Icon Traditions

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



Earlier this fall, I was fairly worn out after struggling with technical problems with two icons I was anxious to complete. Meanwhile I picked up and  reread Koo Schadler’s book on “Egg Tempera Painting”.  There, at the end of a discussion on tips and techniques, she mentioned casually that (I will paraphrase) one could use egg tempera on paper if the support underneath was stiff enough to prevent the paint from cracking.  It did not take me long to decide, for a change of pace,  to try painting a non-icon subject on paper using what I learned from Koo Schadler’s excellent book.  The topic came easily:  a little chihuahua named “Timmy” who belonged to a family member.  The inspiration was the sad story that the little thing had lost two legs to cancer. I wanted to restore his little legs, at least in a painting, for the owner.  Among my emails I found a photo of him where he appeared larger than life!  He had all four legs, of course. The owners live in beautiful Colorado. Thus began the collage-like assemblage of elements for my fantasy : the highly domesticated little Timmy in the Colorado wilderness, disposed with dignity that one expects from a larger, confident dog.

For stiffness under the paper, I selected a 1/2″ birch wood plywood and covered it with a couple of thin layers of shellac. This should isolate the damaging lignin from oozing out onto the paper in time. Then I used rabbit skin glue to attach a piece of acid-free Strathmore bristol board to the plywood and applied another board with a weight to keep the paper really flat till it dried overnight.  Next, using some gesso I had left over from icon painting, I applied two thin layers of gesso to the paper and let it dry for a couple of hours.  Then the fun began:  Assembling the pieces of the painting of Timmy in the wilderness.   I wanted the little dog to be shown in all his native dignity. The pieces fell into place as I arranged Timmy on a stone pedestal, lording it up in the landscape among a bull moose, a butterfly, a lizard and a patch of Blue Columbine, Colorado’s state flower.

It surprised me how friendly the surface was for egg tempera painting.  In some ways, this surface was more forgiving than true gesso surfaces. Koo Schadler teaches that egg tempera is more a drawing medium than a painting medium. By this I understood that the brush needs to be fairly dry when painting. Well, the gessoed paper responded well to a dry brush as well as a fairly wet brush. One had to be careful not to brush too long in one place, of course, to prevent the paint underneath from floating off.  All-in-all this non-icon egg-tempera project was very enjoyable. And very relaxing. I will do it again sometime.  Bravo!  Little dog Timmy! Not having known you in person, in my imagination …..you are quite a guy!

One Icon start to finish…the process

For those who are interested how an icon is created, here are some steps in the genesis of one icon, “The Mother of God of Tenderness.”

Brief background:

The inspiration for this design is an  18th century icon in the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.  In Russian iconography this particular icon design is called “ “Взыграние Младенца Пресвятыя Богородицы” which in rough translation means “The playful infant of the Mother of God”. But that sounds rather wordy and awkward, so for the sake of simplicity I gave the icon the name of “Mother of God of Tenderness” from the type that it represents, from the Russian  word умиление, which means “tender emotion”. And in Greek iconography it is known as the Eleusa , from the Greek word for “mercy” which is έλεος.  This type originated somewhere in Macedonia during the Byzantine era (before the fall of Constantinople in 1453),  where many ancient images of the Mother of God appeared. Several images of a playful Infant with his Mother were venerated in the region called Pelagonia, sometimes giving them the additional appellation “Пелагонитисса”, “Pelagonitissa”. The characteristic feature of this icon is the S-twist position of the Infant who throws back his head as he caresses his Mother’s cheek with his left hand, while holding his right hand down in a gesture of blessing.  An icon of this type appeared in Russia no earlier than the 18th century. The Feast Day for this icon is November 20th (our Gregorian calendar, or new style; it is November 7th in the Julian or old style calendar).

The icon painting process begins with a selection of a canonically approved design in the form of a line drawing, such as this:

The icon painter makes whatever alterations he/ she feels necessary in terms of size and placement, leaving the  basic attitude of the head(s), hands, feet and major details intact. There is plenty of room for the icon painter to demonstrate individual skills, technique and craftsmanship within the discipline of the traditional design. No two icons are ever the same, even if two icon painters start with the same tracing.

In the past an icon board was a well-season wooden panel that was cut, carved and processed by a carpenter. Today, an icon painter can work with quality plywood, such as birchwood plywood or hard board, aka “Masonite”.  In my case I used a special reinforced hardboard called “Ampersand board” that measured 20″ x 16″ x 1 1/2″ deep. As you can see the board is light weight because it is hollow in the back:

Not shown is the fact that thin strips of birch veneer were glued onto the front of the hardboard to raise the edges a bit, creating a hollow, called an “Ark” / “Ковчег” in the center of the panel. This is where the treasure or holy image will reside.  In my experience a well-prepared gesso board may take from 4 to 6 days to prepare. If the board is not reinforced, like this Ampersand board, it will distort and the gesso will crack if one does not treat both sides of the board equally, i.e. fabric layer and the same number of gesso layers on both sides.

The board was wiped with denatured alcohol to remove any surface grease or film. Rabbit skin glue was prepared in advance and  painted over the hardboard. Then a piece of previously moistened 100% linen canvas was laid over the hardboard, smoothing out any wrinkles. Rabbit skin glue was painted on the linen and rubbed down by hand and small tools till it adhered well to the board, leaving a little extra over the edge, any excess was to be shaved off later:

Warm rabbit skin glue is brushed vigorously into the linen.

The warm rabbit skin glue is well brushed onto the linen. The front of the panel is checked to see that the surface is thoroughly moist with glue and no wrinkles are present. Then the board is allowed to dry overnight in a clean, stable environment, such as a workshop or home studio.

When the linen-covered board is thoroughly dry (usually overnight), a gesso made of rabbit skin glue and a white filler material such as Chalk or Marble Dust, is brushed over the linen. This takes a lot of practice to keep the gesso thin, free of air bubbles and fairly smooth.  Once one layer looks fairly mat to the eye, the next thin layer of warm gesso is brushed on.  If you paint the next layer of gesso too early, you might disturb the wet layer of gesso beneath, creating ruts and “holes” in the gesso. So, it is best to err on the side of caution and wait a bit longer for each gesso layer to look and feel fairly dry to the touch.

Here are two icon boards, a layer of linen front and back and 9 thin layers of gesso on each side. They are drying in the open air in a shaded patio, away from direct sun.  Gesso production must never proceeds in direct sun, because there may be rapid, uneven drying of the gesso that leads to structural problems impossible to repair.

After thorough drying for one or more days in a clean, even temperature environment, the icon board is sanded to a smooth, ivory-like finish that is wonderfully receptive to water gilding and egg tempera techniques.   Here is the gessoed board with the icon design already transferred onto the polished gesso surface:

In many Russian icons the design is “scratched” into the surface lightly. This is done to help the icon painter “see the design” even after a few thin layers of egg tempera paint are already applied. In this icon, extra layers of gesso were painted where the large halo of the Mother of God was placed; the gesso was then carved to create a low relief floral design.

Once the design is inscribed, all areas intended for water gilding, are painted with very thin, multiple layers of red bole, which is a fine clay especially made for water gilding.

A light underpainting was created with sepia ink directly on the gesso to start building up the shadow areas of the features . The  underpainting was then covered with a thin layer of transparent white egg tempera in technique called a “scumble” an effect caused by painting a light color over a dark area. The purpose of this is to soften the underpainting. The haloes were water gilded, then the egg tempera painting began in earnest.

The garments and faces are gradually built up with very thin layers of almost dry and transparent egg tempera, applied with an almost dry paint brush. The idea is to build up the forms slowly, thinly, correcting and deepening the colors gradually, painting from dark to light, finishing with the lightest colors in the palette on the most prominent features of the icon.

The features are built up in very thin layers of egg tempera

The next three images show the progression of the Christ Child’s gown:

Then an even salmon red is painted all over.

And the lettering on the lower portion of the icon is completed. It reads in Church Slavonic :“Image of the Most Holy Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary of the Playful Infant”.

The Child’s gown is given some highlights in a cadmium yellow, using a Byzantine technique of expressing folds in  rather flat, geometric patterns that still convey where the folds, limbs and low areas of the body are. And the labels are painted in the background in white indicating the “Mother of God” and “Christ” in stylized Greek lettering.

Detailing the Child's gown.

The borders are painted and the icon is finished.

Borders and final touches are completed.

Egg tempera paintings should not be varnished for at least 6 months, to allow the paint to “cure.”

The icon is finished.  This is a rather large icon for me, being 20″ x 16″. With all the preparation and interruptions, this icon took three months to complete.

Close up of finished icon: Mother of God of Tenderness

Koo Schadler, accomplished tempera paint artist.

I discovered the work of tempera artist, Koo Schadler, within the last two weeks.  This lady is an accomplished egg tempera artist, generous with her information, which she shares in her book “Egg Tempera Painting.”  Although her work does not directly deal with icon painting, her knowledge of art history and the ancient technique of tempera painting can bring a lot of clarity for those who are struggling with the technical side of icon painting. Check out her work for its delightful qualities and obvious technical finesse. It is a joy to look at everything she has done!  And you can purchase her book there at a very fair price.

Go to:  www.kooschadler.com

Archimandrite Kyprian Pyzhov at work

Recent communications from our readers show there is continuing interest in the work of master iconographer, Archimandrite Kyprian Pyzhov (1904 – 2001). So, to partially satisfy that need, we are glad to share the following two photos of this distinguished iconographer, monastic and spiritual elder. The two photos show Fr. Kyprian working in his  icon painting studio at the Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York. Fr. Kyprian did all his wall murals and icons in acrylics. His non-church works such as landscapes and folk paintings that populate the many greeting cards disseminated by the monastery over 50 years of his work there, were done in oils and water colors. In these photos one can see tubes of acrylic paints and pencils he used to correct various details of his icon. We are privileged to show this photographic document of a great iconographer.  The photos were taken in 1986 by a newly-hatched professional photojournalist Nadia Borowski-Scott who has since become recognized for her work. She has generously allowed us to share these photos with the public. The only request is that whoever uses them should give proper copyright credit for them as follows:

Copyright 1986 Nadia Borowski Scott Photography.


Veteran's Memorial, Mojave Desert, CA.

Conflicts over Christian images and symbols are not new in human history.  It should come as no surprise to most of us that the confiscation of the steel and cement cross in the Mojave Desert of California during the week of May 7th was an act of desperation by people wishing to hurt and confuse not only US veterans, whose fallen in WWI were memorialized there, but also cause Christian communities to cower in doubt and fear.

Some of us believe we are witnessing the new persecutions, otherwise elegantly called “secularization of our society”; this is still a milder version of the brutal anti-religious fervor of the Soviet Union which held Russian people in bondage from 1917 to1991. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps.  I believe the seeds of anarchy are laid out in our society today if we look for them.

Many in the west cheered when the Russian Revolution of 1917 took place: André Gide, André Malraux, Romain Rolland, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. American writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn called themselves “fellow travelers”; so did George Bernard Shaw and the American journalist John Reed (1887 – 1920) and many others . It was to be the “great human experiment”. Little did the world care that the anti-religious campaigns of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and their gang laid claim to 40 million human victims (if not more) during 70 plus years of the last century. These socialist/communist state builders were quite successful in persuading the world that the old rotten tsarist regime was brutal, inhuman and oppressive. That is what most of us are taught in classrooms across the west. So, when I recently read a Polish paper from 1910,  I was shocked to read how small the population of the penal colony in Siberia was  during the tsarist regime  as compared to the Gulag prison system during Soviet times that followed.

Besides people,  thousands of churches were destroyed or defiled, as were icons and any other evidence of the spiritual heritage of “Holy Russia”. The revolutionary bolsheviks knew they needed to destroy society from its very roots, before they could establish their new order. So after the Russian civil war (1917 -1921) they systematically eradicated visible symbols of the faith of the people. What is happening in Europe and in the US is more like a process of attrition of Christian symbols in public places; still it is an insidious effort to erase Christianity in favor of so-called “humanist values”.

Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, c. 1910Eager to build a “Palace of Soviets”, the bolsheviks concluded that they needed to build it in the particular physical location as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

This magnificent structure was built to commemorate the victory of Russia over Napoleon. It, no doubt, irritated the new landlords of the Kremlin because its distinctive silhouette dominated the Moscow River and was a distinct “eye sore” to the nihilists in their party. The cathedral took 40 years to build with the help of funds gathered by the Russian people. It was consecrated in 1883.

Cathedral detonated Dec. 2, 1931The Soviets required one day to bring it down into a massive heap of rubble with five separate explosions on December 2, 1931. However the foundation block of rare marbles and granite had been sealed with molten lead and  took over a year to clear. The salvaged marble was used to face the new Moscow subway system which can be seen to this day.

The Soviets intended to build the highest structure in the world with a monstrous statue of Lenin, arms famously outstretched, dwarfing all else below him. Fortunately, lack of funds and WWII interrupted the project. Khrushchev made a city swimming pool out of the pathetic hole in the ground. By 2002, after a massive public campaign the Russian people rebuilt and rededicated the meticulously reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

For years now, Europe has been severing its Christian heritage, moving more and more in a secular direction. However, something different seems to be happening in Russia. Ever since the former Soviet state collapsed in 1991 there appears to be a renewed interest in their former Orthodox Christian heritage.

The energetic restoration of old churches and the construction of new churches is a contemporary phenomenon not witnessed anywhere else on the globe today. A first ever church has even been built at the Russian Bellingshausen Station in Antarctica.

The idea for this project was formed during the 1990s by a charity organization named “Temple for Antarctica” [Храм -Антарктиде]. Their ambitious goal was to establish a permanent church and even a monastery on Antarctica. The project was approved while Patriarch Alexis II was still alive; it was built on donations from across the Russian land. This church now serves not only those working at the Station on King George Island, but also the nearby Chilean, Polish and Korean research stations as well as by tourists. It is manned by priests who are monastics with the Troitse-Sergiyev Lavra who take turns volunteering for service there one year at a time.

This evident surge in the religious life of the Russian people, has  contributed to the current frenzied struggle for repossession of church artifacts saved by museums during the Soviet era. National treasures, especially ancient icons that were once part of historic church and monastic communities, but are now housed in state and local museums have became the objects of a struggle between museum caretakers and functioning churches who are laying claim to these icons.

Consequently, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the churches that were not destroyed during the previous 75 years, were returned to the Orthodox Church.

And thereby lie the new drama – filled stories, tense with debates, political maneuvering and public wringing of hands.  In at least one case the result of a transfer of such a national treasure to a working church environment has led to disastrous results.

In the posts to follow I hope to discuss the current fate of two national treasures:

The 12th century Bogoliubskaya Mother of God

The 12th century Bogoliubskaya icon of the Mother of God

The 12th century Korsun-Toropetskaya icon of the Mother of God

and the 13th-14th century Korsuno-Toropetskaya Mother of God.



Perhaps we should say traditional, orthodox icons are “usually” unsigned. The uncomplicated answer is: when an orthodox iconographer paints an icon the traditional, canonical way, he (or she) engages in  prayer and fasting before and during the process of the icon painting endeavor. In this manner the icon is accomplished with the joint action, in tandem one could say, with the Holy Spirit. In all humility, therefore, the icon is not the sole product of the one iconographer, but a joint effort.

We know throughout history that most orthodox icons are not signed. There are notable exceptions, one being the work of Simon Ushakov (1625-1686). A brilliant painter and distinguished iconographer, his work nonetheless marks one of the  turning points in the decline of traditional Russian orthodox iconography and the beginning of the infiltration of non-traditional influences of the west. Ushakov signed most of his icons, surely one sign of the departure from Eastern orthodox tradition.

Additional note on August 18, 2010

The other day I was reading a conversation among  friends in St. Petersburg, Russia (www.ubrus.com)  whose main objective/topic  is traditional embroidered icons. They pointed out an important fact I did not know : in medieval times, when an icon was being embroidered, several hands would, most likely, be working on the icon: a master embroiderer and several assistants. Naturally, when there are multiple hands putting together a work of art, one of them cannot very well sign off on the work when it is finished; it would not be ethical. That is one reason many embroidered icons were not signed.

As a matter of fact, looking at the medieval system of master and journeyman in the arts, one can surmise that painted icons underwent a similar hierarchical process of production. The master iconographer might design the icon and paint the “Liki” (Holy Faces in church slavonic), someone else from the workshop might do the drapery, another person the gilding, another the background and inscriptions. So, in a situation like that there would be difficulties in signing the finished product, as well.  All this apart from the spiritual reason given earlier, i.e. the belief in the collaboration of the Holy Spirit in the work, which would, or should give one pause before signing an 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.]


  1. Day of Easter, from a watercolor by Archimandrite Kyprian Pyzhov, signed in the lower right “A.K.1991”.

Monastery Greeting by Archimandrite Kyprian, 1991

Archimandrite Kyprian was not just an outstanding iconographer of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad; he was also an accomplished watercolorist. This post card is taken from a watercolor which shows the Holy Trinity Monastery in the background as it appeared after the Millenium Tower was built for the 1988 celebration of the Millenium of Christianity of Russia in Jordanville, N.Y. In the front plane we see a monastic greeting a young family on Easter Day. This is the closest to a self-portrait of Fr. Kyprian I have ever seen; he had a wry sense of humor, including a lot of children and folk characters in his folk scenes, and in this case, he included himself!

Couple greeting each other on Easter.

2)  This post card is from c. the 1950s, published in New York and represents a couple greeting each other with “Christ has risen!” and three kisses on alternate cheeks; they are standing in front of a traditional festive Easter table setting as the family cat eyes the roast pig and other tasty treats.

Children bringing a gift of Easter bread/ Kulich.

3)  This post card, probably also from the 1950s, from a watercolor whose artist signature is illegible. It is an endearing group of village children apparently bringing an Easter Bread (kulich/кулич) and some colored eggs to a home they are visiting.

Easter Table by anonymous artist, c 1940s?

4) This is a watercolor from an unknown artist, but probably c. 1940s? with a traditional Easter table setting, illustrating a cheese dessert called “Paskha/ Пасха” [which also means ‘Easter’ in Russian], two Easter breads (kulichi/ куличи) in their typical cylindrical form, glazed with sugar.  The hand-written title, again, reads “Christ has risen!/ Христос Воскресе!”.

All images are from our family collection.


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.

Easter traditions for the Russian Orthodox home maker!

Today is Palm Sunday. For many a home maker in the Russian Orthodox and other churches this last week of Great Lent is a time to juggle time between attending special and beautiful services during Passion Week and making time to cook and bake for Easter. Many women take special pride in preparing the Easter Bread and other dishes for Easter. There are probably as many recipes for Easter Bread, called “Kulich”in Russian,  (pronounced “cool-eech” and rhymes with peach) as there are home makers. This is no ordinary bread; it is full of symbolism and tradition. The ingredients are the very best the household can find and afford: butter, eggs, saffron, vanilla sticks, golden raisins, lemon and orange zest, full bodied milk and cream [none of that reduced fat stuff...this is the real article we want!] and the finest spices such as cardamom, nutmeg and real vanilla extract. Let’s remember that those who have been fasting for 40 days have not eaten solid meat or dairy products all that time. Now when we sit down to break  our fast at 3 or 4 AM Easter morning, we sit down to a meal with all the flavors we have been missing, but in modest amounts, otherwise our systems will go into shock if we stuff ourselves.  The centerpiece of the Easter breakfast is what we carried to church and brought home in a basket, which the priest blessed: the “kulich”,  also perhaps a cheese dessert in the shape of a pyramid, some colored eggs, pieces of cold cuts, maybe some salt, and any other small dish that is blessed at church and lovingly brought home for the first meal of Easter week. Here are some images of Easter baskets, Easter meals and table settings from years past. After the priest declares at the end of the Midnight service “Christ is Risen!” we all respond “Indeed he has!” and when we greet each other we  exchange the same greeting and kiss each other on alternate cheeks three times. This is a festive, colorful and joyous season!

The "kulichi" or Easter breads on a Russian Orthodox table.

Bringing the Easter baskets to church.

The priest blesses all the baskets on the eve of Easter.

In some churches the tables are filled to capacity with baskets.

Easter morning, the "kulich" and the pyramidal cheese dessert called "Paskha" are the pride of every house, where young and old meet to greet the day with "Christ has risen!" and sit down to a meal together.