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

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

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

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

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

nikov (Photo Courtesy of

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

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

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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

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

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

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

(Photo courtesy of
(Photo courtesy of

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

So that comprises the raw wooden panel on which an icon is painted.  But before the painting could actually begin, a linen cloth was glued over the surface of the icon.  This is the old equivalent of a modern painter’s canvas.  The cloth glued onto the icon surface is called the PAVOLOKA (Паволока), but you may just call it the “canvas” if you wish to use English. Sometimes, on late icons, even paper was used for this purpose.  The cheapest late icons might have no cloth or paper at all below the gesso surface.

So we now have the wooden icon panel with a canvas or cloth glued to its surface, but it is still not ready for painting.  First, a thin, white mixture of glue and chalk is brushed onto the surface.  This is the POBELKA (побелка).  Then begins the levkashenie (левкашение), the application of layer upon layer of a thick glue and chalk or alabaster (gypsum) mixture called LEVKAS (Левкас).  This is smoothed down to a mirror finish.  We can simply call this LEVKAS layer by our ordinary Euro-American term for it (originally Italian) — “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/Lefkos in later pronunciation), where a particularly fine kind of chalk was found and used in making the ground for painting. When you see a damaged icon, you will see the white LEVKAS showing through where the paint is missing or where there is a crack and the paint has fallen away.

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

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

To better understand the preliminary stages of preparing the panel for painting, here is a video (in Russian, but you can easily tell what is happening without the audio):

The lady in the video clearly shows the stages of scratching the board so the glue and pavoloka can more easily adhere, applying the pavoloka cloth (ткань/tkan’), brushing on the glue, and then comes the thin whiting called pobelka, followed by the application of the thick levkas/gesso.  You can see that this lady uses a very gauze-like cloth for the pavoloka.


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 but pronounced farther back in the throat when followed by α, ο, ω, ου; like Y in yet when followed by any of these: ε, η, ι, υ, ει, οι, υι, αι.  When doubled (γγ), in both old and new Greek it is like ng in longer

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

Εε = E as in epic

Ζζ = Z as in zone

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

Θθ = Th as in thick

Ιι = I    ee as in meet

Κκ + K as in kin

Λλ = L as in lamp

Μμ = M  as in mill

Νν = N  as in no

Ξξ = X as in dixie

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

Ππ = P as in past

Ρρ = R as in (Spanish) Rosa

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

Ττ = T as in time

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

Φφ  Ph as in phone

Χχ = Ch as in (German) Bach

Ψψ = Ps as in tips

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

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

The Greek Orthodox Church uses the modern Greek pronunciation.

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 ἉΓΙΟC (ΑΓΙΟΣ) – HAGIOS, meaning “holy.”  It is the Greek word used for “saint.”  So an inscription above the head of a saint that reads Ὁ ἉΓΙΟΣ 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  Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ 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 Ἡ ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ –HE PHILOXENIA TOU ABRAAM — contains two words you already know.  The first is Ἡ, 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.



(Courtesy of

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!

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

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 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 look at another Russian icon — this one late 19th century — depicting the “origin story” of the Three-Handed Mother of God icon.

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, signifying 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, particularly in Old Believer icons.

The other saint in this image is Svayataya Prepodobnaya Muchenitsa 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.  A Muchenitsa is a female martyr.  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.

Here is another example, dated 1904:

(Courtesy of

It has the ornate border typical of many icons of the late 19th-early 20th century, and shows a mixture of Byzantine and western European influence in its style.




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).

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

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.” An alternate image illustrates Isaiah 11:1:

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” The inscription on that image on the second icon shown on this page reads “A shoot comes forth from the root of Jesse, and the blossom thereof is Christ.” The image depicts Jessie lying down, and on the tree that grows out of him, Christ is depicted.

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 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.