There is a lot of romanticized nonsense written about the painting of icons in old Russia. The fact is that it was a business and a very large business, in spite of sometimes using the euphemism “exchange” for the selling of icons — or more obviously, “to exchange for money.” Huge numbers of icons were sold every year, produced in workshops ranging from large, multi-employee operations to small family or even one-person operations. A good part of icon painting was done by Old Believers, who kept to the old and traditional styles, though some of the workshops — like the one depicted here — could paint in both styles, just as the earlier Cretan workshops in the Greek Islands had produced icons both in the “Byzantine” style and according to Western Roman Catholic taste.
The following excerpts are an actual glimpse into a pre-Revolution icon workshop in Russia through the eyes of Maxim Gorkiy, who was apprenticed to one when young. We should not be surprised at the prevalence of drinking and drunkenness at that time, nor should we consider it odd that workers often saw their task of icon painting as a tedious job (which it was), and were sometimes frustrated by the limits that the necessity of being “living copy machines” put on their artistic impulses. As we see, by this time icon painting had become a production-line process, which is one reason for the tremendous output of icon painting studios, even though they were still doing hand work.
Gorkiy worked in the icon painting studio at a time when icon painting was beginning to be threatened by lithography on paper and on tin — much less expensive to buy than hand painting — and that caused the icon business to already begin its decline, even years before the Russian Revolution was to cut it back sharply for other reasons.
These excerpts are from Gorkiy’s autobiography In the World (V Liudakh}:
The icon-painting workshop took up two rooms in a large house built partly of stone. One room had three windows, one overlooking the yard and one overlooking the garden; the other room had one window overlooking the garden and another facing the street. These windows were small and square, and their panes, distorted with age, unwillingly admitted the pale diffused light of winter days. Both rooms were closely packed with tables, and at every table sat the bent figures of icon painters.
Glass balls full of water were suspended from the ceiling, to reflect the light of the lamps and to throw it upon the square surfaces of the icons in cold, white rays.
It was hot and stuffy in the workshop. Here about twenty men worked, icon painters from Palekh, Kholuiy, and Mstera [the three most noted icon-painting villages at that time]. They all sat in cotton shirts with unfastened collars. They had pants made of ticking, and were barefoot, or wore sandals.
Over their heads, like a blue veil, stretched the smoke of cheap tobacco, and there was a heavy smell of sizing [gluey substance in gesso], varnish, and rotten eggs [egg yolks were used to bind the powdered pigments]. A melancholy Vladimir [town and region] song flowed slowly, like pitch:
How depraved people have become;
A boy ruined a girl, and did not care.
They sang other melancholy songs, but that was the one they sang most often. Its long, drawn out movement did not keep one from thinking or impede the motion of the fine brush, made of weasel hair, over the surface of the icons, as it painted the lines of a figure and laid fine lines of suffering upon the emaciated faces of the saints.
By the windows the chaser, Golovev, worked his little hammer. He was a drunken old man with an enormous blue nose. The lazy flow of song was punctuated by the ceaseless tapping of the hammer, like a worm gnawing at a tree.
Some evil genius had divided the work [of icon making] into a long series of actions bereft of beauty and incapable of arousing any love for the business or interest in it. Panfil, the squinting joiner [woodworker], brought the pieces of cypress and lilac-wood of different sizes, which he had planed and glued [the panels on which the icons were painted]. The consumptive [with tuberculosis] lad Davidov laid the colors on. His friend Sorokin painted on the inscription; Milyashin outlined the design from an original with a pencil; old Golovev gilded it and embossed the gold pattern [impressed patterns into the gilded gesso]. The finishers added the landscape [background] and the clothes of the figures; and then they were placed — without faces or hands — against the wall, waiting for the work of the face painter [the worker who did all the visible “flesh,” including the faces of the saints].
It was very weird to see a large icon for an iconostasis, or the doors for an altar, standing against the wall without faces, hands, or feet — just the clerical vestments, or the armor and the short tunics of archangels. These variously-painted panels suggested death; that which should have added life to them was absent, but it seemed as though it had been there but had vanished, leaving only the heavy robes behind.
When the features had been painted in by the face painter, the icon was handed to the workman who filled in the design of the chaser. A different workman did the lettering, and the varnish [olifa] was applied by the head workman himself, Ivan Larionovich, a quiet man. He had a gray face; his beard was gray too, the hairs fine and silky. His gray eyes were particularly deep and sad. He had a pleasant smile, but one could not smile at him; he made one feel somehow awkward. He looked like the image of Simeon Stolpnik [Simeon Stylites], just as skinny and emaciated, and his motionless eyes looked far off in the same abstract way, through people and walls.
Some days after I had entered the workshop, the banner worker [maker of religious and processional banners], a Don Cossack named Kapendiukhin, a strong, handsome fellow, arrived completely drunk. With clenched teeth and his gentle, womanish eyes blinking, he began to smash up everything with his iron fist, without saying a word. Of medium height, he threw himself on the workroom like a cat chasing rats in a cellar. The others lost their composure and hid themselves away in corners, shouting out to one another, “Knock him down!”
The face painter, Evgeniy Sitanov, succeeded in stunning the maddened creature by hitting him on the head with a small stool….
Larionovich appeared on the scene in cap and overcoat, shook his finger at Sitanov, and said to the workmen in a quiet, professional tone, “Carry him into the vestibule, and leave him there ’til he is sober….”
I looked at Larionovich, wondering perplexedly why these strong, belligerent people were so easily controlled by him. He showed every one how he ought to work. Even the best workmen willingly listened to his advice. He taught Kapenduikhin more, with more words, than the others:
“You, Kapendiukhin, are what is called a painter; that is, you ought to paint from life in the Italian manner [the “Westernized” icon style]. Painting in oils requires warm colors, and you have used too much white and have made Our Lady’s eyes cold as winter. The cheeks are painted red, like apples, so that the eyes don’t seem to belong to them. And they are not put in right, either. One is looking over the bridge of the nose, and the other has moved toward the forehead; and the face has not come out pure and holy, but crafty and wintry. You don’t concentrate on your work, Kapendiukhin!….”
Zhikarev…went on with his work. He was the best workman we had, for he could paint faces in the Byzantine manner [the old style] and artistically in the new Italian style. When he took orders for iconostases, Larionovich consulted him. He had a fine knowledge of all the original images. All of the costly copies of miracle-working icons, “Feodorov,” “Kazan,” and others, passed through his hands. But when he looked at the model he growled loudly, “These models tie us down; there is no getting away from that fact.”
In spite of his superior place in the workshop, he was less conceited than others, and was kind to the apprentices — me and Pavel. He wanted to teach us the work, since no one else ever bothered about us.
He was difficult to fathom. He was not usually cheerful, and sometimes he would work for a whole week in silence, as if mute. He looked at everyone like strangers who amazed him, as if it were the first time he had come across such people. And although very fond of singing, at such times he did not sing, nor even listen to the songs. All the others watched him, winking at one another.
He would bend over an icon, which stood aslant, his panel on his knees, the middle resting on the edge of the table, while his fine brush diligently painted the dark, foreign face. He was dark and foreign-looking himself. Suddenly he would say in a clear, offended tone,
“Forerunner” [Predtecha] — what does that mean? Tech, in ancient language, means ‘to go.” A “forerunner” is one who goes before, and that is all” [John the Baptist is called Ioann Predtecha — “John the Forerunner”].
The workshop was very quiet; everyone was glancing sidewise at Zhikarev, snickering, and in the stillness rang out these strange words:
“He ought to be painted with a sheepskin and wings [he is speaking of the image of John the Forerunner as ‘Angel of the Wilderness’ — John the Baptist]”
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
He was silent, either not hearing my question or not caring to answer. Then his words fell again into the expectant silence:
“The lives of the saints are what we ought to know! What do we know? We live without wings. Where is the soul? The soul — where is it? The originals are there — yes — but where is the soul?”
…I remember when the copy of the “Feodorov” Mother of God was finished, Zhikarev placed the icon on the table and said loudly, excitedly:
“It is finished, Little Mother! Bright Chalice, Thou! Thou bottomless cup, in which are shed the bitter tears from the hearts of a world of creatures!” And, throwing an overcoat on his shoulders, he went out to the tavern. The young men laughed and whistled, the older ones looked after him with envious sighs, and Sitanov went to his work. Looking at it attentively, he explained, “Of course he will go and get drunk, because he is sorry to have to hand over his work. That sort of regret is not given to all.”
This late 19th century icon of Christ as “Lord Almighty” shows the kind of border ornamentation often popular in icons of the period. The incised border and halo are painted with imitation cloisonné enamel work. The text on the Gospel book reads “Priidite ko mne vsi truzhdaiushchiysya i obremeneney… ” etc. “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”