Here is yet another “icon in a tree” image.  If you look closely, however, you will see that there is also a large fish and a round loaf of bread in the tree:

It all relates to the story of another of the monastic founder monks of the “Northern Thebaid” — one of those who wandered off into the forested wilds of northern Russia.  This one is “Holy Venerable Martyr Adrian Poshekhonskiy, Wonderworker.”

Adrian was a monk at the Vologda-Korneliev Monastery.  He supposedly had a vision in which Mary appeared to him, telling him to go into the northern wilds and build a church there.  An alternate account says that while at that monastery, Adrian met a strange old starets (religious elder) named Bestuzh, who told Adrian his future was to build a church in a wild place, and also told Adrian he knew where that place was to be found.

With the permission of his abbot, Adrian set off into the forests with his fellow monk Leonid, and the strange starets travelled with them, guiding their way into the swampy, forested region.  when they arrived at their destination, the starets mysteriously vanished — and they determined from this that he must have been an angel sent to guide and protect them.

They had brought with them an icon of the Dormition (Uspenie) of the Mother of God, and this they hung in an oak tree.  Then they went off into the forest — some say to look for whatever mushrooms and berries they might find to eat.

While they were gone, some local fishermen from the village of Beloselsk came into the area, fishing on the Vetka River at the same place where the monks had hung the icon of Mary.  There they were able to catch two extraordinarily large pike (a kind of fish).  One of them found the icon — some say shining with a bright light —  and climbed up and attempted to take the icon from the tree, but a strong unseen force pushed him away.  Impressed by all this, the fishermen left offerings at the tree, in the form of fish and bread.  That accounts for the large fish we see lying across a branch of the tree in the icon, and it also accounts for the round loaf near it.

When Adrian and his companion returned, they were surprised to find the food left at the tree.

Feeling this was the spot for their church, the monks set to work.  Other people in the region came to them and helped, and eventually a church and monastery rose on the site.

There was trouble, however.  In the year 1550, robbers came from the village of Beloye to the monastery, thinking that there must be wealth inside.  They tried to get Adrian — now the abbot — to reveal the wealth, but when he told them there was only 40 Rubles for the construction work, they strangled him with a rope and killed other monks as well.

The story is that that the robbers carried away Adrian’s body.  Some say they just threw it aside in the forest, and that later a priest found it, buried it, and planted a rowan tree over the grave.  The killing of Adrian is why he has the title Prepodobnomuchenik — “Venerable Marytr,” that is, a monk-martyr.

As these tales go, however, that was not the end.  It is said that people in one of the local villages on the Ukra River began to notice something odd.  If they were ill and happened to eat the berries from a certain rowan tree (rowan trees, by the way, were often considered sacred in pre-Christian times), they would suddenly find themselves well again.  Of course word about this miraculous tree got out, and some priests finally came to investigate in the year 1625.  They dug under the rowan tree, and there, it is said, they found the incorrupt body of Adrian.  And of course the usual tales of miraculous healings associated with the remains of Adrian followed.

Though icons of Adrian have the same general form, depicting Adrian on one side and the tree with the the icon of the Dormition, fish, and loaf in it on the other, some examples — like the one above — also include the fishermen with their nets in the river, and one of them finding the icon.  Other examples show an additional monk or monks standing with Adrian  Some also show in the background the monastery he founded, as in this icon:

Here is a simpler version of the image, dated 1902 — one of those lithographs printed by the Fesenko firm in Odessa.  For more information on Fesenko, see this earlier posting:




If you are a long-time reader here, you will recall that the “appearance” of something — whether an icon or a vision — is a yavlenie in Russian icon terminology.  And you may recall from a past posting that there is also the related form yavisya, meaning “appeared.”

That should help you with today’s icon.  Here it is:

Let’s look at the title inscription:

As you see, it abbreviates some words with certain omitted letters written above the line as superscript letters.  If we add all missing letters, it reads (modern Russian font):


There are certain forms of letters to note in the original:

You should recall that the above letter — written like an I and an A together — is one of two ways of writing the sound ya in Church Slavic.  The other form is like a capital A with a vertical line descending from the middle of the crossbar.  Both are represented in the modern Russian font by Я.  Note also that when it appears at the end of the first word, yavisya, it appears like this:

That is because the left I of the IA combination is made much smaller, and inserted into the space in the preceding letter, C.  Together, these form –sya.

Also note that in the name Aleksandr, the following Slavic letter is used for the –ks– sound, like our x in English Alexander.  In the modern Russian font it would be written as КС


Finally, the second part of Alexandr’s name — Svirskiy — is written here in the “to” form as Svyerskomu, using that convenient letter for –ye– that was dropped from the modern Russian font:

Don’t be surprised that the writer chose the ye sound instead of the normal i sound to write Svirsk– as Svyersk-.  Such variations in spelling are not unusual in icons.  And notice that the Р (r) in Svyersk– is written smaller and above the letter.

So, all together the title inscription is:

Appeared Holy         Trinity     Venerable-to            Aleksandr   Svyersk
Or in normal English,
Note the dative (or “to” form) suffixes on Prepodobnomu, Aleksandr and Svyerskomu.

If we look above Alexandr’s head (he is the fellow kneeling at the right in the image), we see his name written:

It appears as:

“Venerable Alexander”

So much for the title.  But what is this icon type about?

The three angels at left are the members of the Holy Trinity –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — though they are not distinguished as to which is which:

And, of course, here is Alexandr Svirskiy:

Alexandr Svirskiy (1448-1533) was one of the monks of the northern Russian forests — the so-called “Northern Thebaid.”  He is called Svirskiy because he settled some 12 miles east of Lake Ladoga, in the vicinity of the Svir River, which runs between Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga. There he led an ascetic and rigorous life.  It is said that in 1508 an angel appeared to him, telling him to build a church and a monastery.  He did not do so.  Later, the angel again appeared, repeating the  instructions.  Again he did not.  Finally (here again is the “third time is the charm” motif we find repeatedly in these old tales of saints and icons) the Trinity appeared to him as three men in shining garments, each with a staff in hand, telling him to build a monastery and a church in the name of the Holy Trinity (Svyataya Troitsa).  This of course recalls the appearance of Yahweh, manifested as three men, to the patriarch Abraham on the plains of Mamre, according to the Old Testament story in Genesis 18.

That is the traditional account of the origin of the Trinity Cloister at what is now called the Alexandr Svirskiy Monastery (Александро-Свирский монастырь).  A body said to be that of Alexandr, and reputed to be “incorrupt” and to manifest miracles, was returned to that monastery in 1998.


Today I want to talk a bit about monk saints.

I specifically want to talk about those monks who became famous as founders of monasteries in the northern forests of Russia, the so-called “Northern Thebaid.” Why is it called that? Because the first monks in Christian history appeared in the 3rd century in an area called the Thebaid (after the city of Thebes), in southern Egypt. They went out into the barren regions of the upper (southern) Nile and began monasteries there. When monks in Russia went into the wild northern forest regions centuries later, that eventually came to be known as the Northern Thebaid.

You will want to remember that the standard title for a monk on Russian icons is “Prepodobnuiy” — Преподобный, often abbreviated to “Prep” (ПРЕП) or “Pr” (ПР). Usually it is just loosely rendered in English as “Venerable,” but what it really means is “Most” (Pre-) “Like” (-Podobnuiy.” So a monk is titled “Most-like.” But “Most like” what? Most like Christ, most like the original man Adam before the proverbial “Fall,” who was said in Genesis to be made in the image of God. So Eastern Orthodox believed that in such monks, one saw a person who was most like the true “spiritual” man.

You will also want to know that such monastic founders are often depicted in a monastic robe called the “Great Skhima.” It is (now) the garment worn by monks considered to have reached the highest level of development. The name comes from the Greek Μεγάλο Σχήμα, Megaloskhima, meaning “Great Shape”or “Great Form.” the Russian Great Skhima is often depicted as hooded, though the Greek form is not. You can easily recognize a monk of the Great Skhima by the long and wide cloth band called the analav in Russia (from Greek analavos), which hangs down in front and back and is ornamented with the cross and spear and sponge (and appropriate abbreviations) of the Crucifixion. You can see that analav in this icon of Stefan/Stephan of Makrish, Стефанъ Махрищский. He was a 14th-century monastic founder of the Northern Thebaid:

(Courtesty of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesty of Jacksonsauction.com)

The icon shown above can easily be dated no earlier than the later years of the 19th century. Before that time, the geometrical and rounded-top border, incised and painted in imitation of cloisonne, was not used, as can be said also of the heavily-incised and gilt decoration of the rest of the image; and of course the manner in which the figure itself is painted indicates the same period.

Let’s look at another icon of a monastic founder of the Northern Thebaid, this time Makariy (Macarius) Unzhenskiy, titled here Prepodobnuiy Markariy Unzhenskiy I Zheltovodsky Chudotvorets Преподобный Макарий Унженский и Желтоводский Чудотворец, — “Venerable Macarius of Unzha and Yellow-Water, Wonderworker” In this icon, Makariy is shown in the center, and at the sides are four scenes from his life. Above him is the “Holy Trinity,” depicted in the form called the “Old Testament Trinity,” that is, as the three angels who appeared to the patriarch Abraham in the Old Testament. Makariy founded a monastery in 1434 near Yellow Water Lake on the Volga.

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

Finally, here is another icon of a monk of the Northern Thebaid, in this case the well-known Nil (Nilus) Stolbensky, who established his hermitage on Stolobny Island in Lake Seliger in the mid-1500s. Before his death, he is said to have predicted that a monastery would be built on the site, and one was established by the monk German (Herman). It became a famous pilgrimage destination, drawing many thousands of visitors a year. It was a place where pilgrims could buy not only painted icons of Nil, but also little carved wooden statues of him, depicted supported on the crutches that he used to sleep upright.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons)

Such “three-dimensional icons” are not usual in Eastern Orthodoxy, but large numbers of them still exist. The pilgrimages and resulting sales were a lucrative business for the monastery, which also boasted reputedly healing waters (Okovetsky Spring). Such attractions made it the most-visited pilgrimage site in Russia before the Revolution. As is common with icons of northern monastic founders, Nil is shown here beside his monastery, though technically, as already mentioned, it did not exist until after his death.

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

This icon is a mixture of the traditional style with certain westernized elements, such as the trees in the background and the less abstractly-formed (though still not very realistic) clouds in which Jesus is seen blessing Nil.