Here is a 17th century Russian icon:

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Its gold inscription at the top is worn and faint, which often happens with gold inscriptions, because they are easily worn away over time.  Nonetheless this is a Sretenie (Сретение ) icon, but not the icon type we usually find under that name.  We are already familiar with the word Sretenie — meaning “Meeting.”  We have seen it used to describe the many icons of the “Meeting” of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple by the aged Simeon and the Prophetess Anna.  That is its most common use in icons.

However the icon we are examining today is a different Sretenie — a different meeting.  This one is the “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon.”  The earliest-known existing examples of this type date to the 16th century.

The story associated with it is this:

In the year 1395, the Mongol invader Tamerlane (Timur) and his armies were approaching Moscow.  The people were terrified, certain that he intended to loot and pillage the city.  The Great Prince of Moscow at that time — Vasiliy I Dmitrievich — sent urgently to the city of Vladimir, asking that the supposedly miracle-working icon of the Vladimir Mother of God be brought to Moscow to protect the city.

Now you will remember that since Byzantine times — in a tradition going back even to the pre-Christian world — there were images believed to have the power to protect cities.  Such an image is called a palladium.  In Russian Orthodoxy, the Vladimir icon was such a palladium icon.

The stories relate that at the request of Vasiliy, the Vladimir palladium was sent on its way to Moscow.  It is said that it took ten days for the icon to make the journey, and along the road people fell to their knees, praying “Матерь Божия, спаси землю русскую” — Mater Bozhiya, spasi zemliu russkuiu — “Mother of God, save the Russian land.” When it reached Moscow, all the people of the city came out to greet it.

The legend says that at the time when the icon was met in Moscow, Tamerlane was asleep and dreaming in his tent.  He dreamed he saw a high mountain, and descending saints with golden wands.  In the air above it was a brilliantly-shining woman, surrounded by sword-bearing angels.  When he woke and consulted his advisors, they told him it was not wise to continue, because the woman was God’s Mother, intercessor for the Russians.

Tamerlane did turn his forces back, and Moscow was not invaded.  Historians say that Tamerlane had his own reasons for not going farther.  The people of Moscow, however, attributed his withdrawal to the icon, which only increased the esteem in which it was held.  A monastery called the Sretenskiy Monastery (after Sretenie) was eventually built on the site where the “meeting” of the Vladimir icon is said to have taken place.

Remember that in Russian tradition, icons of Mary were treated as though they were living persons.  So that is what we see in today’s icon — the formal meeting and greeting of the icon.  We see the Patriarch of Moscow Kiprian with his omophorion (bishop’s stole) and bishop’s crown standing to the right of the image, and beside him is Great Prince Vasiliy I Dmitrievich.

If we look more closely at the depiction of the Vladimir icon, we can see the ornamental cloth — the veil called a pelena (пелена) hanging below it.  In Greek it is called a podea (ποδέα).  This one is decorated with a “Golgotha Cross,” (Голгофский Крест/Golgofskiy Krest) which is one of the most common decorations used on such a cloth.  The Golgotha Cross — which is found on many Russian Orthodox religious objects — depicts the cross standing on a hill, with the spear and sponge on a reed at the sides, and the skull of Adam below.

Here is a typical Golgotha Cross:

You will find all the abbreviations explained in my earlier postings on Russian crosses, found in the site archive.

If we look at the “hills and palaces” — the stylized mountains and buildings in this icon, they exhibit well the typical style of painting used in 17th century Russian iconography:


The “Meeting of the Vladimir Icon” is celebrated annually in Russian Orthodoxy on August 26th.

Now interestingly, there is another but seldom-seen icon type relating to Tamerlane called the Eletskaya-Argamachenskaya (Елецкая Аргамаченская). When Tamerlane came into the region near Moscow, he took the city of Elets (pronounced Yelets), some 221 miles from Moscow.  You will recall the legend that Tamerlane had a dream of a shining woman and angels, and that prevented him from going to invade Moscow.  A similar tale — apparently just based on the first — developed to explain why Timur left Elets.

It is said that on August 26th, 1395, Timur was camped and sleeping on Argamach Mountain.  Mary appeared to him in a dream, in very much the same manner as that told about the supposed deliverance of Moscow from invasion.  This icon type was first painted in 1735.  Here is an example:

We see Mary appearing in the clouds, surrounded by an army of angels.  At lower right are the tents in the camp of Timur.

This icon type should not be confused with the more common Eletskaya type — the Eletskaya Chernigovskaya — that is said to have “appeared” in 1060.



As you know, people often write to me asking for help with the identification of icons.  One such recent request involved this image:

(Bequest of Edith Waetjen)

It is a late Russian icon, and if you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the subject as  Svyatuiy Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker — that is, St. Nicholas of Myra, who was believed to be a miracle worker.  Nicholas was extremely popular in Russia, and countless icons of this type were painted.  In this example we see the usual elements — the circle enclosing Jesus at left, giving Nicholas his Gospel book, and that of Mary at right, bestowing the bishop’s stole (omophorion) on Nicholas.

I particularly want to take a look at the Church Slavic text held by Nicholas, because it is the most common text used on his icons.  As students of icons you should learn to recognize it, because it will enable you to translate a great many icons of Nikolai/Nicholas.   Here it is:

It reads:

Rather literally,

“At that time Jesus stood on a level place and the group of his disciples and a multitude of many people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon….”

The King James version gives it as:
And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon….



In the Eastern Orthodox Calendar, Lazarus Saturday –which commemorates the raising of Lazarus — marks the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter (Paschal) cycle.  It is called Лазарева Суббота — Lazareva Subbota — in Russian, and in Greek Το Σάββατο του Λαζάρου (To Sabbato tou Lazarou).

It has its icon, which is the “Raising/Resurrection of Lazarus” — in Greek Ἡ Εγερση/Ανάσταση του ΛαζάρουHe Egerse/Anastase tou Lazarou .” In Russian iconography it is usually titled “Resurrection of Lazarus” — Воскресение Лазарево — Voskresenie Lazarevo.  Icons of the type are usually much the same.  Here is a Byzantine example from around the beginning of the 15th century:

(Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

We see Jesus at left, in a brilliant blue garment that must have been painted using powdered lapis lazuli, an expensive mineral pigment:

At right we see Lazarus, called forth from his tomb and still standing in the grave wrappings, which are being removed by two men.  Two others carry the long cover of the open tomb.  The two imploring women kneeling before Jesus are the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.

This icon requires no lengthy explanation,  The story of the raising of Lazarus is found only in Chapter 11 of the Gospel called “of John.”

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the rather gloomy raised Lazarus later became the first bishop of Kition/Kiteia, which is modern-day Larnaca on the southern coast of Cyprus.  Latin Christianity had a quite different tradition in which Lazarus, Mary and Martha were set adrift in a boat by hostile Jews, and miraculously floated to Marseille on the southern coast of France, where Lazarus became the first bishop.  It is a legend that seems to have developed by the 13th century, and likely confused the biblical Lazarus with another bishop in France.


Here is a 16th century icon from the Khilandari Monastery on Athos that combines a biblical parable with its interpretation:

It is the tale of the Prodigal Son (Блудный сын/Bludnuiy suin), found in Luke 15.  You will find that text at the end of this posting.

Basically, it is the story of a young man who asks his father for his share of the family money, and then goes off to a distant place, where he wastes all the money in “riotous living.”  Now poor, he takes a job caring for swine.  Miserable, he decides to return to his father, admitting his mistake.  His father receives him joyously and celebrates his return with a feast.  This of course symbolizes the forgiveness by God of sinners who repent.

In the icon, we see the son at lower right, pondering his options among the swine:

At lower left we see him received back home by his father, shown here as Jesus.  And above them is shown the “ joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents.”  The bizarre class of angels in the form of winged rings called “Thrones” is included, and just above them the cushion representing the heavenly throne.

The Khilandari Monastery on Athos was founded for Serbian monks, so it is not surprising to find that the inscription on this icon is in Slavic rather than Greek:

It is somewhat damaged, but nonetheless we can make out some of the letters.
IC XC ПРИЕМЛЕ И СПАСЕННА “Jesus Christ Receives and Saves…,”

So we may gloss it a bit and assume it means something like “Jesus Christ Receives and Saves the Prodigal Son,” which if not exact is nonetheless what the scene depicts.

There is a 14th century fresco in the Balkany Monastery in Serbia that is virtually identical in its elements, if less impressive visually:

It has a simple title inscription of two widely-spaced words at the top:

It reads:


It is referring to an annual commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, which the Russians call Неделя о блудном сыне — Nedelya o bludnom suine,  and the Greeks Ἡ κυριακὴ τοῦ ἀσώτου  — He Kyriake tou asotou (pronounced ee kiriaki too asotoo in modern Greek).  This Sunday of the Prodigal Son is one of several Sunday commemorations preceding Lent, each of which has its biblical source and icon.  These Sundays are:

5th before Lent:  The Sunday of Zacchaeus, represented by Jesus meeting Zacchaeus, who has climbed a sycamore tree, Luke 19).

4th before Lent:  The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, represented by the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, Luke 18.9.

3rd before Lent:  The Sunday of the Prodigal Son, represented by the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15.

2nd before Lent:  The Sunday of the Last Judgment (“Meatfare Sunday”), represented by the Parable of the Last Judgment, Matthew 25.31–46.

1st before Lent:  Forgiveness Sunday (“Cheesefare Sunday”), represented by the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Genesis 3.

So this symbolic icon in which Jesus represents the welcoming father of the biblical tale is the icon for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.

There are, however, icons of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” that do not include Jesus, but merely show the conventional father of the biblical tale receiving the prodigal, often with the feast given on the son’s return shown in the background, as well as additional details from the story

Here is the biblical account from Luke 15:10-24:

Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents.

And he said, A certain man had two sons:  And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. And he divided to them his living.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.  And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.  And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

And he would gladly have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave to him.  And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, And am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants.

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.  And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son.   But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:  And bring here the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:  For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.



On looking through the site archive, I was surprised to find I had not yet posted about one of the most interesting (and far-fetched) hagiographic tales pictured in icons —  in Russian icons, specifically.  That is the story of Антоний РимлянинAntoniy Rimlyanin — Antoniy the Roman.  Here he is, standing on his floating rock on the Volkhov River:

His story relates that he was born in Rome in 1067, some 13 years after the official separation of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Anthony, who came from a well-to-do pious family that favored the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, is said to have known Greek and to have studied the Greek Fathers in his teens, and at age 17 or 18 — after he lost his parents — he gave part of his inheritance to the poor, and put the remainder of the wealth — gold and silver and church implements, it is said — in a barrel that he threw into the sea.  Then he became an Orthodox monk, and is said to have lived in one of the “desert” monasteries — some say among the hills — for some 20 years, though just where the monastery was located is vague.  In any case, Antoniy was not happy in Rome, where it was said the “Latins” tried to convert Orthodox holdouts to the Roman Catholic view.  Because of this, his monastic brethren dispersed, and he went to an isolated beach near the Tiber where he began a rigorous ascetic regimen by fasting and praying on a large rock for a little over an entire year.

Then — in 1105 or 1106 (the dates in these accounts are rather uncertain) — there was a huge storm that ripped the rock from the beach, and Antoniy along with it.  Both the stone and he were pulled into the sea, where the stone supposedly miraculously floated, carrying Antoniy on the waters all the way to the far North of Russia, and up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga, and from there into the Volkhov river and up it to the village of Volkhov, near Novgorod.  There the floating stone stopped on the day of commemoration of the Nativity of Mary — September 5, 1106,  The amazed locals rushed to inform bishop Nikita of the bizarre arrival, and Nikita then went to the Volkhov River, where he saw Antoniy still standing there on his rock.

Now supposedly Antoniy did not understand the language of the local Novgorodians, and had no idea where he was.  But eventually he is said to have met a fellow in Novgorod who knew Russian, Greek and Latin, and told Antoniy where he had ended up.  And in Volkhov Antoniy founded a Monastery in the name of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God.  He is said to have floated on his rock on the sea from Rome to the Novgorod region in two days (some say three).  In any case, a journey from Rome to Novgorod in those days would have required at least half a year.

In the following year, Antoniy told some fishermen who were not catching much to go out and try again.  They were reluctant, so he offered them a silver coin, with the condition that what they caught would be given to Mary.  So they threw their nets again, and this time they snagged, along with some fish, a barrel that turned out to be the very barrel Antoniy had thrown into the sea near Rome, containing the portion of his inherited treasure not given to the poor.  Anthony let the fishermen keep the fish.  They did not want to give up the barrel, but it is said he took them to court, and there they were unable to identify the contents of the still-sealed barrel, while Antoniy could easily describe what was in it — gold, church vessels, silver — and such things.  So with his recovered treasure he is said to have bought the land and begun the building of a wooden church and monastery.  The church was later was replaced by stone construction between 1117 and 1119.  The laying of the foundation stone is recorded in the Chronicle of Novgorod.  Though long heading the monastery without a title, in 1131 Bishop Nikita officially made Antoniy Hegumen (Abbot) of the monastery, and on August 3, 1147, Antoniy died (as recorded in the Novgorod Chronicle; but some say in 1142).

The accounts of the life of Antoniy the Roman began appearing in the 2nd half of the 16th century, possibly based on earlier writing.  Antoniy’s successor as Abbot — a fellow named Andrei — is said to have written the first life in the middle of the 1100s.  But of course as we can see from the fantastic tale of his trip from Rome to Novgorod, the account of his life as passed down to us is not exactly historically reliable.

The veneration of Antoniy as more than a local phenomenon apparently really got under way in the Novgorod region in the late 1500s.  In 1597 an official service to Antoniy as saint was created, and the usual miracles were attributed to him and to his stone, which was believed still to exist.

That, essentially, is the legend of Antoniy Rimlyanin — Anthony the Roman.

Here is a map showing the region of the legend.  The large body of water at the top is Lake Ladoga (Ладожское Озеро).  At the bottom of the lake and to the left is Санкт-Петербург — Saint Petersburg, where the Neva flows into the Baltic Sea.  Just on the other side of the little “bump” of land to the east of St. Petersburg is the mouth of the Volkhov River, which flows north from Lake Ilmen (Озеро Ильмень) at the base of the map.  The town of Volkhov is visible not far south from the mouth of the Volkhov (Волхов) River.

Now it is not difficult to see that to get to Volkhov by sea, one would have to go from the mouth of the Tiber near Rome, into the Tyrrhenian Sea, across the Mediterranean Sea to Gibraltar, into the Atlantic Ocean, and up past Portugal, France, and Britain, around Denmark and into the Baltic Sea to the entrance to the Neva River at St. Petersburg, up it to Lake Ladoga, then down the Volkhov to — well, the town of Volkhov.  That’s quite a trip by rock.

In the icon on this page, Antoniy is carrying the white church he had constructed at Volkhov.

The cathedral church still exists — though somewhat modified — as we see in this photo:

In the vestibule of the cathedral, the stone on which Antoniy supposedly floated to Volkhov is still shown.  It is said to have been discovered (rather conveniently) by Hegumen Benjamin in the middle of the 16th century, which as we know, is about when the veneration of Antoniy really got under way.  Before that time, he had been honored only as a local saint.


We cannot really tell what fragments of history may remain in this extravagant tissue of fanciful legend. A real Antoniy does seem to have existed as a monastic founder in the North, but just who he was and precisely where he was from is not known.  Some think he was possibly a missionary monk sent from the Pecherskaya Lavra in Kiyev — perhaps a Greek-speaking Italian from Calabria, or perhaps just known as “the Roman” because he was from somewhere in what had been the Roman Empire.  Remember that even Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire were once known in Islam as “Rum” — Rome.

That is part of the negative side of the extravagant legends we find in the lives of the saints:  they obscure the real people and events behind them (when there were real people, which is not always the case).  We do know that the Novgorod region in those days was an international trading center, with people from many countries visiting and passing through.  Novgorod was a very important city on the Varangian Trade Route that passed from Scandinavia into the Neva River, into Lake Ladoga, up the Volkhov to Novgorod, and from there all the way to Kiyev and Constantinople.  So it would have been quite possible for a foreign “Roman” of some description to have traveled along this route to the Novgorod Region in the 12th century.

Not, however, by floating rock.

Here’s an icon of Antoniy showing various incidents in his life, including throwing his barrel into the sea, his journey on the rock and meeting with the Novgorodians, the retrieval of his treasure barrel, and so on:


Look in any Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, and you will find, in the month of September, the commemoration of two saints with the same name — Babylas.

They are celebrated on the very same day (September 4th), and both are bishops.  Further, both are said to have been martyred with a number of youthful disciples.

If we look in the Stroganov Painter’s Manual, we find both saints depicted, with “Moses the God-seer” (the Old Testament Moses) shown between them:

At left is Babylas of Antioch, and his martyred three disciples standing before him.  And at right is Babylas of Nicomedia.  His martyred disciples are not shown, because there were 84 of them!

Now the interesting thing about these two fellows is that the second one — Babylas of Nicomedia — is entirely fictional.  He never existed.  That he appears in all the Eastern Orthodox lists of saints is due to a misreading.

Here is how it came about:  Apparently an account of the life of Babylas of Antioch described it as:

Αθλησις του ἁγίου Βαβύλα καὶ των σὺν αὐτω παίδων
Athlesis tou hagiou Babyla kai ton syn auto paidon
“The Struggle of the holy Babylas and the youths with him.”

The problem seems to have arisen when the text referring to  Babylas of Antioch — instead of using the full word παίδων/paidon — “boys/youths,” instead abbreviated the word as ΠΔ–“PD.”  Now you will know that in Greek, as in Church Slavic, letters were also used as numbers.  The fellow reading the manuscript failed to recognize it as an abbreviation of paidon, and instead read it as the number 84.  Π = 80,  Δ =4.

So suddenly, where there had been one 3rd century St. Babylas martyred with three youths, there was now a second 3rd century Babylas martyred with 84 youths.  A suitable life was cobbled together for  him (including dialogue!), and voila!  There were now two saints Babylas where before there had been one.

As I have said many times, the calendar of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and consequently its icons as well, are filled with fictions, and one should be careful not to just accept them as history, though Orthodox “church” sites inevitably present them as such.


Today we will look at an icon of the type generally known as the “Fruits of the Passion of Christ.”  Such icons are not common, and are generally  found as Russian examples from the latter part of the 1600s to the first third of the 1800s.  Here, however, is an icon from the Greek-speaking region that appears to be dated 1827:

(Photo courtesy of Benoit Harang)

The “Fruits of the Passion” type is the central image in this triptych, with the left and right wings depicting the different icon type known as the “Communion of the Apostles.”

The “Fruits of the Passion type” represents the benefits believed to have resulted from the crucifixon of Jesus.

(Courtesy of Benoit Harang)

The cross is shown as a blossoming “tree of life.”  Angels in the blossoms just above the crossbar hold symbols relating to the Passion, such as the crown of thorns, the pillar and scourge, and so on.  Among them is a “Not Made by Hands” depiction of Jesus on a cloth, which is actually out of place given its role in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, where it is not passion-related; but it reveals the Western influences that led to this type, because the depiction of Jesus on a cloth as the “Veil of Veronica” does relate to the Passion narrative in Roman Catholic tradition.

At left is a pillared church — representing the founding of the Christian Church.  In it stand the Evangelists Luke, Mark, Matthew and John.  A hand reaches down from a flower blossoming on the left end of the cross, and bestows a crown upon the “Church.”

Another hand reaches down from a blossom on the right side of the cross, and with a sword strikes down Death, who appears in the form of a skeleton.

At the top of the image is the Heavenly Jerusalem.  A hand reaches up from a blossom at the top of the cross to open the door to the Heavenly Jerusalem.  The hand commonly holds a key.

At lower left the dead are seen rising from their graves in the Resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus, and at lower right another hand reaches out of a blossom and strikes with a hammer at the image of Satan, shown in the form of a monster chained to the foot of the cross, and holding Judas in his grasp.  They, in turn, lie within the even larger mouth of Hades, depicted as a huge devouring monster.

The sun and moon are shown at upper left and right, as is common in “Crucifixion” icons.

Inscriptions on icons of this type vary.  This example has four scrolls near the hands of Jesus, but only those on the right are easily legible:


There we find these words:
 …Καί λογισθείς ἐν τοῖς νεκροῖς τόν ἐκεῖσε τύραννον ἔδησας..
“And you were numbered with the dead and there bound the tyrant…”
That is a line from the Greek Orthodox Matins for Great Friday.  So it is possible that the damaged inscription on the left side is what comes just before that line:
Τό χειρόγραφον ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ σταυρῷ διέῤῥηξας, Κύριε…
“You tore up their manuscript [that is, a legal document with charges] on the cross, Lord…”
If that assumption is correct the scrolls all together would read:
Τό χειρόγραφον ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ σταυρῷ διέῤῥηξας, Κύριε. Καί λογισθείς ἐν τοῖς νεκροῖς τόν ἐκεῖσε τύραννον ἔδησας…
In the modern Orthodox liturgy in English, that is rendered more loosely as:
“On the cross you destroyed the legal bond against us, O Lord.  You were reckoned with the dead and there did bind the tyrant…”
Icons of this “Fruits of the Passion of Christ” type (in Slavic Плоды Страданий Христовых — Plodui Stradaniy Khristovuikh) appear to have their origin in a Western-influenced engraving by Vasiliy Andreev that appeared in Moscow about 1682:

 As an engraving, it is given the title Распятие с чудесамиRaspyatie s Chudesami — “Crucifixion with Miracles.”  We can see that aside from the more numerous inscriptions, the engraving and the Greek icon shown above are very much the same.  On the Russian version, the text just below the crossbeam reads:

For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  It is from 1 Corinthians 2:2.
A detail shows us an angel at left catching the blood of Christ in a chalice, with the instruments of the Crucifixion shown in a round medallion.  The angel at right has a medallion with the ladders of the crucifixion.
 At the top we see “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — and the Holy Spirit as dove below him.  They are over the Heavenly Jerusalem, whose gates are being opened by the hand that reaches up from the cross, and holds a key:

At left is the new-founded Church with the Four Evangelists, with the hand reaching down from the cross with a crown:

Here Death, riding a white horse, is struck by a hand reaching down from the cross, wielding a sword:

You will recall that Death represented as a skeleton or corpse on a white horse is also found in the “Only-begotten Son” icon type.

Here is Satan holding Judas in the maw of Hades:

Finally, here are the two wings of the triptych shown at the top of the page.  As mentioned previously, together they form the “Communion of the Apostles” icon type: