There are many icons of Mary in Russian Orthodoxy that are considered chudotvornaya, “wonder-working,” “miracle-working.”  A peculiarity of some of these icons is that they are believed to “specialize” in treating certain ailments.  There is one, for example, to help women in childbirth.  There is another believed to be effective in problems of the mind, whether mental infirmity or helping students perform well in their studies.

An example of the latter is the icon type known as Прибавление ума — Pribavlenie Uma, “Increase of Reason” often translated simply as “Addition of Mind.”

"Increase of Reason" icon
“Increase of Reason” icon

The Church Slavic title written at the top of this icon reads, “Image of the Most Holy Mother of God, Ever Virgin Mary Increase of Reason.”

The peculiar thing about this particular icon type is that, like certain others, it was actually borrowed into Russian Orthodoxy from a western European Roman Catholic image, in fact a very well-known statue in Italy known as “Our Lady of Loreto.”  We have already seen that the Buddha found a place in the Calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church under the name St. Ioasaph; in this case an Italian Roman Catholic statue has found a place in the list of Russian Orthodox “wonder-working” icons under the name “Increase of Reason.”

As anyone who has read the group of pious stories known as the Golden Legend knows, the history of saints and images is filled with all kinds of fanciful and imagined and heavily-embroidered stories, and this particular icon goes back to such an imagined story in its Roman Catholic version, which turns out to be quite like the stories one finds in Eastern Orthodoxy about the origins of Marian icons.

When it comes to images and paintings of Mary, there is always the frequently encountered tale that this or that image or painting was created by the evangelist Luke.  That is in fact the story that became attached to a blackened image of Mary and the Christ Child that was kept in the shrine of Loreto in Italy.  Of course such stories have not a wisp of scientific or historical support, but they served to enhance the importance of such images for pilgrims, and were avidly repeated.

The original Loreto statue was thus one of quite a number of art works attributed by fancy to St. Luke.  And even more enhancing was the story that the chapel in which the Loreto image was kept was the original house of Mary, the same one in which she had met the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, the same one in which Jesus grew up; and that it had been carried through the air to Italy (with a long pause in Croatia) all the way from Palestine in the 13th century, to avoid its falling into the hands of Saracens (these were the times of the Crusades).  The house was said to have been seen by shepherds, carried in the sky by the hands of angels.  That is very reminiscent of tales told of icons, such as the appearance of the Tikhvin icon, seen by fishermen as it moved miraculously through the air over a lake in northern Russia toward its destination.

To make a long story short, the “Increase of Reason” icon is a painted version of the old, blackened statue of Mary and her child that was kept in the supposed house of Mary in Loreto, Italy.  The icon reproduces not only the appearance and garments of the image, but even the shape of the niche with side columns in which the image was kept.  That is easy to see when one looks at photos of the Loreto shrine and its image.

The present-day Loreto image in Italy, by the way, is a copy of an earlier image destroyed by fire in 1921.

Here is another icon of the “Increase of Reason” type:

The inscription reads:

“[The] Increase of Reason, Key of Understanding Most-holy Mother-of-God”

At the base of Mary’s garment is a “cherubim” (remember that Slavic uses the plural for the singular in this case).  The family name saints at left and right are Svyatuiy Iakov Apostol (Holy Jacob/James the Apostle) and Svyataya Irina Muchenitsa (Holy Irina/Irene the Martyress).

Sometimes one may find lines relating to wisdom from the Akathist  on examples of this type.



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 Jacksonsauction.com)

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.



(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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.




The Unburnt Thornbush (Neopalimaya Kupina) icon of Mary is of particular interest because it is so very “pagan” in its notion that a painted icon of divine figures has the power to protect from fire.  In old Russia, if a house or building burst into flame, people would stand holding this icon facing the fire in the belief that it would be extinguished.  It was also hung to protect dwellings from fire.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

There is much to say about this type.  Its origins are a mixture of references to Old Testament events, to symbolic references to Mary found in the Akathist hymn and canon, and a good portion of it comes simply from apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees, particularly those portions relating to the angels surrounding the central figure of Mary holding the child Christ (Christ Emmanuel).

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

The immediate reference is to the Burning Bush seen by Moses in the biblical account — a bush that burned but somehow was not consumed.  In Eastern Orthodoxy this was and is seen as a prefiguration of Mary, who dogma teaches was pregnant with God (as Jesus) but was not harmed thereby.

That is why Mary holds the central position in this rose-shaped form that is like a Jungian mandala.  She is in the center with her child; about her are numbers of angels, who are the powers in nature that control such elements as lightning, thunder, and fire.  And beyond the rosette, in the four corners of the icon, are four scenes that show noted Old Testament prefigurations of Mary that are also mentioned in the Akathist, the noted hymn to Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.

We will begin with those, which traditionally are:

Upper left:
Moses sees the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2), shown here with Mary visible in a circle within the flames.  Mary was considered to have contained the fire of God, yet was not harmed (this explanation applies also to the separate Ognevidnaya icon depicting Mary with a fiery red face, popular in the 19th century, for which there is no origin story).

Upper right:
Isaiah’s lips are purified by the fire of a coal taken from the altar by a seraph. (Isaiah 6:5-7); Mary was considered purified by being pregnant with the “fire of God.” An alternate image illustrates Isaiah 11:1:

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” The inscription on that image on the second icon shown on this page reads “A shoot comes forth from the root of Jesse, and the blossom thereof is Christ.” The image depicts Jessie lying down, and on the tree that grows out of him, Christ is depicted.

Russian icon of Virgin Mary
Neopalimaya Kupina

Lower left:
The prophet Ezekiel sees a closed door in the East (Ezekiel 44:1-2), which symbolizes the virginity of Mary in E. Orthodoxy, the closed door to a temple containing the glory of God — the fire of divinity.

Lower right:
The Old Testament forefather Jacob sees, in a dream, a ladder from earth to heaven.  Mary is considered a ladder uniting earth and heaven in E. Orthodoxy, through her bearing of Jesus: “Rejoice, heavenly ladder on which God descended.”

Moving inward, we next come to the points of the eight-pointed “slava” (“Glory”) representing divine light and the Eighth day of Creation, the Day of Eternity.  In the upper left segment is an angel, representing the Evangelist Matthew as a winged man.  At upper right is an eagle, representing the Evangelist Mark.  At lower left is a lion, representing the Evangelist John, and at lower right is an ox, representing the Evangelist Luke.

The most interesting parts of the icon are the angels in the “petals” of the rose, which are usually eight or more in number.  They are the forces behind the elements of nature, the hidden powers that control the weather and relate also to the apocalyptic end of the world.  Inscriptions describing them vary from icon to icon.

Also usually found on this icon type is the inscription “Who makes his angels spirits, his ministers a flame of fire.”  “Who makes his angels spirits” is in some versions “Who makes his angels winds.”

There are a number of apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements, but one of the most obvious is the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 2:

  1. And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.
  2. For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him -the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels [of the spirit of fire and the angels] of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth, (He created) the abysses and the darkness, eventide , and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart.
  3. And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day.

One can see that the components of this icon have a great deal to do with fire and burning and lightning, as well as with frost, ice, rain and clouds.  When one combines these with the “fire” attributes of Mary, it is not difficult to understand how the belief arose that this icon could control the elements and subdue fire.

The central image of the star set upon the angelic rosette is that of Mary holding Christ Emmanuel.  She also holds a ladder, symbolizing her position as ladder between heaven and earth, the unifier of heaven and earth through the incarnation.  Also often seen is a stone on her breast, signifying the “Stone not cut by human hands” of Daniel 2:45:  “Forasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver and the gold.”  This signifies the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, born without the participation of a human male.  Additionally one often sees a small image of Christ as “Great High Priest” upon Mary’s breast, showing him wearing a bishop’s crown.

It is common to have an image of God the Father (“Lord Sabaoth” — Gospod’ Savaof)) seen on clouds just above the main rosette.  He is usually shown with hands raised in blessing.

The icon of the Unburnt Thornbush, because of its supposed ability to protect from and to ward off fire, was very popular in Old Russia, where wooden buildings and dwellings were very common and fire a constant threat.  This icon type was particularly popular among the Old Believers.