You may recall that some time ago, we took a look at an icon with an odd name and a quite peculiar history  — the icon type known as Прибавление ума — Pribavlenie Uma, “Increase of Reason” often translated simply as “Addition of Mind.”

"Increase of Reason" icon

The Church Slavic title written at the top of this icon reads, “Image of the Most Holy Mother of God, Ever-Virgin Mary Increase of Reason.”

The peculiar thing about this particular icon type is that, like certain others, it was actually borrowed into Russian Orthodoxy from a western European Roman Catholic image, in fact a very well-known statue in Italy known as “Our Lady of Loreto.”  The icon even shows the pillars and archway of the niche in which the Catholic statue was kept.

There is yet another icon type that is based — sometimes closely, sometimes more distantly — on the Loreto image.  If we look at the following icon, its resemblance to the “Increase of Reason” type is very obvious, though we can see the painter has not quite understood the model.  Nonetheless, it still has the general form of the previous icon, including even the pillars and arch and angels:

What it does not have, however, is the same title.  Instead, this one is called


However, this near look-alike icon is just one of the intermediate variations on the way to another icon “descended from” the Loreto image, but depicted even more differently.

Here is a rendering of the “Key of Intelligence” in which the painter has also misunderstood the model.  What was originally an ornate garment around Mother and Child has now taken on the appearance of a barrel-like platform in which they sit:

Even greater change is found in some examples such as the following, in which the surrounding garment of Mother and Child resolves itself into the handle of a key below the image, which has transformed from Mother and Child to Mary being crowned in Heaven.  The inscription at the top reads:

“Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ”

And below that:

“Coronation of the Most Holy Mother of God.”

The actual main title of the icon is at the base:


The angels have been removed, various saints have been added, and the image of Mary is quite different than in the original model, though we still see the pillars and arch.

Eventually, painters got so far from the original model that they created a virtual “spinoff” type  that gradually solidified into a new icon type now gaining more popularity in Russian Orthodoxy.  It is called Ключ Разумения — Kliuch Razymeniya — “Key of Intelligence.”    Here is an example:

The top inscription reads:


The pillars and arch are there, the angels are there, but Mary stands without the child as she is being crowned by God the Father and God the Son in Heaven.  Below her the key extends down vertically.  At the top is a small image of the Birth of Jesus, and two saints are added — Artemiy at left, and Trifon at right.  In modern versions of the type, the added saints vary from example to example.

We can get a hint of how this secondary icon type originated when combined with the “Growth of Reason” type if we look at the title page of a book by Ioannikiy Galyatovsky, printed in Kyiv/Kiev in 1659,  and titled The Key of Intelligence (we might also translate as The Key of Knowledge).   In it we see pillars and an arch, the key, as well as a Coronation of Mary image and two accompanying saints at top.   It was perhaps the pillars and arch and presence of Mary that caused icon painters to imagine a link between this more “key” oriented image and the original “Increase of Reason” type based on the Loreto image.

Now we get to the reason for the current popularity of this “spinoff” icon type.  The particular icon that seems to have begun its popularity is found in the Cemetery Church at Balakhna in Nizhniy Novgorod.  Students beginning their studies pray before it, as do students who want to improve their ability to learn.  I would not advise students praying before this icon in advance of a test to expect a good grade if they have not thoroughly studied.  As the old saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”



Today we will go a bit abroad from Eastern Orthodox icons, and take a quick look at an apocryphal character in the family tree of Jesus.

Here is a carved and painted image by the “Urban Master of Hildesheim”:

( Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.)

It depicts at lower left, the child Jesus seated on the lap of his mother Mary.  Beside them sits St. Anne, by apocryphal tradition the mother of Mary, as well as the grandmother of Jesus.  But the female figure towering above them, with staff in one hand and open book in the other, is the seldom seen “great-grandmother” of Jesus.

She actually has a name, but that name varies depending on the source.  In this image and others, she is called Emerentia or Emerantia.  Elsewhere — particularly in Florentine manuscripts — she is called Ismeria.

We find the tale of Emerentia in the Vita Iesu Christi of Ludolph of Saxony (c. 1300-1378):

It relates that seventy years before the “incarnation of the divine Word,” there was a virgin born of the root of David who used to visit the sons of the prophets on Mount Carmel.  It is said that one of them had a dream in which he saw a root with two trees growing out of it.  One of the trees had three branches, and one of the branches had flowers more pure and fragrant than the others.  A voice in the dream said,  Hec radix est Emerentia nostra — “This root is our Emerentia,” and added that she was destined to have great descendants.

Two Florentine manuscripts — one the 14th century MS Panciatichiano 40, the other the  15th century MS 1052  (in the National Central Library and Riccardiana library of Florence, respectively) give the name of St. Anne’s mother as Ismeria, and offer different details.

The reason for mentioning all of this is that readers may encounter some rather peculiar, newly-painted icons depicting Jesus sitting on the lap of Mary, and Mary sitting on the lap of St. Anne, and St. Anne sitting on the lap of her supposed mother, to whom the new icons give the name “Maria.”  These new icons are apparently based on the old images of Mary sitting on St. Anne/Anna’s lap, and Jesus seated on Mary’s lap.  Combinations of the three figures are found in old European art, and German even has the term Anna Selbdritt (German, meaning loosely “as a group of three”) for depictions of St. Anne, Mary, and Jesus as a group.

Of course none of these names for a supposed great-grandmother of Jesus are historical, but are merely the product of Christian inventiveness.


A particularly interesting fresco of the Nativity is found in the little Greek church called the Omorfi/Omorphe Ekklesia (Ομορφη Εκκλησία) — literally “Beautiful Church” —  on the island of Aegina (Αίγινα), off the coast of Piraeus.

It has the usual Byzantine elements common to the type, but with some interesting variations.  The most obvious is that Mary — instead of lying on her pallet — is seated and nursing the child Jesus.  We see the traditional ox and ass feeding from the manger beside her, but a very peculiar feature of this rendering is the cave in which she sits.  The edges of the cave are ornamented with open eyes:

Iconologists customarily explain the cave eyes this way:  First there is the common belief in the “Evil Eye,” and both newborn children and new mothers were thought to be particularly vulnerable to its influences.  To counteract the Evil Eye, the superstitious used the principle of “like cures like,” so they used an eye — whether painted or in amulet form — to counteract the harmful influence of any potential Evil Eye.

The second — and related — potential source often mentioned for the eyes is the metaphor of man as a cave of robbers and demons, found, for example, in a Christmas homily by Anthimos of Athens:

The Lord was born in a poor and humble cave, to transform man who is the cave and dwelling of the robber and the murderous demon, the fearful evil Devil, into the temple and house of the Holy Spirit.
That man is the residence of demons is a notion found as early as the Epistle of Barnabas:
Understand you. Before we believed in God, the
abode of our heart was corrupt and weak, a temple truly built by
hands; for it was full of idolatry and was a house of demons, because
we did whatever was contrary to God.”
In any case, the supposition is that the cave — being a potential residence of demons, whether in actuality or as a symbol of mankind — could have its potential evil averted by the use of painted eyes as talismans.  So what we see in this depiction is the eyes painted on the cave to avert the Evil Eye from the mother and newborn child — at least that is a common interpretation.  It is difficult to say if that was what the painter actually intended.

If we look at the title of the icon at the top, we find it written as



If we join the two segments, we get:

“Of   Christ the Birth.”

In normal English, “The Birth of Christ.”

At lower left we see the usual washing of the child Jesus, identified by his IC XC abbreviation:

We again see common elements of this icon type at lower left.  Joseph sits with a “How did I get myself into this?” look on his face.  His title inscription — written with a phonetic and thus more “modern” Greek pronunciation — is ΗΟCΙΦ, pronounced Iosif.

Similarly, the title above the shepherds beside Joseph is also a phonetic spelling:  Η ΠΙΜΕΝΕC instead of the standard  ὉΙ ΠΟΙΜΕΗΕC / hoi poimenes.

To the right of the bearded shepherd we see a white dog, and above it what appears to be a wolf, with his mouth opened toward the small sheep in front of him.  In this we are perhaps to see the threat of the Devil, who seeks whoever he may devour — but then again, perhaps it is just a wolf after a sheep, with the white dog barking a warning.

At left we find the Magi with another phonetic inscription:


He Magi
Ta Dora

Loosely, “The Gifts of the Magi.”

At top, we see the Star of Bethlehem, and three angels, one of whom announces the birth to the flute-playing shepherd at right:

So there you have it — a little variation on the usual Eastern Orthodox scene of the Nativity.


In movies, an “extra” is an actor who appears in a scene — often in the background — but is not a major character and generally has no lines to speak and is not named in the credits.

Icons too have their “extras,” persons who appear in the scene but are generally given no name.

We often find such an “extra” in icons featuring the “Flight to Egypt.”  In fact we saw one in a previous posting:

The main characters in the narrative are Joseph at right, and Mary with the child Jesus, both riding.  However in this example there is a fourth character walking behind.  This is the “extra.”  He appears in some icons, but is omitted in others.  Notice that he has no halo, and no name title above his head.  He is often identified in discussions of iconography simply as their “servant.”  However, in the apocryphal texts, the single male accompanying Joseph, Mary and Jesus is identified as a son of Joseph.  We read of Joseph in the Protoevangelium:

And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed.

And indeed, in some examples of the “Flight to Egypt” we do find the youth leading the ass, instead of walking behind it and carrying the traveling bag on a stick, as shown above.

We see the boy leading the ass in this early Italian painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, more closely reflecting the excerpt from the Protoevangelium:

There is another tradition, however, which says the the person who goes with Joseph and Mary is not Joseph’s son, but rather Salome — often identified as the woman present at the birth of Jesus in the apocrypha.  This is found in The History of Joseph the Carpenter:

Joseph was told by my Father in a vision.  He rose up, took me and my mother Mary, I sitting on her lap, Salome walking behind us, and we went down to Egypt.

There are still more variations on just who accompanied the family to Egypt in apocryphal texts, but I will not go into that now.  Suffice it to say that in some icons, Joseph and Mary and Jesus go unaccompanied, but we often find that boy or young man as an “extra,” sometimes in front, sometimes behind.

We encounter another “extra” in icons of the “Visitation,” the visit of the pregnant Mary to her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth.  This extra is female, and commonly appears as a young woman holding up the curtain of Elizabeth’s house, peeking out as Elizabeth and Mary meet.  This young woman has no name, but she is generally understood to be Elizabeth’s servant.  In fact in discussions of Russian iconography, she is generally identified only as a sluzhanka (служанка), a female serving maid.

We find her in Western Catholic iconography as well.  Here she is in a c. 1320 stone carving at the Cathedral of Orvieto, in Italy — the young woman holding up the curtain at right, watching Elizabeth and Mary embrace.

Here is the young female “extra” again, in the mosaic of the “Visitation” in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice:

She also pops up in the Sofiya Cathedral in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine — this time peeking out at left:

Just as movie extras may appear in different movies, we also find the “peeking maid” in this mosaic segment depicting a quite different event — “The Prayer of the Holy Anne” (Ἡ Προσευχη Της Ἁγιας Αννης / He Proseukhe Tes Hagias Annes), in the monastery at Daphne/Daphni, Greece.  This St. Anne is by tradition the Mother of Mary:

It is worth mentioning that  while Protestants tend to think of Joseph and Mary as being rather poor, that is not the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Poor people could not afford the servants (more literally slaves) that we sometimes see in icons of the family members and relatives of Jesus.


I have discussed icons of the birth of Jesus in previous postings, but today we will look at an interestingly detailed Russian icon of the type, which combines elements of the biblical narratives with elements taken from the Protoevangelion of James.  We have seen this icon before, but focused only on the Magi in one case: (see https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/eastern-wise-guys/);  and in another, we looked at some of the imagery but not all (https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/a-traditional-mixture-the-birth-of-christ-in-russian-iconography/).  Today we will examine all of its elements.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The image bears the usual title:

Birth [of] Lord of-us Jesus Christ
In normal English:
“The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The central image is the birth of Jesus, depicting Mary on her pallet, the child Jesus lying in the manger, and three angels standing over the child, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.

Just below at left is the washing of the newborn infant Jesus by Baba Solomiya (Salome) — a character taken from the Protoevangelion.  And at right is Joseph looking dismal, listening to the words of the “shepherd,” who by tradition is the Devil tempting him to doubt the virgin birth.

Next we turn to the story of the Volsvi  — the Magi who follow the star seen at the top to Bethlehem, and there kneel before the child Jesus, held in the arms of his mother:

At upper right we see the Magi warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod, and above that they are seen mounted again on horses, returning to their own country by another road:

At lower left we see Herod consulting the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Messiah is to be born.  Beside that is the “Massacre of the Innocents,” the soldiers, killing by Herod’s order, all children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem:

At middle left we see an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take mother and child and flee to Egypt:

At middle right Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus are on the “Flight to Egypt”:

Now we move again into apocryphal material from the Protoevangelion.  The top image is Elizabeth — Mary’s cousin — being pursued by Herod’s soldier.  She flees with the child John (the future Baptist) to the  mountains, and there she asks a mountain to hide her.  The mountain splits open, revealing a cave into which Elizabeth escapes with John.

At the base, the priest Zachariah is killed by Herod’s soldier at the entrance of the Temple, because he would not reveal to the soldiers of King Herod where his son John was to be found.

Narrative icons such as this were like modern “graphic novels” in that they enabled the viewer to see the main elements of a story.

As I have mentioned before, only two of the New Testament gospels have birth narratives of Jesus — “Matthew” and “Luke,” and these two differ significantly.  The Protoevangelion not only took elements from each narrative, but added more material.  The sum of all these accounts was “gospel truth” to the average Russian Orthodox believer, who simply uncritically accepted the narratives as presented in icons and in the church liturgical writings as history, when in fact they were something quite different.


Today we will look at an icon primarily for its Vyaz inscription.  Learning to read these “condensed” inscriptions is very important  — in fact essential — for serious students of icons, but it is not difficult.

We can see that this icon is a kind of schematic image (without natural perspective) of a group of buildings within a wall, and we can see a few monks and clerics standing within it:

The small inscriptions in red identify the various buildings, but we need not bother with those.  Our interest today is in the large title inscription at the top, which identifies the image.

Here it is, in two parts due to its length:

It reads:



Let’s look at it word by word:

OBITEL‘:  An obitel’ is a cloister — a monastery.  Notice that the third vertical on the omega-like O is shortened, so that the Б (b) can be fitted in above it and above the shortened first vertical in the letter И (i).

S[VYA]TUIYA:  “Of the Holy.”  Note the omitted letters in the abbreviation, shown in brackets in the transliteration.  Also note the form of the final “ya” sound, made by a letter combining I and A — represented by Я in the modern Russian font.

ZHIVONACHALNUIYA –  “Life-initiating,” commonly translated as “Lifegiving”; the “of” form is used here — without abbreviation


TR[OI]TSUI:  “TRINITY”; again in the “of” form.  The Т is placed above the Р (R), and the first vertical on the Ц (ts) is greatley shortened to fit close to the first two letters.

PR[E]P[O]D[O]BNAGO:  “Venerable” — the loose English translation of the word meaning “most like,” and used as the title for monks.  Note the strong abbreviation.  Note also the transformation of the second vertical in the letter П (p) curving it out to make the Р (r) — thus getting two letters out of one.  Note also how the Д (d) is written above the word — here in the “of” form.

OTSA:  “FATHER” — meaning here a spiritual father.  Here it begins with another omega-form O.  There is another joined letter, made by shortening the second vertical in the Ц (ts) to make it also the lower vertical in the final letter A.  In the “of” form.

NASHEGO:   “OF US” — rendered as “our” in English.  By now you should be accustomed to seeing verticals shortened to fit other letters in.  The first three letters – НАШ (nash) are a very good exmaple of that.

IGUMENA:  “HEGUMEN” — a clerical title used for the head of a monastery, like an abbot in Catholicism.  the second vertical on the beginning letter И (i) is drastically shortened to make room for the Г (g) above it.  Note the form of the third letter — the “ou/oo” sound — found as У in the modern Russian font.  In the “of” form.

SERGIYA:   “SERGIY/SERGEI — in the “of” form.

RAD[ONEZHSKAGO]:  “OF RADONEZH.”  It is very common for only the beginning letters of a “place” title to be used, with the rest omitted in the abbreviation.

So we see the inscription identifies this icon as:


“The Monastery of the Holy Life-giving Trinity of Our Venerable Father Hegumen Sergiy/Sergei of Radonezh.”

It is the most noted monastery in Russia — even today.  And now you also know why there is a little icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” separating the two parts of the inscription.



I have always thought the “red” icons produced in the region of the Russian icon painting village of Kholuy to be quite pleasant.  They are simple enough to look like folk art, but when done by an experienced painter, they have a charm often missing in more sophisticated icons.  They were once rather inexpensive, but that is changing as more people have come to appreciate them.

You will recall that many of them have a silver background that was generally originally tinted with a colored varnish to make it appear gold.  Often this varnish is removed when the icon is cleaned, and that of course also removes the “gold” effect, leaving the silver background instead.

Here are some good examples.

First, a “Smolensk” type icon of Mary:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And here is a “Lord Almighty”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And finally a “John the Forerunner”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

These “red” icons, with their bright borders and stamped floral decoration, were very popular and widely sold.  They even turn up in the Balkan countries, including Romania — having been there for many long years.

If you are a regular reader here, you should be easily able to read the inscriptions on book and scroll, because the texts are common and we have seen them in previous postings.  The three icon types seen here were also previously discussed, and you will find those postings in the site archives.