Today’s first example is not an icon.  It is an icon-influenced illustration of a Russian saint, done by the noted Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942).  If you know Russian fairy tales, you have likely seen the colorful Bilibin illustrations for them.  And who does not enjoy a good story about Baba Yaga the witch?

I show you this illustration because it depicts a person often found in icons, and its inscription in Church Slavic is one you should be able to translate now without difficulty if you have read the little lessons in previous postings:

(Courtesy of

Let’s look at the inscription:

It is only slightly abbreviated:


Blagovernuiy means literally “good-believing,” but it is understood to mean a “true, Orthodox believer.”  It was a title formerly applied to members of the Russian Imperial Family.  Velikiy Knyaz is sometimes translated as “Great Prince,” sometimes as “Grand Duke.”

Bilibin has depicted him holding the “Vladimir” icon of Mary.  The story of the Vladimir image — in brief — is that it was brought from Constantinople to Kiev in 1131.  It was placed in a convent at Vyshgorod, today a suburb of Kiyev/Kiev.  Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy invaded and plundered Kiev in 1155.  He took the icon from the convent, and was on his way back to Suzdal with it, so the story goes, when the horses stopped, and refused to go farther.   Supposedly Andrey prayed all night and Mary appeared to him, telling him to take her icon to Vladimir, and to build a church and convent on the site of his vision.  Then the horses were allowed to move again.

Andrey did have a church and convent built on the site, and called the place Bogoliubovo — meaning loosely “Loved by God” — and from that is derived his name, Bogoliubskiy.

There is something else to note in this Bilibin illustration — the white church in the background at left.  It depicts a real church.  In Russian it is called the  Церковь Покрова на Нерли — Tserkov Pokrova na Nerli — literally, the “Church of the Protection on the Nerl” (the Nerl is a river).   The Pokrov (which means literally “veil” and figuratively “protection”), you may recall, is an old icon type discussed in a previous posting.  In English that church is often referred to as the “Church of the Intercession,” which blurs its real meaning somewhat.  Why is it shown here with Andrey Bogoliubskiy?  Because he commissioned the building of the white stone church in the year 1165 — tradition says in memory of his dead son Izyaslav — and it is still there today.  Andrey Bogoliubskiy also introduced the Pokrov as a church festival in his region.

Following the precedent of Constantinople, Bogoliubskiy made Mary the protectress and patron of royal authority and the State (HIS authority and HIS State, of course).  In addition to the “Vladimir” image, Andrey is also associated with the Marian icon known as the Bogoliubskaya.  You will recall that according to the traditional story, when taking the “Vladimir” image back to Suzdal, the horses stopped, Andrey prayed at great length, and Mary appeared to him.  He is said to have had the first Bogoliubskaya image painted in commemoration of that.

The Bogoliubskaya image exists in several variants.  The basic type shows Mary standing full length with an open scroll in her hand, looking to the right of the image, where Christ is seen in the clouds above.  The text on Mary’s scroll varies from example to example.  Other examples show one or more figures kneeling before Mary at right.  Generally when it is only one figure, it is Andrey Bogoliubskiy.

The most interesting variant is that known as the Bogoliubskaya Moskovskaya — the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type.

Here is an example of that “Moscow” type, which, though painted in the manner of the late 17th century Armory School of Moscow, is nonetheless a recent icon:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Icons of the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type are characterized by Mary standing at left with an opened scroll in her hand, and a group of bowing and kneeling figures at right, among them Moscow saints and other saints popular in that region.  They vary somewhat from example to example, but in general one often finds The Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr, Alexiy, Iona and Filipp; the “Fools for Christ’s sake” Vasily/Basil, Maxim, and Alexiy, Man of God;  Venerable Paraskeva; Basil the Great; the Apostle Peter; the nun-martyr Evdokiya; the martyr Paraskeva, and Simeon the Kinsman of the Lord.





A reader asked a question regarding the icon of St. Vasiliy (Basil)  in a previous posting:

ICON OF BLESSED VASILIY, FOOL FOR CHRIST'S SAKE (with and without metal cover; photo courtesy of
ICON OF BLESSED VASILIY, FOOL FOR CHRIST’S SAKE (with and without metal cover; photo courtesy of

The question was, why is Vasiliy “bare”?

The answer to that takes us into an interesting phenomenon in the history of Russian Orthodoxy — the category of saint commonly called “Holy Fool,” or more accurately, “Fool for Christ’s sake (Khrista radi yurodivy).

This peculiar kind of Russian saint (and not just Russian) originated in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul, who said in 1 Corinthians 3:18:

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

Well, some took it quite literally, and decided that behaving like a lunatic was just the right way to live a Christian life while avoiding pride and arrogance.  It is hard to be arrogant when everyone thinks you are a total fool.  Of course to make people think that, one had to play a fool, and to behave in ways that far exceeded normal social conduct, and often irritated people to no end.   One of the things Vasiliy did was to attach no importance to whether he was clothed or not.  Whether it was summer or winter, residents of Moscow might see him wandering around the city naked.

If you look at this central image from an icon of the Bogoliubskaya Mother of God, you will see a gathering of saints at the right.  Among them (the first two in the second row) are two semi-nude “Fools for Christ,” one Vasily, and the other Maxim.  Vasilily was believed to be clairvoyant, able to heal and to predict the future.  His reputation was such that even the notorious Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared him.  Maxim also wandered about in all weather nearly naked, and many healings were attributed to him after his death.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The problem with Holy Fools, of course, is this:  How does one separate those who are being fools for the sake of Christ from those who are being fools because they are mentally ill or damaged?  In Russia there was no clear standard for distinguishing them other than the verdict of time.

The Bogoliubskaya icon pictured here, by the way, is a variant on the standard type, and it is called the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya because all of those saints at the right are local Moscow saints.  That is why both Vasiliy and Maxim, both holy fools in Moscow, are included.  I won’t go into the history of the famous Bogoliubskaya type, because my purpose today is just to clarify why some Russian saints are depicted “bare.”

By the way, most people have seen photos of the famous Cathedral of St. Basil in Red Square in Moscow.  Well, the Holy Fool Vasiliy discussed today is that St. Basil.  His remains were interred inside the cathedral.

It is worth keeping in mind that not all near-naked saints in icons are holy fools.  Some  are merely ascetics who did not take on the strange role of “Fool for Christ’s Sake.”