What does this handsome young fellow have in common with the Archangel Michael?

(Vatican Museums)

When Christianity displaced the old Greco-Roman gods, Michael eventually took over the duties of the fellow above — the god Hermes/Mercury — as the conductor of the soul into the afterlife.  The term for such a person is psychopomp, from the Greek ψυχοπομπός/psychopompós, meaning “soul guide.” So both Hermes and Michael are psychopomps.  And before Hermes, there was Anubis and Wepwawet in Egypt, who performed similar functions.  So the names change, but the notion continues.

I hope you remember the previous discussion of the Arkhistrategos Michael and the two variants when there is a person beneath him.

On the one hand, it may be the Devil, whose form may range from human-appearing to human with “bat wings” etc., to a monstrous appearance, as in this 18th century Russian “State Church” icon:

On the other hand, the person beneath Michael may be a dying or dead man, bringing us back to Michael’s role as psychopomp, as in this Greek-inscribed example from the 17th century:

(Museum of the Greek Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, Venice)

Michael stands on a male body, its eyes closed in death:

Above the body is this inscription:

It reads:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα

It is a shortened version of this:

Φρήξον ψυχή μου τα ορώμενα, φρήξετε πάντες αδελφοί το πικρόν ποτήριον του θανάτου

Frexon psukhe mou ta oromena, frexete pantes adelphoi to pikron poterion tou thanatou

“Tremble, my soul, at the sight, tremble all, brothers, at the bitter cup of death.”

If we look at Michael’s upraised left hand, we can see that he holds the soul of the dead man in the form of an infant wrapped in what the King James Bible calls “swaddling clothes.”  It comes from the old practice of binding infants in strips of cloth to restrain their movements and calm them — a practice that largely fell out of use in Europe in the 17th century.  In icons it is common to depict the soul of the dead as a new-born infant.

We see the same depiction of the soul as infant in icons of the Dormition, in which it is the soul of Mary.

For the previous discussion of Michael and the person beneath him as the “soul of the rich man,” go to this posting:


And what is done with the soul?  Well, in a practice that goes all the way back to the religion of ancient Egypt, Michael weighs the soul of the dead to see if its good deeds outweigh the bad — and that determines its fate in the afterlife, whether Heaven or Hades/Hell — as in this recent depiction:

Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Here — on an old Egyptian papyrus — is a depiction of Anubis weighing the heart of the dead person, to decide the fate of the person in the afterlife:

And here is a western European depiction of Michael weighing souls at the Last Judgment — a detail from the Beune altarpiece, by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464):




A reader mentioned this icon type:

It is called the “Terebinskiya/Terebinskaya/ Most Holy Mother of God.”  It is counted among the supposedly “wonderworking” Marian icons, but there is not much to say about it, because not much is known about it, and what is known is vague and uncertain.

The standard accounts say that it was among the belongings of a landowner named Mikhail Obutkov, who had a wooden church in honor of St. Nicholas built in 1492  at the village then called Terebeni.  After building the church, Obutkov is said to have placed two of his most valued icons in the church.  One was of Nicholas, the other was the “Terebinskaya” icon of Mary.

There is another account saying that the icon miraculously appeared to a boy near the Terebinsk Monastery, founded in 1641 on or near the site of Obutkov’s old church.  So we can tell right off that the origin of the icon is uncertain.

The icon became known as a “wonderworker” in 1654, and it supposedly helped to end a plague of cholera.  In any case, something happened to the original Terebinskaya icon, which no longer exists.  The icon now known as the Terebinskaya is a copy kept in the Nikolo-Terebenskaya Hermitage of the Tver Diocese (what is today the Nikolo-Terebensk Convent), near the Mologa River.  That means what was once a male monastery is today a nunnery.

Some examples of the icon — like that above — make it rather unclear what the curved surface is that the child Jesus is standing on — but others make it quite explicitly a globe. In others there is no globe at all, and Jesus is standing either on a curve in Mary’s garments or on her knees.

The name is sometimes found as “Terebenskaya.”


At the end of the 1600s – beginning of the 1700s, numbers of Old Believers migrated and settled in the region of the villages of Vetka and Starodub.  Today Vetka is in Belarus, and Starodub not far across the Russian border to the East, in Briansk/Bryansk Oblast.  Both are not far north of the Ukrainian border.  Over the years the Old Believers there suffered much severe persecution from the joint efforts of the Russian State Church and government, but nonetheless the communities survived, though by the 19th century Vetka had faded and Starodub became the chief Old Believer center in that area.

If we look at this old map, there are three red dots from the top to the “Tschernigow” name in large letters.  The third red dot down from the top is the Old Believer settlement of Starodub.  Go straight West from Starodub, and the first village you come to is “Schelomy” — Shelomy, where the “Imperial Family” icon I discussed in this previous posting was painted:


And if we continue West from Shelomy and cross the red border, we come to Wjetka — “Vetka.”  These were all Old Believer settlements.  To help orient yourself, in the lower left-hand corner of the map is the city of Kijew — Kyiv — in Ukraine:

“Vetka” is the name given to Old Believer icons painted in this region, no matter what the village.  “Vetka” Old Believers were popovtsuiy, meaning they had priests.  That is why one often finds Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) — God the Father — on Vetka icons, unlike those of the bezpopovtsuiy (“without priests”) Old Believers, who tended to use the “Not Made by Hands” image where Lord Sabaoth would normally be found in many “priested” Old Believer icons.  There were, however, “priestless” Old Believers in the region as well.

Vetka icons in general had shining gold leaf backgrounds on a flat panel without a recessed “ark” (kovcheg).  Title inscriptions were commonly written in red.  Highlighting on garments, etc. was often done by painting over the gold leaf, then removing the paint to create the highlight by revealing the gold beneath.

Does that sound familiar?  Well, we have already seen some Vetka icons here in previous postings, such as this example:

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

Vetka icon painters also tended to use soft woods for their panels — woods such as poplar and aspen that unfortunately were very subject to invasion and destruction by woodworm — the wood-eating larvae of wood beetles.  So it is not unusual to find Vetka icons with the panels heavily tunneled by woodworm.  That severely weakens the panels beneath the painting, and if one is not careful, an icon in that condition can be easily chipped or broken.


Here is a 19th century icon with three “special needs” saints.

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

At left is Svyatuiy Svyashchennomuchenik Kiprian” — “Holy Priest-martyr Kiprian/Cyprian,” who was prayed to for protection from evil spells and charms.

At right is Svyatuiy Prepodobnuiy Nifont” — “Holy Venerable Niphont/Niphon,” dressed in his monk’s garments and likely intended to be Niphont of Cyprus, who was prayed to for driving away evil spirits.

The most interesting one, however, is the fellow in the middle — whose image has lost a bit of paint from the face over the years.  And he is interesting for an odd reason.

He is dressed in the garments of a warrior saint.  And his title inscription is quite clear:


Note the punched ornamentation in the gold-leafed background.

The interesting thing about this is that Panteleimon was not a warrior saint.  He was an “unmercenary physician.”  So when this icon was painted, a very obvious mistake was made.  Either the warrior saint depicted should have been given a different and correct name inscription, or the name inscription should have had an “unmercenary physician” depicted below it instead of a warrior saint.

Now why was this very obvious error not noticed when the icon was painted or sold?  Well, there was a lot of illiteracy at the time, both among icon painters and icon purchasers.  That means it is not uncommon to find errors of one kind or another on old icons, and this image is a good example to teach us that.

The small figure blessing from the clouds above is Gospod’ Vsederzhitel’ —  Jesus as “The Lord Almighty.”

In the left border is a “family saint,” apparently the name saint of the person for whom the icon was painted — a woman.

She is Svatuiy Muchenitsa Ioustina — “Holy Martyr Justina.”





Here is a photo I received of a very interesting icon:

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

And here is the title inscription — engraved on the vermeil (gilt silver) cover:

Translated, it reads:

“Moving of the Relics of Bishop Nicholas from Myra to Bari.”

The abbreviation C could also be translated as simply “Holy.”

So this is a ПРИНЕСЕНИЕ/PRINESENIE icon.  Prinesenie means “moving,” but commonly the fancy (and incomprehensible to most people) “church” term “translation” is used instead — but “translation” in such cases just means “moving.”  When you see an icon with a body of a saint being carried, it is often a Prinesenie/”Translation” icon.

You will find a long posting on Nicholas icons here:


In the outer border of the icon are images of (left) “Holy Kuzma” — i.e. Cosmas, and (right) “Holy Domian” — Damian.  The pair of “Unmercenary Physicians” often seen in icons.

At top is a small image of the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God, associated historically with the city of Novgorod.

On receiving the photo, I noticed that the painting appears to be in a style much like that of the early 17th century.

Let’s brighten the image a bit:


The gilt-silver cover looks to be from the latter half of the 19th century.

Now when the photos of this as yet unstudied icon were sent to me, I was particularly interested and surprised by an old label on the back of the panel:

It caught my attention because not only is the image the coat of arms of the noted Russian Stroganov family (remember the Stroganov Icon Painting Manual, and the so-called Stroganov “School” of icon painting — circa 1580 – 1680?) — but also below it are the words “Count Sergiy Stroganov.”  There were two Sergiy Stroganovs, and the latter — Sergiy/Sergei Grigor’evich Stroganov (1794-1882) was both an art historian and a collector.  So from the label, this icon had been in an important collection.

The next thing that drew my attention was a notation on the back:

It reads:  “Painting by Ioan Sobol'”

Now Ioan/Ivan Yakolev Sobol’ was an early icon painter from Novgorod who had studied under the famous painter Prokopiy Chirin in Novgorod.  Sobol’ went to Moscow in 1572 to paint there.  Both Chirin and Sobol’ did work for the Stroganov family.

Now what is even more interesting is that there is more writing on the reverse:

It is written in an old hand.

Now interestingly, there is an entry about Ioan/Ivan Sobol’ in the Dictionary of Russian Icon Painters 11th -17th Century, and in it we find this:

В собрании графа Строганова находилась икона «Перенесение мощей Николая чудотворца» («Фигуры в 6,5 голов, свет золотой. В лицах нос, подбородок, скулы. Лоб оживлены довольно резкими бликами. Травы писаны твореным золотом»), с подписью: “106 сий образ домовой в соб. храму благовещения святей богородицы у Соли Вычегодска на посаде… на Никиты сына Строганова. Писмо Ивана Соболя” (размер 59,8х51 см). (Ровинский 1903)

It says that in the collection of Count Stroganov was an icon “Translation of the Relics of Nicholas the Wonderworker.”  And it further tells us that this icon had an inscription on it:  “This house image in the Cathedral Church of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Mother of God in Soli Vuichegodska (Solvuichegodsk) in the village … for Nikita son of Stroganov.  Painting by Ivan Sobol'”

Well, when we look at the somewhat worn inscription on the back of the icon in the photos sent to me, we find the inscription also begins:

106  [сий?] образ домовой в соб. храму благовещения святей богородицы у …

“106 [This?] house image in the Cathedral Church of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Mother of God in ...”

We can add to that that a mention in the book History and Discovery of Medieval Russian Medieval Painting by Gerol’d I Vzdornov:

The earlier specimens in the Stroganov collections were icons by Ivan Sobol’, Semen Borozdin, Istoma Savin, Nikifor Savin, and Prokopiy Chirin, all of whom worked for Nikita Grigor’evich and Maksim Yakovlevich Stroganov around 1600 (Sobol’ did an icon, The Translation of the Holy Relics of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker form Myra of Lycia to the town of Bari that was dated 1598).

The icon is said to have once been owned by Ambassador Nicolae Petrescu-Comnen (1881-1958) — Romanian Envoy to the League of Nations and to Switzerland under the reign of King Ferdinand, as well as Foreign Minister in Romania under the disastrous reign of King Carol II (son of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie).

So is this unstudied icon, in the photos I received, by some odd coincidence the very icon from the collection of Count Stroganov described in the Russian text?  Well, the measurements given for that icon do not exactly match the icon pictured, but there have been changes in the Russian measuring systems over time and people do make errors.  The coincidences in label, title, inscription and origin, however, do seem to match very well.  In any case, further identification of this image will have to wait for verification from experts in “Stroganov” icons of the 16th-17th centuries.

It is the kind of thing that makes the study of icons interesting.