Today we will look at an icon primarily for its Vyaz inscription.  Learning to read these “condensed” inscriptions is very important  — in fact essential — for serious students of icons, but it is not difficult.

We can see that this icon is a kind of schematic image (without natural perspective) of a group of buildings within a wall, and we can see a few monks and clerics standing within it:

The small inscriptions in red identify the various buildings, but we need not bother with those.  Our interest today is in the large title inscription at the top, which identifies the image.

Here it is, in two parts due to its length:

It reads:



Let’s look at it word by word:

OBITEL‘:  An obitel’ is a cloister — a monastery.  Notice that the third vertical on the omega-like O is shortened, so that the Б (b) can be fitted in above it and above the shortened first vertical in the letter И (i).

S[VYA]TUIYA:  “Of the Holy.”  Note the omitted letters in the abbreviation, shown in brackets in the transliteration.  Also note the form of the final “ya” sound, made by a letter combining I and A — represented by Я in the modern Russian font.

ZHIVONACHALNUIYA –  “Life-initiating,” commonly translated as “Lifegiving”; the “of” form is used here — without abbreviation


TR[OI]TSUI:  “TRINITY”; again in the “of” form.  The Т is placed above the Р (R), and the first vertical on the Ц (ts) is greatley shortened to fit close to the first two letters.

PR[E]P[O]D[O]BNAGO:  “Venerable” — the loose English translation of the word meaning “most like,” and used as the title for monks.  Note the strong abbreviation.  Note also the transformation of the second vertical in the letter П (p) curving it out to make the Р (r) — thus getting two letters out of one.  Note also how the Д (d) is written above the word — here in the “of” form.

OTSA:  “FATHER” — meaning here a spiritual father.  Here it begins with another omega-form O.  There is another joined letter, made by shortening the second vertical in the Ц (ts) to make it also the lower vertical in the final letter A.  In the “of” form.

NASHEGO:   “OF US” — rendered as “our” in English.  By now you should be accustomed to seeing verticals shortened to fit other letters in.  The first three letters – НАШ (nash) are a very good exmaple of that.

IGUMENA:  “HEGUMEN” — a clerical title used for the head of a monastery, like an abbot in Catholicism.  the second vertical on the beginning letter И (i) is drastically shortened to make room for the Г (g) above it.  Note the form of the third letter — the “ou/oo” sound — found as У in the modern Russian font.  In the “of” form.

SERGIYA:   “SERGIY/SERGEI — in the “of” form.

RAD[ONEZHSKAGO]:  “OF RADONEZH.”  It is very common for only the beginning letters of a “place” title to be used, with the rest omitted in the abbreviation.

So we see the inscription identifies this icon as:


“The Monastery of the Holy Life-giving Trinity of Our Venerable Father Hegumen Sergiy/Sergei of Radonezh.”

It is the most noted monastery in Russia — even today.  And now you also know why there is a little icon of the “Old Testament Trinity” separating the two parts of the inscription.



(Prepare yourself; get cup of tea and a cookie or twenty, because this is mind-numbingly long)

In the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodoxy, there are five pre-Lent Sundays, followed by five Lent Sundays.  There is an iconographic image associated with each.

The pre-Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography are;

Here is a 14th century Serbian Fresco showing Jesus and his disciples at left, and at right Zaccheus up a tree.

Here is the title inscription:

It reads:

“Christ calls Zacchaeus out of the Sycamore.”

I have transliterated the Church Slavic inscription using a modern Russian font, but note that the original uses the old symbol for ot (meaning “out of,” “from”), which looks like a Greek omega with a small T atop it — in other words, a combination of o and t:

And in the word Sikomorie/Sycamore, it uses that same “omega” symbol — minus the T — for the letter o.

The story of the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus — a staple of Sunday School classes for little children — is found in Luke 19:1-10:

And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.

And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, who was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.

3 And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.

And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.

5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said to him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at your house.

And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.

And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.

And Zacchaeus stood, and said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.

And Jesus said to him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.

10 For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.


Here is another 14th century Serbian fresco, the image for this Sunday:

The title inscription, which is rather difficult to see in this illustration, reads:

“[The] Parable of [the] Publican and [the] Pharisee.”

If you are wondering what all those brackets are about, remember that Church Slavic — like Russian, has no definite or indefinite articles — no “the” or “a,” so we have to supply them for good English.

The  short words above the two figures are just abbreviations of “Pharisee” (Фарисей; the central figure at left) and “Publican” (Митар; the central figure at right).

Note that the icon is really divided into two halves, and we see two images of the Publican and two of the Pharisee.  At left the proud Pharisee is praying and thanking God that he is not like that miserable Publican, toward whom he gestures with his left hand.  Below him is the Publican, shown humbly striking his breast with both fists.

In the right half of the icon we see the Publican, represented as the righteous one of the two by the halo that is now given him.  Notice the ray of heavenly light extending to his head.  Below him is the Pharisee, skulking out of the Temple with no halo — a sign of his divine rejection because of his pride.

In the upper portion of the image, we see the long reddish cloth hanging from building to building.  This is the velum — the old standard symbol telling us the scene is taking place in an interior.  At the center of the image is the temple altar, shown in the form of an Orthodox Church altar.

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is found in Luke 18:10-14:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.

Perhaps you noted the similarity between the prayer of the Publican and the “Jesus Prayer” repeated over and over in Russian Orthodoxy:
Господи Иисусе Христе, Сыне Божий, помилуй мя, грешного.
Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Suine Bozhiy, pomiluy mya,greshnogo
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”


Ιcons of the Prodigal Son vary in their details and complexity.  Here is a modern page showing one Greek example:

The incriptions above the two figures in the foreground are:
Left:  ὁ άσωτος ὑιός — ho asotos huios — “the prodigal son”

In modern Greek, it is pronounced “o asotos eeos.”

Right: ὁ φιλόστοργος Πατήρ — ho philostorgos Pater — “the loving father”

At upper left the Prodigal Son is shown sitting depressed and hungry among the pigs, and at right we see him leaving the pigs and walking back to his home.

The rather lengthy and well-known story of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32.  I won’t repeat it here.

Note the signature in the lower right corner of the image.  It reads:

Χειρ φωτιου Κοντογλου
Κheir Photiou Kontoglou
“Hand [of] Photis Kontoglou”

If you are a long-time reader here (I keep saying that, don’t I!), you will not only be able to read that inscription on your own, but you will also recognize the name Photis Kontoglou (Φώτης Κόντογλου, 1895-1965).  He is noted for his 20th-century revival and adaptation of earlier iconographic styles and the creation of a new “retro” movement in modern Greek icon painting, which had a wide influence.


Another name for this day is “Meatfare Sunday,” because it is the last day on which believers can eat meat before Lent.

The icon for this Sunday is the Страшный суд Strashnuiy Sud — “Terrible Judgment” as the Russians call it, representing the judging of all the living and dead at the second coming of Jesus. Here is a 15th century example from Novgorod:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Here is the link to my previous discussion of this icon type:


The icon for this day (as you might have guessed from the heading) is the “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise”/Изгнание Адама и Евы из Рая/Izgnanie Adama i Evui iz Raya.  The tale is found in Genesis 3:22-24.

Here is a 17th century Russian example — a fresco from the portal of the Church of Nicholas Nadeina in Yaroslavl (in case you are wondering where the Nadeina comes from,  it derives from the name of the wealthy merchant who paid for its construction — Епифаний Свешников/Epiphaniy Sveshnikov, who was nicknamed  Надей/Nadey.  The church was so called to distinguish it from other St. Nicholas Churches in that city.

It depicts Adam and Eve exiting through the gate of Paradise, and an angel making sure they leave and do not return.  This image is often found in combination with other scenes relating to Adam and Eve.

The rather odd English name of this Sunday derives from the Church practice of making this the last day on which believers are allowed to eat dairy products such as cheese (as well as eggs) before the beginning of the Lenten fasting (they are already fasting from meat).    The Russian name for this day is Масленичная неделя/Maslenichnaya Nedelya — “Butter Sunday,” and the week before Lent is celebrated as МaсленицаMaslenitsa — from the Russian word for “butter” (масло/maslo).  Maslenitsa is a very old Slavic celebration dating to pre-Christian times, when it was the festival welcoming the sun and the beginning of spring.  The standard Russian food for Maslenitsa is блины/blinui/bliny — the little round thin pancakes made of flour, eggs, milk and butter or oil.  Their round shape represented the sun.

Another popular Russian name for this Sunday is Прощёное Воскресенье — Proshchonoe Voskresen’e — “Forgiveness Sunday.”

The Greeks call Cheesefare Sunday Κυριακή Της Τυροφάγου — Kyriake Tes Tyrophagou — “Sunday of Cheese-eating.”

Now we move onto the The Lent Sundays with their appropriate commemoration and iconography.  They are:


This celebrates the triumph in the year 843 c.e.  of those who favored the making and veneration of icons (the Iconophiles) over those who decried it as an unchristian survival of paganism (the Iconoclasts).  The main figures in the icon are the byzantine Empress Theodora, shown crowned at left, with her son Michael III.  In the center is the Hodegitria (“Way-shower”) icon.  To its right stand the Patriarch of Constantinople, Methodios, and Bishop Theodoros.

(British Museum)


As one might expect from the name, this Sunday commemorates Gregory Palamas (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς/Gregorios Palamas, c. 1296 – 1359).  Gregory was an Athonite monk and prominent defender of Hesychasm — the meditative practice in Eastern Orthodoxy — and its theology.  He later became Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and was glorified as a saint in 1368.  Here is a 15th century Greek icon of him:

(Pushkin Museum)

The inscription is rather worn, but still legible.  The top line is read from the left to right sides, and the remainder also from left to right.  Here is the left side:

At the top is the partly-obliterated Ὁ Άγιος/Ho Hagios/”The Holy,” followed by a word divided into two parts — Αρχιεπί-σκοπος/Arkhiepiskopos/”Archbishop.”

And here is the right:

At top is the name Γρηγόριος/Gregorios/”Gregory,” followed by two divided words.  The first is Θεσσαλονί-κης/Thessalonikes/”of-Thessaloniki, and the second is  Ὁ Παλα-μάς/Ho Palamas/”the Palamas.”

If we put them together as they are meant to be read, we get:
Άγιος Γρηγόριος Αρχιεπίσκοπος Θεσσαλονίκης Ὁ Παλαμάς
Ho Hagios Gregorios Arkhiepiskopos Thessalonikes Ho Palamas
“The Holy Gregory, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, (the) Palamas”

It may seem peculiar that there is a major Sunday commemoration just for Gregory; the thinking behind it is that the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the Iconophiles over the Iconoclasts (considered “heretics” in Eastern Orthodoxy), and Gregory’s triumph over those opposing the practice of Hesychasm similarly was another victory of what came to be considered Orthodoxy over opposing doctrines.


There are two icons generally associated with this day.  The first is the same as that for the Major church feast called the “Elevation of the Cross.”  Here is a 19th century Russian example:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

The Inscription at the top reads:
“Elevation of the Honorable Cross of the Lord.”

The icon depicts the raising of the cross on which Jesus was crucified for the veneration of the people of Jerusalem.  St. Helena — mother of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized and supported Christianity in the Roman Empire — according to legend discovered the cross of Jesus buried in Jerusalem in 326 c.e.  In the icon Helena stands at left, and on the left side of the cross is Bishop Makariy/Makarios/Macarius of Jerusalem, and on the other side another bishop.

The second icon associated with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross is the type generally called simply ПОКЛОНЕНИЕ КРЕСТА — POKLONENIE KRESTA — “Veneration of the Cross.”  Here is a 12th century Russian example.

(Tretyakov Gallery)

It depicts the empty cross ornamented with a wreath, standing on Golgotha with the skull of Adam visible within the hill.  At left is the sun, and at right the moon.  The Archangel Michael is at left, holding the spear of the crucifixion, and at right is the Archangel Gabriel, holding the sponge on a reed.  In the sky above are six-winged cherubim at the sides, and at each side of the upper bar of the cross are seraphim bearing ripida — the ceremonial fans used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.

The liturgical phrase associated with the Veneration of the Cross (and found on countless Crucifixion icons) is:



“We bow before your cross, Master, and praise your holy resurrection.”


This day commemorates the 6th-7th century monk and writer Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος/Ioannes tes Klimakos/John of the Ladder.  The Russians call him Иоанн Лествичник/ Ioann Lestvichnik/John the Ladder-guy.  He is discussed — along with the icon of the “Ladder of John Klimakos” — in this previous posting:

This commemoration celebrates the effort and virtue needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here is a 13th century icon of John Klimakos from the St. Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, where he was abbot:

The title inscription is easy; it reads:

Ὁ ἉγιοςἸωάννης ὁ τῆς Κλίμακος
Ho Hagios Ioannes ho tes Klimakos
“The Holy John the [one of the] Ladder”


Mary of Egypt is one of the most common figures in Russian icons.  Traditionally, she was a desert ascetic living in the wilds in the region of the Jordan River.  She and her iconography are discussed in this previous posting:

This commemoration calls to mind the importance of repentance (Mary was once a raging nymphomaniac).

Here is a Russian icon of her:

Here is the title inscription:

It reads simply:
“Holy Venerable Mary of Egypt.”

If you managed to get through this posting, you are either a very serious student of icons, or you have nothing else at all to do.  I hope it is the former, but I have my suspicions.



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 link to a Russian calligraphy video, showing Slavic letters being written:

Here is another, showing the manner in which letters 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, при­­ближибося 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, through 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, his means of coming from heaven to earth.

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 — Euangelist 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 Znamenie — “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 the Archangels instead of the angels of weather and apocalypse.

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 as mentioned earlier, the Greek depictions of the type are quite different from the Russian.  The Greeks call their version  Ἡ Βάτος η Φλεγομένη — He Vatos he Phlegoumeni — “The Bush [the] Burning,” or simply Ἡ 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.