Yesterday I mentioned the so called “Hell Icons” — Адописные иконы/Adopisnuie ikonui — literally “Hades-painted icons.” An Adopisnaya icona/Адописная икона is paradoxically an icon that existed more in rumor and gossip than in reality. Nonetheless, they are mentioned in literature and were reported in 19th century Russian newspaper stories.
The first mention of such an icon is found in the life of Vasiliy Blazhennuiy/Basil the Blessed, also called Блаженный Василий Московский/Blessed Vasiliy of Moscow. He was a noted “Holy Fool/Iurodivuiy/юродивый),” and that rather bizarre but colorful cathedral always seen in photos of Red Square in Moscow is named for him.
In the above icon, he is titled “Holy Blessed Vasiliy Iurodivuiy of Moscow, Wonderworker.”
The old account relates that there was a popular “miracle-working” icon of Mary — heavily venerated by the people of Moscow, on the Varvarskiya Vorota/Варварския ворота — which looks like it should mean “Barbarian Gate,” but actually it is the “Barbara Gate,” because there was a stone church built in 1514, dedicated to St. Barbara. Beside it were dungeons and prisons, such an unpleasant place that the local expression arose, “To St. Barbara for punishment.”
According to the tale, Vasiliy threw a stone at the icon — in the presence of a crowd of pilgrims — and they were so furious at his action that his life was in danger. But someone took a closer look at the icon and found the damage had revealed the image of a chort/чёрт — a devil — that had been painted beneath the surface image of Mary. This was blamed on the Zhidovstvuyushchiye/Жидовствующие — the so-called Judaizers, some of whom were said to be opposed to icons, and so supposedly created the “Hell Icon” of Mary to mock the practice of icon veneration.
The Russian novelist Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov wrote an article in which he discussed “Hell icons” as merely a trick of dishonest sellers of icons. The scam required two people. The first would go out to the villages with icons that had devils painted on the gesso beneath the surface “holy image.” Having sold all he could, he would then leave. Soon the other scammer would arrive in the village with his load of icons. When he tried to sell them, the people would reply that they had already bought icons. The second scammer would then ask to see one of the purchased icons. When brought, he would scrape the painted surface to reveal the painted devil beneath. The villagers — horrified by this, would then buy the second scammer’s supposedly “holy” icons, and would give him the “Hell icons” they had bought earlier, to dispose of. So the second scammer would not only share the money from the first sales of “Hell icons,” but he would also get money from the second sales of “holy” icons, and not only that, he still had the “Hell icons” the people of the village had given him, which he would sell again in another village.
Leskov used this scam motif in his story The Sealed Angel/Запечатленный ангел. Most of the talk of “Hell icons” seemed to be in Old Believer communities, which raises the issue of why people would be so horrified to find devils under conventional religious paintings, thinking those who venerated them would be venerating devils by so doing. It takes us back to one of the oddities of Eastern Orthodox thought that we find particularly strong among the Old Believers — the notion that image and symbol — the outward and visible manifestations of religion, such as icons and the position of the fingers while blessing, etc. — are more important to Orthodox belief than the intention of the heart; so a person worshipping an icon with a hidden devil painted beneath the surface image would still be worshipping the devil, though that was not the real intent of the believer.
In spite of the interesting tales of “Hades-painted icons,” scholars doubt they ever really existed, because no authentic actual examples of such old icons have been discovered. They seem to have been merely a symptom of the fears and rumors that can infest and spread through conservative and unenlightened communities — something we have become all too familiar with in modern politics.
A very obvious part of the Russian icon business consisted of cast metal icons, the “golden” period of which began in Russia in the latter part of the 17th century. They were the products of Old Believer craftsmanship (originally particularly of the Bezpopovtsui or “Priestless”) but given that they were sold at fairs and markets, they were often purchased by State Church followers, and so were found in peasant homes no matter what the affiliation, and some were even found in “State Orthodox” churches. Ordinarily, the State Church only produced little metal crosses worn about the neck, but the Old Believer metal icons were so popular and widespread that eventually even the State Church began producing some, often recognizable because they depict saints “glorified” (canonized, officially accepted) after the split with the Old Believers in the middle of the 17th century.
It is not surprising that the Old Believers liked metal icons. They were terribly persecuted by the State Church — with the authority of the State behind it — and so often had to move from place to place to escape persecution. Metal icons, which unlike painted icons, could be carried easily and without damage, and also be easily hidden — filled their need for icons. The “Priestless” Old Believers originally held that the Antichrist had begun his rule, personified in the Tsarist State; the priesthood was no longer valid, so relations with the State were hopeless and persecution was to be their life, while the “Priested” Old Believers — who accepted the validity of State Church priests, and wanted to find a bishop to restore their church hierarchy — tried to accomodate themselves to State authorities whenever possible in hope of acquiring more “renegade” priests and eventually succeeding in getting bishops.
In the 18th century the production of metal icons was somewhat obstructed by a law promulgated by Tsar Peter the Great in 1722, which forbade the use of cast metal icons. Though it caused problems, it did not deter the Old Believers, who kept on producing such icons here and there. Various excuses were given for the law, but it seems to have been the result of Peter’s desire for more metal for the production of weapons, and not, as is sometimes said, because the Old Believer buildings filled with metal icons drew lightning and caused fires.
As already mentioned, certain metal icons were easy to transport and to take when traveling — thus the name Путевые иконы — Putevuie ikonui — “Travel icons”. And they were far less expensive than painted icons. The Old Believers saw tarnish as a sign of corruption, so they wanted cast icons kept bright. When a metal icon began to tarnish, one had only to give it a quick rub with a cloth, perhaps dusted with a bit of chalk, sand, ashes or brick powder –, and the icon was quickly bright and shining again. That did have a drawback, however, because continuous polishing wore down the finer details of a cast icon over the years — which is why one encounters examples with the features of the saints worn smooth. On today’s market, price depends heavily on how worn a metal icon is. Those still with clear and sharp details bring a much higher price that those with the facial features polished away. Of course the poorer quality icons were originally cast without good detail.
There was an expensive solution to the problem of polishing. Some cast icons were given a fancy protective finish by fire-gilding — the application of a thin layer of gold dissolved in mercury, then heated so the mercury evaporated Such an icon would remain bright unless the thin layer of gold was damaged. The very large drawback to this was for the maker, because mercury vapor was toxic.
Often cast icons were enhanced by the addition of colored enamel (powdered glass melted onto the casting). The price depended on the number of colors, so those with lots of colorful enamel brought higher prices than those with one or two colors or without any — and that is still true among collectors.
In addition to one-piece castings, folding metal icons — either as triptychs (3-panel) or quadryptychs were quite popular, such as this one:
A four-panel folding icon like this one was, in common slang, an утюг — utiug, meaning an “iron,” in the sense of a flatiron used to iron clothes. That is because of its iron-like shape when closed, as well as its weight.
The bulk of cast metal icons one encounters (some 80%) are made of brass, consisting of an alloy of copper and zinc. A lesser percentage are of bronze (copper and tin alloy), used more prior to the 19th century, but again in the 20th. And a few are found in copper or even lead, but these latter are much softer and more easily damaged.
It is said that some of the finest cast icons were produced by the Old Believers of the Vyg Community (also called Поморцы — Pomortsui), the main center of the “Priestless” Old Believers, which was founded in 1694 by monks fleeing the Solovetskiy Monastery. Vyg metal icons, because of their finer detail, are highly valued by collectors. Other villages in other locations eventually began production, notably among them the “Priested” village of Guslitsa in Vladimir Province and others in the Moscow and Volga regions, and even in the Urals and Siberia
Cast metal icons were, essentially, metal alloys heated until liquid, then poured into a mold made of sand mixed with clay. The Old Believers particularly liked the association of fire with the process, because they saw the resulting images of the saints as bright and shining, as if “cleansed by fire.”
Anyone who has studied Russian history or Russian art is familiar with this famous painting by Vasiliy Surikov of the exiling of the Boyarina Morozova (1632–1675):
The key to understanding the painting — and its relationship to Russian history — lies in the fingers of her upraised hand:
Look more closely:
If you have been reading this site for some time, you will recognize the position of the fingers as the blessing sign used by the Old Believers — something that often distinguishes Old Believer icons from State Church icons.
What is happening in the painting? Who was the Boyarina Morozova?
She was born in 1632 and named Feodosia Prokopievna (in the Russian naming system, that -evna suffix means she was the daughter of a fellow named Prokopiy). Her father was Prokopiy Feodorovich (meaning “son of Feodor”) Sokovnin. When she was seventeen, she married a nobleman, boyar Gleb Morozov — thus her married surname Morozova. They had one son, Ivan, and when her husband died in 1662, she inherited fabulous wealth.
The great change in her life began in 1664, when she met the Archpriest (protopop) Avvakum. Every student of icons should know that name. He was the fellow who opposed the changes in the Russian Orthodox liturgy and ritual pushed through — beginning in 1652 — by the Patriarch Nikon. Then (as now), it is dangerous to oppose authority in Russia, and Avvakum was exiled to Siberia in 1653. But in 1662 Avvakum was permitted to return to Moscow. Meanwhile, Patriarch Nikon had fallen from favor, but nonetheless his changes remained in effect, and Avvakum continued to vigorously oppose them, keeping to Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced before Nikon — thus the term used for Avvakum and his followers — “Old Believers” (старове́ры/staroverui) or “Old Ritualists” (старообря́дцы/staroobryadtsui). Old Believers were given the pejorative title Raskolniki — “schismatics” — because of their refusal to accept Nikon’s changes.
In 1666 the Russian Orthodox Church held a “pan-Orthodox” council — The Great Moscow Synod/Council ( (Большой Московский собор/Bolshoi Moskovskiy sobor) — that paradoxically accused Patriarch Nikon of reviling Church and Tsar, and reduced his status to that of an ordinary monk. And the Council condemned an important previous Russian Orthodox Church Council — the famous Stoglav (“Hundred Chapters”) Council of 1551, that had approved Russian church practices that differed somewhat from those of Greek Orthodoxy. This would not be the first time that an Eastern Orthodox Church council negated the declarations of a previous council. And because the Old Believers refused to renounce the Stoglav Council, and refused to accept the “reforms” instituted by the now deposed Nikon, they were condemned by the Great Moscow Synod of 1666-67.
So in 1666 the Church formally anathematized (cursed) Avvakum and his teachings, and once more exiled him, this time to Pustozersk, a distant northern outpost in what is today the Arkhangelsk region of Russia. There Avvakum, along with his deacon Feodor, the Solovetsk monk Epifaniy, and the priest Lazar (the latter two had their tongues previously cut out) — all Old Believers — suffered great hardship and torture, and all three were killed by the Russian Orthodox State Church and its governmental arm on April 14, 1682 — ironically, Good Friday. The “legal” reason given for the murder was «великия на царский дом хулы» — “great blaspheming of the Imperial House” — referring to caricatures of the Tsar that had circulated among the Old Believers. Pustozersk was the same place where another Old Believer, Kiprian of Moscow, had been decapitated for his beliefs on July 7, 1675.
Here is an icon-pattern-style illustration of the burning of Avvakum, Feodor, Epifaniy, and Lazar:
Now years before the martyrdom of Avvakum, the Boyarina Morozova had lived a luxurious life with her immense wealth. It is said that when she went out, she was accompanied by two hundred servants. But she eventually took on a much simpler life, living like a nun, and taking in all kinds of homeless, poor, and ill people. Archpriest Avvakum and his wife also had come to live in her home. Now as mentioned, the Boyarina Morozova met Avvakum in 1664; he became her confessor, and she avidly followed his teachings and opposition to the “reforms” instituted by Nikon. She became an ever more ardent advocate of the Old Belief, and it is said that she even had “underground” Old Believer literature printed.
Of course it was not long before all this came to the notice of Tsar Aleksei, because of the intimate connection between Church and State. The sister of the Tsaritsa was sent to try to talk Feodosiya out of her connections with the Old Belief. It did not work. Then the Tsar tried confiscating some of her property. That did not work either. The Tsar was even more irritated when Feodosiya took in nuns expelled from their convents for holding to the Old Belief. And then Feodosiya herself took formal nun’s vows, changing her name to Feodora, and would no longer attend the royal court or have anything to do with the State Church. She even refused to attend the Tsar’s wedding to a new wife, which infuriated him.
In November of 1671, the Tsar had Feodosiya/Feodora and her sister arrested and put in chains. All her wealth and property was confiscated. The Boyarina Morozova was tortured. Her son Ivan, hearing of her horrible treatment, is said to have gone insane.
Here is an illustration in “icon pattern” style showing Feodosiya/Feodora being examined before the Russian Orthodox Church authorities:
We see her right hand raised defiantly in the “two-fingered” blessing sign characteristic of the Old Believers. The inscription above her head reads:
To get Feodosiya/Feodora out of the public eye, the Tsar exiled her to Borovsk. That is the scene depicted in the famous painting by Surikov — Feodosiya being dragged off in a crude sled to an underground dungeon in Borovsk. There she and her sister were starved to death, and were buried inside the jail.
And so the Boyarina Morozova became an Old Believer saint.
In a previous posting, I shared a link to online access to the Stroganov Icon Painter’s Manual. Today I would like to share the link to another and quite interesting old podlinnik (painter’s manual) in the Stroganov Museum.
This manual is identified thus:
Лицевой иконописный подлинник 1829 г. из Пермской Успенской старообрядческой церкви Litsevoy ikonopisnuiy podlinnik 1829 g[oda] iz Permskoy Uspenskoy staroobryadcheskoy tserkvi
“Illustrated icon painting manual, [of the] year 1829, from the Perm Dormition Old Ritualist Church.”
By “Old Ritualist” is of course meant that it is a church of the Old Believers, who continued the traditional stylized manner of painting long after the State Orthodox Church had adopted the more realistic Western European manner.
As I have told you before, it is important in the study of icons to learn the Church Slavic alphabet and to learn the basic Slavic vocabulary common to Russian icons and podlinniki/podlinniks You can see how helpful that is in reading this rather fascinating Perm icon painter’s manual.
Here is the image for September 1, the beginning of the old Church year. This image is not included in the earlier Stroganov manual, through it is described verbally:
Часть (Chast) means “part,” so the first link is to Part 1, pages 1-104, and the second link to Part 2, pages 105-216. Most of the Part 2 illustrations are lightly drawn, but were never fully inked in.
You will also find an alternate entry point with a different format on this link:
At the beginning of the podlinnik is an incomplete alphabetical list giving a saint’s name and where he or she is to be found in the book, which is arranged by month and day of commemoration. The word числа (chisla) at upper right means “number” (date).
To see how it works, we can look at the second entry on the first index page:
Avvakoum Prorok, Deka[br] B
Avvakoum [Habakkuk], Prophet, December 2
If we look at December 2nd, we find this (the page is for December 1 and 2):
It gives us first the saint for the first (A) day of December:
“Of the Holy Prophet Nahum”
Then come those for the Second (B) day:
“Of the Holy Martyr Ananias of Persia”
“Of the Holy Prophet Avvakum”
“Of Holy Philaret the Merciful”
Notice that the female saint second from right has her name entered last, in smaller letters:
“Of the Holy Martyr Myropia.”
If we look in the halos, there are notations helpful to the painter. In the halo of the Prophet Nahum, we see the word седъ — syed — meaning “grey.” So we know he is an older man with grey hair. By contrast, in the halos of the Martyr Ananias and the Prophet Avvakum, we find the word млад — mlad — meaning “young/youth.”
On another page we find Ису́с Нави́н — Isus Navvin — Joshua, son of Nun — and in his halo and in that of the saint beside him — Feodor Yaroslav Vsevolodovich — we find the word русъ — rus –“Russian” — which means the hair of these saints is to be painted in that light brown to dark blond color common to many Russians. But in this manual, the colors of the garments are not indicated as they are in the Stroganov podlinnik.
By the way, you may notice that Joshua in Slavic has the same name as Jesus — Isus, as is also the case in the Greek Bible. The Old Testament Jesus — that is, Joshua — is distinguished by the addition of “Navvin” in Slavic and του Ναυή — tou Naui — “of Nun” in Greek.
Here is the page for December 3-4:
On it we see the Prophet Sophoniya (Zephaniah), “our Venerable Father Sabba Storozhevsky Zvenigorodskiy,” “Holy Martyr Theodora,” “Holy Great Martyr Barbara,” “our Venerable Father John of Damascus,” and so on. But what I really want you to notice is the entry in red at the bottom of the page:
Д ТРОРУЧИЦЫ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ 4 [OF THE ] TROERUCHITSUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
“4 THREE-HANDED MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”
That notation means that December 4th is the day of Commemoration of the icon of Mary called the “Three-handed Most Holy Mother of God.” In the standard Church calendar, its days are June 28th and July 12th, but here it is placed on the day of John of Damascus, who was associated traditionally with its origin “miracle.” This manual indicates the commemoration of days of supposed “miracle-working” Marian icons with these red entries, but it does not depict these Marian images. For those the painter had to turn to other patterns outside this book.
I will end this little introduction to the Perm Old Believer podlinnik with this page from November 8, the Sobor Svyatago Arkhistratiga Mikhaila i Prochikh Bezplotnuikh Sil — “The Assembly of the Chief-commander Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers.”
If you are interested in old patterns, you may also wish to look at Nikodim Kondakov’s published collection of icon patterns (volume I is primarily “Jesus” patterns), which you can do at this site:
On that site, click on the thumbnail pages at left to get the enlarged image on the main screen. Be sure to look at the patterns from page 156 on.
Those of you who would like to see the 1903 “Bolshakov Podlinnik” online — more properly the Подлинник иконописный — Издание С.Т. Большакова. Под редакцией . А.И. Успенского — the “Icon Painting Manual — publisher S(ergey) T(ikhonovich) Bolshakov, edited by A. I Uspenskiy” — will find it at the following site:
The Bolshakov Podlinnik is a kind of revised and expanded version of the old Stroganov Podlinnik, using more casual outline drawings taken largely from that earlier manual, and adding a descriptive text (Church Slavic) modified by reference to other old painter’s manuals. Though the re-drawn illustrations are not artistic, they nonetheless do the job, and the text is very useful for those who wish to learn the vocabulary of the old painter’s manuals, giving verbal descriptions of the various saints and indicating the form and colors of hair and garments.
One of the sources consulted in the preparation of the Bolshakov manual was the Софийский Списокъ Подлинника Новгородской Редакции XVI Века — Sophiyskiy Spisok Podlinnika Novgorodskoy Redakstsii XVI Veka — “The Sophia Copy of the Podlinnik, Novogorod Redaction of the 16th Century.” You will find online access to that text-only podlinnik here:
Eastern Orthodoxy has been generally suspicious of statuary — of images in three dimensions. Historically, statues are not entirely absent. Even as early as the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, such three-dimensional images existed in Christianity. But over time — and particularly after the Iconoclastic period — Eastern Orthodox art has tended to avoid the use of religious statuary. But one does encounter icons in relief, carved into stone, cast into metal, impressed in clay or carved in wood.
That is why one sometimes finds wooden relief icons of one kind or another in Russian iconography, though they are in general more scarce than painted icons.
Wood carving has been a part of Russian folk art since pre-Christian times, and when one finds carved icons in the 18th and 19th centuries, they still have much the appearance of folk art objects, though they were used just as were painted icons.
Here is a carved wooden icon depicting the Crucifixion. It is depicted as though in a church interior, which is why we see seven church domes above it:
We see the usual figures found in painted Crucifixion icons — Jesus in the center, his mother Mary and another Mary at left, and at right the disciple John and the Centurion Longinus (Login Sotnik). Even the inscriptions are carved in wood, and considerable time must have been required for such detail. When the carving was finished, the icon was painted in suitable colors and then varnished. The surface has oxidized and aged over the years, which is why the surface now has a rather dark appearance:
Each figure has its title inscription, and above Jesus we see the usual inscription, written here as IНЦI, abbreviating “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And at the sides of his head is the common IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”
Most notable, however, is the very long carved text in the outer borders of the icon. The novice student of Russian icons might at first despair of determining what it signifies, but one should always keep in mind that icon inscriptions tend to be very repetitive. Also, certain texts tend to be associated with certain images. Given that, can we possibly make any sense out of all those hundreds of letters carved without punctuation or even separation into individual words?
Fortunately, it is not as difficult as it looks. In fact if you have read the earlier postings on this site, you will already have been given the key to translating it.
What does one do with such an unfamiliar inscription? One first looks for the familiar, whether in words or phrases. And if we go to the beginning of the text, which is at the upper left corner, we can begin to work with it. In general the starting point in most icons for a sequence of images or a long text is at upper left:
That is a bit dark, so it would be helpful to brighten the image to add clarity, like this:
We can now see, looking carefully, that the inscription begins with these letters:
Where have we seen that before? The most logical place to look is in materials dealing with Crucifixion images. You may recall that some time ago I did a posting titled “The Instant Expert on Russian Crosses“:
In that article, I gave the standard inscriptions associated with the Crucifixion type. And among them, you will find this:
Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…
ДА ВОСКРЕСЕНЕТЪ БОГЪ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТЪ ОТЪ ЛИЦА ЕГО ВСИ НЕНАВИДЯЩЕЙ ЕГО…
“Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”
Now one thing we will notice about the form of the text on this icon is that its wording in Church Slavic is a bit different than the standard Russian Orthodox version. That is because this icon uses the old text, not the revised wording used by the State Church after the separation from the Old Believers. That tells us this is an Old Believer icon, and indeed such carved relief icons tend to be found more commonly among Old Believers than in the State Church.
Here is the Old Believer text:
Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.
And here is the text as found in State Church prayer books:
Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его. Яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут; яко тает воск от лица огня, тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменующихся крестным знамением, и в веселии глаголющих: радуйся, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень, прогоняяй бесы силою на тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Иисуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго и поправшаго силу диаволю, и даровавшаго нам тебе Крест Свой Честный на прогнание всякаго супостата. О, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень! Помогай ми со Святою Госпожею Девою Богородицею и со всеми святыми во веки. Аминь.
You can see that there are some differences, but not enough to prevent us from recognizing the text in both cases. Do not be intimidated by this. All it means for practical purposes is:
If the beginning words read:
Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его… then we know it is likely an Old Believer icon. But if we see the text beginning like this:
Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатсяврази Его… then we know it is a State Church image.
Keep in mind that one need not be concerned about minor differences in spelling, but differences in wording help us to distinguish icons of the Old Believers from those of the State Church in Russia after the latter part of the 17th century. One can even see slight differences between the form of the text used on the carved icon and that given above as the Old Believer form of the full prayer. The reason is that the text on the icon more closely follows the spelling used in the Ostrog Bible (Острожская Библия ) — the first complete printed Church Slavic Bible in the corrected edition of 1581.
The 4th century (the 300s c.e.) was an important time for the development of Christianity. That is when it was legalized in the Roman Empire and also when it was given the favor and support of the Emperor Constantine. It was also significant in the development and standardization of Christian dogma. And it was the beginning of the time of reversal, when Christians went from being a persecuted minority to being themselves the persecutors of non-Christians and those who did not toe the favored line doctrinally within Christianity. It was the time of the first great church council — the Council of Nicaea, out of which came a fundamental dogmatic statement of later mainstream Christianity — the Nicene Creed. It was a time when the notion of “heresy” — of scorning other ways of Christian belief — became firmly established in the Imperially-favored church. It was the beginning of the solidification of “official” Christian dogma, in contrast to the earlier wide variations in belief and practice.
As I hope you know by now, some icon types are fixed groupings of certain saints. Today’s image — a Russian icon — is one of them. It depicts three historically-important figures in the development of Eastern Orthodoxy. This example is a little unusual in that the three are commonly depicted on the same panel, but here they are shown as a three-panel set. Nonetheless, the type remains the same.
If you have been reading this site for some time, you should recognize immediately that this is an Old Believer rather than a State Church icon. The two clues are the stylization of the figures, and of course the position of the fingers of the blessing hand, with the “two-fingered” blessing that is the mark of Old Believers quite clear in the central panel.
The figures shown are, from left: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Each is dressed in the robes of a bishop, with the standard omophorion (the long stole) about his neck; and each holds the book of the Gospels, and a little cloth beneath it to show veneration. The arrangement of the three varies from example to example.
The Greeks call them Οἱ Τρεῖς Ἱεράρχαι — Hoi Treis Hierarkhai; in Russia they are generally called either Три святителя — Tri Svyatityelya — “The Three Bishops,” or Три учителя — Tri Uchityelya — “The Three Teachers.” In English the type is commonly found as “The Three Hierarchs.”
Basil is called Василий Великий in Slavic — Vasiliy Velikiy — “Vasiliy the Great.” Gregory is Григорий Богослов — Grigoriy Bogoslov — “Gregory the Theologian.” And John is Иоанн Златоуст — Ioann Zlatoust — “John the Golden-mouthed.” In Greek they are Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας — Vasilios ho Megas, Γρηγόριος ὁ Θεολόγος — Gregorios ho Theologos — and Ιωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος — Ioannes ho Khrysostomos, all with the same meanings as in Slavic.
Just who were these guys?
Basil the Great lived in the 4th century (300s c.e.). He began his career in law, then became a monk and the abbot of a monastery, and eventually founded more and wrote an enduring rule of life for the monks. In 370 he was made a bishop. He is often given credit for the victory of the “Nicene” view of the Trinity over that of Arius. His name is given to the form of Eucharistic liturgy called the “Liturgy of St. Basil.” Basil died in 379.
Gregory the Theologian also lived in the 4th century. He is sometimes called Gregory Nazianzen, after a Cappadocian city. He studied in Athens for six years, and was a school friend of Basil the Great. He later spent several years with Basil in a monastery. Like Basil, Gregory was active in the struggle against the views of the Arians. He was for a time Patriarch of Constantinople, but there was controversy over his appointment, and he eventually withdrew. Gregory died in 390.
John Chrysostom was born in the 4th century, but lived into the early 5th. He became a hermit in 375 c.e., and a priest in 386. He became known as an excellent speaker –thus his name — but he was also virulently anti-Semitic. In 397 he was made archbishop of Constantinople. An intolerant fellow, John supported the destruction of non-Christian temples and shrines, and his mouth got him into so much trouble that he was banished into exile, and died in 407. His name is attached to the common liturgy celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.”
There is another icon type depicting the three, but you are unlikely to come across an actual painted icon of it, unless in a museum or monastery, because it is a very uncommon type. Here is a pattern for it from the transfers of old Russian icons made by Vasiliy P. Guryanov:
It is commonly called Беседа трех святителей (Beseda trekh svyatiteley), meaning “The Conversation of the three Hierarchs/Bishops.” An alternate title for it is “The Blessed Fruits of Doctrine” It is a symbolic icon showing Basel seated at upper left, Gregory below left, and John at center right. Each holds a scroll, and is imparting teachings symbolically seen in the form of curling and streaming waters, which some are seen receiving and drinking in cups. The subject is found in the monastic fresco at Lesovo in Macedonia, and appeared in Russia in the 16th-17th century. There is an apocryphal text with many questions and answers (some quite odd) from the three shown in the icon, titled The Conversation of the Three Hierarchs. In it, Basil asks a question, and Gregory answers “Вода — учение книжное, а морем называется мир” — “The water is the teaching of books, and the sea is called the world.”
If we look at the very long vyaz’ title at the top of the icon, we can see it expands the common title a bit:
It reads : “The Conversation of the Three Hierarchs Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.”
Here is another transfer from the same icon, this time with the portions having light highlights shown in read, for the convenience of painters:
The two words written at the base read ПИСМО ГРЕЧЕСКО — Pismo Grechesko — meaning “Greek Painting.”
Today we will take another quick look at how to approach interpreting an icon. For that exercise, we will use this image:
The first step is of course to look at the whole icon, noticing what looks familiar and what does not. If you have been reading all the postings here, about two-thirds of this icon will already be familiar.
The second step is to look at and translate the inscriptions. That too should present no great difficulty if you have been reading this site.
Let’s begin with the top three images. You should already know that the image of Jesus in the center, with Mary at left and John the Forerunner (the “Baptist”) at right comprises a grouping known as the Deisis (from the Greek for “beseeching); the Russian term is just a variant of that, Deisus. The Deisis represents Jesus enthroned like an emperor in his heavenly court, with petitioners approaching at left and right to ask favors of him — in this case favors on behalf of humanity.
Now for the top inscriptions:
At left is the usual four-letter Greek abbreviation MP ΘΥ for Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God,” the standard identifying inscription for Mary in both Russian and Greek icons. You will notice that it is right above the image of Mary.
Next is the inscription over Jesus. it reads ГДЬ ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ. By now, you should recognize the first three letters as abbreviating the Church Slavic word GOSPOD’, meaning “Lord.” ВСЕДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ — VSEDERZHITEL’ — means “Almighty,” the equivalent of the Greek Pantokrator. So we can translate this as “The Lord Almighy,” which is the standard title for icons of Jesus seen as he is here, blessing with one hand and holding the Gospels in the other.
The inscription at upper right reads: СТ ИОАНН ПРЕ. CT abbreviates SVYATUIY, meaning “Holy/Saint.” IOANN is “John.” And ПРЕ abbreviates PREDTECHA, meaning someone who goes before, a “forerunner.” So this is “Holy John the Forerunner.”
At lower left is СТ КОЗМА БЕЗСРЕБР and at right СТ ДОМИАНЪ БЕЗРЕ. I mention them together because, if you have been reading recent postings, you will know they generally belong together. The inscription at left, in full, is Svyatuiy Kozma Bezsrebrenik, and that at right is Svyatuiy Domian Bezsrebrenik. Bezsrebrenik, I hope you recall, means “without silver,” usually translated loosely into English as “unmercenary.” So these two are the pair of physician saints Kosma and Domian, Cosmas and Damian.
That leaves only the lower central image, which is quite interesting. The letters above the saint’s head are quite small, but they read НИКИТА ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК — Nikita Velikomuchenik. Usually the second word precedes the name, but in this icon it follows. Nikita is the saint’s given name, and Velikomuchenik means “Great (veliko-) Martyr (muchenik). So this is the Great Martyr Nikita.
The strange, greyish figure to his left has no halo, so we know he is not a saint. But what is he? Well, such figures with tail, long beard, and hair swept upward are the Russian way of depicting a devil. Often they are painted darker than here. And though it is rather difficult to see in this image, Nikita is holding a chain in his right hand as he grasps the devil’s beard with his left.
What does it mean? To know that, we have to know both the “official” story of Nikita (called Nicetas in the West) and the folk story.
It is said that Nikita was born into a wealthy family of the Gothic people who lived near the Danube River in the 4th century, in what is now Romania. He was baptized by Bishop Theophilus, said to have been a participant in the First Ecumenical Council. An intertribal war broke out, and Nikita became a soldier on the Christian side, that of the leader Fritigern. Their opponent was the leader Athanaric.
Fritigern’s forces defeated Athanaric, and Christianity was further spread among the Goths by Wulfila (Ulfilas), an Arian bishop who created a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible into Gothic, an early Germanic language. Nikita also worked to spread Christianity and convert others to that belief. Given that both Wulfila and Fritigern were Arian Christians (not believing Jesus to be equal to God the Father) who did not accept the Nicene Creed, it appears that Nikita was also an Arian Christian, though of course that was downplayed when his cult was adopted into Eastern Orthodoxy. Some even think Nikita was ordained an Arian priest.
Over time, however, Athanaric regained power, massed forces and returned to attack and persecute the Christian Goths. Nikita was captured and tortured, and finally thrown into a fire (some say burnt at the stake in Moldavia in 378). In E. Orthodox tradition, he is said to have been martyred on September 15th in 372 (there is considerable difference in sources for dates in Nikita’s life and death). His relics were taken to Mopsuestia in Cilicia. After his cult of veneration spread, some of his relics were later sent to Constantinople, and some to Decani Monastery in Serbia, which still claims to have his “incorruptible” hand.
Now as to the tale of Nikita beating the devil, that is not part of the “canonical” story of Nikita. It is instead a product of the Byzantine Middle Ages that was adopted into Eastern Orthodox iconography. By this account, Nikita was actually the son of the Roman Emperor Maximilian. Persecuted by his father for holding the Christian faith, Nikita was severely tortured and cast into a prison for three years. While there, the Devil appeared to Nikita and tried to tempt him. But Nikita stepped on the Devil’s neck, and, broke his chains, and began beating the Devil with them. Then, called before the Emperor for questioning, he took the Devil with him to show the Emperor what he had been really worshiping. He also raised a couple of people from the dead, but Maximilian was still not convinced. Then his Queen and the people rose against the Emperor, and Nikita managed to baptize a huge number of people.
Because of this legend, in Slavic popular belief Nikita became Никита Бесогон — Nikita Besogon — “NIkita the Devil-beater,” and he became a very important saint because of his presumed power to drive away devils. Cast metal images of him, worn around the neck, were very popular.
Here is another example of Nikita beating the Devil:
The title inscription reads:
АГ ВЕ МУ НIИКИТА
It abbreviates: ΑΓΙΟC ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИК НИКИТА [H]AGIOS VELIKOMUCHENIK NIKITA
“Hagios” (Holy/Saint) is the Greek equivalent of the Slavic Svatuiy. One often finds it used in Russian icons. The remainder of the inscription is Church Slavic, and all together it reads:
“[THE] HOLY GREAT-MARTYR NIKITA”
Interestingly, the Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, as part of his changes in the Church, declared that there was no “Devil-beater,” and that the name should not be connected with St. Nikita the Goth. However, the Old Believers saw this as just another deceit of the Devil, and they adopted the image of Nikita the Devil-beater as another sign of their “pure” faith, and so this type was preserved among the Old Believers right up to the present day.
Knowing that, let’s consider the icon pictured above again. We can see that not only is it painted in the stylized manner rather than the “Westernized” manner of the State Church, but the blessing hands of both Jesus and John the Forerunner show the fingers in the position used by and characteristic of the Old Believers, with the first finger straight up, the second finger slightly bent, and the thumb touching the bent last two fingers.
So, we see that:
1. The icon is in the stylized manner favored by Old Believers;
2. The icon uses the Old Believer finger position for the blessing hand;
3. The icon uses an iconography of Nikita preserved by the Old Believers as a sign of their “true belief” in contrast to the State Church.
All of those things tell us that is an icon painted by an Old Believer, not by a State Church painter.
Further, we should consider why the person ordering this icon would have asked for these particular figures to be painted on it. With the Deisis, the patron would have before him Jesus to receive his prayers; but also he would have the most important intercessors for humans, Mary and John the Baptist, to convince Jesus to answer his prayers. Then he would also have, to deal with any physical problems or illnesses, the two very important physician saints, Kozma and Domian (Damian). And finally, to keep away the powers of evil, he would have the most noted driver-away of devils, Nikita the Devil-beater. So to the Old Believer, this icon would have been a very good insurance policy for the difficulties of life.
Incidentally, you may sometimes see Nikita Besogon called Никита Чертогон — Nikita Chertogon (pronounced Chortogon); Chort is just the Russian term for “devil.” Both mean essentially the same thing — Nikita “Devil-beater.”
Here is an early 19th century Russian icon of Nikita”
We see the Nerukotvorrenuiy Obraz /”‘Not Made by Hands’ Image” of Jesus at the top, and the “family” saint Agripena/Agrippina in the left border.