Today’s icon type is a monastic subject, so it is not surprising that the earliest surviving example is found as a fresco in the Ferapontov Monastery church in the Vologda region of Russia, painted by Dionysiy about 1502-1503.

It is another of those “Vision” icons.  Here is an example from the Entrance into the Temple Monastery in Solvychegodsk, from the latter half of the 16th century:

It is called ВИДЕНИЕ ЕВЛОГИЯ — Videnie Evlogiya — “The Vision of Evlogiy” (Eulogios in Greek form).

The tale comes from the Skete Paterik (Скитский патерик), a very old collection of monastic and ascetic sayings, counsel, and stories.   Such an anthology is called a paterik in Russian and a πατερικόν/paterikon in Greek.

The story of Evlogiy is found in one version of the Paterik.  Originally, the story had a simpler form.  It said that a presbyter named Evlogiy had the ability to see the inner thoughts and intentions of monks attending the liturgical services — whether they did so piously or carelessly, with sincerity and diligence or without.  Later this simple tale became expanded into a vision of Evlogiy in which, at the blessing of the loaves at the end of the Evening Vigil service, he saw angels among the attending monks, anointing some with “myrrh,” censing others with incense,  distributing liturgical bread and symbolic spiritual rewards to the monks according to what they deserved for their efforts.  Some monks, he saw, received gold coins, some silver, and some only copper.  Some who had not the proper attitude and diligence during services left with nothing at all.

Evlogiy himself is seen at lower left, holding a scroll reading:

“не хвалитеся и не глаголите высокая в гордыни своей ниже да изыдет велиречие из уст ваших”.
Ne khvalitesya i ne glagolite vuisokaya v gorduini svoey nizhe da izuidet velirechie iz ust vashikh

“Do not glory and do not speak high in your pride nor let the speech leave your mouth.”

At bottom center we see two monks venerating the liturgical vessel containing the prosphora — the liturgical bread — representing the five loaves Jesus is said to have multiplied to feed the crowds in the New Testament (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:12-17, John 6:1-24).

Two angels at upper center hold scrolls reading:

“Друг друга тяготы носите и так исполните заповедь Христову”
Drug druga tyagotui nosite i tak ispolnite zapoved Khristovu

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the commandment of Christ,”

“Слово Христово да вселится в вас благодатно во всяко премудрость сердцах ваших”
Slovo Khrsitovo da vselitsya v vas blagodatno vo vsyako premudrost serdtsakh

“Let the word of Christ be established in you in all wisdom of your hearts.”





Depending on whether you want to learn to actually READ icons or not, you will either find this posting quite interesting or else unutterably boring.  In any case, here we go.

Today we will look at a Greek-inscribed image of  a rather generic-looking saint called in Greek Ὁ Άγιος Ιωαννίκιος ο Μέγας ὁ εν Ολύμπω/Ho Hagios Ioannikios ho Megas Ho en Olympo — “[The] Holy Ioannikios the Great, the-one in Olympus.”  You may also find him as Όσιος Ιωαννίκιος ὁ Μεγάλος/Hosios Ioannikios ho MegalosHosios Ioannikios ho Megalos.  You will recall that Hosios is the Greek title for a male monk-saint — the equivalent of the Slavic Prepodobnuiy, which is customarily loosely rendered as “Venerable.”  And ho Megalos here has the same meaning as ho Megas — “the Great.”

In Russian iconography he is called Преподобный Иоанникий Великий/Prepodobnuiy Ioannikiy Velikiy, which means simply “Venerable Ioannikios the Great.”

It is not so much the saint that interests us today as reading his inscriptions, which are good practice.  Here is his image:

If you have been a faithful reader of this site (you all are, aren’t you?), then you will easily be able to translate the title inscription.  Here is what we see at top left:


That is obviously a common abbreviation for ἉΓΙΟC/Ho Hagios, “The Holy.”

Below that we find:


ΙΟΑΝΝΙΚΙΟC/IOANNIKIOS, the saint’s name.  Notice that the second letter of the name is the old form of the letter Omega, but I have used the common modern form in representing it.

At right we see:

— which you have probably already read as HO MEGAS and have translated as “The Great.”

Now we come to the interesting part — the scroll inscription.  As you already know, saints in icons speak through scrolls, just as cartoon characters speak through cartoon bubbles.  Here is the inscription:

It reads (with spaces added, ligatures separated,  and abbreviations completed in lighter type):


From past reading here, you already should know several of the words — those I have put in bold type here:


Here are those you don’t know, with their definitions:


We can read the whole inscription like this:

Ho Elpis mou ho Theos;
Kataphyge mou ho Khristos;
Skepe mou to Pneuma to Hagion


The Hope of-me the God;
Refuge of-me the Christ;
Protection of-me the Spirit the Holy

And in normal English — the way we would translate it — it means:

My Hope is God;
My Refuge is Christ;
My Protection the Holy Spirit.

This inscription — which is a common inscription on icons of Ioannikios — is a variation on what was said to be a frequent prayer of his:

Η ελπίς μου ὁ Πατήρ, καταφυγή μου οὙιός, σκέπη μου το Πνεύμα το Ἁγιον, Τριάς Ἁγία, δόξα σοι.

He elpis mou ho Pater, kataphyge mou o Huios, skepe mou to Pneuma to Hagion, Trias Hagia, doxa soi.


The help of-me the Father, refuge of-me the Son, protection of-me the Spirit the Holy, Trinity Holy, glory to-you

In normal English,
“My help is the Father, my refuge the Son, my protection the Holy Spirit; Holy Trinity, glory to you.”

In Eastern Orthodoxy, it has become a Trinitarian prayer that is often inserted into longer prayers.

Let’s look now at a late printed icon of Ioannikios that is inscribed in both Greek and Church Slavic:

We see his title written beside his head, first in Greek, then in Church Slavic, both of which you should now be able to read.  But what about his scroll text?

As we shall see, it is nothing to worry about.  It reads (I am using a modern Russian font):

Упование мое
Отец, прибежи-
ще мое Сын,
покров мой Ду-
х Святый, Тро-
ице Святая
слава Тебе.

Upovanie moe Otets, pribyezhishche moe Suin, pokrov moy Dukh Svyatuiy, Troitse Svyataya, slava Tebye.

“My hope is the Father, my refuge the Son, my protection the Holy Spirit; Holy Trinity, glory to you.”

So it turns out to be precisely the same inscription — with a slight lengthening — that is common on Greek icons of Ioannikios — only here in Church Slavic.

If you can endure a bit more of this, we should probably take a look at another Greek inscription on a fresco of Ioannikios:


You will easily recognize the triliteral abbreviation at left as Ho Hagios — “The Holy,” but it is the rest of the title inscription that concerns us here:

Though a bit worn, we can fill it in as reading:



“Thaumaturge” is just the word borrowed into English from Greek, but in Greek it means simply “Wonderworker,” someone who works miracles.

So we see that there is another title for Ioannikios the Great:  “Ioannikios the Wonderworker.”

As for the hagiographic life of this Ioannikios, some say he was born in 754 or 755, others in 762 — in Bithynia, in Asia Minor.  As a boy, he tended his parents’ pigs, and was illiterate.  He joined the army, and is said to have been an Iconoclast (an opposer of the use of icons), but later in life converted to the opposite belief, becoming an Iconophile (an advocate of icons).  Troubled by the slaughter he saw in battle, he left the army and became a monk at the Antidion Monastery on Mount Olympus.

As a monk, he was said to have miraculous abilities, and could levitate and become invisible.  He predicted when a number of people would die.  He had power over wild animals, and could overcome snakes and dragons (the dragon part alone tells us that as with all Eastern Orthodox hagiography, we should maintain a healthy skepticism).

He is said to have died in 846 c.e.


In an earlier posting (see we looked at icons of the “Middle” — the church commemoration that stands between Easter and Pentecost — and we saw that they are of two types.  One shows Jesus as a twelve year old boy, seated amid the learned men in the Jerusalem Temple — the event called in Western art “Jesus Among the Doctors,” recorded in Luke 2:41-49.

The other icon depicts a different incident — Jesus as an adult, preaching in the Temple, as described in John 7.

Here is a 14th century fresco from the Vysokie Dechani monastery in Serbia, showing the first type.  It is interesting not only because of its iconography, but also because of its unexpected inscription:

We might expect to find as its inscription a conventional title telling what is happening in a scene, as in this 16th century fresco from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

The Greek title of the image reads:


Some Greek icons of the type are titled simply:


On the Dechani fresco, however, we find this inscription:

It is neither a scene description nor a conventional title, and though the image depicts a New Testament scene, it is not an excerpt from the New Testament.  Instead, it is a slight variation on Kontakion 8 from the Akathist to Mary:

Кондак 8
Странное рождество видевше, устранимся мира, ум на небеса преложше: сего бо ради высокий Бог на земли явися смиренный человек, хотяй привлещи к высоте Тому вопиющия: Аллилуиа.

Strannoe rozhdestvo videvshe, ustranimsya mira, um na nebesa prelozhshe: sego
bo radi vuiskiy Bog na zemli yavisya smirennuiy chelovek, Khotyay privleshchi k
vuisote Tomy vopiiushchiya: Alliluia

Kontakion 8
Seeing a strange childbirth, let us estrange ourselves from the world by transporting our minds to Heaven; for this sake the Most High God appeared on earth a lowly man, that He might draw to the heights those who cry out to Him: Alleluia.”

Now as I mentioned, there is another Prepolovenie/”Middle”/Mesopentekoste/Mid-Pentecost icon type — Jesus teaching in the Temple as an adult.  Here is a 14th century variant example from Vysokie Dechani:

It has an interesting added detail.  Jesus holds a large pitcher of water as he stands among those in the Temple.  We find out why if we look at the inscription above his head:

Whoever thirsts, [let him] come to me and drink.

It is taken from John 7:37:
On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirsts, let him come to me, and drink.

The “feast” mentioned is the Jewish Festival of Booths — Sukkot — which takes place in the autumn.  The odd thing about the speech of Jesus in the Temple on that feast is that if one took him at his word, he was not supposed to be there at all.

Earlier, his brothers had told him in Galilee that he should go to Judea and demonstrate his works in public, meaning at the festival.

Jesus, however, replies (John 7:6-9):
“‘My time is not yet come: but your time is always ready. The world cannot hate you; but it hates me, because I testify of it, that the works of it are evil.  You go up to this feast.  I will not go up to this feast, for my time is not yet fully come.’  When he had said these words to them, he remained in Galilee.”

That is followed in John 7:10 by:
But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.

In other words, Jesus told a lie.  He said he was not going to the feast, but later he did go “as it were in secret.”

This text, of course, has bothered a lot of people over the centuries, who do not at all like the idea of Jesus having lied, and in fact it seems to have resulted in someone at some time correcting the problem.  We have early evidence of this.  In Papyrus 66, a manuscript dated variously from the 2nd to the 4th century, we find that change.  Instead of Jesus saying “I will not go up to this feast,” it instead changes the Greek word ουκ, meaning “not,” to οὔπω/oupo, which means “not yet,”  resulting in Jesus saying “I will not yet go up to this feast.” By doing so, Jesus no longer lies to his brothers; he just tells them that he will go up to the feast later, after they have gone.

It is a clever change, but it does not seem to be the original reading.  The point of the exchange appears to be that Jesus does not want his brothers to know he is going at all, because when he does go, it is “as it were in secret.”

In Greek it is the difference between:

ἐγὼ οὐκ ἀναβαίνω εἰς τὴν ἑορτὴν ταύτην
ego ouk anabaino eis ten heorten tauten
“I go not up to this feast”


ἐγὼ οὔπω ἀναβαίνω εἰς τὴν ἑορτὴν ταύτην
ego oupo anabaino eis ten heorten tauten
“I go not-yet up to this feast.”

It looks, in fact, as though the “not yet” was borrowed from the latter part of the whole sentence from which this excerpt is taken:

ὑμεῖς ἀνάβητε εἰς τὴν ἑορτήν· ἐγὼ οὐκ ἀναβαίνω εἰς τὴν ἑορτὴν ταύτην, ὅτι ὁ ἐμὸς καιρὸς οὔπω πεπλήρωται
humeis anabete eis ten heorten. ego ouk anabaino eis ten heorten tauten, hoti ho emos kairos oupo peplerotai.
“You go up to this feast.  I go not up to this feast, for my time is not yet complete/fulfilled.”

So which was the original reading, “I go not” or “I go not yet”?  The manuscript evidence is divided, with some copies going with “not” and others with “not yet.”  Modern scholars tend to favor the former interpretation, which results in Jesus having told a lie, given that it not only better fits the sense of the text, but also because it is unlikely that an early editor would have changed “I am not yet going up to this feast” to the more embarrassing “Jesus lies” reading, “I am not going up to this feast.”  Conservatives of course prefer the option that saves Jesus from having lied.

It is interesting that the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry (c. 234-305), who opposed Christianity, knew the “I am not going up to this feast” reading, because as quoted by Jerome, he used it against the Christians of his time — another good reason for Christian editors to prefer the “not yet” reading when copying the text.




A reader recently asked about the “middle” division of angels.  Perhaps that is something others wish to know too, so I may as well review the whole topic.

In icons, there are three divisions of angels, and each has three ranks of angel.  All together form the nine choirs/orders of angels.  Here they are, in descending rank:

First Choir/Order (Slavic лик/lik, plural лики/liki, Greek: τάγμα/tagma, plural τάγματα/tagmata):

Seraphim (Slavic: серафимы — Greek: σεραφὶμ); six wings
Cherubim (Slavic: херувимы — Greek χερουβὶμ); four wings
Thrones (Slavic: престолы — Greek θρόνοι); winged rings/wheels, with eyes in the wings.

Second Choir:

Dominions (Slavic: господства — Greek κυριότητες)
Virtues (Slavic: силы — Greek δυνάμεις)
Powers (Slavic: власти — Greek ἐξουσίαι )

Third Choir:

Principalities (Slavic: начальства (начала) — Greek ἀρχαὶ)
Archangels (архангелы — Greek ἀρχάγγελοι)
Angels (ангелы — Greek ἄγγελοι)

Here is an 18th century icon (showing some Western influence, as you may notice).  It depicts various angelic appearances in the border images, and as the title in the text block tells us, the nine ranks of angels as the central image:

First, let’s dispose of the angelic appearances in the border, which include:

  1.  The Appearance to Moses;
  2.  The Vision of Daniel;
  3.   Appearance of the Trinity to Abraham;
  4.   Prophecy of Ezekiel;
  5.   Appearance of Michael to Joshua Son of Nun (Isus Navin);
  6.   Penalty of King David;
  7.   Michael troubles the pool (of Siloam);
  8.   Jacob Wrestles with the Angel;
  9.  Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Khonae;
  10.  Dispute over the body of Moses;
  11.  Archangel Michael frees Peter from prison;
  12.   The Angel appears to the women at the tomb of Jesus;
  13.   The Angel leads a soul to Paradise;
  14.   Archangel Michael appears to Pakhomios
  15.   The saving of the Hebrew Youths from the Fire
  16.   Archangel Michael blocks the path of Balaam.

That — along with the image of a church at the bottom — completes the “angelic” border images.

As you know from a previous posting, the large central image at the top is the Coronation of Mary — a type borrowed into Eastern Orthodox iconography from Roman Catholic art.  The “triangle” halo on God the Father is also a Western borrowing.

Here are the central ranks of angels:

The symbols held by the various ranks of angels differ from example to example.  In the icon above, we see that the “thrones” are  depicted as normal angels, but holding a throne as their symbol (though in other icons, they are shown as winged wheels).  The Seraphim hold their hands in an attitude of prayer and adoration.  The Cherubim hold open books.  The Dominions hold scepters The Virtues hold mirrors.  The Powers hold spears/lances. The Principalities hold crowns.  The Archangels hold scales.  And the Angels hold souls in the form of infants.

The icon pattern below — titled “Image of the Holy Nine Ranks of Angels”  is somewhat different:

Here the Seraphim are shown as six winged, the Cherubim as four winged, the Thrones are dressed as bishops, the Dominions hold censers and mirrors, the Virtues are depicted as warriors with swords, the Powers are crowned and hold scepters, the Principalities hold staffs, the archangels merely gesture, and the Angels hold scrolls and books.

In addition, the nine Archangels are shown again with their names in a ring around the central image of “Lord Sabaoth” (God the Father), Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as a dove, arranged in the “Fatherhood” (Paternity) icon type, called in Slavic Otechestvo.

In the icon below — ОБРАЗ ДЕВЯТИ ЧИНОВ АНГЕЛЬСКИХ/OBRAZ DEVYATI CHINOV ANGEL’SKIKH — “IMAGE OF THE NINE RANKS OF ANGELS” — with the Archangel Michael as the central image, we see the ranks arranged somewhat differently:

From top to bottom at left, we see Cherubim, Angels, Dominions, and Guardian Angels:

From top to bottom at right, we see Seraphim, Virtues, Thrones and Principalities:

At top center, we see the Archangels in the usual “Sobor” (Assembly/Council) form:

So we can see this icon has substituted “Guardian Angels” for the “Powers” Rank.

That is a brief summary for reference of the types and ranks of angels in Eastern Orthodox iconography.



I watch the statistics on this site from day to day, and am always surprised by how many people read it (I suppose I could remove the cause, but not the symptom).  The number of followers seems to keep rising, with even more new people recently.

I am also frequently puzzled, because I can see how many people read certain postings from day to day.  Some days a large number of people will read one or another posting from the archives — apparently all coming here due to some kind of discussion involving that posting — taking place on another site somewhere — but just what that discussion is and precisely where it takes place is generally a mystery to me.

I also generally know nothing about the majority of subscribers, because many like to subscribe with the minimum of personal information.  Because some do contact me, I know there are art restorers, museum staff, dealers in old icons, artists, and quite a miscellaneous grouping of others among the now many readers of this site.  I always appreciate getting a note from new readers, telling me a bit about them and why they are reading such an esoteric site as this (recognizing your problem is the first step toward overcoming it).

I am quite an informal fellow, so no one need feel shy about leaving me a message now and then.

Now back to the usual topic.  Here is an 18th century icon from the Prophets Tier of an iconostasis at Kizhi, Russia:

If we look at the title inscription, we can see that the writer got a bit grand by writing the Greek word Hagios, meaning “Holy” (but in Cyrillic letters), instead of the usual Slavic Svyatuiy (and it is abbreviated).  The next word is Slavic — the abbreviated word Prorok, meaning “Prophet.”  And you should have no trouble, if you are a long-time reader here, in transliterating the third word — the prophet’s name — as Iezekiil — Ezekiel in English.  So the title inscription reads:

Hagios Prorok Iezekiil
“Holy Prophet Ezekiel.”

As you can see, Ezekiel is pointing to an image of a door.  And if we look at his scroll, we see it reads:


In the book of Ezekiel, we find this at 44:1-2:

Then he brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary that looks eastward; and it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no one shall pass through it; for the Lord God of Israel shall enter by it, and it shall be shut.

That gate is the “door” in the icon inscription.  In some Slavic translations, we find instead the word врата/vrata, meaning “gate/gates.”

Though it originally had nothing at all to do with a Marian interpretation, Eastern Orthodoxy developed the notion that this excerpt from Ezekiel was a prophecy and prefiguration of the supposed virgin birth of Jesus.  Mary as a virgin is seen as the “closed door/gate” shut and not opened, through which Jesus was born.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 390 c.e.) wrote:

Who is this gate, if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity.”

We often find this “Closed Door/Gate” title of Mary in Eastern Orthodox writings.  So that is why we see a door in the icon of the Prophet Ezekiel.


Two postings back, I discussed the prevalence of slavery in the New Testament and its survival in Christianity (see  Today we will look at an interesting related issue.  Be cautioned — this requires careful reading, because it can be rather confusing — a confusion that is reflected in iconography.

There is an icon type depicting the healing story found in Matthew 8:5-13:

In it, a Roman centurion (we see him with Jesus in the above image) comes to request healing for his παῖς/pais:

“[Jesus] Having entered into Capernaum, there came to him a centurion [ἑκατόνταρχος/hekatontarkhos], beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my pais [παῖς] is lying in the house paralyzed, terribly tormented.’  And he [Jesus] says to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’

But the centurion, answering him, said, ‘Lord [Kyrie], I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only speak the word and my pais will be healed.  For even I — a man — am under authority.  I have under me soldiers, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to that one, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulos] Do this! and he does it.’   Jesus hearing him was amazed, and said to those following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.'”

Now the question is, what did the Centurion in the story mean by pais?  The usual English translation will say (euphemistically) that the pais here is his servant, however that is not at all clear from the context.  Indeed, when the Centurion is telling Jesus how he just gives a command and is obeyed by his soldiers, he adds that all he has to do is say to his slave (doulos) “Do this!” and the slave does it.  Now again, in most English translations, both pais and doulos are commonly and euphemistically translated as “servant.”

A doulos, however, is not a servant as we understand the term.  A doulos is quite literally a slave, and the legal property of his owner.  Pais, however, can mean a child, a boy; it can also be a term used for a male slave (just as slave owners in the American South used the term “boy” when referring to a male slave, with the appellation surviving even in post-slavery times as an implied disrespectful deprecation in the southern United States when used for men of African descent).  A pais may even signify the male sex partner of the slave owner (those who favor this interpretation point out that in New Testament times, centurions were not allowed to marry, though of course some had female sex partners).

So, was the pais of the Centurion in “Matthew” his son?  Was he asking Jesus to heal his boy?  Or was he asking him to heal his slave, and if so, why does he use pais in one place, and doulos in another, as though he is speaking of two different persons?  I will leave the “male sex partner” possibility for others to ponder.

In any case, how is it that most English translations  — given this uncertainty — render pais here as “servant” and not “boy”?

The answer is that the translators go to the parallel story in the gospel called “Of Luke.”  As you know, “Mark” is considered to be the first gospel written of the New Testament four, and both “Matthew” and “Luke” are expanded, edited versions of Mark, adding additional material (notably birth and resurrection appearance stories at beginning and end, as well as other material in the main body of the text).

Mark, however, has no tale of a centurion coming to Jesus and asking for healing.  But there is a version of the story in “Luke” 7:1-10:

“And when he [Jesus] had finished all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum.  And a certain slave [doulos] of a centurion was ill, about to die, who was precious to him.

And hearing about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, begging him to come cure his slave [doulon].  And coming to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, ‘Worthy is he to whom he will grant this, for he loves our nation, and built a synagogue for us.’  And Jesus went with them.

And when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  Therefore I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.  But say the word, and my pais shall be healed.  For I a man am appointed under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to another, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulo] Do this! and he does it.’

And having heard these things, Jesus was amazed by him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I did not even find such faith in Israel.'”

Now obviously this is just a variation on the same story, though in Luke’s version, the Centurion does not himself come to Jesus, but instead sends Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come.   But in the Lukan version (unlike “Matthew”) it is quite clear that the Centurion’s doulos and his pais are one and the same person — his slave.  And that is why translators, reading Luke, make the Centurion’s pais in Matthew his “servant” and not his boy (though as we have seen, doulos really means “slave.”

We have, however, also seen that there are differences in the two stories, and so we cannot know for certain that the pais in Matthew was the Centurion’s slave and not his own son.

In fact the matter is only further confused if we take a look at another story, found in the gospel “Of John,” 4:46-54:

“So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he had made the water wine.  And there was a certain royal official [βασιλικὸς/basilikos], whose son [υἱὸς/huios] was ill in Capernaum.

He, hearing that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, asked that he would come down and heal his son, for he was about to die.  Jesus therefore said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.’

The royal official [basiliskos] says to him, ‘Lord [Kyrie], come down before my child [παιδίον/paidion] dies.’

Jesus says to him, ‘Go, your son [υἱός/huios] lives.’

The story continues for a few more lines, but that is the essence of it.

Now it seems this tale in “John” is just another variant of the same tale told in Matthew and Luke.  The Centurion becomes a “royal official,” and the pais of Matthew  becomes quite clearly the “son” of the official in John.  In fact when the official asks Jesus to come before his son dies, he uses the word παιδίον/paidion, which is just a diminutive form of παῖς/pais.

So that leaves us still not knowing what “Matthew” intended the pais of the Centurion to be, though it may well have been his son, as in John, and not his slave.  Luke makes it quite clear that in his story, the pais is a slave.  But in John, the official’s paidion is quite clearly his huios, his son.

Now, those brave and patient souls among you who have read all of that, will now know the confusion that lies behind the presence of two quite different images in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  We have already seen the first, which shows the Centurion beseeching Jesus to heal his pais, which is generally interpreted to be his slave by the admixture of Luke’s version of the story with that of Matthew.

John’s story, however, results in quite a different icon type, in which the Centurion (not just “royal official”) has Jesus heal his son.

Here is an example from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

We see Jesus and his disciples at left, and the Centurion at right, beside the bed on which his son lies.

The Greek inscription reads:

Ὁ Χριστός ιώµενος τον ὑιον του εκατοντάρχου
Ho Khristos iomenos ton huion tou [h]ekatontarkhou

“Christ Healing the Son of the Centurion.”

Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, Matthew’s tale of the healing of the Centurion’s “servant” is read on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  John’s tale of the Royal Official’s (“Nobleman’s”) son is read on Monday of the 3rd week In Pascha.  They are treated as two quite separate “miracles.” But in practice — including in iconography — they are often confused, as we see from the Dionysiou fresco, in which we find the Centurion (not “royal official/nobleman”) of Matthew and Luke, but the Centurion’s son (from the Gospel of John) is the one being healed, not his slave.

If your head is spinning after all that, relax, sit down, have a nice hot cup of herbal tea.



Here is an icon of another stolpnik — stylite — another “pillar guy,” one of those men who lived atop a pillar as an ascetic practice.  This fellow, however, is Russian.

The title inscripton above him reads:

“Holy Venerable Nikita Stylite.”

Nikita had a rather miserable life, which I will summarize later in this posting.  But first I want to point out that by the last years of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th, icon painting in Russia was seriously threatened by the development of chromolithography — the printing of images in multiple colors — which permitted the printing of icon images on both tin and on paper.

Chromolithography — instead of using a single stone with an image engraved on it — used multiple stones, each engraved with the portion of the image corresponding to the required color of ink.  As the paper was printed by one stone after another, the image aquired a new color from each.  To achieve the desired tones and shading, as many as several dozen stones might be used to print one image.

To the average Russian, it was much less expensive to buy a printed icon than a painted icon.  And given that painted icons were essentially copies of rather standardized images — copies of copies of copies of copies — it seemed that icons and mass printing were an ideal combination.  Buyers no longer had to rely on a monochrome or hand-tinted print; now they could have printed images in color, which became quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, and hung in many homes of ordinary people — often framed behind glass.

Before the advent of chromolithography, Western European prints — in the form of engravings or woodcuts — already had a substantial influence on Russian religious art from the latter part of the 17th century, when the traditional stylized manner kept alive by the Old Believers began to be abandoned by the State Church in favor of the more “realistic” art of Western European Protestants and Catholics.  The effect of such prints on icon painting only increased in the 18th century.

Black and white lithographic printing — printing from an engraved stone — was developed in Germany in the late 18th century, and spread to Russia, where both lithographed and chromolithographed paper religious images began to appear in the 1830s-1840s.  Lithographs of one kind or another were printed as early as 1858 in the icon painting village of Mstera, at the workshop of the one-time serf Ivan Aleksandrovich Golyshev (И.А. Голышев — 1838—1896), which produced until about 1885, when it gave way to larger printing companies that began producing chromolithographed paper icons en masse from about 1870 — factories such as that of Efim Ivanovich Fesenko (Ефим Иванович Фесенко — 1850–1926) in Odessa, which produced the icon of Nikita shown above.

Fesenko also printed a number of other icon types — all in the “Westernized” style adopted by the State Church, which by the late 19th century looked very much like religious images produced by Catholics in Western Europe. To our eyes, they look quite bland and saccharine.  Fesenko, by the way, managed to survive into the Soviet Era, and was made permanent director of what had previously been his own printing company, after the government nationalized it.

Another prominent chromolithographer of icons in Odessa at that time was the firm of Vilgelm/Wilhelm Til (Вильгельм Тиль), whose 1881 Catalog declared that with its publication, his firm had set itself the task to “make its products available — even at the farthest distance — to each and all wishing to buy for little money the representations of holy icons of worthy workmanship, and in full accord with the writings of the Orthodox Church, in that the greater part of the images are taken from icons in Russian monasteries and churches.

It added:

For 22 years there has been an institution in Odessa — closely known by many nearby rich monasteries, but hardly known to our village [rural] clergy. This firm is known by the name V. Til and Company.  It manufactures images of holy icons, for the most part copies of wonderworking [icons] — of various sizes, at a price accessible to every Orthodox Christian.”

So by the later years of the 19th century, chromolithography — lithographed images in multiple colors — had greatly expanded in Russia, and was just the latest trend in what had become a long tradition of borrowing from the West in icon art.

That was followed by the application of chromolithography to printing on tin rather than paper — the kind of metal icons produced by the famous Moscow firm of Jacquot and Bonacœur (in Russian Жако и Бонакер / Zhako i Bonaker), examples of which are still found on the antique icon market today.  Those colorful images, which had a richer appearance than chromolithographs on paper,  drew even more customers away from painted to printed icons, and the business of the traditional hand-painted icon workshops declined sharply.  The painters could not easily compete, and some began turning to cheaply-painted icons in an attempt to somehow stay in business.

So threatened was the long tradition of Russian icon painting, that in 1900 Tsar Nicholas II established a special committee for its preservation, the Комитет попечительства о русской иконописи / Komitet popechitel’stva o russkoy ikonopisi — “Committee for Guardianship of Russian Icon Painting.”  It had three objectives:

  1.  The banning of printed icons;
  2.  The printing of podlinniki — painter’s manuals — to preserve the old traditions of how saints and scenes were depicted.
  3.  The establishment of workshops for the teaching of icon painting.

It was too little too late. The printed icon business had become well-established and heavily patronized in Russia.  To bring out the big guns, the “Holy Governing Synod” of the Russian Orthodox Church attempted to ban the printing of icons in monasteries and churches, and even attempted to stop the sale of the tin icons of Jaquot and Bonaker.  They failed miserably.  For ordinary Russians, it was a matter of economics.  Printed icons, whether on paper or tin, were much less expensive than painted icons, and easily served the same purpose.  When one considers icons not as “art” but as religious implements made for a purpose, there is no difference.

The icon painting workshops continued their severe decline into the last days of the reign of Tsar Nicholas, and then came the blow that finished them off — the rise of the Russian Communist State.  That is when some of the old icon painters turned to other ways of making a living, like those of Palekh, who began to paint laquerware boxes with colorful images taken from fairy tales or from “Socialist life.”  As a general rule of thumb, the old period of Russian icon painting may be considered to have ended in 1917, though of course some icons were still painted later, here and there.

In 1944 the making of printed icons under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church began again, this time with silk-screened images — a process which lends itself easily the creation of icons, which had originally been painted by s system of layering colors much like that followed in silk screening.  And of course the revival of religious art — including painted icons — only increased with the fall of Communism.  Today Russia produces painted icons, printed icons, and silk-screened icons — among other kinds.  But the world has changed, and so has Russian culture.

Let’s look more closely at another icon printed by Fesenko, one of those included in his album of such chromolithographs.  Here is the Sobor Svaytuikh Semi Arkhangelov — the “Assembly of the Seven Archangels”:

It depicts the Archangels with their symbols (which may vary from icon to icon):
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a lily and lantern (but traditionally a vessel of medicaments), Gabriel with a chalice (traditionally a blossoming lily), /Seraphiel/Selaphiel with a crown (traditionally with hands crossed in prayer), Yegudiel with hands crossed in prayer (traditionally with a crown; in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers/roses, (traditionally on a white cloth).

If we look at the printing at the base, we see the title of the image, but we also see other information typical of such prints:

Оть С. Петербургского Духовного цензурного Комитета печатать дозволяется. С.-Петербургь, 3 Октября 1897 г.  Архимандрить Клименть. Хромолитография Е. И. Фесенко вь Одесе.
Собственность издания Хромолитографии Е. И. Фесенко вь Одесе

It means essentially:
“Printing approved by the St. Petersburg Spiritual Censorship Committee.  St. Petersburg, 3rd October, year 1897.  Archimandrite Kliment.  Chromolithography of E. I. Fesenko in Odessa.
Print property of the Chromolithography of E. I. Fesenko in Odessa.”

We see the approval of the censorship board, the place of approval, the date of approval, and the name of the approving cleric, as well as the name of the printer and place of publication.  So religious publications in Tsarist Russia — even prints — were subject to review by the censorship committee of the Synod, the authority at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church at that time.  Such censorship was rather like the “Imprimatur” found in books approved for printing by Roman Catholic authorities declaring them free of material contrary to approved doctrine.

Now let’s turn back to the fellow in the first image above — Nikita the Stylite.

According to tradition, Nikita was born in Pereslavl Zalesskiy in the 12th century.  He grew to become a violent and cruel tax collector, keeping a substantial portion of what he rapaciously took for himself.  That went on for years.

One day Nikita went to church, and there he was thunderstruck when he heard spoken the words of Isaiah 1:16-17:

Измыйтеся, (и) чисти будите, отимите лукавства от душ ваших пред очима Моима, престаните от лукавств ваших.  Научитеся добро творити, взыщите суда, избавите обидимаго, судите сиру и оправдите вдовицу….

Wash yourselves, and become  clean; remove the evil of your souls from before my eyes; cease from your evil.  Learn to do good, seek judgment, rescue the oppressed, judge the orphan and plead for the widow.”

He could not sleep that night.  The next morning, he decided to get the matter off his mind by throwing a party for his friends.  But when his wife was preparing food, she saw the meat running with blood, and when it was put in the cooking pot, she was horrified to find a bloody foam on the top, and then a human head popped up in it, along with an arm and a leg.  She ran to Nikita, and when he looked, he saw the same thing.  He realized that his evil ways as a plundering tax collector had been murder for the people.

He then went to the Nikitskiy Monastery not far from Pereslavl.  There he confessed his evil deeds with tears, but the hegumen was not certain of his repentance.  So he told Nikita to show his sincerity by standing at the Monastery gate, telling all who passed by of his evil deeds.  Nikita agreed to this, and began carrying out his penance.  He declared his evil ways to all passing, for three days.  Then he went to a dirty, swampy place, took off all his clothes, and sat down naked in the mucky water, praying to God.  When the hegumen sent a monk to check on him, he found Nikita sitting in the swamp, covered with mosquitoes and blood.

Viewing that as a sign of sincere repentance, the hegumen took Nikita into the monastery and made him a monk.

Once he had become a monk, Nikita became fanatical about it, spending sleepless nights in prayer and fasting.  He had terrifying visions, which he interpreted as the wiles of the devil, and so he made the sign of the cross and called on the Great Martyr Nikita for aid.  It is said that through all of these privations and prayers, Nikita gained the ability to work miracles, and he became noted locally as a healer.

Prince Mikhail of Chernigov suffered from a kind of paralysis … and when he heard about the abilities of Nikita, he ordered that he be taken to see him.  The tradition relates that on the way,  the retinue met a monk who said he was from Nikita’s monastery.  Mikhail asked the monk about the supposed wonderworker, and the fellow replied that Nikita was just a fake — a deceiver.

After the Prince had continued some distance farther, he met another fellow who told the Prince he was wasting his time going to see Nikita.  Nonetheless, the Prince proceeded, and when his retinue neared the monastery, he ordered a tent erected, and sent a boyar to the monastery to inform them that he wanted to see Nikita.

Before the boyar arrived, a monk appeared to him — blind, and holding a shovel in his hands.  He said that Nikita had died, and that he had just buried him.

Now the boyar was a clever fellow, and realized that these different  men who were trying to obstruct the visit of the Prince to Nikita were all just a demon taking on different forms.  So he spoke a prayer that made the demon stand immovable just where he was, while the boyar went on to see Nikita, who was living atop a pillar.  He told him of the Prince’s affliction, and Nikita gave him his staff to take to the Prince.  When the Prince held the staff, he was able to stand wand walk on his own legs to see the saint.

When Nikita was told about the mischievous obstructing demon, he commanded the demon to stand motionless before his pillar, where everyone could see him, for three hours (notice the common “three” motif here?).  After the time was up, the demon swore an oath that he would never do evil again, and vanished.  The Prince made a rich gift to the monastery, and returned home.  Nikita continued to work miracles of healing, and his fame grew.

Some relatives came to see him to ask for help.  They saw that Nikita had burdened himself by wearing chains to which three crosses were fastened, as penance.  Now these chains had been worn to a shining condition by constant rubbing against Nikita’s body, and the relatives, seeing this, mistakenly thought they were made of silver.  They made an evil plan to steal them.  So they came by night to Nikita’s pillar, killed him, wrapped his chains and crosses in a canvas, and absconded.  So Nikita died violently on the 24th of May, 1186.

The next morning a cleric discovered the body and informed the hegumen, who found it still warm and emitting a fragrance.

The robbers, meanwhile, had reached the Volga River.  When they opened their cloth to look at the chains, they were so disgusted to find them merely polished iron that they threw them in the river, not far from the Monastery of St. Peter near the city of Yaroslavl.

The next night a monk from the St. Peter Monastery, named Simeon, noticed three brilliantly-shining pillars not far from the shore, reaching from earth to heaven.  When he told the arkhimandrite, he — together with the head of the city and a crowd of people — went to the river bank.  As they did so, they saw the chains miraculously rise to the surface of the water, and float like dry wood to the shore.  Seeing this, they took the chains, and singing hymns, set off with them toward the city.  On the way they met a lame man, who was healed when touched by the crosses on the chains.  They worked more healing miracles, and later Nikita himself appeared to Simeon, telling him that the chains should be placed on Nikita’s coffin.  So they were taken from Yaroslavl to Pereslavl and placed in the tomb with Nikita’s body.

Now as we can see, this all forms a kind of folk tale, which is typical of the stories of the Eastern Orthodox saints.

We should take a look at the scroll held by Nikita, showing his most common inscription:

It reads:



Ruler Christ, Tsar, forgive me, a fallen one; raise the one lost in vice from the excrement of sin.