Visitors to Orthodox churches without some knowledge of the Bible, apocrypha, and even national traditions often have difficulty interpreting the events and figures that recur in iconography. Most confusing are those images derived from the apocrypha (апокрнф, from the Greek for something “hidden” or “secret”) a pseudo-scriptural Christian or Jewish book not traditionally recognized as canonical (part of the Holy Scriptures). Most essentially, apocryphal literature is like fanfic…for the Bible. As such, it forms the basis for influences of many iconographic scenes, including the Birth of the Mother of God, the Annunciation, the Descent into Hades, and the Dormition. Due to the prevalence of these stories and images, many Orthodox believers consider apocryphal stories as valid as the ones included in the Bible.
This page contains a selection of the most famous icons and other common iconographic themes and forms, along with descriptions providing religious and historical context. If you are interested in learning more about saints and common figures in iconography, please visit the Field Guide to Saints page.
Russian Orthodox churches usually incorporate icons into their very architecture, either as frescoes or as panels covering the walls and columns. The iconographic centerpiece is the iconostasis, or icon-screen, which separates the altar from the rest of the church. The centerpiece of the iconostasis is the deisis tier (Деисус, from the Greek for “supplication”), a set of icons including the depiction of the Virgin, John the Baptist, and possibly other saints interceding with Christ on behalf of mankind. The Deisis is the most prominent image on the iconostasis, and is associated with the Last Judgment. A deisis is sometimes referred to as a “Trimorphon” when only Christ, the Virgin, and John the Baptist are shown.
A diptych (диптих, from the Greek for “folded in two”) is a pair of icons connected by a hinge, folding like a book. Common diptychs subjects include the Theotokos and Christ, or John the Baptist and Christ.
Hagiographical icons, also known as “vita” icons, emerged in the 13th century. They usually feature a large central image of a saint surrounded by a frame of small marginal scenes depicting their life events and miracles. The images were often based on a saint’s literary vita (or hagiography), but could also include stories from well-known hymns. In this way, literary and narrative elements create a hagiographical cycle of scenes, usually beginning with the saint’s nativity (birth) in the upper left hand corner, and ending with their death or martyrdom in the lower right hand corner. The resulting historical-literary account illustrates the story of the saint’s life in a way that would have been legible even to the largely illiterate yet devout peasantry.
A Menology or Minyeia is a liturgical calendar depicting saints and their festival days. The first Russian icon menology was painted in the 15th century, and they were fairly common from the 15th century onwards. Most are one month (or two, if the icon is double-sided), but the most elaborate serve as a calendar for an entire year in minute detail. The central image in such an icon depicts the Resurrection surrounded by smaller icons of the twelve Great Feast days. This is further surrounded by the calendar of saints, starting with the upper left quadrant (September). With one saint for every day, they are often so small that it can be nearly impossible to see the individual faces and names of each. The outermost frame contains various depictions of the Holy Mother.
The Last Judgment represents the end of the world and God’s final judgment of all mankind, as described in Revelations. Each icon is unique due to the highly complex nature of the composition, although they follow a more or less consistent pattern. Christ is seated on a central throne, flanked by the Holy Mother and John the Baptist (as in a Deesis), with Adam and Eve at His feet. The apostles, holding open books, are ranked along either side with the heavenly host (angels) behind them. Below are the souls to be judged, with the righteous on the right and the sinners on the left. A serpent (or “sin worm”) is often shown winding its way up to bite Adam’s heel, with twenty deadly sins are inscribed on its body. Satan and Judas can be seen in the lower fiery corner representing Hell, from which the serpent is slithering. This scholarly article provides an in-depth analysis of Last Judgment iconography.
Ladder of Divine Ascent represents a theological construct devised by the 7th century monk John Climacus. In this allegory, the ladder is a process of attaining theosis, a state variously defined as “saintly perfection,” or “partaking of the divine nature.” The ladder is comprised of thirty steps to paradise, beginning with “forsaking the world” and ending with “love.” Very few reach the top, and one side of the composition often shows demons tempting monks off the ladder’s heavenly path and into flames. This icon is sometimes confused with the iconographic depiction of Jacob’s Ladder. In this composition, angels descend from the heavens on a ladder to wake the sleeping Jacob.
Ascent of Elijah illustrates the Old Testament prophet Elijah being taken to Heaven in a fiery chariot while still alive (he is the only biblical figure who went to Heaven without dying). Distinctive features of this icon include the red aureole, or “bubble,” surrounding the chariot, and the figure of Elisha waiting to take up Elijah’s milot (an ascetic’s garment made from a hairy animal pelt). This composition was one of the most popular scenes from the life of a prophet, particularly in Northern Russia, where monks in the wilderness admired Elijah’s asceticism.
Sophia, Wisdom of God shows a personification of the Holy Spirit, widely perceived as a feminine figure. She is often depicted enthroned and with a red complexion; wings are also sometimes included. The Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople is dedicated to the idea of God’s wisdom.
Assumption (успение, “falling asleep”) icons depict the entry of a saint into heaven. The assumptions of the Mother of God and of Elijah are common iconographic subjects.
The Old Testament Trinity (Троица Ветхозаветная) is one of the most famous and recognizable icons in Russia. It depicts Abraham’s reception of the three men (Genesis 18), individuals later interpreted as symbols of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. In earlier versions, usually referred to as “The Hospitality of Abraham,” the three men are shown seated at a table, with Abraham and Sarah serving them. The 15th century iconographer Andrei Rublev, however, simplified the composition by removing Abraham and Sarah. This created a subtle change in focus, from a biblical scene to a meditation on the divine mystery of the Trinity.
The Orthodox Church celebrates twelve Great Feasts. Eight of these are in honor of Christ, and four in honor of Mary. The feasts celebrate events in the lives of both as described in the Bible or in apocryphal literature. Their importance for Orthodox believers means they are common subjects in iconography. Beginning with the Nativity of the Theotokos in September, they are: the Exaltation of the Cross, Presentation of the Theotokos, Nativity of Christ, Baptism of Christ (sometimes referred to as the Theophany or Epiphany), Presentation of Christ at the Temple, Annunciation, Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, Transfiguration, and the Dormition of the Theotokos. Some Great Feast icons are listed below:
Annunciation (Благовещение) depicts the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the Son of God, and His conception in her womb (Divine Incarnation). This event is celebrated as one of the Twelve Great Feasts. There are basically four iconographic variants of the Annunciation: With Yarn, By the Spring, the Child in the Womb, and With a Book. More recent versions of this icon include a significant amount of domestic or architectural detail.
Nativity or Adoration of the Magi is a common iconographic subject venerating the birth of Christ. In Adoration icons, the focus is on the worship of the Christ Child by visiting pagan noblemen from the East.
Resurrection (Воскресение, Вознесение; “Resurrection”) The Resurrection of Christ is also known as the “Descent into Hades.” The risen Christ is usually shown trampling the doors of Hades, resurrecting Adam and Eve, and leading the captive saints of the Old Testament (King David, Abraham, etc.) to Paradise. The word for “resurrection” is now used as the Russian word for Sunday, due to the association of the Resurrection with Easter Sunday.
Dormition (Успение, “falling asleep”) depicts the death of the Mother of God, followed by her assumption into Heaven.
There are nearly four hundred ways to depict the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos (from the Greek for “birth-giver of God,” or Holy Mother). The following are some of the most common compositions in Russia:
Our Lady of Vladimir (Владимирская Икона Божией Матери) Painted in Constantinople, this famous icon in the Eleousa type (Елеуса, from the Greek for “she who has mercy”) depicts the Virgin and Child, with Jesus’ cheek touching his mother’s face. It was commissioned in the 12th century by a Russian and brought to Vladimir. During the 14th century Mongol invasions, the icon moved to Moscow and was thought to have protected the city from Tamerlane’s army. The intercession of the Holy Mother through this image was also credited with saving Moscow from Tatar hordes in the 15th century.
From then on, the icon was adopted as the symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church: important state transactions were taken place in her presence, and her blessing was sought before battle. It is rumored that Stalin even ordered it to be flown around the city in an airplane, in order to create a circle of protection around the city as the Germans advanced in December 1941. Thousands of representations of this icon have since been created, and it is said that no Russian church is complete without one somewhere represented. Today, the icon located in Moscow’s Tretiyakov Gallery and is valued by Orthodox believers and art lovers alike for its humanistic ability to capture the Holy Mother’s feelings of tenderness and anxiety towards her Son.
Our Lady of Kazan (Казанская Богоматерь) depicts the Theotokos (Birth-giver of God), adopted as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan. According to legend, the icon in was discovered in 1579 by a young girl to whom the Virgin had appeared in a dream, revealing to her that the holy image was hidden underground. A church was built on this site, and the icon was venerated and credited with repelling invasions from Poland, Sweden, and Napoleon’s army. The transfer of this icon to the Cathedral of the Assumption inside the Moscow Kremlin in the late 14th century enabled it to become a symbol of national unity long before such unity became a political fact.
In 1904, Our Lady of Kazan was stolen by thieves coveting its gold frame. Although the frame was eventually recovered, the icon is thought to have been destroyed. Many peasants attributed the evils of the 1905 revolution and the defeat of the Russo-Japanese War to their Holy Protectress’ desecration. Many copies of the icon survive and Our Lady of Kazan remains one of the most widely venerated images of the Holy Mother in Orthodox Russia.
Our Lady of the Sign, dating to the early Christian period, shows the Virgin at the moment of the Annunciation. Her hands are upraised in the “orans” attitude of prayer, accepting God’s will. The Christ child is depicted on a medallion over her chest, with angels (bearers of the good news) usually located in the upper corners. Our Lady of the Sign became highly venerated across Russia shortly after it appeared in the 11th and 12th centuries, as it was credited with miraculously delivering the city of Novgorod from invasion in 1170.
Hodigitria or Hodegetria (Одигитрия, from the Greek for “directress”) is an icon type in which the Virgin points toward the Child with her hand. Earlier versions were two-sided and depicted the Crucifixion on the opposite side; these icons were the most widely venerated in Byzantium. Although there are nearly four hundreds ways to depict the Holy Mother, this is the most common, and is believed to have been originally painted by St. Luke (said to be the first iconographer).
Our Lady of Smolensk, an 11th century Russian icon and protectress of the city of Smolensk, was a beautiful example of this type. It was destroyed, most likely in a fire, when Smolensk was almost completely razed during the Nazi occupation in 1941. Copies of the icon are still revered, and many churches and cemeteries named in its honor.
The Softener of Evil Hearts icon is one of very few depictions of the Virgin Mary that does not include the Christ child. In this composition, which is thought to originate in southwestern Russia, seven swords pierce the Holy Mother’s heart from each side, and one from below (unlike in Western or Catholic iconography, however, the heart itself is not shown). The swords symbolize the sorrow, pain, and heartsickness that she would have experienced at the Crucifixion. This symbolism is thought to derive from a prophecy by spoken by St. Simeon to Mary in Luke 2:25-35.
Three-Handed Mother of God (Троеручица, “three-handed”) is a “wonder-working” icon with origins in the 8th century, when Iconoclasm was emerging. John of Damascus, an iconophile (“friend of icons”) who wrote many theological treatises in defense of icons. The Byzantine Emperor Leo became so infuriated that he punished John by cutting off his hand, hoping to silence his writings. John prayed to the Theotokos before an icon and when he awoke, found that his hand had been restored. He was so grateful for the miracle that he attached a silver hand to the icon.
Bogolyubskaya of Moscow is a Russian icon type depicting the Holy Mother standing full-figure with a scroll in her hand. It originates with a vision seen by Andrei Bogolyubsky, Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal in the 12th century.
There are also multiple ways to depict Christ. Although easily identifiable, Christ’s central role in the Orthodox faith resulted in a proliferation of complex iconographic arrangements. He is usually found as part of a composition featuring many other figures; the following is a selection of icon types in which Christ alone is shown.
Made Without Hands (Нерукотворные) is an icon type depicting the miraculously created image of Christ. According to Church tradition, Christ once pressed His face on a cloth and His image was miraculously imprinted onto the fabric. The cloth was sent to heal an ailing king, who then venerated Christ through the image for its power to heal. Also known as the Mandylion or “Holy Cloth,” the term may be applied to other miraculously created images as well.
Pantocrator (Вседержитель, “almighty”) refers to a frontal depiction of Christ, usually half-length, in which he holds a Gospel book in His left hand, with His right hand raised in blessing. In addition to icons, the image of Christ Pantocrator is usually seen as a fresco inside the dome of an Orthodox Church.
Christ in Majesty (Спас в Силах) is a variation of the image of Christ as Pantocrator. In this composition, Christ is presented enthroned and surrounded by a blue circular or almond-shaped form (known as a “mandorla”), representing His return in glory at the Second Coming. Christ brings with Him the revelation of the Kingdom of God, which is proclaimed to the four corners of the earth. The four corners (usually shown in red) include the symbolic images of the four Evangelists: an angel (Matthew), lion (Mark), ox (Luke), and eagle (John).
Man of Sorrows (Мужа скорбей) is an icon type showing the dead Christ descending into the tomb, an image also found in Western Christian art. It is similar to the Lamentation or Descent from the Cross, but the focus of this icon is on Christ alone. This image is central to the Russian view of Christ. Where the Greeks saw Him as a teacher and philosopher, and the Romans saw Him a a supreme ruler, Russians associated their savior with “the suffering man,” a figure highly relevant to the many impoverished yet faithful serfs.