Today we will take another quick look at how to approach interpreting an icon.  For that exercise, we will use this image:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The first step is of course to look at the whole icon, noticing what looks familiar and what does not.  If you have been reading all the postings here, about two-thirds of this icon will already be familiar.

The second step is to look at and translate the inscriptions.  That too should present no great difficulty if you have been reading this site.

Let’s begin with the top three images.  You should already know that the image of Jesus in the center, with Mary at left and John the Forerunner (the “Baptist”) at right comprises a grouping known as the Deisis (from the Greek for “beseeching); the Russian term is just a variant of that, Deisus.  The Deisis represents Jesus enthroned like an emperor in his heavenly court, with petitioners approaching at left and right to ask favors of him — in this case favors on behalf of humanity.

Now for the top inscriptions:

At left is the usual four-letter Greek abbreviation MP ΘΥ for Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God,” the standard identifying inscription for Mary in both Russian and Greek icons.  You will notice that it is right above the image of Mary.

Next is the inscription over Jesus.  it reads ГДЬ ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ.  By now, you should recognize the first three letters as abbreviating the Church Slavic word GOSPOD’, meaning “Lord.”  ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ — VSEDERZHITEL’ — means “Almighty,” the equivalent of the Greek Pantokrator.  So we can translate this as “The Lord Almighy,” which is the standard title for icons of Jesus seen as he is here, blessing with one hand and holding the Gospels in the other.

The inscription at upper right reads:  СТ ИОАНН ПРЕ.  CT abbreviates SVYATUIY, meaning “Holy/Saint.”  IOANN is “John.”  And ПРЕ abbreviates PREDTECHA, meaning someone who goes before, a “forerunner.”  So this is “Holy John the Forerunner.”

At lower left is СТ КОЗМА БЕЗСРЕБР and at right СТ ДОМИАНЪ БЕЗРЕ.  I mention them together because, if you have been reading recent postings, you will know they generally belong together.  The inscription at left, in full, is Svyatuiy Kozma Bezsrebrenik, and that at right is Svyatuiy Domian Bezsrebrenik. Bezsrebrenik, I hope you recall, means “without silver,” usually translated loosely into English as “unmercenary.”  So these two are the pair of physician saints Kosma and Domian, Cosmas and Damian.

That leaves only the lower central image, which is quite interesting.  The letters above the saint’s head are quite small, but they read НИКИТА ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК — Nikita Velikomuchenik.  Usually the second word precedes the name, but in this icon it follows.  Nikita is the saint’s given name, and Velikomuchenik means “Great (veliko-) Martyr (muchenik).  So this is the Great Martyr Nikita.

The strange, greyish figure to his left has no halo, so we know he is not a saint.  But what is he?  Well, such figures with tail, long beard, and hair swept upward are the Russian way of depicting a devil.  Often they are painted darker than here.  And though it is rather difficult to see in this image, Nikita is holding a chain in his right hand as he grasps the devil’s beard with his left.

What does it mean?  To know that, we have to know  both the “official” story of Nikita (called Nicetas in the West) and the folk story.

It is said that Nikita was born into a wealthy family of the Gothic people who lived near the Danube River in the 4th century, in what is now Romania.  He was baptized by Bishop Theophilus, said to have been a participant in the First Ecumenical Council.   An intertribal war broke out, and Nikita became a soldier on the Christian side, that of the leader Fritigern.  Their opponent was the leader Athanaric.

Fritigern’s forces defeated Athanaric, and Christianity was further spread among the Goths by Wulfila (Ulfilas), an Arian bishop who created a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible into Gothic, an early Germanic language.  Nikita also worked to spread Christianity and convert others to that belief. Given that both Wulfila and Fritigern were Arian Christians (not believing Jesus to be equal to God the Father) who did not accept the Nicene Creed, it appears that Nikita was also an Arian Christian, though of course that was downplayed when his cult was adopted into Eastern Orthodoxy. Some even think Nikita was ordained an Arian priest.

Over time, however, Athanaric regained power, massed forces and returned to attack and persecute the Christian Goths.  Nikita was captured and tortured, and finally thrown into a fire (some say burnt at the stake in Moldavia in 378).  In E. Orthodox tradition, he is said to have been martyred on September 15th in 372 (there is considerable difference in sources for dates in Nikita’s life and death).  His relics were taken to Mopsuestia in Cilicia.  After his cult of veneration spread, some of his relics were later sent to Constantinople, and some to Decani Monastery in Serbia, which still claims to have his “incorruptible” hand.

Now as to the tale of Nikita beating the devil, that is not part of the “canonical” story of Nikita.  It is instead a product of the Byzantine Middle Ages that was adopted into Eastern Orthodox iconography.  By this account, Nikita was actually the son of the Roman Emperor Maximilian.  Persecuted by his father for holding the Christian faith, Nikita was severely tortured and cast into a prison for three years.  While there, the Devil appeared to Nikita and tried to tempt him.  But Nikita stepped on the Devil’s neck, and, broke his chains, and  began beating the Devil with them.  Then, called before the Emperor for questioning, he took the Devil with him to show the Emperor what he had been really worshiping.  He also raised a couple of people from the dead, but Maximilian was still not convinced.  Then his Queen and the people rose against the Emperor, and Nikita managed to baptize a huge number of people.

Because of this legend, in Slavic popular belief Nikita became Никита Бесогон — Nikita Besogon — “NIkita the Devil-beater,” and he became a very important saint because of his presumed power to drive away devils.  Cast metal images of him, worn around the neck, were very popular.

Here is another example of Nikita beating the Devil:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

The title inscription reads:


“Hagios” (Holy/Saint) is the Greek equivalent of the Slavic Svatuiy.  One often finds it used in Russian icons.  The remainder of the inscription is Church Slavic, and all together it reads:


Interestingly, the Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, as part of his changes in the Church, declared that there was no “Devil-beater,” and that the name should not be connected with St. Nikita the Goth.  However, the Old Believers saw this as just another deceit of the Devil, and they adopted the image of Nikita the Devil-beater as another sign of their “pure” faith, and so this type was preserved among the Old Believers right up to the present day.

Knowing that, let’s consider the icon pictured above again.  We can see that not only is it painted in the stylized manner rather than the “Westernized” manner of the State Church, but the blessing hands of both Jesus and John the Forerunner show the fingers in the position used by and characteristic of the Old Believers, with the first finger straight up, the second finger slightly bent, and the thumb touching the bent last two fingers.


So, we see that:

1.  The icon is in the stylized manner favored by Old Believers;

2.  The icon uses the Old Believer finger position for the blessing hand;

3.  The icon uses an iconography of Nikita preserved by the Old Believers as a sign of their “true belief” in contrast to the State Church.

All of those things tell us that is an icon painted by an Old Believer, not by a State Church painter.

Further, we should consider why the person ordering this icon would have asked for these particular figures to be painted on it.  With the Deisis, the patron would have before him Jesus to receive his prayers; but also he would have the most important intercessors for humans, Mary and John the Baptist, to convince Jesus to answer his prayers.  Then he would also have, to deal with any physical problems or illnesses, the two very important physician saints, Kozma and Domian (Damian).  And finally, to keep away the powers of evil, he would have the most noted driver-away of devils, Nikita the Devil-beater.  So to the Old Believer, this icon would have been a very good insurance policy for the difficulties of life.

Incidentally, you may sometimes see Nikita Besogon called Никита Чертогон — Nikita Chertogon (pronounced Chortogon); Chort is just the Russian term for “devil.”  Both mean essentially the same thing — Nikita “Devil-beater.”

Here is an early 19th century Russian icon of Nikita”

(Collection of Igor Vozyakov)

We see the Nerukotvorrenuiy Obraz /”‘Not Made by Hands’ Image” of Jesus at the top, and the “family” saint Agripena/Agrippina in the left border.


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.

Here is an 18th century example from Mount Athos:


Icons of Stylianos are usually quite easy to identify because of the presence of the child or children, but there is one caution:  do not confuse his icons with those of the lesser known patron of children, Iulian/Julian of Kenomania, who is very similar in appearance and also holds a child.

Here is a late icon — in the Western manner — of Iulian:

(Courtesy of

It is easy to see how he might be confused with Stylianos/Stylian of Paphlagonia, and indeed some icon painters seem to have done precisely that.  One finds such icons at times with an odd spelling of the name, such as “Ustilian,” “Istilian,” and so on, sometimes intended as Stylian, sometimes as Iulian — and sometimes the painter just did not seem to know how to proceed.

This is an image — obviously with the iconography and even the inscription common to Greek icons of Stylian, though this icon is inscribed in Slavic with the title ИСТИЛИАН ЧАДОЗАСТУПНИК Istilian Chadozastupnik — “Istilian, Patron of Children” (the wrapped child in this example always reminds me of a loaf of French bread).  Obviously this image was intended — in spite of the odd spelling — to be Stylian of Paphlagonia.  Nonetheless, some mistake it for Iulian of Kenomania.

Usually, however, icons of Iulian of Kenomania show him kneeling before a lectern or table, holding a child, and gazing up at an icon on the wall of Mary — as in this printed example:

Some newer images of Iulian attempt to portray him in a kind of Neo-byzantine style, and omit the lectern or table and the icon of Mary, showing him holding a child and gazing up at Jesus in the clouds.  Unfortunately Stylian of Paphlagonia is often found represented in much the same manner, though generally without Jesus.  It is very common to find icons of Iulian misrepresented as icons of Stylian by icon dealers, etc.   Most old icons of Iulian one encounters, however, are generally late — from the 19th – early 20th century, and are often simple folk icons from the Ukraine and other western border regions of what was once the Russian Empire.  This confusion of Stylian and Iulian makes it all the more important to pay attention to title inscriptions on such icons, as well as to the iconography.

Iulian, by the way, is said to have been made a bishop by St. Peter himself — or so the tale goes.  He went to what is now northern Italy, and preached there among the non-Christian population.  He is said to have so sympathized with parents who lost a child that he would restore dead children to life — basically resurrect them — and that is how he got the reputation as an advocate of children.

As for Stylian, his icons tend to be found more in southern Russia and Ukraine, and his name is often spelled in very odd ways that may make it more difficult to recognize, but look to the iconography and that will help to identify him.


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 and even into the latter half of the 17th 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 Nicholas the Wonderworker, covered with a gilt silver, somewhat 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 cloisonné 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 icon covers and 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 visible, 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 thenecessarily alters the form of the words following it. Svyatuiy becomes 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 insteadBogoslova.” 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, pronounced ah-LEE-fah.  Its chief ingredient was cooked linseed oil.  Often a dessicant (substance to make it dry faster) was added — frequently lead, which of course is toxic.  Adding a lead dessicant aided drying, but it also made the olifa darken faster.

Here is a video  (in Russian) of a fellow applying olifa to a newly-painted icon using a two-step process.  As you can see, he pours on a bit of olifa, then smooths it out, eliminating any puddles or dry islands, until the whole surface is covered.  Then he blots the excess, lets the surface dry, and repeats the process:

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.

Vladimir Soloukhin
Vladimir Soloukhin

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.