Spring AS XLII (2008)
Volume XIII, Issue 3 (#49)


From the Nachalnik

As things finally thaw out here and the folks around Northshield comment on our record snowfall, it is once again time to put out our quarterly newsletter. This issue, we feature the musings of Mordak on how to get people interested in Eastern European persona and a primer on Russian iconography by Sofya la Rus.

As often happens, we also have run out of material this quarter, so it is time to make my perennial call for submissions. Also, the backlog is all used up, so we'll be thinner in the Summer! I'm mostly interested in short articles (1000 words is a good length although shorter is great), but I'll consider a wide variety of submissions. The only major requirement is that it be of interest to people doing Eastern European historical re-enactment.

The other topic that I usually start talking up at this time is Pennsic and plans are certainly afoot to do a gathering again this year. It's still a bit early to provide details, but we will hopefully have the whole scoop in place by the Summer issue.

Where Is That From? How to Sell the Slavic Persona in a Non-Slavic SCA

By Mordak Timofeevich Rostovskogo

How many times have you heard that? It has thousands of variations but always, it's an open invitation for conversion to the “dark side” of SCA personas (anything east of Germany and west of Japan). Yeah, it's a big world, and even bigger when a horse's back was fast transportation. And much as it was then, Slavic lands are still mythical, even today in the SCA. So how to cope and survive?

We all have our own styles. Their effectiveness seems dependent on delivery, timing, earnestness, brevity. And the more you develop your persona, the more equipment you seem to collect, make, trade for, order…and the more outside the mainstream you slide. And the more you stand out in the crowd of Western personas. So if you don't have an endless reservoir of patience, what's the best way to handle it? This is my personal view, not to be confused with an authoritative viewpoint! I've noticed that the inquisitive seem to fall into one of a couple varieties. 

The Curious Newbie: This person has heard so much about so many areas and personas, that asking about yours is less curiosity than habit now! What this person has done little of is laugh while being lectured, so let your sarcastic side out for a stroll. I usually start by saying, “I'm that mythical beast in the SCA from east of Germany and west of where any Samurai ever screamed!” That usually catches their attention. Then I tell them that my first caftan was a T-tunic someone gave me that I split down the front and added some bands to. Then I'll laugh and tell them that I used an old fur collar from a thrift store and some scrap fabric from goldkey to make the hat! Cheap is good.

The A&S Jock: This person is scoping out “the competition” or inherently curious by nature. They're also a tougher sell because they are already comfortable in their persona and have an investment already in some fashion. But everyone has friends, household members, charity cases (like me in my fighter-jock days). This is who you're selling, the person you are talking to is the delivery source so a winning approach is “I liked it because it was easy to do, then I got used to being comfortable”. Everyone has a friend or associate who is clueless in something, usually costuming, but not in something else that may be desirable for the person you are talking to. Barter is an effective way to sell Slavic personas. You get a few caftans in exchange for X, then some questions that you can't answer, maybe some compliments on the look, next thing you know you are Googling “Slavic” or Medieval Slavs” or some such. And you find this online group….

The Inquisitive Laurel: Absolutely the most pernicious and pushy sort. Most Peers are a bit OCD personality wise, going way beyond the acceptable level of specialization and blithely traveling beyond the point where a sane person would lose interest or become disenchanted. And they are collectors, and your persona stands out as unique. This is the A&S Jock, a couple years later and with more tunnel vision. Fortunately, they are also driven to disseminate new information and almost always have excellent, extensive contacts within the A&S community, usually across the Knowne World. The best way to sell this person is enthusiasm, your enthusiasm. Not only will you be invited to teach and publish but you will get anonymous inquiries from people you have never met, both in and outside your Kingdom. Mention source documents and old theories you have discarded in favor of new information. That is almost irresistible Laurel bait and if you want to sell your particular interest in our great Slavic universe, this is the best source!.  


The Meaning of Russian Icons

By Sofya la Rus

Since the conversion of the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century, the Russian Orthodox church has been one of the primary influences in Russian life. Icons are an important part of Orthodox rites, and the conversion of Rus' coincided with the peak of Byzantine development of icons.

While the art of icon-painting was introduced by Byzantium, it was quickly adapted by the Rus. Three Russian schools developed even before the Mongol invasion. The Kievan school was closest to the Byzantine tradition – rich and majestic. Novgorod iconographers used brighter colors and more natural forms. Vladimir-Suzdal was intermediate. Other centers also developed over time – Moscow, Tver, and so on.

Icons have many functions. When the faithful venerate an icon, they are not worshiping the icon, itself. That would be idolatry. The expressions of worship are actually directed through the painting to the subject of the icon, whether Christ, the Mother of God or the Saints. Thus the Orthodox like to call their icons “windows on Heaven.” The detail, beauty and symbolism of the icons assist in the meditation of the Divine Mysteries they represent.

Icons are reminders of faith, sources of inspiration, and tools for instructing the faithful. They are part of the architecture of churches and the furnishings of every Orthodox home. Icons are used as symbols of cities and rulers, and iconographic images are placed on battle flags, helmets, clothing and jewelry.

The Russian iconostasis is a useful means to discuss the deeper meaning of icons. Iconostasis literally means “icon stand,” but the term usually refers to the wall of icons in the front of an Orthodox church.

The structure of the iconostasis is full of meaning. The iconostasis stands between the Sanctuary, where the Eucharist is celebrated, from the nave, where the congregation stands. The Sanctuary symbolizes the spiritual man and the Divine world, while the nave represents the physical man and the human world, so the iconostasis represents the boundary between the two. It is not meant to divide them, because it was the sin of Adam and Eve that created the separation between the Divine and the human. Instead, the iconostasis shows how the spiritual and physical can be reconciled and re-joined through the “windows on Heaven,” the icons. The columns of the iconostasis represent the firmament dividing the spiritual from the sensory, while the horizontal beams represent the union between the heavenly and the earthly through the love of God.

The early forms of the iconostasis varied from a solid low wall about chest high to a high latticework with a curtain on the Sanctuary side that was opened or closed during certain parts of the services. Later a triptych was added above it, consisting of a set of three icons: Christ flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist. This was the form of the iconostasis that came to Russia. In Russia it developed further, until the 16th century, through the addition of more icons and more tiers until it reached its present five-tiered form (although not all churches adopted the full five tiers).

The bottom tier of the iconostasis is the Worship Tier. Its name came from the ancient practice of removing the current feast day icon or the icon for the current month from there to the pulpit for worship and the fact that these icons are more accessible to the worshippers for veneration: kissing, candle-burning, and meditation. It is more varied and local in character than the other tiers of the iconostasis. The Worship Tier consists of various icons and three doors: the North Door which leads to the sacrificial table, the Royal Door which leads to the Sanctuary, and the South Door which leads to the deaconry. Usually an icon of the Virgin and Child and one of Christ flank the Royal Door, but on occasion the icon of Christ may be replaced by an icon of the particular saint or holy day to which the church is dedicated.

The Royal Door represents the entrance to the Holy of Holies of Jewish tradition, the Sanctuary. Only the clergy may enter through it and only at certain points in the church service. It represents the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven and thus, the announcers of the kingdom are depicted on it: the four Evangelists and the icon of the Annunciation. The icon of the Last Supper above the door represents the establishment of the sacrament of the Eucharist and depicts Christ's role as priest. On one side, the bread is being given and on the other, the wine. North Door and South Door are depicted with the two archangels or sainted deacons as servitors of the Mystery.


A common icon of Christ to be placed in the Worship Tier is The Savior “made without hands” or “the icon of the Lord on the cloth.” The legend is that Abgar, the king of Edessa, had a portrait of Christ painted from a piece of linen on which Christ had pressed His face. Thus, this icon represents the guiding principle of iconography in that the sacred art of icons cannot be the arbitrary creation of the artist but must follow the divine inspiration preserved by Orthodox tradition. The Greek letters on the cross inscribed on Christ's nimbus form the Divine name as revealed to Moses – “I am.”


The Smolensk Mother of God that often appears on Worship Tiers is the Russian icon that is closest to the original Byzantine Hodegetria (meaning “Way Guide”). According to Byzantine tradition, it was first painted by St. Luke. The formal poses of the Mother and Child facing out toward the world de-emphasize the mother-child relationship, to highlight the Divine nature of the Incarnation in bringing to earth the means of the salvation of the entire world. The Mother of God makes a gesture of formal presentation, showing the Christ-Emmanuel to the people He will save.


Boris and Gleb were early Kievan princes (sons of Vladimir I who converted Russian to Orthodox Christianity) who were killed by their older brother in a struggle for the succession. Their humility, meekness and the faith in God's will that they displayed in facing their killers, led to their veneration as the first Russian saints to be canonized. This also led to the acceptance of their “Old Russian” names as “Christian” names, ignoring their baptismal names – Roman and David. Boris and Gleb are pictured here flanking their sainted father, Vladimir Equal to the Apostles.


The icon of Elijah Being Taken up into Heaven is more common in Russian Orthodoxy than elsewhere and represents a possible blending of pagan Slavic beliefs with the rites of Christianity. The cult of the Prophet Elijah is associated with the cult of the Slavic god of thunder and fire, Perun, and that association is easy to see in the image of Elijah being taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. He was invoked for protection against the ever-present danger of fire in wood-built Russia. The other figures include Elijah's disciple, Elisha, who is shown hanging onto his master's cloak in a misguided attempt to keep him on earth. The angle at the bottom of the icon is waking Elijah for his final journey.



The next tier is the Tchin or Deisis Tier. It grew out of the original triptych of Christ, the Virgin and John the Baptist. Deisis means “prayer” and, accordingly, the Virgin, John the Baptist and the other saints in their proper order are shown standing in prayer before Christ. While the number of saints depicted may vary depending on the size of the iconostasis, they are always shown in the same order – Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin, next the archangels Michael and Gabriel, then the Apostles Peter and Paul, and so forth. Tchin means “order” (or row) and thus the addition of the angels, apostles, Church Fathers and others to the original three figures is meant to reflect the proper order of the world in the fulfillment of the New Testament Church - united in common movement toward Christ in prayer in a strict orderly succession, interceding on behalf of the sins of the world. The Deisis Tier is the most important part of the iconostasis and represents the goal of every church service:­ prayerful standing before the throne of God.

Christ is usually depicted in the Deisis Tier in the form of the icon called Christ Pantocrator. It represents Christ enthroned as the Creator and Redeemer presiding over the destinies of the world. He is depicted in a dark circle, called a mandorla , representing His divine glory, and two red squares (one inside and one outside the mandorla ) which form an eight-pointed star symbolizing the “eighth day” - the future life.

St. John the Forerunner and Baptizer of the Lord holds a special place in the canon. He is the greatest “among them that are born of woman” yet still the “least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he,” because his work is the last to belong to the Old Testament in preparing for the coming of Christ. His long hair and shaggy beard signify his life in the desert as a messenger of penitence.

In the Deisis Tier, St. George wears the red cloak traditional for a martyr. While in other icons, he is depicted on horseback, striking down a dragon, or as a warrior on foot, in a Tchin such martial attire is never found. The Tchin is supposed to depict the normal proper order of the universe, i.e. the order of the life to come where there is no place for enmity -- and thus no place for arms. In general, martyrs are not depicted with symbols of the actual events of their martyrdom. The emphasis is not on how they died, but what they died for - not their past earthly suffering, but the eternal peace and joy that is their present heavenly reward.


The middle tier is the Church Feasts Tier. It consists of icons of the primary church Holy Days depicting events of the New Testament Church and, particularly, the lives of Christ and the Virgin. They represent “the principal stages of Divine Providence in the world” and the fulfillment of what was foretold by the upper tiers.

The Birth of the Virgin is drawn from apocryphal sources. Her parents are Joachim and Anna and the ending of their long sterility is a pre-figuration of the Resurrection. In addition, St. Anna's freedom from sterility to bear the Mother of God symbolizes the freeing of human nature from the sterility of sin to bear the fruits of grace.

In the Nativity of Christ, the cave represents the sinful world into which Christ, “the Sun of truth,” appeared and shone forth. In addition, the cave, manger and swaddling clothes prefigure His death and burial - the tomb and the burial clothes. The ox and ass are depicted to represent the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me.” Mary is pictured as the new Eve, the Mother of renewed mankind. Her posture varies depending on whether the emphasis is on the divine or human nature of Christ. When she is half-sitting, it indicates the absence of the usual travails of childbirth and, hence, the Divinity of Christ and the Virgin birth. More commonly, Mary is shown lying down as if tired, indicating Christ's human nature. The shepherds represent simple, common, uneducated people, with whom God can communicate directly. The wise men represent the educated people who can only come to know the divine truth indirectly through their studies. In addition, the shepherds represent the Jewish church, while the wise men represent the Gentile church. Joseph is shown separated off to one side to emphasize his non-paternity, and is shown being tempted by the devil to doubt the Virgin birth.

The Entry to Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Christ as the coming King bringing victory over His enemies - but through spiritual salvation, not secular war. The adult Jews, who are depicted honoring Christ with palm branches symbolizing joy and feasting and used to welcome those of high rank and recognize the valor of conquerors, misunderstood this. This is in contrast with the sincere rejoicing of the children who had no ulterior motives of earthly power. They are very important in the icon and are shown cutting palm branches from a tree, and spreading palm branches and garments in Christ's path. In fact, only the children are spreading garments, fulfilling the Scripture “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise.” (Psalms 8:3.)

The Spice-bearing Women at the Tomb is one of two Easter Icons used in the Orthodox Church. (The other is the Anastasis or Descent into Hell) Since the Gospels are silent about the actual moment of Resurrection, neither Easter Icon attempts to depict it. The Icon of the Spice-bearing Women depicts what was seen by those who came to the tomb after the Resurrection. The difference between the Gospel accounts concerning the number of angels and the number of women is reflected in the variation between icons. The Resurrection took place on the morning after the seventh day of the week, therefore early Christians called it the “eighth day” and considered it the prefiguration of the future eternal life of the believer. The first day of Creation represented the beginning of days IN time, and likewise the Resurrection represented the beginning of days OUTSIDE time, the kingdom of the Holy Spirit.

The Descent of the Holy Spirit was the making of the new covenant by God with the Church, the new Israel, and occurred fifty days after the Resurrection during the Feast of Pentecost, the Old Testament commemoration of God's original covenant with Israel. This icon, like the Ascension, is an idealization of the historical events. In order to represent the unity of the New Testament Church, the Apostle Paul is included even though he wasn't there. The calmness and order shown in the icon depict the point of view of believers which contrasts with the Biblical account which describes the noise and chaos seen by unbelievers at the event who did not understand what was going on. The empty space at the top of the bench between Peter and Paul is the spot reserved for the invisible Head of the Church, Christ. The figure at the bottom center of the icon was explained in the 17th century as follows: “The man [stands] in a dark place, since the whole world had formerly been without faith; he is bowed down with years, for he was made old by the sin of Adam; his red garment signifies the devil's blood sacrifices; the royal crown signifies sin, which ruled in the world; the white cloth in his hands with the twelve scrolls means the twelve Apostles, who brought light to the whole world with their teaching.”



The next higher tier is the Prophets Tier. It consists of icons of the Old Testament prophets with open scrolls inscribed with their prophecies concerning the coming of Christ centered on an icon of the Virgin of the Sign and represents the Church of the Old Testament paving the way for the Church of the New Testament.

The Virgin of the Sign represents the fulfillment of prophecy, particularly Isaiah's prophecy, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 8:14.) This connection is so strong that Isaiah's icon is often omitted from the Prophets Tier. Her hands are in a traditional position of prayer and the image of Christ on her breast represents the fulfillment of the Divine Incarnation. The presence of the angels often shown in the icon emphasizes the Virgin's exalted position - higher than the angels. The three fibula - the golden jeweled emblems on the Virgin's shoulders and forehead - symbolize her chastity before, during, and after the birth of Christ.




The top tier is called the Patriarchs Tier or Forefathers Tier. It includes icons of saints from Abraham to Moses flanking an icon of the Old Testament Trinity and represents the original Old Testament Church, presaging the New Testament Church.

The Old Testament Trinity shows the first appearance of God to man in the visit of three Angels to Abraham by the oak of Mambre. It signifies the beginning of the promise of redemption and so is tied in with the events of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in the Church Feasts Tier. The Angels are shown sitting at a table under the oak, sometimes with Abraham and Sarah serving them in the foreground and a servant killing the fatted calf. The Angels are shown sitting side-by-side as equals, partaking equally in Godhood yet still distinct.



The richness and depth of Russian iconography and the layers of meaning behind the Russian iconostasis can only been hinted at in a paper of this length. Painting icons was supposed to be an act of worship and prayer, and their appearance was intended to facilitate their use by the faithful as “windows on Heaven” not to glorify the talents of the artist. The information encoded in the images makes them excellent aids for instructing congregations in the tenets of the faith.



•  Alpatov, M. Colour in Early Russian Icon Painting , Izobrazitelnoye Iskusstvo Publishers, Moscow, 1974.

•  Alpatov, M. B. Early Russian Icon Painting , Iskusstvo Publishers, Moscow, 1974.

•  Dionysios, of Fourna, The 'Painter's Manual' of Dionysius of Fourna , Sagittarius Press, London, 1974.

•  Gerhard, H. P., The World of Icons , Harper & Row Publishers, New York, Evanston, San Francisco, London, 1971.

•  Ivanov, Vladimir, Russian Icons/ Vladimir Ivanov , Rizzoli, New York, 1988.

•  Kamenskaya, E., State Tretyakov Gallery: Early Russian Art , Sovietsky Khudozhnik Publishing House, Moscow, 1968.

•  Kyzlasova, Irina ed., Russian Icons: 14th - 16th Cent . The History Museum, Moscow, Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad, 1988.

•  MacKenzie, David and Curran, Michael W. A History of Russia, the Soviet Union and Beyond . Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1993.

•  Maslenitsyn, S.I. Yaroslavian Icon-Painting , Iskusstvo Publishers, Moscow, 1973.

•  Onasch, Konrad, Russian Icons . Phaiden Press Ltd, Oxford, 1977.

•  Ouspensky, Leonid and Lossky, Vladimir, The Meaning of Icons , St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1982.

•  Ramos-Poqui, Guillem, The Technique of Icon Painting , Search Press Ltd. and Burns & Oates Ltd., Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1990.

•  Rice, David and Tamara Talbot, Icons and Their Dating: A Comprehensive Study of Their Chronology and Provenance , Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1974.


Web References

•  Boguslawski, Alexander. “Russian Painting: Icon Painting.” http://www.rollins.edu/Foreign_Lang/Russian/frame1.html

•  Fuller, Michael. “Russian Icons” http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/russiaicons.html

•  Kirpichnikov, Anatolij. “Old Russian Arms and Armour: Helmets.” http://members.ozemail.com.au/~chrisandpeter/kirpichnikov_helmets/helmets.htm

•  Smith, Diane. “The Muscovite Army of Ivan IV, the Terrible.” http://www.xenophon-mil.org/rushistory/battles/ivanbook.htm

•  St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. http://www.icon-art.info/location.php?lng=en&loc_id=148


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