Here is an icon with St. Nicholas — Nicholas of Myra — at its center:

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

It is identified by its title inscription.  The inscription begins at left:


And it finishes at right:


Putting them together, we get:


Nicholas holds a sword in one hand and a church in the other.  When he is depicted in this way, he is called “Nicholas of Mozhaisk.”  The title of the type originated in the belief that Nicholas was the miraculous defender of the city of Mozhaisk from the invading Tartars.  The church in his hand is sometimes shown as a miniature city.

To the left of Nicholas, we see Jesus in the clouds, and to the right, Mary.

Let’s take a closer look at the face of Nicholas:

Nicholas is flanked by saints on both sides.  Here are those at left:

From top:

“Holy Martyr Tatiana”

“Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene”

“Holy Alexei, Metropolitan”

Here are those at right:

“Holy Great Martyr Anastasia”

“Holy Alexandra, Empress”

“Holy Olga, Princess”

The painter certainly had a definite way of painting faces — so much so that these saints all look very similar in facial features.

The icon is heavily gold leafed, and that enabled the painter to incise baroque ornamentation in the corners of the image and floral ornaments on the garments, such as we see on the robe of Nicholas:

Well, that covers most everything on the icon.  But if we left it at that, we would miss the most significant thing about the image.  Let’s look again at the names of the saints depicted:


Now if you know anything at all about Russian history, those should sound very familiar — because they are the names of the last Russian Tsar and his family.  And that is the most significant thing about this icon; it represents the saints for whom the members of the ill-fated last Russian Imperial Family were named.

The icon was painted in what was then the Province of Chernigov, and is now the town of Shelomy in Bryansk Oblast, Russia.

If we look at this old map, there are three red dots from the top to the “Tschernigow” (Chernigov) name in large letters.  The third red dot down from the top is the Old Believer settlement of Starodub.  Go straight West from Starodub, and the first village you come to is “Schelomy” — Shelomy.  And if we continue West from Shelomy and cross the red border, we come to Wjetka — “Vetka.”  These were all Old Believer settlements.

An inscription on the reverse says the icon was painted by an Old Believer for presentation on the “Angel Day” — the name-saint day — of Tsar Nicholas, in 1906.

Now there is something odd about that, and it is that an Old Believer is not likely to have had any interest in painting anything for or having to do with the Tsar of Russia, whom Old Believers in general considered a heretic.  But it is very like that this particular Old Believer was one of the Eдиноверцы/Edinovertsui — that is, one of the Uniates.  The Uniates were a religious category that began in the latter part of the 18th century — an attempt by the State Russian Orthodox Church to make some accommodation that would allow Old Believers to have a certain unity with the State Church while still keeping their practice of using the old rituals.  Many Old Believers would have nothing to do with the arrangement, but some communities did make the transition.  The project seems to have really begun as an attempt to bring the Old Believers back into the State Church, but even though some accepted the Edinovertsui/Uniate designation, the attempt to make them fully “State Church” was a failure.  They preferred to keep their own ways.


If you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize this 19th century icon even before you read the rather faded title inscription at the top:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

For those who may be newer readers however, let’s look at that inscription.  Here are the first two words:


And the last two:


All together, it reads:


So yes, this is an image of Nikolai Chudotvorets — Nicholas the Wonderworker, also known as Nicholas of Myra.  He was an extremely popular saint in old Russian Orthodoxy, and very high in the “pantheon” of religious figures.  Perhaps you recall that the usual name for the type of Nicholas as depicted in the central image here — Nicholas holding a sword in one hand and a church in the other — is “Nicholas of Mozhaisk.”

To that image, the painter of this icon has added a couple of scenes from one of the traditional legends of Nicholas — his saving of the child in the Dniepr/Dnieper River.  Supposedly, the child was out in a boat with his parents on the Dniepr, not far from Kyiv.  The mother fell asleep as she held the child, and when she did so, the child fell overboard and disappeared beneath the water.  The waking mother was beside herself with anguish, and the distraught father prayed to St. Nicholas.  The next morning the sacristan at the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv heard a child crying in the choir loft, and on searching, the child that had been lost and drowned in the Dnieper was found lying soaked with river water and crying beneath an icon of St. Nicholas.

At left in this icon, we see the parents in the boat on the Dniepr, the child fallen in the water, and Nicholas coming to the rescue:

At right we see the child lying in the church beneath the icon, and the happy parents as they find him there.

At the upper left of the icon, we see the usual images of Jesus giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels …

and Mary at upper right, presenting Nicholas with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion):

For those who want more information on icon types of Nicholas, just do a search on the site archives here for previous postings.


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 Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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.  It (Luke 6:17-23) is the usual Gospel reading for the day of his commemoration.

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 Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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.