PODLINNIKI: THE MANUALS OF ICON PAINTING AND HOW TO READ THEM

Seeing actual painter’s manuals is often something of a letdown for the student of icons, who may expect to find every saint, every festal day, every “wonderworking” icon of Mary, as well as every other icon type in existence depicted and described.  It is not going to happen.  The greater part of most podlinniki is taken up with rather dull and repetitive descriptions of hundreds of saints who differ little from one another in appearance, and descriptions of how they are to be painted.  A few major festal icons may be included, but for the descriptions of the vast majority of icons of Mary, or even of Jesus, etc. — one must look elsewhere.

Podlinniks (more accurately, podlinniki) can be divided into those that are predominantly illustrated — such as the Stroganov Podlinnik — and those that are non-illustrated descriptive text only, such as the “FilimonovPodlinnik.

The beginning student of icons should first learn both the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, because a Russian podlinnik will be in Cyrillic letters, and the Greek examples of the equivalent — the hermineia — are written in Greek.  But don’t worry.  You do not have to learn the entire Russian or Greek language.  You just have to accumulate a useful, basic vocabularly of terms, and that will take you a long way, because painter’s manuals and icon inscriptions in general are VERY repetitive.  You will begin to see how repetitive just from the first couple of pages of the Stroganov Podlinnik, which I have shown here.

Those who want to read the Russian podlinniki in their originals will want to become familiar with the old names for pigments used in painting, because those are the colors described in the manuals.  Learning all these things is a gradual process, and one can go as quickly or as slowly as one wishes.  I have already posted an article on the icon painter’s palette — the old color names and their meanings — which you will find in the archives.

Here is the beginning page for September from the Stroganov Podlinnik, along with transliterations of its information.  Those who have been reading this site for a while will recall that the important icon for the beginning of September is the “Indiction” type, which represents the beginning of the Church year — yet it is not included in this podlinnik, which begins instead with the standard first saint for podlinniki, Simeon “Stolpnik,” meaning essentially Simeon “the pillar guy” — the saint who lived atop a pillar, often known by his Greek title Stylites, which means the same as “Stolpnik” in Russian.  There is more than one “pillar guy” icon saint, so that is why title inscriptions are very important.

Let’s take a look:

                        Beginning of September: Stroganov Podlinnik

You can see that there are four saints on this page, the first two under the letter “a,” the second two under what looks like a B, but it is actually the third letter of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is pronounced like a “v.”  But these letters are also numbers, so the “a” means day “1,” and the “B” means day “3.”  So right away we see that this podlinnik has omitted the saints for September 2nd.

Starting from the left, we can skip most of the first inscription because it tells us simply that it is the month of September, which has 30 days, with 12 hours in a day, 12 in a night.  So let’s get on to the important descriptions, which begin like this:

1.  Prepodobnuiy Simeon.  Syed.  Stolpnika

2.  Prepodobnaya Mar’fa riza dich bagor z belilom is[pod] sankir.

3.  Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod’ lazor’

4.  Predpodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsaryagrada rus’ 

It tells us that the left-hand image is that of “Prepodobnuiy” Simeon.  Prepodobnuiy is a title literally meaning “most like,” meaning “most like Christ,” but in icon inscriptions it means a person is a monk.  We are given a very brief description of how he is to be painted:  Syed — “Grey.”  That means his hair is grey.  Beyond that all it tells us is “Stolpnik,” meaning Simeon is a “pillar guy,” depicted atop a pillar.  So we know this Stolpnik is Simeon of the Pillar, Simeon Stylites, which means the same thing.

The next figure from the left, we are told, is “Prepodobnaya” Marfa.  Prepodobnaya is just the feminine form of Prepodobnuiy, so Prepodobnaya means the saint is a nun.  “Marfa” is just the Russian form of “Martha.”  In Russian the Greek “th” is usually replaced by an “f” sound, because Russian did not have a “th” sound.  It says of the nun Martha that she is painted “Riza dich.”  Riza is the generic term for a robe.  So we know that Martha’s robe is “dich,” which, if you read my posting on icon pigment colors, you will recall as a grey color, sometimes with a faint bluish tinge. It adds bagor –reddish purple — with byelila, — white — and that the ispod — the garment beneath — is sankir — the dark brownish color used in many ways in icons, including as the foundation color — the first-painted layer of tempera — for flesh and other objects.

The page skips September 2nd and goes to two saints for September 3rd,the first of which is  Svyatuiy muchenik Mamant’ riza kinovar ispod lazor.

“Svyatuiy” just means “holy” or “saint.”  So this is saint Mamant.  His riza — his robe — is kinovar — that bright red made of powdered cinnabar, mercury sulphide.  Ispod — the undergarment — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue, the best of which was made of powdered lapis lazuli.

And next to Mamant is the commemoration of  Prepodobnago Ioanna Postnika Patriarkha Tsarya grada.  Rus’.  Prepodobnago is just another grammatical form of Prepodobnuiy.  It means this is the day “of the monk saint” Ioann Postnik, meaning Ioann the Faster ( fasting in the sense of abstaining from food, not in the sense of moving speedily).  He is Patriarkha Tsaryagrada — the Patriarch of the Tsar City, meaning Constantinople.  And finally, it tells us that Ioann is “rus,” which refers to his hair color, just as “syed” referred to the hair color of Simeon Stolpnik.  Rus’ means literally “Russian,” meaning his hair is like that of a lot of Russians, a kind of light brown to dark blond.

Now we move on to the 3rd and 4th days of September.

The first description on the left tells us this day is the commemoration Svayatago Svyashchennomuchenika Anfim’ Episkop’ Nikomidiskiy.  Svyatago is just again the “of” form of Svyatuiy, meaning”Saint” or “Holy.”  So this is the day of commemoration of Holy Svyashcennomuchenika Anfim’  You will recall that a muchenik is a martyr.  This fellow is a Svyashchenno-muchenik, meaning a priest-martyr.  And his name is Anfim.  It tells us further that he is Episkop’ — meaning bishop — Nikomidiskiy — of a place called Nicomedia.  We are told he is syed, meaning grey-haired, and that his riza — his robe — is kreshchata, ornamented with crosses (cross patterns on the robe).

The second description from the left tells us that on Toy zhe den’ — meaning “on the same day,” is also celebrated Prepodobnuiy Feoktist’.  If you have been paying attention, you will know that the first word means he is a monk saint, and the second word is his name, Feoktist.  We are told he is syed, which again is a word you know now.  It means his hair (and beard if he has one, which he does) are grey.  Then it tells us his riza ispod — the undergarment beneath his monk’s robe — is vokhra z byelilom — ochre with white.

The third fellow from left — on the 4th of September — is Svyatuiy Muchenik Vavila — Holy Marytr Vavila.  He is syed — grey-haired.  His Riza is with krestuiy bagrovui, ornamented with crosses that are bagrovuiy — a form of bagor — meaning crosses that are reddish-purple.  But the youths — the three mladentsi with him — are v sorochnakh — in “shirts” loosely, but a better way to translate v sorochnakh would be “in tunics.”

There are a couple of notes added , one of which says V’ toy zhe den’ Moisey Bogovidets’ — “On the same day Moses the God-seer,” and the other says Cei den’ praznouem neopalimiya koupinuiy, meaning “This day is celebrated the Unburnt Thornbush,” meaning the “Unburnt Thornbush” icon of Mary.  Neither Moses (the Old Testament fellow) nor the icon are shown.

The last guy on the right is Svatuiy Vavila Nikomidiskiy, “Holy Vavila of Nicomedia.”  We are told he is syed, which should be an old word to you by now — meaning grey [-haired], and that his riza verkh is bagor (reddish-purple) dich [grey].  Riza, you will recall, means “robe.”  And verkh means “outer.”  So when talking about robes, the verkh is the outer robe, and the ispod is the robe beneath or “under.”  The painter adds the note that the probel — the highlighting on the robe — is lazor — that brilliant, deep blue.  And finally the ispod — the under-robe — is bakan dich.  Bakan is a dark red, and dich, you will recall, is grey to grey-blue.

We have only covered some main saints for four days, and already you can see how very repetitive this all is, which is why it is not really difficult to learn to read icon titles and a good part of the podlinniki — the painter’s manuals — as well.  Now imagine how many of these saints one has to go through for the whole year, and you begin to get an idea of just how dull these manuals really are.  They are not page-turners, they were not meant for reading enjoyment.  They really were just working documents for icon painters that enabled them to follow the standard forms for hundreds of common saints (and the Stroganov Podlinnik does not include all the saints in the calendar by any means).  They were the painter’s equivalent of a schematic diagram in electronics.  One referred to it to make sure one was assembling a saint on the prepared icon board correctly.

One had to have the descriptions of all these saints not only to paint calendar icons, but also for those patrons who would come in and want to order an icon of their “Angel Day” saint — meaning their name-day saint.  Russians were named for these saints, so, for example, a fellow named “Feoktist” would want an icon of his saint, who was also named Feoktist.

All of this kept the icon painters in business, but it could be deadly dull work for them, as one can imagine, with little room left for imagination and creativity.

If you would like to examine the Stroganov Podlinnik in more detail, it can be downloaded free of charge at the following site:

https://books.google.com/books/about/RStroganovskìĭ_ikonopisnîĭ_litsevoĭ.html?id=UpAIAAAAQAAJ

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