There is a term anyone studying Russian or Ukrainian icons should know. In Russian it is:
БОГОМАЗ — Bogomaz
The plural is богомазы — bogomazui (in common transliteration bogomazy).
Bogomaz was a colloquial term for an icon painter. It comes from the word Бог (Bog), meaning “God,” and the verb мазать (mazat’), meaning “to daub or smear on something greasy or oily.” It is the word used, for example, in smearing butter on bread.
The common English translation of bogomaz is “God-dauber.” Though sometimes used (rather slightingly) of icon painters in general, it has come to be more specifically applied to painters without professional training, “self-taught” artists. They were the kind we would refer to as “primitive” artists, because they were generally untaught or unskilled or both. As I often say, the saints and other “holy” persons in Russian icons were the replacements for the old non-Christian gods, continuing polytheism in another context, so I like the term bogomazui because it reflects that.
Bogomazui, in the context of the modern study of icons, generally refers to “folk” or “village” icon painters who did not work in professional studios, and were likely not even to be full-time painters. Instead they were often workers in other professions such as carpentry or blacksmithing. They painted icons in their spare time to earn some extra money.
The bogomazui did not paint for a high-class, wealthy market, or for sophisticated customers. Instead, they painted for ordinary people, for peasants with little money who nonetheless wanted to have an icon. And as most peasants were illiterate in those days, the painter did not have to worry too much about mistakes in spelling and even the occasional mistake in iconography.
The likelihood of painter’s mistakes was increased by their habit of painting directly, without using a preliminary outline stencil or pattern, instead brushing on the figures freehand, generally using only a very small number of colors. So there was a derogatory saying that the bogomazui were likely to paint
…Егорья пешком, а Пятницу на коне
“…Egoriy [Georgiy] on foot, and Pyatnitsa [Paraskeva] on a horse.”
That means they might get the iconography of even common saints wrong, such as by painting St. George, who is traditionally shown on horseback, on foot; and contrariwise, by painting the female patron saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa on horseback, though that is not at all her correct iconography.
They liked painting popular “folk” saints, such as Mary, Ilya (the prophet Elijah), Nikolai (St. Nicholas), and has we have seen, St. George and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, the kind of common saints prayed to for the daily needs of peasants, such as rain or good weather, for safety on rivers, in childbirth, for the protection of animals and fowl, and so on.
The bogomazui also sometimes used subjects that were not considered entirely “Orthodox” in the traditional sense, subjects picked up from Western religious art — the kind of thing present-day Eastern Orthodox fundamentalists like to call “uncanonical.” But of course Western art had long had an influence on icon painting in one way or another.
Some Russians like to define bogomaz icons as simply “bad” icons, but in my opinion that is far too snobbish and certainly not always true, any more than self-taught painting from any country is always “bad.”
Bogomazui worked in many places, from Belarus in the West eastward through the Urals to Siberia, and as far south as the present-day Ukraine. The range of their works is wide in quality, and can be stretched to include even some of the less expensive icon production in Kholui, one of the three main icon painting villages in Vladimir province. Among them is a class of icons that are often quite pleasing — those icons with bright red borders and foliage-filled backgrounds and garments that look like old gold, but are really cheap silvery metal leaf covered with a tinted varnish to make it appear gold. Real gold leaf was far too expensive for the “peasant” market, so on “God-dauber” icons it is either such false gold leaf or else tinfoil, or to make them even cheaper, no metal ornamentation at all.
Such Kholui “folk” icons were sold both locally and shipped off to far distant fairs and public markets, and that was where the works of the bogomazui were generally found — ready-painted in places where the peasant with a little money and a desire for an affordable “holy icon” could easily find and buy them.
Just as the geographical range of production of “folk” icons was wide, so was the range of styles; there is not just a single folk style. A Ukrainian folk icon will look quite different than one painted in Siberia. What they all have in common is that “primitive” look, and of course even among untrained painters there were those more naturally talented than others.
Though some folk icons were painted on the traditional gesso-covered cloth glued to a wooden panel, some bogomazui cut costs by either substituting paper for cloth, or else by eliminating the gesso ground entirely. It was not uncommon for thinned oil paints to be used instead of the more traditional tempera.
Officials occasionally made attempts to somehow control the production of inexpensive folk icons, as in 1809 and 1858, when efforts were made to prohibit such icons in the Ukraine, or when in 1872 the Diocese of Orenburg attempted to prohibit the sale of “ugly-painted” icons (“безобразно писаных икон”). But of course the key to the popularity of such icons was their low price, and so production was merely responding to and filling popular demand. And high-quality icons were not, in any case, easily available in more isolated regions, even if one could afford them.
There was a time when all the icons of the bogomazui were looked upon with scorn by collectors, but just as icons of the 18th and 19th centuries were originally not appreciated but have since become quite desirable, the same has begun to happen with “folk” icons. Some are easily able to take their place as pleasing and colorful examples of popular art, but one cannot say that of all of them. So one must be discerning in judging among them, with many of the better examples having artistic and monetary value as folk objects, but some remaining merely of interest as “antique” — and still of little worth. A great many inexpensive and quickly-painted icons were produced just in the marshy village of Kholui in the 19th century — some two million icons a year, it is estimated.
There is an interesting and rather bizarre rumor that spread about among the Old Believers in the 19th century. It was said that one had to be careful, because some bogomazui involved in Black Magic would paint a kind of icon called a “Hades-painted” icon (Адописная икона), often translated into English as a “Hell” icon. It was said that such a sly and evil person would first paint an icon with the image of the Devil or devils, and would then apply a ground of gesso over that to hide it. On top of this second ground, he would paint a saint or saints, so that when one prayed before such an icon, one was actually praying to the Devil. Though there seems no solid evidence to confirm the existence of such images, the story gives a good idea of the kind of thinking among less-educated believers in the 19th century. And of course it would have been a useful story for the higher-priced professional studios to promote about their cheaper rivals.
Never forget that icon painting was a business, and a very big one in Russia.