A reader recently sent me photos of an interesting icon.  Here it is, set in its richly ornamental gilt frame, kept in a glassed-in kiot (protective icon case):

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

The important part, for our purposes, is the icon itself:

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

Well, it looks quite straightforward, doesn’t it?  It has all the characteristics of the type known as Nicholas of Mozhaisk, which depicts St. Nikolai (Nicholas) standing, robed as a bishop, with a sword in his left hand and a church in his right.

We can see that the inscription above Nicholas is a common one:

It reads:


If we left it at that, however, we would be a little too hasty and not quite entirely correct in identification of this icon.  It is important not to miss the little inscription at the base of the image; inscriptions should never be overlooked.  Here is a closer view:

It reads (put into modern Russian font):

Well, we know that the Nicholas of Mozhaisk icon itself did not “appear” in 1415, according to its origin story, but rather in the 1300s.  Nor did the legendary event of Nicholas appearing in the air over the city happen in a place called Mtsensk, but rather in the city of Mozhaisk.  What, then, is the significance of this “1415” inscription and the place name “Mtsensk”?  And where exactly is this “Mtsensk”?  Why all these differences?

The answer is that even though this icon is in the form commonly known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” it represents a particular “appearance” of an icon of that form — an “appearance” other than that at Mozhaisk.

First, what or where is Mtsensk (Мценскъ)?

It is a city in the Orlov region of Russia.  Here it is on an 1897 map, just about in the center of this image.  You can see there is a river running through it, called the Zusha:

At lower left is the city of Orel (Орелъ ).

To get a wider view of where it is in Russia, we can look at another map.  We can see the city of Orel southwest of Moscow, about two thirds of the way to the Ukrainian border:

So that tells us where Mtsensk is located.  Now for the origin story of the icon.

The origin story is a bit confused and varies from account to account.  It is said that on a Friday — June 7th of 1415 — the region of Mtsensk was still heavily pagan.  But on that day there was an eclipse of the sun, which the clerics used to frighten the people into becoming baptized as Christians.

It is also said that in the same year and day, a stone — formerly worshiped by the pagan people — was found floating in the Zusha River at Mtsensk. On it was an image of Nicholas with a sword in one hand and in the other a reliquary in the form of a church.  Such an image (which type we now generally call “Nicholas of Mozhaisk”) is commonly known as Николай Ратный —Nikolai Ratnuiy — “Nicholas the Militant.”  And the image that “appeared” at Mtsensk is one example of that type, and in itself is called Nikolai Mtsenskiy  — Nicholas of Mtsensk, or Никола Амченский — Nikola Amchenskiy — “Nicholas of Amchen,” Nikola being a form of Nicholas, and Amchensk being a popular alternate name for the city of Mtsensk.  This icon was also credited — through its supposed miraculous nature — with the conversion of the locals to Christianity.

Scholars, however, generally believe that these “Militant Nicholas” types are likely based upon Western European sculptures of Nicholas, related to that at Bari, in Italy, where the remains of St. Nicholas are thought to have been taken.  Further, that such statues came to Russia as reliquaries in the form of Nicholas given to Russian princes, and supposedly holding relics of the saint. Though three-dimensional sculpture is generally frowned upon in Russian Orthodoxy, such statues of the “Militant Nicholas” were made an exception due to the great veneration accorded them by the people, and the miracles supposedly associated with them.

Here is an example that has lost its sword and building (and left arm) over the years:

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

So it turns out this little icon is actually quite interesting, given that it specifically commemorates the story of the appearance of an image of Nicholas at Mtsensk, which became a noted pilgrimage site in the old days of Tsarist Russia, with thousands of pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Siberia.  And the coming of pilgrims meant money.

One more little detail, and then we will leave this interesting icon.  If we look just below the figure of Nicholas, we can see that he is standing on a rug:

On that rug is the image of an eagle, though it is upside-down, with the head nearest us and the tops of the wings at each side.  Such a rug — called an Орлец — Orlets — “Little Eagle / Eaglet” is used in the Orthodox liturgy, and is round or oval.  The bishop stands upon it at certain parts of the rite.  It depicts an eagle with wings spread, often flying above a city.  The Orlets was once a sign of the Byzantine Emperor’s authority.  In those days it was a double-headed Byzantine Imperial eagle.  Then it became a kind of respectful award given by the Emperor to the Patriarch.  Later, when the Byzantine Empire had fallen,  it came to be used by any bishop in Russia, signifying both the status of the bishop as having a heavenly origin, as well as a sign of the bishop’s oversight of the people of a city, (his diocese), and that a bishop should “rise above” worldly things.  In Russia it was a one-headed eagle.  We can just think of it as a bishop’s symbol.



One of the easiest icon saints to recognize is Saint Nicholas, and he is also — aside from icons of Mary and those of Jesus — perhaps the most commonly-found saint in icons. Nicholas was originally the Bishop of Myra, in Asia minor, in the 4th century.  That is all that is known about him.

However, stories and legends gathered about him and his relics over the years, and his reputation grew until it was said in Old Russia that when God grew too old and died, Saint Nicholas would take his place. Nicholas was also the “angel day” saint of the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II. The “Angel Day” was the day on which a Russian Orthodox Christian celebrated the saint for whom he or she was named, and for Nicholas, that day was December 6th, the “Feast Day” of St. Nicholas of Myra. So one may find icons of St. Nicholas as well as of the other “name saints” of the last Russian Imperial Family.

In Russia, St. Nicholas has none of the “St. Nick/Santa Claus” associations that he acquired in the Americas through a series of interesting transformations extending from the immigrant Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas Eve to the works of Clement Moore (“The Night Before Christmas”) and the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who gave “Santa Claus” his essential American image.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Above is a well-painted image of St. Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his life and legend, arranged in little boxes all around the border of the central image.  That central image  shows Nicholas in the center.  To the left, Jesus in a circle offers him the book of the Gospels, and to the right, Mary restores his bishop’s stole, the ornamental long band with crosses about his neck and hanging down in front.  These images of Jesus and Mary illustrate the legend that Nicholas, at the 1st Ecumenical Council, slapped the face of his opponent Arius, and was imprisoned.  Jesus and Mary appeared to him in prison, Jesus giving him the Gospel book, and Mary restoring to him his omophorion, symbol of his office as bishop.

Nicholas, in this example, holds his right hand up in blessing, using the “two-fingered” blessing position characteristic of Old Believers and their icons.  In his left hand he holds the book of the Gospels open to his usual text, a version of Luke 6:17: “At that time Jesus stood on the plain, and a multitude of his disciples … ” (VO VREMA ONO STA IISUS NA MYESTYE RAVNYE, I NAROD UCHENIK EGO....) — the introduction to the so-called “Sermon on the Plain” rather than the Sermon on the Mount. Such an icon of Nicholas “with the life” is often known as “Nicholas of Velikoretsk.”  There is, however, more than one type of St. Nicholas icon.  The most common is that of Nicholas depicted as in the Velikoretsk type but without the accompanying “from the life” scenes; aside from that there is the type known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk.”  Here is an example of that type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The title of this type originated in the belief that Nicholas was the miraculous defender of the city of Mozhaisk from the invading Tartars.  He holds a sword in one hand, and in the other a church, sometimes depicted as a miniature city. Yet another Nicholas type is “Nicholas of Zaraisk,” in which he stands with arms outstretched, blessing with one hand and holding the Gospels in the other. You might also encounter another type depicting a shoulder-length version of Nicholas in which his face has a severe expression and does not face the viewer directly, as Nicholas always does in his other types. Though often shown bareheaded, Nicholas is sometimes depicted wearing the “crown” of a bishop. In Greek icons, Nicholas is identified by his appearance and by inscription, “HO HAGIOS NIKOLAOS” — “The Holy/Saint Nicholas” The St. Nicholas of Eastern Orthodoxy was very popular because of the belief that he could work miracles.  Aside from that, Nicholas was particularly known as the patron saint and protector of sailors.