If you were a child in the Netherlands, you would be getting excited because December 5th is coming — the Eve of Sinterklaas — St. Nicholas, when children receive gifts from Sinterklaas. The following day — December 6th — is the official day of commemoration of Nicholas. It is also the day of his commemoration in Eastern Orthodox churches following the “new style” calendar, while those who keep the “old style” celebrate him on December 19th.
Now oddly enough, there are folk names that apply here. May 9th (May 22 “old style”) commemorating the “translation” of his relics — meaning simply the moving of his relics from one place to another (from Myra to Bari in Italy) — is popularly referred to as Nikola Veshniy/Никола Вешний — “Spring Nicholas.” That distinguishes it from the day of commemoration of his “repose,” meaning his death — December 6th (19th old style) — known as Nikola Zimniy/Никола Зимний — “Winter Nicholas.”
Now the significance of this for students of icons is that these two appellations apply also to the commonly seen icons of Nicholas. Here is how:
Icons of Nicholas without his bishop’s crown/mitre are popularly known as “Spring Nicholas”:
By contrast, icons depicting Nicholas in his bishop’s crown are called “Winter Nicholas”:
An easy way to remember the difference between “Spring Nicholas” and “Winter Nicholas” is that Nicholas “puts on his hat when it gets cold.”
Now as you can easily tell from the border ornamentation of both these icons, they date to near the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century.
If you have been a diligent student of the postings on this site, you should be able to identify everything in this multiple icon. A multiple icon is an icon with several separate types placed together on a single panel. This example has four main types, a smaller central type, and of course the saints used as border images.
If you are not able to identify everything, here is a brief summary, beginning with the image at upper left:
The inscription reads
СВЯТЫЙ НИКОЛА ЧУДОТВОРЕЦ SVYATUIY NIKOLA CHUDOTVORETS
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER”
Aside from the inscription, one can tell from the facial characteristics (form, hair, beard), the costume, and from the accompanying figures of Jesus at left and Mary at right that this is an image representing St. Nikolai/Nikola/Nicholas of Myra. You will recall that Jesus is giving Nicholas the book of the Gospels, and Mary is presenting him with his bishop’s stole (omofor/omophorion). If you notice that Nicholas is not shown full-face, but rather as though turning from the left, you may remember that such a Nicholas — though often with a harsher expression than here — is called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — and was thought to ward off evil.
Now you will have read in a previous posting that “Nicholas the Turner” is an icon type that appeared among the Old Believers in the 18th century, so that tells us something important about this icon too; and what it tells us is confirmed by the hand. As you see, the fingers are held in the blessing position used by the Old Believers, and that confirms that this is an Old Believer icon.
Of course you know that the MP ΘY letters in two circles at the top abbreviate the Greek words Meter Theou — which are common on Russian icons of Mary.
From the title inscription, we can tell that this is identified as the
ЗНАМЕНИЕ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ ZNAMENIE PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
the “‘SIGN’ MOST-HOLY GOD-BIRTHGIVER”
or in normal English,
The “‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God.”
And of course that is Jesus in the circle on her breast.
You may recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous “palladium” icons, considered to be city protectors, and that its legendary history says it saved the citizens of the great trading city of Novgorod in the northwest of Russia from the invading Suzdalians.
The inscription identifies this Marian icon type as the
It is sometimes also translated loosely as the “Melter of Hard Hearts.” It is important to remember, however, that this type is not the only Marian icon type to be found under that title.
Next comes a New Testament Scene that is also an annual Eastern Orthodox Church commemoration:
If you are familiar with the New Testament, you can probably identify it without the inscription below. Here is that inscription:
ОУСЕКНОВЕНИЕ ЧЕСТНЫЯ ГЛАВЫ СВЯАТАГО IОАННА ПРЕДТЕЧА USEKNOVENIE CHESTNUIYA GLAVUI SVYATAGO IOANNA PREDTECHA
“CUTTING-OFF [of the] HONORABLE HEAD [of] HOLY JOHN [the] FORERUNNER.”
And that is what the scene depicts: the execution of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and the presentation of his head to Salome.
Such an icon type was particularly important to Old Believers because it called to mind the terrible persecution they suffered under the State Orthodox Church.
In the center of the icon we find the image of — as the red title inscription tells us here — the
НЕРУКОТВОРЕННЫЙ ОБРАЗ ГОСПОДЕНЬ NERUKOTVORENNUIY OBRAZ GOSPODEN’
“NOT-MADE-BY-HANDS IMAGE [of the] LORD”
It is the image traditionally considered the “first icon” in Eastern Orthodoxy, because the old legend that developed over time said that Jesus once pressed a wet towel to his face, and his image was miraculously imprinted on it. It is the “Abgar” image sent by tradition from Jesus to King Abgar of Edessa.
You will notice the other inscriptions written on the cloth — first the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and below the face, this inscription:
СВЯТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ SVYATUIY UBRUS
So in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Holy Cloth” is the cloth after Jesus supposedly transferred the image of his face to it.
Finally, there are four border saints in this icon:
First comes the
In ordinary English, the “Guardian Angel.” It is important to know that this is a generic figure who represents the Guardian Angel supposedly assigned to each person — It is often found as a border image, but is also found as an icon type on its own. He holds a sword in one hand and a cross in the other:
The others are:
2. St. Alexandra;
Such border saints as these three are generally found in icons as the “angel” saints of the members of the family for whom the icon was painted — the saints after whom each person was named.
A purchaser — in this case an Old Believer — could choose the icon types to be represented on such a multiple icon, and of course could tell the painter the names of his family members to include in the border, represented there by their “name” saints. And again, the “Guardian Angel” served as the generic figure representing each angel assigned individually to protect a family member.
Now you will find all this information — including a longer discussion of each main type shown — in the site archives.
There are a number of icons related to Russian history. This is one of them, painted near the end of the 18th century:
As you can tell, it is another of those icons using the motif of the “icon in a tree.”
If we look at the inscription at the base, we find it tells us what the scene represents:
Како Яавися Икона Свяыителя Николы Чюдотворца
Великому Князю Димитрию Иоанновичу Донскому
на Месте нзываемом Угреша В лето [date]
В походе на Мамая
“How the icon of Bishop Nicholas the Wonderworker appeared to Great Prince Dimitriy Ioannovich Donskoy at the place called Ugresh in the year 1379-9 in the campaign against Mamai.”
The date in Cyrillic letter numbers in the inscription appears to read 1379 — 9[th month, i.e. September] though the conventional date given for the event is September of 1380.
In any case, the legend is that Dimitriy had brought his soldiers out to do battle with the Tatar Khan Mamai. But before the battle, an icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker “miraculously” appeared in a tree. That, of course was seen as a divine sign that Dimitriy and his army would be successful in overcoming the forces of Mamai.
Dimitriy is said (though that too appears to be just a legend) to have founded the Nikolo-Ugreshkiy Monastery on the site of the appearance, which came to be called Ugresh, because Dimitriy had supposedly exclaimed on seeing the miraculous appearance of the icon, “This all has warmed [ugresha] my heart” (Сия вся угреша сердце мое).
Here is a closer look at Dimitriy kneeling before the icon in the tree:
It is interesting to see how the painter has stylized the “hills”:
This very well-painted icon depicts one of the miracles traditionally attributed to St. Nikolai/Nicholas of Myra:
The title inscription at the base identifies it:
S[V]YATUIY NIKOLAE CHUDOTVORETZ IZBABI AGRIKOVA SUINA OT SARATSUIN’
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER SAVES AGRIK’S SON FROM [the] SARACENS”
The story relates that in the region of Antioch there lived a pious man named Agrik/Agkrikos. Every year on the day of commemoration of St. Nicholas, he would go to the church consecrated to St. Nicholas and pray, then return to his home and have a big dinner for his friends, relatives, and beggars.
It happened that one year, when the day to honor Nicholas came, he told his son Vasiliy/Basileios/Basil — who was aged 16 — to go to the church and pray to Nicholas and attend the liturgical services, while the father stayed home to prepare for the customary dinner.
While the son was at Matins at the church, it was attacked by Saracens, who captured the son and took him to the island of Crete. There, because he was an extremely beautiful lad, he was made the cupbearer of the Muslim Prince.
The parents were grief-stricken, so sorrowful with weeping that they neither attended church nor commemorated Nicholas for two years. Even into the third year they kept this up, until finally in the third year, on the day before St. Nicholas was to be commemorated, the father said to his wife that it was no use to weep; they should go to the church with oil and candles and pray to St. Nicholas for their son. So again they attended on St. Nicholas Day, prayed fervently to Nicholas, and came home to have the customary guests for the special annual dinner.
While everyone was seated at the meal, the dogs in the yard began to bark loudly. Agrik sent his servants out to see what was happening. When they returned, they said they saw no one, and nothing at all. But the barking not only continued, but got worse, so Agrik himself went to investigate. He was surprised to see a handsome young man in saracen clothes standing outside, holding a container of wine in his hands. Agrik, walking toward him, recognized his own son. The puzzled boy told him he did not know what had happened. He had just been pouring wine into the cup of the Muslim Prince on Crete, when suddenly the lad felt someone grab his hand, and he was carried off by St. Nicholas as though in a whirlwind, and then found himself outside his own home.
Now if you are a regular reader here, you will know it is not unusual in Eastern Orthodox hagiography for stories or parts of stories to be recycled from saint to saint. So perhaps you immediately recognized that the tale of the boy carried off to become a cupbearer, and saved and brought home by a Saint, is essentially the very same “rescued boy” motif that we find in the hagiography of St. George. You will find it in this previous posting: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/st-george-the-enigmatic/
And here, again, is the iconographic image of the boy being rescued by St. George, with the wine pitcher still in his hand.
We can look back even farther for the more ancient origin of this tale. In Book 20 of Homer’s Iliad, we find these lines (233-235):
“And from Tros again three matchless sons were born, Ilus, and Assaracus, and godlike Ganymedes, who was born the most beautiful of mortal men; wherefore the gods caught him up on high to be cupbearer to Zeus by reason of his beauty, that he might live with the immortals.”
Yes, the abduction, in ancient Greek mythology, of the youth Ganymede, who because of his great beauty was made cupbearer to Zeus.
Here is a closer look at the father (and mother) seeing their son standing outside with St. Nicholas:
Here are the dinner guests, and a barking dog out in the yard:
Now and then I like to pause from more rigorous postings and turn to icons that are just pleasant to look at for a number of reasons.
Today’s example is a very recent Greek icon painted by the iconographer Aristides Milakis of Athens. Though it dates only to 2017, the subject — St. Nicholas of Myra as the patron saint of sailors — is quite old. This example combines the traditional iconography of Nicholas with pleasant Greek regional touches and pleasing colors.
First, let’s look at the title inscription:
HO HAGIOS NIKOLAOS SOZEI TOUS EN THALASSE KINDUNEUONTAS
[the] HOLY NICHOLAS SAVES THOSE IN [THE] SEA ENDANGERED
In normal English,
“Saint Nicholas Saves Those in Peril on the Sea.”
In the center we see Nicholas in his bishop’s robes, with the Gospels in his left hand and the fingers of his right loosely forming the letters IC XC — abbreviating Iesous Khristos — Jesus Christ.
Nicholas is an immensely popular saint along the Greek coast. There are many stories of Nicholas saving fishermen and sailors. It is said that once, when he was on a boat bound for Jerusalem, he saw the devil climb aboard, intending to sink the ship in a storm, but Nicholas prayed and the boat was saved.
Scenes of fishermen and of Nicholas saving the endangered on the sea are delightfully depicted on this bright icon.
The scenes are interestingly placed amid seagulls, fish, and dolphins:
I particularly like the octopus:
In the background, we see clusters of buildings on the rocky Mediterranean mainland dotted with cypress trees:
And closer, what appears to be an island or peninsula — with its little church atop the summit:
The icon is signed in the traditional Greek manner:
ΧΕΙΡ ΑΡΙCΤΕΙΔΟΥ ΜΙΛΑΚΗ KHEIR ARISTEIDOU MILAKE
“[The] HAND OF ARISTIDES MILAKIS” (followed by the date of completion)