There is a little-known icon type called the Неугасимая Свеча  — Neugasimaya Svecha — the “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary.  Here is an example:

It is a rather late icon type, which is why examples are generally painted in a “westernized” manner.

The story associated with this type relates that a fellow who was abbot of the Alekseevskiy Monastery in Uglich from 1864-1872 had a vision of Mary, in which she appeared to him with a candle in her right hand and an abbot’s staff in her left.  An icon was painted of Mary as seen in his vision.

The traditional tale of the icon continues in the year 1894, when an ill merchant in St. Petersburg had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and told him to go to a certain place and pray in front of a specific icon there and he would be healed.  Now as we have seen, that is a rather common motif in these origin stories of supposed “wonderworking” Marian icons.  We can call it in its basic form the “it came to me in a dream” motif.

In this case the place to which he was told to go was the Alekseevskiy Monastery in the city of Uglich.  It turned out that when the fellow talked to the abbot there about his dream, the icon he described was the same one painted after the vision of the earlier abbot Evangel.  It was then being kept in the monastery pantry.  According to the story, the man prayed before the icon and was healed (we would not be discussing it if that usual part of such tales were absent).  On June 23 the icon was moved to the monastery’s Uspenskiy (“Dormition”) Church.  The merchant also honored the icon by presenting it with a gilt silver riza (icon cover).

The title of this icon type is taken from Ikos II of the Akathist to the Dormition of Mary:

Радуйся, свеще неугасимая огня невещественнаго …”
Raduisya, sveschche neugasimaya ognya neveshchestvennago
Rejoice, Inextinguishable Candle of immaterial fire …”

The relation of the icon to the city of Uglich accounts for its alternate title — Вратарница Угличская — Vratarnitsa Uglichskaya — the “Uglich Gate-keeper” icon.  Under this title, it should not be confused with the Iverskaya/Iveron icon of Mary, which is also sometimes titled Vratarnitsa/Gatekeeper after its Greek title, the Portaitissa (Πορταΐτισσα).

The distinguishing features of the  “Inextinguishable Candle”/”Uglich Gate-keeper” icon, as we have seen, are that Mary, dressed as a nun, holds a lit candle in her right hand, and an abbot’s staff — usually along with prayer beads — in her left.

Now oddly enough, this “Inextinguishable Candle” icon of Mary is sometimes confused with a somewhat similar-appearing icon of Mary as Ἡγουμένη του Ἁγίου Όρους/Hegoumene tou Hagiou Orous — “Hegumena/Abbess of the Holy Mountain,” the Holy Mountain being Mount Athos in Greece. There is a group of varying icons of this latter type depicting Mary as the Abbess of the kleros of Mount Athos.  A kleros is, in this case, an assigned portion of land.  According to tradition, the portion of land of Mount Athos belongs to Mary.

Now one would think that an icon showing Mary as Abbess of Athos would be a simple matter, but even the simplest matters are often the subject of doctrinal bickering among Eastern Orthodox factions.  That is why some newer icons of this type are changed to depict Mary in her usual garments rather than in the clerical mandyas shown in the above icon, and with her right hand raised to the side, palm outward, instead of the right hand blessing with fingers in the IC XC sign seen above.

The little ship at lower right relates to the legend that in New Testament times, Mary came to Mount Athos in a boat with St. John the Evangelist.




In a previous posting, I discussed how to distinguish icons of Mary that depict several swords at her breast, and mentioned one single-sword type.

Today we will look at another Mary-sword icon, but again this time with only one sword.

The icon is called the Vasilkovskaya (Васильковская).  Here is an example in the manner characteristic of the late 19th-early 20th century:

Let’s look at the title inscription at the base:


Note that in English we have to reverse the last two words, which literally are Bozhiy Materi — “God-of Mother.”

Now as we know, most of these Marian icons have origin stories.  Here is that of the Vasilkovskaya:

In the 15th century, there was a town called Vasilkovo (Васильково/Wasilków) a few miles from what is now Bialystok in northeastern Poland.  At that time, a blind fellow named Vasily was wandering abandoned through the thick forests of the vicinity, hungry and worn out.  He fell to the ground and went to sleep on a hill high above a river, and as he slept, he dreamed.

In his dream, Mary came to him and told him to brush aside the leaves on the ground, dig into the sand, and there he would find water that would heal him if he washed his eyes with it.

He did as he was told, found the hidden water, washed his eyes with it, and according to the legend, his sight was restored (compare this with the Catholic tale of Bernadette and Lourdes).  As his sight came back, he saw before him an icon of Mary as he had seen her in his dream vision.  It was on canvas rather than wood.

Vasiliy dug out a well there and put a protective shelter over it, and in it he placed the newly-appeared icon of Mary.

The story continues by relating that in the early 18th century, a different Vasiliy (possibly Vasily Samotyją Lenczewskim) — who was involved with a paper factory — had lost his sight, but was told in a dream that he would be healed by praying before the icon at the spring.  He followed the instructions of his dream vision, and he too was supposedly healed.  He built a wooden chapel over the site in 1719.  The place was called  Svyataya Voda (Святая вода) — “Holy  Water.”  In 1864 the wooden church was replaced with a stone church.  The icon was venerated both by Uniates and by Russian Orthodox.

Now it is rather obvious that this icon is akin to the many Mater Dolorosa (“Sorrowful Mother”) images popular in the Catholic West.  Variants of the image depicting Mary with a single sword in her breast appear under various titles, including Симеоново проречение — Simeonovo Prorechenie — the “Prediction/Prophecy of Simeon” and И Тебе Самой душу пройдет оружие — I tebe Samoy dushu proidet oruzhie — ” A sword shall pierce through your own soul also.”  These titles, as we have seen in an earlier posting, may also be found on icons of Mary with multiple swords.

There is also a more complex icon type featuring Mary with a single sword, standing by the crucifixion of Jesus (who may or may not be on the cross), and accompanied by the various symbols of the Passion.  This type is generally given the title Плач при Кресте — Plach pri Kreste — “Weeping at the Cross.”  It too obviously derives from the “Prophecy of Simeon” in Luke 2:35.

Be aware, however, that similar icons may be found minus the sword, as in this example, titled simply Плачь Пресвятыя Богородицы — Plach Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “[The] Weeping of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there is a little-known icon type called the Strastnaya Lipetskaya (Страстная Липецкая), which depicts Mary much as she is shown in the “Weeping at the Cross” type — often also with the instruments of the Passion.  But in this case the distinguishing features of the type are first, that the single sword is on the cross to the right of and behind Mary, rather than shown against her breast; and second, she holds a white cloth in her left hand.

Tradition relates that the “Lipetsk-Passion” icon was kept in the Nativity of Christ Cathedral in the city of Lipetsk, in what was then Tambov Province.  In 1831 the icon is said to have broken a plague of cholera that had spread in the region.


As I have mentioned previously, the prophets can be a real pain for students of icons.  The problem is not in identifying them.  That is usually easy.  It is in their scroll inscriptions.

The podlinniki — the manuals of icon painting — give descriptions of how prophets are to be painted, and they also generally give scroll inscriptions for each.  One would think that would make the matter easy, but it does not.  The podlinnik instructions for prophets’ scroll inscriptions are frequently not the inscriptions we encounter on actual icons of them, so one never knows what inscription might be used on an old icon for a given prophet.  That is where the difficulty lies.

The best one can do then — aside from being familiar with the podlinnik inscriptions — is to take each icon case by case, and that is not always easy, particularly if a scroll inscription is damaged or fragmentary.

Nonetheless, let’s have a go at an example:

Here is a 16th century fresco of a prophet from the Dionysiou Monastery at Mt. Athos:

As usual, he is easy to identify by his title inscription:


He is the prophet ΜΑΛΑΧΙΑC / MALAKHIAS — the Greek form of Malachi.

Now we come to his scroll inscription:

As is common in old inscriptions, there are some abbreviations and some ligatures — joined letters.

It begins with these words:

The first letter is I; the second letter that looks like an A in Roman lettering is actually one way of writing a D (Δ) in Greek.  And the third letter is a combination of two letters —  ΟΥ — OU in English — with the O below and the Y on top.  So all together, they make the Greek word

ΙΔΟΥ — Idou — meaning “Behold.”

The second word — a bit worn in the inscription — is ΕΡΧΕΤΑΙ/ERKHETAI, meaning (he/she/it) “comes.”  It begins on the first line and ends on the second.

Then we find the first abbreviation:

It is a Κ and C  — K and S in English — and that little horizontal curved line above is, you may recall, the sign of abbreviation.  Those two letters together signify the word ΚΥΡΙΟC/KURIOS, meaning “Lord.”

And then comes a real give-away word:

The first three letters of the word are squeezed into the end of the line:

ΠΑΝ — with the A smaller and a small N written above it.

Then comes T and O, with the O written beneath the T.  Then comes the end of the word:

All together, they spell a very common icon word: ΠΑΝΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ/PANTOKRATOR — meaning “Almighty.”  Remember that the ω here is the same letter as Ω in the modern Greek alphabet, and it is pronounced the same as the letter O.

Thus far we have IDOU ERKHETAI KURIOS PANTOKRATOR — which is easy to translate as:
“Behold, comes [the] Lord Almighty…”

And if you are clever (you must be, if you are reading this peculiar blog site), you will then suspect that it is likely to be something written in the Old Testament book of Malachi.  So the next step — given that the inscription is in Greek — is to look for those words in the Septuagint Greek version of the book of Malachi.

And behold, what we find there in Malachi 3:1-2 is:

ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ …

Idou erkhetai legei kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

It reads just the same as the icon scroll text except for the third word λέγει/legei, meaning “[he] says.”

If we put it into English, we get this:

“Behold, he is coming, says the Lord Almighty.  And who will endure the day of his coming?”

So, if we remove the word legei/”says” from the text in the book of Malachi, we will have the text on the icon scroll:

Idou erkhetai kurios pantokrator kai tis hupomenei hemeran eisodou autou

Behold comes Lord Almighty and who will-endure the day coming-of his

Or in normal English,

“Behold the Lord Almighy comes, and who will endure the day of his coming?”

It is not uncommon to find that the writers of icon scrolls vary a text slightly, as has been done here by removing one word.

You may recall that this abbreviation in the latter part of the inscription  — a K with a diagonal stroke at right bottom …

… is the word και/kai, meaning “and.”

And you should also remember this ligature — the one that looks rather like a 9 in English:

It is the joined letters ει/ei, and in the inscription we find it in the word

ὑπομενεῖ / hupomenei — meaning “endure,” and also at the beginning of the word

εἰσόδου /eisodou — meaning “entrance,” or more loosely, “coming.”

If you recall the two similar ligatures

— which joins A and N,


— which joins A and U —

that should take care of the scroll inscription — except to note, as mentioned at the beginning, that it is not the scroll inscription given — for example — in the Greek painter’s manual known as the Hermeneia of Dionysios of Fourna:

According to that manual, his inscription should be:

Tade legei Kurios:
apo anatolon heliou kai eos dusmon to onoma mou

“Thus says the Lord:
‘From the rising of the sun and until setting my name …'”

That is a fragment from Malachi 1:11.

Now having gone through all that, you might pause and ask yourself what on earth you are doing here wasting your time with all this esoteric stuff about translating Greek icon inscriptions. Well, if you are a regular reader of this site, it is a rather hopeless question.  People are what they are, and some find themselves interested in and curious about the strangest and most useless things.  So don’t worry.  Don’t bore your neighbors with it, and you will be fine.  Just continue to act normal in public.






This icon appeared as unidentified on a Russian forum site (

It is a very uncommon type, yet in spite of the seemingly garbled inscription at the top, it is clear that what it represents is a story found in the traditions associated with the garments of Mary.

You may recall an older posting here on supposed “garment” relics, among them the robe of Mary:

In that posting, there was brief mention of a tradition that the robe of Mary is said to have saved the city of Constantinople from invasion in the year 860.  Well that is the event depicted here.

The tradition from Greek chronicles and from the Russian Tale of Bygone Years (Повесть временных лет/Povyest’vremennuikh lyet) relates that on June 18, 860, a fleet of “Rus'” ships under Prince Askold was raiding in the Black Sea and even as far as the Bosphorus, and came to Constantinople intent on plunder and siege.

Patriarch Photios of Constantinople then took the robe of Mary from the shrine where it was kept, and going in procession outside the walls of the city, he came to the shore beyond which lay the invading fleet.  He dipped the robe in the water, and a great storm miraculously arose that raised great waves that began to dash the ships on the rocks, breaking them apart and sinking them.  Discouraged by this disaster, the Rus’ invaders gave up their siege and departed with their remaining ships.

If we look at the image, we see Photios standing on the shore in his clerical garments at left, holding the robe of Mary in his hands.  And to the right, we see the helmeted and armored warriors in the Rus’ ships of Askold on the waves of the sea:

Here is a more detailed Russian fresco image from 1648 of the same event:




Many people have the impression that Church teaching on the nature of Jesus was generally accepted until a fellow named Arius came along in the 4th century and and upset things by foolishly teaching something different, so the Church decided to have an all-Church council at Nicaea (in present day Turkey) to condemn Arius and make the Church’s teaching on the matter official.  Everyone then accepted the  Council’s Nicene Creed that explained the nature of Jesus in clear terms, and things returned to normal.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  If you would like to know all the details of the origins of the controversy and the overwhelming effect of the Council and its linking of the power of the State with Church on the historical development of Christianity (and thus of Christian art and iconography) I suggest you read Charles Freeman’s very interesting and helpful book The Closing of the Western Mind, which contains chapters offering a very good summary of the events leading to the Council of Nicaea, of the Council itself, and of its transforming consequences.

However, if we clear away all the clutter and dust of centuries-old argument overlaying the controversy, we find that it originated in a simple fact:  the writings of the New Testament as a whole were never adequate in providing a clear and unequivocal statement of Christian doctrine.  If you have any doubt of that, just remind yourself of the great number of warring sects and denominations in Christianity from ancient times until today.  But that is a vast topic, and our focus here is on iconography.

Let’s look at a pattern for an icon of the Nicene Council — or as the Russians call it, Первый Вселенский Собор/Pervuiy Vselenskiy Sobor — the “First Universal Council,” or to use more churchy language, the “First Ecumenical Council.”

There is considerable variation among icons of this council, but the Stroganov Podlinnik pattern above gives us a good idea of elements often included.  Though no identification of figures is given in the Stroganov Podlinnik, we can turn to the textual Bolshakov Podlinnik for help.  It begins like this:

First, a palace; in the palace on a golden throne sits Tsar [Emperor] Constantine in imperial clothing ornamented with gold and pearls, in the hand a scepter.

Constantine is the crowned figure we see at top center:

The Bolshakov then goes on to mention figures  often found near Constantine in such icons:  Eustaphios of Antioch, Makarios of Jerusalem, Hosius of Cordoba, Spyridon of Trimythous, Alexander of Alexandria, Paphnutios of Thebes, Palamon of Egypt, Athanasius the Great and other Church fathers.

In the foreground of the pattern, we see a group at left, headed by St. Nicholas, who is conversing with Arius, who stands just behind Emperor Constantine seen a second time at lower right.  Arius and his followers are identifiable by the absence of halos.  So this icon makes quite clear the Eastern Orthodox view of who are considered the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” in this icon and event.

On the  left side of the pattern is an image we have seen and discussed previously:

Perhaps you will recognize it as the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria,” who tradition claims saw Jesus as a boy with torn garments, symbolizing the tear in the fabric of the Church caused by the teachings of Arius.  For more information, see this previous posting:

On the right is an image of the death of Arius as told by his bitter enemy, Socrates Scholasticus.  We see Arius seated in a toilet enclosure, and his insides are pouring out — supposedly a punishment from God for his “heresy.”

If we look at a recent fresco of the Council of Nicea in the Megalo Meteoron Monastery in Greece, we see similar elements, but also some differences.

(Photo J. Jensen: (, Wikimedia Commons –photo enhanced here)

Let’s look at the top inscriptions:

The first — at top center — identifies the church in the background as that of

Below that and divided into two parts at each side is the title of the icon:


In the “power position” at center, we see the Emperor Constantine, titled here


Above him, as in the Stroganov pattern, we see a rendering of the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria.”

And at the base of the icon, in a position of weakness and submission, we see a fallen figure titled


Such icons then, are intended to support  a particular ecclesiastical view of the Council of Nicaea and its significance.




In an earlier posting, I briefly mentioned the cast metal four-part folding icons commonly called “irons,” because their shape when closed is similar to that of an old metal flatiron — the kind one had to heat on a stove to use.  You will find that earlier posting here:

Today we shall look a bit more closely at this very popular form of Old Believer metal icon, which may be found both with (as here) and without added colored enamel.

Here is an example:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

It includes icon types of major Church festivals, as well as the commemoration of four “wonderworking” icons of Mary.

If we look more closely, we can identify the scenes in each of the four panels:

The top image is the Crucifixion (Raspyatie), with a tiny image of the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus just above the cross.

The upper left image is the Annunciation (Blagovyeshchenie) to Mary.
The upper right image is the Birth (Rozhestvo) of Jesus.
The lower left image is the Birth (Rozhestvo) of the Mother of God (Mary).
The lower right image is the Entry (Vvedenie) of the Mother of God into the Temple.

At top is the New Testament Trinity, with the inscription, “He Ascended into Heaven and Sits at the Right Hand of the Father.”

Left:  The Meeting (Sretenie) of Jesus in the Temple.
Right:  The Theophany (Bogoyavlenie), that is the Baptism of Jesus
Lower Left:  The Transfiguration (Preobrazhenie) of Jesus.
Lower Right:  The Entry (Vkhod) of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Top:  The Elevation (Vozdvizhenie) of the Cross.
Left:  The Descent (Sozhestvie) to Hades (Resurrection (Voskresenie) of Jesus).
Right:  The Ascension (Voznesenie) of Jesus.
Lower Left:  The Old Testament Trinity (Troitsa); in some examples this is replaced by the Descent (Sozhestvie) of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
Lower Right:  The Dormition (Uspenie) of Mary.

Top:  The Praise (Pokhvala) of the Mother of God.
Below that come four scenes of Poklonenie (Veneration) of Wonderworking icons of Mary:
Left:  The “Tikhvin” icon with saints Maksim and Vasiliy (Maxim and Basil) Fools for Christ’s Sake, etc.
Right:  The “Vladimir” icon with saints Aleksandr Svirskiy and Kirill Byelozerskiy, etc.
Lower left:  The “Smolensk” icon with saints Antoniy and Feodosiy Pecherskiy, etc.
Lower right:  The “Sign” icon with saints Antoniy Rimlyanin and Leontiy Rostovskiy, etc.

On the reverse side of such icons, one often finds a “Golgotha Cross,” which is discussed — as are the icons of major Church festivals and the individual Marian icons — in previous postings that may be found in the archives here through the “search” function on this site.

In Russian terminology, a “folding” icon — whether a diptych (two-panel), triptych (three-panel), quadriptych (four-panel) or simply several-panel (polyptych) form — is called a складень/skladen’.



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


(Courtesy of

Mary, however, has an uncommon inscription for a Deisis panel:

(Courtesy of

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:

(Courtesy of


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.