I always enjoy the photos readers send for identification.  I recently received some of a very well-painted old Russian triptych.  It appears to be in untouched condition, still with its original varnish.  That makes the surface a bit dark, but it also is interesting to see icons that have not had the varnish removed — as long as it has not darkened too much.

Here it is:

(Photo courtesy of Gj. Bledar)

Let’s look more closely at the central image:

We can see that it is an icon of the New Testament Trinity type, showing Jesus enthroned in heaven, with Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) to his right, and the Holy Spirit as dove between their heads.  In the center is an orb surmounted by a cross, symbolizing their cosmic rule.  At left is Mary, called “Mother of God” in Eastern Orthodoxy, and to the right is John the Forerunner (the Baptist), both approaching the throne with their petitions on behalf of human believers.  Their presence — along with the saints in the outer two wings of the triptych — make it a New Testament Trinity in the Deisis form.  In the four corners are the symbols of the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At the base is a seraph, and the odd kind of ring-shaped, winged angels called “Thrones.”

The saints in the two side panels are all quite notable saints:

Here is the left side:

Here is another view of the left:

The saints depicted are, from top left to right:

1.  Holy Venerable Makariy (Macarius)
2.  Holy Venerable Feodor (Theodore)
3.  Holy Venerable Evdokiya (Eudocia)
4.  Holy Great Martyr Georgiy (George)
5.  Holy Filipp, Metropolitan of Moscow (Philip)
6.  Holy Petr, Metropolitan of Moscow (Peter)
7.  Holy Aleksiy, Metropolitan of Moscow (Alexei)
8.  Holy Nikolai Chudotvorets (Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra)
9.  Holy Apostle Andrey (Andrew the First-called)
10. The Holy Guardian Angel

And here is the right side:

And another view of the right side:

The saints depicted are (from top left):

11.   Holy Venerable Feodosiy Pecherskiy (Theodosius of the Pecherskaya Lavra)
12.  Holy Sergiy of Radonezh (Sergius)
13.  Holy Mariya Egipetskaya (Mary of Egypt)
14.  Holy Antoniy Pecherskiy (Anthony of the Pecherskaya Lavra)
15.  Holy Venerable Zosima Solovetskiy (Zosima of Solovetsk Monastery)
16.  Holy Savatiy Solovetskiy (Sabbatius of the Solovetsk Monastery)
17.  Holy Great Martyr Dimitriy (Demetrius)
18.  Holy Vasility Velikiy (Basil the Great)
19.  Holy Grigoriy Bogoslov (Gregory the Theologian)
20.  Holy Ioann Zlatoust (John Chrysostom)

You perhaps noted that there are some common linkings in this image of noted saints usually found together, often in their own icons.  They are:
1.  George and Demetrius, the warrior “great martyrs”;
2.  Zosima and Savatiy/Savvatiy of Solovetsk Monastery in the White Sea;
3.  Antoniy and Feodosiy of the Pecherskaya Lavra in Kiyev/Kiev;
4.  Petr, Aleksiy and Filipp, Metropolitans of Moscow (often shown with Metropolitan Iona);
5.  Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, commonly known as the “Three Hierarchs.”

On the reverse of the central panel, a “Golgotha Cross” (Голгофский Крест / Golgofskiy Krest) is painted:

I have discussed the Golgotha Cross in earlier postings.  The abbreviations on this one are:

ISUS KHRISTOS [Old Believer form]

Then the abbreviation for СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ /SUIN” BOZHIY —
“Son of God.”

К     Т
K, for Kopie — “spear,” and T for T for Trost’— “reed.”  The former identifies the lance at left, and the latter the long reed at right, bearing a sponge at its top.  Note that in old icon inscriptions “T” often looks rather like an “M,” so that is a very helpful tip.

“[He] Conquers.”

Then come the letters


They abbreviate

“The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”


Г  Г
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

Finally, by the skull of Adam, we see

Г  А
“[The] SKULL [literally “head”] [of] ADAM”

My thanks to Gj. Bledar for permission to use the photos of his icon.



Yes.  You read the title correctly.  Leo Tolstoy would have been horrified.  But probably not surprised.

In previous postings, we have seen that in Russia, icons were sometimes used for nationalistic, military and political purposes.  Now that icon painting is having a revival in Russia, there is also a strong trend toward the creation of such new icons.

Here, for example, is a recent icon some may find visually surprising:


He certainly does not look like the conventional image of a saint, does he, with his military uniform, medals, and telescope and sword in hand.

His icons, however, seem to be quite popular in the modern Russian icon market.

Who is he?  Well, it all goes back to the year 2001, when Feodor Feodorovich Ushakov (Фёдор Фёдорович Ушаков — 1745-1817) was declared a “local saint” of Orthodoxy in Saransk Diocese in the Russian Republic of Mordovia; and in 2004 he was declared a saint to be venerated by the entire Russian Orthodox Church.  Then,  in 2005,  Patriarch Alexei II, as head of the  Russian Orthodox Church, named this late 18th-early 19th century admiral of the Russian Imperial Navy patron saint of nuclear armed, strategic long-distance bombers.  He is also patron saint of the Russian Navy.

His title inscriptions are usually some shorter or longer version of:




Some of his icons show him with powdered wig, and some show him — rather incongruously — in byzantine garb.   Other icons depict him with scenes from his military life, such as battleships firing cannon and ships aflame.  I will not go into the lengthy description of his life and battles (there is much information elsewhere online), but will note simply that among his acts was the construction of the Russian naval base in Sebastopol/Sevastopol in the late 18th century, after the annexation of Crimea by Tsarist Russia — something we still see the effects of today. Ushakov was made commander of that port.

It is worth knowing, however, that in many of his icons, he holds a scroll reading:

Не отчаивайтесь! Сии грозные бури обратятся к славе России
“Do not despair!  These terrible storms will turn to the glory of Russia.”

The recent icon shown on this page appears to have been designed after a painting by Pyotr Bazhanov (Петр Бажанов), 1851-1913:




Today we will look at a couple of Russian icons of a type you already should recognize– the “New Testament Trinity,” so called to distinguish it from the Old Testament Trinity icon in the form of the three angels that appeared to the patriarch Abraham at the Oak of Mamre.

The reason for revisiting this type is to add a couple of Church Slavic inscriptions sometimes found on New Testament Trinity icons to your repertoire.  Here is the first icon:

As you know (I hope!), it depicts the Trinity as Jesus sitting on the throne with God the Father, with the Holy Spirit hovering above in the form of a dove.  At left is Mary, at right John the Forerunner (the Baptist).  The throne is supported by Seraphim, and surrounded by a ring of cherubim, a single one of which is in the middle between the Father and Son.  Symbols of the Four Evangelists extend from the blue ring of cherubim.  The Archangel Michael is visible at upper left, and the Archangel Gabriel at upper right.

Now on to the main topic of discussion — the inscription above Jesus and God the Father.  We will enlarge it, and view it in two parts.  Here is the left side:

We are concerned with the inscription that is above the Gospod’ Vsederzhitel’ (Lord Almighty) title above the halo of Jesus.  It reads:

Blagoslovenno Tsarstvo…
“Blessed-is [the] Kingdom…

And here it continues on the right side, above the Gospod’ Savaof’ (“Lord Sabaoth”) title of God the Father:

It reads ..ОЦА И С[Ы]НА И С[ВЯ]ТАГО Д[У]ХА
…Otsa i Suina i Svyatago Dukha
“…[of the] Father and [of the] Son and [of the] Holy Spirit.”

So all together, the inscription is this:


Now we will look at an inscription on another icon, heavily ornamented with baroque designs in the border:

We need to look more closely to see the inscription.  It is in the inner ring of cherubim:

It is a bit damaged, and tends to fade out in the bottom half of the circle.  But if we look at the more clear part in the upper half, we can determine what it says.

Here is the left side of it:

And here is the right side:

Because half of the inscription is so worn as to be illegible, we must work with what is there.  Remember that in the case of unfamiliar inscriptions, the procedure is to look for words you recognize.  Because this is a circular inscription, we have to find the beginning.  If we look on the right side, we see these words:

The first word is a bit faint, but after it we can clearly see:


And if we are clever, we might decide that the next word is МОЕМУ/MOEMOU

So it would read

…[the] Lord [to] Lord My…
“..The Lord to my Lord…”

Where have we heard that before?  Well, if you are at all familiar with the Psalms and the Gospel “of Matthew,” you will recognize it as the beginning of this phrase:

The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.

Now if we look at that quote in the Church Slavic Bible, we find it is right at the beginning of Psalm 109 (110 KJV):

Reche Gospod’ Gospodevi moemu: syedi odesnuiu mene, dondezhe polozhu vragi tvoya podnozhie nog” tvoikh”.
Zhezl” silui poslet” ti Gospod’ ot Siona, i gospodstvuy posredye vragov” tvoikh”.
S” toboiu nachalo v” den’ silui tvoeya, vo svyetlostekh” svyatuikh” tvoikh”: iz chreva prezhde dennitsui rodikh” tya.

The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.
The Lord shall send the rod of your strength out of Zion: and rule in the midst of your enemies.
With you is dominion in the day of your power, in the splendors of your saints: I have begotten you from the womb before the morning.”

We can see on the left side of the icon the words “ot Siona” — “out of Zion,” so that just confirms that we have found the right inscription, though in the icon it ends about there and does not include the last line of verse 3, which we have seen before:

iz chreva prezhde dennitsui rodikh” tya.
“I have begotten you from the womb before the morning.”

If you do not remember where we saw that line in a previous icon inscription, you will find it in the discussion of the last icon pictured in this posting:

It is not unusual to find this “The Lord said to my Lord” inscription on icons of the New Testament Trinity, so now you will recognize it when you see it.



Here is today’s icon type:

To find out what it is, we need only read the title inscription on the banner that is at the top:

As you can see, it is rather long — so we shall take it part by part:

The first word is ОБРАЗ, with the final З written lying just above the A.  If you have been reading this site for some time (or you can go to the archives for older postings), you will recognize ОБРАЗ/Obraz as the word for “image.”  The saints below are Vasiliy Velikiy (Basil the Great) and the Meter Theou (Mother of God);

ЧЕСТНАГО — CHESTNAGO (remember that the -ago suffix indicates an “of” form);

И ЖИВОТВОРЯЩАГО КРЕСТА –– I ZHIVOTVORYASHCHAGO KRESTA, with the IC XC abbreviation for Jesus just below);

ГОСПОДЬНЯ НА ИСТОЧНIКЬ (ИСТОЧНИКЬ ) — GOSPOD’NYA NA ISTOCHNIK’, with John the Forerunner and Grigoriy Bogoslov (Gregory the Theologian) just below;

Now if we put the whole inscription together, we get:




So this icon type is the “Image of the Procession of the Honorable and Life-creating (we can say “life-giving” in English) Cross of the Lord to the Wellspring” (or in English we can just say spring or fountain).

We can call it:
The Image of the Procession of the Honorable and Life-giving Cross of the Lord to the Fountain.”  It represents the origin of a minor church festival that takes place on August 1st (August 14th in the “new style” calendar).

The festival has a rather confused origin, being associated with four different events.

The first two were victories in battle:

1.  The victory of the Russian forces of Great Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy against the Bulgarians on August 1st, 1164; an icon of Mary and an image of the cross were used by the Russians in the Battle.

2.  The victory of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel (1143-1180) over the Saracens — also on August 1, in which an icon of Mary and an image of the cross were also said to have been used.

3.  The annual practice, in the city of Constantinople, of taking what was supposed to be the wood of the cross of Jesus from the Royal Treasury on July 31st, and carrying it through the streets to dispel disease, placing it on the altar of the Church of Holy Wisdom, then, on the following day, taking it to the Dormition Church, and letting it be venerated by the people.  Then on August 14th it was taken back to the Imperial palace.

4.  There was also a custom in Constantinople of consecrating the waters and the springs, generally on the 1st of each month, and with this the celebration of the supposed “true cross” was also associated.

In any case, what we see in the icon is the blessing of the waters in Constantinople with the cross, as depicted in this portion, with the Emperor and Empress and a crowd of people and clerics looking on as the cross is used to bless the  waters in a stone wellspring from which a stream flows:

All kinds of people come to the sanctified water flowing from the wellspring, reminiscent of the crowds coming to the waters in the Живоносный источник/Zhivonosnuiy Istochnik/”Life-giving Fountain” type.  Here we see one fellow dipping water from the stream, two others giving it to a prostrate ill woman, and a crippled man with pads on his legs and hands:

Here an ill girl, holding her cup, is brought to the stream in a wheelbarrow;

At right, a boy bathes in the waters as a standing man drinks them from a glass.  And at far right, a demon is expelled from the mouth of a possessed man:

All of this elaborate scene takes place outside the walls of Constantinople.  Note the figure holding the icon of Jesus, with its decorative cloth hanging below it.

If we return to the sky above, we see Jesus blessing from Heaven, with Mary at left and John the Forerunner at right:

Below him are three cherubim, with their title in Slavic separated among the three halos, like this:


Херувими/Kheruvimi — “Cherubim.”

Below those three is an angel identified only as a “Holy Angel of the Lord” (with “Holy” and “Lord” abbreviated).

There is some variation from example to example of this type, most notably in who dips the cross into the wellspring in the central scene.  While in this example it is done by a поп/pop — a “priest,” as the Filimonov Podlinnik describes him, in others the cross is dipped by a standing “Angel of the Lord,”


in some by an “Angel of the Lord” flying down,


and in others by three “Angels of the Lord.”


The use of an angel is reminiscent of the story of the angel troubling the waters of the Pool of Bethesda in John 5, 1-5, and some icons of that type (the icon for the Sunday of the Paralytic) depict the angel.  Also, some examples depict the wellspring as cross-shaped instead of square or rectangular, as found also in some icons of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman — the “Woman at the Well.”

In Russia, this festival became associated also with the “Baptism” — the conversion — of Russia (actually, originally Kievan Rus, not what we know today as Russia) to Orthodox Christianity in 988 c.e.  On this day there is a lesser blessing of the waters in Russia.  Also, on August 14th now, “Honey Savior” (Медовый Спас/Medovuiy Spas) is celebrated.  It is a pre-Christian festival that was carried on into Christian times.  “Honey Savior” is the first of three such ancient autumn festivals, the following two being “Apple Savior” on August 19th and “Nut Savior” on August 29th.  On “Honey Savior,” people bring their honey from the hives to the church to be blessed, and believe it should not be eaten before that time.  So August 1st is, in folk belief, the beginning of autumn.

Because of its association with the “Baptism of Russia,” August 1st was also Мокрый Спас/Mokruiy Spas — “Wet Savior” — the day on which the waters were blessed, and people took their horses and cattle to the rivers and streams to be bathed.


If you have been reading this site from the beginning — and learning from it — it is very likely that you are now your town or city’s expert on icons — and perhaps even the expert in a wider region.  You should be able to deal with the greater percentage of the icons you encounter — able to read the title inscriptions on saints and recognize a great many icon types — even many of those less common.

But what are you going to do if you encounter an icon like this carved wooden example?

Well, you may recall that the thing to do when you encounter an unfamiliar icon is not to worry, but rather to look carefully at it to see if there is anything you might recognize from what you have learned.

Applying that to this image, you will quickly find it is not as unfamiliar as it appears at first glance.  For example, you should already be able to identify this portion and its inscriptions from our previous discussion of cross descriptions:

The letters may look a bit odd because they are carved instead of written, and rather stylized, but nonetheless a little thought will enable you to recognize them, from top to bottom, as abbreviating:


ISUS KHRISTOS [Old Believer form]

What looks like KM is actually
K, for Kopie — “spear,” and T for T for Trost’— “reed.”  The former identifies the lance at left, and the latter the long reed at right, bearing a sponge at its top.  Note that in old icon inscriptions “T” often looks rather like an “M,” so that is a very helpful tip.

Then comes

“Son of God.”

After that we find:

“[He] Conquers.”

Then come the letters


They abbreviate

“The Place of the Skull has become Paradise.”

And finally at the base, beside the skull, we find at left:
Г  А
“[The] SKULL [literally “head”] [of] ADAM”

And at right:
Г  Г
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

So already — just from what you have learned in previous postings, you will have made great progress in interpreting this icon.

Now let’s turn our attention to the long carved inscription at the top:

If you look at it carefully, it will gradually seem familiar.  Do not be deceived by the beginning two letters at upper left:

Here is another helpful tip.  We already saw that in old inscriptions, T often looks like “M.”  Similarly, Д (D) often looks like “A.”  So do not mistake the first letter for an A — it is actually Д (D) — and the second letter is the “A.”  So together these two letters form the word ДA (Da)

Now you may recall that ДA is not just the Russian word for “Yes.”  In Church Slavic, it is used to introduce a “let” sentence, like “Let him be called John.”  And if you think a moment, you may recall that there is a “Da” inscription that is often found on metal crosses and on painted icons of crosses.  Here it is the Old Believer form:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomu Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

If we compare that with the carved text, we can see that aside from insignificant variations, it is precisely the same text.  So now we have translated that text on the icon as well.

Next come these abbreviations.

We can see they are:

КВУ (remember the o with a v atop it is “ou” the “oo” sound,  У in modern Russian.)
КЦД (Yes, the Д here looks like “A,” but remember the tip given above.)
КБЯ (The inscription uses the old Church Slavic form of Я, which looks like an “A” with a vertical line below the crossbar.)

Now what on earth can we make of that?  Well, it is not as difficult as it looks, because you should already be familiar with the words abbreviated here.  They are found on the back of a great many of those large, cast brass Russian crosses, though you have probably not seen them in this abbreviated form.

They are the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the “Prayer of the Praise of the Cross” (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — so the abbreviations and their meaning are:

КХВВ = Крест Хранитель Всей Вселенной
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy
“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe”

ККЦ = Крест Красота Церковная
Krest krasota tserkovnaya
“The Cross is the beauty of the Church.”

КЦД  = Крест Царем Держава
Krest tsarem derzhava

“The Cross is the might of kings.”

КВУ = Крест Верным Утверждение
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

“The Cross is the confirmation of the faithful.”

КАС = Крест Ангелом Слава
Krest angelom slava
“The Cross is the glory of angels.”

КБЯ =Крест Бесом Язва
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the scourge of demons.”

So we find that those abbreviations, which looked quite mystifying at first, were really something you already knew.

Now we come to the most difficult part — those rows of letters at the outer sides:

The dark ones at the top, which we will read from the left to right sides, are:

Twice we see (in the carved version) the letter T written somewhat like M, but remember the tip above — we know they are both T.  And here is the meaning:





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

So even though the abbreviation omits the usual word svyatoe (“holy”), we can see this abbreviation is just the very common inscription usually found below the crossbeam in icons of the Crucifixion and on brass crosses  — again something you already know.

So we have passed that hurdle successfully.  Now comes the really cryptic part — the side inscriptions in red.  These will likely be new to you:


“Cryptic” of course means “hidden” or “secret,” and these really are mysterious, because there are often several ways of interpreting them, some quite peculiar.  I suspect that even the believers who used these icons often did not know what they meant, and just regarded them as a kind of magic charm.  Nonetheless, we will do what we can, giving some of the most commonly-found interpretations:

Бич Божий Бьёт Бесов
Bich Bozhiy b’yot Besov
“The scourge of God beats demons.”
Божия Благодать Биет Бесы
Bozhiya blagodat’ biet besui (from Maxim the Greek)
“God’s grace beats demons.”

Всей Вселенной Возвещает Веру
Vsey vselennoy vozveschchaet veru
“The whole universe announces the Faith.”
Возвращение В рай Всем Верным
“The return to Paradise of all the faithful.” (from Maxim the Greek)
Возвращение Вечное Верным В рай
Vozvrashchenie vechnoe vernuim v rai
“The eternal return of the faithful to Paradise.”
Велие Веселие Верующим В тя
“The great joy of believers in you.”

Всем Верным Возвращение В рай
Vsem vernuim vozvrashchenie v rai
“The return of all believers to Paradise.”

Древо Добро Досада Дьяволу
Drevo dobro dosada d’yavolu
“The Good Tree [i.e. the cross] is the sorrow of the Devil.”
древо добро диаволу досада
Drevo dobro diavolu dosada
“The good tree is the Devil’s sorrow.”

Древо Дарует Древнeе Достояние
Drevo daruet drevnee dostoyanie
“The tree [i.e. the cross] bestows the ancient inheritance.”

Нощь Неведения Не светла Неверным
Noshch’ nevedeniya ne svetla nevernuim
“The night of ignorance is not bright to unbelievers.”
Нощь Невидения Неверующих Низлагает
“The night of ignorance does not disprove unbelievers” [does not show them the error of their ways.”

Обрете Обретен От Бога От Елены
Obrete obreten ot Boga ot Elenui
“A finding [i.e. discovery] found from God by Helen” [referring to her supposed discovery of the cross].
Обретены Обретатель Обретен От бога
Obretenui obretatel’ obreten ot Boga
“The finding [discovery] of the finder is a find from God.”
оружие одоления ограждает обручники
“The weapon of victory protects the betrothed.”
обретены обретатель, обретен царицею Еленою от Бога
Obretenui obretatel’ obreten tsariteiu Elenoiu ot Boga
“The find of the finder is the finding [discovery] of Empress Helen, from God.”

Крест Крепость Константина К вере
The cross is the bastion of Constantine for the faith.”
Крест Христов Крепость царем Крепкая К вере (Максим Грек)
“The cross of Christ is the bastion to the emperor strong in faith.” (Maxim the Greek)

Пою Почитаю Поклоняюся Подножию Твоему [Владыко… ]
Poiu pochitaiu poklonyaiusya podnozhiu tvoemu [Vladiko…]
“I sing honoring, bowing at your feet, [Master…]”

Паки Подает По роду Поклоняющимся Ему.
Paki podaet po rodu poklonyaiushchimsya emy
“Still he offers to those bowing before him.”

Now as you might guess, given the variations — some quite odd — in interpretation of these last cryptograms, one cannot take their meaning in too limited or definite a fashion, because another “believer” may offer yet another and different interpretation familiar in his circle.  But at least these give an idea of some of the meanings that have been attached to these abbreviations.  As with similarly odd Greek abbreviations, it is likely that some of what we see has been corrupted over time or misunderstood.

This icon is a variant of the Голгофский крест/Golgofskiy krest/”Golgotha Cross,” and is usually referred to as the “Golgotha Cross in a Church,” or some slight variant of that.  It is called “in a Church” because as you see, the cross and its abbreviations are set within the design of a many-domed Russian church.



Today we will look at a moralizing “didactic” — that is, “teaching” icon type.   It is a kind of equivalent of the western European “Memento Mori” depictions — “Remembrance of Death” images, in this case showing a wealthy man dressed in rich clothing, along with the symbol of death.

In Russia, this type commonly is called Бренность Жизни/Brennost’ Zhizni or Бренная Жизнь/Brennaya Zhizn’ — “The Frailty of Life” or “Frail/Mortal Life,” or alternatively by the first words of the inscription it often bears:  Смертный человек/Smertnuiy chelovek — “Mortal Man.”

(Ikona i blagochestie, Tarasov, Progress-Traditsiya Press)

The key to understanding this icon type is found in the inscription held by the central figure:

Line by line, it is:

Смертный человек бойся того кто над тобою.
Smertnuiy chelovek boisya togo kto nad toboiu.
“Mortal man, fear him who is above you.”

Не уйдёшь от того, кто за тобою.
Ne uidyosh’ ot togo kto za toboiu.
“You will not escape from him who is behind you”

Не надейся на то что пред тобою.
Ne nedisya na to cho pred toboiu.
“Do not rely on that which is before you.

Не минуешь того, что под тобою.
Ne minuesh’ togo, chto pod toboiu.
“Do not overlook that which is beneath you.”

The line arrangement may differ from version to version, and sometimes it ends with:

Жизнь наша яко свеча весело светит и яко дым скоро исчезает.
Zhizn’ nasha yako svecha veselo svetit i yako duim skoro ischezaet.
“Our life is like a candle that cheerfully shines, and like smoke it soon vanishes.”

We see lines of the text illustrated in the icon.

At center is the figure symbolizing “mortal man”:

“Mortal man, fear him who is above you.”

“Him who is above you” is Jesus, shown in the clouds of heaven.

“You will not escape from him who is behind you”

“Him who is behind you” is Death (Смерть/Smert’), shown as a skeleton wielding a scythe, about to cut down the person before him.

“Do not rely on that which is before you.”

“That which is before you” is earthly power and wealth, symbolized by a crown and scepter, and by a pile and full box of сребро и злато/srebro i zlato — “silver and gold.”

“That which is beneath you” is Гробъ/Grob — the coffin — the grave, the tomb.

This icon then, is warning the believer to fear God, because one will not escape death, and cannot rely on earthly power and wealth for protection, and no one evades the grave.

Here is another rendering of the type.  In this icon, the text is placed at the base rather than on a scroll in the hand of the man, and “him who is above” is depicted as Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in the heavens above, instead of Jesus.

(Tretyakov Gallery)

Icons of this type are generally from the 18th-19th centuries, likely based on western European engravings.



There are some troubling and morally disturbing stories in the Bible.  Among these is the account of Job.  In it, Yahweh (Lord Sabaoth in icons) plays an abhorrently cruel game with one of the “sons of God” called “The Accuser,” using human lives as pawns.

Here is a remarkably intricate icon.  If we look at the abbreviated Vyaz title inscription —



— we see this icon represents Житие Праведного Иова Многострадального/Zhitie Pravednogo Iova Mnogostradal’nogo — “[The] Life of Venerable Righteous Job [the] Much-suffering.”  That is, of the Old Testament eponymous character in the Book of Job.

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

The Hebrew text relates:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and the Accuser also came among them.”  (Job 1:6)

“The Accuser” (or “Adversary” — ha Satan in Hebrew) — later became a proper name — “Satan.”  The Greek Septuagint translation — the Bible used by the early Christians — presents it like this, with an interpretive rendering:

Καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἡ ἡμέρα αὕτη, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἦλθον οἱ ἄγγελοι τοῦ Θεοῦ παραστῆναι ἐνώπιον τοῦ Κυρίου, καὶ ὁ διάβολος ἦλθε μετ᾿ αὐτῶν.

“And it happened on that day, and behold, the angels of God appeared before the Lord, and the Devil came with them.”

The game is set up like this:

“And Yahweh said to the Accuser, ‘From where have you come?’  And Satan answered, ‘From roaming on the earth, and from walking up and down.’  And Yahweh said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a man perfect and upright, and one that fears God (ha Elohim) and avoids evil?'”

The Accuser replies essentially, “Sure, of course he fears you.  But that is because you have protected him and made him very prosperous and wealthy.  But take all that away, and he will curse you to your face.”

Yahweh basically replies, “He is in your power.  Go and do to him whatever you want, just don’t harm him physically.”

At the very top of the icon, we see “the Accuser” as he was later understood in Christianity as Satan — the Devil — a very dark, winged figure with a tail, standing before Lord Sabaoth (God the Father), who is seated on his throne in heaven

The Accuser gets to work right away.

First, Job’s oxen and asses are stolen, and his servants killed.
Then fire falls from heaven and burns up Job’s sheep and his shepherds as well.
Job’s camels are stolen, along with more servants.
Then a great wind arises, collapsing the house in which Job’s seven sons and three daughters are, killing them all.

Faced with all this, Job ritually laments, but does not blame God.

The icon depicts Job’s herds and servants here and there, and at lower left the house collapsing and killing all his children.

So Job goes from being very wealthy, as shown here —

to losing all his possessions and his children.

The Accuser returns again to Yahweh, who once more asks if he has seen how great God’s servant Job is.  The Accuser says basically, “Sure, but that is because you have not harmed him physically.”  So Yahweh tells Satan to go and afflict Job’s body, just not to kill him.

The Accuser — empowered by God to test Job — then covers Job’s body with sores.  Job takes to sitting on a manure pile outside the city.  His wife, now reduced to poverty, comes to him and tells him to curse God and die.  But Job will not.

Much of the Book of Job is taken up with long and rather tedious — though at times poetic — monologues as well as dialogues between Job and three friends who all give their opinions on his situation and how he should react.

The long tale ends with Job acknowledging the horrible things God has done to him, but nonetheless not cursing God, saying essentially, “Well, that’s God for you — he does what he wants, and his actions are incomprehensible, so who am I to complain?”

Thus Yahweh wins the bet with the Accuser, and once more he gives Job herds, flocks, and servants, and he even gives him seven more sons and three more daughters to replace those he has (though the Accuser) killed.  So Job is back to being wealthy, with lots of new children to give him descendants.

It is an odd ending, and given the vagaries and uncertainties of interpreting the Hebrew text, some think that Job finally repents of thinking God unjust, while others think he still considers God completely unfair but nonetheless will not curse him, and so is rewarded with replacement of his lost possessions (as if new sons and daughters somehow make up for the old being killed, not to mention the dead servants and animals).

The text of Job is rather stylized and repetitious, but it has given English literature  — through the King James translation — some notable quotes, among them:

“Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (5:7)

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” (13:15)

” I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” (19:20 — adapted as the title of a Thornton Wilder play)

Herman Melville’s great and dark novel Moby Dick also borrows a line near its end, applying it to Ishmael, the only survivor of the crew of the whaling ship Pequod.  It is repeated four times in Job 1 by messengers who come to tell Job of the terrible catastrophes that have befallen him:

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

There is yet something to consider.  How did the Accuser — sometimes rendered as Adversary — one of the “Sons of God” in Job — come to be later known as Satan, “the Devil”?  This was a development over time.  In the Hebrew Bible, he is usually called “ha Satan” — “The Accuser/Adversary,” — describing what he does rather than being used as a proper name.  He was certainly not the cosmic opponent of God that one later finds in the New Testament.

Satan — the Devil — appears gradually over time as the functions of Yahweh — the Old Testament god — become divided.  Originally Yahweh was the one who caused both good and evil, so there was no place for a cosmic opponent:

“I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am Yahweh.” (Isaiah 45:&)

“Is the trumpet blown in a city and the people are not afraid?  If there is evil in a city, has not Yahweh done it?” (Amos 3:6)

This view eventually raised the same problem discussed in Job:  God (Yahweh) as the source of both good and bad — doing both good and evil, according to whim.  This problem of how Yahweh could be both good and evil — like a dysfunctional father — seems to have bothered people, because over time the Bible texts take this split personality and divides it between two beings — Yahweh and Satan.  We can see this by examining two accounts of the same event, one earlier, one later.

In 2 Samuel 24:1 we read:

And again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (This refers to a census of the people, which it was considered wrong for David to number; so Yahweh is inciting David to do an evil deed.)

The later (by centuries) account of the same event in 1 Chronicles 21:1, however, says:

“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.”

So in the earlier account, the angry Yahweh incites David to take a census of Israel and Judah.  But in the later account, the inciting of David is done by Satan, now used as a proper name (Satan, not “ha Satan“).

We find the earlier used of the term satan as meaning an adversary in 1 Samuel 29:4:

“But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him, and the commanders of the Philistines said to him, “Make the man go back, that he may return to his place where you have assigned him, and do not let him go down to battle with us, or in the battle he may become as an adversary [le satan] to us”

The first time we find mention of an adversary (satan) who is not a human is in Numbers 22:22-35, the very peculiar tale of Balaam and the talking ass.  In it, the prophet Balaam is riding his ass, but the ass refuses to continue on the path because it is blocked by an angel of Yahweh standing with drawn sword:

“But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the Yahweh took his stand in the way as an adversary [le satan] against him.” (22:22)

The ass sees the angel, but Balaam does not, so he repeatedly beats the ass — who finally says,

“What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Then Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” The ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”

Here is an image of Balaam and his ass and the angel — a detail from a 14th century “Jesse Tree” fresco in the Dechani Monastery in Serbia:


A very strong influence on Hebrew belief concerning the change from Yahweh as the source of both good and evil to a cosmic conflict between a good God and an evil Satan was likely Persian Zoroastrianism, which appeared around 600 b.c.e.  In it, God (called Ahura Mazda) is all good; the evil in the universe comes from Ahriman, his supernatural opponent.  Not surprisingly, both Job and Chronicles are dated to roughly the same period as the popularity of Zoroastrian belief.

To make a long story short, the evolution of Satan as a cosmic opponent takes a big leap during the period between the Old and New Testaments, and by the time we get to the New Testament, we find Satan as the very embodiment of evil, with demonic minions in his service.  In the Apocalypse (Revelation of John), we find mention of a heavenly war in which Michael and his angels fight against the Dragon and his angels, and the latter are defeated and cast out of heaven.  In Christian belief, the Dragon is read back into the Old Testament as far as the Creation of Adam and Eve, where he becomes the serpent who tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit — though originally the serpent was just a clever walking snake, who as punishment for tempting Eve is made to crawl on his stomach instead of walking:

 “And Yahweh God said to the serpent, Because you hast done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:14)

Thus Satan — the Devil — the Dragon — the Serpent — becomes an integral part of Christian theology, instead of just the  “Accuser” or “Adversary” he was originally in Hebrew thought.