A catalogue of the Russian icons in the British Museum

By Yury Bobrov / Edited by Chris Entwistle

Search this Catalogue

Advanced search



The ceremonial arrival of the emperor into a city, as well as the arrivals of bishops and other officials.

Akathistos Hymn

A hymn of 24 strophes sung, all standing, on the Saturday of the fifth week in Lent, in honor of the Virgin Mary. It was completed in the 7th century in honour of the miraculous escape of Constantinople from a siege by the Avars in 626. The term comes from the Greek akathistos – ‘not seated’.

Anastasis (Gr. ‘Resurrection’) or Descent into Hell

A representation of Christ bursting the gates of Hell and releasing Old Testament figures said to have believed in him before the Incarnation; the main Easter image of the Orthodox Church. One of the Twelve Great Feasts.


Metal attached to the frame of an icon.


See Shponka.

Bema (Gr. ‘Raised step’)

The area at the eastern end of the church containing the altar.


Paint layers forming the flesh colours in icon painting often upon a prepared dark colour (see – sankir).

Chiton (Gr. ‘Tunic’)

The basic element of Byzantine dress, worn by both men and women; chitones varied in material and length.

Clavus, clavi

A vertical stripe, often of purple or gold, decorating a tunic.

Christ Emmanuel

Christ depicted as a beardless youth with curly hair.


A pattern of fine cracks that forms on ageing on gesso, paint layers and varnish due to shrinkage and vibrations of the material substrate of an icon.


A tunic ornamented with two clavi.

Deesis (Gr. ‘Entreaty’)

A representation of Christ flanked by the figures of the Virgin (left) and Saint John the Baptist (right) interceding on behalf of humanity, often found on the templon or iconostasis. Byzantine representations may also include the 12 Apostles. In the Russian Orthodox Church the Deesis can also include figures of different hierarchical categories such as Archangels, Apostles, Doctors, Martyrs, Monks etc flanking the central composition (Christ, the Virgin and John the Baptist).


See Feast tier.

Dormition (Gr. Koimesis)

The ‘falling asleep’ or death of the Virgin Mary.


A long narrow stole worn by bishops and priests.

Feast tier

A row on the iconostasis consisting usually of the Twelve Great Feasts (Gr.-dodecaorton): the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Baptism of Christ, Transfiguration, Raising of Lazarus, Entry into Jerusalem, Crucifixion, Anastasis (Descent into Hell), Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Koimesis).

Gesso (Russ. Levkas)

A ground preparation consisting of a mixture of white filler (chalk or gypsum) with a water soluble animal glue applied over the panel (wood or another rigid substrate) before painting or gilding. The Russian term levkas derives from the name of the Greek island of Lefkas where the best natural chalk was mined.


See mandorla.


The head of a monastery; abbot.


The throne prepared for the Judgment or Second Coming of Christ.

Himation (Gr. ‘Garment’)

A long mantle consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth thrown over the left shoulder and wrapped about the body. Usually a dark cotton mantle worn by monks and nuns.

Icon (Gr. ‘Image’)

Any image of a sacred personage or subject in the Orthodox Church, mainly painted on a portable wood panel. Other media can be of textile, leather, metal, glass.

Iconostasis (Gr. ‘Stand for image’)

A screen, with doors, which separates the nave from the bema and on which icons are placed in a fixed order by tiers: local (despotic) icons, Deesis, feast tier, prophet tier, patriarch tier (in the Russian Orthodox Church).

Kovcheg (Russ. ‘Ark’ or ‘Shrine’)

The hollowed out or carved out central part of an icon panel leaving a raised border around.

Loros (Gr. ‘Strip of leather’)

Long scarf, especially the jeweled stole worn on festive occasions by the emperor or empress and by archangels attending Christ.

Mandorla (It. ‘Almond’)

A pointed oval normally surrounding the figure of Christ or the Virgin and indicative of God’s presence.


The Holy Towel, a miraculous image of Christ ‘not made by human hands’ brought from Edessa to Constantinople in 944.

Maphorion (Gr. ‘Shawl’, ‘Veil’)

Long shawl worn over the head and shoulders and typically part of the costume of the Mother of God, whose maphorion was a prized relic enshrined at the Blachernai Monastery in Constantinople.

Mstera, Palekh, Kholui

Three villages to the east of Moscow which were famous in the 18th and 19th centuries as centres of traditional icon painting. The inhabitants of these villages ran their family businesses from generation to generation, inheriting icon-painting skills from their fathers. Nearly all the known icon painters of the 19th – early 20th century originated from these villages. Some families like the Chirikovs, Briagins, Gurianov and Tsepkovs moved to Moscow and established their own companies there.


See Revetment.

Old Believer (Russ. ‘Raskolniki’)

A movement in Russia originating in a 17th-century religious schism. At the synod of 1667 the Patriarch Nikon wanted Russia to revert to the original Greek Orthodox tradition. There was considerable dispute about icons and groups of Old Believers formed to preserve what they believed to be the old Russian faith and tradition. Following persecution many Old Believers fled and eventually formed communities such as Mstera, Palekh and Kholui where they continued the traditions of producing icons in the old style.  

Olifa (Russ. ‘Oil varnish’)

The final layer of varnish employed on a Russian icon. It is usually made of boiled linseed oil with the addition of a natural resin. The varnish darkens with time.

Omophorion, (Gr. ‘Scarf’, ‘Cape’)

Long, usually white scarf decorated with crosses, worn by a bishop.


A yellow inorganic pigment (arsenic sulphide).

Pantocrator (Gr. ‘All-sovereign’)

An epithet which accompanies the image of Christ in which he is depicted frontally, bearded, and blessing with his right hand and holding a gospel book in his left. The image may be full-length, half-length or as a bust.


A cape-like garment worn by a priest or bishop, the Eastern counterpart of the Latin chasuble.

Podlinnik (Russ. ‘True’, ‘Authentic’)

A 16th-century painter’s manual, a Russian counterpart to the Hermaneia of Dionysios of Fourna, with a collection of stencils in the Orthodox calendar order.

Revetment (Russ. 'Oklad', 'riza')

A metal cover, often of silver-gilt embellished with precious stones, fixed over an icon, leaving only the head, hands and feet of the person depicted exposed. An 'oklad' is made of one piece of metal and covers the whole icon. A 'riza' is a metal cover made of numerous thin pieces of metal decorated with embossed ornament and nailed onto the icon; a 'riza' usually covers only certain parts of an icon.


See Revetment.

Royal (Sanctuary) Door

The central door in the templon or iconostasis, leading to the altar.


A liturgical vestment resembling a dalmatic and worn by a bishop during the liturgy.


A paint layer usually of olive-green or brown colour used as a preparatory under-painting for the face and body in icon painting.

Shponka, shponki (Russ. ‘Batten’, ‘Slat’)

Usually a pair of battens inset on the reverse of an icon; also employed to describe inserts along the upper and lower edges of an icon.

Sorochka (Russ. ‘Shirt’)

A textile cover, usually made of silk or another precious textile, applied to the reverse of an icon, both to protect it and to show it respect. The tradition may go back to the early Byzantine period, but sorochka are usually only found on late icons.


A type of metal necklace employed in icon decoration.


Egg tempera was the standard medium for gessoed panels in Russian icon painting. Egg-yolk was diluted with water and then added to the colours as they were employed.


Before the 14th century an open screen often of marble between the sanctuary and the nave.

Theotokos (Gr. ‘God-bearing’)

An epithet of the Virgin Mary, or more commonly known in Russia as the Mother of God. On Russian icons the epithet is commonly abbreviated by the Greek letters MP ΘY (Μητηρ Θεου; ‘Mother of God’).


An icon composed of three panels, the two smaller outer ones normally designed to fold over the larger central one.

Twelve Great Feasts (dodecaorton)

See Feast tier.

Vita icon

An icon with the central figure of a saint with a surrounding frame decorated with scenes from the saint’s life.

Wise Robber

The robber Dismas who was crucified with Christ. Also known as the Righteous Thief.