There is a group of similar icon types utilizing figures set in the framework of a tree or vine or twining foliage, or else the same transformed into a geometric knot.  Yet all are different types, and one must learn not to confuse them.

The first type is called in Greek  Η Ριζα Του Ιεσσαι — He Riza Tou Iessai — “The Root of Jesse.”  It is based on Isaiah 11:1, regarded by Eastern Orthodox as a prediction of the birth of Jesus:

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 relates to the icon in that Jesse (father of King David) is the biblical ancestor of Jesus, and the type depicts a tree growing out of Jesse with other forefathers of Jesus (like a genealogical family tree) depicted in the branches.  And of course the focus of the tree is Jesus.  He is sometimes shown in maturity, sometimes as a child with his mother Mary.  You may recall the basic tree growing out of Jesse as a secondary image in some examples of the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary.

Here is a Russian example of the elaborate type, known as Древо Иессеево — Drevo Iesseevo — “The Tree of Jesse.” The second type in this category is called Άνωθεν οι Προφήτες –“On High the Prophets” in Greek.  It is taken from a Marian hymn by Ioannes Koukouzelis, chanted during Orthros at the vesting of the Bishop:

”Άνωθεν οι Προφήται σε προκατήγγειλαν.Στάμνον,ράβδον,πλάκα,κιβω­τόν,λυχνίαν, τράπεζαν.Όρος αλατόμητον,χρυσούν θυμιατήριον,πύλην αδιόδευτον και θρόνον Του Βασιλέως προκατήγγειλαν οι Προφήται.Σε προκατήγγειλαν άνωθεν οι Προφήται.”

“Of old [lit. ‘On high’], the prophets earlier proclaimed you, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, the Tablet, the Lampstand, the Ark, the Table, the Mountain Unhewn, the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible, and the Throne of the King. you did the Prophets proclaim of old.”

The painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna describes it as having “The Holy Virgin, seated on a throne and carrying the infant Christ…all around the prophets are arranged.”  The Patriarch Jacob holds his ladder, Moses has a bush, Aaron a budding staff, Gideon a fleece, David a shrine, Solomon a bed (or temple), Isaiah a spoon (or tongs), Jeremiah an image of the Virgin, Ezekiel a door, Daniel a mountain, Habbakuk a shady mountain, Zechariah a seven-branched lamp,

The Russian equivalent of the “Prophets from On High” type is a variable image generally called Похвала Пресвятыя Богородицы  Pokhvala Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Praise of the Most Holy Mother of God.”  Here is an example:

Τhe third type is called Η ΑΜΠΕΛΟC — He Ampelos  in Greek — “The Vine.” (Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens) It depicts Jesus sitting near the top of a many-branched grape vine, and around him in the branches are Twelve Apostles.     It takes its name from John 15:5, and in fact that is the text generally shown in the open Gospels held by Jesus in examples of this type:

Εγω ειμι η αμπελος υμεις τα κληματα ο μενων εν εμοι καγω εν αυτω ουτος φερει καρπον πολυν οτι χωρις εμου ου δυνασθε ποιειν ουδεν

I am the vine, you the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.”

And finally we have the rather uncommon Russian icon type favored by Old Believers, Союз любви  — Soiuz Liubvi — the  “Union of Love.” It depicts Jesus in the center (or sometimes the Crucifixion, sometimes a simple Deisis), of a diamond shape formed by part of a complex knot, with twelve Apostles in the other segments of it.  In the four segments outside the diamond, the Four Evangelists are depicted in symbolic form:  Matthew as a winged man, Mark as an eagle, John as a winged lion, and Luke as a winged ox.  The type also relates to John 15 (see the end of this posting).  While some versions use the knot as the framework, other examples replace it with twining vegetation.

The name is found in the Ode 5. Irmos from Great Thursday, the Footwashing Ceremony:

Союзом любве связуеми апостоли Владычествующему всеми себе Христу возложше красны ноги очищаху благовествующе мир/

United with the bonds of love, the Apostles offered themselves to Christ the Master of all things; when their beautiful feet had been washed clean they bring good tidings of peace to all.’

This does not begin to exhaust icon types featuring trees or vines, but these are the main types that utilize multiple figures in a tree, vine, or geometric configuration.  A simpler vine-related type is the Eucharistic icon popular in Romania and called Iisus Hristos – Viţa-de-vie — “Jesus Christ the Grapevine,” also known as the “Mystic Winepress,” but I will save that for another day and another discussion.

To finish, here is the greater part of the relevant text from the Gospel attributed to John that forms the basis for such types as “The Vine” and “The Union of Love.”

15 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.

9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.

10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.

11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.

17 These things I command you, that ye love one another.


There is a group of variable icons with variable titles, all related, more or less, by subject matter or title.  The name varies depending on which elements are included or emphasized.

There are, for example, icons called (with some variation) Церковь Христова —Tserkov’ Khristova — “The Church of Christ,” but they may also be called Апостольская проповедь — Apostol’skaya Propoved’ — “The Apostolic Preaching.” (or “Preaching of the Apostles).  Here is an example:

It is easy to recognize Jesus in the center.  The segments of the “pie” surrounding Jesus show both scenes from the preaching of each apostle (in the outer portion) and the “suffering” or martyrdom or death of each apostle in the inner portion.  The scenes outside the “pie” circle vary from image to image.  In this example we see an elaborate Deisis centered on the New Testament Trinity at the top, with the Crucifixion of Jesus below it, and a gathering of clerics at the base of the icon.

One also finds icons that omit the scenes of the Apostles preaching, showing only their deaths.  The title for such icons is usually some variation on “Image of the Suffering (Страдание —Stradanie) of the Holy Apostles.”  Here is an example:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Here the central figure of the standing Christ in the “Apostolic Preaching” is replaced by the Crucifixion of Jesus (a secondary image in the first example), and the deaths of the Apostles are shown in circles around the periphery, instead of in the “pie” form one sometimes finds.

Now we have seen that the “Apostolic Preaching” type can shade off into a “Suffering of the Apostles” type simply by removing the “preaching” images, leaving only the “death” scenes.  But we have also seen that an alternate title for the “Apostolic Preaching” type is “The Church of Christ.”  That leads us to a quite different icon type that also represents the Church, and also involves persecution (whether real or imaginary).  Here is an example:

Tretyakov Gallery

Tretyakov Gallery

In Russia, such a type is generally loosely called Корабль Веры — Korabl’ Verui — “The Ship of Faith,” The example shown bears the title inscription  Образ Гонения на Церковь Божию — Obraz Goneniya na Tserkov’ Bozhiiu — “Image of the Persecution of the Church of God.”

Here is a later variation on the same type in print form, with an inscription in both in Greek and Slavic identifying it as the “Mystic Image of Our Holy Church,” and saying that though attacked by torturers and heretics, it is not overcome.

At the head of the ship is Jesus, and with him are Mary, the Apostles, and “Holy Fathers.”   The Holy Spirit as a dove is shown in a cloud above the mast. The ship bears the title “He Hagia Orthodoxos Ekklesia” in Greek, Svyataya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov’ in Slavic  — “The Holy Orthodox Church.”  The attackers on shore are such figures as the Antichrist, a dragon called the New Age, the Roman Emperor Julian “The Apostate,” the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the Pope of Rome, etc.

None of these types are common, but nonetheless a student of icons should be able to recognize them.




Kiyev in the modern Ukraine was the center of the old Kievan state of Rus, and a focal point for the promulgation of Eastern Orthodoxy in medieval times.  Kiyev (Kiev) was also the site of a major monastic community founded in the 11th century,  the Monastery of the Caves, the Pecherskaya Lavra. It was a center of both piety and fanaticism, and a number of its inhabitants were later declared to be saints.

The two most noted figures associated with the Pecherskaya Lavra are the monks Antoniy and Feodosiy.  Antoniy, born in Chernigov, went to Mt. Athos in Greece and became a monk there.  He was sent back to Kievan Rus to help in the conversion of its people to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Instead of joining any of the existing Greek monasteries, he instead decided to live in a cave dug in the side of a hill.  There he became noted for his ascetic lifestyle, and others joined him, among them Feodosiy, who had come from his home in Kursk.   As the community grew, Antoniy moved to a new cave not not far away, while Feodosiy remained in the old location.  In both locations, the number of monks increased, living in the so-called coenobitic manner. Today’s icon had its origin in the Kievan Pecherskaya Lavra.    It is called the Pecherskaya-Svenskaya:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

(Tretyakov Gallery)

The origin story of the icon relates that it was painted by St. Antoniy, who is said to have learned icon painting from Byzantine artists working in the church at Kiyev.

In it we see Mary enthroned and holding her son at center.  At left is St. Antoniy (Anthony) and at right St. Feodosiy (Theodosios)  Each holds a scroll.   The scroll of Antoniy often reads:

Молю убо вы, чада, держимся воздержания и не ленимся. Имамы в сем Господа помощника
Moliu ubo vui, chada, dershimsya vozderzhaniya i ne lenimsya.  Imamui v sem Gospoda pomoshchnika
“I pray you therefore, children, hold to abstinence and do not be lazy, you shall have in all the help of the Lord.”

The scroll of Feodosiy often begins:

Владыко Господи Боже Вседержителю, tворче всея твари видимых и невидимых,…
Vladuiko Gospodi Bozhe Vsederzhiteliu, tvorche vseya tvari vidimuikh i nevidimuikh…
“Ruler Lord God Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible —

Be aware, however, that other inscriptions are sometimes used on the scrolls of the two saints in the Svenskaya type.

Now, to confuse matters, there is another “Pecherskaya” icon type that also shows Antoniy and Feodosiy, but in this case the two saints are kneeling before the enthroned Mary and Jesus, one saint on each side, usually holding prayer ropes instead of scrolls.

If you have been reading this site carefully (you have, haven’t you?), then you should be able to read the title of the icon, and you should be able to tell whether it is an Old Believer or a State Church icon.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The title of the image is: ПЕЧЕРСКИЯ ПРЕС[ВЯ]ТЫЯ Б[ОГОРО]ДИЦЫ — Pecherskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui, “[The] Pecherskiya Most Holy Mother of God.”  The title is usually given in its Russian form, Pecherskaya, in icon books and other literature.

So there are two major variants of the Pecherskaya type:

  1. In the “standing” type — the Pecherskaya ‘Svenskaya’ type — (also called Свенская-Печерская — Svenskaya-Pecherskaya and Kievo-Pecherskaya)  Antoniy and Feodosiy stand, holding scrolls, at each side of Mary, who is seated on a throne, the Christ Child on her lap  Mary’s hands are on her child. Some examples add two angels (though they more properly belong to the second type), some do not.
  2. In the regular Pecherskaya type, Antoniy and Feodosiy kneel at the sides of the enthroned Mary with her child, usually holding prayer ropes, and two attending angels often stand at the sides of Mary enthroned, though sometimes the angels are omitted.  In this type the hands of Mary rest on the shoulders of Antoniy and Feodosiy.

The “kneeling” type of Pecherskaya icon was very popular in the Ukraine, and there it is often found painted in the folk manner.  In the example shown here, it is of course painted in the Westernized manner, and therefore would be a State Church and not an Old Believer icon.

Please be aware that it is common to find these two icon types confused, with some mistakenly calling the “kneeling” Pecherskaya icon type the “Svenskaya-Pecherskaya.”  The confusion arises because both have the same saints, Antoniy and Feodosiy, both have Mary seated with her child, and both have the “Pecherskaya” name, though the added word “Svenskaya” properly qualifies and distinguishes the “standing” type.

The student of icons should also be aware that there are some icons — far less common — that combine the basic image of either of the two types listed above with two or more additional saints; in such versions, Antoniy and Feodosiy may either stand holding scrolls or kneel with prayer ropes.  Because of the additional saints from the Pecherskaya Lavra pictured with them, such an icon is generally referred to as the “Pecherskaya with Kievo-Pecherskaya Wonderworkers,”

Now perhaps you are left wondering, as one reader did, why the first type is called not just “Pecherskaya,” but also “Svenskaya.”  Where did the “Svensk-” part come from?

Well, the traditional story told about this icon tells us.  It is said that Prince Roman Mikhailovich of Chernigov lost his sight. He had heard of miracles done by the icon of Mary at the Pecherskaya Lavra, so he sent a messenger to ask that the icon might be brought to him in Bryansk, in hope of a cure. The Archimandrite of the Lavra sent the icon, in care of a priest, who travelled on the Desna River. During the journey, the boat carrying the icon stopped suddenly. Those traveling in the boat decided to then spend the night on the Svin River, and the boat began moving again. So they went on shore and stayed for the night on the Svin River, which means “Swine River,” a few miles from Bryansk. When morning came they went to the boat to pray before the icon, but it was gone. The searched for it, and climbed a nearby mountain. There they found the icon in the branches of an oak tree (you will recall that this “icon in a tree motif” is found in other such origin stories.

This was seen as a miracle, and when Prince Roman Mikhailovich was notified that the icon had stopped there, he travelled to the place where the icon was found in the tree.

Prince Roman prayed before the icon and his eyes began to be healed, so the tale goes, but only partly; so he prayed again, and his vision was said to have gotten better. So a prayer service was held before the icon. Then the Prince had the trees in that place cut down, and used them to build a church in honor of the Dormition of Mary. The oak in which the icon was found was cut down also, and from its boards other icons were made for the church, as well as other church objects.  Eventually a monastery was built there.  The icon is said to have been kept at this monastery since 1288.

But what about the “Svenskaya” name of the icon?  Well, as we have seen, the icon was said to have gone of its own volition to an oak tree on a hill above the Svin River, and a monastery was  later erected there too.  You will recall that icons deciding themselves where they will be and going there of their own volition is also a common motif in these old stories.

Now they could hardly call the monastery  built on the site the “Monastery of Swine,” after the name of the Svin River, nor could they call the icon that manifested its will there the “Most Holy Mother of God of Swine,” so they did a euphemistic change to the name, calling it “Svenskaya” instead of “Svinskaya,” — “…of Svensk” instead of “…of Swine.”

So that is the story. The “Svenskaya” name comes from the Svin River.  And that is the second name of the “standing” Pecherskaya type as well as the name of the Svenskaya Monastery built there.







It is almost too ridiculous to mention, but some Internet sites actually use this image, from the Serbian Vysoki Decani Monastery, as “proof” of early visitations by aliens from space.  They tell the gullible that the two odd figures at far upper left and right are “flying saucers” piloted by space men, with one following the other across the sky.

Anyone who knows the basics of Eastern Orthodox iconography, however, should recognize that those two images are just stylized representations of the sun (at left) and the moon (at right).

The sun and moon have long been common additions to icons of the Crucifixion, and this is very obviously a Crucifixion icon.

At left is the sun, which is commonly personified by placing a face within it, or sometimes, as here, the body as well.  You can see that aside from the rays emanating at left, the image of the sun has a round shape.

Here is the moon, with another little figure within to personify it.  It has the shape of the crescent moon.  Two stars are added to show the connection with night.

If we look at this 12th century Novgorod icon, we see the same personification of sun (left) and moon (right), this time with just the faces showing.  And beside them, in Church Slavic, is written “Sun” and “Moon.”  Identifying them by title is very common in Crucifixion icons.

The Vysoki Decani Crucifixion follows the biblical accounts,  but the Novgorod example is more an icon of veneration of the cross, which is shown empty.  Above it are seen Cherubim at far left and right, and closer to the top crosspiece are two Seraphim holding ripida, the ceremonial fans used in the liturgy.

At left, identified by inscription, is the Archangel Mikhail (Michael) and at right the Archangel Gavriil (Gabriel).  Michael holds the spear of the Crucifixion, and Gabriel holds the reed with a sponge atop it.


In the opening in the hillock just below the cross (which is decorated with a simple wreath of victory), is a skull — by tradition the skull of Adam, who was supposedly buried at the precise spot where the Crucifixion later took place.  Eastern Orthodoxy is filled with such mythic traditions, theologically symbolic rather than actual history, though many “believers” took them quite literally, and some still do.

So now you know.  Those are not flying saucers manned by aliens, just elements common in medieval to modern icons of the Crucifixion — simply the sun and moon.  They are taken from the Gospel called Matthew, chapter 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:

Also Luke 23:44-45:

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.
And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

And it derives also from the following, which account for why in many icons of the Crucifixion, the sun is painted in a dark color such as blue, and the moon is painted red:

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

Acts 2:20:
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come:

Revelation 6:12:
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

Sun and moon are thus present in icons of the Crucifixion to signify that it is an event of cosmic importance.

But no flying saucers.




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.


Today we will take another look at the letters of the Church Slavic alphabet, which one MUST know to read icon inscriptions from Russia and other Slavic countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, etc.

I will repeat that it is VERY IMPORTANT not to confuse Church Slavic, which is also called Church Slavonic, with OLD Church Slavonic.  OLD Church Slavonic is an earlier and somewhat different form of the language.  But to read Russian and other Slavic icons, we want CHURCH SLAVIC/SLAVONIC, not OLD Church Slavonic, which will just confuse you.  I emphasize this because some readers here have already had problems from mixing the two.

So here is the CHURCH SLAVIC alphabet — the one we use for reading Russian icons.  Do not be intimidated by it.  It is actually easy to learn.  Just remember that for reading icon inscriptions, all you need to remember is the letters and their sounds.  All the little “rules” at the end are just for your information, and you need not bother with them unless you want to learn to write Church Slavic calligraphy.

(Courtesy of Matthew Bielawa’s Halga: Genealogy of Halychyna/Eastern Galicia site:

Now for some notes and clarifications on that:

If you are using Church Slavic as pronounced in Russia, then the letter Г sounds like hard “g” in English “go.”


There are two forms of the “z” letter (as in English “zoo”); the first form is used for some words, but the second is the most commonly used.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the second form is used for both (З).

There are two forms of the “i” letter, pronounced like “ee” in English “see”; the first is used before consonants, the second is written before vowels, as well as used before consonants in words derived from Greek.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (И ).

There are two forms of the “o” letter, pronounced like “o” in English “so.”  The first is used at the beginning and middle of words.  The second, which looks like Greek omega, is used to begin a prefix, and used in some words derived from Greek, as well as in other grammatical situations (not important to remember for reading).  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (O)

There are two forms of the “ou” letter, pronounced like “oo” in English “moon.”  The first is used to begin words, the second is used within or at the end of words.  The second form is just the o and y of the first form combined.  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the form У is used for both.

There are two forms of the “ya” letter, pronounced like “ya” in English “yard.”  With few exceptions, the first is used to begin a word, and the second is used within or at the end of a word.  As you can see, the first is an i followed by an a; the second is rather like an Roman A, but with the added i placed just below the crossbar.  An easy way to remember it is to think of it as “ia,” pronounced “ya.”  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Я form is used for both.

There are two forms of the “f” letter, pronounced like “f” in English “for.”  The first is the usual form, derived from the Greek letter phi.  The second is used for words derived from Greek (etc.), and is actually the Greek letter theta, but in Slavic it is pronounced “f” instead of “th.”  When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Ф form is used for both.

Finally there is this letter.  It is pronounced “v” as in English “vat” when used after “a” or “e.”  But elsewhere it is pronounced “ee” as in “see,” primarily in words derived from Greek, etc.  When written in modern Russian, the form  И is used.

For reading, you do not have to remember all the little details of where one or the other form is used.  You just have to remember its sound, so you can transliterate it.  Of course if you want to write calligraphic  VYAZ’, the linked form of Church Slavic letters, then you will want to keep these little rules in mind.

PLEASE REMEMBER that the writers of many icon inscriptions did not follow the standard placement rules for using these letters.  They often just went with the phonetic sound of a letter and their personal whims.  And of course one finds words misspelled.

Just for completeness, you may wish to know what those little accent marks are that one sees above words in Church Slavic inscriptions.  You do not need to know them to read, but if you want to pronounce Church Slavic correctly, they are helpful.  The marks are:

´  The acute accent, which leans to the right; it is placed over a vowel at the beginning or middle of a word.  It often indicates the emphasized syllable.

`  The grave accent (pronounced “grav” to rhyme with “slav”) leans to the left; it is placed over a vowel at the end of a word.

ˆ  The circumflex accent, which looks like a little half moon when written.  It is placed above a vowel to distinguish dual and plural nouns from an identical singular form of the noun

Further, there is a mark that looks like a circumflex accent facing left.  It is used over a vowel that begins a word, and is sometimes followed on the same letter by an acute or grave accent.  All of this will mean little to you if you just want to read Church Slavic (except for the dual/plural-singular distinction), but for those who just want to learn to read enough Slavic to read common icon inscriptions, you can safely ignore this accent information unless you want to impress (or more likely bore) your friends.

You already know that an abbreviation in Church Slavic is indicated by a horizontal, curved line that looks a little like the Spanish tilda (~), written above the abbreviated word.

Let’s take a look at a Church Slavic prayer to see alphabet and accents in use:

Here it is transliterated and rather literally translated:

Ts[a]riu n[e]b[e]snuiy, outyeshiteliu, d[u]she istinui,
O-Tsar      heavenly,      comforter,     spirit     of-truth
izhe vezdye suiy i vsya ispolnyayaiy,
who everywhere are and all fill,
sokrovishche bl[a’gikh’ i zhizni podateliu,
treasury      of-blessings and of-life giver,
priidi i vselisya v’ nui
come and abide in us
i ochisti nuiy ot vsyakiya skvernui,
and cleanse us from every impurity
I spasi, bl[a]zhe, dushui nasha 
and save, Good-one, souls of-us

In better English:

“O heavenly Tsar, comforter, spirit of truth, who are everywhere and fill all, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save, Good One, our souls.”

You can see that in the word Ts[a]riu (O Tsar) has an abbreviation mark above it.  Such a mark is called a titlo (plural titla).  It is rather angular here:

Above the word nebesnuiy we also see a an abbreviation mark, a titlo, but it is more curved than angular here.  A little letter c (“s” in English) is written under its curve, to show it is inserted into the word below.  And as you see from my transliteration, the reader must supply the two missing e letters:

Note also the И letter at the end of nebesnuiy.  I customarily transliterate it as “iy” or “y” when it has the little half moon facing upward accent above it.

And the second to last letter in nebesnuiy I customarily transliterate as “ui” (others often use “y”).  It is like an “ee” sound, but not quite; it is more like the sound in the English word “me” when pronounced with an American southern accent, like a quickly spoken muh-ee, with the first “uh” as in “push” gliding swiftly into the stronger “ee.”

Remember, as mentioned previously, that there there is a letter combining the “o” and “t” sounds, and is pronounced “ot” as in English “note.”  It means “of” or “from,” and you will see it often in icon inscriptions:

You will also want to be aware of the letter pronounced “ye” as in English “yea” (rhymes with “say”).  In modern Russian Cyrillic it is not distinguished in form from an ordinary е:

Finally, remember that the “oo” sound is written somewhat like a “v” or “u” atop an “o.”  It combines the letters o and u, as in the word dushui (“souls”):

Please note the two letters that do not really indicate sounds.  They are Ь and Ъ .

Ь just indicates that the previous letter is “soft,” that is, you pronounce it with an added little “ye” sound that is just hinted at, not fully spoken.  And Ъ just means the previous consonant does not have that added litte “ye” sound.  The technical terms for these effects are “palatized” or “soft” for the first and “non-palatized” or “hard” for the second.  I often omit them in simple transliteration here, but they can indicate a difference in meaning, so more fully,  Ь is transliterated as ‘  and Ъ as “.


Thanks again to Matthew Bielawa for kindly letting me borrow from his genealogy site.




The Rila Monastery is the most noted monastic center in Bulgaria.  It burned in 1833, but was then rebuilt between 1834 and 1862.  Its delightfully colorful frescos were completed in 1846.

Here is an interesting example: The inscription (you should be able to read the first three words if you have been following this blog) says, “Holy Archangel Michael Torments the Soul of the Rich Man.” On the image the spelling varies slightly, but we can read it as  С. Архангел Михаил мучит душу богатого — Svyatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail muchit dushu bogatogo.

Michael looks rather glorious in his flowing pastel garments.  But that he is in this scene at all is a bit odd, and it becomes even stranger when we take a look at an earlier painting (c. 1630s) by the Italian Catholic artist Guido Reni:

The main image of Michael in the Bulgarian fresco is obviously ultimately  derived from the earlier image by Reni.  Michael has been given some slight “Orthodox” touches and is simplified in painting technique, but it is the same form overall.

The Reni painting is loosely based on Revelation 12: 7-9 etc.:

7 “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

But in the Rila fresco, the fallen Satan and the Revelation reference is gone, and in their place is the dying Rich Man of the parable in Luke 12: 16:

And he [Jesus]  spoke a parable to them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room in which to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said to him, You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?

21 So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Where in Reni’s painting, Michael holds chains in his right hand, in the Rila fresco they are replaced by the little soul of the Rich Man, a half-naked figure clothed only in a loincloth. Michael holds the little soul by its hair.  And though Reni’s Michael has bare legs, the Rila example gives him rosy leggings, called ноговицы — nogovitsui in Russia.

And of course the entire background is different:  gone are the rocks and flames of the Reni painting, replaced by buildings and the Rich Man’s mourners and demons, one of whom holds a bag of money in one hand and a little scroll in the other, with the text “You are mine, O covetous one.”

An engraving mixing the Reni image of Michael with elements found in the Rila fresco was published in Venice in 1811.  Such engravings were a common means by which Western European religious art was transmitted to the Orthodox countries of the East, to Russia, the Balkans, and Greece.

There were also engravings of the subject from Mt. Athos as early as 1807, with an inscription linking the image to the parable of the Rich Man.  One such copper engraving, from 1858, was printed at the Monastery of Simonopetra on Mt. Athos in Greece:


Now you might think this borrowing of Western European Roman Catholic and Protestant religious imagery into Eastern Orthodox iconography might be very rare, if you are one of those with the delusion of a “pure” Eastern orthodox art.  But it was not.  In Russia and other “Orthodox” countries, and even on Mt. Athos, Western European designs were sometimes used as patterns for icons and frescos.

But now to the matter of how the Archangel Michael, who is not mentioned in the parable of the Rich Man as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, happened to end up in icons and frescos of that parable.

In Orthodox iconography, Michael came to be not only the leader of the heavenly armies, but also the one weighing souls at the Last Judgment, holding the scales that balance a man’s good deeds against the bad.  This latter concept was extended to the “weighing” of the deeds of a man at death, when the soul left the body.  So while in some iconography from the 16th to 19th century, Michael is shown in his armor and with his sword as he stands on the body of the dead man and “weighs” his deeds to determine the fate of the soul, this image also became transferred, in the early 19th century, to images based on the parable of the Rich Man, and that is the version we see in the Rila fresco, though in the Rila example the scales of the earlier form are gone.

In any case, images of Michael either standing on a “generic” dead figure or on the more specific body of the Rich Man were sometimes used on side doors of the iconostasis, primarily in the Balkans.

The theme also relates to Russian icons depicting the “Righteous Man and the Sinful Man,” showing the life and fate at death of a pious man as compared to that of his sinful counterpart.  The “death” portion is depicted in this Russian lubok, circa 1800.  At left is the death of the “Rightous Man.”  At right is the death of the “Sinful Man,” which one may compare with the type of The Archangel Michael tormenting the Rich Man.