou Lazarou).

It has its icon, which is the “Raising/Resurrection of Lazarus” — in Greek Ἡ Εγερση/Ανάσταση του ΛαζάρουHe Egerse/Anastase tou Lazarou .” In Russian iconography it is usually titled “Resurrection of Lazarus” — Воскресение Лазарево — Voskresenie Lazarevo.  Icons of the type are usually much the same.  Here is a Byzantine example from around the beginning of the 15th century:

(Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

We see Jesus at left, in a brilliant blue garment that must have been painted using powdered lapis lazuli, an expensive mineral pigment:

At right we see Lazarus, called forth from his tomb and still standing in the grave wrappings, which are being removed by two men.  Two others carry the long cover of the open tomb.  The two imploring women kneeling before Jesus are the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.

This icon requires no lengthy explanation,  The story of the raising of Lazarus is found only in Chapter 11 of the Gospel called “of John.”

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the rather gloomy raised Lazarus later became the first bishop of Kition/Kiteia, which is modern-day Larnaca on the southern coast of Cyprus.  Latin Christianity had a quite different tradition in which Lazarus, Mary and Martha were set adrift in a boat by hostile Jews, and miraculously floated to Marseille on the southern coast of France, where Lazarus became the first bishop.  It is a legend that seems to have developed by the 13th century, and likely confused the biblical Lazarus with another bishop in France.


Today we will look at a 16th century fresco from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece.  Unfortunately, part of the image is blocked by the gaudy, gilt baroque-style woodwork in front of it, but nonetheless we can see enough of the image for our purposes.  Here it is:

This icon image is a good example of how helpful it is to have general biblical knowledge when trying to identify a scene.

Obviously, it is a boat full of men fishing, and one man swimming toward shore:

If we look to the right, we can see a figure (partially hidden by the woodwork in the foreground) identifiable as Jesus.  How do we know?  First, he has the halo with three points of the cross visible in it.  That is characteristic of Jesus.  Second, we see the Greek letters IC XC above his head, abbreviating  Iesous Khristos  — “Jesus Christ” — so there is no doubt about who it represents:

We should also look down below Jesus, where we see — again partially hidden by the woodwork — a round loaf of bread marked with a cross, and part of a fish lying on what look like red rocks.  That is another clue.

If you know the New Testament reasonably well, you probably already identified the scene.  But if there is any doubt, we need only look at the fragment of Greek inscription at upper right:

The beginning is not visible, but we can see at least this much:

As is common in older Greek inscriptions, the letters are all run together, without spaces separating the words.  At the beginning of this portion, we see a T followed by the joined letters O and U, with the U looking like a V and placed on top of the O.   can see the ligature joining the letters O and U.  And we also see at the end the joined letters T and O, with the T placed atop the O.  You will be familiar with those ligatures from past articles here.

Here is the visible portion of the inscription again:


If we separate it into words, we get:


It is not a title inscription.  It is Jesus talking, and we find his words in the Gospel called “of John,” chapter 21:

 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Βάλετε εἰς τὰ δεξιὰ μέρη τοῦ πλοίου τὸ δίκτυον, καὶ εὑρήσετε.
Ho de eipen autois Balete eis ta dexia mere tou ploiou to diktuon, kai

“And he said to them, Cast to the right side of-the boat the net, and

So that tells us this is a scene from the story told in John 21.  It is the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.  Here is the portion relevant to the fresco image:

1.  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and in this manner he showed himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.

Simon Peter says to them, I am going fishing. They say to him, We also are going with you. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.

4 But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Then Jesus says to them, Children, have you anything to eat*? They answered him, No.

And he said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to pull it [in] because of the multitude of fishes.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord.  Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer garment around him, (for he was naked,) and cast himself into the sea.

8 And the other disciples came in a little boat; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

Notice that in this story, as mentioned in previous postings about the ability of Jesus to appear in “another form,” the disciples do not at first recognize him.

Also, it is interesting to note that the word translated above as “anything to eat,” when Jesus asks the disciples if they have any, is προσφάγιον/prosphagion in the original Greek.  It commonly means cooked fish as food, but it can also mean other things eaten with/on bread — literally something “to eat.”

Notice that we also now know what the little “red rocks” are that the fish is lying on in the fresco — they are the hot coals mentioned in 21:9:

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

The round loaf of bread is reminiscent of the Eucharist.

The image of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias is a common part of later Russian “Resurrection” icons that combine several related scenes.  If we look at this central image from a 19th century Palekh (that famous icon-painting village) icon of the Resurrection and Major Church Festivals, we see the “Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias” at lower right:

The painter of this image has given the disciples a rather grand sailing ship with three masts.  We see Peter in the water, and Jesus standing on the shore at left.


Here is a 16th century icon from the Khilandari Monastery on Athos that combines a biblical parable with its interpretation:

It is the tale of the Prodigal Son (Блудный сын/Bludnuiy suin), found in Luke 15.  You will find that text at the end of this posting.

Basically, it is the story of a young man who asks his father for his share of the family money, and then goes off to a distant place, where he wastes all the money in “riotous living.”  Now poor, he takes a job caring for swine.  Miserable, he decides to return to his father, admitting his mistake.  His father receives him joyously and celebrates his return with a feast.  This of course symbolizes the forgiveness by God of sinners who repent.

In the icon, we see the son at lower right, pondering his options among the swine:

At lower left we see him received back home by his father, shown here as Jesus.  And above them is shown the “ joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents.”  The bizarre class of angels in the form of winged rings called “Thrones” is included, and just above them the cushion representing the heavenly throne.

The Khilandari Monastery on Athos was founded for Serbian monks, so it is not surprising to find that the inscription on this icon is in Slavic rather than Greek:

It is somewhat damaged, but nonetheless we can make out some of the letters.
IC XC ПРИЕМЛЕ И СПАСЕННА “Jesus Christ Receives and Saves…,”

So we may gloss it a bit and assume it means something like “Jesus Christ Receives and Saves the Prodigal Son,” which if not exact is nonetheless what the scene depicts.

There is a 14th century fresco in the Balkany Monastery in Serbia that is virtually identical in its elements, if less impressive visually:

It has a simple title inscription of two widely-spaced words at the top:

It reads:


It is referring to an annual commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, which the Russians call Неделя о блудном сыне — Nedelya o bludnom suine,  and the Greeks Ἡ κυριακὴ τοῦ ἀσώτου  — He Kyriake tou asotou (pronounced ee kiriaki too asotoo in modern Greek).  This Sunday of the Prodigal Son is one of several Sunday commemorations preceding Lent, each of which has its biblical source and icon.  These Sundays are:

5th before Lent:  The Sunday of Zacchaeus, represented by Jesus meeting Zacchaeus, who has climbed a sycamore tree, Luke 19).

4th before Lent:  The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, represented by the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, Luke 18.9.

3rd before Lent:  The Sunday of the Prodigal Son, represented by the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15.

2nd before Lent:  The Sunday of the Last Judgment (“Meatfare Sunday”), represented by the Parable of the Last Judgment, Matthew 25.31–46.

1st before Lent:  Forgiveness Sunday (“Cheesefare Sunday”), represented by the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Genesis 3.

So this symbolic icon in which Jesus represents the welcoming father of the biblical tale is the icon for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.

There are, however, icons of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” that do not include Jesus, but merely show the conventional father of the biblical tale receiving the prodigal, often with the feast given on the son’s return shown in the background, as well as additional details from the story

Here is the biblical account from Luke 15:10-24:

Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents.

And he said, A certain man had two sons:  And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. And he divided to them his living.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.  And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.  And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

And he would gladly have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave to him.  And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, And am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants.

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.  And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son.   But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:  And bring here the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:  For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.



Today we will look at a 16th century dome image from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos:

It depicts Jesus as an Emmanuel figure “in glory,” surround by the symbols of the Four Evangelists and a couple of seraphim.

What I want to focus on, however, is the text on the book he holds.  Usually in icons of Jesus we find a Gospel text.  This one, however is different.  Here is a closer look:

And now let’s look at the Greek text he holds.

Here it is as it appears on each page:



ἴδετε ἴδετε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι, καὶ οὐκ ἔστι Θεὸς πλὴν ἐμοῦ· ἐγὼ ἀποκτενῶ καὶ ζῆν ποιήσω

Idete idete, hoti ego eimi, kai ouk esti Theos plen emou.  Ego apokteno kai zen

“Behold, behold, that I am, and not is God except me.  I kill and to-live

In more normal English,

“See, See that I am, and there is no God except me.  I kill and make alive.”

Having translated it, we can see that it is the Septuagint Greek text of Deuteronomy 32:39, from the Old Testament.  So this text is representing Jesus both as Emmanuel and as the God of the Old Testament.

If you have been paying attention to all my postings on reading Greek icon inscriptions, you will recognize the abbreviation for kai — meaning “and”; it is a K with a stroke across the base of the letter:

You will also recognize the ligature joining the letters C and T (s and t) in Greek:

And finally, you will recognize the very common abbreviation ΘC for Theos — “God.”




In an earlier posting, I talked about the rather dubious saint Onuphrios the Great — another of those ascetics found in icons.
(see: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/another-dubious-but-nonetheless-popular-saint-onufriy/)

Today we will look at a very sophisticated 17th century Greek icon of Onuphrios (Ὀνούφριος):

(Rena Andreadis Collection)

We can see the title written above his head, along with the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove:

If you have been following postings here and learning from them, you should have no trouble reading it as Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC ΟΝΟΥΦΡΙΠΟC — HO HAGIOS ONOUPHRIOS  — “[The] Holy Onuphrios.”

He carries in his hand a rather lengthy but clearly-written scroll (always a relief when translating).  You may recognize some words in it:

The text reads:



“Who a gift brings in my memory, will find me a protector/patron before God.”

At lower left is the signature of the painter:



“[the] hand of Emmanuel Priest
Tzane[s] the-one from Rethymnon”

So this is an icon by the noted painter Emmanuel Tzanes Bounialis (c. 1610-1690), who was also a priest.  Originally from Rethymnon — a town on Crete — he later worked in Corfu and in Venice.

If we look at the lower right side of the icon, we find this, which you will recognize from my previous posting on reading dates on icons as as being letter numbers in Greek:

The date given is 1662.

Elements of this icon have a distinctly western-influenced look, such as the mountains in the background.  This icon carefully includes the palm from which Onuphrios ate dates (Tzanes has placed it growing through a hole in the roof of the cave where Onuphrios lived), and out of a cleft in the exterior of the same cave flows the spring from which Onuphrios drank, in the tale of his life:


Here is a closer look showing the heavy use of white highlighting in the image of Onuphrios:


Today we will look at two Cretan icons of Nikolaos/Nicholas of Myra.  Here is the first, from the 16th century:

As you can see, it shows Nicholas seated on a throne, and is  “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his legend.

Here is a closer look at the central image:

We see the usual images of Jesus at left, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary at right, giving him his bishop’s stole (omophorion).

It is important to note that the Greek inscription on the scroll differs from the standard text  common on Russian icons of Nicholas, which would be from Luke 6:17: “At that time Jesus stood on the plain, and a multitude of his disciples … ”:

Instead, it reads (left page first, then right page):








(Page two):








Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ θύρα· δι’ ἐμοῦ ἐάν τις εἰσέλθῃ, σωθήσεται, καὶ εἰσελεύσεται καὶ ἐξελεύσεται, καὶ νομὴν εὑρήσει.

Ego eimi he thura: di emou ean tis eiselthe, sothesetai, kai eiseleusetai kai exeleusetai, kai nomen euresei.

It is from John 10: 9:

I am the door: by me if anyone enters in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”


That different text is the important part of today’s posting, but for the sake of completeness we should take a quick look at the “life” scenes in the border of the icon:

First is the birth of Nicholas:

Second, Nicholas brought to be educated:

Third, Nicholas is consecrated as a bishop:

Fourth, Nicholas gives a bag of money to a father in debt, so that his three daughters may have dowries for marriage, and not have to prostitute themselves:

Now we come to a group of scenes from what is generally considered to be the oldest part of the St. Nicholas legends:  the tale of the three byzantine generals.

It is said that Emperor Constantine sent three army generals to subdue an uprising in Phrygia.  They sailed from Constantinople to Andriake, which was the seaport for the town of Myra, where Nicholas was bishop.  Their names were Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis.

Some of the soldiers from the army went to buy food while the ships were docked.  Unfortunately, some looting took place by men pretending to be soldiers from the ships — and so the rioting crowd blamed the innocent soldiers from the ships for the thefts.

Nicholas, in Myra, heard about the riots at the port and went to Andriake to try to calm things down.  He talked with the army officers, and while they were in discussion, report came to Nicholas that the three innocent sailors were about to be executed for the looting.  Nicholas hurried to the place, and found the three men kneeling with hands bound, about to be beheaded by sword.  Nicholas grabbed the sword from the executioner, threw it down, released the men, and led them away.

Here is the scene of Nicholas grasping the executioner’s sword:

Nicholas berated and threatened the official who had unjustly condemned the men, but pardoned him after the three generals asked for mercy on his behalf.  Then the generals sailed off to Phrygia with their army, where they subdued the uprising, then returned to Constantinople, where they were greatly feted and honored.

An official jealous of the honor shown the generals conspired with the Prefect Ablabius, who was offered a great amount of gold to make a false accusation against the generals to the Emperor, accusing them of planning to overthrow Emperor Constantine.  They were arrested and thrown into prison.  Then Ablabius went to Constantine and told him that the generals should be executed to prevent further conspiracy.  Constantine ordered them to be killed that night.  Here are the imprisoned men:

When the three generals were informed of their death sentence, they prayed for the intercession of St. Nicholas.  That evening St. Nicholas appeared to Emperor Constantine as he slept, telling him to release the three innocent generals at once, or Nicholas would have the Emperor overthrown and his body given to animals to eat.    That is the scene shown here:

Then Nicholas appeared to the Prefect Ablabius as he slept, telling him to release the men, and threatening him and his family with death if he refused, as depicted in this scene:

The three generals were taken from the prison to the Emperor, who asked them if they knew of anyone named Nicholas.  They affirmed their knowledge of the bishop of Myra, and all three again began to pray for the intercession of Nicholas and their release as innocent men.  The Emperor told them they owed their lives to Nicholas.  Then he gave the three a golden book of the Gospels as well as other valuable church objects to take to Nicholas as a gift.  That is the scene shown here:

And here are the three generals bringing the Emperor’s gifts to Nicholas:

Now as you may know, part of the strategy of Christianity at the time when the Roman Empire was still polytheistic, was to spread the notion that the gods of the polytheists were not gods at all, but rather demons; and that in venerating the images of the gods, the people were really venerating demons.  The legend of Nicholas says that he went about destroying the polytheist temples, where the demons would flee and the images of the old gods would fall.  Here is the scene of Nicholas destroying the idols:

Here is the scene illustrating the legend of the ship that was caught in a storm at sea.  The sailors prayed to Nicholas, and he appeared, saving the ship from sinking and the sailors from drowning, and driving off the demons who wanted the ship wrecked:

Finally, here is the death of Nicholas:

If we look at the second Cretan icon — this one from the 15th century — we see that it is much like the first:

Now the interesting thing is that having seen the first icon, you should now be able not only to read the inscription on the Gospel book in this second icon, you should also be able to identify every border image.  Test yourself.

Here is the Gospel text:

You will notice that it abbreviates the word και (“and”) — and leaves out a couple of words at the end.

And here are the border images to identify, in no particular order:












You probably noticed that this second icon omits the border scene of the child Nicholas taken to be educated.