Unless you happen to be literate in Old Church Slavonic, identifying figures in iconography presents an intimidating challenge to viewers unfamiliar with Christianity or Orthodox saints. This is compounded by the fact that there are actually hundreds of saints, some recognized around the world (St. George, St. Mark), and some only venerated by a small community (St. Herman, St. Nil). The following list describes figures (saints as well as angels and prophets) who are common in iconography, yet not readily identifiable to most people without an Orthodox background.
John the Baptist, the cousin of Christ, lived an ascetic life in the desert and preached the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. He is usually depicted wearing a milot (animal pelt), with long, ragged hair and beard. Icons of John the Baptist may include an axe (symbol of preaching), or his decapitated head (symbol of his death as a martyr).
St. Paraskeva became an ascetic after the death of her parents, wandering the countryside and converting many pagans, even though persecution of Christians was rampant under pagan rule. Paraskeva managed to survive several imprisonments and tortures by performing miracles. She was finally martyred by beheading. In iconography, she is typically shown in the humble clothes of an ascetic, sometimes holding a scroll or cross. It is common to see two angels on either side lower a crown to her head. Paraskeva’s name is derived from the Greek for “Friday,” traditionally a market day. As a result, she is considered the patron of trade and commerce.
The Archangel Gabriel appears as the bearer of joyful news, foretelling the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. He is frequently depicted in a pose of prayerful intercession before Christ or Mary. In some compositions he is shown holding a staff and a transparent globe inscribed with the monogram of Christ.
The Archangel Michael is the commander of God’s army and the victor over Satan. Although often shown wearing robes, Michael frequently appears in the armor of a soldier. One popular icon of Michael illustrates a legend in which he rescues a village from a flood. In another, the “Voyevoda,” Michael is shown mounted on a red winged horse, defeating Satan.
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (now Sivas, in Turkey) were a Roman legion in the 4th century. When it was commanded that all soldiers of pagan Rome must abandon Christianity, the faithful members of the legion were forced to stand in a frozen lake overnight. Rather than renounce their beliefs, forty soldiers froze to death.
St. Barbara, a Great Martyr, was the daughter of a pagan noble who became enraged when he discovered his daughter had converted to Christianity. Barbara’s father brought her to the provincial prefect to be tortured for her faith, but each night, the wounds inflicted on Barbara were miraculously healed. The enraged prefect ordered her to be beheaded. Upon her death, legend follows that Barbara’s father was struck down by lightning in punishment for his sins. Barbara is usually shown wearing royal robes and a crown, holding a chalice or cross.
St. Catherine is venerated as a Great Martyr. Born as a princess and educated as a scholar, Catherine became a Christian at a young age, remained a virgin, and personally converted hundreds of people to Christianity, until she was martyred by the pagan emperor Maxentius. Icons of Catherine usually show her in royal robes and a crown. These icons are usually hagiographical and also include scenes of her martyrdom. A “Cult of Catherine” developed in the Middle Ages, when she was revered as the feminine ideal; Joan of Arc claimed St. Catherine visited and counseled her.
St. Nil of Stolbensk was an ascetic monk from northern Russia near Pskov. In 1528, he prayed to God for enlightenment and moved to an island cave, where he lived a life of almost constant prayer, sleeping propped up on crutches. While painted icons of him are uncommon, carved wooden statues of the seated and prayerful Nil are venerated across in Russia.
St. George, immortalized in the tale of his battle with the dragon (debatably a symbol of Satan or the Roman Empire—or an actual dragon; I make no judgments), is one of the most revered saints in both Catholic and Eastern churches. According to tradition, in the 4th century George was originally a respected Roman soldier under Diocletian. When pagan Diocletian issued an edict that all Christian soldiers of Rome renounce their faith on pain of death, George refused. He was tortured and martyred. While most icons of St. George depict him as a mounted soldier fighting the dragon, hagiographic icons also show scenes from his martyrdom.
St. Anastasia was a born into the pagan nobility in the third-century, when Christians were under severe persecution from Diocletian. She was raised as a Christian in secret by her mother, and Anastasia often consoled Christian prisoners. For her faith she was tortured with imprisonment and starvation, and was eventually martyred by immolation. Icons of Anastasia are usually hagiographical and show the trials she endured in the name of faith.
St. Nicholas, as patron saint of Russia and protector of the poor and weak, is perhaps the most common subject in Russian iconography (aside from the Virgin Mary). He is usually depicted holding the Gospel of Matthew opened to the Beatitudes; alternatively, it is typical to see him holding a sword in one hand (emphasizing his defense of Christianity and the downtrodden), and a “town” in his other hand. This town is Myra, in what is now Turkey, where St. Nicholas was a bishop.
St. Luke the Evangelist is considered by some to be the first iconographer. Little is known of his life aside from that he preached Christianity until he was in his eighties. There is, however, a legend that he was visited in a dream by a vision of the Virgin Mary. Inspired, he painted his vision and created the first handmade icon. In many icons, Luke is depicted writing his Gospel, although he is sometimes shown painting, attended by Mary or Divine Wisdom. His symbol, an ox, appears in other icons accompanied by his name.
The Four Evangelists are the authors of the first four New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In individual icons they are usually shown holding or writing their gospels, guided by the figure of Divine Wisdom (in the form of a maiden or wingless angel; literally the original “shoulder angel”). As instrumental figures in the spread of Christianity, they are also represented symbolically in many other icons: Matthew as an angel, Mark as a lion, Luke as an ox, and John as an eagle.
Peter and Paul are regarded by Orthodox believers as the founders of the Christian Church. Both were martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero after years of missionary work. Peter (sometimes shown holding a ring of keys) and Paul are often found in deesis rows, at symmetric distances from Christ. Other icons show Peter and Paul together, often leaned towards each other to emphasize their shared goals. Later compositions include an image of a church behind them, representing their role as founders.
John Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople the late 4th century. Along with Basil the Great, he is considered a Church Father for his role in creating the liturgy. He is often depicted as a full-length icon, dressed in ecclesiastical vestments. It is common for him to appear in a deesis row, bent in an attitude of prayer towards Christ (at the center), or preaching.
Elijah, and Old Testament prophet, is probably the most common Old Testament figure in Orthodox iconography. An ascetic, Elijah is usually shown wearing a milot (a hairy animal pelt like the one worn seen in icons of John the Baptist), with long, ragged hair and beard. “The Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah” shows Elijah being taken to Heaven in a flaming chariot or a “bubble” of red flames.
Simeon Stylites was an ascetic monk from Syria who gained notoriety for living almost 40 years atop a pillar (the Greek “style” means “pillar”), from which he dispensed wisdom to those who visited him—although he did not allow women, even his mother, near the pillar (don’t read too much into that). In icons he is typically shown atop a pillar, which usually resembles a fortress turret, or shown encircled by walls that represent his separation from the world.