A reader kindly shared this photo of a painted wooden folk crucifix in a little church in Dridif, a small village in Transylvania, Romania.   It is located northwest of Brașov on the road between Făgăraș and Sibiu.  The church was originally Greco-Catholic/Greek Catholic, and the reader’s great grandfather, Iosif Oprisiu, was priest there.  Later the church became Romanian Orthodox.

(Courtesy of Nancy Oprisch Ewing)

It is a delightful example of Romanian folk art, and bears the date 1886 near its base.  It has much in common in style with Romanian folk icons painted on glass.  Everything is very simple and “primitive.”  The sun and moon are shown at the top, stars and floral decoration are added on the sides, and at the base is a stylized head of Adam.

Let’s look more closely at the inscriptions:

At the top is an I N Ц I inscription — for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but interestingly the painter has written it from right to left in two lines.

Below that, along the base of the main crossbeam, we find in a mixture of Slavic letters and old spelling the Romanian inscription (I have added letters in brackets to put it in modern spelling):

Răsti[g]nirea lui I[i]sus
Răstignirea lui Iisus

“Crucifixion of Jesus.”

Here is the church in which it is found:

(Courtesy of Nancy Oprisch Ewing)

Across the road is a more elaborate church — also Romanian Orthodox — with a much more ornate interior, and icons painted in a more sophisticated style, rather than in the Romanian folk manner:

(Courtesy of Nancy Oprisch Ewing)

Here is a closer look at the iconostasis, with the Romanian flag displayed on the left above it:

Thanks to Nancy for sharing these images with all of us.








You will recall the icons of Mary popular in Russia under the name Troeruchitsa — “Three-handed” — because in them, Mary is commonly painted with three hands.  And if you read my earlier posting in the archives on that icon type, you will know that it originated in a painter’s error — mistaking an added votive hand for a third hand of Mary.  You may also recall that the icon is listed among those known in Russian Orthodoxy as “miracle-working.”

Well, the Romanian Orthodox have done the Russians one better.  In the Giurgeni Monastery (Mănăstirea Giurgeni) in southeastern Romania is an icon depicting Mary in the Hodigitria (“Way-shower”) form. It has an ornate silver cover over the panel, with only the faces of the Mother and Child visible.

What is unusual is that in this icon, Mary has three eyes and two mouths.

And if we look closely at the child Jesus, we see he has two ears on the left side of his head.

These unusual features are said to be the result of a miraculous, overnight transformation of the icon — not the work of human hands.  And the icon itself is said to have been the source of several miraculous healings, so in addition to its supposedly miraculous transformation, the icon is also considered a făcătoare de minuni — a “worker of miracles.”

The image is known as the Maica Domnului de la Giurgeni (“Mother of God of Giurgeni) or the Maicii Domnului cu trei ochi şi două guri
— the “Mother of God with Three Eyes and Two Mouths.”

Well, as one might expect, the information on this icon is rather scanty.  It is said to have been made sometime between 1740 and 1750 by the painter (zugrav) Nectarie, and to have been given to the Giurgeni Monastery on August 6, 1831.  The icon is still visited by Romanian believers from all over the country due to its reputation as a miracle worker.

Of course to the rest of us it is rather obvious that the extra eye, mouth, and ear are due to separate stages of painting — a first stage followed by later overpainting, the former eventually becoming partially visible through the latter.  One person’s mistake is another person’s miracle.




Today we will take a look at part of the large and detailed “Last Judgment” fresco on the wall of the famous Church of St. George (Biserica Sfantul Gheorghe ) at the village of Voroneț in the county of Suceava (pronounced Su-cha-va) in northeastern Romania.  But first some useful things to know for students of icons.

First, in Romanian a Biserica is a church.  Sfantul is the Romanian equivalent of Svyatuiy (Holy, i.e. “Saint”) in Church Slavic.  And Gheorge, as you might guess, is the Romanian form of George.

As mentioned, the church is at Voroneț.  Do not be confused when elsewhere you may see it written either as Voronet or Voronets.  The reason is that Romanian has a distinctive letter — ț — with a little “tail” at the bottom.  That means it is pronounced “ts.”  Many sources spell it simply Voronet in English, because English does not have that letter; but that gives the mistaken impression that the last syllable is pronounced “-net,” while actually it is pronounced “-nets.”

Now, having taken care of those little but useful details, we can go on to the fresco.  It is painted on the exterior of the church.  In the photo below, you can see the protecting roof above it:

(Photo: Wikipedia)
(Photo: Wikipedia)

Though very elaborate, it is on the whole much like Russian representations of the Last Judgment.  The Romanians call this type the Judecata de Apoi,  literally the “Judgment of Afterwards” or more loosely the “Next Judgment.”

As we shall see, that notion of “next” is significant in regard to today’s image.  Here is the detail from the fresco on which we wish to concentrate now:


It shows us a huge crowd of the Righteous (males seem to get preference) coming in a long line to the Gate of Paradise, which is at left.   Note the winged “cherubim” just above the gate (remember that Slavic uses the plural for the singular).   Let’s look a little closer:

At the front of the line, we see the Apostle Peter, holding the key that opens the Gate of Paradise.  And holding his hand is St. Paul.  That distinguishes this “after” entry into Paradise from the “before” entry that we find in standard iconographic depictions of the Resurrection of Jesus, in which the figures seen winding up to the Gate of Paradise are the Righteous of the Old Testament.  In that depiction, we see the Righteous Thief (called Rakh in Russian iconography) at the head of the line, instead of St. Peter.

If we look to the left of the Gate of Paradise in this “after” depiction, we can see that it shows Mary seated in Paradise, with the Archangel Michael at left, and the Archangel Gabriel at right.  Just to the left of Michael  (and long inside the gate) is the Repentant Thief, still carrying his cross (his ticket to Paradise) after all this time — but of course icons do not deal with time in a rational fashion.

To the left of the Repentant Thief, we see a type occasionally found by itself in Russian iconography — the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seated in Paradise (see my earlier posting https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/three-old-men-on-a-park-bench-the-patriarchs-in-paradise/),


Here is a closer look at the patriarch on the right, Iakov — Jacob:


You can see his abbreviated title just above his head at left.  The writing just to the right of the head of the Righteous Thief is that of a tourist, and it is not the only graffito by visitors to be seen on this fresco, unfortunately.  As is traditional with the Patriarchs in this depiction, Isaac holds the souls of the righteous in his lap, a depiction derived from the biblical phrase “in Abraham’s bosom,” as in Luke 16:22:

“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried…”

So the souls of the righteous are to be in the lap/bosom of the patriarchs, so this iconography tells us.  In some examples, one or more of the little souls are seen climbing in the background trees.

Finally, if we take a look up on the garden wall behind the Patriarchs, we find two inscriptions:


We need not bother with the lower one.  It is another “tourist” graffito from 1903, someone named Larionescu who wanted to be immortalized (how I wish tourists had changed!).  The important one is the original inscription above, which is in Church Slavic:

Raiskoe Selenie

РАИ (Rai)  is the word for “Paradise.”  Rai-skoe makes it adjectival, and Selenie means a house or dwelling or residence.  So this portion of the larger fresco is identified as the “Paradise Dwelling.”

It is helpful to know why, in Romanian iconography, one sometimes finds inscriptions in Church Slavic, and other times in Romanian.  The reason is that Church Slavic was originally the liturgical and administrative language in Christian Romania.  But between the 16th and 17th centuries it was replaced by Romanian for administrative purposes.  Church Slavic continued to be used as the Eastern Orthodox liturgical language in Romania into the first half of the 18th century, but by the latter half of that century it had given way to Romanian  So one can get a rough idea of how old a Romanian icon is by whether it is inscribed in Church Slavic or in Romanian.  As a rule of thumb, a Church Slavic inscription often means it is older than about 1750, and a Romanian inscription generally means it is more recent (unless, of course, a modern painter has faithfully copied an older icon with its inscription).

And finally, you may wish to know that Church Slavic is of course a Slavic language, but Romanian is a Latin-based language with a strong admixture of Slavic elements.  That is why Romanian may seem more akin to Italian and French.


As I wrote earlier, if one wishes to understand icons, one must learn to read them — at least the basic and most common inscriptions.  This must seem a tremendous task to the beginner, but that is a serious misconception.  Learning to read common icon inscriptions is actually very easy precisely because they are so common.  That means they are also very repetitive, so a little study gives great rewards far out of proportion to the little effort involved.

There are essentially two languages used in most icon inscriptions one is likely to encounter:  First, Church Slavic on Russian icons; second, Greek on Greek icons.

Church Slavic traditionally holds the place in the Russian Orthodoxy that Latin formerly held in Roman Catholicism:  it is a language used in “Church” matters, but not the same language people speak in their everyday lives.  So in traditional Russian Orthodoxy, Church Slavic is the language used both in the rites of the Russian Church and in inscribing icons.  It is important to note that it is neither what is called Old Slavonic, nor is it modern Russian, but rather something between the two.  A modern Russian can understand it only with some difficulty, which is why many Russians have trouble reading a Bible written in Church Slavic, but no trouble reading one written in modern Russian.

The Greek language  traditionally used in inscribing Greek icons is an old form like that of the New Testament manuscripts.  Modern Greek is somewhat different, but not so different that a speaker of modern Greek cannot read — again with some difficulty — the old Greek text of the New Testament.

So for the sake of simplicity, we can say that the language of Russian icons is Church Slavic, and the language of Greek icons is old Greek.  I have deliberately been a bit vague about what “old Greek” is, because Greek went through several stages of transformation from ancient Classical Greek to modern Greek as spoken by people in their daily lives.

I will not include everything one needs to know about inscriptions in this posting, but I hope to expand on what is included here over time, in further postings.

First I want to discuss Russian icons.  I do this because Russian icons are those one is most likely to encounter, given that they were painted in such huge numbers.  And also I must admit to a certain favoritism, regarding Russian icon painting as the real flowering of the icon painting tradition.

So let’s begin by looking a a Russian icon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Though the inscriptions on this icon are not clear enough to be easily read in the photo, we can nonetheless use this as an example for learning about icon inscriptions, which on this image are written in red.

First, note that there is an inscription at the very top, in the center of the border area.  The border — at either top or bottom — is the usual place for the title of the icon as a whole, or the title of the main image on an icon.  In this case it is Tsar TsaremThe King of Kings.  That is a title applied to Christ in icons showing him crowned and seated on a throne as Tsar — as Emperor or “King.”  The Russian and Church Slavic title “Tsar,” by the way, comes from the Latin word Caesar.

That takes care of the overall icon title.  But if we look at the figures below, we see (though faintly in this photo) that each has a title above his or her head.  In the case of the female figure on the left, which is Mary, the title is usually МР θУ, M R TH U, which abbreviates Meter Theou, meaning “Mother of God” in Greek.  Interestingly, this Greek title is customary on Russian icons of Mary, favored over the Russian translation Bogomater.  So it is one of the exceptions to the general rule that Russian icons are inscribed in Church Slavic.  But the figure on the right is John the Forerunner — usually with that title, Svatuiy Ioann Predtecha, written over his head.  The two angels are the Svayatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail (the Holy Archangel Michael) and the Svyatuiy Arkhangel Gavriil (the Holy Archangel Gabriel).  You will recall that Svyatuiy is the standard title for a saint.  It means literally “Holy.”

So now we have covered the two basic kinds of general icon inscriptions — the overall title of the icon, and the individual names of the saints depicted.  Often, however, we will see additional inscriptions.  On some, it may be writing on a scroll held by a saint.  On others, as in this example, it will be something else.  In this case it is on the two discs held by the two angels.  The one on the left reads ΙС; the one on the right reads ХС; together — I S  KH S –They abbreviate Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ,” which abbreviation is often written the same in both old Greek and in Church Slavic.  On State Church icons of the middle of the 17th century onward, one will find this abbreviation given as IHC XC — IIS KHS — adding an additional letter to “Jesus” as part of the change in the Russian liturgical books essentially forced on the Russian Church by the Patriarch Nikon, its head at that time.  Nikon’s “reforms” led to the separation of the Old Believers, who kept to the old forms and rites and detested such changes.  It is important to note that the Old Believers were terribly persecuted by the State Church — the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, by means of the Russian State, which acted as its punishing arm.  Many of them died rather than give up what they considered to be the true faith and practice handed down to them by their forefathers.

But getting back to the matter of inscriptions, we have now covered all of them present in this icon, and we have seen the general pattern followed by inscriptions on Russian icons — the overall title, the secondary names of the saints pictured, and the tertiary additional inscriptions.

To complete the picture, I should tell you that Christ in this icon is robed like a bishop, wearing the traditional stole with crosses around his neck.  Images with Christ enthroned in the center with Mary on the left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) on the right are usually called a Deisis, meaning “Beseeching” in Greek.  The Deisis depicts Mary and John interceding on behalf of humans with Christ, imploring (fervently asking) him to be merciful.  Russians pronounced it “Deisus.”

However, note that in this example Mary wears a crown, which is absent in the standard Deisis.  That is why this particular form is often called “The Queen Stood at Your Right” (Predsta Tsaritsa Odesnuyu Tebe).  That is an Old Testament excerpt from Psalm 45:9 (44:10 in the Church Slavic Bible):  “Upon your right the Queen did Stand in Gold of Ophir.”  Sometimes in this “Queen” variant, both the crowned Mary and John the Forerunner are shown winged, like angels.  Also noteworthy is that in some versions Jesus wears a bishop’s crown (mitre) rather than the crown of an emperor or tsar.

Now we have covered almost everything, but should also note that Jesus holds a long sceptre and the book of the Gospels, which in this example is closed.  And finally, in the three bars of the cross that almost always are visible in the halo of Jesus in Russian icons, we see the letters O ΩΝ (Ho On with the “o” pronounced like the o in “lo,” but written on most Russian icons in a Slavicized form, as in this photo, instead of the modern Greek form).  It means “The One (Ho) Who Is (On),” the name of God revealed to Moses in the Old Testament, translated in the King James version as “I Am That I Am.”  That is to indicate that, in keeping with Eastern Orthodox belief, Christ is also God.

I will also caution you that in addition to these two main languages for icon inscriptions, one may also find occasional additional inscriptions — generally added notes rather than main inscriptions — written in “modern” Russian on Russian icons, and additional inscriptions in more modern Greek on Greek icons.  In the case of Russian icons such inscriptions often say when and for whom an icon was painted, or why it might have been given as a donation, or perhaps indicating some other event commemorated.

If you are a beginning student of the art of icons, do not forget to learn the Cyrillic alphabet so that you may decipher the originals of these inscriptions on Russian icons.  And you will also need to know the Greek alphabet for Greek icons.  There are little variations in the manner in which both Cyrillic and Greek letters are written on icons, and I will try to deal with those in future articles.  And also in future articles, I will devote more time to Greek icons and how to read them.

I do not want to end this posting without mentioning that among the icons produced by other countries in which Eastern Orthodoxy is found, there are the icons of the Romanian Orthodox Church.  The old examples may have inscriptions in Cyrillic script, but more recent Romanian icons are generally inscribed in Roman letters (Romanian is predominantly a “Latin” language with Slavic influence, in contrast with Russian, which is Slavic).  Perhaps I will have more to say about Romanian icons in articles to come.  They are seldom seen outside of Romania in comparison to Russian icons, and when they are seen it is often in the “folk” form, which was as reverse paintings on glass, set into in a wooden frame.