A reader recently sent me photos of an interesting icon.  Here it is, set in its richly ornamental gilt frame, kept in a glassed-in kiot (protective icon case):

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

The important part, for our purposes, is the icon itself:

(Courtesy of Jacques Willemen)

Well, it looks quite straightforward, doesn’t it?  It has all the characteristics of the type known as Nicholas of Mozhaisk, which depicts St. Nikolai (Nicholas) standing, robed as a bishop, with a sword in his left hand and a church in his right.

We can see that the inscription above Nicholas is a common one:

It reads:


If we left it at that, however, we would be a little too hasty and not quite entirely correct in identification of this icon.  It is important not to miss the little inscription at the base of the image; inscriptions should never be overlooked.  Here is a closer view:

It reads (put into modern Russian font):

Well, we know that the Nicholas of Mozhaisk icon itself did not “appear” in 1415, according to its origin story, but rather in the 1300s.  Nor did the legendary event of Nicholas appearing in the air over the city happen in a place called Mtsensk, but rather in the city of Mozhaisk.  What, then, is the significance of this “1415” inscription and the place name “Mtsensk”?  And where exactly is this “Mtsensk”?  Why all these differences?

The answer is that even though this icon is in the form commonly known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” it represents a particular “appearance” of an icon of that form — an “appearance” other than that at Mozhaisk.

First, what or where is Mtsensk (Мценскъ)?

It is a city in the Orlov region of Russia.  Here it is on an 1897 map, just about in the center of this image.  You can see there is a river running through it, called the Zusha:

At lower left is the city of Orel (Орелъ ).

To get a wider view of where it is in Russia, we can look at another map.  We can see the city of Orel southwest of Moscow, about two thirds of the way to the Ukrainian border:

So that tells us where Mtsensk is located.  Now for the origin story of the icon.

The origin story is a bit confused and varies from account to account.  It is said that on a Friday — June 7th of 1415 — the region of Mtsensk was still heavily pagan.  But on that day there was an eclipse of the sun, which the clerics used to frighten the people into becoming baptized as Christians.

It is also said that in the same year and day, a stone — formerly worshiped by the pagan people — was found floating in the Zusha River at Mtsensk. On it was an image of Nicholas with a sword in one hand and in the other a reliquary in the form of a church.  Such an image (which type we now generally call “Nicholas of Mozhaisk”) is commonly known as Николай Ратный —Nikolai Ratnuiy — “Nicholas the Militant.”  And the image that “appeared” at Mtsensk is one example of that type, and in itself is called Nikolai Mtsenskiy  — Nicholas of Mtsensk, or Никола Амченский — Nikola Amchenskiy — “Nicholas of Amchen,” Nikola being a form of Nicholas, and Amchensk being a popular alternate name for the city of Mtsensk.  This icon was also credited — through its supposed miraculous nature — with the conversion of the locals to Christianity.

Scholars, however, generally believe that these “Militant Nicholas” types are likely based upon Western European sculptures of Nicholas, related to that at Bari, in Italy, where the remains of St. Nicholas are thought to have been taken.  Further, that such statues came to Russia as reliquaries in the form of Nicholas given to Russian princes, and supposedly holding relics of the saint. Though three-dimensional sculpture is generally frowned upon in Russian Orthodoxy, such statues of the “Militant Nicholas” were made an exception due to the great veneration accorded them by the people, and the miracles supposedly associated with them.

So it turns out this little icon is actually quite interesting, given that it specifically commemorates the story of the appearance of an image of Nicholas at Mtsensk, which became a noted pilgrimage site in the old days of Tsarist Russia, with thousands of pilgrims, some coming from as far away as Siberia.  And the coming of pilgrims meant money.

One more little detail, and then we will leave this interesting icon.  If we look just below the figure of Nicholas, we can see that he is standing on a rug:

On that rug is the image of an eagle, though it is upside-down, with the head nearest us and the tops of the wings at each side.  Such a rug — called an Орлец — Orlets — “Little Eagle / Eaglet” is used in the Orthodox liturgy, and is round or oval.  The bishop stands upon it at certain parts of the rite.  It depicts an eagle with wings spread, often flying above a city.  The Orlets was once a sign of the Byzantine Emperor’s authority.  In those days it was a double-headed Byzantine Imperial eagle.  Then it became a kind of respectful award given by the Emperor to the Patriarch.  Later, when the Byzantine Empire had fallen,  it came to be used by any bishop in Russia, signifying both the status of the bishop as having a heavenly origin, as well as a sign of the bishop’s oversight of the people of a city, (his diocese), and that a bishop should “rise above” worldly things.  In Russia it was a one-headed eagle.  We can just think of it as a bishop’s symbol.



I have mentioned before that Nikolai/Nicholas is one of the most common icon saints, and also one of the easiest to recognize.  Here is a well-painted example from the year 1908:

(Courtesy of

One of the things that always amused me about icons of Nicholas is that his head down to the lips is a circle.  Have you noticed that?  Look at it:

(Courtesy of

To paint Nicholas, all the iconographer had to do in beginning was to make a large circle for the main part of the head, and then add a smaller, partial circle to the base of that for the bearded portion.

The smaller, lower circle is sometimes not quite so obvious, either because of the shaping of the beard added over it, or because the painter was a bit more adventurous.  But if we look at the following example, the lower portion of the face (with beard) is quite obviously just a smaller circle imposed upon the larger to form the structure of the face of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

Now let’s return to the first example.  As you know, Nicholas is known in Russian iconography as Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Nicholas the “Wonderworker.”  A “wonder” (чудо/chudo) is a miracle.  It is the Slavic equivalent of Greek θαύμα/thauma, so in Greek a wonderworker is a θαυματουργός/thaumatourgos. We can see that Chudotvorets (Чудотворец) title written on the right side of the image:


One often finds little variations in spelling (usually phonetic), such as the use here of Ю (the “iu” sound) instead of У (the “oo” sound) — often written as the combined o and у:

You will remember that in this “Nicholas of Velikoretsk” type, Jesus is seen at left with the Gospel book he gave to Nicholas, and Mary at right with her donation, his bishop’s stole (Russian omofor, Greek omophorion).

Now this Nicholas icon (the first example shown on the page) is painted considerably “fancier” than most.  And the inscription, instead of calling Nicholas Svyatuiy (Holy) Nikolai Chudotvorets, instead uses the Greek equivalent Άγιος/Hagios, though the rest of the title is written in Church Slavic.

Not only that, this icon in giving the standard Gospel text for Nicholas on the book he holds, actually identifies it in smaller letters at the top of the text, which is rather unusual in such icons.  It says on the left page:

Еvангелiе от луки
Evangelie ot luki
Gospel  of/from Luke

And on the right:
зачало к д е
Zachalo k d  e

Зачало/zachalo in Church Slavic means literally “beginning,” but it also has the sense here of an extract or quote from the Bible.  It is the equivalent of the term pericope (pronounced puh-RI-cuh-pee) used in biblical studies.

But what about the к д  (we can omit the “e” for now)?  Well, as you may recall, Church Slavic letters can also be used as numbers.  And note that on the icon, there is a curved line above the кд.  That means it is to be read as the number 24.  The problem, however, is that the text given is not from Luke 24, but rather is Luke 6:17.  So did the writer of this icon text get it wrong?  No, because here he is not going by the verse numbering of the Bible, but rather by the numbering of Gospel excerpts from the Lectionary, the book of readings to be used at various services during the Church year.  This is one of those tricky little things about icons involving the complex Eastern Orthodox liturgical books, and believe me, that subject gets really boring fast, so no need for details here.  Just remember that in the Eastern Orthodox Church services, there is another numbering system for Gospel texts other than that found in the Slavic Bible.  And in that system, this common Lukan excerpt is “Zachalo/Pericope 24″:

Here is how it is arranged on the pages (with a literal translation).
Во время оно                At time that
ста Исус на ме-            stood Jesus on [a] pl-
сте равне и                   ace level and
народ ученик                crowd of disciples
Его, и множе-                of him, and a multi-

-ство много                   -tude of many
людей от всея                people of all
Иудеи и Иерусали-        Judea and Jerusale-
ма, и помория                -m, and the coast
Тирска и Сид[онска]….  of Tyre and Sid[on]…..

The date inscription is found at the base:

It is given in an imitation of much earlier writing.  It says:
“This holy image was painted in the year 1908, the month of February, finished on the 15th day.”



St. Nicholas Eve and Day, December 5th and 6th, are very popular in the Netherlands; but they are generally ignored in the United States, where St. Nicholas long ago evolved into the secular, jolly Christmas giver of gifts and resident of the North Pole, Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas is still one of the most commonly found Russian (and Greek) icon types. Here is a full-length Nicholas painted in 1897, robed as a bishop, blessing with one hand and with the Gospels in the other:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Scholars tell us that while it is likely that a real Nicholas once existed as Bishop of the town of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey) around the beginning of the 4th century, the rest of his story is largely an accretion of legends — in short, everything else said about Nicholas is simply unsupported and fictionalized elaboration. His relics (bones) are said to be kept at Bari in Italy. In 2009 a Turkish archeologist ask that his government request the return of the bones (taken or stolen by Italian sailors in the Middle Ages) to Turkey.

There are so many icons of Nicholas — called “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker” — that one tires of seeing them. Nonetheless, a student of icons must know about them.

As I mentioned in a previous posting, there are three main types: Nicholas of Velikoretsk, Nicholas of Mozhaisk, and Nicholas of Zaraisk.

The “Velikoretsk” type is the one we usually see, Nicholas shown head to shoulders, or half-length, or more rarely (as above) full length. Jesus is often depicted in a circle on one side, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary on the other, presenting him the bishop’s stole (omophorion in Greek):

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

These depictions of  Jesus and Mary originate in the story (for which there is no evidence) that St. Nicholas was present at the 1st Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea.  Later, an additional detail was added to the legend. At that Council, Nicholas is said to have been so irritated by Arius, leader of the opposition, that he slapped him in the face.  Arius complained to the Emperor Constantine, who had Nicholas removed and imprisoned.  While in prison Jesus and Mary appeared to him; Jesus gave Nicholas the Gospel book and Mary restored his omophorion, the sign of his office as bishop.  This detail seems to have been added to the legend near the end of the 14th century.  That “slapping” scene is briefly described in the 18th century Greek painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna, as part of the iconography of the 1st Ecumenical Council.

Less common than the basic “Velikoretsk” type are icons of that type surrounded by standard scenes from the life and legend of Nicholas, as in this example:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The other two types of Nicholas that one is likely to encounter are first, “Nicholas of Mozhaisk,” as in this interesting example that, atypically, also includes four scenes from the “life.”

Here is another example of the “Mozhaisk” type:

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

And second, there is the “Nicholas of Zaraisk” type, in which Nicholas is shown standing with arms raised out to the sides, with the Gospel book in one hand and the other in a sign of blessing, as in this icon pattern (reversed):


As already mentioned, some icons show Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with standard scenes from his tale. Let’s take a look at seven separate panel icons showing some of them:

1. The birth of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

2. The baptism of Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

3. Nicholas brought for education:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

4. The consecration of Nicholas as bishop:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

5. Nicholas throws a bag of money through a window at night as dowry for three poor young women, so they might marry:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

6. Nicholas rescues three men condemned to execution:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

7. Nicholas restores life to a child drowned in the Dniepr River:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

There are quite a number of possible additional “life” scenes found in this or that icon of Nicholas, so here is a general listing of a few of the most prominent, including some already mentioned:

The birth of Nicholas, the baptism of Nicholas, the healing of a crippled woman, Nicholas brought for education, consecration as deacon and as bishop, driving a demon out of a well, appearing to the sleeping Emperor Constantine, rescuing three men from imprisonment, rescuing the drowning Demetrios, giving gold for the dowry of three young women to save them from prostitution, the three men and the whale, saving a boy abducted by Saracens, the death of Nicholas, the tomb of Nicholas and translation (moving) of his relics.

Here is another icon with a central image of Nicholas, surrounded by scenes from his life:

(Courtesy of

They are to be read clockwise, from upper left:

The birth of Nicholas;
The baptism of Nicholas;
The healing of the blind woman:
Nicholas learning his letters;
Nicholas consecrated deacon;
Nicholas consecrated bishop;
Nicholas saving the drowning boy;
The death of Nicholas.

As with other major saints, one also finds icons of Nicholas in the iconostasis form, showing him turned toward what would be a central image of the enthroned Jesus — that is, in the Deisis form, beseeching for favors on behalf of those who pray to Nicholas:

(Courtesy of

One could write a thick book about the legendary history of Nicholas, but this should be enough for a quick introduction to his icons.