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.

Physical Labor of the Holy Family

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.

A very interesting icon indeed!

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