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 print of the Marian icon type — another of those from Mount Athos — called Gerondissa (Γερόντισσα):

Now at Mount Athos, the place is filled with old tales, and there is a legend about one thing or another practically around every corner.  As for this icon, its origin story is not lengthy:

An elderly hegumen at the Pantokrator Monastery on Athos felt that his end was quickly nearing.  He wanted to receive communion before he died, but the priest performing the liturgy was going too slowly for the old man; he worried he might die before he received the bread and wine.  So he asked the priest to hurry it up a bit.

The priest, not surprisingly, did not feel like rushing things, so he kept on at the same pace.  But suddenly, the tale relates, a stern voice came from the icon of Mary telling the priest in no uncertain terms to do as the old hegumen had requested.  Hearing this, the priest quickened the pace, and the old fellow was given communion before he died.  Because of its association with the welfare of old people, the icon was given the title Gerondissa, which means “Eldress” or more loosely “Abbess.”  In Slavic it would be Старица/Staritsa, the feminine form of Starets or elder, but Russian icons of the type keep the Greek form of the name as Герондисса.

As you see, the icon depicts Mary standing, with hands outstretched.  But notice the jug on the floor at left.  It is an important part of the Gerondissa type, even though it has nothing at all to do with the story just told.

The jug appears to be overflowing with water, but it is not water — it is olive oil.  The “overflowing jug” element of this icon type is derived from another legend associated with the Gerondissa icon.  It relates that in the 1600s there was a famine.  The oil jugs kept in the monastery pantry were empty.   The hegumen asked all the monks to pray fervently to Mary for aid.

Then a stream of oil was noticed, flowing from the pantry.  When the monks looked inside, they saw that oil was continuously flowing from one of the jugs, pouring over its rim and out across the floor.  That miracle story is the reason for the “overflowing jug” in icons of the Gerondissa.

There are other stories associated with the image.  An account says that in the 11th century, one of the Saracens who attacked the monastery wanted to break the icon up and use the splinters to light his pipe, but Mary blinded him.   And so the icon was thrown down a well, where it remained for 80 years.  The blind Saracen, before his death, told relatives about the icon, and hoping for an improvement in his afterlife, he asked them to go to the Athos Monastery and to show the monks where the icon was to be found.  They retrieved it and took it into the church.




Here is a “month” icon for December.

You will recall that “month” icons depict the major saints and festivals of each month in the Church year.

(Courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

This example adds, in the outer borders, images of the “wonderworking” Marian icons celebrated in the December.  Today I want to focus on the icon shown a bottom left, which as we can see, is titled the “Maksimovskiya/Maksimovskaya Most Holy Mother of God.”:

(Photo Courtesy of Antonio Caldeo)

Here is  a different and larger example, though old and quite worn:

The original icon is said to have been painted in 1299.  It depicts Mary with the Christ Child held on her left arm.  In her right, she holds a bishop’s stole (an omophorion, which she is giving to the fellow standing on the right (shown very much smaller than Mary).  In some examples — as in the “month” icon — he kneels instead of standing.

He is easier to see in this 19th century example:

His name is Maxim (Максим/Maksim).  He was a Greek, and Metropolitan of Kiyev (Kiev) from about 1283–1305.  Though Kiyev had been invaded and sacked by the Mongols (the “Tatar Hordes”), the Church clerical system continued to function there.  But Kieyev was in a terrible state.

Maxim thought it advisable to leave the many difficulties in Kiyev and move the office of the Metropolitanate to a more congenial and comfortable location, which for him was the Principality of Vladimir, ruled by Andrei Aleksandrovich (Gorodetskiy).  So when Maxim came to the city of Vladimir, he conveniently had a vision there.

As he told Prince Andrei, he had just fallen asleep when a very bright light appeared.  In it stood Mary, holding her child.  She spoke to him, saying:

Рабе Мой, Максим! Добре пришел еси семо посетите град Мой.

“My servant Maxim!  It is good that you have come to visit my city.”

Then she handed him the omophorion, saying:

Приими омофор сей и паси во граде Моем словесныя овцы.

“Take this omophorion and feed with words the sheep in my city.”

You may recall that the words “feed my sheep” — Паси овец Моих — were spoken by Jesus to Peter in John 21:17.  And the motif of an omophorion being given by Mary comes from the tale that Mary gave St. Nicholas of Myra his bishop’s stole.

Maxim presented this vision to Andrei as heavenly authorization that he was to set up the office of Metropolitan in Vladimir, abandoning Kiyev.  And he showed Andrei an omophorion — supposedly the one given to him by Mary — as proof.  So in the year 1299-1300, Maxim transferred the Metropolitanate of the Church from Kiyev to Vladimir, under the title “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’.”  You will recall that this was in the days before there was a Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia to rule the Church (which began about 1588).

The omophorion was regarded as a holy relic, and was placed in a golden “ark” (box), and kept in the Uspenskiy Cathedral in Vladimir for 112 years.  In 1488 the sacristan of the Cathedral hid the golden box with the omophorion in it, along with other church objects, during the invasion of Vladimir by the Tatar Khan Talych.  Tortured to reveal the hiding place of the treasures, the sacristan refused, and was killed.  The box with its omphorion was lost from that time, because no one knew where its hiding place lay.

In Spite of Maxim’s supposed celestial vision, the Metropolitanate in Vladimir did not last long. Maxim’s successor — Peter — moved it to even greener pastures in the rising city of Moscow in 1325, where it continued to be called — for a time — the “Metropolitanate of Kiev and all Russia — until 1488.

After Peter died in 1326, he was eventually declared a saint, which is why we often see him depicted in icons  of the three famous Metropolitans of Moscow — Peter, Alexei and Jona.

The three are also often found in examples of the Marian icon called “Bogoliubskaya Moskovskaya” — the “‘Moscow’ Bogoliubskaya image.  In the detail below, They are in the front row of kneeling “Moscow” saints, along with Filipp (Philip) a Metropolitan of Moscow said to have been murdered by Ivan the Terrible:

From left they are Pyotr (Peter), Aleksiy (Alexei), Filipp (Philip) and Iona (Jonah).



Childbirth was a very serious matter in Russia in the days before modern medical care.  Being a difficult time for women, they turned to what comfort they could get from an icon considered to specifically help with the difficulties of birth.

There are two variants of icons on this theme, and their names tend to be confused in practice.

The first is called (not surprisingly), Помощь В Родах — Pomosch v Rodakh — the “Help in Birth,” or some slight variation on that such as Помощница В Родах  — Pomoshchnitsa v Rodakh — “Helper in Birth,” etc.  Here is an example

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

The title here reads Поможение Родам’ Пресвятыя Богородицы — Pomozhenie Rodam Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “[The] Help in Birth Most Holy Mother of God.”

As you see, it is somewhat similar in form to the Znamenie (“Sign”) type, except in the “Helper” the mother’s hands are held inward at an ellipse with the Child Christ (Immanuel, Logos) in it.

The second variant is called «Помогательница женам чады рождаты»  “Helper of Women in Birthing Children.”  But as already mentioned, the title given this type is often one of the same used for the first variant, as we see in this example, which is titled:

Or in normal English order,
“The Image of the Most Holy Mother of God ‘Helper in Birth.'”

In this second variant, Mary’s head is bare, with her long hair visible; her head nods slightly to the side, and her hands are held inward but above the mandorla/clipeus in which the naked Christ Child stands.  In some examples the hands meet, with fingers overlapping, or are held in prayer.  So this is another of those few types in which Mary is shown bareheaded, a likely indication of borrowing from Roman Catholicism, because showing Mary with loose hair is not typically Eastern Orthodox.  That is probably why some copies add a headcovering to this type.

Examples of these “midwives’ icons” began to appear in large numbers in Russia in the 19th century, which is why most old examples one sees are only from the 19th-early 20th century.  Modern copies of “Helper” icons — both painted but more often printed  — are quite common.

A supposedly “wonderworking” example of this type “appeared” as late as 1993, when Protopriest Vladimir Andreyev was giving communion to an old woman in her home.  She told her granddaughter to go to the attic and get an icon.  An old copy of the “Helper in Childbirth” was brought down, covered with dust, soot, and cobwebs, and having a darkened metal cover (riza/oklad).  The old lady gave it to Protopriest Vladimir Andreyev.  The icon was cleaned, and supposedly began to work miracles involving childbirth and infertility.  It is kept in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas ‘The White’ (Собор Николы Белого) in the city of Serpukhov ( Серпухов).

With these two type variants, expect also variations in title and in form from copy to copy.  One may even find Mary shown full length, or a thin crescent moon below the Child.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the “Helper in Birth” icon on December 6 (Old Calendar) or January 8 (New Calendar), considered in folk tradition the day of midwives and of women in labor.  On this day gifts — particularly of prepared food — were brought to midwives to honor them.  Midwives cooked a kind of porridge of millet or buckwheat, which was used in a folk ritual to make a child grow well.  The midwife would hold up the pot of porridge and say Расти высоко-высокоRasti vuisoko-vuisoko”  — “Grow high!”  That is why the day is called Бабьи каши —Bab’i Kashi, meaning loosely “Old Wives’ Porridge”; kasha is a porridge made of grains boiled in water or milk.

Now to confuse matters, there is a third Marian icon associated with birth, and in form it may appear either like the first variant above, or like the second variant, but with a different title.  It may also depict Mary’s hands below the mandorla/clipeus with the child, rather than above, or even depict one hand raised and one lowered.  This type is called  Слово плоть бысть — Slovo Plot’ Buist’ — “The Word Was Made Flesh” (taken from John 1:14), and it is also referred to as the Albazinskaya icon or as Знамение Албазинская — the  “Znamenie ‘Albazinskaya’”  It is best to distinguish it from the others if it bears either of these titles.

One can easily see from this image how it might be confused with the second variant above, except for title:

Here is the form with hands held below the Child:

Notice the cloth — like an omophorion — across Mary’s hands.  It is not always present, and some examples may place Mary’s hands above the Child, with a thin crescent moon below.

The origin story of the Albazinskaya “Word Was Made Flesh” type relates that it was taken from the Kirensk Holy Trinity Monastery at Kirensky Ostrog (a fortress settlement on the Kirenga and Lena Rivers in Siberia)  to the village of Albazin in 1665-6 by the staretz Ermogen.  Albazin (now Albazino/Албазино́) was the first Russian settlement on the Amur River, and a fortress was built there in 1651.  The Amur — called the “Black Dragon River” by the Chinese — has long been an area of border contention and struggles between Russia and China.

The icon was then taken to Sretensk, on the bank of the Shilka River — a tributary of the Amur.  In 1868 it was moved again, this time to Blagoveshchensk.  In 1916 the icon was used to bless the Amur River Bridge, completing the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  After a stay in a museum during the Soviet Era, it is now kept in the Blagoveshchensk Cathedral.  While originally it was regarded as a kind of “protector” of the settlement at the Russian border region with China, it gradually became regarded as a helper with problems in pregnancy and birth.

Now obviously there is much confusion of form and title among these “Helper” icons, and when identifying them, the wise course is just to use the title written on a given icon.  In the absence of a title, one should generally classify an icon by the common title given the first or second variant, depending on form, unless the “Word is Made Flesh” or Albazinskaya title is present.


This icon type — the Akhtuirskaya — is one of the so-called “miracle-working” Marian icons.  Its origin story relates that it “appeared” on the 2nd of July, 1739, when a priest named Vasiliy Danilov was out cutting grass with a new scythe near the Pokrov Church at the village of Akhtuirka.  It is said he saw the icon lying before him in the grass, shining with a brilliant light.

(Courtesy of

Icons of the Akhtuirskaya (Akhtyrskaya) type are commonly painted in the more realistic manner of the State Church, given that the icon “appeared” after the Old Believers — the more traditional painters — had separated.  It was officially placed among the recognized “miracle-working” Marian icons by the so-called “Holy Governing Synod” of the Russian Orthodox State Church in 1751.

The type is unusual in that Mary is usually shown with long, uncovered hair.  That is a sign that the image was adopted from Western European art, because in Eastern Orthodoxy, uncovered and long hair is usually found on “loose women” or reformed prostitutes.  That is why in most Marian icons, she is shown with the maphorion covering her hair.  But Roman Catholic art had no such stigma.  Occasionally one will find an icon of the Akhtuirskaya in which Mary has been given a headcovering.

Let’s look at the inscription:

It reads:

Истинное ображение и мера Ахтырския икона Богоматериия
которая явилась въ 1739м году июля 2m дна

Istinnoe obrazhenie i myera Akhtuirskiya ikona Bogomateriiya
kotoraya yavilas v 1739m Godu Iiulya 2m dna

The true representation and measure of the Akhtuirskaya icon of the Mother of God
which appeared in the 1739th year, July, 2nd day.

Note that the date here uses the Western European numbering system instead of the old Cyrillic letter-numbers.

The Akhtuirskaya type is easy to recognize.   Mary is at left, with hands in the prayer position.  Her head inclines toward the image of the crucified Jesus at right, which is usually set on a base of hills.  The image of Mary is customarily much larger than, and out of proportion with, the Crucifixion in this type.


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.





In Russian Marian iconography, the type “In You Rejoices” appeared in the late 15-early 16th century.  It takes its name from, and illustrates, a well-known liturgical hymn attributed to John of Damascus and found in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and in the matins service.

О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь,
In you rejoices, Blessed One, every creature,
Ангельский собор и человеческий род,
The assembly of angels and the race of man.
Освященный Храме и Раю Словесный,
Sanctified Temple and Spiritual Paradise,
Девственная похвало. из Неяже Бог воплотися
Praise of virgins.  From whom God was incarnate
И Младенец бысть, прежде век Сый Бог наш.
And became a child, our God before ages.
Ложесна бо Твоя Престол сотвори.
Your body he made a throne,
И чрево Твое пространнее небес содела.
And your womb wider than the heavens.
О Тебе радуется, Благодатная, всякая тварь, слава Тебе.
In you rejoices, Blessed One, every creature, glory to you.

In icon inscriptions you may also find the text worded in the older form (with basically the same meaning) beginning like this:

О Тебе радуется, обрадованная, вся тварь,
O tebe raduetsya obradovannaya, vsya tvar’

Here is an example of the basic type from the 16th century:

Mary is seated on the throne (“Your body he made a throne”) in the central circle with Jesus as Immanuel on her lap (“and became a child”).  Above her is the Ангельский соборangelskiy sobor — “the assembly of angels.”  And below here is the человеческий родchelovecheskiy rod — “the race of man.”  the number and type of “man” figures varies somewhat from example to example, generally including Old Testament prophets and kings, the apostles, monks, nuns, and other saints. Some examples add so many saints that that the type becomes quite detailed

Standard elements of the Russian “In You Rejoices” type are the domed church (“Sanctified temple”) and Paradise trees (“Spiritual Paradise”), as well as the image of John of Damascus, seen here just below the central circle at lower left, holding out his scroll with the hymn to Mary on it

Here is another example:

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

And a more elaborate version:

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

And yet another:

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

Icons under this name are more common in Russian than Greek iconography.   Greek examples may vary considerably from the Russian type.  Here is a version from the late 1600s by Theodoros Poulakis (Θεόδωρος Πουλάκης, 1622–1692), a Cretan painter and student of Elias Moschos who went to live in Venice, then in the Venetian-ruled Ionian isles, dying in Corfu.  It includes a great many details.

(Benaki Museum, Athens)

If we look closely, we can see that it even includes the signs of the zodiac around Mary:

The icon bears an interesting signature:

Κόπος και σπουδή Θεοδώρου Πουλάκη εκ Κυδωνίας της περιφήμου νήσου Κρήτης.

“The toil and diligence of Theodore Poulakis from Kydonia of the renowned Island of Crete.”

Just so you will recognize the hymn if you encounter it in Greek, here it is:

Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις, Ἀγγέλων τὸ σύστημα, καὶ ἀνθρώπων τὸ γένος, ἡγιασμένε ναέ, καὶ Παράδεισε λογικέ, παρθενικὸν καύχημα, ἐξ ἧς Θεός ἐσαρκώθη, καὶ παιδίον γέγονεν, ὁ πρὸ αἰώνων ὑπάρχων Θεὸς ἡμῶν∙ τὴν γὰρ σὴν μήτραν, θρόνον ἐποίησε, καὶ τὴν σὴν γαστέρα, πλατυτέραν οὐρανῶν ἀπειργάσατο. Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει Κεχαριτωμένη, πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις, δόξα σοι..