The Meaning of Various Inscriptions in Orthodox Iconography

Icon inscriptions are symbols and acronyms accepted in the Russian Orthodox icon-painting tradition. Inscriptions can be made both in Church Slavonic and in Greek language. In these inscriptions, contracture is widely used (from lat.  “shrinking”), which is writing a reduced form of a word with the help of its first and last letters. Above such words, a special symbol called titlo ( ҃ ) is written.  The reduced form of the name Jesus Christ, consisting of two pairs of letters is IC XC. The cruciform halo reminds us about the Savior’s death on the Cross, the redemptive effect of which covered the whole world – “it is crosswise, for with the Cross He saved the world”. Number “four” is the symbol of spatial fullness. Four “ends”, which make a cross, connect four cardinal points.
In three visible sides of the cross within the halo, the Greek word O Ѡ N is written, which means “I AM”. That manner appeared in the 11th century. This inscription highlights the Divine nature of Jesus Christ in accordance with the revelation Moses got from the bush: “I am Who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
In Russian icon-painting tradition, Greek letter Ѡ (omega) is replaced by Ѿ (ot).
On Greek and Bulgarian icons, letter O (omicron) is placed on the left, Ѡ (omega) – in the top, N (nu) – on the right. The whole inscription is read in a circle from left to right.
For Russian icons a different order is more common: Ѡ (o) or Ѿ (ot) is on the left, Ѻ (on) in in the top, Н (nash) is on the right. The inscription is read by lines beginning from the top and then from left to right in the second line.
It must be noted that the biblical explanation of the words was not the only one in ancient Rus. From the old-rite literature, we can learn that there was another explanation. Perhaps, it was naïve to some extent, but still it did not violate any dogmatic rules of the Church. According to it, three letters expressed first of all three natures of God. Secondly, the Divine nature of Jesus Christ: Ѿ (ot) – “fatherly”. Ѻ (on) – “oum”, Н (nash) – “inconceivable Son”. Thirdly, the incarnation of the Son of God and His sufferings: Ѿ (ot) – “from Heaven He came”, Ѻ (on) – “they who did not conceive Me”, Н (nash) – “crucified on the Cross”.
As can be seen from these explanations, the order of reading the symbols was also not unified and could be changed, tearing apart any connections with the Greek tradition and replacing the words “I AM” with the word Ѿ Ѻ Н .
Inscriptions on icons
The inscriptions on ancient icons were quite simple. Some widely-known words were reduced. Apart from Ιησους Χρηστος, such words as Αρχαγγελος, ο Δικαιος, ο Προφητης, ο Αγιος и η Αγια could also be written in their short forms.
The names were supposed to be legible. However, if we speak about St. Johns (Forerunner, Chrysostom). We should point out that often both their names and titles (ο Προδρομος, ο Χρυσοστομος) were shortened.  
Church Slavonic
The Lord

Χριστος, Jesus Christ
Literally “fish”, an ancient acronym
for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior
Црь слвы
The King of Glory
Greek: short for Μητερ Θεου
Church Slavonic: the Mother of God
1. Б. М.
2. БЦА
3. П. Б.
1. Mother of God
2. Theotokos
3. Holy Theotokos
I. Н. Ц. I
Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews
Greek: short for Τουτο Κρανιον
Παραδεισος Γεγονε
Church Slavonic: short for Calvary, the place of execution
Mount Golgotha, the inscription at
the bottom of the Cross
Adam’s head, the inscription near
the skull of Adam at the bottom of the Cross
Lance – one of the weapons of
passions, depicted near the Cross
Cane – one of the weapons of
passions, depicted near the Cross
Short for Lance and Cane – the weapons
of passions
ΑΓΙΑ, αγια
Saint (women)
Hierarch (bishop saint)
Examples and types of inscriptions
Jesus Christ, Pskov, 15th century

Jesus Christ, Greece, 16th century

Jesus Christ, Rus, 16th century

Mother of God, Byzantium, 14th century

Mother of God, Rus, 16th century

Mother of God, Serbia, 14th century

Archangel, Byzantium, 12th century

Archangel, Greece, 16th century

Archangel, Greece, 16th century

Prophet, Greece, 16th century

Prophet, Rus, 15th century

Saint, Bulgaria, 14th century


Saint, Serbia, 14th century

Saint, Rus, 17th century

Saint, Rus, 12th-13th centuries

Saint, Greece, 16th century

Apostle, Rus, 16th century

Apostle, Rus, 17th century

Martyr, Rus, 16th century

Martyr, Rus, 17th century

John, Rus, 15th century

John, Greece, 16th century

John, Rus, 16th century

Forerunner, Greece, 16th century

Forerunner, Rus, 16th century

Chrysostom, Byzantium, 11th century

Chrysostom, Greece, 16th century
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds

About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.


  1. thank you for your explanations of icons. i have been looking at some modern icons, and I cannot decipher some of the abbreviations that have been used. can you help with these, please?

  2. Good day! I’m not Bruce, but there is an abbreviation on an icon, presumably Bulgarian, that I don’t understand: MT БXX – any idea? In which regions MT is used instead of MP, or MH?
    Thank you!

  3. I m having trouble finding the translation under an icon. It reads; “Оьгазь прмыя бцы корсуnскaя.” I couldn’t find the words in the Russian dictionary. I only have a photo of the lower 1/4 of the actual icon and can’t find it anywhere.

    1. Dear Greg, it means “Korsun Icon of the Mother of God”. Korsun is the old name of Chersonesos, a Byzantine city in Crimea.

  4. Hi, can someone please help me decipher what this old bronze icon says? I’m having a really hard time making out the letters, but maybe someone has seen something similar or can provide an educated guess. Thank you so much in advance

  5. On some Orthodox and Byzantine crosses there are the letters HHKA somewhere towards the lower part or at the very bottom. Please what do these letters mean. I have such a cross and sadly do not know. Thank you in advance and God`s Blessings.

  6. We have a Silver Greek icon that has just been handed down to my family from a couple of generations.

    We are trying to find out more info.

    There are a couple of symbols we have been struggling to find information on.

    One is a square/oval with two lines protruding from the top. (It looks similar to a TV with v aerial)
    The other is a circle/oval with a T in the middle.

    It also has on the top left MP
    Bottom right has an EXE

    Can any body help at all.

    Thank you in advance.

  7. Blessed Eastertide, Do you have an abbreviated “King of Glory” like that that I think I find on Extreme Humility icons? Thank you, Dave

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