What is olifa?  Well, when the painting of an icon was completed and dry, it was time to put a transparent coating — a “varnish” — over the surface to protect it and to enhance the colors.  That coating was called OLIFA, pronounced ah-LEE-fah.  Its chief ingredient was cooked linseed oil.  Often a dessicant (substance to make it dry faster) was added — frequently lead, which of course is toxic.  Adding a lead dessicant aided drying, but it also made the olifa darken faster.

Here is a video  (in Russian) of a fellow applying olifa to a newly-painted icon using a two-step process.  As you can see, he pours on a bit of olifa, then smooths it out, eliminating any puddles or dry islands, until the whole surface is covered.  Then he blots the excess, lets the surface dry, and repeats the process:

Now the interesting thing about olifa is that though it initially made the painting bright and offered a protective surface when it had dried, as the years passed, with time and candle smoke and so on, it gradually turned dark — so dark that it obscured the painting beneath, and resulted in a “black board,” an icon that was completely dark on the painted side.

During the Communist era in Russia, one might find such “black boards” stored in attics or other out-of-the-way places where they did not suffer the destruction that so many icons did during that time.

Of course this blackening of icons took place long before the Communist era, and when it happened one could either dispose of the icon in some acceptable manner, or more commonly one could have it repainted on top of the blackened varnish.  That is the reason why very old icons are sometimes found under several layers of later paintings.  As each new “icon” surface darkened, another was painted over it, sometimes the same image, sometimes one completely different.

This practice of repeated painting over old icons made looking for really early Russian icons into a kind of treasure hunt.  One had to destroy the later paintings, however, in order to uncover the earlier painting.

One clever fellow who discovered this during the Communist period was Vladimir Soloukhin, whose book Searching for Icons in Russia (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1972) is a fascinating account of just such a treasure hunt for old icons, in a period when officially they were not appreciated.  Soloukhin’s book was originally titled Black Boards in Russian, and that is very descriptive of what he was searching for.  He looked for old icons, many of them completely blackened by time, and then he proceeded to remove a bit of the surface to see what was beneath.  If there did appear to be an old icon beneath, he removed all of the surface layers of olifa and painting that had been placed over it.

In this manner Soloukhin  amassed one of the most important collections in Russia of very old icons, and of course in the process he preserved a significant part of Russia’s artistic and cultural heritage, in a time when so many old icons were destroyed deliberately or by neglect.

Vladimir Soloukhin
Vladimir Soloukhin

Today, when one looks at a lot of old icons, one will often notice a little strip at the edge where the varnish and some paint have been removed.  The reason for that is precisely what I have described here.  Someone was hoping to find an even earlier icon beneath the obvious painting, and when that did not happen, they left (fortunately) the rest of the icon quite intact, and eventually it was restored or sold.  That seems to be the case with the “test strip” on this icon of St. Nicholas, but actually it is more likely a remnant of the old varnish left behind when the image was cleaned in this particular case.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Of course many very pleasant and interesting icons from the 17th century to the early 20th century were destroyed to uncover the older painting underneath, which in some cases might not have been as well done as the surface painting, but that is what happens.  In the case of paintings, particularly of icons, “older” often means “more valuable” monetarily.  It is one of the sad aspects of the whole matter of old paintings, icons, and antiques.

There is a peculiar icon, a variant of the type called “Joy of All who Suffer,” that became known as “miracle-working” partly because it survived in a chapel (near a glass factory in St. Petersburg) that was struck by lightning.   The other icons in the chapel were charred, but this icon survived because it fell from the wall onto the floor and onto some coins that had fallen from the broken money box. The coins stuck to the surface, and so that event was the “miraculous” origin of the Marian icon type called “The Joy of All Who Suffer — With Coins” (Всем скорбящим Радость с грошиками — Vsem Skorbyashchim Radost s Groshikami))  Copies of the icon (and there are countless copies made, given its “wonder-working” status) all show the coins sticking to the surface of the icon, painted on, of course, in the copies.

Now my own opinion of this event is that the heat of the lightning softened the olifa coating and made it sticky, so that when it fell on its face, the coins stuck to the surface.  So olifa can even play a role in so-called “miracles,” it would seem.  To me, discovering a medieval Russian painting under a far more recent overpainting is rather miraculous in itself.

If anyone shows you an icon of the “Joy of All Who Suffer — With Coins” icon and claims it is older than 1888, do not believe them, because that is the year in which the event happened that made the image famous and led to all the copies being made.


As with most any craft, there are certain jargon words that anyone interested in old icons, particularly Russian icons, should know.  They involve just how an icon panel is made.

The panel itself — the DOSKA (Доска) — the foundation of the icon — is of course made of wood. Sometimes it is made of a single wooden board, sometimes of more than one board glued together. The side to be painted may be either flat (which is common), or it may have a square or rectangular recessed indentation carved into it, so that the main image of the icon is painted in the recess, leaving a raised outer border around it.

When an icon panel (and the finished icon) has a recessed square or rectangular central area for the main image, that recessed area is called a KOVCHEG (Ковчег).  That is the Russian word for “ark” but it is an old-fashioned word, as is “ark” in English.  By “ark” is meant a box or chest in which something may be placed and kept.  We can think of it as a box, which is why in very old paintings, Noah’s ark from the biblical story looks like a floating box more than a ship, and old chests from medieval times and somewhat later were also called “arks.”  An ark can be a box or coffer in which something sacred is kept, like a relic of a saint.  But the simple thing to remember is that an icon with a recessed central area is said to have a KOVCHEG.  You can just call it an “ark” in English if you wish, but you should know the Russian term. Some icons may even have a “double” ark, with the inner recessed more than the outer.

When an icon has a KOVCHEG — an ark — the outer edge of each side of the kovcheg slants up sharply  to meet the raised outer border of the icon that is left when the kovcheg is carved into the panel.  That slanting edge around the ark is called the LUZGA (Лузга), meaning literally the “husk.”

The outer, raised, flat border all the way around an icon having a KOVCHEG and LUZGA is called the POLYA (Поля).  It means “field.” The polya forms a kind of frame around the main painted portion of the icon, though often secondary images of saints, etc. may be found painted on the polya. There is often a strip of color (frequently red) extending around the very outer edge of the polya. This is the OPUSH (Опушь), meaning “border” or “trim.”

nikov (Photo Courtesy of

Above you see an old icon of St. Nikolas (Nikolai), with his image painted in the central KOVCHEG.  Around that kovcheg is a very narrow LUZGA (it was often highlighted with a separate color), and beyond that is the raised outer border, the POLYA.  Notice that the old and cracked LEVKAS (gesso ground) on this icon is easily visible.  That is because the icon was once gilded with gold leaf, but the thin layer of gold wears off over time as an icon is repeatedly wiped clean of dust or exposed to the elements.  So in this photo we see clearly the gesso on which the painting itself was done.  The little network of cracks all over the ground are a sign of age, but some clever fakers of early icons took the time to paint on little cracks, and others knew how to age an icon by creating the cracked surface artificially, so a network of cracks is not invariably a sign of age, nor is a whitish gesso surface necessarily a sign that gold leaf has been worn away.  Fakers would often create such a “bare” gesso surface around the painted saints to make people think an icon was so old that the gold leaf had been worn away.

In the image of St. Paraskeva Piatnitsa below, you can easily see the white and predominantly red OPUSH (опушь), the painted “trim” that forms the outermost part of the icon surface.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Most icons you will see are from the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries, and tend to be flat-surfaced, with no kovcheg.  The kovcheg is actually more characteristic of earlier icons, those from the 1600s or earlier, but in the 1600s the kovcheg began to be less used, and that is why later icons tend to be flat, and without a kovcheg.  Nonetheless, the presence of a kovcheg is not an accurate means of dating.  One may find icons now and then from the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries that have a kovcheg.

The other term you really need to know is the word for the wooden slats inserted into the unpainted back of an icon panel.  These wooden inserts were used in an attempt to keep the wooden panel from warping.  They did not always work, so one sees many icons that are convex in shape when seen from the front, and often the paint surface in the front of the panel may have a vertical crack running through it where the panel has begun to split apart where two boards were glued together to make the panel, because of the warping of the panel over time. Careful icon makers chose from just which part of the tree their panels were cut, because that affected how likely the panel was to eventually warp.  The best panels were cut from right across the central heart of the tree.

Those were least likely to warp.  But again, the thing to remember here is the name of those slats inserted in the back to prevent warping, and that name is SHPONKI (Шпонки– plural).  One usually finds two SHPONKI, one coming in from either side toward the center, but occasionally just one SHPONKA (Шпонка — singular) is found.  You may call them “slats” in English if you wish, but again, you should know the Russian term. You should also be aware that some very cheap icons had no shponki at all, and some icons that appear at first not to have them really have them inserted into a groove cut into the top and bottom ends of the icon panel, making them hidden.  So be sure to examine the panel carefully.

Which wood was used depended on what was available in a locale and on the standards of the individual painter or studio.  Linden was commonly used, but so (particularly in the North) were fir, larch, cedar, pine and oak.  Where obtainable, cypress was considered a very suitable wood.  Boards with knots and pitch were generally avoided, but one finds old icons painted on “knotty” wood nonetheless.

(Photo courtesy of
(Photo courtesy of

In the above photo, showing the reverse of the old St. Nicholas icon, you can easily see the  SHPONKI inserted to prevent warping.  You can also see the vertical lines where separate boards were joined to make the single panel.  The wire hanger is of course a recent addition.

So that comprises the raw wooden panel on which an icon is painted.  But before the painting could actually begin, a linen cloth was glued over the surface of the icon.  This is the old equivalent of a modern painter’s canvas.  The cloth glued onto the icon surface is called the PAVOLOKA (Паволока), but you may just call it the “canvas” if you wish to use English. Sometimes, on late icons, even paper was used for this purpose.  The cheapest late icons might have no cloth or paper at all below the gesso surface.

So we now have the wooden icon panel with a canvas or cloth glued to its surface, but it is still not ready for painting.  First, a thin, white mixture of glue and chalk is brushed onto the surface.  This is the POBELKA (побелка).  Then begins the levkashenie (левкашение), the application of layer upon layer of a thick glue and chalk or alabaster (gypsum) mixture called LEVKAS (Левкас).  This is smoothed down to a mirror finish.  We can simply call this LEVKAS layer by our ordinary Euro-American term for it (originally Italian) — “gesso.”  It is the ground on which the actual icon image is painted.  Even though LEVKAS is the term used in Russia for the gesso, it is actually originally a Greek word, leukos, meaning simply “white,” and of course the gesso is white.  It relates to a Greek island called Leukos (Levkos/Lefkos in later pronunciation), where a particularly fine kind of chalk was found and used in making the ground for painting. When you see a damaged icon, you will see the white LEVKAS showing through where the paint is missing or where there is a crack and the paint has fallen away.

Traditionally, the background of an icon image — the space between people and trees and buildings and ground — is called the SVYET (Свет), literally the “light” of an icon. This is particularly appropriate not only because icons often had gold-leaf backgrounds, but also because in icon aesthetics, the icon represents the heavenly world, a place of light without shadow. Now one often sees a different term applied to this element, calling it the “FON” (Фон), meaning simply “background.” I favor the older and more expressive term.

So now you know the basic vocabulary one should have when talking about icon panels.  In another posting, I hope to discuss the application of the paint to the surface.

To better understand the preliminary stages of preparing the panel for painting, here is a video (in Russian, but you can easily tell what is happening without the audio):

The lady in the video clearly shows the stages of scratching the board so the glue and pavoloka can more easily adhere, applying the pavoloka cloth (ткань/tkan’), brushing on the glue, and then comes the thin whiting called pobelka, followed by the application of the thick levkas/gesso.  You can see that this lady uses a very gauze-like cloth for the pavoloka.