Icon Traditions

Some notes on traditions, meaning and care of the Orthodox icon.




Today the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the day when young Mary, the future Mother of God received a visitor, Archangel Gabriel who, famously, announced:

“… Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…..” etc. from the Gospel according to St. Luke

THE ANNUNCIATION, late 12 c. Byzantine icon

In this wonderful Byzantine icon from the late 12th century, we see dynamic composition, tension and much symbolism, of course. Mary, a slight young woman,  turns with apprehension from her task of spinning thread to look at the similarly tense figure of an angel. A dove (which represents the Holy Spirit) hovers between them, seemingly propelled on a golden disk.  The angel’s garment, treated with a lot of mannerist twists and turns, increases the energy with which he arrives. One of Mary’s many epithets is written (take my word for it, it is there, even if we cannot see it in our image) over the lively stream with jumping fishes, calling Her a “grace-giving stream.”

To add another dimension, the dimension of magnificent music and sound, I invite you to link to a remarkable choral performance on UTUBE:


Some sources give this music the title “Gabriel Appeared.” *

It is composed by Pavel G. Chesnokov (1877 – 1944), a Russian composer, choral conductor and teacher. **

The soloist is Egor Chernegov-Nomerov, who is also the director of this group from Moscow.

This is a dramatic form of choral singing where the soloist is Archangel Gabriel addressing the future Mother of God.

Words fail to describe the beauty of the music and the gifted singing group with their remarkable soloist. Listen for yourself!

You do not have to understand the church slavonic to feel the magnificence of the moment of the Annunciation.

I am so moved by this music that I have filed it among my favorite performances on UTUBE, returning to hear it again and again. What music!  What a performance.  There are few moments in life when I can freely say I have been so moved.  Bless the singers. May their voices be heard for all to enjoy!

  • The words in church slavonic are  as follows :

Совет превечный открывая Тебе, Отроковице, Гавриил предста, Тебе лобзая и вещая:

Радуйся, земле ненасеянная! Радуйся, купино неопалимая! Радуйся, глубино неудобозримая!

Радуйся, мосте, к небесем преводяй, и лествице высокая, юже Иаков виде!

Радуйся, божественная стамно манны! Радуйся, разрешение клятвы!

Радуйся, Адамово воззвание, с Тобою Господь!

The word “Rejoice” appears 7 times! which gives us an idea of the emotion conveyed by the laudatory words of the archangel as he addresses Mary.  Thanks to one astute YouTube visitor, the words in English are:

“Rejoice, O earth unsown! Rejoice, O bush unburnt! Rejoice, O depth hard to fathom! Rejoice, O bridge leading to the heavens and lofty ladder, which Jacob beheld! Rejoice, O divine jar of Manna! Rejoice, annulment of the curse! Rejoice, restoration of Adam: the Lord is with thee!”  Deep, poetic, melodic! Music and words combine beautifully.

** It is hard to find reliable information on this wonderful Russian composer. This comes from Wikipedia, in part: he

“was a Russian composer, choral conductor and teacher. He composed over five hundred choral works, over four hundred of which are sacred….At an early age, Chesnokov gained recognition as a great conductor and choirmaster while leading many groups including the Russian Choral Society Choir. This reputation earned him a position on staff at the Moscow Conservatory where great composers and music scholars like Tchaikovsky shared their skills and musical insight. There he founded a choral conducting program, which he taught from 1920 until his death.

By the age of 30, Chesnokov had completed nearly four hundred sacred choral works but his proliferation of church music came to a standstill at the time of the Russian revolution. Under communist rule, no one was permitted to produce any form of sacred art. So in response, he composed an additional hundred secular works, and conducted secular choirs like the Moscow Academy Choir and the Bolshoi Theatre Choir. With Joseph Stalin as dictator of the Soviet Union, many religious people suffered for his effort to enforce a universal doctrine of atheism. In this pursuit, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour,[1] whose last choirmaster had been Chesnokov, was destroyed. This bothered him so much that he stopped writing music altogether.

He died on 14 March 1944.”

[some sources suggest he died waiting in the freezing winter cold, waiting in a bread line. His magnificent sacred choral music lives on, ed.]


CHRIST’S BURIAL SHROUD, or cloth known as the “Plashchanitsa” [ПЛАЩАНИЦА]

There is one icon in the Russian Orthodox Church calendar which appears once a year and is withdrawn for the rest of the year. That icon is called the “Plashchanitsa” or Christ’s Burial Shroud. In western terms it represents the so-called ‘Deposition of Christ’. During Passion Week, on Great Thursday, there is a rather long service in the evening called “The Twelve Passion Gospels”, during which the priest and others read from the four Evangelists, for a total of 12 readings interspersed by prayers and choral singing, which chronicle the suffering of Christ on the Cross. At the end of the service, the Crucifixion, a painted  icon of Christ on a wooden cross, which usually stands to the side of the church interior, is moved to the center of the church.

On Good Friday, there is a relatively short service in the afternoon, during which an icon of Christ lying prone, painted or  sometimes embroidered image which has rested on the altar for a time, is carried in a procession by the priest from the altar, through the iconostasis to the center of the church where there is an appropriate size casket  standing ready to receive this iconic image of Christ. This image is then laid flat on the casket and represents Christ lying prone after he was removed from the Cross by Joseph of Arimathea in preparation for burial.

On Great Thursday, the day before, the tenth Passion Gospel testifies [Mark 15, 43-47 of the New King James Version Bible] :

“Now in that time, came Joseph from Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.

So  when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.

Then he brought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen. And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.”

A  Bible is laid on top of this image, which is then venerated by the priest, the acolytes and parishioners who express their sorrow and give thanks over Christ who suffered for our sake.  Those who are able, bend on their knees three times and kiss the feet of the image and the Bible lying above the image.

It is an image of Christ on the shroud which, during the Byzantine era was often embroidered in silk satin stitch with precious gold and silver threads and tassels around the perimeter with inscriptions. The style of the embroidery during the Byzantine era and into the late Middle Ages, i.e. through the 16th century, was restrained in color gamut and particularly austere, highly symbolic, often rich in the choice of expensive materials. People who could afford to pay for such work were usually royal patrons or wealthy merchants.

Plashchanitsa embroidered by Tsarina Anastasia Romanovna, c. 1550, Moscow

Sometimes Christ was represented surrounded only by grieving Seraphim (the fiery angel with four wings hovering in the center) as in this Plashchanitsa, embroidered by the pious  Tsarina Anastasia Romanovna herself, the wife of Ivan the IV (the Terrible) around 1550 [this image taken from an early 1913 color photo by S.M. Prokudin-Gorskii, see credits below

The next example is from from the Kirillo-Belozersk  Monastery; Christ is shown with his Mother grieving at His head, and young John the Evangelist  at the feet of Christ.

Plashchanitsa from Kirollo-Belozersk Monastery, early 1400s Moscow

They are  surrounded by angels and archangels. According to the exhibit catalog, this piece has lost its original blue background, receiving a new blue support material in the 1930s during a restoration. The symbolism is a bit complex, with the four Evangelists represented by their symbols in the the four corners (they are hard to see), the moon and sun have human features in the top also seem to be in distress; the angels are all around holding instruments from the church liturgy. The background fabric is scattered with crosses and stars; liturgical inscriptions (some apparently lost or separated) were around the perimeter and among the figures. The curator who describes this embroidered icon from an exhibit in the Russian Museum in 1995 [see credits below] writes “the entire scene carries a symbolic character —as though it were a liturgy of the angels, taking place in the Heavens.”

On Great Saturday the “Plashchanitsa” rests in the center of the church on its casket, surrounded with many beautiful, usually white flowers donated by parishioners. People come up to the image to venerate it. In some large parishes where there are a lot of children and young people, youngsters take turns “standing guard” like the angels hovering over the symbolic figure of Christ in his tomb. Then, Shortly before midnight, in a hushed church, the priest and deacon come from the altar, and take this icon of Christ back in a procession and place it back on the altar. Just after Midnight, the priest announces, at first quietly, then more forcefully “Христос Воскресе!…..Christ has Risen!” and the parish answers as with one voice “Воистинну Воскресе!  …….Indeed he has!”

In the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, N.Y….when it was our family church in the 1980s, we witnessed many beautiful services the entire week preceding Easter Sunday. Visitors from different countries come to this remote part of upper New York State for Easter services. One year we heard readings from the Gospels in several languages, and finally “Christ has Risen” pronounced in the same diverse languages. Very moving.

The Eastern Orthodox services are a feast for all the senses: wall frescoes and icons provide food for the eyes; the unusual harmonies of choral singing fill our ears; incense and candle scents tickle our sense of smell. The total experience fills our hearts with joy, especially on Easter morning.

Christ has Risen!!!   Христос Воскресе!!!  Christos Anesti!!!

Note: materials for this article were taken from two sources:

  1. The image of Plashchanitsa was embroidered by Anastasia Romanovna, wife of Tsar Ivan the IVth, c. 1550?  She came from a pious family who brought the future tsarina up as a modest and pious girl, who learned all manner of handiwork early in life. The color image comes from a photograph by S.M. Prokhudin-Gorski and was published in “The Boyars Romanov and the rise of Tsar Michael Fedorovich,” edited by the Committee organizing the 300 year anniversary of the House of Romanov. St. Petersburg, 1913.

“Бояре Романовы и воцарение Михаила Феодоровича” издание  Комитета для устройства празднования трехсотлетия царствования Дома Романовых. С. Петербург, Гос. Типография, 1913.

2) The Plashchanitsa from the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery, now in the Russian Museum, dates from the early 1400s, Moscow.  From the catalog titled: “To Your Most Chaste Image we bend in reverence…the image of the Mother of God in works from the Russian Museum”. “Пречистомy Образу Твоему поклоняемся,,,,,Образ Богоматери в произведениях из собрания Русского Mузея,”   Palace Edition, 1995….catalog of an exhibit.



ST. HARLAMPII, Healer & Patron of Beekeepers

In Bulgaria and Western Ukraine the 23rd of February is a day to remember Saint and venerable martyr Kharlampii, a bishop who spread the word of God in the area known today as Asia Minor. This saint not only took a lot of pains to spread Christianity, but also was a distinguished healer.  He did not recognize any other methods of treating ailments except by way of natural healing. According to one source (see sources at the end of this post) he performed most of his healing arts with honey and beeswax.

Saint Kharlampii Day was truly a public holiday in Bulgaria in times past; all people left their everyday duties to honor him. Women arose with the dawn to bake special pies and flat cakes  decorated with a symbol of the hive or a cross. These baked goods as well as fresh honeycomb dripping with honey, were brought to church to honor their saint. Once the festive liturgy was over, the pies and cakes with honey were handed out to family and friends as a gift for good luck and good health.

In some localities honey that was blessed this way was kept behind the altar for 40 days, then used by the parish for medicinal purposes. On this saint’s day some parishes also conducted services to cleanse the countryside of the plague and honey was used as part of the ritual cleansing. This practice is a remnant of that period in history when this part of the world suffered devastating epidemics of the bubonic plague in the middle ages, and very likely the custom dates back to those origins.  About a week before this healer saint’s holiday, beekeepers would set up displays of honey, honey comb, beeswax and wax candles for sale in the marketplace. Many churches in Bulgaria carry the name of this revered patron of beekeepers.

There are other saints associated with beekeeping, such as  St. John Chrysostom, St. Rochus, St. Ambrose  and St. Barromeus of the Catholic Church, but not on this occasion.

On the same day, that is February 23rd, the Orthodox Church honors St. Valentine.  The western world celebrates this saint on February 14th; well the reason for this is cause for another, rather long discussion on the difference in calendars.  Suffice it to say that the Orthodox Church follows the Julian Calendar and the western churches follow the Gregorian Calendar since  1582 when Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar (sometimes called New Style) by dropping 13 days from history in order to fix certain church holidays  (..and in many cases the two calendars are about 13 days apart.), and the rest of the western world followed suit, except the Orthodox Church, which continues to use the Julian Calendar (sometimes called Old Style)  this day. It is all a bit complicated, but has to do with the way Easter is calculated.

Happy saint’s day to all you folks who carry the name of  Kharlampii, Valentin or Valentina !

Material for this post came largely from:

“Correct Nutrition During Orthodox Great Lent” (in Russian language), compiled by Tatiana Petrovna, Published Vladis, 2010, Russia.

Article written by N.I. Krivtsov  in 1999 titled “ Saintly Patrons of Beekeeping” (in Russian language ) for the online Russian magazine called “Beekeeper” at :


LITURGY: a Christian sacrament commemorating the Last Supper by consecrating bread and wine.

Icon featured during Triumph of Orthodoxy, February 21st, 2010

18th c. miniature "Ubrus", closeup of angel on right


18th c. miniature "Ubrus", closeup of angel on left

At this time of the year  Orthodox Christians begin focusing on the  upcoming  Great Lent, especially the movable holiday called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” celebrated this year on the 21st of February.

What an appropriate occasion  to start the discussion on Orthodox iconography!

The following text comes from Natalia P. Scheffer’s book “The Russian Orthodox Icon”. The original text of the 1967 edition is in Russian. We are quoting from it in a translation by Walter Borowski, copyright 2010:


Eleven centuries ago, or to be more exact, on the first Sunday of the Easter Lent in the year 843, there was a celebration in Constantinople, the first church service to the Victory of Orthodoxy.  It signified the end of the persecution of holy icons. Iconoclasts were the same Christians, however under the influence of those of other creeds, they rose up against the holy images, not understanding their real meaning, and considered those who venerated icons idol worshippers.  Many persons of monastic or priestly life, those especially persecuted, escaped into Italy during the times of persecution; there they obtained the support of Pope Gregory II who pronounced iconoclasm a heresy.

During the first solemn mass of the Victory of Orthodoxy there was read the Synodic [a 'declaration of agreement' we might call it], the first paragraphs of which were incised in stone and were kept in the Church of St. Sophia.

The Victory of Orthodoxy is considered a momentous occasion in the life of the church and to this day, it is celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church, as established , on the first Sunday of the Easter Lent.  On Mt. Athos there is an icon of the “Victory of Orthodoxy” with an image of the Mother of God supported by two angels.  On each side there are the Empress Theodora with the infant son Michael and Patriarch Methodius.

One of the main warriors and defenders of the veneration of icons is St. John of Damascus (VIII c.). In his “word” he writes: the icon is to eyesight, what the word is to the ear. It is a divine phenomenon and its symbolic essence gives us the idea of the divine. I go to church, which is the oasis of the soul, I gaze upon the holy icons and my soul is enlightened. When people worship the Cross, it is irrelevant what material it is made of. One does not worship the wood, nor the metal, but Christ the Savior, who was crucified upon it.  Similarly with holy icons, one worships the likeness of the Lord.”

[end of translation]


By church tradition, the icon featured during services on Sunday of Orthodoxy is called “Ubrus” in church slavonic, and  “Christ on a Napkin” in English;  aka  “Christ not made by human hands” , “The Edessa Cloth” or “Holy Mandylion.” One may ask why the same type of image received different appellations ? The suggestion is that there was one, so-called, prototype, an original which established the overall arrangement of the features of the icon, but that historical events, geographic locations and other circumstances of the region in which a particular physical icon comes from dictated the custom of calling the image by one name or another. Nonetheless, the image “type” remains the same.

"Ubrus" by Simon Ushakov (1626-1686)

Here is one “Christ on a Napkin”,  the work of  Russian iconographer , Simon Ushakov (1626-1686). He titled the icon in Greek and it reads “Holy Mandylion”. Mandylion is  “the Holy Towel, a piece of cloth allegedly bearing the imprint of Christ’s face and kept at Edessa before it was taken to Constantinople in 944 where it was kept in the Great Palace (Pharos chapel)” according to the glossary of the Byzantine World online [there is a story behind the reference to the existence to an actual  historic piece of fabric in the 10th century , but that requires more  discussion for another time].

In her book N.P. Scheffer believes this interpretation of the icon, with the serene expression of Christ’s Holy Face on a napkin is Russian in origin. She mentions prototypes from the  12th century in the Russian towns of  Pskov and  Novgorod.  We do not have access to those historically earlier images, so we cannot carry that argument further at this time.

As an aside, it needs to be said that Russian Orthodox iconography can be grouped into major “types” and this image is one “type” of Christ the Saviour we will call the “Ubrus” in church slavonic or “Christ on a Napkin” in English; we can use those names alternatively.

It is a calm, peaceful  image of the disembodied head of Christ, suspended on a virtual cloth or napkin, the image of profound serenity of expression. The crown of thorns is nowhere to be seen; there are no signs of bleeding on  the forehead. The Holy Face is a peaceful, strong image of Christ “triumphant”.

There is a legend associated with this image; it relates how a certain ruler of Edessa was mortally ill; he sent an artist to paint the image of Christ, believing that as soon as he looked upon the painting he would be healed. The artist, try as he might, could not get a likeness of Christ, who took pity on the man. Christ washed his face and wiped it with a towel or  “napkin” . The image of Christ’s Holy Face thus imprinted itself upon the cloth.

Christ on a Napkin, 2004 interpretation on porcelain, Russia

Here is another,  similar composition, this time a contemporary image without the “napkin” but the composition is the same, on a miniature porcelain pendant. Compare the first and this second image of Christ on a Napkin.  These two icons demonstrate the fact that even  though they  were created  some 400 years apart, they represent the same “type” venerated by the Eastern Orthodox Church, a disembodied head of Christ, triumphant as the resurrected Son of God; the inscription on the miniature reads “The Son of God”.

I see that many places on the net continue to confuse this Eastern Orthodox image with the “Veronica”. And that is not only confusing; it is misleading to think these two traditions are the same.

The Vernicle (suffering Christ), early 21st c. embroidery

“The Veronica” or “The Vernicle” comes from a different, western tradition and represents  a suffering Christ, imprinted,  according to legend, on a towel offered by St. Veronica to Christ as He labored on His way to Golgotha and His Crucifixion. The use of images of blood, dripping from Christ’s thorn- damaged head  is not in the Russian Orthodox tradition. The difference between the two “types”  is not just in subtle details of composition, but in liturgical philosophies, one could argue, between east and west. Whereas the “Veronica” emphasizes the suffering of Christ, the Eastern Orthodox type of Christ on a Napkin chooses to emphasize the resurrected Christ.

I believe, the Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrates the “Triumph” of the resurrected Christ on the first Sunday of Lent in anticipation of Easter; it is the Christ who gives us hope to conquer “death by death” as the jubilant priest and choir declare on Easter Sunday. This is a message of hope eternal.

We have not exhausted the subject of the image type called “Christ on a Napkin”. . There are many interesting questions that have been asked but not resolved concerning the so-called “Sudarium of Oviedo” in Spain and how it may be related to the Shroud of Turin and what relationship it may have to our image of Christ on a Napkin, if any? We have just begun  the long and fascinating subject of icon traditions.

For now, here  is yet another Russian icon of the “Ubrus” or “Christ on a Napkin” , this time a miniature from the c 18th c.?  It also delineates Christ on a Napkin which is held up by two angels, one on each side. One of the interesting features of this image is that if you click on it, you will get a larger closeup that reveals a bit of the iconographer’s method. Where the paint has chipped away, we can see it was painted without a fabric layer, directly onto a thin layer of gesso, where a distinct black outline is revealed.

The icon measures a rather small 3 3/8″ x 2 3/4″. The panel is a solid piece of wood, about 1/4″ thick, now very dry and light. It may have been painted for pilgrims who crossed the Russian land traveling from one monastery or holy site to another, picking up souvenirs at each holy site as they moved along.

18th or early 19th C Miniature of "Christ on a Napkin"

Close up view of "Christ on a Napkin" showing underpainting

Sometimes, in finer icons, a thin linen material was first adhered to the wooden panel. In this miniature, it appears the wood was covered with a thin layer of gesso made (perhaps?) of ground marble dust and animal skin glue;  then an outline was drawn of the design in a dark color.Sometimes the outline was incised with a sharp instrument so that the iconographer could “see the design” even after he began to cover some parts with gold leaf and paint. The paint here was egg tempera. Remnants of gold leaf still remain.  Icon painting technique is best left to another post, so we will end it here, for today.