Today, thanks to a reader question, we will take a look at a 14th century icon in the Byzantine Museum, Athens.  It represents the Archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies.

{Byzantine Museum, Athens – St. Michael: 14th century – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 12 2009)

The question asked was, what do the letters in the round mirror (depicted as a transparent sphere here) held by St. Michael mean?

Let’s look at them:

First, we need to know that the letters are Greek, which makes sense, given that it is a Byzantine icon.

The first letter — at the top — is Χ.  It stands for Χριστος — Khristos — “Christ.”
It would be easy to mistake the second letter, at left, for an Α.  But actually it is the letter Δ, which is often found written in this manner in old icons.  It stands for Δικαιος — Dikaios — meaning “Righteous.”
The third letter, at right, is Κ, for Κριτης — Krites — “Judge.”  It is related to our English words “critic” and criticism.”

All together, the letters abbreviate Χ(ριστός) Δ(ίκαιος) Κ(ριτής). — “Christ [the] Righteous Judge.”  It is an expression that recalls the words of John 7:24:

μὴ κρίνετε κατ’ ὄψιν, ἀλλὰ τὴν δικαίαν κρίσιν κρίνετε
Me krinete kat’ opsin, alla ten dikiaian krisin krinete
Not judge according-to appearance, but the rightous judgment judge
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

You may recall that  a variant of this phrase is often found as a Gospel text in Russian icons of Jesus as “Lord Almighty.”

Не на лица судите сынове человечестии, но праведен суд судите: им же бо судом судите, судят вам и в нюже меру мерите, возмерится вам.

“Judge not according to the appearance, sons of men, but judge righteous judgment.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged, and with what measure you measure, you shall be measured.”

There is also a title inscription on the Michael icon that we should examine.  It is divided into left and right parts:

At left:


Notice how the the A and the P (R) are joined, and how the X (KH) in Arkhon is placed above, below a curved line indicating abbreviation.

At right:


Notice that the Λ (L) in MIKHAEL is placed above the last two letters.

This title inscription is read with the first line jumping from the left to right side, as does the second, like this:



That title recalls the Old Testament book of Daniel, 12:1, in the Septuagint Greek version:

Και ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ ἀναστήσεται Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἄρχων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ἑστηκὼς ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ λαοῦ σου·
“And in that time shall stand up Michael the great prince, that stands over the sons of your people.”

Thanks to the reader who asked this question, because it helps everyone to advance a bit in the study of icons.



While serious readers here want to learn to read “condensed” icon inscriptions, technically called “Vyaz'” or “joined/linked” inscriptions, some also want to learn to write it as a calligraphic form.

This page show the letters of Church Slavic in a “pen” form, with wide vertical strokes and thin horizontal and angular strokes.

Vyaz’ inscriptions vary widely.  One can make the vertical strokes very long and narrow, which enables more letters in a smaller space, or one may make them shorter.  One may make the letters very simple (like the basic forms shown above), or one can make them as ornate as desired, with lots of little added flourishes.  And of course they can be written in various colors, red being a common choice for icons.

In combining letters, some vertical strokes in a letter may be shortened to allow the insertion of another letter written small.  We see that in the following incription.  I will transliterate it with the small letters within and above the inscription in lower case.  Omitted letters are in brackets.

It reads:  Obraz Neopalimuiya Kupinui Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui
OBrAz  NeOpAlIMuiiA KupinuI Pres[vya]t[ui]ia B[ogoro]d[i]TSuI


We have seen the inscription in an earlier posting on that icon type, “The Image of the Unburnt Thornbush Most Holy Mother of God.”

Here the beginning of another inscription:

It reads:

“Image of the Elevation of the Venerable Cross of the Lord”

Notice how the writer of the inscription has used strong vertical lines, and very thin triangular lines to form the “horizontals” at top and bottom of letters.  And notice the little flourishes he has placed on the letters here and there.  His T letters consist of three, full-length verticals with triangular “horizontals” at the top, but this form is less common.

The best way to learn Vyaz’ calligraphy is to look at lots of different examples, and to copy those one finds most appealing.  Some people find it helpful to use graph paper at the beginning, so that the size of varying letters can be carefully measured while writing.  And keep in mind that there are lots of variations in just how a particular letter may be ornamented.


Here is a Marian icon, still with its discolored varnish:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

I hope you recognize it as the left panel from a three-panel Deisis set of icons.  As you will recall, the central icon in such a set is the image of the “Lord Almighty,” and the right panel is John the Forerunner, or John the Baptist as he is called in the West.

The image shows Mary approaching Jesus, acting as go-between in praying for the world (and in the mind of the believer, approaching Jesus with the prayers of the person praying before the icon).

We should take a look at her scroll in this type, because it has a common inscription that you should add to your repertoire of standard texts.  It reads (put into modern Cyrillic):

Владыко Многомилостиве, Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне и Боже Мой,
Vladuiko Mnogomilostive, Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine I Bozhe Moi,
“Master -most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ,  Son  and God of-me,
приклони ко Мне ухо Твое, ибо аз молю за мир.
prikloni ko Mne ykho Tvoe, ibo az moliu za mir.
bend to me  ear of-you, for I  pray for [the] world.

In normal English,
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, My Son and my God, incline your ear to me, for I pray for the world.”

You can see that several words are abbreviated in the icon text, as is common. This “left panel” type of Mary is of course just a smaller form of her image in the more detailed Desis icon found in a church iconostasis (the big icon screen separating congregation from altar in Russian Orthodox Churches).  But this type is also very closely related to the image of Mary in the type known as the Bogoliubskaya: There are several Bogoliubskaya variants, depending on figures added to the right of Mary.  In the example shown here, there are several saints associated with Moscow, such as the four Metropolitans of Moscow Petr (Peter), Alexiy, Iona (Jonah), and Filipp (Philip) as well as the Holy Fool Alexiy, Man of God.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Added at the top are the two popular saints and patrons of horses, Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus)  The “Moscow” saints give this Bogoliubskaya variant the secondary name “Moskovskaya” — “Of Moscow.”  So this is the “Moscow” variant of the Bogoliubskaya type.  But look at Mary’s scroll.  It begins exactly the same as the Marian “left panel” icon, only in this example it is shortened for reasons of space, and every word except mnogolostivе  is abbreviated:

Владыко Многомилостивый, Господи Иисусе Христ[е]…
“Master most-gracious, Lord Jesus Christ….

If we look at the right panel from this Deisis set, we find it is the standard type of John the Forerunner:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

John is holding a scroll with one of the two most common texts used not only in this right-panel type but also in icons of John in general.  It is:

Покáйтеся, при­­бли́жибося цáр­ст­вiе небéсное…
Pokaitesya, priblizhibosya tsarstvie nebesnoe
Repent, has-drawn-near [the] kingdom [of] heaven

In normal English,

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”

The other common text for John is “I saw and witnessed concerning him, behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

As you see, John is pointing at the child Jesus lying in the liturgical vessel, representing the “Lamb” — the piece of bread considered to be the “body of Christ” in the Eastern Orthodox Eucharist.

Finally, let’s take a look at the central Deisis panel, which is the “Lord Almighty,” Jesus seen as ruler in the heavenly court:

(Courtesy of

Now we might expect the text on his book to be the most common “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):

Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéн­нiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́
Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui

Obviously, however, this example does not have that most frequent text.  It cannot be, because the text on this icon is prefaced with the words

Речé  Госпóдь сво­и́мъ ученикóмъ …
Reche Gospod’ svoim” ychenikom” …
Spoke [the] Lord [to] of-him disciples…
“The Lord said to his disciples…”

And then it quotes the text of  Matthew 11:27:

Вся́ мнѣ́ преданá сýть Отцéмъ мо­и́мъ: и никтóж[е знáетъ Сы́на, тóкмо Отéцъ]….
Vsya mnye predana sut’ Otsem” moim” : i niktozh [e znaet” Suina, tokmo Otets”…]
All [to] me handed-over is [by] Father of-me: and no one [ knows the Son but the Father…] “All things have been committed to me by my Father: and no one [knows the Son except the Father…]

So this particular icon of the “Lord Almighty” uses the verse just preceding the most common text used on the Russian type.

As an added note, a reader asked me why Russian icons, as in this example, put a little T above the letter that in a Greek icon would be the standard letter omega (ω) in the customary Ho On (ὁ ὢν = “The One Who Is”) inscription on “Jesus” icons.

The Russians have come up with all sorts of fanciful explanations for this, saying the three letters abbreviate this or that Church Slavic phrase.  Some priests even tell children that the T is the “cross atop the crown of Christ” — the omega roughly forming the “crown.”  But the real answer is apparently that a few centuries ago, Russian iconographers did not commonly understand Greek, so when they saw the accented omega in ὢν on a correctly inscribed icon, they just replaced it (apparently beginning in the early 1400s) with the Slavic letter that had a little T mark above it, which happens to be the abbreviation for the word ot (“from”) in Church Slavic:


And the miswriting was perpetuated in countless copies.  From the ordinary Russian point of view, if that was the way it was passed down, that was the way it should be.  A fundamentalist Protestant likes to respond to religious questions with “It’s in the Bible.”  A traditional Russian Orthodox believer would respond, “That’s the way our fathers handed it down to us.”

You might not yet have noticed another little difference between the inscriptions on the Greek Pantokrator halo and the Russian Gospod’ Vsederzhitel (“Lord Almighty”) halo.  While the three letters in the three bars of the cross are read from left to top to right in Greek icons, in Russian icons they are generally moved so that the O is at the top, the OT is at left, and the N is at right.

Now you have an easy, rule-of-thumb way of distinguishing Russian icons of Jesus from Greek.  But of course the text in the open book is another obvious tip-off.


Today we will look at an early 13th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai:


Our concern will be with the text in the open Gospels:

pantosinaiinsc1It is (you probably recognize it) the most common Greek text for icons of the Pantokrator — that is, of Jesus shown as “The Almighty.”

At the beginning is a Greek cross.  And it is followed by the unseparated words


Of course whenever you see that “I am” beginning on a Pantokrator Gospel inscription, you know it is most likely to be the most frequently-used text for Greek Pantokrator icons.  Here it is in upper and lower case:

Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου· ὁ ἀκολουθῶν ἐμοὶ οὐ μὴ περιπατήσῃ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ, ἀλλ’ ἕξει τὸ φῶς τῆς ζωῆς

Ego eimi to phos tou kosmou ho akolouthon emoi ou me peripatese en te skotia, all[a] hexei to phos tes zoes

” I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

Let’s take a look at the second line:

It reads:  ΤΟ ΦѠC ΤΟΥ ΚΟC[-ΜΟΥ]
TO PHOS TOU KOS[-MOU] (the –MOU is in the next line):
“The Light of the World.”

Look at the ligature in the word TO (neuter form of “the”):  it puts the “T” atop the “O.”  And look also at the ligature following PHOS:  It is the word TOU, meaning “of the,” but it combines three letters:  T, O, and U, all joined from top to bottom to form the word pronounced as “too.”

We can see the variations used in writing by looking at the second use of TO PHOS in the inscription:


The T is placed on top of the O to form the definite article TO (“the), and the Φ is placed atop the ω, followed to the right by C to form the word PHOS — “light.”

Let’s look at one more ligature, used twice on the right side of the page:


It joins T and H, forming the word TH (τη) —TE — pronounced “tay” in ancient Greek, “tee” in modern Greek.  By itself, it is the dative form of “the,” as in EΝ ΤΗ ΣΚΟΤΙΑ  — En te skotia — “in the darkness,” as in “shall not walk in [the] darkness.”

So you see, it takes only a little bit of study to read a great many inscriptions on Pantokrator icons, even one over seven centuries old, because they are so repetitive.

The Russians, however, use a different favorite inscription:

Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéн­нiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́:

“Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  And of course they use other texts as well, but that one is the most popular.






This posting will be a test of just how hardcore an icon enthusiast you are (or perhaps a test of how peculiar you have really become).  In any case, it is lengthy and detailed.  Prepare yourself.

The Unburnt Thornbush (Neopalimaya Kupina) icon of Mary is of particular interest because it represents the very “pagan” notion that a painted icon of divine figures has the power to protect from fire.  In old Russia, if a house or building burst into flame, people would stand holding this icon facing the fire in the belief that it would be extinguished.  It was also hung to protect dwellings from fire.  Given that wooden buildings and dwellings were very common, and fire a constant threat, it is not surprising that this “fire insurance” icon was so popular, particularly among the Old Believers.

There is much to say about this type.  Its origins are a mixture of references to Old Testament events, to symbolic references to Mary found in the Akathist hymn and canon, and a good portion of it comes simply from apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, particularly those portions relating to the angels surrounding the central figure of Mary holding the child Christ (Christ Emmanuel).

The Russian type, which began to spread in the late 16th century, is quite different than the standard Greek type, which depicts Mary in the Burning Bush of the Book of Exodus.

It is a detailed icon, and rather intimidating for the beginning student because of its unusual iconography and often detailed and unfamiliar inscriptions.  Nonetheless, it is a visually attractive type, being in the “mandala” form that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung considered a symbol of wholeness.

In discussing the iconography of this type, one should keep in mind that there are variations from example to example, both in the figures included and in the inscriptions, though they are usually variations on the same basic concepts.  Different painters might arrange figures differently and vary the inscriptions according to the models available to them and according to their own understanding.  And painters sometimes did not understand their models well, or made mistakes.

The particular icon I will use as the primary example of the type is very well painted, and pleasing both in its figures and in its calligraphy.  Other examples will vary somewhat, but if you understand this example, you should be able to see the essence of the type through such variations.

Let’s look at it:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

As you see, the icon consists of an image of Mary and the Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) set in a bright circle in the center of a blue and red eight-pointed slava (“glory”) symbolizing not only the Eighth Day of Creation (the “Day of Eternity”) but also the Godhood in its two manifestations of light and dark, that which is revealed and that which is a mystery (the “Divine Dark”).  If you have mystical tendencies, you might like to view the light and red part as the cataphatic approach to spirituality through words and descriptions and concepts, and the dark blue part as the apophatic approach through negation, though getting rid of words and descriptions and concepts.  Or you could just forget all of that and see it as a pretty red and a pretty blue, as did most Russian iconographers.

Mary is surrounded by angels, both in the blue quadrangle and in the outer “petals” that form an elongated simple rose-like form.

In the four corners, like the metal corners on an old bound book, are Old Testament scenes considered prefigurations of Mary.

So that is the icon in general.  Now let’s get specific, beginning with the well-written calligraphic vyaz’ title inscription:


To help you out a little, I will separate the words, put them into modern Cyrillic, transliterate them, and translate them.  Superscript (“written above”) letters will be in parentheses, and omitted letters will be added in brackets.  The letter Ы, which some transliterate as Y, I will give more phonetically as UI.  Words grammatically implied will be in lower case:































or to put it in more normal English, “The image of the Unburnt Thornbush Most Holy Mother of God.”  Bogoroditsa is the Slavic term equivalent to Theotokos in Greek, meaning “one who gives birth to God.”

So now we know the title.  It is the “Unburnt Thornbush” image of Mary.

Now for the iconography.  We will begin at the center circle:

The large figure is obviously Mary, as indicated by the MP ΘΥ “Meter Theou” abbreviation above her, meaning “Mother of God.”

She is holding Christ Immanuel, the child Jesus, as indicated by the IC XC “Iesous Khristos” abbreviation above his head.  He holds a rolled scroll in his left hand and blesses with his right.

On Mary’s breast is a smaller image of Jesus robed as a bishop, the “Great High Priest.” He is above a rocky hill.  This image symbolizes the Heavenly Jerusalem, in which Christ is Great High Priest in the temple. The rocky hill is in some examples more obviously a stone on her breast, signifying the “Stone not cut by human hands” of Daniel 2:45:  “Forasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver and the gold.”  This signifies the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, supposedly born without the participation of a human male.

On Mary’s left shoulder is another crowned image, but in red; this is Jesus as “Sophia, Wisdom of God.”  In that form he is shown as an angel with a red face.  I should add that some people identify this figure rather loosely as Christ as Tsar Slavui, “King of Glory,” but in this example Sophia better fits the iconography.

Under Mary’s right hand is a ladder.  This is one of her symbols.  In the Akathist hymn are the words “Rejoice, Heavenly Ladder by which God descended.”  So Mary symbolically is the “ladder” that gave birth to the heavenly Christ.

That was not too difficult, was it?  Well, as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  It is time to look at the figures in the outer points of the eight-pointed slava.

First we will look at the four in the red quadrangle.  They are the symbols of the Four Evangelists:

This figure, in the form of an angel with a book, is Еуаггелистъ Матфей — Euangelist Matfei — the Evangelist Matthew, holding his gospel.

This figure is  Еуаггелистъ Марко, Euangelist Marko, the Evangelist Mark.  He is depicted as an eagle holding his gospel.

This is Еуаггелистъ Лука — Euagelist Luka — the Evangelist Luke.  He is depicted as an ox, and holds his gospel.


This figure is Еуаггелистъ Иоаннъ — Euangelist Ioann — the Evangelist John.

So much for the easy parts of the main image.  Now we move on to less familiar figures — the angels in the blue quadrangle of the slava:

First, there is this multi-winged angel.  Traditionally a seraph is painted red and a cherubim (Russians always use the plural for the singular in this case) blue, but some painters do not follow this strictly, and this figure has no inscription.  But we will assume a seraph is intended, due to the fiery nature of this icon.

The inscription on these two “blue” angelic figures reads:  Духъ бури Аггли Ветра — Dukh buri Angli Vyetra — “the Spirit of Storms, the Angel of Wind.”

This angel at the bottom of the blue quadrangle is identified by inscription as Аггелъ Господень Приноситъ Молитву и Кадило к Богу — Angel Gospoden Prinosit Molitvu i Kadilo k Bogu — “the Angel of the Lord — Brings Prayer and the censer to God.”  Some like to think of him as the “Angel of unceasing prayer.”

The final angel in the blue quadrangle is this one:

The inscription reads:   И Облаком Аггел дуги — I oblakom Angel dugi — “And of clouds, the Angel of rainbows.”

Now on to the angels in the outer “petals.” of the mandala.  First, top left:

The inscription reads:  Творяи Агглы своя служение снегу и инею — Tvoryai Angli svoya sluzhenie snegu i ineiu — “He makes his angels serving snow and hoar frost.”  You will notice another inscription in red just above the “green” angel’s head, but we will deal with that later.

The inscription here reads Духъ силы Аггелъ росы и мглы — Dukh silui Angel rosui i mglui — “the Spirit of Power, the Angel of dew and fog.”

The inscription is:  Духъ силы Аггелъ творяи мраз и ледъ благоразумно подая всем спасение — Dukh silui angel tvoryai mraz i led blagorazumno podya vsem spasenie — “the Spirit of Power, the angel making  frost and ice — wisely presents to all salvation.”

The inscription is:  Духъ благочестия Аггела мести нанасупостаты подая чашу горести — Dukh blagochestiya Angel mesti na supostatui podaya chashu goresti — “The Spirt of Piety, the Angel of vengeance on enemies, presenting the Cup of Woe.

The inscription:  Духъ разума Аггелъ возбуждая от века спящия — Dukh razuma Angel vozbuzhdaya ot veka spyashchiya — “the Angel of Reason, who rouses from an age of sleep.”

The inscription is: Аггелъ паления сиреч хотящаго быти от праведнаго суди и поделомъ — Angel paleniya sirech khotyashchago buiti ot pravednago sudi i podelom — The Angel of Burning, who will be sent forth by the Righteous Judge and according to [their] works.

The inscription reads:  Духъ страха божия аггелъ возгремения и молни и страшное проявляетъ пришествие — Dukh strakha bozhiya angel vozgremeniya i molni i strashnoe proyavlyaet prishestvie — “the Spirit of the Fear of God, Angel of thunder and lightning, and frightfully reveals the [second] Coming”

The inscription is:  Духъ премудрости аггелъ огня паляща сиреч будушее онаго века поведаетъ — Dukh premdrosti angel ognya palyasha sirech budushee onago veka povedaet — “the Spirit of Wisdom, angel of of burning fire who announces the future of the present age.”

Now we will return to the left-out word that I mentioned earlier by a top figure, in fact there are several such words arranged widely-spaced around the outer edge of the “rose.”  To understand their meaning, we have to assemble them, because they belong together  I have left them at the angles on which they appear, to help you place them on the image:

Tvoryai — “(He) makes…”

Angelui – (“the angels…”

Svoya — “of him…”

Dukhi — “spirits…”

I slugi — “and the servants…”


Svoya — “of him…”

Ogn — “a fire…”

Pyalyashch — “burning.”

To put it all together in normal English, “Who makes his angels spirits, his servants a burning flame.”  This is the Slavic version of Hebrews 1:7:  “And of the angels he says, Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

There are a number of apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements, but one of the most obvious is the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 2:

And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.

For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him -the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels [of the spirit of fire and the angels] of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth; (He created) the abysses and the darkness, eventide <and night>, and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart.

And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day.”

One can see that the components of this icon have a great deal to do with fire and burning and lightning, as well as with frost, ice, rain and clouds.  When one combines these with the “fire” attributes of Mary, it is not difficult to understand how the belief arose that this icon could control the elements and subdue fire.

Now let’s look at the prefigurations of Mary in the four corners of the icon:

The inscription reads:  Видехъ купину огнем горяща и незгараему рече Господь о купиныи изуи сапогъ с ногу твоему но немже ты тоиши место свято есть  —  “I saw a bush burning with fire and not consumed; the Lord said of the bush, take off the shoes from your feet, for this place on which you stand is holy.”

We see Моисей — Moses — kneeling to take of his shoes as he looks toward the Burning Bush in which Mary is seen in the “Znemie” — “Sign” form with the child Jesus.  An angel is at left of the bush.  This image signifies that the Burning Bush of Moses was a prefiguration of Mary, who in her pregnancy with Jesus was filled with the fire of divinity, yet was not consumed.

The incident is recorded in Exodus 3:

1 Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.

2 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

4 And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground.

 The inscription reads:  Жезлъ искорен Иессеова и цветъ от него Христосъ — “A rod from the root of Jesse, and the flower out of it is Christ.”

That is taken from Isaiah 11, considered a prediction of Jesus in Eastern Orthodoxy:

1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;

3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:

This “Rod of Jesse” image is sometimes replaced by  that of Isaiah’s lips being purified by the fire of a coal taken from the altar by a seraph. (Isaiah 6:5-7); Mary was considered purified by being pregnant with the “fire of God.”

The inscription is:  Спя Иаков на пути и виде лествицу  утверждену на землие иже глава досязаше до небеси и аггли божий восхождаху и изходашу по ней — “Jacob slept on the way and saw a ladder set up on earth, the head of which reached to heaven, and angels of God ascending and descending on it.

It comes from Genesis 28:12:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

This ladder in Eastern Orthodoxy is considered a prefiguration of Mary, the “ladder” by which Christ descended from heaven to earth.  The Akathist hymn says, “Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God descended.”

The inscription reads:  Иезкииль видехъ от востока врата затворена никтоже проидетъ ими токмо Господь богъ израилев — “Ezekiel saw in the East a closed door; no one goes through it but the Lord God of Israel.”

It comes from Ezekiel 44:1-2:

1 Then he brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looks toward the east; and it was shut.

2 Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.

This closed door too is a prefiguration of Mary, the “Door of Solemn Mystery” in the Akathist hymn.  It symbolizes the perpetual virginity of Mary in giving birth to Jesus.  Of course these prefigurations are just the result of theologians reading Mary back into the Old Testament.

Now that I have discussed this interesting and detailed type of the Unburnt Thornbush, there are, as mentioned earlier, variations on this type.  Some examples show only the central figure of Mary and Child on the slava with the symbols of the Four Evangelists around them.   A later, commonly State Church type shows, in place of the angels of weather and apocalypse, the archangels.

In the latter case, the Archangel Michael holds a rod, Raphael holds an alabastron (alabaster vessel), Uriel holds a flaming sword, Selaphiel holds a censer, Barakhiel holds Grapes, and Gabriel holds a branch from Paradise.

To finish this very long posting, I should add that the Greek depictions of the type are quite different from the Russian.  The Greeks call their version  η Βάτος η Φλεγομένη — He Vatos he Phlegoumeni — The Bush [the] Burning, or simply η Φλεγομένη Βάτος – “The Burning Bush.”

 This Greek type is rather similar to the corner depiction of Moses and the Burning Bush in the Russian type.  It commonly shows Moses seeing the Burning Bush, then he is shown again removing his sandals.  Mary sits amid the bush with the angel at the left of it.  Some examples are quite simple, others elaborate by adding scenes such as Moses receiving the tablets of the law and other scenes from the story of Moses at Sinai in the Book of Exodus.  Some even add the figure of the much later John of Damascus
Here is a typical example, from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai.   Moses is shown three times, along with some sheep nibbling at shrubs and drinking:
The inscription at upper right, by the Hand of God coming out of a cloud and giving Moses the tablets of the law. says:  ΝΟΜΟΝ ΥΠΟ ΧΕΙΡΟC ΚΥΡΙΟΥ — Nomon hypo kheiros Kyriou — ” …The Law by the Hand of the Lord.”
Not surprisingly, this Greek type is traditionally associated with the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, where the monks will still point out a tangled mass of shrubbery  atop a wall, and tell you it is the same Burning Bush that Moses saw, though others may say it is taken from a stock of that bush.  In any case, the shrub is a kind of bramble, Rubus ulmifolius, subspecies sanctus — the “Holy Bramble.”  The age of fable is not dead.


Here is a Russian icon depicting a scene from the traditional life of the physician saint Panteleimon. Often an icon of a saint will have scenes from his life shown in little squares around the outer edges. Such an icon is termed с житем, s zhitem, meaning “with the life.” However, as here, sometimes individual “life” scenes were also painted as separate icons.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

The icon depicts the young Panteleimon, whose life, you may recall, was set in the late 3rd-early 4th century. According to his story, he was studying medicine under Euphrosinos, whom he accompanied to the royal court. There he came to the notice of the Emperor Maximian, who advised Euphrosinos to train the clever boy well so that he might eventually become the court physician. That is the scene shown here.

Of course later Panteleimon had trouble when he confessed to being a Christian, and so Maximian had him killed, making him a martyr.

Scholars of hagiography tell us that “his Acts are worthless,” meaning the story of Panteleimon’s life and miracles is completely unreliable, largely fiction. Of course we can recognize that for ourselves when we read in the account of his martyrdom that when he was beheaded, milk flowed from his neck and the olive tree to which he was tied bore fruit.

Nonetheless, his largely fictional story is probably based on a real martyrdom, because he has been venerated as a saint in the East since very early times.

Along with the other popular physician saints Kosmas and Damian, Panteleimon is known as an “unmercenary” physician because, it is said, he would heal people without charging for his services.

In old icons, we cannot always rely on titles to be precisely accurate. Most Russians of the time were illiterate, and painters sometimes made mistakes. One might find a saint given the wrong name, or a saint with the right name painted with the characteristics of a different saint. And of course there are lots of variations in spelling.

This icon of Panteleimon before the Emperor seems to have been given a title more appropriate to another scene in his life, as we shall see when we translate it:

As you see, it is a Vyaz (“linked”) inscription, condensed by pushing letters close together and by abbreviation.

For icon students just beginning to read inscriptions, once they have learned the Cyrillic alphabet in its Church Slavic form, the next problem they encounter is learning where one word ends and another begins — in short, separating an inscription into its component words. That is when a basic Church Slavic vocabulary comes in handy.

Let’s take a look at the inscription word by word. Here is the first:


We see these letters Ч Ю Д О

The left upright stroke of the letter Ю shares the same upright stroke as the first letter, Ч. Together they form the word ЧЮДО, a variant spelling of the word CHUDO, meaning “wonder, miracle.” Church Slavic does not have a definite article (“the”) so we have to supply that when translating. So to begin with, we have “The Miracle ….”

The second word is:

The letters are arranged like this:


It abbreviates the word СВЯТАГО (SVYATAGO), though the writer has arranged it rather oddly. SVYATAGO means “of the holy.”

So far we have “THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY….”

Next comes

This word, only slightly abbreviated, is ВЕЛИКОМУЧЕНИКА (VELIKOMUCHENIKA). VELIKO– means “Great” and MUCHENIKA is just the word MUCHENIK (“martyr”) with a grammatical -a ending. So VELIKOMUCHENIKA means “[of] the Great-Martyr.”

Our translation so far has given us “THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY GREAT-MARTYR….”

The next word is


ХРИСТОВА (KHRISTOVA). That is the “of” form (notice the -a ending) of the word KHRISTOS, “CHRIST.” Adding that to our translation, we now have:


And finally comes his name:


Though the writer has used an “O” as the second letter instead of the usual “A,” (such spelling variants are common in old icons) it is easy to see that this is the name PANTELEIMONA, again given the “of” ending -a. PANTELEIMON (from the Greek meaning “All-Merciful”) is one of the most popular Eastern Orthodox saints, because, as we have seen, in life he was said to be a physician and is believed by Eastern Orthodox to have great power to miraculously heal as a saint.

That gives us the complete main inscription:


All of those words are very basic Church Slavic icon vocabulary, which means you will see them repeated countless times in inscriptions, making them very easy to recognize and read. You probably noticed that we only translate some of the “-a” grammatical endings that mean “of.” That is because some of them merely reflect the first “of” in the sentence, a characteristic of Church Slavic. So in the sentence

CHUDO SVYATAGO VELIKOMUCHENIKA KHRISTOVA PANTELEIMONA, we translate SVYATAGO as “of the holy,” but the -a ending on VELIKOMUCHENIKA simply repeats that “of” sense without needing translation. But the -a in KHRISTOVA does need translation in English, while the -a on PANTELEIMONA is again merely a grammatical reflection of a previous “of,” so we leave it untranslated. One gets used to knowing which to translate and which to leave untranslated, and I am trying to make this very simple for beginning students, without using a lot of unnecessary grammatical terms.

Yet in spite of the main title at the top of this icon, the image does not show Panteleimon working a miracle. There is, however, another scene from his life in which he heals a paralyzed man in the presence of the Emperor, and it is likely the title to that scene that the painter has mistakenly added to this earlier scene in the life of the saint.

Let’s take a look at one more inscription, the title inscription written by the image of Panteleimon in the icon:


It might be a little difficult to see, so I will repeat it in modern Cyrillic:


After reading the first inscription, that one should be really easy. THE “ST” abbreviates SVYATUIY, the regular male form of “HOLY” (you saw the “of” form of the same word in SVYATAGO in the main inscription). The “V” abbreviates VELIKO, “GREAT,” as in the main inscription, and MU abbreviates MUCHENIK, “MARTYR,” as you already saw. PONTELEIMON’ is again this writer’s spelling of PANTELEIMON. So the saint’s inscription reads:

“HOLY GREAT MARTYR PANTELEIMON,” or as we would usually say in English with the added definite article, “THE HOLY GREAT MARTYR PANTELEIMON.”

You might wish to to know that in the West, Panteleimon is often known as Pantaleon.

By the way, I am endlessly amazed that the number of readers of my site keeps growing.