As I have written previously, icons of Mary form a large segment of Russian icon painting. In fact there are far more icon types of Mary than of Jesus. Many of them have hagiographical stories, frequently dubious, detailing their supposed origins and date, but for some very little information has been passed down.
Today I will discuss such an icon. It is known under three different names, but all for the same icon type. It is called:
Both of those names mean essentially “Arabian.” It is not known why that title became attached to the image, and in any case, the earliest known example of the icon is actually a page from the 17th-century Siya Pictorial Icon Painter’s Manual. So even though there are suggestions made in religious icon literature that the missing prototype dates to the beginning of the 300s c.e., or even may have something to do with the evangelization of India by the Apostle Thomas, there is no support for such colorful suppositions. So the icon’s prototype can at present not be dated earlier than the 17th century.
3. O Vsepetaya Mati
That third title, which means, “O All-Hymned Mother,” is the title I prefer for this image because it relates directly and obviously to one of the characteristics of this icon type: In the border of Mary’s garment is written in Church Slavic the words of the 13th Kontakion of the Akathist prayer/hymn to Mary, the most popular Marian prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy:
О всепетая Мати, рождшая всех святых Святейшее Слово, нынешнее приношение приемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия изми муки, вопиющия Ти: Аллилуиа
“O all-hymned Mother worthy of all praise, who brought forth the Word, holiest of all Saints, as you receive this our offering, rescue us all from every calamity, and deliver from future torment those who cry with one voice, Alleluia”
The beginning of the Akathist may also sometimes be found as border ornamentation in her garments:
Взбранной воеводе победительная,яко избавльшеся от злых,благодарственная восписуем Ти раби Твои, Богородице; но яко имущая державу непобедимую,
от всяких нас бед свободи,да зовем Ти: радуйся, невесто неневестная.
“Invincible Champion, as deliverance from evil, in thanksgiving your servants ascribe the victory to you. And as you have might unassailable, free us from all distress, so that we may cry to you: Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.”
The “O All-Hymned Mother” is only one of several Marian icons utilizing or based upon lines from the Akathist.
Let’s look at a detail:
We see in the border of her head covering (Greek maphorion) the words …[п]риемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия и[изми] … “From every calamity rescue all, and deliver from future…”
Note also another characteristic of this particular icon type. Usually Mary is depicted with three stars on her garment, one on her head and one near each shoulder; these traditionally represent her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. But on the “All-Hymned Mother” type, we find instead of stars three circles in which we see the heads of angels. The precise significance of this has been obscured by time, but there are two interpretations: 1. The angels are the “spirits” that manifest as stars, as we find in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. 2. They represent the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — shown as angels, as in the “Hospitality of Abraham” icon type.
A third distinguishing feature of this type is that the garments of Mary are customarily ornamented with stylized clouds, representing not only her existence in Heaven but also her traditional liturgical description as “Wider than the Heavens.”
This particular example is painted very much in the traditional stylized manner. We can see that her face is depicted with a base of sankir, dark brown base paint, over which is placed first a layer of lighter brown to form the face, then a third layer of even lighter brown highlights added primarily as linear strokes. Dark detailing completes the formation of the facial features.
On this example as a whole, notice the golden highlighting on the garments of the child Jesus; such highlighting with gold of garments, angels’ wings, etc. in icons is termed асист — asist, usually spelled “assist” in English usage.
It is customary in this type for Mary to have a painted crown of precisely the style shown in this example.
One of the most peculiar icon types, and also one of the most interesting, is that known as ВСЕВИДЯЩЕЕ ОКО БОЖИЕ — Vsevidyashchee Oko Bozhie — “THE ALL-SEEING EYE OF GOD.”
Here is a particularly fine example, with the background and border heavily gilded and incised with the geometric decoration characteristic of many icons at the end of the 19th and beginning years of the 20th century:
To understand this seemingly strange icon type, we may look to Psalm 33:18:
“Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy.”
What we are seeing in this icon then, is God in Heaven watching over the faithful believers on earth.
But it also relates to the Book of Isaiah. In some examples, the circle around the sun face bears a variant of the Irmos, Tone 2, from the Easter Octoechos:
Угль велии [Исаии] проявлейся, Солнце из девственныя утробы возсия, во тьме заблуждшым, богоразумия просвещение даруя.
“As the Burning Coal that appeared to Isaiah, a sun arose from the virgin’s womb, bringing to those who wandered in darkness the light of the knowledge of God.”
So we see that this icon refers also to the biblical story of the seraph who purified Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar. That is why this icon type is sometimes also called “The Coal of Isaiah.”
The icon is formed by concentric circles, and in the very center we see Jesus as the youthful Christ, Immanuel. He is placed in the center of the “eyes of God,” depicted here as a sun-red face with four eyes. The reason for Jesus being placed within this sun image is that Jesus is the “Sun of Righteousness. In the circle around him, one often finds the text of Psalm 100:6 (101:6 in the KJV):
Очи мои на вѣрныя земли, посаждáтия со мнóю
“My eyes [shall be] on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me.”
At the top of the third circle is an image of Mary, “Mother of God,” and her circle is filled with stars. Some examples, in this “Mary” circle (and beyond it) give the text of the Magnficat in Luke 1:
Величит душа Моя Господа,
и возрадовася дух Мой о Бозе Спасе Моем.
Яко призре на смирение рабы Своея, се бо отныне ублажат Мя вси роди.
Яко сотвори Мне величие Сильный, и свято имя Его,
и милость Его в роды родов боящимся Его.
Сотвори державу мышцею Своею, расточи гордыя мыслию сердца их.
Низложи сильныя со престол, и вознесе смиренныя;
алчущия исполни благ, и богатящияся отпусти тщи.
Восприят Израиля отрока Своего, помянути милости,
якоже глагола ко отцем нашим, Аврааму и семени его даже до века.
46 “[And Mary said,] My soul does magnify the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49 For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.”
Above Mary is the image of Gospod Savaof, “Lord Sabaoth,” who is God the Father represented as a bearded old man. Sometimes the circle by him bears the “Sanctus” text from Isaiah 6:3):
Святъ, святъ, святъ Госпóдь Саваóѳъ…
“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Sabaoth…”
(KJV version: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts…”)
The four figures in the other outer red circles, each surrounded with clouds, are from Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:7, considered symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew as an angel, Mark as an Eagle, Luke as a winged ox, and John as a winged lion. All are “flying in Heaven.” In the outer circle of the main image are winged seraphim.
People of our time often forget that when those of earlier times spoke of “Heaven,” they were not speaking of an invisible spiritual realm in some other dimension, as people often think of it today. To the ordinary old Russian believer, Heaven was just as depicted in the Bible: it was the sky, and God lived in the sky. That is why Jesus is said to have ascended to Heaven in the New Testament, and it is why, when the Soviets began sending men into space, they announced triumphantly that God had nowhere been found up there. Heaven and the sky, in old belief, were the same. There was a kind of diaphragm, the Firmament, which was the blue dome of sky visible from earth, and above that was where God lived. That is why in the New Testament, the Heavens could be “torn open,” as in the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit comes down as a dove from Heaven/the sky through the opened Firmament.
When we look at Russian icons, then, we must not see them in the belief context of present-day humans, but rather in a pre-scientific context in which humans lived on earth, above which was the sky in which God lived, looking down upon the earth, keeping watch over everything, like the sun that in its passage sees all the earth.
Here is a variant of the type:
At lower left in this example is the Prophet Isaiah having his lips purified by a coal from the altar, as described in Isaiah 6:
1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
2 Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
3 And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.
6 Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:
7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
At right the Prophet Ezekiel sees “wheels within wheels,” his vision in Ezekiel, chapter 1:
4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
9 Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
16 The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
18 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.
19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
20 Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
21 When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
Here is another example, useful for its variations. The title inscription might puzzle us at first, if we are accustomed to the usual Vsevidyashchee Oko Bozhie title. This one is inscribed (I am using the modern Russian font):
ОБРАз УГЛЬ ИСАИЯ ПРОЯвЛЕИСЯ СОлНЦЕ Obraz Ygl’ Isaiya Proyavleisya Solntse
We need not be confused by the different title, if we remember what I wrote above about Irmos, Tone 2, from the Easter Octoechos:
Угль велии [Исаии] проявлейся, Солнце из девственныя утробы возсия, во тьме заблуждшым, богоразумия просвещение даруя.
“As the Burning Coal that appeared to Isaiah, a sun arose from the virgin’s womb, bringing to those who wandered in darkness the light of the knowledge of God.”
We can see that the beginning words vary only slightly from the inscription on this icon. So we can translate the title inscription as:
Obraz Ugl’ Isaiya Proyavleisya Solntse
“Image of the Coal that Appeared to Isaiah — the Sun”
The four figures in the ovals might seem unusual to us, but they are just the Four Evangelists, each with his symbol that is shown alone in the more common “All-Seeing Eye of God” type. And at bottom left is the Prophet Isaiah having his lips purified by a coal from the altar, held on tongs by an angel. At right is the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, as he sees wheels within wheels, and is given a scroll to eat. At the top — in clouds — is Gospod’ Savaof — Lord Sabaoth — God the Father.
The “All-Seeing Eye of God” type is not found in Russian iconography prior to the end of the 18th century. It apparently developed as a result of Western European influence via the “eye of God in a triangle” symbol placed in the center of church domes to symbolize the All-seeing Trinity, and then reached its full development as an icon type in panel icons.
In old Russian icon painting workshops, it was traditional that when a young apprentice was felt to be ready to actually learn to paint an icon (other than just sweeping the floors, etc.), he would be given an icon of the Evangelist John to copy.
There was a reason for this, and it was largely theological. As I have mentioned before, the earliest Christians neither made nor venerated icons. Icon veneration was a practice that developed gradually in the centuries following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The actual doctrine that attempted to justify the religious use of icons came even later — centuries later — as a result of conflicts over the spread of the making and veneration of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
To simplify the matter, we can say that the doctrine justifying icons was based essentially on the premise that because Jesus, considered to be God in Eastern Orthodoxy, had taken on flesh and become incarnate, it was therefore permitted to paint and venerate images of him. Of course no one in the beginning days of painting “portrait” icons had any idea what Jesus looked like, but over time a standardized image developed that was taken to be Jesus and came to be accepted. The important thing for our purposes today is to note the relationship between the belief that God became incarnate as a man in Jesus, and the making of icons. What is that relationship exactly? Well, it was believed that just as Jesus took on visible, material flesh to become human, an icon painter used paints to give material form to Jesus as well as other saints. So through his art, the icon painter gave the spiritual material form, it was believed. A common popular term for an icon painter in old Russia was “God-dauber.”
Why, then, was the Evangelist John selected as the first and “foundation” icon for the beginning icon painter? It is because John’s gospel (or rather the gospel given the name “John” — no one knows who really wrote it) starts with the words, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Then it goes on to describe how “the word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” which was seen as an analogy to the icon painter making Jesus and the saints visible in material paints.
That is why in icons of John, as in the two examples on this page, one sees him with a gospel book open to the words “V NACHALE BE SLOVO…” “IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD…” etc.
The two icons on this page represent the icon “type” of John popularly called “John in Silence.” That is because John holds the fingers of his right hand meditatively to his lips in silence, while an angel behind his shoulder whispers into his ear. That is understood as the angel telling him — inspiring him — with the words he was to write in his gospel.
The title inscriptions on such icons, however, generally do not use the “John in Silence” title. Instead they say, as this first example does in Church Slavic,
СВЯТЫ АПОСТОЛ И ЕВАНГЕЛИСТ ИОАННЪ Svyatui Apostol i Evangelist Ioann
HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN
If you look closely at top right of the image, you can see a word written below ИОАННЪ in smaller letters. It is actually the ending of the main title inscription, and here it is abbreviated as БОГО — BOGO; that is short for BOГОСЛОВ — BOGOSLOV, meaning “Theologian.” So if we translate the identifying title of this icon into normal English, we would have:
THE HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN.
Why, then, does the title of this next icon, also of the “John in Silence” type, look somewhat different?
That is because it begins, as do countless icon inscriptions, with the word ОБРАЗ — OBRAZ. Obraz means “Image.” And what this icon title is saying is that this icon is the IMAGE OF THE HOLY APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN. You need not worry about the grammatical details if you do not wish to, but the important thing you should know is that beginning the inscription thus, with this ” Image of the” necessarily alters the form of the words following it. Svyatuiy becames “Svatago,” Bogoslov becomes Bogoslova, etc. These endings just reflect the “of the” form given the title here: The Image OF THE Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. But in Church Slavic, “of the” is not shown by actually writing it in separate words. Instead, it is shown by changing the ending of words. Change the ending of Svyatuiy — “Holy” to Svyatago, and it becomes “of the Holy,” just as Bogoslov becomes instead “Bogoslova.” We of course are not used to forming words this way in English, but it is characteristic of Church Slavic, and once you know it, you will recognize it.
OBRAZ (“image”), like SVYATUIY (“HOLY”/”SAINT” is one of the important words you should remember in order to form the basic vocabulary necessary to read countless icon inscriptions. Most icon titles of saints will thus begin either with Svyatuiy (for a male (Svyataya for a female) — meaning “The Holy…” (so and so), or with Obraz Svyatago “[The] Image of the Holy” (so and so). There are variations on this, but you will generally recognize them easily if you keep this in mind.
By the way, if you are wondering why the second image on this page has additional figures at the sides, then you should know they are not a part of the main icon image. Instead, following Russian practice, they were the “angel saints” — that is the name saints — for whom the members of the family owning the icon were named. Such various name saints are often found as border images outside the main image in old Russian icons.
The “Myrrh-bearing Women” is a variation on a very old subject in Christian art. Essentially it depicts three (or more) women coming to the tomb of Jesus on “Easter” morning, the morning of the resurrection. What is believed to be a very early painting of this motif (there is some disagreement) still exists as a wall fragment from the little church at Dura Europos, in what is now Syria, which was built about 233-256 c.e. It apparently depicts, at left, either a tomb or a rudimentary sarcophagus with a triangular lid, and at least three women (perhaps originally as many as five — the painting is damaged) approaching from the right, candles or torches in hand. What is either the rising sun or a star is seen just to the right of the tomb. This wall painting, as well as the other paintings in the house Church at Dura Europos, were not “icons” as later found in Eastern Orthodoxy. They were simply illustrations of biblical narratives, in spirit quite like the paintings on the Jewish synagogue of the same time and place, though the house church paintings were less sophisticated.
We have similar, though not identical elements in this Russian icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women. At left is an angel sitting on a rock (rolled away from the tomb entrance in the New Testament accounts). Beside him is a lidless sarcophagus, empty except for linen graveclothes, and to the right stand the three women, listening to the angel. As background elements we have hills at left and right, beyond which is seen the walled city of Jerusalem. The tomb itself is shown as a cave, with a stone sarcophagus lying outside it, though we are to understand that it is within the cave. The sarcophagus is depicted in the old manner of abstract perspective, in which a flat object is tilted toward the viewer, with the height at the back greater than that at the front. This method is often incorrectly described as “reverse perspective.”
It all seems very simple and straightforward, but actually this simple scene is an adaptation, a careful selection of elements from the disparate biblical accounts of the resurrection, which do not tell exactly the same story and are not compatible with one another either in the list of women visiting the tomb, which ranges from Mary Magdalene alone to more than three, nor do they agree in why women came or what they saw or were told when they arrived. That, of course, is because the biblical accounts are hagiography, not accurate history. Eastern Orthodoxy, by the way, combines biblical accounts with tradition to come up with no less than eight myrrh-bearing women, though all are not always depicted in icons.
The gospel called “Matthew” tells us that the women came only “to see” the tomb. Nothing about bringing any “myrrh,” no spices to anoint the body at all. And in the gospel called “John,” only one woman, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, again bringing no spices, and it is revealed that there would have been no point in her doing so, because the body had already been anointed before entombment with “100 pounds” of spices. The Gospel called “Luke” tells us that in spite of having witnessed the entombment, women prepared spices and brought them to the tomb on “Easter” morning. “Mark,” like “Luke,” tells us that women came to the tomb with spices (the general view is that “Luke” adapted, with variations, his account from that of “Mark”; for an interesting different view, see http://markusvinzent.blogspot.com/search/label/Luke).
Taken together, in fact, the resurrection narratives of the New Testament are so incompatible in details that “fundamentalist” attempts to harmonize them only lead to such bizarre scenarios and so many comings and goings of people to the tomb on Easter morning that I used to joke that they should have installed a traffic light. But my point here is not to go into all of that, interesting as it is, but rather just to point out that the image of the “Myrrh-bearing Women” takes the “spice bringing” motif only from Mark and Luke, leaving aside the quite incompatible accounts of Matthew and John, in which no women who come to the tomb bring spices.
Let’s take a look at the title inscription at the top of the icon:
It is written in the vyaz (“joined”) calligraphic manner, which in English we may call a “condensed” inscription. It reads ЖЕНЫ МИРОНОСИЦЫ, ZHENI MIRONOSITSY, literally “WOMEN MYRRH-BEARING.”
As we have seen, in the gospel called “of John,” only one woman comes to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection — Mary Magdalene. We are not told why she comes — after all, we are told in chapter 19 that the body of Jesus had already been anointed with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes when it was laid in the tomb — only that she came early, while it was still dark. She finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, and she runs to tell Peter “and the other disciple.” They see the empty tomb, then go away again, but Mary remains, and has an encounter with a man she thinks is the gardener, but who turns out to be the risen Jesus. So in John, Mary Magdalene is the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.
Here is an icon of her:
We can tell from the corner pieces, the foliage pattern in the outer border, and the ornate gilt background that this is an icon in the style of the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century. Mary holds a vessel of “myrrh” in her right hand, in keeping with one of her traditional titles — мироносица —mironositsa — “Myrrh-bearer.”
The title inscription reads:
“Image of Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene.”
In Eastern Orthodoxy, Mary Magdalene is the foremost among women given the “Equal-to-the-Apostles” title, which is given those who are believed to have equaled the Apostles in their spreading of the Christian message. The other biblical woman given this title is (oddly enough) the so-called “Woman at the Well” of the Gospel of John, chapter 4, whom tradition gives the name Фотина — Photina in Russia (Svetlana in Russian translation) and Φωτεινή —Photeini/Photini in Greek. She was provided with an elaborate, fictionalized biography that has her later dying as a martyr under Nero in Rome.
As I have mentioned before, readers of this site write to me from time to time asking for help in identifying icons, and I am happy to help them as possible. Today I received a question about an icon one seldom sees.
It depicts Mary, Jesus, and Joseph at the time when Jesus was still young. It is not the usual type — not the version called “The Three Joys.” This one is rather different in that it depicts the family working in Joseph’s carpentry shop. Mary sits spinning wool, Joseph is cutting a board, and the youthful Jesus is cutting a slot into a beam. It is easily distinguished from the “Three Joys” icon (which was also based on a Western prototype) in that the “Three Joys” includes the youthful John the Baptist, and neither Mary, Joseph, Jesus, nor John is laboring.
This particular example of the “Physical Labor” icon comes from Mstera (pronounced Mstyora), one of a group of three villages famous for icon production, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the other two being Palekh and Kholui. It was painted by V. O. Mumrikov (it is not hard to tell that: it is signed at bottom right “Icon painter V. O. Mumrikov”).
The most interesting thing about it, however, aside from its being a pleasant image, is that the painting of this icon in 1923 is representative of the “Renewal Movement” (Obnovlenchesto) that began in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922. If you will think a moment, you will realize that 1923 is very late for a Russian icon to have been painted, considering that the Russian Revolution had taken place and the new Communist state was developing.
The painting of this icon at such a late date was an attempt to accommodate icon painting to the new emphasis on workers and labor. That accounts for the strange title of this icon type, which is Физический труд Святого Семейства, “Fizicheskiy Trud Svatogo Semeistva.” It means THE PHYSICAL LABOR OF THE HOLY FAMILY.
Now if we did not think about the time and place in which it is painted, we would think it just a very pleasant and seldom seen icon of the “Holy Family,” and indeed in other times and circumstances it would have been. There are near identical images in Western European art, and the image itself appears to be adapted from Western European biblical depictions, which is more obvious in this version of the image with a Russian title:
But presented as it is with the “Physical Labor” title, and being painted when it was, this icon was a beginning sign of the drastic change that struck Russian icon painters as the Soviet regime gained power. Eventually, it very much put a stop to most icon painting in Russia, and to survive, painters had to turn to other occupations or adjust their painting, as the villages of Mstera, Palekh, and Kholui did, to the decoration of lacquer boxes with fairy tale motifs and Soviet worker images, paradoxically in a developed form of the same manner in which old icons had been painted.
The F-word, in regard to icons, is of course “FAKE.”
I don’t have to worry about icon fakes because I am not a collector of anything but knowledge. There are, however, those who buy icons for any number of reasons — as an investment, as an antique, as an art object, as a religious object — and for such people, fakery is a matter with which they have to be concerned, because the market value (don’t you dislike that term?) of a fake icon is remarkably less than that of an authentic old icon.
First of all, what is an icon fake? Well, it is simply an icon that is something other than it is represented to be. A fake icon can be a newly-painted icon made to look old; it can be an icon print glued to a board and painted over to make it look like a real painting; it can be a damaged icon so heavily repainted that little is left of the original; it can be a completely new icon painted on an antique board; it can be a new icon on a new board aged to make both look old. It can be a freshly painted icon coated over with a varnish tinted to make it look old and uncleaned. The possibilities go on and on.
Whatever the case, the intent behind a fake is to deceive.
Icon fakery is nothing new. In the 19th century, there was a thriving business of faking old icons, primarily for the Old Believer market. The Old Believers held that the Russian Orthodox Church had fallen into heresy in the middle of the 1600s, when certain reforms in the liturgy, in ritual, in Church books, and in icon painting were put into effect. Consequently, the Old Believers, who refused to accept these changes, did not want icons painted in what they considered to be an heretical manner, or icons painted by members of an heretical church. Such icons were, to them, fit only to be destroyed. One of the results of this was that Old Believers, who were sometimes quite wealthy, became avid purchasers of old, “doctrinally pure” icons painted in the old days before the “reforms” pushed through by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon. And where there are willing purchasers, there is a market just waiting for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the situation.
That is why large numbers of fake “Pre-Nikonian” icons were painted in the 19th century in earlier styles. And then near the end of the 19th century, when the Russian intelligentsia began to realize that old icons were an important part of the Russian cultural heritage, and begin to clean later paintings away to discover old and even medieval Russian icons beneath, that added yet another layer to the market for fakes of old icons.
Do not think the Russian fakers were not clever. Some of them were (and are) excellent imitators of earlier styles. Of course one of the first things a purchaser did was to examine the back of the board on which an icon was painted to see if it looked old, if it looked “right.” That was an easy matter to fake, because all one had to do was to buy up and accumulate a good stock of old icon panels that had damaged or inferior paintings on them, and one had a ready-made “old panel” on which to paint a new “old” icon. Such old boards were not hard to find. In the year 1879 alone, just one icon painting village, Mstora, is recorded as having brought in over 28,000 old icon panels for re-use. And of course there were all sorts of clever if deceptive tricks to age the painted surface, to make it look old and even time-worn. So it took a real expert in those days to be able to tell a genuine old Pre-Nikonian icon from a fake new “Pre-Nikonian” icon. Remember that this was in the days before scientific analysis made detecting fakes more likely.
With the late 20th century and the changes in the Russian economy and government, there was yet another incentive for icon faking — an international market for icons. The usual tricks were and are still used. Even the silver or gold-washed silver covers placed over old icons were (and are) cleverly reproduced, including fake makers’ marks and other silver hallmark stamps. So when you look at a lovely old icon with its gold-washed ornate silver cover, all that may really be old in it might be the board on which it is painted.
Of course that is why, if one is buying icons at high prices, one should not only become familiar with the characteristics of genuine old icons, but also with the tricks used by fakers. That way one will not pay an “old” price for what is really a new icon. That of course applies not only to Russian but also to Greek and Balkan icons.
As a general rule of thumb, the older and more valuable an icon is represented to be, the more care one should take to make certain that it is indeed old, and not just pretending to be so.
In that respect, the market for old icons is very much the same as the market for any kind of old paintings. The higher the cost of the painting, the more one should know one’s field in order to avoid fakes and forgeries.
The image below is a wall painting from the Khora Church complex in Istanbul (Kariye Camii), and dates from the 14th century. It depicts the most important event in the Eastern Orthodox Church year, the Resurrection. It will look strange to most Americans or Western Europeans, because the iconic form of the Resurrection originally preferred in Eastern Orthodoxy was actually the event known in the West as the “Descent into Hell” or more colorfully, “The Harrowing of Hell.”
The Khora fresco is painted in the “Byzantine” or Greek manner, not surprisingly, given that the church complex is in what was once Constantinople. But I want to concentrate more on its textual origins and iconography.
Where did such an image of Resurrection originate? Well, it is very loosely based on lines from the New Testament book called I Peter, Chapter 3, verses 18-20 (no one really knows who wrote I Peter, or precisely when):
18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
That is certainly vague enough. To find a more detailed origin of the Resurrection iconography however, we must look to a later apocryphal work (what we would call today a “forgery”) the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, from the 4th Century (during which, you may recall, the Christian Church came under Roman State sponsorship/control). I will append some segments of it pertinent to the Resurrection icon at the end of this article.
But now, let’s look at the fresco image:
It is set in a stylized cavern, the depths of Hades under mountains, in which the “righteous” men and women of the Old Testament have been kept in prison by Satan, the Prince of Hades, and assorted devils. At the top of the image we see its title in Greek, H ANACTACIC (Η ΑΝΑΣΤΑΣΙΣ). ” He Anastasis means “The Resurrection.” We also see the standard IC XC abbreviation for Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ.” Jesus stands in an almond shaped “glory” of light; such a “glory” is usually called a “mandorla” from the Italian word for “almond.” He grasps the “first man” Adam with his right hand, and “first woman” Eve with his left, pulling them out of their sarcophagus-like prisons.
At the feet of Jesus we see the broken gates of Hades (“Hell”), as well as enough broken locks, bolts, and bars to stock a small hardware shop. That is all to tell us that Jesus has broken into the prison of Hades, and is letting the prisoners out. Various other Old Testament figures are seen to right and left, including (at left) Kings David and Solomon and John the Forerunner (Baptist). Foremost among those on the right is Abel, son of Adam and Eve, holding his shepherd’s staff.
So that is the Greek manner. But what about Russian icons? Well, the medieval Russian versions of the Resurrection, called in Slavic Voskresenie, were generally very similar to the Greek form, though painted with a bit more simplicity.
That all changed, however, in later Russian icon painting. By the time we get to the 18th and 19th centuries, the Resurrection had become far more elaborate, depicting even more of the detail from the Gospel of Nicodemus. Here is a 19th century Russian version:
This image is very typical of later Russian icons of the Resurrection. At the bottom is an elaborated version of the “old” image, with Christ standing on the gates of Hades and grasping Adam by the hand, as Eve and other Old Testament women kneel before him. John the Forerunner and King David are already in the crowd that is moving up toward Paradise in a long line. The huge mouth in which Eve kneels shows the manner in which the “Jaws of Hell/Hades” were depicted at that time, like a great monster with his mouth open.
At the top of the line going to Paradise is the Repentant Thief Rakh, holding his cross that will guarantee him admission if he is questioned, because Jesus himself had promised him “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” At upper right we see Rakh after he has been let through the doors of Paradise, being welcomed by Enoch and Elijah, the only Old Testament figures allowed in Paradise previously.
Now obviously the notion of the “Descent to Hades” given in the Gospel of Nicodemus and represented in Greek and Russian iconography goes far beyond limiting the “spirits in prison” to those from the “days of Noah,” as they are described in I Peter.
The main upper image, however, is a more European depiction of the Resurrection of Christ that was adopted into later Russian iconography. It shows Jesus standing above his empty tomb. To the left is a related scene of Peter in Christ’s tomb, looking at the empty linen wrappings. Below Peter, a separate scene shows an angel binding the Prince of Hell/Hades. At lower right is a post-resurrection scene of Jesus appearing to the disciples who were fishing on the Sea of Tiberias, as recorded in the Gospel of John.
Of course all of this, in its thinking and imagery, is very “pre-Darwin.” The people who developed this iconography did not know the questionable sources of the texts they used, nor did they know that the world was far more than a few thousand years old, and that there never was an Adam and Eve as depicted in those texts and in the icons. Actually, if one thinks about it, the scientific knowledge of evolution quite destroys the whole traditional notion of the Fall of Adam and the need for a redemptive sacrifice. But icons are not from the world of science, they are from the world of imagination and belief, and in pre-scientific times they gave people an explanation for why things were the way things were; not a scientifically accurate or defendable explanation, but those were the times.
Looking at such icons, then, is not so much a “window into Heaven” as the saying goes, as it is a window into pre-scientific thinking and culture.
For those who have not yet had enough, here are some pertinent excerpts from the Gospel of Nicodemus.)
AND while Satan and the prince of hell were discoursing thus to each other, on a sudden there was a voice as of thunder and the rushing of winds, saying, 2 Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.
4 And the prince said to his impious officers, Shut the brass gates of cruelty, and make them fast with iron bars, and fight courageously, lest we be taken captives.
7 And the divine prophet David, cried out saying, 3 Did not I when on earth truly prophesy and say, O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men.
8 For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder. He hath taken them because of their iniquity, and because of their unrighteousness they are afflicted.
18 While David was saying this, the mighty Lord appeared in the form of a man, and enlightened those places which had ever before been in darkness,
19 And broke asunder the fetters which before could not be broken; and with his invincible power visited those who sate in the deep darkness by iniquity, and the shadow of death by sin. 3
13 Then the King of Glory trampling upon death, seized the prince of hell, deprived him of all his power, and took our earthly father Adam with him to his glory.
3 For behold now that Jesus of Nazareth, with the brightness of his glorious divinity, puts to flight all the horrid powers of darkness and death;
4 He has broke down our prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound, and all who were wont formerly to groan under the weight of their torments have now insulted us, and we are like to be defeated by their prayers.
THEN Jesus stretched forth his hand, and said, Come to me, all ye my saints, who were created in my image, who were condemned by the tree of forbidden fruit, and by the devil and death;
2 Live now by the wood of my cross; the devil, the prince of this world, is overcome, and death is conquered.
3 Then presently all the saints were joined together under the hand of the most high God; and the Lord Jesus laid hold on Adam’s hand and said to him, Peace be to thee, and all thy righteous posterity, which is mine.
12 And taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him.
THEN the Lord holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the archangel; and he led them into Paradise, filled with mercy and glory;
2 And two very ancient men met them, and were asked by the saints, Who are ye, who have not yet been with us in hell, and have had your bodies placed in Paradise?
3 One of them answering, said, I am Enoch, who was translated by the word of God: 5 and this man who is with me, is Elijah the Tishbite, who was translated in a fiery chariot. 6
5 ¶ And while the holy Enoch and Elias were relating this, behold there came another man in a miserable figure carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulders.
6 And when all the saints saw him, they said to him, Who art thou? For thy countenance is like a thief’s; and why dost thou carry a cross upon thy shoulders?
7 To which he answering, said, Ye say right, for I was a thief who committed all sorts of wickedness upon earth.
8 And the Jews crucified me with Jesus; and I observed the surprising things which happened
in the creation at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.
9 And I believed him to be the Creator of all things, and the Almighty King; and I prayed to him, saying, Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom.
10 He presently regarded my supplication, and said to me, Verily I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise. 1
11 And he gave me this sign of the cross saying, Carry this, and go to Paradise; and if the angel who is the guard of Paradise will not admit thee, shew him the sign of the cross, and say unto him: Jesus Christ who is now crucified, hath sent me hither to thee.
12 When I did this, and told the angel who is the guard of Paradise all these things, and he heard them, he presently opened the gates, introduced me, and placed me on the right-hand in Paradise,
13 Saying, Stay here a little time, till Adam, the father of all mankind, shall enter in, with all his sons, who are the holy and righteous servants of Jesus Christ, who was crucified.
14 When they heard all this account from the thief, all the patriarchs said with one voice, Blessed be thou, O Almighty God, the Father of everlasting goodness, and the Father of mercies, who hast shewn such favour to those who were sinners against him, and hast brought them to the mercy of Paradise, and hast placed them amidst thy large and spiritual provisions, in a spiritual and holy life. Amen.