If you talk to the “true believers” in modern Eastern Orthodoxy (who are often enthusiastic  Protestant converts), they will frequently tell you that Russian Orthodoxy does not paint icons of God the Father shown as an old man.  But that is just doctrinal theory, not the reality of Russian icon painting, and as you know, we deal in reality here rather than in  theories or wishful thinking about icons.

The truth is that the painting of icons of God the Father as an old man has a history in the Russian Orthodox Church of at least some 600 years; such depictions became increasingly common, until by the 18th and 19th centuries there were countless icons in existence featuring God the Father.  They are found in all the Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to Bulgaria and Serbia to Russia.  They were (and are) seen in churches, in monasteries, and of course in the home.

When the Council of Moscow decreed in 1667 that “the image of Lord Sabaoth shall no longer be depicted or made into an icon, because no one has seen Lord Sabaoth, that is, the Father, in the flesh,” it made not the slightest difference to icon painters or to Eastern Orthodox worshipers.  They painted and venerated what their fathers had painted and venerated.

We need not go into all the theological quibbles over this matter, because our concern here is not with what this or that person thinks icon painters should have done, but with what they really did; and what they really did was to paint images of Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in huge numbers over the centuries.

Today I would like to take a look at such an icon, which goes under the general name “The New Testament Trinity.”

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

The painter, however, has given this icon its own title, written at the top in condensed form, meaning in very decorative Cyrillic calligraphy, with words abbreviated and some letters written in smaller form as superscription above the larger letters.  In Russian this ornate style of writing is called Vyaz, from the verb meaning to join or tie together.

The inscription on this example, expanded to its full form (Russian font), looks like this:

И возшедшаго на небеса, и седяща одесную Отца
I Vozshedshago Na Nebesa, I Sedyashcha Odesnuiu Otsa

It is a line from the Simvol Verui — the “Symbol of Faith,” which is the Russian term for the Nicene Creed; it reads, ” And he ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right [hand] of the Father,” which perfectly describes what the icon depicts — Jesus sitting in Heaven at the right of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof / Lord Sabaoth).

The Father is shown with his typical long beard and eight-pointed halo (termed a slava — a “glory” in this case).  The eight points symbolize the seven days of Creation and an added eighth day — the Day of Eternity.  The Holy Spirit is seen as a dove above the Father and Son, which is how he is described at the baptism of Jesus in the New Testament.

Above the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a gathering of archangels and angels.  We see Michael (Mikhail), Gabriel (Gavriil), Uriel (Uriil), Yehudiel (Yegudiil), Selafiel (Salafiil), Raphael, and a number of others each identified only as “Angel of the Lord”

God the Father — Lord Sabaoth — holds a scroll, as we see in this closeup:

Photo courtesy of

It is a Church Slavic quote from Ezekiel 33:11, and it says, “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live.”  In more modern form it is:

Не хочу смерти грешника, но чтобы грешник обратился от пути своего и жив был.

Here is an illustration from a menaion printed in Moscow under the direction of the “Holy Governing Synod” in the reign of Catherine the Great in 1784:

New Testament Trinity (courtesy of Jacksonsauctioncom)
New Testament Trinity
                                                                                                                (courtesy of Jacksonsauctioncom)

As you see, it depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove at the top of the circle, with Jesus on the left and “Lord Sabaoth” on the right — God the Father depicted as an old man.

By the way, aside from the fact that this illustration comes from a book authorized by the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1721-1918, it is also  obvious that this illustration is not from an Old Believer book because it uses the IHC abbreviation for the name Jesus, something the Old Believers considered a sign of heresy, keeping to the traditional IC abbreviation.

So remember, as a student of icons, go with what painters actually painted, with historical reality, not with what religious enthusiasts say they should have painted.



As I wrote earlier, if one wishes to understand icons, one must learn to read them — at least the basic and most common inscriptions.  This must seem a tremendous task to the beginner, but that is a serious misconception.  Learning to read common icon inscriptions is actually very easy precisely because they are so common.  That means they are also very repetitive, so a little study gives great rewards far out of proportion to the little effort involved.

There are essentially two languages used in most icon inscriptions one is likely to encounter:  First, Church Slavic on Russian icons; second, Greek on Greek icons.

Church Slavic traditionally holds the place in the Russian Orthodoxy that Latin formerly held in Roman Catholicism:  it is a language used in “Church” matters, but not the same language people speak in their everyday lives.  So in traditional Russian Orthodoxy, Church Slavic is the language used both in the rites of the Russian Church and in inscribing icons.  It is important to note that it is neither what is called Old Slavonic, nor is it modern Russian, but rather something between the two.  A modern Russian can understand it only with some difficulty, which is why many Russians have trouble reading a Bible written in Church Slavic, but no trouble reading one written in modern Russian.

The Greek language  traditionally used in inscribing Greek icons is an old form like that of the New Testament manuscripts.  Modern Greek is somewhat different, but not so different that a speaker of modern Greek cannot read — again with some difficulty — the old Greek text of the New Testament.

So for the sake of simplicity, we can say that the language of Russian icons is Church Slavic, and the language of Greek icons is old Greek.  I have deliberately been a bit vague about what “old Greek” is, because Greek went through several stages of transformation from ancient Classical Greek to modern Greek as spoken by people in their daily lives.

I will not include everything one needs to know about inscriptions in this posting, but I hope to expand on what is included here over time, in further postings.

First I want to discuss Russian icons.  I do this because Russian icons are those one is most likely to encounter, given that they were painted in such huge numbers.  And also I must admit to a certain favoritism, regarding Russian icon painting as the real flowering of the icon painting tradition.

So let’s begin by looking a a Russian icon:

(Courtesy of

Though the inscriptions on this icon are not clear enough to be easily read in the photo, we can nonetheless use this as an example for learning about icon inscriptions, which on this image are written in red.

First, note that there is an inscription at the very top, in the center of the border area.  The border — at either top or bottom — is the usual place for the title of the icon as a whole, or the title of the main image on an icon.  In this case it is Tsar TsaremThe King of Kings.  That is a title applied to Christ in icons showing him crowned and seated on a throne as Tsar — as Emperor or “King.”  The Russian and Church Slavic title “Tsar,” by the way, comes from the Latin word Caesar.

That takes care of the overall icon title.  But if we look at the figures below, we see (though faintly in this photo) that each has a title above his or her head.  In the case of the female figure on the left, which is Mary, the title is usually МР θУ, M R TH U, which abbreviates Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God” in Greek.  Interestingly, this Greek title is customary on Russian icons of Mary, favored over the Russian translation Bogomater.  So it is one of the exceptions to the general rule that Russian icons are inscribed in Church Slavic.  But the figure on the right is John the Forerunner — usually with that title, Svatuiy Ioann Predtecha, written over his head.  The two angels are the Svayatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail (the Holy Archangel Michael) and the Svyatuiy Arkhangel Gavriil (the Holy Archangel Gabriel).  You will recall that Svyatuiy is the standard title for a saint.  It means literally “Holy.”

So now we have covered the two basic kinds of general icon inscriptions — the overall title of the icon, and the individual names of the saints depicted.  Often, however, we will see additional inscriptions.  On some, it may be writing on a scroll held by a saint.  On others, as in this example, it will be something else.  In this case it is on the two discs held by the two angels.  The one on the left reads ΙС; the one on the right reads ХС; together — I S  KH S –They abbreviate Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ,” which abbreviation is often written the same in both old Greek and in Church Slavic.  On State Church icons of the middle of the 17th century onward, one will find this abbreviation given as IHC XC — IIS KHS — adding an additional letter to “Jesus” as part of the change in the Russian liturgical books essentially forced on the Russian Church by the Patriarch Nikon, its head at that time.  Nikon’s “reforms” led to the separation of the Old Believers, who kept to the old forms and rites and detested such changes.  It is important to note that the Old Believers were terribly persecuted by the State Church — the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, by means of the Russian State, which acted as its punishing arm.  Many of them died rather than give up what they considered to be the true faith and practice handed down to them by their forefathers.

But getting back to the matter of inscriptions, we have now covered all of them present in this icon, and we have seen the general pattern followed by inscriptions on Russian icons — the overall title, the secondary names of the saints pictured, and the tertiary additional inscriptions.

To complete the picture, I should tell you that Christ in this icon is robed like a bishop, wearing the traditional stole with crosses around his neck.  Images with Christ enthroned in the center with Mary on the left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) on the right are usually called a Deisis, meaning “Beseeching” in Greek.  The Deisis depicts Mary and John interceding on behalf of humans with Christ, imploring (fervently asking) him to be merciful.  Russians pronounced it “Deisus.”

However, note that in this example Mary wears a crown, which is absent in the standard Deisis.  That is why this particular form is often called “The Queen Stood at Your Right” (Predsta Tsaritsa Odesnuyu Tebe).  That is an Old Testament excerpt from Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Church Slavic Bible):  “Upon your right the Queen did Stand in Gold of Ophir.”  Sometimes in this “Queen” variant, both the crowned Mary and John the Forerunner are shown winged, like angels.  Also noteworthy is that in some versions Jesus wears a bishop’s crown (mitre) rather than the crown of an emperor or tsar.

Now we have covered almost everything, but should also note that Jesus holds a long sceptre and the book of the Gospels, which in this example is closed.  And finally, in the three bars of the cross that almost always are visible in the halo of Jesus in Russian icons, we see the letters O ΩΝ (Ho On with the “o” pronounced like the o in “lo,” but written on most Russian icons in a Slavicized form, as in this photo, instead of the modern Greek form).  It means “The One (Ho) Who Is (On),” the name of God revealed to Moses in the Old Testament, translated in the King James version as “I Am That I Am.”  That is to indicate that, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox belief, Christ is also God.

I will also caution you that in addition to these two main languages for icon inscriptions, one may also find occasional additional inscriptions — generally added notes rather than main inscriptions — written in “modern” Russian on Russian icons, and additional inscriptions in more modern Greek on Greek icons.  In the case of Russian icons such inscriptions often say when and for whom an icon was painted, or why it might have been given as a donation, or perhaps indicating some other event commemorated.

If you are a beginning student of the art of icons, do not forget to learn the Cyrillic alphabet so that you may decipher the originals of these inscriptions on Russian icons.  And you will also need to know the Greek alphabet for Greek icons.  There are little variations in the manner in which both Cyrillic and Greek letters are written on icons, and I will try to deal with those in future articles.  And also in future articles, I will devote more time to Greek icons and how to read them.

I do not want to end this posting without mentioning that among the icons produced by other countries in which Eastern Orthodoxy is found, there are the icons of the Romanian Orthodox Church.  The old examples may have inscriptions in Cyrillic script, but more recent Romanian icons are generally inscribed in Roman letters (Romanian is predominantly a “Latin” language with Slavic influence, in contrast with Russian, which is Slavic).  Perhaps I will have more to say about Romanian icons in articles to come.  They are seldom seen outside of Romania in comparison to Russian icons, and when they are seen it is often in the “folk” form, which was as reverse paintings on glass, set into in a wooden frame.


ASSEMBLING THE SAINTS: How Icon Figures Are Constructed

This icon depicts the Prophet Jeremiah — or does it?

Prophet Jeremiah, Russian icon from first quar...

It is a quite a few centuries too late to be pointing it out (and it was somewhat dangerous to point it out when the doctrine of icons was being formed in Eastern Orthodoxy), but there is an inherent flaw in the in whole matter — the formal rationale for icon painting.

To put it very simply, the making of icons is based upon the principle that because Jesus became incarnate, and is considered to be God in the flesh, one can therefore depict him in icons.  That was said by the chief proponent of icon-making, John of Damascus:

When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone who is willing to contemplate it.

The catch here is the word “likeness.”  People in the time of John of Damascus thought they had a true image of Jesus passed down from his lifetime (the so-called “Abgar” image), but today we know better. The fact is that in ancient times no one had the slightest idea what Jesus looked like.  Moreover, the earliest Christians did not show much interest in the matter, and certainly no interest whatsoever in the making and venerating of icons.

The earliest depictions of Jesus in the catacombs show him as a generic, beardless young man, often holding a magician’s wand as he works a miracle.  The image of Jesus developed and evolved over time until finally it settled into certain characteristics, so that when one looks today at an icon of Jesus, one recognizes it; but what one recognizes is not “Jesus,” but rather the conventionalized image of Jesus that the Church eventually created.

The same can be said for the icon images of huge numbers of saints.  No one really has the slightest idea what many of them looked like, except for a very few and often late saints, such as Seraphim of Sarov, who lived in the 19th century.  There were other Russian saints who either had icons painted from their dead bodies or from the scant descriptions of contemporaries, but the great bulk of Eastern Orthodox saints in icons are merely conventionalized images that developed over time and eventually became recorded in icon painters’ manuals with their conventional characteristics.

One recognizes saints — for the most part — not by their facial features, which are often generic, but rather by the cut of the hair and beard, the type of garment, and other such representative elements.We can say, in fact, that the majority of icon saints are constructed by assembling these elements according to the patterns that have come to be traditional.

Here, for example, is how one paints the prophet Jeremiah, as described in an icon painter’s manual:

“The holy prophet Jeremiah, grey beard of John the Theologian, hair like the prophet Elijah, robe ochre with white, under [robe] blue, in the hand a scroll, and on it is written, ‘Thus saith the Lord: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away….'”

Of course no one knows what Jeremiah looked like.  But one does know the codes that developed in iconography.  So Jeremiah is a combination of the conventional characteristics of certain “model” saints like John the Theologian (the apostle and evangelist John) and the prophet Elijah.  But again, no one really knew or knows what those two model saints looked like.

An icon painter’s manual, then, is just book of instructions for painting saints, and the instructions contained in it are largely fictions — artificial conventions.  Someone at some time just “made them up.”

So here we have Jeremiah from the Stroganov manual:  He is assembled from generic elements:  a generic robe, the generic hair style used for the prophet Elijah, the generic beard  used for the Evangelist John, generic face and feet, generic halo, generic scroll, with one of two suggested inscriptions, though inscriptions often vary and the colors of the garments often vary as well from manual to manual and icon to icon.

The Prophet Jeremiah (from the Stroganov Manual)

What we have here, then, is an abstraction, nothing that was ever actually in human flesh.  The final (and really very important) touch on such an icon abstraction is the title, which in this case would be “The Holy Prophet Jeremiah.”  The title is really the chief identifying factor for a great many icon saints, because so many saints are so generic in appearance and so much alike that without the title is difficult or impossible to identify them.

One can see, then, that icon painting in reality is considerably different than the propaganda for it in “popular” icon books and icon sites would lead one to believe.

It is said in such books that icons try to depict “invisible reality” in visible form.  Well, try as one might, that is an impossibility.  One is left with the material elements of board and gesso ground and egg tempera paints and gold leaf, and all are very material elements that can only create material subjects, no matter how beautiful or skillful such depictions may turn out to be.  All the rest is provided by the human mind and imagination.



The old Russian Church year  —  and even the civil year until Peter the Great — began with the first of September, which is called the “Indiction,” a calendar usage that goes back to Roman times.  It is paradoxical that while there is a specific icon type for the Indiction — the New Year — it is very seldom seen.  Nonetheless, the painting of the Indiction is the first calendrical icon instruction found in — for example — the Bolshakov icon painter’s manual:

Let’s translate that:

“The beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year.  And the Indiction is painted:  The Savior stands in the Holy Place of God, he reads the book of Isaiah the Prophet.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ [Luke 4:18-19].

Above, Lord Sabaoth, and the Holy Spirit over the Savior, and round about Jews of all kinds.”

Well, that is rather clear.  In actual icons painted of the Indiction, Jesus usually stands at a kind of lectern, reading from the Book of Isaiah, but of course in biblical times that would have been a scroll rather than a “codex” book.  Let’s take a look at at what such an icon really looks like:


The title inscription (put into modern Cyrillic) reads:

Nachalo indiktu ezhe est’ Novomu Lyetu
“The Beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year”

As the painter’s manual says:
Above, Lord Sabaoth…” — well, Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) in Russian iconography is simply God the Father shown as an old man with a white beard.  That irritates a lot of fundamentalistic E. Orthodox who say that one cannot paint God the Father in icons, but the reality is that for hundreds of years, God the Father has been painted in countless Eastern Orthodox icons all over the “Orthodox” world, and as as can be seen, here he is even in the painters’ manuals.

My amused, standard response to the “true believers” who say such an image is “heretical” is to point out that God the Father is even found at the top of the Kursk Root (Kurskaya-Korennaya) icon of Mary, which is considered “wonder-working” in Eastern Orthodoxy:  so why would a supposed heretical image be found on a supposedly miracle-working icon?  It is one of those things they cannot reasonably answer.  But of course for the art and cultural historian, there is no “heresy” in icon painting; there is only the way icons were painted and used in the real world.  One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy, so we have to look, in the study of icons, to what was really done in the past, not to what theologians and dogmatists of one brand or another would prefer to have been done.

The Holy Spirit, in Russian icons, is painted as a white dove (which usually looks more like a pigeon).  So this Indiction icon often (but not always) includes all members of the E. Orthodox Trinity.

If you may be wondering why Jesus is shown twice in the icon here, that is because a common practice of Russian icons was to indicate the movement of time by having two different scenes, making a “continuous” image that takes the viewer from one scene in time to another.  So in this image we see Jesus both reading from the book of Isaiah and seated in discussion with the men of the synagogue.  One might consider this an early precursor of animation — but it is “static” animation.

The point of using this icon type as the beginning icon for the Church year was first, that this preaching of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is usually considered the event marking the beginning of his public ministry; and second, the quotation from Isaiah ends with “the acceptable year of the Lord,” which came to be applied, in Russia, to the Church year as given in the calendar of saints and festal days.  Ivan Shmelov (pronounced “Shmelyov”) wrote a book following the course of that religious year in old Russia, and titled it Lyeto Gospodne — “The Year of the Lord”

Here is the biblical account that forms the basis for the “Indiction” type:

Luke 4:16
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.

And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

When one looks at the old painters’ manuals (podlinniki), they always begin with the images for September 1st.  And when one looks at traditional Church calendars that give the saints and festal days for a given year, they too always begin with September 1st — the Indiction.  That is not the case, however, with many modern Eastern Orthodox calendars.

Now let’s look at an interesting 14th century image of the Indiction, a fresco from the Dechani Monastery in Kosovo, Serbia:

In spite of the difference in style and detail, it is still easily recognizable as the same scene in the much later Russian icon.  Note the red cloth draped over the architectural background, the traditional way of indicating that a scene is taking place in an interior.

We can easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”  But what is the longer inscription above the background structure?  Here it is again:

It is a slight but easily recognizable variant of the Church Slavic words taken from Luke 4:17:

И дáша емý кни́гу Исáiи прорóка:
I dasha emu knigu Isaii proroka
And was-given to-him [the] book of-Isaiah [the] prophet

In normal English, “…And there was given to him the book of Isaiah the Prophet.”

Finally, let’s take a look at the text on the book Jesus has opened:

It is read from top to bottom of the left page first, then the right:

Дýх[ъ] Г[оспóде]нь на мнѣ́:
егóже рáди по[мáза мя́]…

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me:
For he has anointed me….”

So we see it is the beginning of the text of Isaiah described in Luke 4:18.