Here is an icon which, as we can tell from the geometrical border ornamentation, dates  to around the end of the 19th century.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

One encounters a great many icons that depict — as this one does — groups of saints.  They are chosen for particular reasons.  Often they are saints bearing the names of family members, or a mixture of such saints with others that have particular specialties in Russian belief, such as curing fevers or protecting flocks.

The saints in this group all have commemorations on October 17th.  So why should that be significant?  Well, it is not for most people, but for someone whose “Angel Day” comes on October 17th, it would have meaning.  The “Angel Day” is the day on which a saint after whom one is named is commemorated in the Russian Orthodox Church.  And that day is celebrated by the person so named every year.

My purpose in showing you this icon, however, is to discuss a practical if somewhat boring topic:  how to find the traditional “life” of a saint when all one has is the name in Church Slavic.

Well, of course first one has to know the Church Slavic alphabet.  That enables one to read the name title generally found either in the halo of the saint or close by.  So if we look at the saints in the above icon (left to right, top to bottom), we find they are:


Now as you already know, Bezsrebrennik  — literally “without silver” — is a title used for physician saints who did not charge for their services — unlike modern medicine, in which you have to sell your firstborn son to pay for a doctor’s appointment (at least in the U.S.A).  And if you do not have a firstborn son, you are out of luck (yes, I am joking, but it seems almost that bad).

So, we have the name КОЗМА for the first saint at top left.  And we know (you all do, don’t you?) that we can transliterate it as KOZMA.

It is a peculiar thing, but Internet sites in English that have the traditional “lives” of saints generally use a Latinized form of the name.  So to look up Kozma, one has to know that male Slavic names beginning with K often change that letter to C in the Latinized form.  And male names ending in -a usually have the -as ending in their Latinized form.  And also the internal letter “z” may take the form of “s” in Latinized names.  So to find the “life” of this saint on the Internet, one should try either Cozmas or Cosmas — and you will soon discover that Cosmas is the commonly used form.  You will find the same happens with the saint САВВА, whose name becomes Sabbas in Latinized form.  You will sometimes find it also as Savvas on Greek-influenced English-language sites.  That is because the B in CABBA is pronounced as “V” in both Church Slavic and Modern Greek, but the Greek B is generally translitered into English as “B.”

When male names end in a consonant in the Slavic form — as in Damian (you can generally ignore the Ъ which is sometimes used at the end of words and sometimes omitted) — the Latinized form will either end the same way, or it will add the Latin -us ending.  In this case the form you will find used is Damian — so no big difference there.

When we get to АНДРЕЙ КРИТСКИЙ/ANDREY KRITSKIY — we find that ANDREY in Latinized form becomes “Andreas” — but here we find an irregularity, because on English sites, the King James Bible form “Andrew” is commonly used.  So when one looks him up, one has to look for Andrew “of Crete,” because that is what his “locator” title Kritskiy means.  His “rank” title Prepodobnuiy, by the way, is generally rendered into English as “Venerable,” though it literally means “Most-like.”

As for the Prorok (Prophet) Osia, his name is often spelled Osiya in Slavic.  But given that he too is a biblical saint, his “life” is generally found under the King James  Bible title Hosea.  Roman Catholic Internet sites sometimes use the form Osee, but that is rather old-fashioned now, and most go with Hosea.

Finally we come to Lazar’.  Now as we have seen already, male names ending in a consonant generally either stay the same way in English usage, or else they add the Latin -us ending — and the latter is the case here.  So this saint is Holy Righteous Lazarus.  That “Righteous” is important when searching for his life on the Internet, because it helps to distinguish him from any other saint named Lazarus, just as the Prepodobnuiy/Venerable title tells us that a male saint was a monk.

Now this Lazarus is also a biblical saint, which might seem odd given that he is dressed as a bishop.  This guy is known in Eastern Orthodoxy as “Lazarus the Four-days Dead” or as “Lazarus Friend of Christ,” but you will also find him as “Lazarus of Bethany.”  Yes, this is the Lazarus who Jesus supposedly raised from the dead in the New Testament story.  But why is he dressed as a bishop here, instead of in the usual “Bible” robes?  Because in Eastern orthodox tradition, he later went to Cyprus, and there he was a bishop of the Church.

Now you can see that finding the “English” form for a Slavic name, so that one may look up the traditional “life” on English-language sites can be a bit tricky and sometimes takes a little time.  But once you become accustomed to reading saints’ names, it becomes very easy.  Just remember that the “lives” of many saints are heavily fictionalized and some are entirely fictional — so do not take them in general as factual history, only as traditions that help to explain icons and iconography and the beliefs of Eastern Orthodox cultures.

Well, if you have not yet abandoned reading this page out of total boredom, we should look at one more thing.

As you see, Osia/Osiya/Hosea is carrying a scroll with a text on it:

It is:

От руки адовы избавлю я, и от смерти искуплю я: где пря твоя, смерте, где остенъ твой, аде.
Ot ruki adovui izbavliu ya, i ot smerti iskupliu ya: gde prya tvoya, smerte,  gde osten” tvoy ade.
It is taken from Hosea 13:14:
“From the hand of Hades I will deliver, and from Death I will redeem: Where is your penalty Death, where your sting, Hades?”

Now perhaps you have noticed a trend in the choice of saints here: two physicians, Lazarus who was raised from the dead, Hosea with his scroll about victory over death, and Andrew of Crete, to whom believers prayed for repentance.  His Canon, Ode 3, contains these words:

In you, the Destroyer of death, have I found the fountain of life, and now from the heart I cry out before my death, “I have sinned. Be merciful and save me.

So all of the saints depicted in this icon relate in some way to illness and healing, or to victory over death — which gave it great significance to anyone facing these problems in old Russia.


Today we will look at a fresco from the Vysokie Dechani monastery in Serbia:

The subject is obvious for anyone even moderately familiar with the Bible, but let’s look at the title inscription nonetheless:

It reads:


Well, the spelling is a bit archaic, but one can easily see that it is a line taken from the Gospel attributed to Matthew (21:12):

И войдя Иисус в церковь, изгна вся продающия и купующия в церкви…

I voydya Iisus v tserkov’, izgna vsya prodaiushchiya i kypyiushchiya v tservki …

“And Jesus entered the temple, casting out all those who sold and bought in the temple …”

So this is a depiction of an event described (though somewhat differently) in all four New Testament Gospels, and generally known as the “Cleansing of the Temple” (Изгнание торгующих из Храма/Izgnanie torguiushchikh iz Khrama). Did you notice that the Slavic word for “temple” in the inscription also is used in icon inscriptions to mean “church”?  We find tserkov/церковь and khram/храм used interchangeably from example to example.

We see Jesus at left with a raised whip cord in his hand, looking like he means business:

He overturns the table of the moneychangers, spilling coins on the floor:

We see the sellers of doves being driven out:

And the exiting animals that were to be sold for slaughter and sacrifice in the temple:

Now it has often been pointed out that there are serious discrepancies among the New Testament gospels concerning this event — the “Cleansing of the Temple.”  As I have mentioned previously, from all present evidence, the gospels called “of Matthew” and “of Luke” appear to be simply edited and expanded versions of the gospel called “of Mark.”

In Mark 11:15-17 we find:

15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 And would not allow any man to carry any vessel through the temple.  17 And he taught, saying to them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but you have made it a den of thieves.

In Matthew 21:12-13:

12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of those who sold doves, 13 And said to them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.

In Luke 19:45-46

45 And he went into the temple, and began to cast out those who sold therein, and those who bought; 46 Saying to them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but you have made it a den of thieves.

There are small variations in wording.  Note that Matthew, Mark and Luke use a composite Old Testament quote made by combining Isaiah 56:7 — “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’  with Jeremiah 7:11:  “… but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'”  Also, Matthew and Luke have omitted Mark’s longer borrowing, that it was to be a house of prayer “for all nations.”

But there is a much larger discrepancy.  In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the “Cleansing of the Temple” takes place in the last week of the ministry of Jesus, and is used as the reason for plans to arrest him, leading to the Crucifixion.  However, there is another account in the Gospel called “of John” (2:13-17) that places the “Cleansing” near the beginning of his ministry — it happens during the first Passover of that ministry.  If one asks the “true believers” — basically Christian fundamentalists — why the chronologies here are so radically different, they will often say that Jesus must have cleansed the Temple twice — their usual methodology of coming up with any far-fetched attempt to explain glaring biblical discrepancies.  For rational readers, however, it is quite obvious that the Gospels are not historical accounts, but rather manipulate events and sayings to fit the purposes — the “messages” — of their individual authors.

Here is “John’s” version of the event, found in chapter 2:

13 And the Jews’ Passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: 15 And when he had made a whip of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; 16 And said to those who sold doves, Take these things away; make not my Father’s house a house of trade. 17 And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of your house has consumed me.

So John, instead of using the combined “den of thieves” quote, has instead taken a notion from Zechariah 14:21:  “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”

There is more to be said about the differences between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and that called “of John,” but this much is sufficient for a general view of the iconography.

Depictions of the event are more commonly found in frescos than in panel icons, and title inscriptions vary somewhat from example to example, but the type is easily recognized.

This example has an inscription that appears somewhat anti-Semitic in tone because of one word in the phrasing:

Here it is:

It says:

“Christ casting out the Jews (ЕВРЕIЕ/Evreie“Hebrews”) from the Temple  — Sellers and Buyers.”






Here’s something you don’t see every day — a 1298 Eastern Orthodox fresco from the Church of St. Nicholas in Prilep, Macedonia, showing Jesus voluntarily climbing onto the cross.  And yes, he is climbing up, not down, as we can see from the Greek title inscription:

(from original photo by P. S.Pavlinov)

Here it is:

Ι[ησού]ς Χ[ριστό]ς ἀναβενωντός ἐν το σταυρο (standard spelling ἀναβαίνοντός ἐν τῷ σταυρῶ)

Iesous Khristos anabenontos en to stauro/anabainontos en to stauro

The verb here is ἀναβαίνω anabaíno, meaning “to ascend, to go up, to climb.”  So we can translate as:

“Jesus Christ Ascending the Cross,” or more colloquially as “Jesus Christ Climbing Up Onto the Cross.”

Now if you are familiar with the New Testament accounts of the Crucifixion, you will know there is nothing at all in them about Jesus climbing a ladder onto his cross. It is a theme that developed outside the Bible, and one that seems to have been restricted to a certain period in its popularity.

Now remember that the island of Crete became a possession of Venice (Italy) in 1204-1205, and we know that Italian influence on icon painting only increased through the appearance of the Cretan School from the 15th to the 17th century. But the Macedonian fresco dates to near the beginning of the 1300s, much earlier than the Cretan School.  Yet as I often say, there was never a “pure” Eastern Orthodox iconography untouched by outside influences.

Let’s look at a Crucifixion with associated scenes attributed to the Italian Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo  (1225–1276):

(Museo civico di San Gimignano, Italy)

Such medieval Italian crucifixes always remind me of St. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226.  Probably too many viewings of the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

If we look at the bottom scene on the left side, we can see a relation with the fresco:

There Jesus is, standing with one foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, as though getting ready to climb up it.

We can jump to about 1300-1320 to look at an Italian miniature by Pacino di Buonaguida/Bonaguida:

There we see Jesus climbing resolutely up onto his cross, though by modern standards of perspective, the ladder is at an angle that would cause a nasty fall.

We can move on to the image likely painted about 1270-1280 by Guido da Siena — much more reminiscent of the Macedonian fresco:

(Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecth, Netherlands)

I do not know just how the iconography of Jesus ascending the Ladder got to Macedonia, but it certainly appears that it was due to Italian influence and the appearance in the 13th – early 14th century of this apparently then new visual representation.  How and why did it begin?  We are not certain of that either, and as we see in the example by Guido da Siena, Jesus was not always shown ascending the ladder entirely voluntarily; notice the man atop the crossbeam reaching down to grasp the left hand of Jesus and pull him up:

There are, of course, speculations as to the possible origins of the rather uncommon depiction of Jesus climbing the ladder onto the cross, and if you would like to begin exploring that topic, you might like to read this paper, though it has really nothing to say about the presence of this iconography in a Macedonian church fresco from the end of the 1200s.  It is by Anna Anna Eörsi, and titled “Haec scala significat ascensum virtutumRemarks on the iconography of Christ Mounting the Cross on a Ladder.


I had barely posted this article when I received a comment from a clever reader in the Netherlands, mentioning the very relevant “Dream of the Rood” (Rood means cross here), an Old English poem in which the cross speaks these lines about the Crucifixion:

Then saw I mankind’s Lord
Hasten with great zeal, as though he wanted to climb on me.

(Geseah ic þā Frēan mancynnes
efstan elne micle,⁠ þæt hē mē wolde on gestīgan.)


This example of the “Novonikitskaya” Marian icon type was painted in 1678 by “Feodot Feofanov, son of Protopopov.”

As you can see, it is very much in the new “Western” style that became popular with the State Russian Orthodox Church in the latter part of the 1600s, after the schism with the Old Believers.

The Novonikitskaya type has a rather unbelievable (a lot of them are, in part or in whole) origin story that ascribes its “appearance” to the 4th century, when supposedly it came about as the result of a dream had by the martyr saint Nikita “the Goth.”  Yes, this is the same St. Nikita who appears in painted and cast metal icons beating the devil.

Supposedly — even before he was baptized a Christian — Nikita had a dream in which he saw a youth holding a cross.  He could not figure out what the dream meant, but a Christian girl named Juliania, inspired by God, told him to look at his own chest.  When he did so, he found there an image of Mary holding her child Jesus, who held a cross.  Nikita recognized it as what he had seen in his dream, and so was baptized and eventually martyred.

Here is an old paper icon painters’ pattern for the Novonikitskaya icon type:

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

As you can see, it has letters abbreviating the colors to be used — K for kinovar (red), З for zelen (green), etc.  And of course it is a reversed image, as such patterns commonly were.


Here is another prominent icon saint to add to your list of the fictional:

His name on Old Believer icons is generally spelled Внифантий/Vnifantiy or Вонифантий/Vonifantiy; on State Church icons Вонифатий/Vonifatiy.  His “location” title is Вонифатий Тарсийский/Tarsiyskiy — “Boniface of Tarsus,” or Римский/Rimskiy — “of Rome,” or both.  He is classified as a мученик/muchenik — a martyr.

Though supposedly martyred near the beginning of the 4th century (generally 307 c.e., though others say 290), his veneration did not really get under way until after his “acts” appeared in the 9th century — a strong indication that we are dealing with another one of those saints whose lives are fiction rather than history.

That suspicion is only confirmed when we look at his “life.”  It reads like one of those rather racy old Hollywood “biblical” movies.

His tale relates that Boniface was a slave in Rome (where he would have been named Bonifatius), and property of a very wealthy and attractive young Roman woman named Aglaia or Aglaida.  Aglaida and Boniface were carrying on a very torrid sexual relationship, which by the standards of the times was considered quite improper — a young woman and a male slave.  Aglaida was said to have other lovers as well.  Boniface, in addition to his liking for sex, was also supposedly addicted to drink.  Nonetheless, he was basically a nice guy — helping out the poor, aiding strangers, and doing other such good deeds.

Well, as these stories go, one day Aglaida was feeling pangs of guilt over her sexual relationship with Boniface.  She had heard that honoring the Christian martyrs then (supposedly) suffering in the East would be a big help in the salvation of sinners, so she wanted a martyr’s relics (read bodily remains, mostly) for her house, so she could venerate them and have the dead martyr as a heavenly advocate.  She sent Boniface off to get suitable relics and bring them back.

He jokingly asked her whether if he could not find relics, if she would accept his remains if he were martyred for Jesus during his search.

Now of course when Boniface got to his destination — the city of Tarsus — a crowd of Christians were being gruesomely martyred under the Emperor Diocletian and his co-ruler Maximian.  Boniface embraced and kissed the martyrs.  When the judge asked who he was, he replied that he was a Christian, and he refused to make the customary sacrifice to “idols” (i.e. the non-Christian gods).

Then follows the usual unlikely sequence of tortures commonly found in the tales of the saints.   Boniface is hung upside down, beaten to the bone, needles are driven under his fingernails and toenails, molten metal is poured down his throat, but no torture seems to harm him.  The next day he is thrown into a kettle of boiling tar, but that doesn’t harm him either.  He is helped by an angel who descends from heaven and pours the burning tar out at the onlookers.

Finally, it was decided to behead Boniface.  When that was done, milk and blood poured from the cut.

Now supposedly the companions of Boniface thought at first that he was somewhere enjoying women, but eventually they found that he had been martyred, and they looked for the body.  When they found it, they wept at their former misunderstandings about him.   They put his head back in place, and Boniface opened his eyes and gave them a gentle look.  Nonetheless, he was still dead, so they paid for the body, and brought it with them back to Rome.

Meanwhile, an angel appears to Aglaida, telling her to prepare to receive the martyr’s relics, and that the dead Boniface is to be her heavenly patron.  She receives his relics,  has a church built on the site where Boniface is buried, then enters a convent and spends the next 18 years of her life in repentance, and at her death she is buried near Boniface — she too having become a saint.

One can almost hear the swelling music at the end of the Technicolor, wide-screen movie.

As we have learned, however, being a fictional saint means little in Eastern Orthodoxy.  No one bothers to tell the masses of believers when a saint is fictional.  Instead, they are told to pray to Boniface of Tarsus for relief from alcoholism — he being the patron saint helper of those addicted to drink — alcoholism being a common curse in Russia as well as in many other countries of the world.

In icons, one may find Boniface/Vnifantiy/Vonifatiy depicted “with the life,” as in the first example on this page.  He may also be found standing with one or more other saints, as well as being depicted alone, either full-figure or often to the waist, as in the late State Church example below.