As you know, people often write to me asking for help with the identification of icons.  One such recent request involved this image:

(Bequest of Edith Waetjen)

It is a late Russian icon, and if you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the subject as  Svyatuiy Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker — that is, St. Nicholas of Myra, who was believed to be a miracle worker.  Nicholas was extremely popular in Russia, and countless icons of this type were painted.  In this example we see the usual elements — the circle enclosing Jesus at left, giving Nicholas his Gospel book, and that of Mary at right, bestowing the bishop’s stole (omophorion) on Nicholas.

I particularly want to take a look at the Church Slavic text held by Nicholas, because it is the most common text used on his icons.  As students of icons you should learn to recognize it, because it will enable you to translate a great many icons of Nikolai/Nicholas.   Here it is:

It reads:

Rather literally,

“At that time Jesus stood on a level place and the group of his disciples and a multitude of many people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon….”

The King James version gives it as:
And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon….

Now one may ask, why that text, given that it has no obvious connection to Nicholas.  The answer is that in the liturgy for the Feast of St. Nicholas in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Gospel reading generally used for that day is Luke 6:17-23.



Today we will look at two Cretan icons of Nikolaos/Nicholas of Myra.  Here is the first, from the 16th century:

As you can see, it shows Nicholas seated on a throne, and is  “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his legend.

Here is a closer look at the central image:

We see the usual images of Jesus at left, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary at right, giving him his bishop’s stole (omophorion).

It is important to note that the Greek inscription on the book differs from the standard text  common on Russian icons of Nicholas, which would be from Luke 6:17: “At that time Jesus stood on the plain, and a multitude of his disciples … ”:

Instead, it reads (left page first, then right page):








(Page two):








Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ θύρα· δι’ ἐμοῦ ἐάν τις εἰσέλθῃ, σωθήσεται, καὶ εἰσελεύσεται καὶ ἐξελεύσεται, καὶ νομὴν εὑρήσει.

Ego eimi he thura: di emou ean tis eiselthe, sothesetai, kai eiseleusetai kai exeleusetai, kai nomen euresei.

It is from John 10: 9:

I am the door: by me if anyone enters in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”

That different text is the important part of today’s posting, but for the sake of completeness we should take a quick look at the “life” scenes in the border of the icon:

First is the birth of Nicholas:

Second, Nicholas brought to be educated:

Third, Nicholas is consecrated as a bishop:

Fourth, Nicholas gives a bag of money to a father in debt, so that his three daughters may have dowries for marriage, and not have to prostitute themselves:

Now we come to a group of scenes from what is generally considered to be the oldest part of the St. Nicholas legends:  the tale of the three byzantine generals.

It is said that Emperor Constantine sent three army generals to subdue an uprising in Phrygia.  They sailed from Constantinople to Andriake, which was the seaport for the town of Myra, where Nicholas was bishop.  Their names were Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis.

Some of the soldiers from the army went to buy food while the ships were docked.  Unfortunately, some looting took place by men pretending to be soldiers from the ships — and so the rioting crowd blamed the innocent soldiers from the ships for the thefts.

Nicholas, in Myra, heard about the riots at the port and went to Andriake to try to calm things down.  He talked with the army officers, and while they were in discussion, report came to Nicholas that the three innocent sailors were about to be executed for the looting.  Nicholas hurried to the place, and found the three men kneeling with hands bound, about to be beheaded by sword.  Nicholas grabbed the sword from the executioner, threw it down, released the men, and led them away.

Here is the scene of Nicholas grasping the executioner’s sword:

Nicholas berated and threatened the official who had unjustly condemned the men, but pardoned him after the three generals asked for mercy on his behalf.  Then the generals sailed off to Phrygia with their army, where they subdued the uprising, then returned to Constantinople, where they were greatly feted and honored.

An official jealous of the honor shown the generals conspired with the Prefect Ablabius, who was offered a great amount of gold to make a false accusation against the generals to the Emperor, accusing them of planning to overthrow Emperor Constantine.  They were arrested and thrown into prison.  Then Ablabius went to Constantine and told him that the generals should be executed to prevent further conspiracy.  Constantine ordered them to be killed that night.  Here are the imprisoned men:

When the three generals were informed of their death sentence, they prayed for the intercession of St. Nicholas.  That evening St. Nicholas appeared to Emperor Constantine as he slept, telling him to release the three innocent generals at once, or Nicholas would have the Emperor overthrown and his body given to animals to eat.    That is the scene shown here:

Then Nicholas appeared to the Prefect Ablabius as he slept, telling him to release the men, and threatening him and his family with death if he refused, as depicted in this scene:

The three generals were taken from the prison to the Emperor, who asked them if they knew of anyone named Nicholas.  They affirmed their knowledge of the bishop of Myra, and all three again began to pray for the intercession of Nicholas and their release as innocent men.  The Emperor told them they owed their lives to Nicholas.  Then he gave the three a golden book of the Gospels as well as other valuable church objects to take to Nicholas as a gift.  That is the scene shown here:

And here are the three generals bringing the Emperor’s gifts to Nicholas:

Now as you may know, part of the strategy of Christianity at the time when the Roman Empire was still polytheistic, was to spread the notion that the gods of the polytheists were not gods at all, but rather demons; and that in venerating the images of the gods, the people were really venerating demons.  The legend of Nicholas says that he went about destroying the polytheist temples, where the demons would flee and the images of the old gods would fall.  Here is the scene of Nicholas destroying the idols:

Here is the scene illustrating the legend of the ship that was caught in a storm at sea.  The sailors prayed to Nicholas, and he appeared, saving the ship from sinking and the sailors from drowning, and driving off the demons who wanted the ship wrecked:

Finally, here is the death of Nicholas:

If we look at the second Cretan icon — this one from the 15th century — we see that it is much like the first:

The interesting thing is that having seen the first icon, you should now be able not only to read the inscription on the Gospel book in this second icon, you should also be able to identify every border image.  Test yourself.

Here is the Gospel text:

You will notice that it abbreviates the word και (“and”) — and leaves out a couple of words at the end.

And here are the border images to identify, in no particular order:












You probably noticed that this second icon omits the border scene of the child Nicholas taken to be educated.


Today we will take a look at another Marian icon.

Беседа — Beseda — is Russian for “talk” or “conversation.  So you can guess what the title of today’s icon means.  It is called the Besednaya (Беседная) icon.  So of course it means the “Conversation” icon, or we could call it the “Conversational” icon of Mary.

Here is one example of the type:

(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen:
(Courtesy of the Icon Museum, Kampen:

Though time has made it a bit difficult to distinguish, the icon depicts Mary sitting on a log, with the Sexton (Ponomar) Iuruish kneeling before her, and St. Nicholas (Nikolai) of Myra standing by, dressed in his bishop’s robes.

The origin story tells us that the event depicted supposedly took place in the year 1383, when Mary appeared to  the Sexton Iuruish (a nickname form of Georgiy, “George”).  St. Nicholas was with her.  She was sitting on a pine log, and told the Sexton that instead of placing an iron cross atop the church, newly-constructed in honor of the “Tikhvin” icon, a wooden cross should be used.  This little discussion is the reason for the “Conversation” title.  An alternate title for this type is “The Appearance of the Most Holy Mother of God to the Sexton Iuruish.”

Here is another example:

(Courtesy of

And yet another example.  this one shows Iurish twice, using what I call “static animation” to show movement as he prostrates before Mary:


(Courtesy of

Now it is obvious from this brief account that one cannot discuss the Besednaya type without some mention of the “Tikhvin” icon, because in their origin stories, the two are connected.

We see that more clearly if we look at an old pattern for the “Conversation” type.  Such patterns were made by tracing the outlines of an icon in a sticky substance and then pressing a paper to it, so that the image was transferred in reverse.  Such patterns could then be used in creating new icons:

We can see that even the inscriptions are reversed.  But if one were to take such a pattern and make little needle holes all along its outlines, then one could use it as a stencil.  When placed over the blank surface of an icon panel, one could then pounce charcoal dust through the holes and scratch the stenciled image so produced into the gesso of the panel, making a permanent outline of the image to be followed in painting the new icon.

The essential Besednaya type takes up a good part of the right side of this pattern, but there are also other related images shown at the top and at the left side.  To understand those we now have to turn to the origin story of the “Tikhvin” icon.

Here is an example of the “Tikhvin” type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

We can tell its identity not only from its form, but also from its inscription, which reads Izobrazheniya Obraza Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui Tikhvinskiya — “Representation of the Image of the Most Holy Mother of God of Tikhvin”  Mary has the usual three stars on shoulders and forehead, representing virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

The “Tikhvin” image is one of the most prominent of the so-called “miracle-working” icons of Mary.  It’s origin story (remember that these are just stories for the most part, not reliable history) relates that it was originally brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople by the Empress Eudocia (Evdokiya) in the 5th century. It was said to have then been kept in the Church of the Vlakhernae, and during the Iconoclastic controversy was hidden away in the Resurrection Monastery. But some 70 years before the fall of Constantinople, the icon is said to have disappeared.

When merchants from the great city of Novgorod in Northern Russia were visiting Constantinople seventy years before its fall, the Patriarch of Constantinople engaged them in conversation, asking about rumors of a miraculous icon that had appeared in Russia.   The merchants told him of the appearance there of the “Tikhvin” icon, and the Patriarch concluded that the “Tikhvin” image was the icon of Mary that had mysteriously disappeared from Constantinople.  Talking of the missing icon, he remarked, ” “But now, due to our pride and unrighteousness it has left us completely.”

That remark is very much in keeping with the belief common in traditional Greek Orthodoxy and Russian Orthodoxy that icons of Mary behave like conscious, living beings, deciding where they wish to be, and moving themselves to a different location whenever desired.  It also reveals how Russians blamed the fall of Constantinople on the “sins of the Greeks,” which of course led to Russia becoming the new center of the Eastern Orthodox World, and Moscow the “Third Rome.”

It is said that the Tikhvin icon first was seen in Russia in 1383, when it was sighted by fishermen working their nets on Lake Ladoga.  They saw a bright light in the air, and looking closer, they saw the icon of Mary flying over the lake.  That is the scene depicted here:

Here is a painted icon of the appearance of the Tikhvin icon over Lake Ladoga:

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

It went out of their sight, and later it appeared some 30 versts from the lake (a verst is the old Russian mile, which was equivalent to 0.6629 miles or 1.0668 kilometers).  There the icon was placed in a chapel and supposedly performed miraculous healings, but then it left again.  It made more stops on its journey, worked more miracles, but continued to move on.  Eventually the icon decided to settle in a swampy place near the Tikhvinka River, and when it appeared there, a church was built to house it.  But being made of wood, the church burnt three times, though the icon was said to have been undamaged.  Great Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich (1505-1533) then ordered that a stone church be built.  It was nearly completed when the arches collapsed on 20 workers.  But when the stones were cleared, all 20 were said to have been found alive.  Ivan the Terrible visited the icon, and had a monastery built there.

There is much more to the story of the “Tikhvin” icon, but that is enough for our purposes today.

Now back to the tale of the Sexton Iuruish.  When it was time to consecrate the church at Tikhvin where the icon was kept, and to install the cross on the dome, Iuruish was sent out to the people in the surrounding area to announce the event so that they might be present.  On his way back, some three versts from the church, he saw Mary sitting on a pine log, and St. Nicholas standing there with her.

Mary told Iuruish to inform the authorities that they were not to install an iron cross on the dome of the church, because her son Jesus was not crucified on an iron cross, but on one of wood.

Iuruish went to the church officials and told them of Mary’s appearance and wishes.  That is the scene shown here:


But when Iuruish told his tale of Mary appearing to him and talking with him, they did not believe him.  They sent the workman up to the dome to fasten the iron cross atop it.  But when he got up there and began his task, a great wind arose, blowing the dome off the church and the workman to the ground (though he was not harmed).  Here is that scene:

Having seen the results of not believing Iuruish, the church authorities decided to install a wooden cross on top of the church.

Later a chapel was also built on the site of the appearance of Mary and Nicholas to Iuruish, and from the log on which she sat, a cross was made for it.  In 1515 a monastery was established there called the “Nicholas-Conversation” (Никольско-Беседный–Nikol’sko-Besednuiy) Monastery.

If you look at top center of the pattern for the expanded Besednaya icon, you will see it has a small image of the “Tikhvin” icon.

The Besednaya type is easy to recognize, with Mary sitting on a log or bent tree, usually with flourishing branches coming out of it, or on what appears like a stump with fantasy foliage loaded with fruits or flowers coming out of it, as in the pattern example shown above.


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.  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
(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.