Look at this Russian icon:
Even without the inscription, it is immediately identifiable to an informed student of icons, because the scene is so distinctive. Nonetheless, let’s look at the title inscription. Here it is in a modern Russian font:
СВЯТЫХЪ СОРОКЪ МУЧЕНИКЪ ВЪ СЕВАСТИ
ЙСКИМЪ ОЗИРЕ МУЧЕВЩИХСИЯ
SVYATUIKH SOROK MUCHENIK V SEVASTIYSKIM OZIRE MUCHEVSHCHIKHSIYA
[the] HOLY FORTY MARTYRS AT [the] SEBASTE LAKE MARTYRED
Do not be concerned with little differences in spelling from example to example.
So, this icon depicts The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Martyred at the Sebaste Lake, or simply the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste” as they are commonly called. According to their story, the 4th century ruler Licinius wanted to rid his army of Christians. In Armenia, a military commander named Agricolaus was unhappy with forty soldiers, all Christians, who refused to sacrifice to the Gods. This was a major issue in those days, because refusal to sacrifice not only made Romans think the Christians were atheists, but also that they were revolutionaries, because traditionally it was the Gods who were the support of the State.
As punishment, the forty soldiers were led, in winter, out onto a frozen lake and made to remain there through the night unless they gave in and made the appropriate sacrifice. An inviting bathhouse was fired up on the shore with warm water. As the night proceeded, one soldier could not take the intense cold any longer, so decided to make the sacrifice, and went to the bathhouse. According to tradition, he fell down dead as soon as he stepped through the entrance.
Later in the night the soldiers still suffering on the icy lake supposedly had a vision. There was a light from heaven, and the water of the lake suddenly turned warm and melted the ice.
All guards were asleep except for one, who looked out on the lake and saw 39 crowns appear in the sky over the heads of the martyrs. He woke up the other guards and told them that he had decided to become a Christian, and he then went into the lake with the other martyrs.
When morning came and the martyrs in the lake were found still alive, they were taken from the lake, their legs were broken, and then they were piled onto a cart and taken away and burned.
Of course this is just a brief summary, and there are many more of the typical frills in the full story that one finds in the accounts of saints. Such elaborations make it very difficult to determine what in such tales may have an historical basis and what is just the fantasizing of the hagiographers (those who write stories of saints). As I have written in previous postings, some saints are entirely fictional, and some lives are a mixture of history and fiction in varying ratio and percentage.
As for this particular icon, it is painted in the old style maintained by the Old Believers (in opposition to the Westernized style adopted by the State Church). Usually one finds the forty martyrs in white trousers, but here the painter has added a bit of visual interest by giving some of the “undies” pastel colors.
We can see the soldier who gave up and went into the bathouse on the left, and we see the guard kneeling in the foreground who has decided to become a Christian and join the martyrs. In the clouds above, Jesus blesses them and sends down the crowns of martyrdom.
The building at left and the hills at right are typical of the traditional scenery of icons. In Russia such a building is called a “palace,” so the backgrounds of icons are commonly “hills and palaces,” or as we would say, “hills and buildings.” And of course both are stylized.
Here is a detail to show you how hills were painted in the traditional manner as it had developed by the 19th century:
One can easily see that first a hill is painted in its base color, then the “steps” of the hill are formed by overpainting in the same color lightened with white, and finished with white highlights.
The lake water is indicated by simply painting swirling, concentric, thin white lines over the darker background color. And the clouds are formed in the snail-like fashion typical of the Old Believer painters in the region of the “three villages,” Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui.