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 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.  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.

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.  So the KOVCHEG is bordered by a narrow, rising slant in the wood called the LUZGA.

The outer, raised, flat border all the way around an icon having a KOVCHEG and LUZGA is called the POLYA.  It means “field.”

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.

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 (plural).  One usually finds two SHPONKI, one coming in from either side toward the center, but occasionally just one SHPONKA (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 and pine.  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, but you may just call it the “canvas” if you wish to use English.

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 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.

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; 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, 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 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.



Do you notice anything strange about the icon shown here?  Obviously it is an icon of Mary and the Christ Child, but look at the hands of the Mother.  Now do you see it?  She has three hands!    Look at her left hand.  There is another hand just below it.  And there is a third hand supporting the Christ Child.  This is the “Three-Handed” Mother of God, and it has an origin story as strange as the image itself.  What we must ask ourselves is why Mary has three hands in this image (the example shown is from the Ferapontov Monastery).

Богоматерь Троеручица. Ферапонтов Монастырь

The answer is very simple.  Painters misunderstood and misinterpreted the original Greek icon on which huge numbers of hand-painted copies were based.  While it is true that the original icon had three hands, only two of them were intended to be Mary’s hands.  That is something that the process of copying the icon repeatedly changed, just as repeated copying of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible resulted in great numbers of changes and variations in readings.

But how did the original icon come about on which these huge numbers of peculiar copies were based?  Well, all we have is the traditional origin story. That tale is as strange as the Russian image itself, and to examine it more closely we need only to look at another Russian icon — this one late 19th century — depicting the “origin story” of the Three-Handed Mother of God icon.

Origin of the Three-Handed Mother of God image -- an icon of St. John of Damascus (Courtesy of

We see, in the background, the “original” icon of Mary that gave rise to this legend.  It is said that John of Damascus, who was the leading proponent of icon veneration in the Church against the opposers — the iconoclasts — was in the employ of a powerful Caliph.  The Byzantine Emperor Leo  – an opposer of icon veneration — supposedly had letters forged in John’s handwriting, urging Leo to attack the Caliph.  These were made available to the Caliph, who on seeing the forgeries, believed them to be genuine.  He decided to punish John for his presumed disloyalty, ordering that his hand be cut off as punishment.  In this rather gory icon, we see John of Damascus, with his severed hand lying on the ground, and blood flowing freely, praying before an icon of Mary.

According to the tale, because of his prayers before the icon, Mary healed John by miraculously re-attaching the severed hand.  In gratitude for this miracle, a silver image of the severed hand was affixed to the icon itself.  If you look closely, you will see that this “origin story” icon has condensed the story so that we see not only John with his severed hand, but also the silver hand already attached to the image (which actually happened later).  Icons frequently push two or more events together into the same image, ignoring chronology.

So that is the peculiar origin story of the original “Three-Handed” icon of Mary.  And as already mentioned, misperceiving that silver hand for a third hand of Mary in the process of repeated copying  is what gave us so very many Russian icons of Mary with three hands.  Images that show the “added” hand as not that of Mary are actually uncommon in Russian icon painting.  One sees from this how easily folk tales become spread, and how mistakes get incorporated into the icon painting tradition, becoming tradition in themselves.

We see in the “origin story” icon of John of Damascus the ornate painted and embossed border so typical of countless Russian icons painted in the late 19th and very early 20th century.  The style of this icon is very Westernized, in the more realistic manner preferred by the State Church and abhorred by the Old Believers, who kept generally to the old stylized “abstract” manner of painting figures and backgrounds.

But what about the real origin of the silver hand on the original icon?  Well, the “true believers” would not question the origin story, but for the rest of us, it is far more likely that someone with an affliction of the hand once did pray before the icon, and when the hand got better, he or she had a silver hand made and attached to the image in thanks.  This is a common practice in many Marian shrines, including those of Roman Catholics.  There one sees little silver body parts of all kinds attached to or placed near images of Mary.  They are generally referred to by the Latin term “ex-voto,” meaning something resulting from a vow — in this case little silver objects offered in gratitude for perceived answers to prayer.




I have spoken earlier of how often icon saints are just generic images.  That is particularly obvious in the image of the Guardian Angel (Angel Khranitel) who represents each individual believer’s guardian angel —  “one image fits all.”

The Guardian Angel was believed to watch over each Orthodox believer, keeping note of his or her good and bad deeds.  He is generally shown with a cross in the right hand — representing faith — and a sword in the left, signifiying his power to protect from evil.

In the example shown here, the Guardian Angel stands on a cloud depicted, as Russian icon clouds generally are — as a collection of snail-like curls.  The Guardian Angel is sometimes the main icon figure, but more often he is found in the company of other saints, and he is also a very common border image.

The other saint in this image is Svayataya Prepodobnaya Feodosiya.  If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that Svyataya means “holy” or “saint,” and Prepodobnaya signifies a female monastic — a nun.  And this nun saint’s name is Feodosiya, or if we put it in a western form, Theodosia.  Remember when reading icon inscriptions that the Church Slavic in which icon titles are written has no “TH,” and uses “F” instead.

This icon most likely belonged to a girl or woman named Feodosiya.  Using it, she could pray both to the saint for whom she was named and to her Guardian Angel.

The little image at the center of the top border — between the two inscriptions identifying the saint and angel below — is the “Not Made By Hands” image of Christ (I discussed this image in an earlier posting).  It holds the place that generally would be taken by an image of Gospod’ Savaof – God the Father painted as an old man with a white beard.  One sect of Old Believers abjured the “Gospod’ Savaof” image, and used the “Not Made By Hands” image in its place, as here and at the top of crucifix icons.

Did you notice that the main images in this icon — painted near the beginning of the 20th century — are on a central field surrounded by a raised border?  The border and recessed field form a kovcheg – literally an “ark,” but more simply a “box,” meaning a kind of visual box in which sacred things are found — the sacred things in this case being the two figures.  The use of the kovcheg is generally characteristic of much older icons, but from the late date of this particular image, we see that it is by no means an infallible indicator of date.  Note also that though the sacred figures in this icon all have haloes, there is no real svyet’ (literally “light”) – no bright or gilded background such as is often found on other icons.



The Unburnt Thornbush (Neopalimaya Kupina) icon of Mary is of particular interest because it is so very “pagan” in its notion that a painted icon of divine figures has the power to protect from fire.  In old Russia, if a house or building burst into flame, people would stand holding this icon facing the fire in the belief that it would be extinguished.  It was also hung to protect dwellings from fire.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

There is much to say about this type.  Its origins are a mixture of references to Old Testament events, to symbolic references to Mary found in the Akathist hymn and canon, and a good portion of it comes simply from apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees, particularly those portions relating to the angels surrounding the central figure of Mary holding the child Christ (Christ Emmanuel).

The immediate reference is to the Burning Bush seen by Moses in the biblical account — a bush that burned but somehow was not consumed.  In Eastern Orthodoxy this was and is seen as a prefiguration of Mary, who dogma teaches was pregnant with God (as Jesus) but was not harmed thereby.

That is why Mary holds the central position in this rose-shaped form that is like a Jungian mandala.  She is in the center with her child; about her are numbers of angels, who are the powers in nature that control such elements as lightning, thunder, and fire.  And beyond the rosette, in the four corners of the icon, are four scenes that show noted Old Testament prefigurations of Mary that are also mentioned in the Akathist, the noted hymn to Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.

We will begin with those, which traditionally are:

Upper left:
Moses sees the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2), shown here with Mary visible in a circle within the flames.  Mary was considered to have contained the fire of God, yet was not harmed (this explanation applies also to the separate Ognevidnaya icon depicting Mary with a fiery red face, popular in the 19th century, for which there is no origin story).

Upper right:
Isaiah’s lips are purified by the fire of a coal taken from the altar by a seraph. (Isaiah 6:5-7); Mary was considered purified by being pregnant with the “fire of God.”

Russian icon of Virgin Mary

Neopalimaya Kupina

Lower left:
The prophet Ezekiel sees a closed door in the East (Ezekiel 44:1-2), which symbolizes the virginity of Mary in E. Orthodoxy, the closed door to a temple containing the glory of God — the fire of divinity.

Lower right:
The Old Testament forefather Jacob sees, in a dream, a ladder from earth to heaven.  Mary is considered a ladder uniting earth and heaven in E. Orthodoxy, through her bearing of Jesus: “Rejoice, heavenly ladder on which God descended.”

Moving inward, we next come to the points of the eight-pointed “slava” (“Glory”) representing divine light and the Eighth day of Creation, the Day of Eternity.  In the upper left segment is an angel, representing the Evangelist Matthew as a winged man.  At upper right is an eagle, representing the Evangelist Mark.  At lower left is a lion, representing the Evangelist John, and at lower right is an ox, representing the Evangelist Luke.

The most interesting parts of the icon are the angels in the “petals” of the rose, which are usually eight or more in number.  They are the forces behind the elements of nature, the hidden powers that control the weather and relate also to the apocalyptic end of the world.  Inscriptions describing them vary from icon to icon.

Also usually found on this icon type is the inscription “Who makes his angels spirits, his ministers a flame of fire.”  “Who makes his angels spirits” is in some versions “Who makes his angels winds.”

There are a number of apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements, but one of the most obvious is the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 2:

  1. And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.
  2. For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him -the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels [of the spirit of fire and the angels] of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth, (He created) the abysses and the darkness, eventide <and night>, and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart.
  3. And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day.

One can see that the components of this icon have a great deal to do with fire and burning and lightning, as well as with frost, ice, rain and clouds.  When one combines these with the “fire” attributes of Mary, it is not difficult to understand how the belief arose that this icon could control the elements and subdue fire.

The central image of the star set upon the angelic rosette is that of Mary holding Christ Emmanuel.  She also holds a ladder, symbolizing her position as ladder between heaven and earth, the unifier of heaven and earth through the incarnation.  Also often seen is a stone on her breast, signifying the “Stone not cut by human hands” of Daniel 2:45:  “Forasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver and the gold.”  This signifies the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, born without the participation of a human male.  Additionally one often sees a small image of Christ as “Great High Priest” upon Mary’s breast, showing him wearing a bishop’s crown.

It is common to have an image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth” — Gospod’ Savaof)) seen on clouds just above the main rosette.  He is usually shown with hands raised in blessing.

The icon of the Unburnt Thornbush, because of its supposed ability to protect from and to ward off fire, was very popular in Old Russia, where wooden buildings and dwellings were very common and fire a constant threat.  This icon type was particularly popular among the Old Believers.



Tikhvin icon of Virgin in Tikhvinsky Monastery

IThe “Tikhvin” (Tikhvinskaya) icon of Mary 

There is an odd document floating about on the Internet titled The Icon FAQ, an article that attempts to influence potential or new converts, written by a fellow who is himself a Protestant convert to conservative Eastern Orthodoxy .  What interests me here is that in response to the question “Do [Eastern] Orthodox Christians pray to icons?” the rather obfuscating answer given by the Icon FAQ is, “[Eastern Orthodox] Christians pray in the presence of icons….”

As I often repeat, the best way to learn the truth about something is to examine not what someone says is the fact, but what really is the fact — in this case, what the actual practice of people was, what they — the “believers” — have actually done and said about the matter and still do and say.  It is unlikely you will ever hear the average non-convert Eastern Orthodox believer — past or present — talk about praying “in the presence of icons” — after all, one prays in the presence of shirts and shoes and building walls and a floor and ceiling in an Orthodox Church, but icons are in an entirely different category.

The fact is that when traditional Eastern Orthodox talk about prayer and icons, what they usually say is that they pray before (meaning in front of, facing) an icon, or that they pray to an icon.  That is the real state of the matter that the Icon FAQ ignores, because of course it has designs on the reader — it is religious propaganda.  But the issue raised by the question does takes us to a rather fascinating subject — the traditional attitude toward icons of Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.

If an alien anthropologist were to visit Russia, he or she (or it?) would quickly form the opinion that the chief deity in Russian Orthodoxy (and the same applies to other E. Orthodox countries to a large extent) is a Mother Goddess who has given birth to a small male god.  That is because of the immense popularity of icons of Mary and the great number of different types, which greatly exceeds those devoted to Jesus, who no doubt would be seen as a secondary deity.

When we look at this great number of “wonder-working” Marian icons in particular, we find ourselves back in the mindset of the Greco-Roman world of worship that preceded the advent of Christianity; back in a pre-scientific world in which divine images speak, move about of their own volition, punish, reward, and even bleed.

In her book Le culte des icônes en Grèce (The Cult of Icons in Greece), Katerina Seraïdari writes of the Panayia (Panagia) Limnia, the “All Holy One of Limni,” an icon of Mary that supposedly came to the village of Limni in 1560.   It’s “appearance,” as they say in Russia, was not unusual in comparison to all other stories.  It came floating on the water, and it was placed in the Hermitage of St. Anne.  But the icon disappeared three times from that site, showing that it preferred another location.  Seraïdari writes, “Ces déplacements miraculeux révélèrent à la communauté la volonté de l’icône ainsi que son propre destin….” “These miraculous displacements revealed to the community the will of the icon as well as its proper destination….”  I have added the emphasis.  The icon was eventually moved to the site it preferred.

Now one may think, “Well, this is someone writing in the 21st century and attributing something to the icon — a will — that would not actually be the case in Eastern Orthodoxy.”  But really just the opposite is true.  This manner of speaking of the icon as though it had its own will and desires and movements is actually the way such icons have been traditionally regarded in Eastern Orthodoxy.  If an icon of Mary does not like where it is, it will go someplace else, and it will get there by floating on the water — as in the case of the Panagia Limnia — or it will fly through the air, as in the case of the Tikhvin (Tikhvinskaya) icon of Mary in Russia, etc. etc.

In short, the traditional attitude toward icons — the attitude actually held by Eastern Orthodox believers, not theoreticians or converts — was that icons behaved like living creatures — and so they were treated as such.  That is why a believer would pray before such an icon, as though talking to a person, and that is why it is often said that believers would pray to an icon, because that is precisely what they did.  One can see from this that the feeble notion that Eastern Orthodox believers merely pray “in the presence of” icons is, from an historical point of view, both very misleading and quite inaccurate.  To discover the real situation one must go to what was actually said and written about such icons and how they were regarded by the ordinary believers of past centuries.

There is a great deal more that could be said on this subject, because there is a voluminous amount of legend and folklore dealing with “miraculous” Marian icons.  In fact just to discuss them one by one would be very revealing, but I shall have to save further comments for another posting.



Seeing actual painter’s manuals is often something of a letdown for the student of icons, who may expect to find every saint, every festal day, every “wonderworking” icon of Mary, as well as every other icon type in existence depicted and described.  It is not going to happen.  The greater part of most podlinniki is taken up with rather dull and repetitive descriptions of hundreds of saints who differ little from one another in appearance, and descriptions of how they are to be painted.  A few major festal icons may be included, but for the descriptions of the vast majority of icons of Mary, or even of Jesus, etc. — one must look elsewhere.

Podlinniks (more accurately, podlinniki) can be divided into those that are predominantly illustrated — such as the Stroganov Podlinnik — and those that are non-illustrated descriptive text only, such as the “FilimonovPodlinnik.

The beginning student of icons should first learn both the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, because a Russian podlinnik will be in Cyrillic letters, and the Greek examples of the equivalent — the hermineia — are written in Greek.  But don’t worry.  You do not have to learn the entire Russian or Greek language.  You just have to accumulate a useful, basic vocabularly of terms, and that will take you a long way, because painter’s manuals and icon inscriptions in general are VERY repetitive.  You will begin to see how repetitive just from the first couple of pages of the Stroganov Podlinnik, which I have shown here.

Those who want to read the Russian podlinniki in their originals will want to become familiar with the old names for pigments used in painting, because those are the colors described in the manuals.  Learning all these things is a gradual process, and one can go as quickly or as slowly as one wishes.  I have already posted an article on the icon painter’s palette — the old color names and their meanings — which you will find in the archives.

Here is the beginning page for September from the Stroganov Podlinnik, along with transliterations of its information.  Those who have been reading this site for a while will recall that the important icon for the beginning of September is the “Indiction” type, which represents the beginning of the Church year — yet it is not included in this podlinnik, which begins instead with the standard first saint for podlinniki, Simeon “Stolpnik,” meaning essentially Simeon “the pillar guy” — the saint who lived atop a pillar, often known by his Greek title Stylites, which means the same as “Stolpnik” in Russian.  There is more than one “pillar guy” icon saint, so that is why title inscriptions are very important.

Let’s take a look:

Beginning of September: Stroganov Podlinnik

You can see that there are four saints on this page, the first two under the letter “a,” the second two under what looks like a B, but it is actually the third letter of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is pronounced like a “v.”  But these letters are also numbers, so the “a” means day “1,” and the “B” means day “3.”  So right away we see that this podlinnik has omitted the saints for September 2nd.

Starting from the left, we can skip most of the first inscription because it tells us simply that it is the month of September, which has 30 days, with 12 hours in a day, 12 in a night.  So let’s get on to the important descriptions, which begin like this:

1.  Prepodobnuiy Simeon.  Syed.  Stolpnika

2.  Prepodobnaya Mar’fa riza dich bagor z belilom is[pod] sankir.

3.  Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod’ lazor’

4.  Predpodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsaryagrada rus’ 

It tells us that the left-hand image is that of “Prepodobnuiy” Simeon.  Prepodobnuiy is a title literally meaning “most like,” meaning “most like Christ,” but in icon inscriptions it means a person is a monk.  We are given a very brief description of how he is to be painted:  Syed — “Grey.”  That means his hair is grey.  Beyond that all it tells us is “Stolpnik,” meaning Simeon is a “pillar guy,” depicted atop a pillar.  So we know this Stolpnik is Simeon of the Pillar, Simeon Stylites, which means the same thing.

The next figure from the left, we are told, is “Prepodobnaya” Marfa.  Prepodobnaya is just the feminine form of Prepodobnuiy, so Prepodobnaya means the saint is a nun.  “Marfa” is just the Russian form of “Martha.”  In Russian the Greek “th” is usually replaced by an “f” sound, because Russian did not have a “th” sound.  It says of the nun Martha that she is painted “Riza dich.”  Riza is the generic term for a robe.  So we know that Martha’s robe is “dich,” which, if you read my posting on icon pigment colors, you will recall as a grey color, sometimes with a faint bluish tinge. It adds bagor –reddish purple — with byelila, — white — and that the ispod — the garment beneath – is sankir — the dark brownish color used in many ways in icons, including as the foundation color — the first-painted layer of tempera — for flesh and other objects.

The page skips September 2nd and goes to two saints for September 3rd,the first of which is  Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod lazor.

“Svyatuiy” just means “holy” or “saint.”  So this is saint Mamant.  His riza — his robe — is kinovar — that bright red made of powdered cinnabar, mercury sulphide.  Ispod — the undergarment — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue, the best of which was made of powdered lapis lazuli.

And next to Mamant is the commemoration of  Prepodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsarya grada.  Rus’.  Prepodobnago is just another grammatical form of Prepodobnuiy.  It means this is the day “of the monk saint” Ioann Postnik, meaning Ioann the Faster ( fasting in the sense of abstaining from food, not in the sense of moving speedily).  He is Patriarkha Tsaryagrada — the Patriarch of the Tsar City, meaning Constantinople.  And finally, it tells us that Ioann is “rus,” which refers to his hair color, just as “syed” referred to the hair color of Simeon Stolpnik.  Rus’ means literally “Russian,” meaning his hair is like that of a lot of Russians, a kind of light brown to dark blond.

Now we move on to the 3rd and 4th days of September.

The first description on the left tells us this day is the commemoration Svayatago Svyashchennomuchenika Anfim’ Episkop’ Nikomidiskiy.  Svyatago is just again the “of” form of Svyatuiy, meaning”Saint” or “Holy.”  So this is the day of commemoration of Holy Svyashcennomuchenika Anfim’  You will recall that a muchenik is a martyr.  This fellow is a Svyashchenno-muchenik, meaning a priest-martyr.  And his name is Anfim.  It tells us further that he is Episkop’ — meaning bishop — Nikomidiskiy — of a place called Nicomedia.  We are told he is syed, meaning grey-haired, and that his riza — his robe — is kreshchata, ornamented with crosses (cross patterns on the robe).

The second description from the left tells us that on Toy zhe den’ — meaning “on the same day,” is also celebrated Prepodobnuiy Feoktist’.  If you have been paying attention, you will know that the first word means he is a monk saint, and the second word is his name, Feoktist.  We are told he is syed, which again is a word you know now.  It means his hair (and beard if he has one, which he does) are grey.  Then it tells us his riza ispod — the undergarment beneath his monk’s robe — is vokhra z byelilom — ochre with white.

The third fellow from left — on the 4th of September — is Svyatuiy Muchenik Vavila — Holy Marytr Vavila.  He is syed — grey-haired.  His Riza is with krestuiy bagrovui, ornamented with crosses that are bagrovuiy — a form of bagor — meaning crosses that are reddish-purple.  But the youths — the three mladentsi with him — are v sorochnakh — in “shirts” loosely, but a better way to translate v sorochnakh would be “in tunics.”

There are a couple of notes added , one of which says V’ toy zhe den’ Moisey Bogovidets’ — “On the same day Moses the God-seer,” and the other says Cei den’ praznouem neopalimiya koupinuiy, meaning “This day is celebrated the Unburnt Thornbush,” meaning the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary.  Neither Moses (the Old Testament fellow) nor the icon are shown.

The last guy on the right is Svatuiy Vavila Nikomidiskiy, “Holy Vavila of Nicomedia.”  We are told he is syed, which should be an old word to you by now — meaning grey [-haired], and that his riza verkh is bagor (reddish-purple) dich [grey].  Riza, you will recall, means “robe.”  And verkh means “outer.”  So when talking about robes, the verkh is the outer robe, and the ispod is the robe beneath or “under.”  The painter adds the note that the probel — the highlighting on the robe — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue.  And finally the ispod — the under-robe — is bakan dich.  Bakan is a dark red, and dich, you will recall, is grey to grey-blue.

We have only covered some main saints for four days, and already you can see how very repetitive this all is, which is why it is not really difficult to learn to read icon titles and a good part of the podlinniki — the painter’s manuals — as well.  Now imagine how many of these saints one has to go through for the whole year, and you begin to get an idea of just how dull these manuals really are.  They are not page-turners, they were not meant for reading enjoyment.  They really were just working documents for icon painters that enabled them to follow the standard forms for hundreds of common saints (and the Stroganov Podlinnik does not include all the saints in the calendar by any means).  They were the painter’s equivalent of a schematic diagram in electronics.  One referred to it to make sure one was assembling a saint on the prepared icon board correctly.

One had to have the descriptions of all these saints not only to paint calendar icons, but also for those patrons who would come in and want to order an icon of their “Angel Day” saint — meaning their name-day saint.  Russians were named for these saints, so, for example, a fellow named “Feoktist” would want an icon of his saint, who was also named Feoktist.

All of this kept the icon painters in business, but it could be deadly dull work for them, as one can imagine, with little room left for imagination and creativity.



There is a lot of romanticized nonsense written about the painting of icons in old Russia.  The fact is that it was a business and a very large business,  in spite of sometimes using the euphemism “exchange” for the selling of icons — or more obviously, “to exchange for money.” Huge numbers of icons were sold every year, produced in workshops ranging from large, multi-employee operations to small family or even one-person operations.  A good part of icon painting was done by Old Believers, who kept to the old and traditional styles, though some of the workshops — like the one depicted here — could paint in both styles, just as the earlier Cretan workshops in the Greek Islands had produced icons both in the “Byzantine” style and according to Western Roman Catholic taste.

The following excerpts are an actual glimpse into a pre-Revolution icon workshop in Russia through the eyes of Maxim Gorkiy, who was apprenticed to one when young.  We should not be surprised at the prevalence of drinking and drunkenness at that time, nor should we consider it odd that workers often saw their task of icon painting as a tedious job (which it was), and were sometimes frustrated by the limits that the necessity of being “living copy machines” put on their artistic impulses.  As we see, by this time icon painting had become a production-line process, which is one reason for the tremendous output of icon painting studios, even though they were still doing hand work.

Gorkiy worked in the icon painting studio at a time when icon painting was beginning to be threatened by lithography on paper and on tin — much less expensive to buy than hand painting —  and that caused the icon business to already begin its decline, even years before the Russian Revolution was to cut it back sharply for other reasons.

These excerpts are from Gorkiy’s autobiography In the World (V Liudakh}:

The icon-painting workshop took up two rooms in a large house built partly of stone.  One room had three windows, one overlooking the yard and one overlooking the garden; the other room had one window overlooking the garden and another facing the street.  These windows were small and square, and their panes, distorted with age, unwillingly admitted the pale diffused light of winter days.  Both rooms were closely packed with tables, and at every table sat the bent figures of icon painters.

Glass balls full of water were suspended from the ceiling, to reflect the light of the lamps and to throw it upon the square surfaces of the icons in cold, white rays.

It was hot and stuffy in the workshop.  Here about twenty men worked, icon painters from Palekh, Kholuiy, and Mstera [the three most noted icon-painting villages at that time].  They all sat in cotton shirts with unfastened collars.  They had pants made of ticking, and were barefoot, or wore sandals.

Over their heads, like a blue veil, stretched the smoke of cheap tobacco, and there was a heavy smell of sizing [gluey substance in gesso], varnish, and rotten eggs [egg yolks were used to bind the powdered pigments].  A melancholy Vladimir [town and region] song flowed slowly, like pitch:

How depraved people have become;
A boy ruined a girl, and did not care.

They sang other melancholy songs, but that was the one they sang most often.  Its long, drawn out movement did not keep one from thinking or impede the motion of the fine brush, made of weasel hair, over the surface of the icons, as it painted the lines of a figure and laid fine lines of suffering upon the emaciated faces of the saints.

By the windows the chaser, Golovev, worked his little hammer.  He was a drunken old man with an enormous blue nose.  The lazy flow of song was punctuated by the ceaseless tapping of the hammer, like a worm gnawing at a tree.

Some evil genius had divided the work [of icon making] into a long series of actions bereft of beauty and incapable of arousing any love for the business or interest in it.  Panfil, the squinting joiner [woodworker], brought the pieces of cypress and lilac-wood of different sizes, which he had planed and glued [the panels on which the icons were painted].  the consumptive [with tuberculosis] lad Davidov laid the colors on.  His friend Sorokin painted on the inscription; Milyashin outlined the design from an original with a pencil; old Golovev gilded it and embossed the gold pattern [impressed patterns into the gilded gesso].  The finishers added the landscape [background] and the clothes of the figures; and then they were placed — without faces or hands — against the wall, waiting for the work of the face painter [the worker who did all the visible "flesh," including the faces of the saints].

It was very weird to see a large icon for an iconostasis, or the doors for an altar, standing against the wall without faces, hands, or feet — just the clerical vestments, or the armor and the short tunics of archangels.  These variously-painted panels suggested death; that which should have added life to them was absent, but it seemed as though it had been there but had vanished, leaving only the heavy robes behind.

When the features had been painted in by the face painter, the icon was handed to the workman, who filled in the design of the chaser.  A different workman did the lettering, and the varnish [olifa] was applied by the head workman himself, Ivan Larionovich, a quiet man.  He had a gray face; his beard was gray too, the hairs fine and silky.  His gray eyes were particularly deep and sad.  He had a pleasant smile, but one could not smile at him;  he made one feel somehow awkward.  He looked like the image of Simeon Stolpnik [Simeon Stylites], just as skinny and emaciated, and his motionless eyes looked far off in the same abstract way, through people and walls.

Some days after I had entered the workshop, the banner worker [maker of religious and processional banners], a Don Cossack named Kapendiukhin, a strong, handsome fellow, arrived completely drunk.  With clenched teeth and his gentle, womanish eyes blinking, he began to smash up everything with his iron fist, without saying a word.  Of medium height, he threw himself on the workroom like a cat chasing rats in a cellar.  The others lost their composure and hid themselves away in corners, shouting out to one another, “Knock him down!”

The face painter, Evgeniy Sitanov, succeeded in stunning the maddened creature by hitting him on the head with a small stool….

Larionovich appeared on the scene in cap and overcoat, shook his finger at Sitanov, and said to the workmen in a quiet, professional tone, “Carry him into the vestibule, and leave him there ’til he is sober….”

I looked at Larionovich, wondering perplexedly why these strong, belligerent people were so easily controlled by him.  He showed every one how he ought to work.  Even the best workmen willingly listened to his advice.  He taught Kapenduikhin more, with more words, than the others:

“You, Kapendiukhin, are what is called a painter; that is, you ought to paint from life in the Italian manner [the "Westernized" icon style].  Painting in oils requires warm colors, and you have used too much white and have made Our Lady’s eyes cold as winter.  The cheeks are painted red, like apples, so that the eyes don’t seem to belong to them.  And they are not put in right, either.  One is looking over the bridge of the nose, and the other has moved toward the forehead; and the face has not come out pure and holy, but crafty and wintry.  You don’t concentrate on your work, Kapendiukhin!….”

Zhikarev…went on with his work.  He was the best workman we had, for he could paint faces in the Byzantine manner [the old style] and artistically in the new Italian style.  When he took orders for iconostases, Larionovich consulted him.  He had a fine knowledge of all the original images.  All of the costly copies of miracle-working icons, Feodorov, Kazan, and others, passed through his hands.  But when he looked at the model he growled loudly, “These models tie us down; there is no getting away from that fact.”

In spite of his superior place in the workshop, he was less conceited than others, and was kind to the apprentices — me and Pavel.  He wanted to teach us the work, since no one else ever bothered about us.

He was difficult to fathom.  He was not usually cheerful, and sometimes he would work for a whole week in silence, as if mute.  He looked at everyone like strangers who amazed him, as if it were the first time he had come across such people.  And although very fond of singing, at such times he did not sing, nor even listen to the songs.  All the others watched him, winking at one another.

He would bend over an icon, which stood sideways, his panel on his knees, the middle resting on the edge of the table, while his fine brush diligently painted the dark, foreign face.  He was dark and foreign-looking himself.  Suddenly he would say in a clear, offended tone,

“Forerunner” [Predtecha] — what does that mean?  Tech, in ancient language, means ‘to go.”  A “forerunner” is one who goes before, and that is all” [John the Baptist is called Ioann Predtecha -- "John the Forerunner"].

The workshop was very quiet; everyone was glancing sidewise at Zhikarev, laughing, and in the stillness rang out these strange words:

“He ought to be painted with a sheepskin and wings [he is speaking of the image of John the Forerunner as 'Angel of the Wilderness' -- John the Baptist]“

“Who are you talking to?” I asked.

He was silent, either not hearing my question or not caring to answer.  Then his words fell again into the expectant silence:

“The lives of the saints are what we ought to know!  What do we know?  We live without wings.  Where is the soul?  The soul — where is it?  The originals are there — yes — but where is the soul?”

…I remember when the copy of the Feodorov Mother of God was finished, Zhikarev placed the icon on the table and said loudly, excitedly:

“It is finished, Little Mother!  Bright Chalice, Thou!  Thou bottomless cup, in which are shed the bitter tears from the hearts of a world of creatures!”  And, throwing an overcoat on his shoulders, he went out to the tavern.  The young men laughed and whistled, the older ones looked after him with envious sighs, and Sitanov went to his work.  Looking at it attentively, he explained, “Of course he will go and get drunk, because he is sorry to have to hand over his work.  That sort of regret is not given to all.”

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

This late 19th century icon of Christ as “Lord Almighty” shows the kind border ornamentation often popular in icons of that period.  The incised border and halo are painted with imitation cloisonné enamel work.  The text on the Gospel book reads “Priidite ko mne vsi truzhdaiushchiysya i obremeneney… ” etc.  “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”