WHAT LIES BENEATH: ICON COVERS AND ORNAMENTS

It is just a fact that collectors like icons with “fancy” metal covers. I am not a collector of icons but of information about them, so it is no surprise that I prefer to see an icon without its cover. Nonetheless, I suspect I am in the minority. People just seem to like icons with “bling.”

Today I want to talk a bit about icon covers. Technically, there is a general name for such ornamental additions, such fancy trimming. That name is OKLAD (Оклад).

Oklad literally means “trimming,” and it is used in referring to any ornamental covers and associated pieces added to the surface of an icon. An oklad is generally of thin sheet metal, but it may also be an embroidered cover, etc.

The kind of oklad one finds on very old icons, such as those from the 14th to the 16th and even into the latter half of the 17th century, are a specific type called a basmennuiy oklad (басменный оклад), a “basma” oklad.

BASMA (Басма) comes from an old Turkic word meaning to “imprint” or “impress.” A basma consists of pieces of thin metal plate embossed in relief (thus the name) with ornamental patterns by being beaten upon a metal form. These embossed plates and strips were then cut to shape and fitted together over the surface of the icon, being fixed in place with numerous nails. Inscriptions were often added by being engraved on separate strips of metal that were also attached by nails. Thus the use of the basma on very old icons accounts for the numerous nail holes left in the painted surface after the basma has been removed. It was consequently very damaging to the painted surface.

RIZA
The riza (Риза, meaning “robe”) though largely synonymous with oklad, is generally now the preferred term to indicate the one-piece metal ornamental covers that were used to decorate icons from the latter part of the 17th century onward. Instead of being composed of individual sheets of metal stamped with ornamentation, as in the basma, the riza was a solid, single metal piece with edges bent at a right angle to fit over the sides of the icon. The riza was affixed to the icon by nailing it to the sides of the icon panel, thus avoiding the damage to the painted surface caused by use of the older basma. A riza was commonly decorated in repoussé work and engraving and chasing with a simplified form of those parts of the painted surface that it covered — garments, and even buildings and trees etc. in some cases, as well as inscriptions. A riza could be made of anything from gold to silver to gilded silver to silvered brass to tin, depending on what the patron desired and could afford. On gold or silver examples, one generally finds the hallmarks used on Russian works of precious metals — stamped maker’s initials, grade of metal, etc. Absence of such marks generally means one is looking at a riza of cheaper metal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a riza was sometimes made of inexpensive metal with machine-stamped ornamentation.

A repoussé chased and engraved silver or gold riza, sometimes with added filigree work and colorful cloisonné enamel, can be considered a work of art in itself. Nonetheless, it is important, when considering an icon for any purpose, to know precisely what is under the riza. Some very cheap icons consisted only of a panel with faces and hands on it, the rest of the unpainted surface being hidden by the riza. And of course a riza may be used to disguise fakes, such as paper lithographs glued to a board and varnished over to make them appear to be painted icons. By the way, the word cloisonné is often mispronounced, even by those who should know better. It is pronounced klwa-son-nay, not kloi-son-nay.

Here is an icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker, covered with a gilt silver, somewhat neoclassical-influenced riza:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

A riza can sometimes be a helpful adjunct in dating an icon, but should never be taken as the final determinant. A riza could be added to an icon many years after the icon was painted, making the painting much older than the riza. Also, an old riza can be placed over a newer painting, which again will mislead the unwary. And of course with the amount of fakery practiced in Russia today, a new riza may be placed over a new painting, with the riza having old hallmarks that are simply modern fakes, making both icon and riza forgeries. When buying an icon, it is best to see it both with and without the riza, so that the entire painted surface, sides, and reverse of the icon may be examined.

WHAT TO CALL IT?

It can be seen that these three terms “oklad,” “basma,” and “riza” may easily lead to some confusion. The question often arises, should one call a single-piece icon cover an oklad or a riza? The answer is that while technically one may use either, riza is commonly to be preferred now, keeping oklad as a more general term. Originally the riza was just an element of the oklad, a metal covering in the shape of a robe that was nailed over the painted robe of a saint, etc. on an icon. But gradually it came to signify the entirety of a solid metal icon cover.

It is not uncommon to find “jewels” added to icon trimming. Sometimes these are genuine gems, sometimes semiprecious stones, but more often just colored glass. One may also find pearls, sometimes real, sometimes false. Filigree work and cloisonné enamel may also be found on better riza examples.

Among features included in an oklad may be a separate (but attached) VENETS (Венец), or halo. The diminutive form is VENCHIK (венчик); a halo is also called a nimb (Нимб), from Latin nimbus.

Please note that there is some ambiguity in the use of the terms venets and venchik. A venets can be a halo, but in the podlinniks it is often used to mean a crown; and a venchik can be a nimbus or halo.

A feature seen on some icon covers, particularly those of icons of Mary, is a KORUNA (Коруна) or crown of metal, from the Latin corona. One also sees, as part of the oklad ornamentation, a metal crescent suspended from the neck of Jesus or Mary, called a TSATA (Цата).

Both the basma and the riza are ornamentation affixed to an icon. But there is another kind of ornamentation that surrounds the icon while not being affixed to it. That is the glass-fronted case in which some icons were kept in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It functioned rather like a clock case, both ornamenting and protecting the icon. Such a case is called a KIOT, from the Greek word kivotos (κῑβωτός), meaning “ark” (do not confuse this with the “kovcheg” ark, the recessed surface on which the central image of an icon is painted). A kiot could be simply a shaped box with a glass front, or it could be more elaborate, with added ornamentation to frame the icon, such as the gilt woodwork in the example below:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

There is much more to say about icon covers and the ornamentation of icons, but that will wait for another day.

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