BREAD AND BLOSSOMS

In the previous posting we took a look at the apocryphal source of a scroll text of  the “Forefather” Melchizedek.  Here he is in a 14th century fresco from Grachanitsa, Serbia:

His name inscription reads:

ПРВЕДНИ МЕЛЬХИС[Е]ДЕК
PRAVEDNI MEL’KHISEDEK
“RIGHTEOUS MELKHISEDEK

The writer has used a phonetic spelling of Pravednuiyраведный), and has omitted one “e,” and has written the Д (d) above and smaller than the other letters.

Melchizedek looks much the same here as in most depictions, with his grey hair, long beard, a crown on his head and in his hands a tray with loaves of bread in it.  He is most frequently shown — as here — without a scroll, though occasionally he holds one, as we saw in the previous posting.

The bread is taken from Genesis 14:17, in which Melchizedek brings out to Abraham bread and wine before he blesses him.  In Eastern Orthodox doctrine, this is thought to be a prefiguration of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, which supposedly becomes the body and blood of Jesus.

There is a rather similar image from the same place and date of another Old Testament figure, Aaron.  He is titled here:
ПРОРОКЬ ААРОНЬ
PROROK’ AARON’
“PROPHET AARON”

This is the Old Testament Aaron, brother of Moses, and first Levite priest.  In Numbers 17 it is said that a controversy over which tribe was to become priestly was settled when — unlike the rods of other tribes — that of Aaron miraculously sprouted overnight:

8 And it came to pass, that in the morning Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.

The obvious distinctions between the two fresco images above — aside from name titles of course — are that while Melchizedek holds a container with loaves of bread, Aaron holds a blossoming rod and a golden vessel in which a rolled scroll is seen.

All three, oddly enough, are Marian symbols found in the Akathist hymn, which says of Mary:

Rejoice, O mystical rod that blossomed — the flower that will never fade.

Rejoice, … golden jar containing the manna which sweetens the senses of the devout.

Rejoice, scroll on which, O pure one, the Word was inscribed by the Father’s finger.

If you look closely at the golden vessel Aaron carries, you will see the image of Mary on the side of it.

A comparison is often made in Eastern Orthodox theology between the priesthood of Aaron — as the first Levite priest — and that of Melchizedek — who was not a Levite.  The New Testament book of Hebrews declares Jesus to be a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek — not of the temporal Levitical priesthood:

For he testifies, You are a priest forever after the order of Melkhisedek.  (Hebrews 7:17)

Now you can go to your friends and ask, “Do you know how to tell the difference between Melchizedek and Aaron?”  And they will look at you strangely and say, “Tell who from who?  What are you talking about?  Get a life!”

 

ABRAHAM THE BARBER

Here is a Russian icon that appears to be from the Forefathers tier of an iconostasis:

We can tell from the inscription that it depicts
СВЯТЫЙ ПРАОТЕЦ МЕЛХИЗЕДЕКЪ
SVYATUIY PRAOTETS MELKHIZEDEK
“Holy Forefather Melchizedek”

Melchizedek is a mysterious figure, because while there is so little information about him in the Bible, he is nonetheless a part of significant doctrinal understanding of Jesus in the New Testament.

We first find him the the Old Testament, where he appears in Genesis 14:

18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth loaves and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God. 19 And he blessed Abram, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, who made heaven and earth, 20 and blessed be the most high God who delivered your enemies into your power. And Abram gave him the tithe of all.

Next in Psalm 109 (110 KJV):

1 The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. 2 The Lord shall send out a rod of power for you out of Sion: rule in the midst of your enemies. 3 With you is dominion in the day of your power, in the splendors of your saints: I have begotten you from the womb before the morning. 4 The Lord swore, and will not repent, You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.

And we find him in the New Testament book of Hebrews, which makes a rather lengthy and wordy connection of Melchizedek with Jesus in chapter 7 — too long to include here.

In the icon, we see Abraham wearing a crown and omophorion (the stole around his neck), holding a tray on which are loaves of bread.

What I want to note today, however, is found in the odd scroll text given him here:

It says basically that God sent Abraham to Melchizedek to “cut my hair” — Ostrizhe vlasui moy.

“Cut my hair”?  There is nothing whatsoever about Abraham cutting Melchizedek’s hair in the Bible.  But as you all should know by now, when information was lacking — whether in the Bible or out of it — people just made things up.  There are apocryphal writings in which Abraham cuts Melchizedek’s hair — the so-called “Apocrypha of Melchizedek.” One version of the story is found in the Byzantine-Slavic  text Palea Historia — “Old [Testment] History.”

The tale, which has variations, relates basically that Melchizedek was one of two sons of a king of Salem.  The king asked him to bring oxen to sacrifice to the gods, but Melchizedek tried to convince his father to sacrifice instead to the God of Heaven.  His father was unhappy, and decided to sacrifice Melchizedek to the gods instead.  Melchizedek prayed to God that the city and its worshippers and idols would be destroyed, and God caused an earthquake that swallowed up all the city and its people.  Melchizedek went to Mount Tabor, where he lived as an ascetic hermit on wild plants and water.  However, God sent Abraham to find Melchizedek — who by that time had hair down to his feet and very long nails.  Abraham met Melchizedek and cut his long hair and trimmed his nails.  Melchizedek and Abraham then worshipped the “most high God,” and Melchizedek blessed Abraham.

So that is how the scroll in today’s icon has Melchizedek oddly saying that Abraham “cut my hair.”

There is a cave chapel on Mount Tabor that in Medieval times was often considered by pilgrims to be the dwelling of Melchizedek.

THE “THREE JOYS” ICON

Poor Joseph.  Everyone seems to want to push him into the background.  Mary is the mother of Jesus, but people generally avoid referring to Joseph as the father — whether biological or adoptive.  Instead, in Russian Orthodoxy he is commonly referred to as Иосиф Обручник/Iosif Obruchnik — “Joseph the Betrothed.”

All this in spite of the fact that the two discrepant genealogies of Jesus found in the gospels called “of Matthew” and “of Luke” both oddly trace the descent of Jesus through Joseph.  And in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart Ehrman writes:

…in virtually every instance in which Joseph is called Jesus’ father or parent, various scribes have changed the text in such a way as to obviate the possibilities of misconstrual.

The scribes who copied the early manuscripts of the Gospels seem not to have known how to deal with Joseph, given the rise of the veneration of Mary and the evolution of the doctrine of her perpetual virginity.

Nonetheless, Joseph does appear in icons, though usually not alone (some modern icons depict him so more frequently).  He of course appears in icons of the Birth of Jesus, but he also appears in a Marian icon type called Трехъ Радостей / Trekh Radostey — “The Three Joys.”  Here is an example:

Mary and the child Jesus are in the center, Joseph is on the left side, and on the right — in this example — is John the Theologian.  That is a bit odd, because customarily the figure on the right in this icon type is John the Forerunner, so it appears that this is a variant that arose because at some time, a painter made an error.  And when an error is made, others are likely to copy it.

That John the Forerunner (the Baptist) should be on the right is all the more certain because the “Three Joys” icon from which later examples descend was said to have been brought from Italy near the beginning of the 18th century.  And in Italian art, paintings depicting  Mary and the child Jesus along with Joseph and the young John the Forerunner are very common.  So this icon is another of those adopted into Russian Orthodoxy from Roman Catholic art.

It is likely that because the figure on the right is depicted as a young male, some painter saw an image of it and the first name Ioann/John — and thought it was Ioann Bogoslov — John the Theologian (John the Apostle) instead of Ioann Predtecha — John the Forerunner (the Baptist).

The four border images in the above example are not a part of the icon type, but are “family” images added:  The Guardian Angel, Paphnutios, Antipas, and Catherine.

The rather vague origin story associated with the icon says that when brought from Italy, the original was given to a priest of the Trinity Church in Moscow.  A noble lady fell on hard times:  her husband was exiled, her estate was taken, and her son was made a captive.  She prayed to Mary, and then dreamed she heard a voice telling her to find the icon of the Holy Family and to pray before it.  The woman searched through Moscow churches, and eventually found the icon hanging in the porch of the Church of the Life-giving Trinity.  She prayed before it, and then her husband was returned, her estate was restored, and her son was freed.  Because of these “three joys,” the icon received its name, though perhaps it was originally associated with the three figures in the icon.  The tale of the unnamed noble woman and her three losses and restorations all sounds suspiciously dubious, but then that is often the case with icons and their traditions.

The “original” icon is said to have been a copy of a painting of the Holy Family by the Italian artist Raphael, so it is interesting to see how an icon that once looked like this …

… is sometimes transformed into an icon painted in the traditional, stylized manner of old Russian icons, like the pleasant example at the top of this page.

 

 

 

THE ODD COUPLE

Here is a rather folkish icon with a significance that is not immediately apparent:

(Historical Museum, Sanok, Poland)

The top inscription —

— tells us that it depicts “Holy Prophet Iliya and Enokh”

Well, we already know that Iliya is the Prophet Elijah from the Old Testament, and Enokh/Enoch is the mysterious fellow of whom we read in the Book of Genesis 5:21-24:

And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah:And Enoch walked with God after he begat Methuselah three hundred years, and begat sons and daughters:And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years:  And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.”

The common interpretation of this is that Enoch lived for 365 years, and then God took him alive up to heaven.  He did not die.

Now considering that many centuries lay between the time when Enoch was supposedly on earth and the time of the Prophet Elijah, why would they be placed together in an icon?

Well, oddly enough there is a belief in Eastern Orthodoxy that Enoch and Elijah will be forerunners of the Second Coming of Jesus and the Last Judgment.  Each was supposedly taken up to heaven, so never died.  And each is supposed to return to earth in the period of turmoil and upheaval preceding the Second Coming.   It is believed they will call for repentance and warn of the Second Coming, but they will not be heeded, and will be killed just before Jesus comes; but after three days they will both be resurrected.

Even though the names Enoch and Elijah are not actually mentioned in it, this text from Revelation /the Apocalypse 11:3-12 is used in Eastern Orthodoxy to support the notion that the two will return to earth in the last days:

And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.

These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.

And if any man will hurt them, fire proceeds out of their mouth, and devours their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.

These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.

And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.

And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.

And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not allow their dead bodies to be put in graves.

10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.

11 And after three days and an half the spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.

12 And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up here. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.

It is not surprising that the words These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy” reminded people of the Prophet Elijah, because in the Bible he was said to have the power to withhold rain:

1 Kings 17:1
“And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.”

And James 5:17:
“Elias [Elijah] was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”

In the icon, Enoch/Enokh sits on a rock at left, with his name written just to the right of his face:

Elijah/Iliya sits in his desert cave at right, with his name written to the left of his face.  A raven above and to the left of him brings Elijah food in its beak, in keeping with 1 Kings 17:2-6.  It is a scene often used in icons of Elijah.

But what is written on the open book Elijah holds on his knees?  Let’s look:

Well, if you suffered through my previous posting on Elijah, it should look partially familiar.

The first words are these, from 1 Kings 19:10, which we saw previously:

Ревнуя поревновах по Господе Бозе …
Revnuya porevnovakh po Gospde Boze …
“I have been very jealous for the Lord God…”

However the whole text is not quite the same.  Instead, the version in this icon reads:

Ревнуя поревновах по Господе Бозе моемъ азъ оуснухъ …
Revnuya porevnovakh po Gospde Boze moem az ousnukh …
“I have been very jealous for the Lord my God; I lay down …”

Sometimes one finds such peculiar variations in scroll texts.

 

 

 

MAKING A SAINT OUT OF ALMOST NOTHING

Here is a 17th century Russian icon.  It depicts:

СВЯТЫЙ СВЯЩЕННОМУЧЕНИК КЛИМЕНТ ПАПА РИМСКИЙ
SVYATUIY SVYASHCHENNOMUCHENIK KLIMENT, PAPA RIMSKIY
“Holy Priest-martyr Clement, Pope of Rome”

(Perm State Art Gallery)

A priest-martyr is also often termed a “hieromartyr” — which means basically the same thing.

The posture used in this icon — a saint bending to one side, with the face near but not entirely in profile — was popular in the 17th century.  The icon depicts Clement in a landscape with miniature background scenes from his traditional life, instead of placing them in separate border cells as is common in many other icons.

Though it is rather difficult to see in the photo, Clement holds the fingers of his right hand in the position favored by the Old Believers, who split from the State Orthodox Church in the middle of the 1600s (or perhaps it is more accurate to say the State Church split from the Old Believers).   Clement looks up at an angle toward the image of the New Testament Trinity on the left.

Now you may wonder what a Roman Pope is doing in a Russian Orthodox icon, given the historical antipathy of Russian Orthodoxy toward Roman Catholicism.  Well, the answer is that at the time when Clement is said to have lived — the first century c.e. — the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches had not yet separated.  That is why Eastern Orthodoxy may recognize some Catholic saints prior to the Great Schism of 1054, but not after.

Given that almost no reliable evidence concerning Kliment/Clement is known, there was wide space left for hagiographic embroidery of his life and deeds.

Clement was supposedly born into a noble and wealthy family.  He lost touch with his mother and two brothers — Faustinus and Faustinian — who were driven off-course by a storm during a sea voyage.  His father disappeared too, on going to look for them.

Later, when Clement went to Alexandria in Egypt seeking his family, he met the apostle Barnabas, and not only found his two brothers there — who had become followers of St. Peter — but when he went to Palestine, he also met St. Peter, who was able to turn up Clement’s old mother and father as well.

The tradition relates that Clement was consecrated as bishop of Rome by St. Peter, following the bishoprics of Linus (67-79) and Anacletus (79-91).  Clement supposedly was bishop from 92-101, though dates in the sources vary, and he is sometimes said to have died about 98 c.e.

Many stories are told of Clement:  he supposedly baptized 424 people on an Easter, then earned the wrath of Emperor Trajan by scorning the gods.  First Trajan sent an officer named Sissinius to arrest Clement, but he and his men were miraculously blinded, and mistakenly dragged a column to the prison instead of Clement.  Then Trajan had Clement exiled to a quarry in Crimea, near the city of Cherson.  Supposedly many of his disciples followed him into exile there.

In the quarry there was a severe lack of water.  Tradition says that Clement prayed, and Jesus appeared to him in the form of a lamb on a hill.  The lamb struck at the ground with one hoof, and when Clement hit the spot with his pickaxe, a spring gushed forth that turned into a veritable river, resulting in another mass conversion.  A church was even built for him in the quarries.

All this supposedly only irritated Trajan more, so the Emperor ordered Clement to be drowned in the sea, an anchor tied to his neck.  And so Clement died.  But thanks to the prayers of Bishop Cornelius, St. Fibius and others, the sea miraculously pulled back some three miles to reveal Clement’s remains, which were found in a church-shaped “angelic” undersea cave.   After that, the waters would miraculously withdraw every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom, and remain back for a week, in order to make his relics available for Christian veneration.  Once a child was caught in the sea when it came flooding back over the site, but he was found alive on the spot the next year, when the waters again withdrew.

It is said that in reign of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus (802-811), God did not allow the sea to withdraw for 50 years, and so the Christians could not get to the submerged church-cave.

Later in the 9th century, the missionaries to the Slavs Cyril and Methodius and a number of others supposedly prayed at midnight for Clement’s relics to appear, and the relics miraculously did so.  This time they were taken to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.  Later some of the remains were taken to Rome, and the head of Clement was taken to Kyiv by St. Vladimir — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict.  There they — along with the relics of St. Fibius of Rome/Фива Римский/Fiva Rimskiy — were placed in the Church of the Tithes (Десятинна церква/Desyatinna tserkva) — the first stone church in Kyiv/Kiev.  At present the head of Clement is said to be kept in the caves of the Pecherskaya Lavra at Kyiv.

Now obviously there is a lot of nonsense and uncertainty in all this. An anonymous letter (1 Clement) is generally attributed to Clement.  But so were a number of other writings that are now considered to be misattributed to him.  And though Clement is called “Pope of Rome,” the title is anachronistic; it did not exist at that time.  Some vague early references to a “Clement” were applied to Clement of Rome, including that of Paul in Philippians 4:3:

And I intreat you also, true yoke-fellow, help those women who labored with me in the Gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life.”

and that found in The Shepherd of Hermas, 4[8]:3:

“You shall therefore write two little books, and shall send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans.”

The earliest references to Clement in Eusebius and Jerome do not mention that he was martyred.  The tale that he was drowned with an anchor tied to his neck is found no earlier than the 4th century, and many modern scholars believe that Clement’s martyrdom is the result of confusing him with another Roman saint of a similar name who was a martyr, Titus Flavius Clemens.  Nonetheless, the anchor became the symbol of “Pope Clement I”  in Catholic Christianity.

As for his relics, there is an account that in 868 St. Cyril, while in the Crimea, found some bones and an anchor buried in a mound, which he identified as the bones of Clement of Rome.  They were brought to Rome, and placed as Clement’s relics in the Basilica of St. Clement/San Clemente.  But as we know from history, tales of saints’ relics are highly unreliable in any case, as there was a very large market in fake relics to meet the vast demand.

Here is another icon of “Clement, Pope of Rome,” depicting him in the more conventional frontal pose, with scenes from his hagiographic life in the borders:

 

 

NOT EXACTLY RIGHT, BUT NOT COMPLETELY WRONG

Here is another of the many Marian icons:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

Now as we have learned, when identifying icons it is important to pay close attention to details.

At first glance, one might think the above image is just another example of the “Vladimir”  icon of Mary, and we would not be entirely wrong, though also not entirely correct in so identifying it, if we left it at that.

One can see a very good reason for a “Vladimir” identification.  The position of the figures and their limbs fits that of the “Vladimir” type, of which the icon below is an example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

There is a reason why they look so similar.  The first icon on this page began with a copy of the Vladimir icon.

Still, if we look again, we can see there are differences, specifically in the head-covering of Mary and in the “crown” that surmounts her halo in the first example.  We can tell that even though the original gold leaf on them is now gone.

Those differences mark the icon as a sub-type of the Vladimir icon with its own name — the Volokolamskaya (Волокаламская) — or as it is sometimes even more specifically known, the Vladimirskaya-Volokolamskaya (Владимирская-Волокаламская) icon.

Identification can be a bit tricky though, because sometimes painters only mentioned the first part of the name, as in the following example.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In this icon the distinctive head-covering with its “crown” is quite obvious, but nonetheless the painter added only the “Vladimir” title inscription, which is rather misleading, though as already mentioned, not entirely inaccurate.

The Volokolamskaya subtype originated, as we have seen, as a copy of the “Vladimir” icon, and that copy was taken from the city of Zvenigorod to the Uspenskiy Cathedral of the Iosifo-Volotskiy Monastery on March 2, 1572.  There it supposedly worked miracles.

In 1954 the Volokolamskaya icon was placed in the Andrey Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art in Moscow.

Now the Iosifo-Voltskiy Monastery is named for its founder, Iosif Volotskiy/Joseph of Volotsk, also known as Joseph of Volokolamsk.  You may recall Joseph of Volokolamsk as the devilish advocate of the “Possessor” position, which held that there was nothing wrong in monasteries owning vast church lands and wealth, villages, peasants and slaves.  He also asserted that those viewed as heretics (i.e. those with different beliefs than he) should be executed.

Many examples of the Volokolamskaya/”Volokolamsk” icon include two border figures — often the Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr and Iona (Peter and Jonah), but alternate saints may be found as well.

 

TEST YOURSELF: A MULTIPLE ICON

Here is a little self-test:

If you have been a diligent student of the postings on this site, you should be able to identify everything in this multiple icon.  A multiple icon is an icon with several separate types placed together on a single panel.  This example has four main types, a smaller central type, and of course the saints used as border images.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:


The inscription reads
СВЯТЫЙ НИКОЛА ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ
SVYATUIY NIKOLA CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”

Aside from the inscription, one can tell from the facial characteristics (form, hair, beard), the costume, and from the accompanying figures of Jesus at left and Mary at right that this is an image representing St. Nikolai/Nikola/Nicholas of Myra.  You will recall that Jesus is giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels, and Mary is presenting him with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion).  If you notice that Nicholas is not shown full-face, but rather as though turning from the left, you may remember that such a Nicholas — though often with a harsher expression than here — is called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — and was thought to ward off evil.

Now you will have read in a previous posting that “Nicholas the Turner” is an icon type that appeared among the Old Believers in the 18th century, so that tells us something important about this icon too; and what it tells us is confirmed by the hand.  As you see, the fingers are held in the blessing position used by the Old Believers, and that confirms that this is an Old Believer icon.

Upper right:

Of course you know that the MP ΘY letters in two circles at the top abbreviate the Greek words Meter Theou — which are common on Russian icons of Mary.

From the title inscription, we can tell that this is identified as the
ЗНАМЕНИЕ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ
ZNAMENIE PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
the “‘SIGN’ MOST-HOLY GOD-BIRTHGIVER”
or in normal English,
The “‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God.”

And of course that is Jesus in the circle on her breast.

You may recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous “palladium” icons, considered to be city protectors, and that its legendary history says it saved the citizens of the great trading city of Novgorod in the northwest of Russia from the invading Suzdalians.

Lower left:


The inscription identifies this Marian icon type as the

УМЯАГЧЕНИЕ ЗЛЫХ СЕРДЕЦ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ
YMYAGCHENIE ZLUIKH SERDETS PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
“SOFTENER [of] EVIL  HEARTS MOST-HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

It is sometimes also translated loosely as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.”  It is important to remember, however, that this type is not the only Marian icon type to be found under that title.

Next comes a New Testament Scene that is also an annual Eastern Orthodox Church commemoration:

If you are familiar with the New Testament, you can probably identify it without the inscription below.  Here is that inscription:

ОУСЕКНОВЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНЫЯ ГЛАВЫ СВЯАТАГО IОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧА
USEKNOVENIE CHESTNUIYA GLAVUI SVYATAGO IOANNA PREDTECHA
“CUTTING-OFF [of the] HONORABLE HEAD [of] HOLY JOHN [the] FORERUNNER.”

And that is what the scene depicts:  the execution of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and the presentation of his head to Salome.

Such an icon type was particularly important to Old Believers because it called to mind the terrible persecution they suffered under the State Orthodox Church.

In the center of the icon we find the image of — as the red title inscription tells us here — the
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ОБРАЗ ГОСПОДЕНЬ
NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODEN’
“NOT-MADE-BY-HANDS IMAGE [of the] LORD”

It is the image traditionally considered the “first icon” in Eastern Orthodoxy, because the old legend that developed over time said that Jesus once pressed a wet towel to his face, and his image was miraculously imprinted on it.  It is the “Abgar” image sent by tradition from Jesus to King Abgar of Edessa.


You will notice the other inscriptions written on the cloth — first the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and below the face, this inscription:

СВЯТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ
SVYATUIY UBRUS
“HOLY CLOTH”

So in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Holy Cloth” is the cloth after Jesus supposedly transferred the image of his face to it.

Finally, there are four border saints in this icon:

First comes the
AНГЕЛЪ ХРАНИТЕЛ
ANGEL KHRANITEL
“ANGEL GUARDIAN”

In ordinary English, the “Guardian Angel.”  It is important to know that this is a generic figure who represents the Guardian Angel supposedly assigned to each person —  It is often found as a border image, but is also found as an icon type on its own.  He holds a sword in one hand and a cross in the other:


The others are:

2.  St. Alexandra;

Venerable Sergiy;

St. Feodora/Theodora;

Such border saints as these three are generally found in icons as the “angel” saints of the members of the family for whom the icon was painted — the saints after whom each person was named.

A purchaser — in this case an Old Believer — could choose the icon types to be represented on such a multiple icon, and of course could tell the painter the names of his family members to include in the border, represented there by their “name” saints.  And again, the “Guardian Angel” served as the generic figure representing each angel assigned individually to protect a family member.

Now you will find all this information — including a longer discussion of each main type shown — in the site archives.