Here is a little self-test:

If you have been a diligent student of the postings on this site, you should be able to identify everything in this multiple icon.  A multiple icon is an icon with several separate types placed together on a single panel.  This example has four main types, a smaller central type, and of course the saints used as border images.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:

The inscription reads

Aside from the inscription, one can tell from the facial characteristics (form, hair, beard), the costume, and from the accompanying figures of Jesus at left and Mary at right that this is an image representing St. Nikolai/Nikola/Nicholas of Myra.  You will recall that Jesus is giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels, and Mary is presenting him with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion).  If you notice that Nicholas is not shown full-face, but rather as though turning from the left, you may remember that such a Nicholas — though often with a harsher expression than here — is called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — and was thought to ward off evil.

Now you will have read in a previous posting that “Nicholas the Turner” is an icon type that appeared among the Old Believers in the 18th century, so that tells us something important about this icon too; and what it tells us is confirmed by the hand.  As you see, the fingers are held in the blessing position used by the Old Believers, and that confirms that this is an Old Believer icon.

Upper right:

Of course you know that the MP ΘY letters in two circles at the top abbreviate the Greek words Meter Theou — which are common on Russian icons of Mary.

From the title inscription, we can tell that this is identified as the
or in normal English,
The “‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God.”

And of course that is Jesus in the circle on her breast.

You may recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous “palladium” icons, considered to be city protectors, and that its legendary history says it saved the citizens of the great trading city of Novgorod in the northwest of Russia from the invading Suzdalians.

Lower left:

The inscription identifies this Marian icon type as the


It is sometimes also translated loosely as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.”  It is important to remember, however, that this type is not the only Marian icon type to be found under that title.

Next comes a New Testament Scene that is also an annual Eastern Orthodox Church commemoration:

If you are familiar with the New Testament, you can probably identify it without the inscription below.  Here is that inscription:


And that is what the scene depicts:  the execution of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and the presentation of his head to Salome.

Such an icon type was particularly important to Old Believers because it called to mind the terrible persecution they suffered under the State Orthodox Church.

In the center of the icon we find the image of — as the red title inscription tells us here — the

It is the image traditionally considered the “first icon” in Eastern Orthodoxy, because the old legend that developed over time said that Jesus once pressed a wet towel to his face, and his image was miraculously imprinted on it.  It is the “Abgar” image sent by tradition from Jesus to King Abgar of Edessa.

You will notice the other inscriptions written on the cloth — first the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and below the face, this inscription:


So in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Holy Cloth” is the cloth after Jesus supposedly transferred the image of his face to it.

Finally, there are four border saints in this icon:

First comes the

In ordinary English, the “Guardian Angel.”  It is important to know that this is a generic figure who represents the Guardian Angel supposedly assigned to each person —  It is often found as a border image, but is also found as an icon type on its own.  He holds a sword in one hand and a cross in the other:

The others are:

2.  St. Alexandra;

Venerable Sergiy;

St. Feodora/Theodora;

Such border saints as these three are generally found in icons as the “angel” saints of the members of the family for whom the icon was painted — the saints after whom each person was named.

A purchaser — in this case an Old Believer — could choose the icon types to be represented on such a multiple icon, and of course could tell the painter the names of his family members to include in the border, represented there by their “name” saints.  And again, the “Guardian Angel” served as the generic figure representing each angel assigned individually to protect a family member.

Now you will find all this information — including a longer discussion of each main type shown — in the site archives.



St. Nicholas Eve and Day, December 5th and 6th, are very popular in the Netherlands; but they are generally ignored in the United States, where St. Nicholas long ago evolved into the secular, jolly Christmas giver of gifts and resident of the North Pole, Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas is still one of the most commonly found Russian (and Greek) icon types. Here is a full-length Nicholas painted in 1897, robed as a bishop, blessing with one hand and with the Gospels in the other:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Scholars tell us that while it is likely that a real Nicholas once existed as Bishop of the town of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey) around the beginning of the 4th century, the rest of his story is largely an accretion of legends — in short, everything else said about Nicholas is simply unsupported and fictionalized elaboration. His relics (bones) are said to be kept at Bari in Italy. In 2009 a Turkish archeologist asked that his government request the return of the bones (taken or stolen by Italian sailors in the Middle Ages) to Turkey.

There are so many icons of Nicholas — called “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker” (Nikolai/Nikola Chudotvorets) and often “Nicholas the Pleaser” (Ugodnik) — that one tires of seeing them. Nonetheless, a student of icons must know about them.  The descriptive title Ugodnik means a saint is “pleasing to God.”

As I mentioned in a previous posting, there are three main types: Nicholas of Velikoretsk, Nicholas of Mozhaisk, and Nicholas of Zaraisk.

The “Velikoretsk” type is the one we usually see, Nicholas shown head to shoulders, or half-length, or more rarely (as above) full length. Jesus is often depicted in a circle on one side, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary on the other, presenting him the bishop’s stole (omophorion in Greek):

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

These depictions of  Jesus and Mary originate in the story (for which there is no evidence) that St. Nicholas was present at the 1st Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea.  Later, an additional detail was added to the legend. At that Council, Nicholas is said to have been so irritated by Arius, leader of the opposition, that he slapped him in the face.  Arius complained to the Emperor Constantine, who had Nicholas removed and imprisoned.  While in prison Jesus and Mary appeared to him; Jesus gave Nicholas the Gospel book and Mary restored his omophorion, the sign of his office as bishop.  This detail seems to have been added to the legend near the end of the 14th century.  That “slapping” scene is briefly described in the 18th century Greek painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna, as part of the iconography of the 1st Ecumenical Council.

Less common than the basic “Velikoretsk” type are icons of that type surrounded by standard scenes from the life and legend of Nicholas, as in this example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The second type of Nicholas icon one is likely to encounter is “Nicholas of Mozhaisk,” as in this interesting example,  which, atypically, also includes four scenes from the “life.”

(Courtesy of http://www.russianicons.net)
(Courtesy of http://www.russianicons.net)

Here is another example of the “Mozhaisk” type:

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

And third, there is the “Nicholas of Zaraisk” type, in which Nicholas is shown standing with arms raised out to the sides, with the Gospel book in one hand and the other in a sign of blessing, as in this icon pattern (reversed):


As already mentioned, some icons show Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with standard scenes from his tale. Let’s take a look at seven separate panel icons showing some of them:

1. The birth of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

2. The baptism of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

3. Nicholas brought for education:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

4. The consecration of Nicholas as bishop:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

5. Nicholas throws a bag of money through a window at night as dowry for three poor young women, so they might marry:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

6. Nicholas rescues three men condemned to execution:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

7. Nicholas restores life to a child drowned in the Dniepr River:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This icon depicts Nicholas in the “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” form, but with two added scenes at the sides of Nicholas saving the child drowning in the Dnieper River at left, and at right the child returned to his parents:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

There are quite a number of possible additional “life” scenes found in this or that icon of Nicholas, so here is a general listing of a few of the most prominent, including some already mentioned:

The birth of Nicholas, the baptism of Nicholas, the healing of a crippled woman, Nicholas brought for education, consecration as deacon and as bishop, driving a demon out of a well, appearing to the sleeping Emperor Constantine, rescuing three men from imprisonment, rescuing the drowning Demetrios, giving gold for the dowry of three young women to save them from prostitution, the three men and the whale, saving a boy abducted by Saracens, the death of Nicholas, the tomb of Nicholas and translation (moving) of his relics.

Here is another icon with a central image of Nicholas, surrounded by scenes from his life:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

They are to be read clockwise, from upper left:

The birth of Nicholas;
The baptism of Nicholas;
The healing of the blind woman:
Nicholas learning his letters;
Nicholas consecrated deacon;
Nicholas consecrated bishop;
Nicholas saving the drowning boy;
The death of Nicholas.

As with other major saints, one also finds icons of Nicholas in the iconostasis form, showing him turned toward what would be a central image of the enthroned Jesus — that is, in the Deisis form, beseeching for favors on behalf of those who pray to Nicholas:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In addition to the main types of Nicholas icons, there is another one should know.  It is an image of Nicholas with his face turned slightly to the left (the “sinister” side), but with unusually large eyes looking to the right.  This type — commonly called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — arose among the Old Believers, and appears first near the end of the 18th century.

Any old icon of this type you see will be an Old Believer icon.  In this type, the face is often much larger than usual, leaving little space between it and the border.  It commonly has a severe, angry look.  The blessing hand may or may not be seen.  When it is seen, the fingers will form the distinctive “Old Believer” sign of blessing — not that of the State Church.

We see that finger position clearly in this example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This type, with its rather threatening expression, has a particular reputation among old believers for repelling demons, misfortune, and all kinds of “filth.” Отвращать (otvrashchat) in Russian means to “ward off,” “avert,” “turn away,” so this “Turning” (Отвратный ) Nicholas “turns away” anything evil, in Old Believer tradition.

If we look closely, we easily see that severe look in the expression:

I have mentioned elsewhere that the common text found on the Gospel book held by Nicholas in Russian icons (when there is a text) is Luke 6:17, or at least the beginning of it:


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….”

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.

One could write a thick book about the legendary history of Nicholas, but this should be enough for a quick introduction to his icons.