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.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

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 zheneRuku 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.


This is an image of a Russian saint called Иоанн Власатый — Ioann Vlasatuiy — “John the Hairy.”  He is said to have that title because of the long and abundant hair on his head.

The abbreviated title inscription (with missing letters added) reads:
Svyatui Ioann Rostovskiy Chudotvorets Milostivuiy
Holy    John of-Rostov     Wonderworker Merciful
“Holy John of Rostov, Wonderworker, the Merciful”

The image is part of this larger 18th century Rostov icon showing scenes from his life as well as a Deisis at the top:

John is one of those saints called Блаженный —  Blazhennuiy  — “Blessed,” the title used for a юродивый — iurodivuiy/yurodivy — a “fool for Christ’s sake” — one of those fellows who behaved as though crazy, supposedly out of humility.

No one seems to know where John came from.  He lived in Rostov during the reign of Ivan Groznuiy — “Ivan the Terrible” (1547-1584), and is thought to have been educated and to have known Latin, because he carried with him and read a Latin Psalter.  It is supposed that he may have left Moscow to avoid all the troubles under Tsar Ivan, going to Rostov to live as a “holy fool.”  John died on September 3, 1580, and there was a terrible storm during his funeral, with much thunder and lightning.  The old stories say that many people who took sand from his grave and mixed it with water and drank it, or smeared it on their bodies, were healed by it.

John was supposedly named for another saint who is also called “John the Merciful,” but that would be the John who was Patriarch of Alexandria in the early 7th century, though he is said to have died in Cyprus.  It is easy to distinguish him from John the Hairy by his bishop’s robe, his shorter hair, and his long, sharp grey beard.

We see this earlier John the Merciful’s title inscription at left and right, with a slightly different spelling in the abbreviation, but easily recognizable nonetheless.  John’s scroll inscription is an excerpt from a prayer that the priest says quietly during the Liturgy of John Chrysostom:

Тебе предлагаем живот наш весь и надежду, Владыко Человеколюбче, и просим, и молим, и милися деем: [сподоби нас причаститися Небесных Твоих и Страшных Таин, сея священныя и духовныя Трапезы, с чистою совестию, во оставление грехов, в прощение согрешений, во общение Духа Святаго, в наследие Царствия Небеснаго, и дерзновение еже к Тебе, не в суд или во осуждение.]

We entrust to you, man-loving Master, our whole life and hope, and we
ask, pray, and entreat: [make us worthy to partake of your heavenly
and awesome mysteries from this holy and spiritual table with a
clean conscience; for the remission of sins, forgiveness of
transgressions, communion of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the
Kingdom of Heaven, confidence before You, and not in judgment or




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 Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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.





Icon Scroll inscription in Church Slavic (courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Anyone beginning to read inscriptions on Russian icons will soon realize that there are two languages one is likely to encounter — first, Church Slavic for main inscriptions, titles, scroll inscriptions (such as that pictured above) and “liturgical” texts; second, Russian, which is occasionally used for added details about when and by whom an icon was painted, and for what purpose it was painted (such as a commemoration of an event, a donation to a church, etc.). The primary and most prevalent language on icons is Church Slavic, which is closely related to Russian, but is different enough that modern Russians have some difficulty in understanding it.

The traditional Russian Orthodox Bible was printed in Church Slavic (Bible reading did not become popular in Russia until quite late, through the efforts of a Protestant Bible society, and even then it was only the New Testament that was generally read by Russian laypersons somehow lucky enough to be literate).

There are generally two kinds of inscriptions on Russian icons.  The first is written in ordinary, quite legible Church Slavic Cyrillic letters (which in some cases vary from those used in modern Russian).  The second, however, is quite different.  It is a stylized calligraphic decorative form of Church Slavic writing using abbreviations, elongated and stylized letter forms, inserted smaller letters, and even tiny letters written as superscriptions (written above the larger letters, in which they are mentally to be inserted). This form of decorative writing is extremely common on Russian icons, particularly in the titles of icons.  In English we call it a “condensed” inscription for convenience, because it does look like it has all been squeezed and condensed into an abbreviated form, but in Russian it is called Vyaz (Вязь).

Vyaz incriptions were used on icons because they have a decorative, formal appearance.  They were also used on other objects, such as in book headings, or engraved on copper, brass or silver utensils. Such ornate inscriptions are often a complete mystery to the beginning student of icons, but the key to understanding them is this:  First, one must have a basic and simple vocabulary of common Church Slavic terms, words that are very repetitive in icons, such as “Holy” “God” “Apostle” “Martyr” etc. etc.  That is not at all difficult to achieve.  Second, one must have a great deal of patience, because in Vyaz there are three obstacles:

The first, already mentioned, is learning a basic, elementary icon vocabulary;
The second is distinguishing and recognizing the ornate forms of the letters used in the inscription;
The third is learning where the words separate.

As for the second of these obstacles, it exists because Vyaz letters vary widely in their ornateness and appearance, so one must learn to recognize the basic form of the letter from its ornate form, and these ornate forms vary widely in their complexity. The third obstacle — learning to separate each individual word — is necessary because Vyaz letters are not only often joined to one another but also are run together from one word to another without intervening space or punctuation.  This is similar to the problem those reading an ancient uncial manuscript of the Greek New Testament face — one has to determine where a word or a sentence ends and another begins in order to determine what it means. You can easily see why these can be obstacles from this old book example of Vyaz: It is fairly typical of the kind of thing one faces in reading Vyaz inscriptions on icons.  We can “expand” the condensed inscription by reading it letter by letter from left to right, very carefully and patiently. The first word in the inscription consists of two letters — a Church Slavic “O” (which looks like an odd “W”), and in the middle space of the “O” is a “T” that looks much the same as our “T” in English.  Together these from the word “OT,” meaning “From” or “OF.” The second word is a proper name, “MARK,” which appears here in the form “MARKA.” The first “A” is above and connected to the right upright bar of the “M.”  Then comes a full-length “R” (which looks like “P” to an English speaker), followed by a “K” and then an upright “A,” which in ornate form looks like a long “I” with a little diamond attached to its left side.  So that is  MARKA –“MARK.” Next comes the abbreviated word “SVYATOE” — A form of “SVYATUIY,” meaning “HOLY”: We see the “S” that looks like a Roman “C” on the left, the “T” in the upper middle, the “O” in reduced size at the middle bottom, and the “E” on the right side.  The other letters are omitted, as shown by the curved line above the “T,” and must be supplied by the reader. The next and final word is longer, but it is useful to know: That is the word “BLAGOVYESTVOVANIE,” which means literally “Good News” in Slavic, and it is a word used to mean “GOSPEL.”  The curved line above the second and third letters indicates abbreviation by omission of a letter, in this case the absence of the letter “A,” which the reader must supply.  That is why one must know the basic vocabulary in order to recognize and distinguish individual words. All together, this Vyaz inscription reads: “OT MARKA SVYATOE BLAGOVYESTVOVANIE” That means simply “[THE] From/Of Mark Holy Gospel,” which we would translate into English as “THE HOLY GOSPEL OF MARK.” The same principles used in this little example apply to the countless Vyaz titles one finds written on icons, so it is very important to take the amount of time necessary to form a basic vocabulary of Church Slavic (don’t think you have to learn the entire Church Slavic language — you do not!) and to learn to recognize the ornate calligraphic forms of letters used in writing Vyaz.  These are the keys that unlock those attractive but often mysterious (though generally rather simple) titles that identify an icon type.

This must all seem very complex and exotic to the beginning student of Russian icons, but I assure you that it is much simpler than it looks on first examination.  The reason, again, is that Russian icon inscriptions in Church Slavic are extremely repetitive, so one encounters the same common words and phrases over and over again.  That is why a little study gives great rewards in the ability to read and translate icon inscriptions.

You may wish to know what the scroll at the top of this posting says.  It is taken from Ezekiel 33:11:
Не хощу смерти грешникомъ но во еже обрати[тися нечестивому от пути своего и живу быти ему]

“I do not desire the death of the sinner , but that he should turn from his path and live.”