A curious reader in Germany asked about the image in my blog “header” — what icon it is from, who the figures are, and what the inscription on the scroll means.

It is a detail from this icon of the “Joy of All Who Suffer”:

(Courtesy of

Here is a wider view of the “header” detail:

The saints depicted in it are from upper left (below the angel):
Prepodobnuiy Maron — Venerable Maron
Svyashchennomuchenik Antipa — Priest-martyr Antipas
Prepodobnuiy Sergiy Radonezhskiy — Venerably Sergiy of Radonezh
Prepodobnuiy Ioann Novgorodskiy — Venerable John of Novgorod
Prepodobnuiy Ioann Damaskin  — Venerable John of Damascus.

The scroll held by John reads:

Твоя по-
льная деснице [-а]
но в к-
[-вися: та бо, Безсмертне, яко всемогущая, противныя сотре, Израильтяном путь глубины новосоделавшая.]

It is the Irmos from the Canon of the Resurrection, Ode 1:

Your victorious right arm  in godly manner has been glorified in strength;
[it continues:  for, Immortal One, as almighty it struck the adversary, for the Israelites making the path of the deep anew.“]

The Canon of the Resurrection was written by John of Damascus.

The scroll just below the angel is the Stikhera, tone 2 from the Moleben to the “Joy of All Who Suffer” icon.

Всемъ скорбящимъ радость
и обидимымъ предстателница  и
алчущимъ питательница страннымъ…

Joy of all who sorrow, and intercessor for the offended, and feeder of the hungry, of travelers…
[it continues “… the consolation, harbor of the storm-tossed, visitation of the sick, protection and intercessor for the infirm staff of old age, you are the Mother of God on high, O Most Pure One”]

So that is the origin and significance of the present “header” image on this blog.

[Later Note: The image discussed here is no longer the “header image on this site.]





(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.



Look in a Russian Orthodox (or Greek Orthodox) Church calendar, which gives the saints commemorated on each day of the year, and you will find this entry:

Dec 02 / Nov 19:  Venerables Barlaam and loasaph, Prince of India, and Saint Abenner the King, father of St. loasaph (4th c.).

The interesting thing about that entry is that Ioasaph/Ioasaf, Prince of India, is actually the Buddha.  Yes, you read correctly:  the Buddha.  The Eastern Orthodox Church annually commemorates the Buddha in their calendar of saints.

Of course the reason for this is that until relatively recently, no one in Eastern Orthodoxy knew that Ioasaph was the Buddha.  But that is the inescapable conclusion of scholars who have studied the matter, and the reason for it turns out to have been rather simple.

In early times, Buddhist missionaries were found on parts of the trade route extending from the West all the way to India.  And so stories of the life of the Buddha became spread here and there, and one of those stories — the story of the Buddha’s early life — came West.  It is the tale of a young Prince of India who decides to renounce his wealth and power for the spiritual life.

When Christians encountered this tale, it became distorted into the story of a Prince of India who renounced his wealth and power for Christianity, and that, in brief, is how the Buddha came to be a Christian saint commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

The name “Ioasaph” — also found as Ioasaf, Joasaph and Josaphat — is simply a garbled version of the word “Bodhisattva” — the title applied to the Buddha before his enlightenment.  The identity becomes more clear if one sees the Arabic intermediate forms Budasaf and Iudasaf.  Barlaam — written as “Varlaam” on Russian icons  — was a pious hermit who counseled Ioasaph.

The story of Barlaam and Ioasaph in Greek was once attributed to the 7th century John of Damascus (the big supporter of icon veneration), but apparently the core was actually transmitted earlier through Manichaean writings on the trade route.  A christianized version comes from the Balavariani, a 10th century Georgian epic; Euthymios of Athos, a Georgian monk, translated the story into Greek in the early 11th century.  It can be traced back through an Arabic version to early Sanskrit Mahayana texts recounting the life of the Buddha.  In its Greek version — the one still considered “history” by countless Orthodox believers — it is called The Precious Pearl.

In the Western church, the two saints are called Barlaam and Josaphat.
When I first began telling “true believers” the facts about this years ago — that Eastern Orthodoxy makes and venerates icons of a saint who was really the Buddha and annually commemorates him in their Church Calendar — they simply refused to believe me.  Today it is common knowledge among educated Eastern Orthodox — yet there Varlaam/Barlaam and Ioasaf/Ioasaph still are, in the Church Calendar, under November 19th by the old calendar, December 2nd by the new:

Sunday, December 2:


Eastern Orthodoxy has a very strong attachment to tradition (one of the chief sources, in fact, of its doctrines and lore of saints and icons), but it has never had a clear boundary between higher and lower traditions, nor has it ever been particularly  careful or scrupulous about actually checking the veracity of those traditions, as this one out of many examples illustrates.  As one person on the Internet remarked concerning this mistaking of the Buddha for a Christian saint, “Saint….OOPS!”  Eastern Orthodox bookstores still sell the life of Sts. Varlaam and Ioasaph.

Those who want a more detailed account of the transmission and transformation of the story of the Buddha into that of a Christian saint will want to read the book In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint, by Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Peggy McCracken, W.W. Norton & Co, 2014.

There is a useful account of the history of the Varlaam and Ioasaph tale at:
The image at the top of this posting shows Varlaam at left, holding a scroll reading, “I declare to you, child, the priceless pearl which is Christ….” (the Greek manuscript of the tale of Varlaam and Ioasaph is titled The Precious Pearl).  Iosaph is at right.
In the complete icon, we also see Venerable Athanasius of Athos at left:

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.