If you are not interested in old icon painter’s manuals (podlinniki), prepare to be bored stiff.  This posting is a look at, and a comparison of, two descriptions of a saint in two Russian podlinniki.  It is likely to be of interest only to those who want to know more about painter’s manuals and to those who are learning to read them.

Here’s a quick comparison of entries from:

1: The late (1903) Bolshakov Podlinnik and
2: The 18th century Svodnuiy Podlinnik in the Filimonov redaction of 1874.

It is the first saint for the month of June:


Myesats Iiun’ imat’ dniy 30.
[The] month of June has days 30
“The month of June has 30 days.”

Svyatago muchenika Iustina filosofa, sredniy, rus, brada kozmina, plat’ okolo shei byel, riza lazor’ ispod kinovar’ z byelilom, rukoiu blagoslovlyaet, v lyevoy svitok.

“Of the holy martyr Justin [the] Philosopher; middle[-aged], [hair] rus, beard of Kosmas, scarf around neck white, robe blue, under cinnabar with white, hand blesses, in the left a scroll.”

It begins with Svyatago — “of the holy” — because this is the day of commemoration of Justin.  Podlinnik entries for saints (and old Church calendar entries) generally begin thus, with the “of” form.

Justin has brada kozmina — the beard of Kosmas/Cosmas — the popular unmercenary saint of the common icon pair Kosmas and Damian.  It simply means he is painted with a beard the same size and shape as Kosmas.

Rus as a hair color means that color typical of many Russians, which is dark blond-light brown.

The plat’ — “cloth” — generally meaning a scarf or shawl in the case of a male, depending on circumstances — is byel — “white.”  And the white scarf is okolo shei — “about [the] neck.”  If any of you have seen the translation of the Bolshakov Podlinnik that appeared some years back (1995) under the title An Icon Painter’s Notebook, you will notice that the translator of that book incorrectly read shei in this entry for Justin as “silk” rather than “neck,” and so made the line oddly read “… he has a cloth around of white silk” instead of the correct reading, “[the] scarf around [the] neck [is] white.”

You will recall that a riza is a robe in podlinnik usage, and in this entry it is lazor’, ispod kinovar z [s] byelilom — dark blue, under[-robe] cinnabar [red] with white.  The best lazor’ was made from powdered lapis lazuli, and of course kinovar is the red to reddish-orange made from powdered mercury sulphide.

When an entry just says “[his] hand blesses,” it means the right hand.  And then, as here, we are told what the left hand is holding — in this case a svitok — a scroll.

And here is the entry for Justin in the Svodnuiy Podlinnik:

You should be able to easily guess the meaning of the heading, even though spelling and form varies somewhat.  And you should be able to read the first four words — “Of the holy martyr Justin the Philosopher.”

Then it tells us:

bye v lyeto 5642
…”[he] was in the year 5642.

We can easily see that 5642 (written in Arabic instead of Cyrillic numerals here) is one of the old “from the Creation of the World” dates.  Russian Orthodox thought (and some still do) that the world was created in the year 5,508 before the birth of Jesus.  So to convert such a date as we find in the podlinnik to our modern dating system, we must subtract 5,508 from 5,642, which gives us the year 94 c.e. (Common Era).  Modern accounts of Justin’s life tend to say he was born circa 100 c.e, so the date here is not too far from that.

The podlinnik goes on to tell us:

podobiem rus

You already know that rus is the hair color — dark blond to light brown.
Podobiem refers here to Justin’s “likeness” (подобие/podobie).  We can understand it to mean he is “painted like this,” i.e. rus hair, etc.

It goes on to tell us:
vlasui s ushei kratki
hairs to [the] ears short

— meaning his hair is short, down to the ears.

So we know thus far that Justin’s hair is dark blond-light brown, and that it is short, down to his ears, instead of the long hair we find on some icon saints.

It agrees with the Bolshakov Podlinnik in telling us his

brada aki Kozmina
beard [is like] Kosmas…

and that

okolo shei plat’ byeloy
about [the] neck [is a] scarf white…
“about the neck is a white scarf…”

But it differs somewhat in saying that

v rukakh kniga
“in [the] hands [a] book”

You will recall that in the Bolshakov Podlinnik, he holds a scroll rather than a book.

The description finishes by telling us that Justin is dressed in a

riza lazorevaya, ispod svyetlokrasnaya.
“robe blue, under[-robe] bright-red.

Now if we look at old icons of Justin, we can sometimes find icons closely matching a podlinnik description, such as this 17th century example from a calendrical icon:

(Moscow Spiritual Academy)

We see the light brown hair down to his ears, and his beard is not too far beyond the range of “like Kosmas.”  He has a white scarf or shawl about his neck, and his outer robe is blue, while his under-robe is cinnabar red.  He holds a scroll rather than a book.

Compare that with this 19th century example:

(Uspenskiy Vrazhek, Moscow)

We can see some changes, such as  a cross held in the right hand instead of blessing, and a book instead of a scroll in the other hand.  We find also a the reversal of the garment colors, and the forms of the garments are more like the example given in the old Stroganov Podlinnik:

If we look further at old examples of Justin, we find even more variance from the two podlinnik descriptions.  Here, for example, is a 16th century image of Justin painted by Theophanes of Crete:

(Stavronikita Monastery, Athos)

The Greek inscription reads:
Ho Hagios Iustinos ho Philosophos
“[The] Holy Justin the Philosopher”

As you can see, there is no white scarf about the neck, no book or scroll in the left hand, and there is variation in the garments and their coloring, as well as a difference in the style of the hair.

What does all this tell us?  Well, we should learn from it that a description in a given podlinnik may not be a precisely accurate description of all icons of a saint from all periods and places.  One finds many variations.  Even in old Russian painter’s manuals, one often finds after a description of a saint the words, “but elsewhere it is written…”  —  and then a differing description is given.  So even the old podlinniks recognized that there were differences and disagreements as to how a given saint was to be painted.



In a previous posting, I shared a link to online access to the Stroganov Icon Painter’s Manual.  Today I would like to share the link to another and quite interesting old podlinnik (painter’s manual) in the Stroganov Museum.

This manual is identified thus:

Лицевой иконописный подлинник 1829 г. из Пермской Успенской старообрядческой церкви
Litsevoy ikonopisnuiy podlinnik 1829 g[oda] iz Permskoy Uspenskoy staroobryadcheskoy tserkvi

Illustrated icon painting manual,  [of the] year 1829, from the Perm Dormition Old  Ritualist Church.

By “Old Ritualist” is of course meant that it is a church of the Old Believers, who continued the traditional stylized manner of painting long after the State Orthodox Church had adopted the more realistic Western European manner.

As I have told you before, it is important in the study of icons to learn the Church Slavic alphabet and to learn the basic Slavic vocabulary common to Russian icons and podlinniki/podlinniks.  You can see how helpful that is in reading this rather fascinating Perm icon painter’s manual.

Here is the image for September 1, the beginning of the old Church year.  This image is not included in the earlier Stroganov manual, through it is described verbally:

As you see, it represents the “Indiction” type, which indicates the beginning of the Church Year through an image of Jesus beginning his ministry by reading from the Book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (see the earlier posting on this type at:

The writing on the page reads:

Mesats  Sentyabr

Nachalo Indiktou ezhe est

Novomou Letou
[the] NEW YEAR

Imat dni 30
Has    Days   30

In normal English,

“The Month of September:
The Beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year.
[September] has 30 days.”

Here is the link to the main page for the Perm manual:

On it you will see two entries (you can click on these links here, if you wish):

Часть 1 (с. 1-104)

Часть 2 (c. 105-216)

Часть (Chast)  means “part,” so the first link is to Part 1, pages 1-104,  and the second link to Part 2, pages 105-216.  Most of the Part 2 illustrations are lightly drawn, but were never fully inked in.

You will also find an alternate entry point with a different format on this link:

At the beginning of the podlinnik is an incomplete alphabetical list giving a saint’s name and where he or she is to be found in the book, which is arranged by month and day of commemoration.  The word числа (chisla) at upper right means “number” (date).

To see how it works, we can look at the second entry on the first index page:

Avvakoum Prorok, Deka[br] B

Avvakoum [Habakkuk], Prophet, December 2

If we look at December 2nd, we find this (the page is for December 1 and 2):

It gives us first the saint for the first (A) day of December:
“Of the Holy Prophet Nahum”

Then come those for the Second (B) day:
“Of the Holy Martyr Ananias of Persia”
“Of the Holy Prophet Avvakum”
“Of Holy Philaret the Merciful”

Notice that the female saint second from right has her name entered last, in smaller letters:
“Of the Holy Martyr Myropia.”

If we look in the halos, there are notations helpful to the painter.  In the halo of the Prophet Nahum, we see the word седъ — syed — meaning “grey.”  So we know he is an older man with grey hair.  By contrast, in the halos of the Martyr Ananias and the Prophet Avvakum, we find the word млад — mlad — meaning “young/youth.”

On another page we find Ису́с Нави́н — Isus Navvin — Joshua, son of Nun — and in his halo and in that of the saint beside him — Feodor Yaroslav Vsevolodovich — we find the word русъ — rus –“Russian” — which means the hair of these saints is to be painted in that light brown to dark blond color common to many Russians.  But in this manual, the colors of the garments are not indicated as they are in the Stroganov podlinnik.

By the way, you may notice that Joshua in Slavic has the same name as Jesus — Isus, as is also the case in the Greek Bible.  The Old Testament Jesus — that is, Joshua — is distinguished by the addition of “Navvin” in Slavic and του Ναυή — tou Naui — “of Nun” in Greek.

Here is the page for December 3-4:

On it we see the Prophet Sophoniya (Zephaniah), “our Venerable Father Sabba Storozhevsky Zvenigorodskiy,” “Holy Martyr Theodora,” “Holy Great Martyr Barbara,” “our Venerable Father John of Damascus,” and so on.  But what I really want you to notice is the entry in red at the bottom of the page:


That notation means that December 4th is the day of Commemoration of the icon of Mary called the “Three-handed Most Holy Mother of God.”  In the standard Church calendar, its days are June 28th and July 12th, but here it is placed on the day of John of Damascus, who was associated traditionally with its origin “miracle.” This manual indicates the commemoration of days of supposed “miracle-working” Marian icons with these red entries, but it does not depict these Marian images.  For those the painter had to turn to other patterns outside this book.

I will end this little introduction to the Perm Old Believer podlinnik with this page from November 8, the Sobor Svyatago Arkhistratiga Mikhaila i Prochikh Bezplotnuikh Sil — “The Assembly of the Chief-commander Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers.”

If you are interested in old patterns, you may also wish to look at Nikodim Kondakov’s published collection of icon patterns (volume I is primarily “Jesus” patterns), which you can do at this site:

On that site, click on the thumbnail pages at left to get the enlarged image on the main screen.  Be sure to look at the patterns from page 156 on.

Those of you who would like to see the 1903 “Bolshakov Podlinnik” online — more properly the Подлинник иконописный — Издание С.Т. Большакова. Под редакцией . А.И. Успенского  — the “Icon Painting Manual — publisher S(ergey) T(ikhonovich) Bolshakov, edited by A. I Uspenskiy” — will find it at the following site:;view=1up;seq=1

The Bolshakov Podlinnik is a kind of revised and expanded version of the old Stroganov Podlinnik, using more casual outline drawings taken largely from that earlier manual, and adding a descriptive text (Church Slavic) modified by reference to other old painter’s manuals.  Though the re-drawn illustrations are not artistic, they nonetheless do the job, and the text is very useful for those who wish to learn the vocabulary of the old painter’s manuals, giving verbal descriptions of the various saints and indicating the form and colors of hair and garments.

The descriptions by month begin here:;view=1up;seq=37

The illustrations begin here:;view=1up;seq=201

One of the sources consulted in the preparation of the Bolshakov manual was the Софийский Списокъ Подлинника Новгородской Редакции XVI Века  — Sophiyskiy Spisok Podlinnika Novgorodskoy Redakstsii XVI Veka — “The Sophia Copy of the Podlinnik, Novogorod Redaction of the 16th Century.”  You will find online access to that text-only podlinnik here:



In the previous posting, I discussed icon types that are “fixed groups” of saints — the same saints shown together from icon to icon, though their arrangement may vary.

Today we will look at another such “fixed group” icon — the “Five Holy Martyrs of Sebaste.”  In Greek iconography they are Οι άγιοι πέντε μάρτυρες από τη Σεβάστεια,  Hoi Hagioi Pente Martyres apo te Sebasteia — The Holy Five Martyrs from [the] Sebaste.”

Sebaste is a town in Armenia, which you may recall from a previous posting about the icon type the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.”

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The example shown is a pleasant Russian icon from the last period before the Revolution.  The saints depicted are, from left: Евстратий, (Evstratiy) Авксентий (Avksentiy) Евгений (Evgeniy), Мардарий (Mardariy) and Орест (Orest).  In Greek they are Εὐστράτιος (Eustratios), Αὐξέντιος (Auxentios), Εὐγένιος (Eugenios), Μαρδάριος (Mardarios) and ᾿Ορέστης (Orestes).

This is a good place to point out that in Church Slavic, saints’ names ending in -ий, when used of saints found in the old Greek saint lists, commonly replace the original Greek name ending -ιος.  And when the Greek original has the letter combination  Αὐ- or Εὐ- at the beginning, it becomes in Slavic Ав- or Ев-.  That is helpful when trying to find equivalent names in one language or the other.

These five saints of Sebaste were said to have been martyred by the governor Lysias for confessing Christianity near the beginning of the 4th century c.e.  The later account of their individual sufferings from the Synaxarion of Nikodemos the Hagiorite died 1809) goes into graphic detail about the tortures they underwent, but that is a characteristic of much hagiography, and we need not dwell on it here (Nikodemos, by the way, was also the editor of the best-known work of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the Philokalia).

What I really want to talk about today is the style of this particular example.   If we look at it carefully, we can easily date it, because the style is so distinctive of a particular time and movement in Russian icon painting.

We should look at:

The careful delineation of the figures and their garments;
The elaborate detailing on garments;
The background “light” that varies in shade and/or color from bottom to top.
The stylization of facial features, etc.
The careful and abundant use of gold highlighting on garments.

All these are characteristic of the school of painting in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries exemplified by the work of such painters as Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev ( Михаил Иванович Дикарев ), who worked first in the icon-painting village of Мстёра — Mstyora — then later moved to Moscow at the end of the 1870s and worked in the Chirikov Brothers’ workshop.

The Chirikov brothers were also from Mstyora (also transliterated Mstera), one of the three famous icon-painting villages in the Vladimir region along with Palekh and Kholui.  It was a strong area for the Old Belief, and about half its residents in the 18th century were Old Believers.  We can easily see the resemblance in style between the icon above and this example by Dikarev depicting the Metropolitan Mikhail of Kiev/Kiyev:

(State Hermitage Museum)
(State Hermitage Museum)

We can see a similar love of intricate garment detail in this 1890 icon by Osip Semyonovich Chirikov, depicting the Metropolitans Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona and Filipp of Moscow, with the Great Prince Vladimir — who converted Kievan Rus to Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity by edict in 988 c.e. — shown in the center:

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)
(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona and Filipp are another frequent “fixed group” type, as in the following example, though of course such saints may also be found individually in icons.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The Chirikovs were an interesting family.  Osip Chirikov (Осип Семёнович Чириков), who died in 1903, had two sons — Grigoriy and Mikhail — who also went into the icon business.
As an odd little sidelight, the workshop of Grigoriy Osipovich Chirikov (1882-1936) in Moscow — where the famous “Vladimir” image of Mary was restored in 1918 — also became a center for the painting of fakes of old Russian icons.  Some call him the chief forger of pre-Revolutionary icons, which in itself says much about the quality of his work. He gained a reputation as the most eminent icon expert and restorer of his day, and a source for collectors of pre-Nikonian icons and for the Imperial museum collection under Tsar Alexander II.  His presumed expertise even got him the job of chief icon restorer under the early Soviet regime.  So skill in the restoration of old icons led naturally, in his case,  to “restoration” of early icons on which only a few bits of paint of the original still adhered to the panel once later overpaintings were removed, and even to the forging of entire old icons whose iconography was acceptable to rich Old Believers and the avid collectors who were willing to pay much for “authentic” old icons in the years prior to the Revolution.  Obviously their concept of “restoration” was not that generally held today.

It was only decades later, when careful chemical analysis of icon materials became possible, that such forgeries were made obvious.  However skilled in painting the forgers of the late 19th-early 20th century were, however familiar with earlier iconographic styles, they nonetheless failed to reproduce exactly the materials used by the painters of the old originals, and there had been notable change in the nature of pigments used in Russian icon painting over the centuries, particularly from the 18th century onward.  There is also a difference in materials used for the ground of many early icons — the gypsum alabaster levkas (or “gesso” to use the Italian term) of the early icons being later commonly replaced by a gesso made of chalk.

Grigory Chirikov, in spite of his importance even into the Soviet era, came to a sad end.  He was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and later sent to a labor camp; it is generally believed that he was executed by the Soviets.  His story reminds me of the Western art “expert” Bernard Berenson, who became known and made a great deal of money from his presumed expertise in the art of the Italian Renaissance — again before the application of technology became generally applied to the analysis of early paintings.


There is a term anyone studying Russian or Ukrainian icons should know.  In Russian it is:

БОГОМАЗ — Bogomaz

The plural is богомазы — bogomazui (in common transliteration bogomazy).

Bogomaz was a colloquial term for an icon painter.  It comes from the word  Бог (Bog), meaning “God,” and the verb мазать (mazat’), meaning “to daub or smear on something greasy or oily.”  It is the word used, for example, in smearing butter on bread.

The common English translation of bogomaz is “God-dauber.”  Though sometimes used (rather slightingly) of icon painters in general, it has come to be more specifically applied to painters without professional training, “self-taught” artists.  They were the kind we would refer to as “primitive” artists, because they were generally untaught or unskilled or both.  As I often say, the saints and other “holy” persons in Russian icons were the replacements for the old non-Christian gods, continuing polytheism in another context, so I like the term bogomazui because it reflects that.

Bogomazui, in the context of the modern study of icons, generally refers to “folk” or “village” icon painters who did not work in professional studios, and were likely not even to be full-time painters.  Instead they were often workers in other professions such as carpentry or blacksmithing.  They painted icons in their spare time to earn some extra money.

The bogomazui did not paint for a high-class, wealthy market, or for sophisticated customers.  Instead, they painted for ordinary people, for peasants with little money who nonetheless wanted to have an icon.  And as most peasants were illiterate in those days, the painter did not have to worry too much about mistakes in spelling and even the occasional mistake in iconography.

The likelihood of painter’s mistakes was increased by their habit of painting directly, without using a preliminary outline stencil or pattern, instead brushing on the figures freehand, generally using only a very small number of colors.  So there was a derogatory saying that the bogomazui were likely to paint

…Егорья пешком, а Пятницу на коне
“…Egoriy [Georgiy] on foot, and Pyatnitsa [Paraskeva] on a horse.”

That means they might get the iconography of even common saints wrong, such as by painting St. George, who is traditionally shown on horseback, on foot; and contrariwise, by painting the female patron saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa on horseback, though that is not at all her correct iconography.

They liked painting popular “folk” saints, such as Mary, Ilya (the prophet Elijah), Nikolai (St. Nicholas), and has we have seen, St. George and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, the kind of common saints prayed to for the daily needs of peasants, such as rain or good weather, for safety on rivers, in childbirth, for the protection of animals and fowl, and so on.

The bogomazui also sometimes used subjects that were not considered entirely “Orthodox” in the traditional sense, subjects picked up from Western religious art — the kind of thing present-day Eastern Orthodox fundamentalists like to call “uncanonical.”  But of course Western art had long had an influence on icon painting in one way or another.

Some Russians like to define bogomaz icons as simply “bad” icons, but in my opinion that is far too snobbish and certainly not always true, any more than self-taught painting from any country is always “bad.”

Bogomazui worked in many places, from Belarus in the West eastward through the Urals to Siberia, and as far south as the present-day Ukraine.  The range of their works is wide in quality, and can be stretched to include even some of the less expensive icon production in Kholui, one of the three main icon painting villages in Vladimir province.  Among them is a class of icons that are often quite pleasing — those icons with bright red borders and foliage-filled backgrounds and garments that look like old gold, but are really cheap silvery metal leaf covered with a tinted varnish to make it appear gold.  Real gold leaf was far too expensive for the “peasant” market, so on “God-dauber” icons it is either such false gold leaf or else tinfoil, or to make them even cheaper, no metal ornamentation at all.

Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, 19th c. (Kostroma Museum)
Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, 19th c. (Kostroma Museum)

Such Kholui “folk” icons were sold both locally and shipped off to far distant fairs and public markets, and that was where the works of the bogomazui were generally found — ready-painted in places where the peasant with a little money and a desire for an affordable “holy icon” could easily find and buy them.

(Courtesy of
The Feodorovskaya type (Courtesy of

Just as the geographical range of production of “folk” icons was wide, so was the range of styles; there is not just a single folk style.  A Ukrainian folk icon will look quite different than one painted in Siberia.  What they all have in common is that “primitive” look, and of course even among untrained painters there were those more naturally talented than others.

Though some folk icons were painted on the traditional gesso-covered cloth glued to a wooden panel, some bogomazui cut costs by either substituting paper for cloth, or else by eliminating the gesso ground entirely.  It was not uncommon for thinned oil paints to be used instead of the more traditional tempera.

Officials occasionally made attempts to somehow control the production of inexpensive folk icons, as in 1809 and 1858, when efforts were made to prohibit such icons in the Ukraine, or when in 1872 the Diocese of Orenburg attempted to prohibit the sale of “ugly-painted” icons (“безобразно писаных икон”).  But of course the key to the popularity of such icons was their low price, and so production was merely responding to and filling popular demand.  And high-quality icons were not, in any case, easily available in more isolated regions, even if one could afford them.

There was a time when all the icons of the bogomazui were looked upon with scorn by collectors, but just as icons of the 18th and 19th centuries were originally not appreciated but have since become quite desirable, the same has begun to happen with “folk” icons.  Some are easily able to take their place as pleasing and colorful examples of popular art, but one cannot say that of all of them.  So one must be discerning in judging among them, with many of the better examples having artistic and monetary value as folk objects, but some remaining merely of interest as “antique” — and still of little worth.

There is an interesting and rather bizarre rumor that spread about among the Old Believers in the 19th century.  It was said that one had to be careful, because some bogomazui involved in Black Magic would paint a kind of icon called a “Hades-painted” icon (Адописная икона), often translated into English as a “Hell” icon.  It was said that such a sly and evil person would first paint an icon with the image of the Devil or devils, and would then apply a ground of gesso over that to hide it.  On top of this second ground, he would paint a saint or saints, so that when one prayed before such an icon, one was actually praying to the Devil.  Though there seems no solid evidence to confirm the existence of such images, the story gives a good idea of the kind of thinking among less-educated believers in the 19th century.  And of course it would have been a useful story for the higher-priced professional studios to promote about their cheaper rivals.

Never forget that icon painting was a business, and a very big one in Russia.




In a previous posting, I discussed the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the muslim Turks, and how even before that time some painters had emigrated to Crete, beginning the Cretan School of icon painting.  And I mentioned that even before the fall of the Cretan chief city of Candia to the Turks in 1669, some painters had already moved on to other places.  Some went west to Italy.  Others went north to the monastic settlements of Mount Athos, on the Northern Aegean Sea in Macedonia, bringing with them the influence of Italian painting models.  And some went elsewhere.

So icon painting did not die out in the Greek Orthodox world with the Fall of Constantinople.  Instead the trend was toward movement of icon painters away from the former urban centers and into more remote regions.  And a further tendency, particularly after the conquest of Candia, was away from “lay” icon painters to more monastic icon painters, and also to a more limited clientele than was available to Cretan painters.  So in this period, the painting of more stylistically conservative icons was centered in the already existing monastic settlements of Mount Athos in Macedonia, Meteora in central Greece, Ioannina in northwestern Greece, and other locales.  Some painters from Crete moved as far as Jerusalem and the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai.  But the major center of conservative Greek painting in this period was at Mount Athos, which in spite of the adoption of some “new” icon models from western Europe, continued to prefer a rather conservative and repetitive approach to icon painting, resulting in the kind of stagnation later deplored by many both in and outside the Eastern Orthodox realms.

Meanwhile, what was happening in the Slavic countries to the north?

Long before the fall of Byzantium, Greek Christianity was taken north and into Kievan Rus, where in 988 Prince Vladimir converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and also converted his people by edict (he did not bother to ask them).  Greek icon painters came north and began training the Slavs, who over time developed distinctive regional styles in such places as Novgorod and Pskov.  Native Russian saints such as Boris and Gleb began to appear in icons, and over time Russian painting looked less to Byzantium and more to the growing power of Moscow, which as mentioned previously, became the new center of Eastern Orthodoxy for Russians, particularly after Constantinople fell.

A major shift in Russian icon painting, which was conservative even while developing regional styles, took place in the middle of the 1600s, when Nikon, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, decided to force various changes that he considered reforms on the people.  He ordered alterations made in texts and in rituals, to bring them more into line with what he saw as “correct” Greek usage.  This caused tremendous dissension, because traditional Russians saw outward forms and usages as the manifestation of the “True Faith,” and so even such matters as changing the position of the fingers in blessing, or altering the spelling of the name of Jesus were seen as heresy, as abandoning the Orthodox belief handed down by their fathers.  But Nikon would not relent, and so a great schism took place in Russian Orthodoxy, with Nikon’s State Church on one hand, and the traditionalist “Old Believers” on the other.

Even though the Old Believers wanted to maintain Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced in Russia, the State Church declared them раскольники — raskolniki — “schismatics.”  And then the terrible persecutions of the Old Believers began by the State Church, using the powers of the Russian government as its punishing arm.

That did not, however, deter the Old Believers, who steadfastly kept to their views in spite of their chief spokesman, the Archpriest Avvakum, being murdered by the State Church.

The schism between State Church and Old Believers in the mid-1600s was just the first sign of a great change that affected Russian icon painting tremendously.  By the later 1600s, State Church painters had become strongly influenced by western European religious art, and imperial patronage favored western styles as well.  So where previously Russian icons had been very stylized and deliberately non-realistic, now the State Church favored a more realistic western approach, with Italian-looking saints and flowing draperies.  The Old Believers, however, kept strictly to the old stylized manner of painting, though over time western elements crept into their icons as well, generally as more realistic background landscapes while the saints themselves continued to be stylized rather than realistic.

The result of all this was that by the 19th century, much of State Orthodox religious art in Russia looked very much like Italian religious painting, while the Old Believers preserved the conservative and stylized icon forms that tend to be thought of as typically Russian today.

Of course Russia was not the only Slavic country to adopt Eastern Orthodoxy, and with it icon painting.  There was also Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania with its part-Romance, part-Slavic language.  Though previously strongly influenced by Byzantine icon painting, after the fall of Constantinople the Balkan countries began to develop their own distinctive styles, in spite of Turkish domination and oppression.  The tendency in the Balkans was for icon painting to continue in small and scattered workshops and monasteries rather than in the large cities where Turkish authority and dominance were most obvious.   Denied both the freedom and the markets of Russian icon painters,  neither the Balkans nor Greece, as a result of Turkish domination, ever developed the wide range of icon types that appeared in Russia, nor did the numbers of of icons produced in Greece and the Balkans ever reach the prodigious levels attained by the production of Russian icon painting workshops.

Keep in mind that Greece did not achieve recognized independence from the Ottoman Turks until 1832;

Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottomans in 1908;

Serbia did not achieve full independence from the Ottomans until 1898;

Romania declared its independence of the Ottomans in 1877, but did not fully achieve it until the defeat of the Turks in 1878.

Of course by the time that Greece and the Balkans achieved independence from centuries of domination by the muslim Turks, the world had moved on, and Eastern Orthodoxy, though still prevalent in Greece and the Balkans, no longer had the power it once had.  There were little revivals of icon painting here and there, and attempts by conservative individuals such as Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) in Greece to revive earlier standards of icon painting.  Kontoglou was influenced by the monastic works of Mount Athos and the pre-Cretan School frescos of Mistra, with a particular fondness for the painting of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), who though born in Crete, later lived and worked for a time as a monk at Mt. Athos; and also that of Frangos Katelanos, who worked at a number of the significant post-Byzantine sites, including Mount Athos, Meteora, Ioannina, Kastoria, etc. in the 1500s.

We see the influence of Kontoglou in many modern Greek Orthodox icons (particularly in the printed icons put out by Orthodox bookshops).  Many of them represent the kind of icon painting I call the “Play-doh” style, because the hair and beards of the saints in such neo-Greek icons look like the thick strands of “clay” extruded through that popular child’s toy device, the “Play-Doh Fun Factory.”  If you have seen them, you know what I mean.

In spite of such attempts at a neo-Byzantine styles, many  recent and modern popular icons and icon prints in Greece and the Balkans represent the more realistic manner favored for so long in Western popular religious art, making many Orthodox icons very similar in style to the “prayer cards” with pictures of Italian-style saints one still finds in Roman Catholicism.  Western converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, however, generally prefer more traditional styles, thinking them somehow “pure” while not realizing that Eastern Orthodox iconography has been influenced by European Catholic and Protestant religious art for centuries, whether in Russia, the Balkans or Greece.  This influence extended even to such traditional monastic centers as Mount Athos, which, for example, used images from the woodcuts of the German Catholic, then Lutheran artist Albrecht Dürer.

Of course there are other icon painting regions that I have not even touched on in this brief and very generalized overview, for example there are the icons of the Egyptian Coptic Christians and the very distinctive icons of Ethiopia, as well as those of Georgia, Armenia, etc.   But that will do for now.




Unless you are very interested in learning to read Church Slavic icon inscriptions (the kind of inscriptions found on most old Russian icons) you will probably want to overlook today’s posting.  You will likely be bored to tears.  And if you do find you have enough curiosity to read on, perhaps even all the way through, well, as psychologists say, recognizing your problem is the first step to overcoming it.  I am blameless.

Here is a Russian icon of the physician saint Panteleimon:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

I have already discussed Panteleimon in a previous posting.   So my reason for showing this particular example is  not the saint himself, but rather the long border inscription.  It is useful in learning how to approach an unfamiliar Church Slavic inscription.  This inscription is not easy for beginners, but that is the point;  its difficulty enables me to tell you how to approach such a puzzle.

First you will want to know that most full-border icon inscriptions begin at upper left, then are read to the right, down the right side, and across the bottom from left to right (unless the bottom inscription is upside-down), and finally the left side is read from bottom to top. There are variations on this scheme, but even then the inscription usually begins at upper left.

Knowing that, we can put the whole border inscription together as it would commonly be read:





In attempting to translate this, we face the common difficulties found in Church Slavic inscriptions.  First, there are the individual peculiarities of calligraphic style.  Second, as is usual, all the words in the inscription run together, with no space between them to tell us where one word ends and another begins.

The key to solving such little mysteries is this:

1.  First, start at the beginning and look over the whole inscription from that point

2.  Look for any familiar words anywhere in the inscription.

If we follow that advice, we will begin at the upper left hand corner:


I hope by now you have learned to read the Church Slavic alphabet.  If you have not, you will find yourself of little use in reading icons.  So we begin by transliterating the first part of the inscription.  I will put it into modern Cyrillic letters:


Now into the Roman alphabet:


The first letter of the first word, P (“R” in  English) is in red.  If we transliterate the first four letters, we get


That is a very useful word to know.  it means “spoke,” as in “he spoke.”  It should be part of your basic inscription vocabulary.

Next comes a word you already know, though you may not know that you know it at first, because it is abbreviated.  It is, transliterated:


That abbreviates GOSPOD’, meaning  “Lord” or “The Lord” (remember that Church Slavic has no separate word for “the”).

So now we have two words:


Church Slavic word order is not the same as English.  Here the verb RECHE (“spoke”) comes before the person doing the speaking, GOSPOD’.  So the meaning of RECHE GOSPOD’ is “The Lord Spoke.”

The word following GOSPOD’ is missing one letter, which I will add.  The word is


An uchenik is a disciple.  UCHENIKOM not only tells us that there is more than one disciple by its ending, but it also tells us that it is the object of the verb “spoke.”  It means
“to disciples.”

The next word is SVOIM:  that means “his.”  So in the word order of Church Slavic, we now have:


We would say in English, “The Lord spoke to his disciples.”

The next word is also an abbreviation:


In modern Cyrillic it is


The last letter in the original that looks like “I” followed by “a” is actually a single sound, “YA.”  So we can transliterate the abbreviated word as


But we must know what it abbreviates.  It is the word


It means “saying.”

So now we know what the first five words of the inscription are:



Now that may not seem like much, given the length of the border inscription, but it is of tremendous help in determining what the rest of the unfamiliar inscription says.  Because it begins with “The Lord spoke to his disciples, saying…” we know it must be something Jesus said.  And of course what Jesus said is found in the New Testament, so we know that the inscription as a whole is likely to be found somewhere in the New Testament.

This is where knowledge of the Bible comes in handy.  There are many places in the New Testament where Jesus speaks to his disciples, saying something.  But what is that something here?  To find out, we return to step two of the translation key, which is to look for any familiar words anywhere in the inscription.

You might, for example, recognize this word in the right border:

It is ВЛАСТЬ, transliterated as VLAST’.  It means “power.”  So we know that “The Lord” (meaning Jesus) spoke to his disciples, and what he said had something to do with “power.”

The next step is simply to look up everywhere Jesus said something to his disciples about power.  And if we look it up first in an English Bible, that will give us the book, chapter and verse.  We can then use that to go to the same book, chapter and verse in the Church Slavic New Testament (these are available from the United Bible Societies and elsewhere).

Going through those two steps, we find this first in English:

Matthew 28:18-20 (King James Version)

18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.

19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

So now we have a chapter and verse to look up in the Church Slavic version.  The beginning is not literally the same as in our five-word icon inscription beginning, but it has much the same meaning, Jesus speaking to his disciples.   Going to the Slavic Matthew (Matfei), we find:





Now we just compare that, word by word, with the icon border inscription.  The result is that we find this is in fact what the inscription is saying, though the icon version begins with “AND THE LORD SPOKE TO HIS DISCIPLES, SAYING…” instead of  “AND COMING NEAR, JESUS SPOKE TO THEM, SAYING….”  Nonetheless, what Jesus said to his disciples is there and the same in both in the icon inscription and in the Church Slavic New Testament account in Matthew 28-20.  If we are careful, we can even see that the icon inscription ends at the top of the left-hand border with the broken-off word


meaning “[I] commanded.”

So the mystery is solved.  The whole icon border inscription can now be recognized and translated, and it says:


This process may seem rather tedious, and it often is, but hey, who said that anything beyond the most common inscriptions would be easy?  No one asked you to become interested in icons, did they?

Perhaps you would like to take up Chinese vegetarian cooking instead.





In previous postings, we have seen some rather peaceful icons featuring lions, specifically those of Mamas and of Gerasim.  Today we look at a more violent image, that of the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch, called ИГНАТИЙ БОГОНОСЕЦ — Ignatiy Bogonosets — in Russian iconography.  It means “Ignatius [the] God-bearer.”  His Greek title Ιγνάτιος ὁ Θεοφόρος — Ignatios ho Theophoros — has the same meaning (Theos = God, –phoros = bearer).  Though the inscription is rather difficult to see, the icon example shown below uses the Greek ΘΕΟΦΟΡΟC (Theophoros) title.  You are probably already familiar with the –phoros element from the name of the once popular saint Christopher, Khristophoros in Greek, meaning “Christ” (Khristos) -“bearer” (-phoros).

Who was Ignatius?  Well, supposedly he was the third bishop of Antioch, even a disciple of the Apostle John. One tradition makes him the little child used by Jesus as an example in Matthew 18:1-4:

At the same time came the disciples to Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  And Jesus called a little child to him, and set him in the midst of them,  And said, Truly I say to you, Unless your are converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Generally, however, Ignatius  is said to have lived at the end of the first century c.e. and beginning of the second, and to have been martyred by being sent to Rome, where he was thrown to the lions under the Roman Emperor Trajan.  During his unrealistically lengthy journey there, with lots of unlikely stopovers to visit Christians, he was said to have written a number of letters to Christian congregations, and in fact some 15 letters traditionally attributed to him still exist.

However, we have already learned from previous experience with Eastern Orthodox saints to be very careful in accepting hagiographic tales as history, and in fact there is considerable doubt that Ignatius ever really existed, at least as the person presented to us by Orthodox tradition.

(Pushkin Museum)
(Pushkin Museum)

Interestingly, the importance of this doubtful Ignatius in the history of the Church is significant, because in letters attributed to him is found support for changing the early system of governance of Church congregations.  Earlier, the titles “elder” (presbyter) and “bishop” had been used for the same office.  The person writing as Ignatius, however, made a strong and definite distinction between the two, elevating the bishop to a position of great authority over Christian communities and elders  (the so-called “monarchical bishop”), a step that led ultimately to the creation of the Papacy in the West and the Patriarchates in the East.  That gave the supposed writings of Ignatius immense propagandistic significance in church politics.

Though some still consider certain of the 15 letters attributed to Ignatius as authentic, many regard all of them as later forgeries.

Whatever one may think of the authenticity of Ignatius, the type of his martyrdom is easily recognized.  A common format, as shown here, depicts him standing in bishop’s robes, with one attacking lion head-up on the left side, and the other head-down at right.  This often gives an interesting feeling of circular motion to the type.  In the upper part of this example, the blessing “Hand of the Lord” is seen reaching out from Heaven.