Today we will look at a rather late Greek icon.

Greek popular icons, one finds, have far less variety of subject than Russian icons. Generally only a few patron saints are favored. That does not mean icons of many more saints do not exist, it just means one does not see them nearly as often as those of the popular patron saints and images of Mary and of Jesus.

This is an icon of Stylianos of Paphlagonia, a region in what is now Turkey. No one seems quite sure when this fellow actually lived, which should be a sign of caution to us, a warning flag, as we shall see; accounts place him somewhere in the 4th to 6th century. He is said to have inherited wealth from his parents, but he gave it all away and went to live a monastic life, then a hermit’s life in a cave. Nonetheless, he did not isolate himself from society, but could also be seen going about among ordinary people.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

He became known as a healer, with his first cure that of a child. The healing and welfare of children became a major concern to him, and he is said to have begun, with the assistance of other hermits, a refuge for the care and tending of children.

Stylianos also became noted as something of a fertility specialist, after a young woman who could not bear children appealed to him for help. When she conceived and bore a child, that brought even more visitors asking for his miraculous assistance.

The consequence of all this is that Stylianos is regarded as the saint to go to for illness in children, for the ability to bear children, and for the protection of children. He is said to have been a happy and smiling saint, and completely unmercenary.

Unfortunately, in spite of this cheerful tale, Stylianos is one of those saints who likely never actually existed. Researchers in hagiography opine that his name is actually a misunderstanding. The confusion arose, apparently, because there is another saint, Alypios, who was celebrated on the same day on which Stylianos came to be celebrated (November 26). This Alypios was a stylite — a saint who lived atop a pillar, so his name and title were Ἀλύπιος ὁ Στυλίτης — Alypios ho Stylites — and it is the Stylites part that apparently was garbled into a Saint Stylianos. Alypios is said to have lived in Paphlagonia, and had a mother who gave her money to the poor. And strangely enough, Alypios the Stylite also became known as a “fertility” saint and a guardian of children. So it would appear that the very popular saint Stylianos found in so many Greek icons was created by error as a “duplicate” saint cobbled together from the account of Alypios.

But on to the icon.

It is not difficult to recognize icons of Stylianos. He usually holds a child wrapped in swaddling clothes in one arm (this odd practice of binding prevented an infant from moving), as well as a scroll with this inscription:

ΠΑΙΔΩΝ ΦΥΛΑΞ ΠΕΦΥΚΑ ΘΕΟΥ ΤΟ ΔΩΡΟΝ — PAIDON PHYLAX PEPHYKA THEOU TO DORON, meaning loosely “The Protector of Children is a gift from God.”

At the top we see the identifying title inscription: ΑΓΙΟΣ ΣΤΥΛΙΑΝΟΣ (Αγιος Στυλιανός); in old Greek it would be Hagios Stylianos, and in modern pronunciation Ayos Stylianos — “Holy Stylianos” — or as we would say, Saint Stylianos.

The icon depicted puts prayer beads in his other hand, which has the fingers loosely forming the letters IC XC (abbreviating “Jesus Christ”), a position used as a sign of blessing.

The image of Stylianos may vary slighty, with some examples including more than one infant being held, but one swaddled child is the norm.

Now that you know the iconography of Stylianos, you will easily be able to recognize him in this detail from another and even more folkish Greek icon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The name inscription at left reads:

Ο Αγιος Στυλιανός — Ho Hagios Stylianos — “The Holy Stylianos.” Notice that in writing ος (-os) the painter has added the s as a very small cedilla-like appendage to the bottom right of the letter o. He has also combined the letters Σ (σ = s) and τ (t) at the beginning of “Stylianos,” with the bar of the t placed atop the s.


It is just a fact that collectors like icons with “fancy” metal covers. I am not a collector of icons but of information about them, so it is no surprise that I prefer to see an icon without its cover. Nonetheless, I suspect I am in the minority. People just seem to like icons with “bling.”

Today I want to talk a bit about icon covers. Technically, there is a general name for such ornamental additions, such fancy trimming. That name is OKLAD (Оклад).

Oklad literally means “trimming,” and it is used in referring to any ornamental covers and associated pieces added to the surface of an icon. An oklad is generally of thin sheet metal, but it may also be an embroidered cover, etc.

The kind of oklad one finds on very old icons, such as those from the 14th to the 16th century, are a specific type called a basmennuiy oklad (басменный оклад), a “basma” oklad.

BASMA (Басма) comes from an old Turkic word meaning to “imprint” or “impress.” A basma consists of pieces of thin metal plate embossed in relief (thus the name) with ornamental patterns by being beaten upon a metal form. These embossed plates and strips were then cut to shape and fitted together over the surface of the icon, being fixed in place with numerous nails. Inscriptions were often added by being engraved on separate strips of metal that were also attached by nails. Thus the use of the basma on very old icons accounts for the numerous nail holes left in the painted surface after the basma has been removed. It was consequently very damaging to the painted surface.

The riza (Риза, meaning “robe”) though largely synonymous with oklad, is generally now the preferred term to indicate the one-piece metal ornamental covers that were used to decorate icons from the latter part of the 17th century onward. Instead of being composed of individual sheets of metal stamped with ornamentation, as in the basma, the riza was a solid, single metal piece with edges bent at a right angle to fit over the sides of the icon. The riza was affixed to the icon by nailing it to the sides of the icon panel, thus avoiding the damage to the painted surface caused by use of the older basma. A riza was commonly decorated in repoussé work and engraving and chasing with a simplified form of those parts of the painted surface that it covered — garments, and even buildings and trees etc. in some cases, as well as inscriptions. A riza could be made of anything from gold to silver to gilded silver to silvered brass to tin, depending on what the patron desired and could afford. On gold or silver examples, one generally finds the hallmarks used on Russian works of precious metals — stamped maker’s initials, grade of metal, etc. Absence of such marks generally means one is looking at a riza of cheaper metal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a riza was sometimes made of inexpensive metal with machine-stamped ornamentation.

A repoussé chased and engraved silver or gold riza, sometimes with added filigree work and colorful cloisonné enamel, can be considered a work of art in itself. Nonetheless, it is important, when considering an icon for any purpose, to know precisely what is under the riza. Some very cheap icons consisted only of a panel with faces and hands on it, the rest of the unpainted surface being hidden by the riza. And of course a riza may be used to disguise fakes, such as paper lithographs glued to a board and varnished over to make them appear to be painted icons. By the way, the word cloisonné is often mispronounced, even by those who should know better. It is pronounced klwa-son-nay, not kloi-son-nay.

Here is an icon of John the Warrior, covered with a silver, neoclassical-influenced riza:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

A riza can sometimes be a helpful adjunct in dating an icon, but should never be taken as the final determinant. A riza could be added to an icon many years after the icon was painted, making the painting much older than the riza. Also, an old riza can be placed over a newer painting, which again will mislead the unwary. And of course with the amount of fakery practiced in Russia today, a new riza may be placed over a new painting, with the riza having old hallmarks that are simply modern fakes, making both icon and riza forgeries. When buying an icon, it is best to see it both with and without the riza, so that the entire painted surface, sides, and reverse of the icon may be examined.


It can be seen that these three terms “oklad,” “basma,” and “riza” may easily lead to some confusion. The question often arises, should one call a single-piece icon cover an oklad or a riza? The answer is that while technically one may use either, riza is commonly to be preferred now, keeping oklad as a more general term. Originally the riza was just an element of the oklad, a metal covering in the shape of a robe that was nailed over the painted robe of a saint, etc. on an icon. But gradually it came to signify the entirety of a solid metal icon cover.

It is not uncommon to find “jewels” added to icon trimming. Sometimes these are genuine gems, sometimes semiprecious stones, but more often just colored glass. One may also find pearls, sometimes real, sometimes false. Filigree work and cloisonne enamel may also be found on better riza examples.

Among features included in an oklad may be a separate (but attached) VENETS (Венец), or halo. The diminutive form is VENCHIK (венчик); a halo is also called a nimb (Нимб), from Latin nimbus.

Please note that there is some ambiguity in the use of the terms venets and venchik. A venets can be a halo, but in the podlinniks it is often used to mean a crown; and a venchik can be a nimbus or halo.

A feature seen on some icon covers, particularly those of icons of Mary, is a KORUNA (Коруна) or crown of metal, from the Latin corona. One also sees, as part of the oklad ornamentation, a metal crescent suspended from the neck of Jesus or Mary, called a TSATA (Цата).

Both the basma and the riza are ornamentation affixed to an icon. But there is another kind of ornamentation that surrounds the icon while not being affixed to it. That is the glass-fronted case in which some icons were kept in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It functioned rather like a clock case, both ornamenting and protecting the icon. Such a case is called a KIOT, from the Greek word kivotos (κῑβωτός), meaning “ark” (do not confuse this with the “kovcheg” ark, the recessed surface on which the central image of an icon is painted). A kiot could be simply a shaped box with a glass front, or it could be more elaborate, with added ornamentation to frame the icon, such as the gilt woodwork in the example below:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

There is much more to say about the ornamentation of icons, but that will wait for another day.


In old Russian icon painting workshops, it was traditional that when a young apprentice was felt to be ready to actually learn to paint an icon (other than just sweeping the floors, etc.), he would be given an icon of the Evangelist John to copy.

There was a reason for this, and it was largely theological. As I have mentioned before, the earliest Christians neither made nor venerated icons. Icon veneration was a practice that developed gradually in the centuries following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The actual doctrine that attempted to justify the religious use of icons came even later — centuries later — as a result of conflicts over the spread of the making and veneration of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

To simplify the matter, we can say that the doctrine justifying icons was based essentially on the premise that because Jesus, considered to be God in Eastern Orthodoxy, had taken on flesh and become incarnate, it was therefore permitted to paint and venerate images of him. Of course no one in the beginning days of painting “portrait” icons had any idea what Jesus looked like, but over time a standardized image developed that was taken to be Jesus and came to be accepted. The important thing for our purposes today is to note the relationship between the belief that God became incarnate as a man in Jesus, and the making of icons. What is that relationship exactly? Well, it was believed that just as Jesus took on visibile, material flesh to become human, an icon painter used paints to give material form to Jesus as well as other saints. So through his art, the icon painter gave the spiritual material form, it was believed. A common popular term for an icon painter in old Russia was “God-dauber.”

Why, then, was the Evangelist John selected as the first and “foundation” icon for the beginning icon painter? It is because John’s gospel (or rather the gospel given the name “John” — no one knows who really wrote it) starts with the words, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Then it goes on to describe how “the word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” which was seen as an analogy to the icon painter making Jesus and the saints visible in material paints.

That is why in icons of John, as in the two examples on this page, one sees him with a gospel book open to the words “V NACHALE BE SLOVO…” “IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD…” etc.

The two icons on this page represent the icon “type” of John popularly called “John in Silence.” That is because John holds the fingers of his right hand meditatively to his lips in silence, while an angel behind his shoulder whispers into his ear. That is understood as the angel telling him — inspiring him — with the words he was to write in his gospel.

The title inscriptions on such icons, however, generally do not use the “John in Silence” title. Instead they say, as this first example does in Church Slavic,

Svyatui Apostol i Evangelist Ioann

If you look closely at top right of the image, you can see a word written below ИОАННЪ in smaller letters. It is actually the ending of the main title inscription, and here it is abbreviated as БОГО — BOGO; that is short for BOГОСЛОВ — BOGOSLOV, meaning “Theologian.” So if we translate the identifying title of this icon into normal English, we would have:


(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Why, then, does the title of this next icon, also of the “John in Silence” type, look somewhat different?

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

That is because it begins, as do countless icon inscriptions, with the word ОБРАЗOBRAZ. Obraz means “Image.” And what this icon title is saying is that this icon is the IMAGE OF THE HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN. You need not worry about the grammatical details if you do not wish to, but the important thing you should know is that beginning the inscription thus, with this ” Image of the” necessarily alters the form of the words following it. Svyatuiy becames “Svatago,” Bogoslov becomes Bogoslova, etc. These endings just reflect the “of the” form given the title here: The Image OF THE Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. But in Church Slavic, “of the” is not shown by actually writing it in separate words. Instead, it is shown by changing the ending of words. Change the ending of Svyatuiy — “Holy” to Svyatago, and it becomes “of the Holy,” just as Bogoslov becomes instead “Bogoslova.” We of course are not used to forming words this way in English, but it is characteristic of Church Slavic, and once you know it, you will recognize it.

OBRAZ (“image”), like SVYATUIY (“HOLY”/”SAINT” is one of the important words you should remember in order to form the basic vocabulary necessary to read countless icon inscriptions. Most icon titles of saints will thus begin either with Svyatuiy (for a male (Svyataya for a female) — meaning “The Holy…” (so and so), or with Obraz Svyatago “[The] Image of the Holy” (so and so). There are variations on this, but you will generally recognize them easily if you keep this in mind.

By the way, if you are wondering why the second image on this page has additional figures at the sides, then you should know they are not a part of the main icon image. Instead, following Russian practice, they were the “angel saints” — that is the name saints — for whom the members of the family owning the icon were named. Such various name saints are often found as border images outside the main image in old Russian icons.


What is olifa?  Well, when the painting of an icon was completed and dry, it was time to put a transparent coating — a “varnish” — over the surface to protect it and to enhance the colors.  That coating was called OLIFA.  Its chief ingredient was cooked linseed oil.

Now the interesting thing about olifa is that though it initially made the painting bright and offered a protective surface when it had dried, as the years passed, with time and candle smoke and so on, it gradually turned dark — so dark that it obscured the painting beneath, and resulted in a “black board,” an icon that was completely dark on the painted side.

During the Communist era in Russia, one might find such “black boards” stored in attics or other out-of-the-way places where they did not suffer the destruction that so many icons did during that time.

Of course this blackening of icons took place long before the Communist era, and when it happened one could either dispose of the icon in some acceptable manner, or more commonly one could have it repainted on top of the blackened varnish.  That is the reason why very old icons are sometimes found under several layers of later paintings.  As each new “icon” surface darkened, another was painted over it, sometimes the same image, sometimes one completely different.

This practice of repeated painting over old icons made looking for really early Russian icons into a kind of treasure hunt.  One had to destroy the later paintings, however, in order to uncover the earlier painting.

One clever fellow who discovered this during the Communist period was Vladimir Soloukhin, whose book Searching for Icons in Russia (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1972) is a fascinating account of just such a treasure hunt for old icons, in a period when officially they were not appreciated.  Soloukhin’s book was originally titled Black Boards in Russian, and that is very descriptive of what he was searching for.  He looked for old icons, many of them completely blackened by time, and then he proceeded to remove a bit of the surface to see what was beneath.  If there did appear to be an old icon beneath, he removed all of the surface layers of olifa and painting that had been placed over it.

In this manner Soloukhin  amassed one of the most important collections in Russia of very old icons, and of course in the process he preserved a significant part of Russia’s artistic and cultural heritage, in a time when so many old icons were destroyed deliberately or by neglect.

Today, when one looks at a lot of old icons, one will often notice a little strip at the edge where the varnish and some paint have been removed.  The reason for that is precisely what I have described here.  Someone was hoping to find an even earlier icon beneath the obvious painting, and when that did not happen, they left (fortunately) the rest of the icon quite intact, and eventually it was restored or sold.  That seems to be the case with the “test strip” on this icon of St. Nicholas, but actually it is more likely a remnant of the old varnish left behind when the image was cleaned in this particular case.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Of course many very pleasant and interesting icons from the 17th century to the early 20th century were destroyed to uncover the older painting underneath, which in some cases might not have been as well done as the surface painting, but that is what happens.  In the case of paintings, particularly of icons, “older” often means “more valuable” monetarily.  It is one of the sad aspects of the whole matter of old paintings, icons, and antiques.

There is a peculiar icon, a variant of the type called “Joy of All who Suffer,” that became known as “miracle-working” partly because it survived in a chapel (near a glass factory in St. Petersburg) that was struck by lightning.   The other icons in the chapel were charred, but this icon survived because it fell from the wall onto the floor and onto some coins that had fallen from the broken money box. The coins stuck to the surface, and so that event was the “miraculous” origin of the Marian icon type called “The Joy of All Who Suffer — With Coins” (Всем скорбящим Радость с грошиками — Vsem Skorbyashchim Radost s Groshikami))  Copies of the icon (and there are countless copies made, given its “wonder-working” status) all show the coins sticking to the surface of the icon, painted on, of course, in the copies.

Now my own opinion of this event is that the heat of the lightning softened the olifa coating and made it sticky, so that when it fell on its face, the coins stuck to the surface.  So olifa can even play a role in so-called “miracles,” it would seem.  To me, discovering a medieval Russian painting under a far more recent overpainting is rather miraculous in itself.

If anyone shows you an icon of the “Joy of All Who Suffer — With Coins” icon and claims it is older than 1888, do not believe them, because that is the year in which the event happened that made the image famous and led to all the copies being made.


As with most any craft, there are certain jargon words that anyone interested in old icons, particularly Russian icons, should know.  They involve just how an icon panel is made.

The panel itself — the DOSKA (Доска) — the foundation of the icon — is of course made of wood. Sometimes it is made of a single wooden board, sometimes of more than one board glued together. The side to be painted may be either flat (which is common), or it may have a square or rectangular recessed indentation carved into it, so that the main image of the icon is painted in the recess, leaving a raised outer border around it.

When an icon panel (and the finished icon) has a recessed square or rectangular central area for the main image, that recessed area is called a KOVCHEG (Ковчег).  That is the Russian word for “ark” but it is an old-fashioned word, as is “ark” in English.  By “ark” is meant a box or chest in which something may be placed and kept.  We can think of it as a box, which is why in very old paintings, Noah’s ark from the biblical story looks like a floating box more than a ship, and why old chests from medieval times and somewhat later were also called “arks.”  An ark can be a box or coffer in which something sacred is kept, like a relic of a saint.  But the simple thing to remember is that an icon with a recessed central area is said to have a KOVCHEG.  You can just call it an “ark” in English if you wish, but you should know the Russian term. Some icons may even have a double ark, with the inner recessed more than the outer.

When an icon has a KOVCHEG — an ark — the outer edge of each side of the kovcheg slants up sharply  to meet the raised outer border of the icon that is left when the kovcheg is carved into the panel.  That slanting edge around the ark is called the LUZGA (Лузга), meaning literally the “husk.”

The outer, raised, flat border all the way around an icon having a KOVCHEG and LUZGA is called the POLYA (Поля).  It means “field.” The polya forms a kind of frame around the main painted portion of the icon, though often secondary images of saints, etc. may be found painted on the polya. There is often a strip of color (frequently red) extending around the very outer edge of the polya. This is the OPUSH (Опушь), meaning “border” or “trim.”

nikov (Photo Courtesy of

Above you see an old icon of St. Nikolas (Nikolai), with his image painted in the central KOVCHEG.  Around that kovcheg is a very narrow LUZGA (it was often highlighted with a separate color), and beyond that is the raised outer border, the POLYA.  Notice that the old and cracked LEVKAS (gesso ground) on this icon is easily visible.  That is because the icon was once gilded with gold leaf, but the thin layer of gold wears off over time as an icon is repeatedly wiped clean of dust or exposed to the elements.  So in this photo we see clearly the gesso on which the painting itself was done.  The little network of cracks all over the ground are a sign of age, but some clever fakers of early icons took the time to paint on little cracks, and others knew how to age an icon by creating the cracked surface artificially, so a network of cracks is not invariably a sign of age, nor is a whitish gesso surface necessarily a sign that gold leaf has been worn away.  Fakers would often create such a “bare” gesso surface around the painted saints to make people think an icon was so old that the gold leaf had been worn away.

In the image of St. Paraskeva Piatnitsa below, you can easily see the white and predominantly red OPUSH, the painted “trim” that forms the outermost part of the icon surface.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Most icons you will see are from the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries, and tend to be flat-surfaced, with no kovcheg.  The kovcheg is actually more characteristic of earlier icons, those from the 1600s or earlier, but in the 1600s the kovcheg began to be less used, and that is why later icons tend to be flat, and without a kovcheg.  Nonetheless, the presence of a kovcheg is not an accurate means of dating.  One may find icons now and then from the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries that have a kovcheg.

The other term you really need to know is the word for the wooden slats inserted into the unpainted back of an icon panel.  These wooden inserts were used in an attempt to keep the wooden panel from warping.  They did not always work, so one sees many icons that are convex in shape when seen from the front, and often the paint surface in the front of the panel may have a vertical crack running through it where the panel has begun to split apart where two boards were glued together to make the panel, because of the warping of the panel over time. Careful icon makers chose from just which part of the tree their panels were cut, because that affected how likely the panel was to eventually warp.  The best panels were cut from right across the central heart of the tree.

Those were least likely to warp.  But again, the thing to remember here is the name of those slats inserted in the back to prevent warping, and that name is SHPONKI (Шпонки– plural).  One usually finds two SHPONKI, one coming in from either side toward the center, but occasionally just one SHPONKA (Шпонка — singular) is found.  You may call them “slats” in English if you wish, but again, you should know the Russian term. You should also be aware that some very cheap icons had no shponki at all, and some icons that appear at first not to have them really have them inserted into a groove cut into the top and bottom ends of the icon panel, making them hidden.  So be sure to examine the panel carefully.

Which wood was used depended on what was available in a locale and on the standards of the individual painter or studio.  Linden was commonly used, but so (particularly in the North) were fir, larch, cedar, pine and oak.  Where obtainable, cypress was considered a very suitable wood.  Boards with knots and pitch were generally avoided, but one finds old icons painted on “knotty” wood nonetheless.

(Photo courtesy of

(Photo courtesy of

In the above photo, showing the reverse of the old St. Nicholas icon, you can easily see the  SHPONKI inserted to prevent warping.  You can also see the vertical lines where separate boards were joined to make the single panel.  The wire hanger is of course a recent addition.

So that comprises the raw wooden panel on which an icon is painted.  But before the painting could actually begin, a linen cloth was glued over the surface of the icon.  This is the old equivalent of a modern painter’s canvas.  The cloth glued onto the icon surface is called the PAVOLOKA (Паволока), but you may just call it the “canvas” if you wish to use English. Sometimes, on late icons, even paper was used for this purpose.

So we now have the wooden icon panel with a canvas glued to its surface, but it is still not ready for painting.  First, several layers of powdered chalk mixed with glue must be applied over the PAVOLOKA, and then be smoothed down to a mirror finish.  This chalky surface is the LEVKAS (Левкас) layer, but we can use our ordinary Euro-American term for it (originally Italian), and just call it “gesso.”  It is the ground on which the actual icon image is painted.  Even though LEVKAS is the term used in Russia for the gesso, it is actually originally a Greek word, leukos, meaning simply “white,” and of course the gesso is white.  It relates to a Greek island called Leukos (Levkos in later pronunciation), where a particularly fine kind of chalk was found and used in making the ground for painting. When you see a damaged icon, you will see the white LEVKAS showing through where the paint is missing or where there is a crack and the paint has fallen away.

Traditionally, the background of an icon image — the space between people and trees and buildings and ground — is called the SVYET (Свет), literally the “light” of an icon. This is particularly appropriate not only because icons often had gold-leaf backgrounds, but also because in icon aesthetics, the icon represents the heavenly world, a place of light without shadow. Now one often sees a different term applied to this element, calling it the “Fon” (Фон), meaning simply “background.” I favor the older and more expressive term.

So now you know the basic vocabulary one should have when talking about icon panels.  In another posting, I hope to discuss the application of the paint to the surface.


To read Greek icon inscriptions, one must learn the Greek alphabet, which is easy and requires only a little time.  The sound of the letter is more important to the reader of icons than its name.  Here is the Greek alphabet with its sounds (approximations).  For some letters I give the “old” generally-accepted pronunciation as well as the “new” modern Greek pronunciation, which one may ignore unless one is learning modern Greek.

Αα = A as in ah

Ββ = B   Old: B as in boy; New: V as in very

Γγ = G    Old:  G as in go;  New: G as in go, sometimes Y as in yard

Δδ = D  Old: D as in dark; New: Th as in this

Εε = E as in epic

Ζζ = Z as in zone

Ηη = E   Old: e as in epic (or like a in mate); New: Ee as in peel

Θθ = Th as in thick

Ιι = I    ee as in meet

Κκ + K as in kin

Λλ = L as in lamp

Μμ = M  as in mill

Νν = N  as in no

Ξξ = X as in dixie

Οο = O  Old: O as in not; New: O as in post

Ππ = P as in past

Ρρ = R as in (Spanish) Rosa

Σσς  S as in sack.  σ is used within a word, σ as the last letter of a word
(Σ is commonly written as C on old icons)

Ττ = T as in time

Υυ = Y  Old: German umlaut ü as in über ; New: ee as in peel

Φφ  Ph as in phone

Χχ = Ch as in (German) Bach

Ψψ = Ps as in tips

Ωω =  O as in pole
Ω as a capital letter is often written as a large ω on old icons.

Those are the basic letters.  It is important to note that what looks like an apostrophe in English, when used in Greek over a vowel, indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced (old system) with an “h” before it.  All you really need to know of Greek accent marks is found in the words ὀ φίλος, ho philos, meaning “the friend.”  The apostrophe-like accent above the o gives it the added “h” sound, and the accent above the i in philos indicates that the first syllable is stressed.  Modern Greek ignores the rough breathing (the initial “h” sound), but in writing about icon inscriptions it is usually kept in transliteration.  I will generally omit the rough breathing and accent marks in discussing here.

Those who want to go beyond that brief introduction to the Greek alphabet will find plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet.

What one does not often find elsewhere is information on the peculiarities of Greek icon inscriptions.  Among these is the practice of abbreviation, generally indicated by a long, curving horizontal line over the word that looks somewhat like an extended tilde (~) in Spanish.  That tells us letters have been omitted in writing.  The other important peculiarity is ligature — the joining of letters that are not ordinarily joined. One letter may be attached to the next, for example an A may be joined to an N, or a T may be placed atop an o, etc.  The alert student will quickly become accustomed to these.

Now we can move on to actual inscriptions.

The most common word in Greek inscriptions is ΑΓΙΟC (ΑΓΙΟΣ) – HAGIOS, meaning “holy.”  It is the Greek word used for “saint.”  So an inscription above the head of a saint that reads Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΟΝΟΥΦΡΙΟΣ — HO HAGIOS ONOUPHRIOS — means literally THE HOLY ONOUPHRIOS, which we can just shorten in translation to “Saint ONOUPHRIOS.”  Often when Greek saints’ names are put into English the Latin form is used, so you may see this name translated as “Saint Onuphrius.” — the “-os” Greek ending often changes to the “-us” Latin ending.  The “ou” combination is pronounced like “oo” in “moon.” And remember that on old icons, the letter Σ –“s” — is generally written as C, as in the last letter of the name of Saint Onouphrios on the icon at the bottom of this posting.

Things change only slighty when a saint is female.  The “HO” becomes “HE,” as in  Η ΑΓΙΑ ΔΡΟΣΙΣ — HE HAGIA DROSIS — THE HOLY DROSIS –“Saint Drosis.”  So HO HAGIOS is used for a male saint, HE HAGIA for a female saint.

Another useful word to add to your beginning vocabulary is ΤΟΥ — TOU — which means “of” or “of the” in Greek.  So an inscription like Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ –HE PHILOXENIA TOU ABRAAM — contains two words you already know.  The first is Η, the feminine word for “the.”  The second is “TOY” meaning of.  So if I tell you that Philoxenia means “hospitality” and Abraam is just the Greek form of Abraham, you know immediately that this inscription reads “The Hospitality of Abraham,” which is the Greek name for the icon type the Russians call “The Old Testament Trinity,” the appearance of the three Angels to the Patriarch Abraham in the book of Genesis.  And you may wish to know that in the word Philoxenia, the accent is on the last “i.”

That is enough for right now.  In the near future I will add more on the essential Greek icon inscriptions you need to know to gain a knowledge of the basics of reading Greek icons.