Another multiple icon:

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

Photographing such heavily gold-leafed icons can often be tricky, particularly when an icon has warped a bit into a convex shape, as is common with so very many old icons.

In any case, if you are a long-time reader of my site, you should be able to easily identify all the icon types included.

At upper left is the “Lord Almighty” type — Jesus holding the open Gospels:

The text from Matthew 11:28 reads:

Приидите ко Мне вси труждающиися и обремененнии, и Аз упокою вы: возмите иго Мое [на себе и научитеся от Мене …]

Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremyenennii, i Az upokoiu vui: Vozmite igo moe [na sebe i nauchitesya ot mene …]

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke [upon you and learn from me …”]

Jesus holds his right hand in the Old Believer sign of blessing, so we know this is an Old Believer icon.

At lower left is — as the inscription says — the “‘Kazan’ Most Holy Mother of God.”

The Kazanskaya/”of Kazan” icon was discussed in this previous posting.


I hope you recall that it is one of the most common of Russian Marian icon types:

At upper right is a Bogoliubskaya icon of Mary — but we must be more specific about this type.  When we see a gathering of saints to her right, it is the “Moscow Bogoliubskaya” (BogoliubskayaMoskovskaya) type.  Jesus blesses from the clouds above:

The nature of the photo does not permit reading the name inscriptions on the saints (that gold leaf photography problem again), but you will find a general description of the “Moscow Bogoliubskaya” type here:


At lower right is a very pleasantly stylized image of the popular saint “Holy Priest-martyr Kharlampiy”/Kharalampos:

Like Jesus in this icon, Kharlampiy blesses with the Old Believer finger position.  You will find a description of him here:


And finally, we have the central Crucifixion:

At left are “Righteous Mary,” “Righteous Martha, and the “Mother of God” — that is, Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  At right are John the Theologian (the Apostle John) and the Centurion Longinos/Longinus.

You will find all the descriptions necessary to identify the Crucifixion type and its inscriptions here:


As you can see, the sun is depicted as dark, and the moon red as blood, in keeping with these biblical excerpts:

Joel 2:31:
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.”

The whole icon is very delightfully stylized.   Note how clouds are painted as a collection of curling “snail” shapes.


At the end of the 1600s – beginning of the 1700s, numbers of Old Believers migrated and settled in the region of the villages of Vetka and Starodub.  Today Vetka is in Belarus, and Starodub not far across the Russian border to the East, in Briansk/Bryansk Oblast.  Both are not far north of the Ukrainian border.  Over the years the Old Believers there suffered much severe persecution from the joint efforts of the Russian State Church and government, but nonetheless the communities survived, though by the 19th century Vetka had faded and Starodub became the chief Old Believer center in that area.

If we look at this old map, there are three red dots from the top to the “Tschernigow” 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, where the “Imperial Family” icon I discussed in this previous posting was painted:


And if we continue West from Shelomy and cross the red border, we come to Wjetka — “Vetka.”  These were all Old Believer settlements.  To help orient yourself, in the lower left-hand corner of the map is the city of Kijew — Kyiv — in Ukraine:

“Vetka” is the name given to Old Believer icons painted in this region, no matter what the village.  “Vetka” Old Believers were popovtsuiy, meaning they had priests.  That is why one often finds Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) — God the Father — on Vetka icons, unlike those of the bezpopovtsuiy (“without priests”) Old Believers, who tended to use the “Not Made by Hands” image where Lord Sabaoth would normally be found in many “priested” Old Believer icons.  There were, however, “priestless” Old Believers in the region as well.

Vetka icons in general had shining gold leaf backgrounds on a flat panel without a recessed “ark” (kovcheg).  Title inscriptions were commonly written in red.  Highlighting on garments, etc. was often done by painting over the gold leaf, then removing the paint to create the highlight by revealing the gold beneath.

Does that sound familiar?  Well, we have already seen some Vetka icons here in previous postings, such as this example:

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

Vetka icon painters also tended to use soft woods for their panels — woods such as poplar and aspen that unfortunately were very subject to invasion and destruction by woodworm — the wood-eating larvae of wood beetles.  So it is not unusual to find Vetka icons with the panels heavily tunneled by woodworm.  That severely weakens the panels beneath the painting, and if one is not careful, an icon in that condition can be easily chipped or broken.


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.


I have mentioned in previous postings that icon painters sometimes made mistakes.  Look at this image:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com

Now usually the first thing one does in identifying a saint is to read the name inscription — which in the case of icons with a single saint — as in this example — is also the title inscription:

It reads:


Well, that is straightforward and clear; the name is that of the well-known saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa — Saint “Friday-Friday” as you know from a previous posting on her (you do know, don’t you — since you have read and carefully remembered everything I have ever written here in the past nine-plus years?).  Here is the link to that previous posting:


So, the title inscription is clear enough.  It definitely identifies the image as that of the Great Martyr Paraskeva Pyatnitsa.  And if we look at the iconography, it looks quite like that of Paraskeva — though she usually has a cloth head covering — often a white head covering, and is rarely shown with uncovered hair.  And though many icons of Paraskeva show her without a crown, many also give her a crown atop her head covering.

Here is a closer look at the face:

So what is the problem?

Well, let’s look at the scroll she is holding:

It reads:



Wait … EKATERINA???!!!

Well, I hope you remember that Ekaterina is the Slavic form of Catherine — and the most famous Saint Catherine is Catherine of Alexandria:


So what has happened here?

Well, Paraskeva and Catherine sometimes look rather similar when shown “to the waist” in icons.  Did the fellow painting the scroll text mistakenly choose the “Catherine” text instead of the usual “I believe in one God…” text commonly found on icons of Paraskeva?  But it is also possible that the fellow who wrote the title inscription on the icon just looked at the image and thought, “O.K., this is the Great Martyr Paraskeva,” and wrote that incorrect title accordingly.  We do not really know whether this icon was originally intended to be Catherine (which it may well have been, because she is more often depicted with her hair uncovered than Paraskeva), or whether it was intended to be Paraskeva, but was given the wrong scroll inscription — one appropriate for Catherine.  In favor of the “Catherine” identification would be not only the scroll text and uncovered hair, but also the jewels and pearls ornamenting her garments.  Paraskeva is commonly depicted with more simple robes, while Catherine is frequently shown in “noble” garments.  But again, there was some interchange of characteristics in their iconography from example to example, and that is what likely led to the confusion obvious in this icon.

But before continuing, let’s finish the translation of the scroll inscription:



Aside from all that, we can easily tell that this is an Old Believer icon from the position of the fingers on the right hand holding the cross of martyrdom.

They are in the distinctive blessing position used by the Old Believers, and commonly used in their icons to distinguish them from those of what they considered to be the “heretical” State Russian Orthodox Church.


In previous postings I have frequently mentioned that what most people think of as the typical Russian Orthodox icon is actually usually an icon produced by the Old Believers.  They were the original Russian Orthodoxy from which the State Orthodox Church — which is now generally considered “Russian Orthodoxy” — removed itself when it made liturgical, textual, and other changes — causing the schism that divided the two in the middle of the 17th century.

The Old Believers were (and still generally are) the traditionalists of icon painting, preserving the stylized manner that represented the Russian Orthodox icon prior to the split.  The “State Church” painters were those who generally gradually abandoned the traditional stylized forms in favor of the artistic influences coming into Russia from the West — that is, from places like Italy, Germany, and Holland — countries that were Catholic or Protestant or a mixture of the two.

We can easily see what that means if we examine two representative icons.  Both are post-1800.

The first is an Old Believer icon in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

If we look more closely at the three female saints at right — identified by name inscriptions as “Great Martyr Ekaterina” (Catherine), “Venerable Evdokiya,” and “Holy Martyr Antonida,” we can see the clear sign of Old Believer origin in the position of the fingers  in the “blessing hand” of Ekaterina and of Antonida.  This was to let viewers know that this was a “pure” icon of the Old Belief, not the product of an “heretical” State Church painter.

At left we see saints identified by their name inscriptions as “Holy Martyr Alexandra,” “Holy Great-Martyr Nikita,” and “Holy Mikhail/Michael Archangel.”

Above them in stylized clouds is Christ Immanuel:

Notice the “flatness” of the figures painted on the panel, with no attempt at realism.

By contrast, here is an example showing how far State Church Russian Orthodoxy had diverged from the old traditions of icon painting by adopting Western European artistic influences — an icon of John Chrysostom:

Notice that there is an obvious effort toward depth and use of light and shadow, as well as more realism in the face and garments, even a movement toward emotionalism.  By contrast, the Old Believer style is flat and hieratic, non-realistic and consciously stylized.  Instead of perspectival depth, figures behind are simply placed higher on the panel than those in front.  All of this was in keeping with traditional aesthetics.

Ioann/John is dressed in typical State Church bishop’s garb.  He stands on the ceremonial rug called an orlets — with its two-headed eagle design, and holds in his hand the dikirion (“two-candle”) and trikirion (“three-candle) liturgical candleholders used by bishops in blessing when celebrating the liturgy.  The two candles represent the dual nature of Jesus, and the three candles the Trinity.  Notice the ring-shaped “Western  style” halo above John’s head, contrasting with the flat, plate-shaped halos found on the Old Believer icon.

Western influence is also seen in the triangle in the clouds above John, which has the single word БОГЪ/BOG — “God” —  at its center.

It is a symbol of the Triune God borrowed from Western European art.

It is amusing to see how, in their choice of artistic styles for icons, modern Western converts to Eastern Orthodoxy generally prefer the traditional stylized painting of the Old Believers to the Westernized manner used by the State Russian Orthodox Church from the late 1600s onward.  Most have no idea they are admiring and buying the icons and reproductions of icons of the once so-called Raskolniki — “Schismatics” — though historically it was actually the State Church that caused the schism and abandoned the traditions of the Old Belief.