Here is an icon of Nicolas of Myra “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his traditional “biography.” Keep in mind that the biographies of many saints are heavily fictionalized, and should not be taken as literal history.
Most of you (I hope) are now at the stage where you know a basic vocabulary of Church Slavic “icon” words that you are able to use in translating titles and inscriptions. You need not know all the grammar of Church Slavic to make use of them. If you pay close attention to key words, and to the “root” forms of words, you can often determine how they fit together grammatically, even if the endings of the words change. You may expand your vocabulary with the key words found in the outer scenes in this icon.
We will start at upper left, where most of the border scenes in icons usually begin:
We can see that it is a typical, stylized “birth” scene. So it is not surprising that the key word in its title is РОЖЕСТВО/ROZHESTVO, meaning “birth.” Right after that we see the Ст abbreviation that we know is for some form of the word Svyatuiy/Holy, and following that is НИКОЛЫ/NIKOLUI, which is not difficult to recognize as the grammatical “of” form of the name Nikola — “Nicholas.” Then comes the abbreviation ЧЮД (ЧУД), which you already know in the form ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ/CHUDOTVORETS, meaning “wonder-worker,” someone who can work miracles. We don’t need to know the grammar of all this in order to make sense of it. We just put it together as “Birth of Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker,” and that is in fact the correct translation of the title.
Here is the second scene:
The key word here is КРЕЩЕНИЕ/KRESHCHENIE, meaning “Baptism.” You already recognize the rest of it, so you can easily translate it as “Baptism of Holy Nicholas.”
Here is the third scene:
You can see that it begins with the Ct abbreviation for Svyatuiy/Holy, and you can see that the second word is НИКОЛА/NIKOLA, which is a common spelling for Nikolai/Nicholas in old Russian icons. The key word here, however, is the third word ИСЦЕЛИ/ISTSELI, meaning “Heals.” So in this scene Nicholas is healing something, and the words following tell us what it is: РУКУ жене/RUKU zhene. Ruku is a form of Ruka, meaning “hand.” And the zhene — written in smaller letters here — is a form of the word жена/zhena, meaning “woman.” So you would be right in translating this title as “Holy Nicholas Heals the Hand of the Woman.” In some icons you will encounter the word istselenie, which means “healing,” and it usually begins a title that is the istselenie of this or that person — the healing of this or that person.
In the next scene, the writer has made a little error.
He has written ПРИВЕДоАШ , but two letters are out of order. It should be our key word here, ПРИВЕДОША/PRIVEDOSHA, meaning “Bringing” or “Is brought.” And he is brought Ко Учителю/Ko Uchiteliu — “to the teacher.” This scene depicts Nicholas being brought to a teacher to learn his letters.
Here is the scene at far right in the top row:
The first word is the key word: ПОСТАНОВЛЕНИЕ/POSTANOVLENIE. It means “Ordination.” So in this scene we see Nicholas being ordained as something, and that something is Во ДИАКОы/VO DIAKONUI, “as Deacon.” So this scene shows the “Ordination [of Nicholas] as Deacon.”
The next scene is a famous act of Nicholas in tradition:
It depicts Nicholas outside a building, and inside it, we see three maidens sleeping on a bed.
The first word in this inscription is Чюдо/Chudo, which as you know means “miracle.” Then comes the abbreviation for the “Holy” title, followed by a form of the name of Nicholas — НИКОЛАЕ/Nikolae here, and then the word КАКО, meaning “how.” And then comes the key word: ИЗБАБИ/IZBABI, meaning “he saves,” or “he rescues.” And who does he rescue? He saves Trekh devits — “three maidens.” And what does he save them from? ОТ БЛУДА/OT BLUDA — “from fornication/prostitution.”
So this scene represents “The miracle of Holy Nicholas, how he saved three maidens from prostitution.”
What you just learned will immediately be of use, as we see in this next scene:
You can now read the beginning of this as “The miracle of Holy Nicholas, how he saves …” And then we are told who he saves — ТРЕХ МУЖЕЙ/MUZHEI — “three men,” and he saves them ОТ СМЕРТИ/OT SMERTI — “from death.” So this is “The Miracle of Holy Nicholas, how he saves three men from death.”
The next scene is this:
You know that chudo means “miracle,” and you know that St Nikolui means “of Holy Nicholas. Next comes what this miracle is about. It is about (o in Church Slavic) the “man” (муже/muzhe) Dimitriy/Димиттрий, “whom” (егоже/egozhe) “he-saves” (избаби/izbabi) “from” (ot) потопления/potopleniya (“sinking”). So Nicholas saved this fellow from drowning.
Now we are going out of sequence to the left-hand image in the bottom row:
You can of course now read the first three words:
Svyatuiy/”Holy” Nikola/Nicholas Izbabi/”Saves” … but what does he save? He saves КоРАБл/Korabl the “Ship” ot/”from” — and then we have an abbreviation: ПОТоП- What does it abbreviate? Well, you already know that too, because you have just seen the segment in which Nicholas saves Dimitriy from Potoplenie/”Sinking,” and that is what Potop– abbreviates here. Remember how I keep telling you that icon inscriptions are very repetitive? So we can translate the title of this scene as “Holy Nicholas Saves the Ship from Sinking.”
Now usually in icons with border scenes of the “acts” of a saint, we read them from upper left, then continue clockwise all the way around. But the painter of this icon jumbled them up a bit — and in fact icons of Nicholas often do this — so now we will move to the second image down in the left-hand column:
Here we encounter another repetition — the first word, Postanovlenie. You already know it means “Ordination.” So this scene is the Postanovlenie/”Ordination” vo /“as” Arkhepisopui /”Archbishop” of Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.
The next scene down is this:
You can easily read the firs three words as “Holy Nicholas — how.” How what? The key word here is ЯВИСЯ/Yavisya– “appeared.” So this scene shows us how Nicholas yavisya/”appeared” царю/tsariu “to Tsar/Emperor” Konstantinu/Constantine vo/”as” (or “in”) сне/sne “dream”/”sleep.” So we may translate this title as “Holy Nicholas…how he appeared to the Emperor Constantine in a dream.” In some icons of Nicholas, a related scene of Nicholas appearing to the Prefect Eulavios/Ablabius in a dream appears in place of Constantine.
The next image down:
This title begins with “Holy,” then comes the word ОБРАЗ/obraz, meaning “Image.” It is a word often used for an icon. This scene depicts the “Holy Image (obraz) of [the inscription uses the word for “from”) the three (trekh) icons (ikon’) of Christ (there is a misspelling here for Христа/Khrista — “Christ”) — and the Most-Holy Mother of God (Пресвятыя Богородицы/Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui
Now comes another “miracle”:
This is another Chudo/”miracle” of Nicholas — the one in which he returns the son of a man named Agrikov from Saracen captivity. But the inscription says only “The Miracle of St. Nicholas about Agrikov’s son..” Some examples mention the son’s name — Vasiliy.
The scene to the right of that one is the selling of the carpet:
In this Chudo, we see Nicholas buying the Ковер/Kover — “carpet,” and returning it to the seller’s wife.
We will take the final two border images together:
The key word in the left image is: ПРЕСТАВЛЕНИЕ/PRESTAVLENIE, meaning literally “transfer.” It is the word used in Orthodoxy for the death of a saint, when his soul is “transferred” from earth to heaven. One often finds the English word “translation” used for this purpose. But for all practical purposes, we may just render this inscription as “The Death of Nicholas the Wonderworker.”
And finally we come to the last scene. The key word here is ПРИНЕСЕНИЕ/PRINESENIE — and it is the word we already saw used when the child Nicholas was brought to his teacher. So prinesenie means “bringing.” And this scene is the Prinesenie/”Bringing” Мошей/moshchey — “of-the-relics” B/v — “to” — BAR’ GRAD’. Moschey literally means “pieces,” but it is the term used in Russian Orthodoxy for relics — parts of the body of a saint or pieces of anything that has touched the body. By “Bar grad,” the writer just means Bari City — that is, the city known as Bari, in Italy, where by tradition the remains of Nicholas were taken (well, actually stolen by some sailors and taken there, according to the story). Remember that relics were considered valuable items in those days, because an important saint could bring lots of pilgrim money to a city, not to mention having the saint’s body close at hand in hope of possible miracles. So the stealing of relics was not an unusual event.
If you remember the key words in bold type in this posting, you will find them helpful in translating icons showing the lives of other saints and clerics.