Here is a 17th century icon given the title  “Come You People, Let Us Worship the Three-Hypostatic Godhood.”  But if you have been reading here for some time, you will recognize it as basically just a more elaborate version of the New Testament Trinity “Among the Powers,” that is, among the ranks of angels.

As you saw in an earlier posting (, icons of the New Testament Trinity are sometimes given the title “Image of the Three-Hypostatic Godhood” (ОБРАЗ ТРIИПОСТАСНАГО БОЖЕСТВА — Obraz Triipostasnago Bozhestva).

In the center we see Jesus at left, God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) at right, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in the air between them.

The title of this icon is taken from the Stikhera, tone 8, used at the Great Vespers Pentecost service:

Приидите, людие, триипостасному божеству поклонимся, Сыну во Отце, со
Святым Духом: Отец бо безлетно роди Сына соприсносущна и сопрестольна, и
Дух Святый бе во Отце, с Сыном прославляемь: едина сила, едино существо,
едино божество, емуже покланяющеся вси глаголем: Святый Боже, вся
соделавый Сыном, содейством Святаго Духа: Святый крепкий, имже Отца
познахом и Дух Святый прииде в мир: Святый безсмертный, утешительный
Душе, от Отца исходяй, и в Сыне почиваяй: Троице Святая, слава Тебе.

Come you people, let us worship the Three-hypostatic Godhood; the Son in the Father, with the Holy Spirit; for the Father before time begot the Son ever co-existing and co-enthroned; and the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified together with the Son; one power, one substance, one Godhood, in whom worshiping  we all say:
Holy God, who made all by the Son, with the co-operation of the Holy Spirit;
Holy Mighty, through whom we have known the Father, and the Holy Spirit came to the world; Holy Immortal, comforting Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son; Holy Trinity, glory to you.”

In the 16th century there was a big controversy over the making and use of such elaborate and symbolic “mystic-didactic” icons as this one and others, among them “In the Grave Fleshly,” “Sophia, Wisdom of God,” “On the Seventh Day God Rested,” “It is Worthy,” the “Symbol of Faith,” the politically propagandistic “Blessed is the Army of the Heavenly Tsar,” and “The Only Begotten Son.”  The complaint was that they could not and did not adequately and correctly express the dogmas of the Church, and that their complexity was simply confusing.  The leader of the opposition to such icons was a prominent government secretary and “Keeper of the Seal” under Tsar Ivan IV (“Ivan the Terrible”) named Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovatuiy (Иван Михайлович Висковатый).  But a Church council in 1554 condemned his views (with some small exceptions), and he consequently repented his “heretical” ideas and fell in line with the decree.

Rather confusingly, there is another and unusual icon type also called “Come You People, Let Us Worship the Three-Hypostatic Godhood.”  But this second type also includes images of the Annunciation, the Birth of Jesus, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Hades (Resurrection), so it is easily distinguished from the first type.

At the top we see a “Fatherhood” image in the center, with Mary to the left of it and John the Forerunner to the right.  At far left is the youthful Christ enthroned, and at far right the mature Christ enthroned.  Angels accompany these three top images, and at the base is a gathering of people worshiping the Trinity.




Today we will look at the icon type called the “Only-Begotten Son.”

It is based upon a hymn found in the liturgy of John Chrysostom, as well as in that of Basil the Great and elsewhere; it is found at the end of the Second Antiphon:

Единородный Сыне и Слове Божий, безсмертен Сый,
и изволивый спасения нашего ради воплотитися от Святыя Богородицы и Приснодевы Марии,
непреложно вочеловечивыйся,
распныйся же Христе Боже,
смертию смерть поправый,
Един Сый Святыя Троицы,
спрославляемый Отцу и Святому Духу, спаси нас.

Only-Begotten Son and Word of God immortal,
And the one willingly for our salvation incarnate of the Holy Birthgiver of God and Ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man,
And was crucified — Christ God,
Trampling down death by death,
Who are one of the Holy Trinity,
Glorified with the Father and Holy Spirit, save us.

The “Only-Begotten Son” type is frustrating for icon students because, though it is easily recognizable, it varies considerably from icon to icon in the elements included.

Let’s begin by looking at an example that gives us the basic image:


In the center is a New Testament Trinity variant. You will recall that the New Testament Trinity shows God the Father as an old man called “Lord Sabaoth,” as well as the Holy Spirit as a dove, and Jesus. The difference in this version is that Jesus is depicted as Christ Immanuel, Christ shown as a child or boy (in this it is akin to the Otechestvo, the “Fatherhood” type). He is in a ring of cherubim (in general cherubim are blue) and seated on seraphim (usually red). In one hand he holds an open scroll with the inscription “Only-Begotten Son and Word of God.”


Sometimes the scroll contains a different text, one of which is based on the Gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-3:

And the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God” — (И почиет на немъ духъ божий, духъ премудрости и разума, духъ совета и крепости, духъ ведения и благочестия: исполнитъ его духъ страха божия… — I pochiet na nem dukh bozhiy, dukh preudrosti i razuma, dukh soveta i kreposti, dukh vedeniya i blagochestiya: ispolnit ego dukh strakha bozhiya…).

But sometimes Christ simply holds a rolled scroll without a text.

In the other hand he holds a disk with the symbols of the Four Evangelists: an eagle for John, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and a winged man for Matthew:


At left and right are flying angels. Below, we see the icon type of Mary and Jesus that is called “Weep Not For Me, Mother,” based upon Irmos, Ode 9 for the Canon of Holy Saturday:

Не рыдай Мене, Мати, зрящи во гробе, Его же во чреве без семене зачала еси Сына: востану бо и прославлюся, и вознесу со славою непрестанно, яко Бог, верою и любовию Тя величающия

“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing in the tomb the son conceived in the womb without seed. For I shall arise and be glorified and shall exalt with eternal glory, as God, those who magnifiy you in praise and love.”


It depicts the Eastern Orthodox version of the Pietà, in this case Mary holding the body of her son, shown waist-length and upright in the tomb.

So that is the main image in “Only-Begotten Son” icons, making it easily recognized.

Now let’s move on to a more complex version:


Here we have the usual central image of Lord Sabaoth, Holy Spirit, and Son, but the two upper angels at left and right are now holding disks aloft; that on the left contains a seraph, that on the right a cherub. In some examples the angels instead hold up the sun at left and the moon at right, both with faces.

At far left and right we see buildings. In that on the left, an “Angel of the Lord” (sometimes identified as the Archangel Gabriel) stands with a golden chalice in hand. This is said by some to represent the Heavenly Jerusalem, though it generally simply represents the “Church”:

The building at right and its angel (sometimes identified as Michael) is said to represent the Temple of Wisdom, the house that Wisdom (Christ) built as mentioned in the book of Proverbs.:

That is more obvious in examples showing Mary seated within it, with Christ Immanuel (“Wisdom”) in a mandorla on her breast (compare with the “Kiev Sophia” variant of the “Sophia, Wisdom of God” image). In some examples we see Mary standing in the building instead of seated, and in others we see the Znamenie (“Sign”) image of Mary, depicting her only to the waist, with the child Christ on her breast. The angel may hold a disk with the IC abbreviation for “Jesus” on it.

Some examples reverse the buildings, putting the “Temple of Wisdom” at left, and the “Church” at right.

At lower left is a cross, and atop it sits Jesus clothed as a warrior with a sword, symbolizing his victory over death:

Just below him is an angel subduing and binding Satan; other demons, some looking at the victorious Christ, flee into Hell, often depicted as the open jaws of a huge monster. Some examples also include an image of the standard crucifixion just above Christ on the cross as warrior.

On the lower right side, we see a winged seraph holding a sword (sometimes identified as a cherub), symbolizing the angel with a sword who guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve fell, bringing death into the world. Just below him a pale figure identified as Death rides a lion out of a dark cave, trampling human bodies beneath him:

Sometimes they are clothed in white shrouds. Death wears a quiver at times filled with arrows, sometimes with other weapons of death, as in this example. Death is depicted as a corpse, sometimes as a skeleton, and he holds a scythe. Carrion birds (like the black raven flying above) and animals feed on the fallen bodies.

So that is the “Only-Begotten Son.” Keep in mind the great variation from image to image.

Here is a particularly fine example, with some interesting differences. Note that it has not only the usual New Testament Trinity – Immanuel representation, but above it also the Old Testament Trinity, showing the three persons as the angels that appeared to the Patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in Genesis:


Also, the character of the building at left as the “Church” is made more obvious by showing it with an interior altar on which, in a diskos, lies Christ depicted as “Agnets Bozhiy,” “The Lamb of God,” a symbol of the Eucharist. And to the left of it stand the “Three Hierarchs” — Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian.

The building at right is the “Temple of Wisdom,” in which we see Mary seated with Christ Immanuel on her breast.

Do not be surprised to find additional variations and changes from icon to icon of this “Only-Begotten Son” type. But now you know the basics and main variations to be found, so that should make it less frustrating and intimidating in the future.


Icon painting was and is a business. In Russia it was an immense business, but near the end of the 19th century it was seriously threatened by the introduction of printed icons, which were far less expensive than painted images. Those icons printed on tin that one sometimes still sees were from that period. Printing sent icon painting into a precipitous decline, and of course the finishing blow was given by transition from Tsarist absolutism to Communism.

The relative cheapness of printed icons compared to painted makes them still very popular among Eastern Orthodox today, and they have even spread into other denominations such as Catholic and Episcopalian. A chief characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy in the West, from the latter half of the 20th century onward, is the increasing prevalence of printed icons glued to “boards,” which vary from real boards to substitutes such as masonite. Icon prints on panels have become a staple of Eastern Orthodox gift shops, and are frequently found in Catholic and other denominational gift shops as well.

Icon prints are generally copies of old or recent painted icons, and are the logical outcome of a theory of icons in which the validity of an image depends not on the creativity of the painter but rather upon reasonable faithfulness to a prototype. Thus icon painting carried within its own theory the seeds of its own destruction. One painted icon can now be copied and reproduced in thousands or even millions of printed versions.

All of that is a lead-in to today’s discussion of a particular Greek Orthodox example of a painted original that has become a print on board.

A reader recently sent me a photo of this New Testament Trinity icon variant, asking for help in its interpretation. It is a printed copy of a (Macedonian) Greek Orthodox painting from a few decades ago.


As you see, the title inscription reads simply HE HAGIA TRIAS, “THE HOLY TRINITY.” Keep in mind that the little “apostrophe” just to the top left of a vowel (or above it in some cases) indicates that it is preceded (in the old pronunciation) by an “H” in transliteration, though in modern Greek it is silent. I am going to discuss the reading of Greek inscriptions a bit in this posting, for those students who are serious about learning to understand and interpret icons.

If you have been a regular reader of this site, you will recall that images of the Trinity consisting of the figures of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and of God the Father as an old man, which the Russians name “Lord Sabaoth,” are called “New Testament Trinity” icons to distinguish them from the “Old Testament Trinity” icon that depicts the Trinity as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre. New Testament Trinity icons are common throughout Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to the Balkans to Russia and beyond. They are found in churches, monasteries, and in private homes.

Today’s example is an interesting Greek variant of the New Testament Trinity type. The figure of God the Father, which, as mentioned, the Russians would call “Lord Sabaoth,” is here given the Greek title Palaios [ton] Hemeron, “The Ancient of Days.” He is also given a triangular halo, a symbol of the Trinity borrowed from western European religious art. So for the sake of convenience, we can call this example the “Ancient of Days” variant of the “New Testament Trinity” Type.

You should easily recognize the IC XC abbreviation for Jesus Christ. So let’s look at the inscription on the dove:


It is TO HAGION PNEUMA, “THE HOLY SPIRIT.” Why is the word “the” HE in He Hagias Trias, but TO in To Hagion Pneuma? Because Trias is a feminine noun in Greek, and He is the feminine definite article. But Pneuma, “Spirit,” is a neuter noun in Greek, and To is the neuter definite article, just as Ho is the masculine definite article.

Look again at the odd triangle halo on God the Father. Within it the painter has given God the Father the HO ON abbreviation, generally found only in in the halo of Jesus; and the painter has placed the same HO ON abbreviation in the halo of the Holy Spirit represented as a dove, his intent being to show that all three persons of the Trinity are God, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

Here is the inscription on God the Father:


It is, again, HO PALAIOS HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS,” usually written as HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON” (literally “The Ancient of the days).” That title comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel, 7:21-22:

I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them;
Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.

The book of Daniel, by the way, is as scholars tell us (but which fundamentalists completely ignore) one of those with falsely attributed authorship, and was written considerably later than the period it purports to represent.

Notice how the painter has written the final -os on Palaios as what looks rather like an “at sign” (@) with a curving squiggle below:


That is very common in Greek icon inscriptions.

Lets take a look at the text on the Gospels held by Jesus:


It is from John 14:23, the portion put in brackets below:

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, [Ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ με τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσει, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ἀγαπήσει αὐτόν, καὶ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐλευσόμεθα καὶ μονὴν] παρ’ αὐτῷ ποιησόμεθα.

“[Jesus answered and said to him] If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him [and make] our home [with him].”

Notice how the word mou (of-me/my) is written, with an M to the left and to the right a symbol that looks like an o with a v on top of it. It is a common calligraphic way of writing the two letters ΟΥ (ου) combined as one:


Note also how the painter has written the word kai (meaning “and”) in full in one place, while in another he writes it in a shortened form like this:


Also to be noted is the way the painter joins the letters Η and Ρ (e and r) in the word “father,” pater/ΠΑΤΗΡ. like this:


And here is the inscription on the scroll held by God the Father:


Because we only see a few letters showing in the partially unrolled scroll, it might be a bit of a puzzle at first. Here are the letters we see:

τός (there’s that -os ending written with the “at sign-squiggle” again)

The painter has shown us only one whole word (the first one), and the rest of the letters are only parts of words. But here is the intended phrase, which comes from Matthew 3:17:

Οὗτός [ἐ]στι[]ν [ὁ] υἱό[ς] [μου ὁ] ἀγ[απη]τός
Houtos estin ho huios mou ho agapetos

Literally, “THIS IS THE SON OF-ME THE BELOVED,” or as it is more commonly translated, “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON.”

And here is the “banner” inscription held by the angels. It is the phrase known as the Sanctus in the Roman Catholic mass, adapted from Isaiah 6:3, and used also in varying forms in the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom and in the Liturgy of St. James. In Greek it is sometimes referred to as the “Hymn of Victory,” ἐπινίκιος ὕμνος, (Epinikios Hymnos).

Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
Hagios, hagios, hagios Kyrios Sabaoth pleres ho ouranos kai he ge tes doxes sou
Or less literally,

Left side:


Ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος Κύριος Σαβαώθ
“Holy holy holy Lord Saboth”

Right side:


πλήρης ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ τῆς δόξης σου
“Full are heaven and earth of your glory.”

Note how the painter joines the letters T and H (t and e) in the word THC (τῆς/tes), meaning “of”:


Learning to recognize such joined letters (ligatures) is very important when learning to read Greek icon inscriptions.

As is common in icons of the New Testament Trinity, Jesus and God the Father are enthroned on Seraphim and below their feet are the round wheels with many eyes in them that are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

Finally, it is worth mentioning again that there is a lot of bickering in modern Eastern Orthodoxy between factions who consider certain representations of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit “wrong,” and others who consider them legitimate, and there is even controversy over whether the “Ancient of Days” figure should be used to represent the Father or Jesus (as in Byzantine art). Those who favor the depiction as Jesus interpret the white-haired figure in Revelation 1:14 as being Jesus and the same as the figure in Daniel, while others disagree.

Here is a 12th century image of the “Ancient of Days” as Jesus, from the Church of St. Stephen in Kastoria, Greece:


The inscription writer has left no space between the words HO and PALAEOS (a variant spelling of PALAIOS), and for the final -s in PALEOS he has used a simple strong, downward stroke that looks nothing like the usual letter form.

Here is a fresco from the Monastery Patriarchate of Peć, in Kosovo, Serbia, which is above the narthex entrance door to the Church of the Holy Apostles.


If we look more closely, we see that it too depicts Jesus (titled this time in Slavic) as ВЕТХИ ДЕНМИ — Vetkhi Denmi — “Ancient of Days.”

In the quadrangular slava set into the round halo is the HO ON inscription — “He Who Is” — used in icons of Jesus, and in four circles at left and right are the letters I C X C, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”  In smaller white writing at both sides is the inscription СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ СВЯТЬ ГОСПОДЬ САВАОФ  ИСПОЛНЬ НЕБО И ЗЕМЛЯ СЛАВЫ ТВОЕЯ — “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.”  In Slavic practice it is called the Трисвятая песнь — Trisvyataya pesn” — “The Thrice-Holy Hymn.”

And here is a Byzantine page from the Cambridge University Library, again showing Jesus as the “Ancient of Days,” along with symbols of the Evangelists — Matthew as winged man, John as eagle, Mark as lion, and Luke as ox in this case. Note the similarity of the partially-rolled scroll in his hand to that in the hand of God The Father in today’s example:


The inscription on the page is divided not only between left and right sides, but the writer has also arranged it oddly. He has begun it at top left with HO, then moved to bottom left for PA-, to middle left for –LAI-, and to middle right of the first cluster for –OS. In the right-hand segment he began at top with TON, then moved to the bottom for HE-, to the middle left for –ME– and to middle right for the final –RON, but nonetheless it is just the standard “HO PALAIOS TON HEMERON, “THE ANCIENT OF DAYS” title.

Some say the Holy Spirit should only be shown as a dove in icons such as the descent of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, while others use the “dove” image, as in today’s example, in Trinity and other images. And of course there are those who say God the Father should not be represented at all in icons, in spite of the fact that it has been common Eastern Orthodox practice for centuries to do so.

Icon students should keep in mind that all of these little controversies are just theological bickering, and in the study of icons we pay attention not to what people say icon painters should have done, but to what they ACTUALLY DID. And icons of the Trinity represented as Jesus, the “dove” Holy Spirit, and God the Father as an old man have a history of many hundreds of years in Eastern Orthodoxy. So in the study of icons and their history, there is no “wrong” or “right” to images, there is only what was done at various periods and how it was understood by icon painters and those who venerated icons.


In a previous posting I discussed the icon type known generally as the New Testament Trinity.  Here is an example of the basic type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

It depicts the three persons of the Trinity seated in heaven.  Jesus is at left, and to the right is God the Father (Lord Sabaoth) depicted, as was common, as an old man with a white beard.  Above them is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.  In a ring around them are cherubim and seraphim, and in the outer points are the symbols of the Four Evangelists.

There is a slightly more detailed type that, while utitilizing the same basic image, adds to it Mary at the left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at the right, approaching the Trinity on behalf of mankind.  This makes the New Testament Trinity into a kind of Deisis variant.

The image below is an example of that.  The inscription painted at the top gives it the rather grand title, “IMAGE OF THE THREE-HYPOSTATIC GODHOOD.”  The royal orb at center, surmounted by a cross, symbolizes divine rule over the world.  So we can see that when we look at New Testament Trinity icons, we are supposed to be seeing the heavenly court, which believers pictured very much in the likeness of the earthly court of a Byzantine Emperor or a Russian Tsar, with supplicants approaching to ask favors.

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(Courtesy of

There is an even more complex and interesting type of the New Testament Trinity that is popularly called the New Testament Trinity “AMONG THE POWERS.”  What are these powers?  They are the various ranks of angels, also found in the heavenly court, who are also referred to as the “Bodiless Powers,” because unlike humans, their forms are not material.

In the example below, we see angels (at top) and archangels (at the sides), as well as cherubim and seraphim and the odd kind of angel called “Thrones,” which are seen at the feet of the Trinity.  The “Thrones” are those odd, winged wheels.

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(Courtesy of

The archangels bear the symbols commonly associated with each.  If you look closely at the angel just to the left of Mary, you will see that he has a small boy with him, and the boy holds a fish.  That angel is the Archangel Raphael, and the boy with him is Tobias, from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, which tells the peculiar folk tale of how Raphael told the boy Tobias to catch a fish and to remove its organs, which turn out, when burnt, to be able to drive out demons.

Here is another example of the New Testament Trinity “Among the Powers.”  This example adds a few saints to the angels at the top.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

We also see Raphael and Tobias again, and Tobias still has his large fish, better seen in this detail:

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(Courtesy of

At the lower left is a Guardian Angel leading the small figure of a girl before God (it is a boy in some examples).  This is a generic figure representing the soul of the Christian believer, and is here given the title, “The Righteous Soul” (Dusha Pravednaia).  There is also an angel at lower right with a boy.  Customarily this boy has no halo, and represents the “Sinful Soul” (Dusha Greshnaya) being led before God by the generic figure of the Angel Khranitel, the Guardian Angel who watches over each Christian person in Eastern Orthodox belief.

Here is another example — a 19th century icon from a workshop in the Urals.  It again bears the title “Image of the Three-Hypostatic Godhood, Father and Son and Holy Spirit”  (ОБРАЗ ТРIИПОСТАСНАГО БОЖЕСТВА ОЦА И СЫНА И СВЯТАГО ДУХА — Obraz Triipostasnago Bozhestva Otsa i Suina i Svyatago Dukha).


This example puts strong emphasis on the Archangels, their names and actions in its inscriptions.  In these more detailed “Three-Hypostatic Godhood” versions, one often finds a Church Slavic text in a rather baroque-looking cartouche at the bottom (as in the above icon), reading:

Отца Безначальна, Сына Собезначальна, Духа Соприсносущна, / Божество Едино, / херувимски славословити дерзающе, глаголем: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш, молитвами всех святых Твоих помилуй нас.

Beginningless Father, co-beginningless Son, co-eternal Spirit, one Godhood, we glorify in the manner of the Cherubim, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God; through the prayers of all saints have mercy on us.

It is from a Hymn to the Trinity (a Трои́чен — Troichen), tone 3:

Троице Единосущная и Нераздельная, / Единице Триипостасная и Соприсносущная, / Тебе, яко Богу, Ангельскую песнь вопием: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш:

Слава: Отца Безначальна, Сына Собезначальна, Духа Соприсносущна, / Божество Едино, / херувимски славословити дерзающе, глаголем: / Свят, Свят, Свят еси, Боже наш, молитвами всех святых Твоих помилуй нас.

O Trinity, of one essence and undivided, three-hypostatic and co-eternal Unity, to you as God we sing the Angelic hymn:  Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God.

Beginningless Father, co-beginningless Son, co-eternal Spirit, one Godhood, we glorify in the manner of the Cherubim, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy are you, our God; through the prayers of all saints have mercy on us.


In a future posting I may talk more about the ranks of angels, their textual origins, and their role in icons.  But for now, if you have read this posting  you will be able to recognize the New Testament Trinity type and its variants.

Just one final word:  Why is it called the New Testament Trinity?  That is to distinguish it from the Old Testament Trinity type, which shows the three persons of the Trinity represented as the three angels who visited the Patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre as recorded in the Old Testament.  The Greeks call that type the “Hospitality of Abraham.”



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  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 worshippers.  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 into normal cyrillic form, looks like this:

It is a line from the Simvol Verui — the “Symbol of Faith,” which is the Russian term for the Nicene Creed; it reads, “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.



When I first became involved with icons many long years ago, there was still a lot of snobbery about their age.  In general the feeling was that the earlier an icon was, the better it was, so icons of the 18th to early 20th centuries were not as appreciated as they should have been.  The reverse side of that coin is that the later icons were much less expensive and more obtainable by museums and collectors than the rarer images from the “Golden Age” of icon painting.

My view on the appeal of icons, however, was always more objective, less concerned with the monetary and “right period” aspects.  I felt that the appreciation of icons should not rely just on age, but also on the “character” of an icon — its inherent visual appeal.  So I had a great interest in icons that would have caused the “classic” collector to turn up his nose — icons from the 1700s up to about the time of the Russian Revolution.  I even had appreciation for what one might call “folk” icons, finding that some of the originally cheap and mass-quantity icons actually had an appeal all their own, particularly those delightful icons of the 18th and 19th century with cinnabar red predominating and embossed, metal leaf “svyet” (background) and garments tinted by varnish overlay to make a cheap substitute for gold leaf.  So yes, my interest in icons extended even to examples of icons as simple folk art.

In fact one could say that nearly all Russian icons in the old style and its variations are to me a kind of Russian folk art, representative of cultural attitudes and the beliefs of their times.

Suffice it to say that attitudes have changed in the last decades, and today there are many collectors of fine and interesting examples of the later period of  Russian painting that formerly was ignored by the cognoscenti.

Most people interested in icons have seen pictures of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrey Rublov, probably the most famous of Russian icons, the “Mona Lisa” of its type.  But look at this later icon of the same subject:

(Courtesy of

This icon carefully preserves earlier elements, such as the Stroganov-style buildings at left, and the “shingled” appearance of the mountain on the right, but wonderful touches are present — such as the “feathery” appearance of the shingled steps of the mountain, and that particularly pleasing stylized tree behind the central angel, with its abstract leaves that shade so obviously and uniformly from dark in the underpainting to the white overlay.  The painter has even placed a striking, star-like cave opening in the mountain, which adds considerable interest to the image.

No one would mistake these angels for Rublyov angels — they are real “folk” angels, but high quality folk angels, with their outstretched, pastel wings that remind one a bit of Giotto.  Icons like this are the reason why I have always preferred the old and stylized “abstract” styles favored by the Old Believers to the almost Italian looking, increasingly saccharine “realistic” images so popular in the State Church from the middle of the 17th century up to the Revolution.  This particular icon is a very pleasing work, a real collector’s item.  The surprising thing is that abstraction continued, among some icon painters, right into the early 20th century — and so one may still look for icons of character as late as the early 1900s.

Now, as to the type itself, we already know that this is the image commonly known as the Old Testament Trinity, to distinguish it from the New Testament Trinity, which shows God the Father as a bearded old man along with Christ, and the Holy Spirit represented as a dove.  But the actual title written on this icon is simply Svyataya Troitsa — “The Holy Trinity.”  It shows the appearance of three angels to the Patriarch (the title in icons is Praotets, meaning “Forefather”) Abraham on the plains of Mamre, as recorded in Genesis, chapter 18.  Abraham is seen with Sarah, his wife, serving the angels seated at the central table.  the tree in the background is the “Oak of Mamre.”  The three angels are the three members of the Christian Trinity, all believed (somehow) to be God in E. Orthodox dogma.

In folk tradition, the central angel is generally considered to be Christ, and sometimes he is even given the three points of the cross in his halo with the Ho On inscription that is characteristic of Christ.  The Stoglav Council opposed the practice, but painters often went their own way, ignoring the decree, which is why in the study of icons one should look not at what theologians said should be done, but rather at what was actually done by icon painters.  Always look at real practice rather than theory.  Another folk belief is that the delightful tree behind Christ in this image represents the wood of his cross.  The angel at left was considered to be God the Father and the building behind him represents the Church; the angel at right was the Holy Spirit, and the mountain behind him is the mountain of spiritual ascent.  Such fanciful interpretations were very popular among ordinary people.

Though they cannot be seen clearly in this photo, the three angels have curling ribbons extending from the area just above their ears.  These are standard in icon depictions of angels, and traditionally they represent divine hearing; angels both hear prayers and are attentive to the will of God.  Of course in this image, the angels are God.

The Greeks called icons of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre the “Hospitality of Abraham” (Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ — He Philoxenia tou Avraam).