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.
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.
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.