It is hard to overestimate the importance of learning to read basic Church Slavic for the student of Russian icons.  Without that essential knowledge (and it is not difficult to gain), mistakes in identification can very easily happen.

Take for example this icon (possibly a recent imitation).  One might assume on first look that it represents the “pillar saint” most often seen in icons — called in Russian Simeon Stolpnik — Simeon Stylities — or Simeon “the Pillar Guy” to put it loosely.

(Courtesy of The Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton MA)

And even if one reads the title inscription a bit too hastily, concentrating only on the first three words, one might also make the same error.  After all, as we can see from a closer look, they read СВЯТЫЙ ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ СИМЕОНЪ  — SVYATUIY PREPODOBNUIY SIMEON “Holy Venerable Simeon.”

And we can certainly see that he is standing atop a pillar, so the logical conclusion would be that this is Simeon Stylites, the fellow whose description comes first among saints in the old Church year in the old painters’ manuals —  on September 2nd.  But that is because we have ignored the last word in the title inscription.  Here is a larger image of it:

Those of you who have learned the Church Slavic alphabet (you have, haven’t you?) will see that it is written as:

And you can see that it has a curved line of abbreviation above it.  It abbreviates

Divno- means “wondrous,” “marvelous,” and “-goretz” means “mountain person,” related to the word gora — “mountain.”  So this title is generally translated ” of the Wondrous Mountain” or “of Marvelous Mountain,” or something similar.

So this particular saint is

So he is named Simeon, and he is a Stylite — but he is Simeon Stylites the Younger, NOT Simeon Stylites the Elder, who is the better-known of the two.  In Greek, this “Younger” Simeon is called Όσιος Συμεών ὁ Θαυμαστορείτης — Hosios Symeon ho Thaumastoreites — “Venerable Simeon of the Marvelous Mountain” (“Marvelous,” incidentally, in that it is a place of marvels — of miracles — not that it is just a “marvelous” place to live).  You will recall that the Greek title Hosios is the equivalent of the Church Slavic Prepodobnuiy, which we loosely translate as “Venerable” — and it indicates a male “monk” saint.

An important stylistic point:  If we look at the background of this icon, we see that the sky is painted in graduated shades of blue, from dark at the bottom to light at the top.  This manner of painting the sky is typical of certain Russian icons painted in the last years of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th.  We find this graduated sky in the works of such noted Mstera (pron. Mstyora) -trained iconographers as Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev (pron. Dikaryov) and Osip Semyonovich Chirikov, etc.  It is a useful point in dating, though of course it can be imitated.

But what about this “other” Simeon Stylities — Simeon of the Marvelous Mountain?  Well, the first Simeon Stylities  “the Elder” — lived from near the end of the 300s until 459 c.e.  But the one in today’s icon — Simeon Stylities “the Younger” — lived 521-597 c.e.

This “of the Marvelous Mountain” Simeon — according to his “life” as written by Dmitriy Rostovskiy — was destined before birth to be an ascetic.  Keep in mind that these lives of saints are often highly fictionalized.  It happened that a young man of marriageable age named John went with his parents from Edessa to Antioch.  There the parents were taken with a lovely young woman named Martha.  Martha really did not want to marry, wanting instead to devote her life to religion.  She went to a church and prayed in tears to be delivered from marriage.  But there she had a vision in which she was told to do as her parents told, and marry John.  So she married, but this time kept praying to John the Forerunner (“the Baptist”) that she might have a male child, and that this boy’s life would be consecrated to God.  One night while praying in church, she fell asleep and John the Forerunner appeared to her, saying her prayer was accepted.  He gave her a censer with burning incense, and told her to take it to her house.  She woke to find the fragrant censer in her hand.  She had a second vision in which John told her to go to her husband (and essentially to conceive a child).  He said her child — to be called Simeon — would only drink milk from Martha’s left breast, not touching the right at all; and that he would not eat meat or drink wine, but his food would be only bread, honey, salt, and water.  And she was to bring the child to that church two years after his birth, to be baptized.

After the child was born, on days when Martha ate meat and drank wine, the infant would refuse her breast milk entirely, waiting until the next day.  When two years had passed, Simeon was taken to the church and baptized, and as soon as he was baptized, the child spoke, saying, “I have a father, and I do not have a father;  I have a mother and I do not have a mother” (Имею отца, и не имею отца; имею матерь, и не имею матери).  And he kept saying it for seven days.

When the boy was six years old, there was an earthquake that killed his father.  Simeon, being in a church at the time, survived, but when he walked out of the church, he could not find the way to his home amid all the rubble.  A pious woman found him, and took him to a mountain not far from the city.  His mother did not know where he was, but John the Forerunner appeared to her and told her where to find him.

Martha settled in Antioch with her child Simeon, who began to have visions too.  And so did a certain other John, the abbot of a monastery on a mountain.  He saw — from atop his pillar — a boy who would come to the monastery.  Simeon did come to the monastery at age six, finding his way there alone through a desert region.  And he took up his destined life there.

His life from this point was extremely ascetic, filled with visions, and the boy was said to receive the power to drive out demons from people, and to perform other miracles.  Simeon began living atop a pillar, living a life of extreme asceticism and self-deprivation and mortification, healing people, casting out demons, and even raising the dead.   And of course his visions continued.

Eventually, Simeon decided that the crowds of people coming to him were interfering with his spiritual life, so he decided to go to another mountain that was without water entirely, so people did not go there.  It was populated only by wild animals and snakes.  With this in mind, Simeon had another vision in which the Lord appeared to him and said,
– Потрудись, Симеон, взойти на эту Дивную гору, ибо с этого времени гора эта назовется сим именем; на ней Я явлю на удивление всем благодать Мою тебе.  “Labor, Simeon, to ascend this marvelous mountain, since from this time the mountain will be called by that name.  On it I will reveal my grace to you in marvels” — thus the name of the mountain and the title by which this Simeon is known, distinguishing him from the others.  And there are others, not only Simeon Stylites the Elder, but also the obscure 5th century Simeon Stylites III, who lived in Cilicia, and a Simeon Stylites of Lesbos, who lived in the latter 700s and first half of the 800s.

But back to our “Marvelous Mountain” Simeon.  When his crowds of admirers heard he had moved to another mountain, they all flocked there in crowds as well, so Simeon failed in his effort to live a more isolated life.

One day, when one of these Simeon fans was on his way to see his hero, a lion appeared, and was about to tear him apart when the man said, “Do not harm me, for the sake of Simeon, a saint of God.”  And it is said that on hearing this, the lion did not harm him.  Nonetheless, when it was reported to Simeon that a lion was living on his mountain and troubling his visitors, he sent one of his disciples — Anastasiy — to the lion’s lair to tell the beast that he was to leave the mountain and to stop frightening the visitors.  Hearing this, the lion went away to live in another place.

The rest of Simeon’s life — as these hagiographic tales go — was filled with many other such wondrous events — visions of the future, healing all kinds of diseases, etc. etc.   At the age of 33 he decided to become a priest, and at the age of 75 he died.

Oddly enough, the “Marvelous Mountain” on which Simeon lived (near Antakya, Turkey, the former Antioch on the Orontes) is now the site of a number of electricity-producing wind turbines, one placed right at the ruins of the monastery built by his followers.  The Turks still call the mountain Samandağ — “Simeon’s Mountain.”


One encounters many icons that show two or more saints that seem to have been randomly thrown together, but of course originally they were not random.  They were either the “name” saints of members of the family who owned the icon (called a семейная икона — semeinaya ikona — “family icon”) or sometimes a combination of “name” saints and saints chosen because they were specialists in helping with certain things (patron saints, as they are called in the West).

Here is a typical example of such an icon:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Let’s look at the inscriptions:


That at left reads:

ПР(Д) ИОАСАФЪ ЦАРЕВИ(Ч).  The letters in parentheses are superscript (written above) letters.  So in full, the inscription would read transliterated:


You already know that Prepodobnuiy (literally “most like”) is the title used for a monk saint. Ioasaf (or Ioasaph) is his name.  And Tsarevich is his secondary title.  It means literally “Son of the Tsar,” which can be either “Son of the Emperor” or “Son of the King.”  Here it means “Son of the King,” or more loosely, “Prince.”

Now who was this fellow, shown as a monk here?  Well, if the painter had had more space, he would have added an additional word, like this:

Прп. Иоасаф Царевич Индийский
Prepodobnuiy Tsarevich Indiyskiy

That last word — Indiyskiy — means “of India.”  So this saint is “Venerable Ioasaf, Prince of India.”

Now if you have read every posting in the archives (well, maybe you have nothing else to do), you will recall from an earlier article that the saint named Ioasaf, Prince of India has a very interesting origin.  He was actually originally not a Christian saint at all.  He was, in fact the Buddha.  When the story of his early life came west on the Silk Road, spread by Buddhist missionaries, it was taken up in the Christian West and modified to make the “Prince of India” a Christian saint.  So, as I always say, the official Eastern Orthodox Church Calendar actually commemorates the Buddha in a “Christian” guise.

There are two ways of depicting Ioasaf.  The first is to show him robed as a King, often with his fictional advisor Varlaam (Barlaam); the second is to show him after he became an ascetic, robed as a monk, which is how he is depicted in this icon.   However he is shown, his icons make interesting conversation pieces because of Ioasaf’s unusual Silk Road origins.

The middle figure in the icon is:

Svyatuiy Angel Khranitel’ — “Holy Angel Guardian,” or in better English, “The Holy Guardian Angel.”  This is a generic figure representing the guardian angel that is believed in Eastern Orthodoxy to accompany each believer.  He is often shown with a sword to demonstrate his power to protect.  The Guardian Angel is a very common figure both in icons and as a border image.

The third saint in this icon, the one at right, is:

Prepodobnuiy Simeon Stolpnik — “Venerable Simeon the Pillar-guy,” or as it is usually translated, “Venerable Simeon Stylites.”  Simeon (died 459) did exist.  He was one of those wild and odd Middle Eastern ascetics.  In his case, he  chose to live atop a pillar in Syria, supposedly to get away from crowds of people (no, that’s not likely to attract attention).   He stayed atop his pillar for some 37 years, and of course made such a spectacle of himself that he attracted even larger crowds of people, and became quite famous, a celebrity in his day.

Now why were these particular saints chosen for this icon?  The Guardian Angel served an obvious purpose as a daily protector.  As for Simeon, today he is often considered the fellow to pray to in order to bring back those who have left the Church (he must be very busy with the numbers leaving these days), but it is more likely that he was chosen for this icon simply because he is the name saint of someone named Simeon.

As for Ioasaf, he too was chosen because he was the name saint of a person involved with the icon.  Given that there is no female saint depicted, we may reasonably assume that this icon was painted for two brothers in a family, brothers named Ioasaf and Simeon, and that the Guardian Angel in the center was expected to represent the guardian of each of the brothers.

At the top of the icon is a small depiction of the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus — the image, according to legend, that was created when Jesus pressed his wet face against a cloth.





Seeing actual painter’s manuals is often something of a letdown for the student of icons, who may expect to find every saint, every festal day, every “wonderworking” icon of Mary, as well as every other icon type in existence depicted and described.  It is not going to happen.  The greater part of most podlinniki is taken up with rather dull and repetitive descriptions of hundreds of saints who differ little from one another in appearance, and descriptions of how they are to be painted.  A few major festal icons may be included, but for the descriptions of the vast majority of icons of Mary, or even of Jesus, etc. — one must look elsewhere.

Podlinniks (more accurately, podlinniki) can be divided into those that are predominantly illustrated — such as the Stroganov Podlinnik — and those that are non-illustrated descriptive text only, such as the “FilimonovPodlinnik.

The beginning student of icons should first learn both the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, because a Russian podlinnik will be in Cyrillic letters, and the Greek examples of the equivalent — the hermineia — are written in Greek.  But don’t worry.  You do not have to learn the entire Russian or Greek language.  You just have to accumulate a useful, basic vocabulary of terms, and that will take you a long way, because painter’s manuals and icon inscriptions in general are VERY repetitive.  You will begin to see how repetitive just from the first couple of pages of the Stroganov Podlinnik, which I have shown here.

Those who want to read the Russian podlinniki in their originals will want to become familiar with the old names for pigments used in painting, because those are the colors described in the manuals.  Learning all these things is a gradual process, and one can go as quickly or as slowly as one wishes.  I have already posted an article on the icon painter’s palette — the old color names and their meanings — which you will find in the archives.

Here is the beginning page for September from the Stroganov Podlinnik, along with transliterations of its information.  Those who have been reading this site for a while will recall that the important icon for the beginning of September is the “Indiction” type, which represents the beginning of the Church year — yet it is not included in this podlinnik, which begins instead with the standard first saint for podlinniki, Simeon “Stolpnik,” meaning essentially Simeon “the pillar guy” — the saint who lived atop a pillar, often known by his Greek title Stylites, which means the same as “Stolpnik” in Russian.  There is more than one “pillar guy” icon saint, so that is why title inscriptions are very important.

Let’s take a look:

Beginning of September: Stroganov Podlinnik

You can see that there are four saints on this page, the first two under the letter “a,” the second two under what looks like a B, but it is actually the third letter of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is pronounced like a “v.”  But these letters are also numbers, so the “a” means day “1,” and the “B” means day “3.”  So right away we see that this podlinnik has omitted the saints for September 2nd.

Starting from the left, we can skip most of the first inscription because it tells us simply that it is the month of September, which has 30 days, with 12 hours in a day, 12 in a night.  So let’s get on to the important descriptions, which begin like this:

1.  Prepodobnuiy Simeon.  Syed.  Stolpnika

2.  Prepodobnaya Mar’fa riza dich bagor z belilom is[pod] sankir.

3.  Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod’ lazor’

4.  Predpodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsaryagrada rus’ 

It tells us that the left-hand image is that of “Prepodobnuiy” Simeon.  Prepodobnuiy is a title literally meaning “most like,” meaning “most like Christ,” but in icon inscriptions it means a person is a monk.  We are given a very brief description of how he is to be painted:  Syed — “Grey.”  That means his hair is grey.  Beyond that all it tells us is “Stolpnik,” meaning Simeon is a “pillar guy,” depicted atop a pillar.  So we know this Stolpnik is Simeon of the Pillar, Simeon Stylites, which means the same thing.

The next figure from the left, we are told, is “Prepodobnaya” Marfa.  Prepodobnaya is just the feminine form of Prepodobnuiy, so Prepodobnaya means the saint is a nun.  “Marfa” is just the Russian form of “Martha.”  In Russian the Greek “th” is usually replaced by an “f” sound, because Russian did not have a “th” sound.  It says of the nun Martha that she is painted “Riza dich.”  Riza is the generic term for a robe.  So we know that Martha’s robe is “dich,” which, if you read my posting on icon pigment colors, you will recall as a grey color, sometimes with a faint bluish tinge. It adds bagor –reddish purple — with byelila, — white — and that the ispod — the garment beneath — is sankir — the dark brownish color used in many ways in icons, including as the foundation color — the first-painted layer of tempera — for flesh and other objects.

The page skips September 2nd and goes to two saints for September 3rd,the first of which is  Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod lazor.

“Svyatuiy” just means “holy” or “saint.”  So this is saint Mamant.  His riza — his robe — is kinovar — that bright red made of powdered cinnabar, mercury sulphide.  Ispod — the undergarment — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue, the best of which was made of powdered lapis lazuli.

And next to Mamant is the commemoration of  Prepodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsarya grada.  Rus’.  Prepodobnago is just another grammatical form of Prepodobnuiy.  It means this is the day “of the monk saint” Ioann Postnik, meaning Ioann the Faster ( fasting in the sense of abstaining from food, not in the sense of moving speedily).  He is Patriarkha Tsaryagrada — the Patriarch of the Tsar City, meaning Constantinople.  And finally, it tells us that Ioann is “rus,” which refers to his hair color, just as “syed” referred to the hair color of Simeon Stolpnik.  Rus’ means literally “Russian,” meaning his hair is like that of a lot of Russians, a kind of light brown to dark blond.

Now we move on to the 3rd and 4th days of September.

The first description on the left tells us this day is the commemoration Svayatago Svyashchennomuchenika Anfim’ Episkop’ Nikomidiskiy.  Svyatago is just again the “of” form of Svyatuiy, meaning”Saint” or “Holy.”  So this is the day of commemoration of Holy Svyashcennomuchenika Anfim’  You will recall that a muchenik is a martyr.  This fellow is a Svyashchenno-muchenik, meaning a priest-martyr.  And his name is Anfim.  It tells us further that he is Episkop’ — meaning bishop — Nikomidiskiy — of a place called Nicomedia.  We are told he is syed, meaning grey-haired, and that his riza — his robe — is kreshchata, ornamented with crosses (cross patterns on the robe).

The second description from the left tells us that on Toy zhe den’ — meaning “on the same day,” is also celebrated Prepodobnuiy Feoktist’.  If you have been paying attention, you will know that the first word means he is a monk saint, and the second word is his name, Feoktist.  We are told he is syed, which again is a word you know now.  It means his hair (and beard if he has one, which he does) are grey.  Then it tells us his riza ispod — the undergarment beneath his monk’s robe — is vokhra z byelilom — ochre with white.

The third fellow from left — on the 4th of September — is Svyatuiy Muchenik Vavila — Holy Marytr Vavila.  He is syed — grey-haired.  His Riza is with krestuiy bagrovui, ornamented with crosses that are bagrovuiy — a form of bagor — meaning crosses that are reddish-purple.  But the youths — the three mladentsi with him — are v sorochnakh — in “shirts” loosely, but a better way to translate v sorochnakh would be “in tunics.”

There are a couple of notes added , one of which says V’ toy zhe den’ Moisey Bogovidets’ — “On the same day Moses the God-seer,” and the other says Cei den’ praznouem neopalimiya koupinuiy, meaning “This day is celebrated the Unburnt Thornbush,” meaning the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary.  Neither Moses (the Old Testament fellow) nor the icon are shown.

The last guy on the right is Svatuiy Vavila Nikomidiskiy, “Holy Vavila of Nicomedia.”  We are told he is syed, which should be an old word to you by now — meaning grey [-haired], and that his riza verkh is bagor (reddish-purple) dich [grey].  Riza, you will recall, means “robe.”  And verkh means “outer.”  So when talking about robes, the verkh is the outer robe, and the ispod is the robe beneath or “under.”  The painter adds the note that the probel — the highlighting on the robe — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue.  And finally the ispod — the under-robe — is bakan dich.  Bakan is a dark red, and dich, you will recall, is grey to grey-blue.

We have only covered some main saints for four days, and already you can see how very repetitive this all is, which is why it is not really difficult to learn to read icon titles and a good part of the podlinniki — the painter’s manuals — as well.  Now imagine how many of these saints one has to go through for the whole year, and you begin to get an idea of just how dull these manuals really are.  They are not page-turners, they were not meant for reading enjoyment.  They really were just working documents for icon painters that enabled them to follow the standard forms for hundreds of common saints (and the Stroganov Podlinnik does not include all the saints in the calendar by any means).  They were the painter’s equivalent of a schematic diagram in electronics.  One referred to it to make sure one was assembling a saint on the prepared icon board correctly.

One had to have the descriptions of all these saints not only to paint calendar icons, but also for those patrons who would come in and want to order an icon of their “Angel Day” saint — meaning their name-day saint.  Russians were named for these saints, so, for example, a fellow named “Feoktist” would want an icon of his saint, who was also named Feoktist.

All of this kept the icon painters in business, but it could be deadly dull work for them, as one can imagine, with little room left for imagination and creativity.

If you would like to examine the Stroganov Podlinnik in more detail, it can be downloaded free of charge at the following site:ìĭ_ikonopisnîĭ_litsevoĭ.html?id=UpAIAAAAQAAJ