Every now and then, someone asks me about the letters sometimes seen on Greek icons of Nicholas of Myra — specifically on his omophorion, the stole bishops wear about the neck.

Let’s look more closely:

They can be quite mystifying, but the mystery is easy to solve.

First, the most common are those seen on the right in the image above.  They should be read in this order:


Τhey abbreviate the Greek words


In full,

Φως Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι
Phos Khristou Phainei Pasi
“The light (PHos) of Christ (KHristou ) Shines (PHainei) on all (Pasi )

“The Light of Christ Shines Upon All.”

You may also see the last word in Greek as Πάσιν/pasin, with the same meaning.

During the weekdays of Lent, the Eucharistic liturgy — that is, the one in which the bread and wine are consecrated — is not used.  Instead the evening liturgy used is called the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.”  When communion is given during this vespers liturgy, the “gifts” used — that is, the bread and wine — were previously consecrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of the preceding Sunday.  That is why they are called “presanctified gifts.”

Now at one point in that Vespers communion liturgy, the priest looks at the icon of Christ and says:

Φώς Χριστού…
Phos Khristou
“The light of Christ…”

Then he turns to the congregation and says:

…φαίνει πάσι
phainei pasi.”
“…shines upon all.”

So that is the origin of the  ΦΧΦΠ.

Another abbreviation is also sometimes seen on the omophorion, as in the image on this page.  It is:


You may have already guessed that the IC is for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.”  You will of course remember that on Greek icons the older form of “S” is C and the newer form Σ.

You might at first be puzzled by the N K, until you recall the very common cross abbreviation:

Iesous Khristos Nika
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”

And that is what the N K on the omophorion stands for:  N[I]K[A] — “[he] Conquers.”



If we were playing a “who is it” game, and I said to you, “Warrior saint, dragonslayer, saved princess,” you would probably answer “St. George.”  There is, however, another saint in icons who fits that description.  We would call him Theodore in English, though the Russians call him Feodor and the Greeks Theodoros.

In his “Lives of the Saints,” Dmitriy Rostovskiy (who was himself declared a saint) identified the dragonslayer Theodore as Theodore Stratelates (meaning “General”); but there is another warrior saint Theodore called Theodore Tiron (“Recruit”).  Here is a fresco from the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria depicting both:

(Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov )

Let’s look a bit closer.  Here is Theodore Tiron:

If you are a long time reader here, you should be easily able to read the title inscription as:
SVYATUIY FEODOR TIRON — “Holy Theodore Tiron.”

Tiron is just the transliterated Greek word Τήρων, meaning “Recruit.” 

Here is the other one:

SVYATUIY FEODOR STRATILAT — “Holy Theodore [the] General.”  Again, Stratilat is just a Slavicization of the Greek Στρατηλάτης, meaning “General.”  So this Theodore has a higher rank than the first:

The consensus of scholars, however, is that the second and higher ranked Theodore — Theodore Stratelates — Theodore the General — never existed, but is another of those fictional saints created in error.  He was mistakenly duplicated from Theodore Tiron, but given a higher rank.

The Bolshakov Podlinnik describes them like this:

Here is Theodore Stratelates, on February 9th:

Of holy Martyr Feodor Stratilat, rus hair like George, beard of Nikita the Martyr, in armor, robe cinnabar with white, cloak white, in the left hand a shield, on the head a reddish-purple helmet highlighted with cinnabar, in the hand a cross.

Then, on February 17th, we have Theodore Tiron:

Of the Holy Great Martyr Feodor Tiron, rus (light brown/dark blond), hair on the head curly, beard the length of Florus, in armor, armor all checkered gold, outer [robe] cinnabar, under armor green, leggings purplish black, in the right hand a cross, and in the left a sword.

Now we can easily see these descriptions do not fully match the Bulgarian depictions, but painters in different places often used other colors, so do not expect the Bolshakov Podlinnik to accurately describe all saints as they were depicted by different painters.


Here is a 12th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai:

It represents an allegory of the spiritual ascent of monks.  The image is derived from a book written by Ioannes tes Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος) — John of the Ladder.  He is also called Ιωάννης ο Σιναϊτης/Ioannes ho Sinaites — “John the Sinaite.”   Almost nothing certain is known about him, not even his precise dates.  He is said to have died in 649 at age 80.  His standard life says he became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai.  His book is called Ἡ Κλῖμαξ/He Klimax  — The Ladder, also  Ἡ Κλίμαξ Θείας ανόδου — The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  First intended for monks as an instruction book in ascetic virtues, it eventually became a popular book of religious counsel in Eastern Orthodoxy.  In Slavic it is called Лествица/Lestvitsa, and John himself is Иоанн Лествичник/Ioann Lestvichnik.

It is not hard to guess where the inspiration for this subject came from.  In Genesis 28:10-12, we find the story of Jacob’s Ladder:

“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.  And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

The angels on the ladder in the biblical story are replaced in this icon by monks climbing or falling, while the icon angels are just onlookers.

Now the Ladder as a book has 30 chapters, each corresponding to a rung on the ladder in the icon.  As you see, the icon ladder has 30 rungs.  So this icon depicts monks using the moral steps prescribed in the Ladder in order to ascend to heaven.  Some them fail to keep those standards, and are pulled off the ladder and down by demons, shown here as winged black figures.  These failed monks fall into the mouth of a dark head at the bottom, representing Hades.  Those who make it all the way meet Jesus, shown at top right.

Here is the first fellow to make it to the top in the icon:

He is identified by the Greek inscription (the first two words are heavily abbreviated) above him as:

άγιος Ιωάννης τις (της) Κλί-
Ho Hagios Ioannes tes Klimakos
“The Holy John of-the Ladder”

Next up the ladder — and just below John, is this fellow:

His inscription identifies him as:

Ὁ Άγιος Αντώνιος Αρχιεπί-

Ηο Hagios Antonios Arkhiepiskopos
“The Holy Antonios, Archbishop.”

Some scholars assume that this Archbishop Antonios was likely the abbot of the Monastery at the time when the icon was painted, following John of the Ladder both in succession and up the Ladder — but that is not certain.

A group of monks at lower right contemplate the lesson provided by the ladder.  The first among them — at left — is interpreted in many examples of the type as John himself, looking toward his ladder, and often holding a scroll:

Here is an interesting later Greek example of the type:

It adds many interesting little details:

Jesus at the top end of the ladder holds a scroll:

It is Matthew 11:28:

Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι, κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς.
“Come to me, all you are labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest.”

On the top of Mount Sinai at left, we see
“The Dormition of the Holy Catherine.”

Below that is Mary shown with Christ Emmanuel in the Burning Bush, here bearing the title Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΒΑΤΟC — HE HAGIA BATOS — “The Holy Bush.”

Just below the Burning Bush is a kneeling figure identified by inscription as:

This scene of Mary within the Burning Bush and Moses kneeling before it is an icon type in itself; it is the usual Greek way of depicting the Burning Bush as a prefiguration of Mary’s bearing of Jesus; just as the Old Testament bush burned but was not consumed, so Mary is considered in Eastern Orthodoxy to have been filled with the fire of divinity, but not consumed thereby.  In Greek this type may be titled Ἡ φλεγόμενη και μη κατακαιόμενη βάτος — He Phlegomene kai Me Katakaiomene Batos — “The Burning and Not Consumed Bush,” or it may be called simply — as here — Ἡ Ἡαγια βατος — He Hagia Batos — “The Holy Bush.”  Russians preferred a different image to show this — the often complex icon type called Неопалимая Купина — Neopalimaya Kupina — the “Unburnt Thornbush.”

Below that we find this scene of a hooded angel talking to a man:

Now if you have been a careful reader of this blog over time, you will recognize this scene as a specific icon type, and even be able to easily read the inscription.  It is the image of the hooded angel and the monk Pakhomios, and you will find it described here:

The inscription is the words of the angel to Pakhomios, and it reads:

In   this          the     skhima      shall-be-saved all       flesh    O    Pakhomios

Or in more normal English,
“In this skhima shall all flesh be saved, O Pakhomios.”  The skhima, you will recall is the habit/garment of an Eastern Orthodox monk.

So that scene is the icon type called “The Vision of Pakhomios.”

In the lower right corner of the icon we see a demon pitchforking one of the fallen monks into Hades at left, and to the right of that stands John of the Ladder himself, gesturing toward the ladder and holding a scroll in his hand that reads:

Αναβαίνετε, αναβαίνετε, αδελφοί
Anabainete, anabainete, adelphoi
“Climb, climb brothers.”

For simplicity, we may call icons of this type “The Ladder of John Klimakos.”  Russian examples generally call it (with some variation) Видение преподобного Иоанна ЛествичникаVidenie prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika  “The Vision of  Venerable John of the Ladder.”  Russian examples vary in detail and complexity, but we shall examine those another day.





Here is a 17th century Russian icon:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Its gold inscription at the top is worn and faint, which often happens with gold inscriptions, because they are easily worn away over time.  Nonetheless this is a Sretenie (Сретение ) icon, but not the icon type we usually find under that name.  We are already familiar with the word Sretenie — meaning “Meeting.”  We have seen it used to describe the many icons of the “Meeting” of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple by the aged Simeon and the Prophetess Anna.  That is its most common use in icons.

However the icon we are examining today is a different Sretenie — a different meeting.  This one is the “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon.”  The earliest-known existing examples of this type date to the 16th century.

The story associated with it is this:

In the year 1395, the Mongol invader Tamerlane (Timur) and his armies were approaching Moscow.  The people were terrified, certain that he intended to loot and pillage the city.  The Great Prince of Moscow at that time — Vasiliy I Dmitrievich — sent urgently to the city of Vladimir, asking that the supposedly miracle-working icon of the Vladimir Mother of God be brought to Moscow to protect the city.

Now you will remember that since Byzantine times — in a tradition going back even to the pre-Christian world — there were images believed to have the power to protect cities.  Such an image is called a palladium.  In Russian Orthodoxy, the Vladimir icon was such a palladium icon.

The stories relate that at the request of Vasiliy, the Vladimir palladium was sent on its way to Moscow.  It is said that it took ten days for the icon to make the journey, and along the road people fell to their knees, praying “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuiu — “Mother of God, save the Russian land.” When it reached Moscow, all the people of the city came out to greet it.

The legend says that at the time when the icon was met in Moscow, Tamerlane was asleep and dreaming in his tent.  He dreamed he saw a high mountain, and descending saints with golden wands.  In the air above it was a brilliantly-shining woman, surrounded by sword-bearing angels.  When he woke and consulted his advisors, they told him it was not wise to continue, because the woman was God’s Mother, intercessor for the Russians.

Tamerlane did turn his forces back, and Moscow was not invaded.  Historians say that Tamerlane had his own reasons for not going farther.  The people of Moscow, however, attributed his withdrawal to the icon, which only increased the esteem in which it was held.  A monastery called the Sretenskiy Monastery (after Sretenie) was eventually built on the site where the “meeting” of the Vladimir icon is said to have taken place.

Remember that in Russian tradition, icons of Mary were treated as though they were living persons.  So that is what we see in today’s icon — the formal meeting and greeting of the icon.  We see the Patriarch of Moscow Kiprian with his omophorion (bishop’s stole) and bishop’s crown standing to the right of the image, and beside him is Great Prince Vasiliy I Dmitrievich.

If we look more closely at the depiction of the Vladimir icon, we can see the ornamental cloth — the veil called a pelena (пелена) hanging below it.  In Greek it is called a podea (ποδέα).  This one is decorated with a “Golgotha Cross,” (Голгофский Крест/Golgofskiy Krest) which is one of the most common decorations used on such a cloth.  The Golgotha Cross — which is found on many Russian Orthodox religious objects — depicts the cross standing on a hill, with the spear and sponge on a reed at the sides, and the skull of Adam below.

Here is a typical Golgotha Cross:

You will find all the abbreviations explained in my earlier postings on Russian crosses, found in the site archive.

If we look at the “hills and palaces” — the stylized mountains and buildings in this icon, they exhibit well the typical style of painting used in 17th century Russian iconography:


The “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon” is celebrated annually in Russian Orthodoxy on August 26th.

Now interestingly, there is another but seldom-seen icon type relating to Tamerlane called the Eletskaya-Argamachenskaya (Елецкая Аргамаченская). When Tamerlane came into the region near Moscow, he took the city of Elets (pronounced Yelets), some 221 miles from Moscow.  You will recall the legend that Tamerlane had a dream of a shining woman and angels, and that prevented him from going to invade Moscow.  A similar tale — apparently just based on the first — developed to explain why Timur left Elets.

It is said that on August 26th, 1395, Timur was camped and sleeping on Argamach Mountain.  Mary appeared to him in a dream, in very much the same manner as that told about the supposed deliverance of Moscow from invasion.  This icon type was first painted in 1735.  Here is an example:

We see Mary appearing in the clouds, surrounded by an army of angels.  At lower right are the tents in the camp of Timur.

This icon type should not be confused with the more common Eletskaya type — the Eletskaya Chernigovskaya — that is said to have “appeared” in 1060.


Here is a Greek icon from the 16th century:

It is quite a “busy” icon, with so many things happening that it reminds me of an assignment my high school art teacher once gave — to draw “many people doing many things.”

First, we need to know what it represents.  For that we can look at the title inscription.  It is rather long, so here it is in two parts:

And here is the last part:

Though the inscription appears faint does not stand out sharply, nonetheless it reads:



In normal English,
“The Dormition of Our Venerable Father Sabbas the Sanctified.”

We are accustomed to seeing the Greek word του as meaning “of,” or “of the,” but here it has more the sense of “the one.”

So this is a “Dormition” icon, but not the most common one, which is the Dormition of Mary.  This one is the Dormition of St. Sabbas/Savva the Sanctified, a prominent early monastic leader in the area of Jerusalem.

This image is essentially a copy of an earlier icon of the same type, an example of which is known from the 15th century.

In the foreground of the icon we see the liturgical service taking place at the bier on which the body of Sabbas lies, with an icon of Jesus resting on his chest.  One monk bends over to kiss Sabbas, while others stand all around.

The rest of the icon is essentially explained by the image of the monk just above the Dormition gathering.  He holds a semantron, which you will recall is the long wooden board beaten with a mallet, and acting as a kind of loud but dull-sounding gong to call monks to assemble.  So this fellow is going about beating his semantron to call the monks we see scattered over the remainder of the icon to come to the Dormition service of Sabbas:

We see some of the monks busy with various occupations.  Here they are weaving baskets, which Sabbas himself is said to have done.  Note the icon on the cave wall:

Here another monk is carving wooden spoons:

And here are monks as scribes writing books:

Near the top of the image, a monk sends provisions up to a stylite (pillar-dweller), using a woven basket on a rope, as another monk in his cave looks on:


We see various scenes of monks on their way to the Dormition service.  Here, by the semantron bearer, is a monk carrying an elderly monk on his back:

Here two younger monks carry an old monk on a litter:

Here is an old monk riding on a lion to get to the service.  A lion features in the hagiography of Sabbas, as well as in that of other monastic saints:

This one rides a donkey, while the fellow next to him is fishing:

Images in the icon are quite out of proportion, but that is just the old method of getting lots of things into an image without worrying about “real” perspective.  Notice that the body of water in the foreground has ships and birds on it, but both are the same size!

A number of creatures such as rabbits, a deer, birds, and so on have been included to add visual interest to the image, something the Cretan iconographers picked up from Italian art of the period, which helped to soften and enliven icons painted or influenced by the Cretan painters.

In the sky above, we see some black demons flying at right…


But at left we see an angel bearing the soul of Sabbas heavenward, in the form of an infant:


In earlier examples of the type, the figure to the left of the angel is generally interpreted as Christ Emmanuel, to whom the angel is bringing the soul of Sabbas — as in this 15th century detail:


The painter of the icon we are examining today, however, may not have clearly understood his model, because he makes the figure look rather like a personification of the sun:


As for Sabbas himself, he is said to have been a precociously pious 5th century Cappadocian boy who entered a monastery at the age of eight.  In Jerusalem he was a disciple of St. Euthymios, and eventually he founded the Mar Saba Monastery — quite a famous one that is generally seen on “map icons” of Jerusalem and its surrounding pious attractions.    There are all sorts of miraculous tales told about him, and interesting accounts of the monastery.

The Mar Saba Monastery, by the way, is the place where the biblical scholar and historian Morton Smith said he discovered a copy of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria in 1958, describing a “secret” Gospel of Mark that was only for certain advanced Christians, and not to be revealed to all.  Here is a photo of the Mar Saba letter:

Now as you can imagine, this caused great controversy in the world of biblical scholarship, with some accusing Smith of a hoax, while others regarded the text as authentic, revealing a previously unknown side to early Christianity.  To this day the matter remains unsettled.



In the Eastern Orthodox Calendar, Lazarus Saturday –which commemorates the raising of Lazarus — marks the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter (Paschal) cycle.  It is called Лазарева Суббота — Lazareva Subbota — in Russian, and in Greek Το Σάββατο του Λαζάρου (To Sabbato tou Lazarou).

It has its icon, which is the “Raising/Resurrection of Lazarus” — in Greek Ἡ Εγερση/Ανάσταση του ΛαζάρουHe Egerse/Anastase tou Lazarou .” In Russian iconography it is usually titled “Resurrection of Lazarus” — Воскресение Лазарево — Voskresenie Lazarevo.  Icons of the type are usually much the same.  Here is a Byzantine example from around the beginning of the 15th century:

(Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

We see Jesus at left, in a brilliant blue garment that must have been painted using powdered lapis lazuli, an expensive mineral pigment:

At right we see Lazarus, called forth from his tomb and still standing in the grave wrappings, which are being removed by two men.  Two others carry the long cover of the open tomb.  The two imploring women kneeling before Jesus are the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.

This icon requires no lengthy explanation,  The story of the raising of Lazarus is found only in Chapter 11 of the Gospel called “of John.”

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the rather gloomy raised Lazarus later became the first bishop of Kition/Kiteia, which is modern-day Larnaca on the southern coast of Cyprus.  Latin Christianity had a quite different tradition in which Lazarus, Mary and Martha were set adrift in a boat by hostile Jews, and miraculously floated to Marseille on the southern coast of France, where Lazarus became the first bishop.  It is a legend that seems to have developed by the 13th century, and likely confused the biblical Lazarus with another bishop in France.


Today we will look at a 16th century fresco from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece.  Unfortunately, part of the image is blocked by the gaudy, gilt baroque-style woodwork in front of it, but nonetheless we can see enough of the image for our purposes.  Here it is:

This icon image is a good example of how helpful it is to have general biblical knowledge when trying to identify a scene.

Obviously, it is a boat full of men fishing, and one man swimming toward shore:

If we look to the right, we can see a figure (partially hidden by the woodwork in the foreground) identifiable as Jesus.  How do we know?  First, he has the halo with three points of the cross visible in it.  That is characteristic of Jesus.  Second, we see the Greek letters IC XC above his head, abbreviating  Iesous Khristos  — “Jesus Christ” — so there is no doubt about who it represents:

We should also look down below Jesus, where we see — again partially hidden by the woodwork — a round loaf of bread marked with a cross, and part of a fish lying on what look like red rocks.  That is another clue.

If you know the New Testament reasonably well, you probably already identified the scene.  But if there is any doubt, we need only look at the fragment of Greek inscription at upper right:

The beginning is not visible, but we can see at least this much:

As is common in older Greek inscriptions, the letters are all run together, without spaces separating the words.  At the beginning of this portion, we see a T followed by the joined letters O and U, with the U looking like a V and placed on top of the O.   can see the ligature joining the letters O and U.  And we also see at the end the joined letters T and O, with the T placed atop the O.  You will be familiar with those ligatures from past articles here.

Here is the visible portion of the inscription again:


If we separate it into words, we get:


It is not a title inscription.  It is Jesus talking, and we find his words in the Gospel called “of John,” chapter 21:

 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Βάλετε εἰς τὰ δεξιὰ μέρη τοῦ πλοίου τὸ δίκτυον, καὶ εὑρήσετε.
Ho de eipen autois Balete eis ta dexia mere tou ploiou to diktuon, kai

“And he said to them, Cast to the right side of-the boat the net, and

So that tells us this is a scene from the story told in John 21.  It is the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.  Here is the portion relevant to the fresco image:

1.  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and in this manner he showed himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.

Simon Peter says to them, I am going fishing. They say to him, We also are going with you. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.

4 But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Then Jesus says to them, Children, have you anything to eat*? They answered him, No.

And he said to them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to pull it [in] because of the multitude of fishes.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord.  Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tied his outer garment around him, (for he was naked,) and cast himself into the sea.

8 And the other disciples came in a little boat; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

Notice that in this story, as mentioned in previous postings about the ability of Jesus to appear in “another form,” the disciples do not at first recognize him.

Also, it is interesting to note that the word translated above as “anything to eat,” when Jesus asks the disciples if they have any, is προσφάγιον/prosphagion in the original Greek.  It commonly means cooked fish as food, but it can also mean other things eaten with/on bread — literally something “to eat.”

Notice that we also now know what the little “red rocks” are that the fish is lying on in the fresco — they are the hot coals mentioned in 21:9:

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

The round loaf of bread is reminiscent of the Eucharist.

The image of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias is a common part of later Russian “Resurrection” icons that combine several related scenes.  If we look at this central image from a 19th century Palekh (that famous icon-painting village) icon of the Resurrection and Major Church Festivals, we see the “Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias” at lower right:

The painter of this image has given the disciples a rather grand sailing ship with three masts.  We see Peter in the water, and Jesus standing on the shore at left.