THE FIVE MARTYRS OF SEBASTE

In the previous posting, I discussed icon types that are “fixed groups” of saints — the same saints shown together from icon to icon, though their arrangement may vary.

Today we will look at another such “fixed group” icon — the “Five Holy Martyrs of Sebaste.”  In Greek iconography they are Οι άγιοι πέντε μάρτυρες από τη Σεβάστεια,  Hoi Hagioi Pente Martyres apo te Sebasteia — The Holy Five Martyrs from [the] Sebaste.”

Sebaste is a town in Armenia, which you may recall from a previous posting about the icon type the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The example shown is a pleasant Russian icon from the last period before the Revolution.  The saints depicted are, from left: Евстратий, (Evstratiy) Авксентий (Avksentiy) Евгений (Evgeniy), Мардарий (Mardariy) and Орест (Orest).  In Greek they are Εὐστράτιος (Eustratios), Αὐξέντιος (Auxentios), Εὐγένιος (Eugenios), Μαρδάριος (Mardarios) and ᾿Ορέστης (Orestes).

This is a good place to point out that in Church Slavic, saints’ names ending in -ий, when used of saints found in the old Greek saint lists, commonly replace the original Greek name ending -ιος.  And when the Greek original has the letter combination  Αὐ- or Εὐ- at the beginning, it becomes in Slavic Ав- or Ев-.  That is helpful when trying to find equivalent names in one language or the other.

These five saints of Sebaste were said to have been martyred by the governor Lysias for confessing Christianity near the beginning of the 4th century c.e.  The later account of their individual sufferings from the Synaxarion of Nikodemos the Hagiorite died 1809) goes into graphic detail about the tortures they underwent, but that is a characteristic of much hagiography, and we need not dwell on it here (Nikodemos, by the way, was also the editor of the best-known work of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the Philokalia).

What I really want to talk about today is the style of this particular example.   If we look at it carefully, we can easily date it, because the style is so distinctive of a particular time and movement in Russian icon painting.

We should look at:

The careful delineation of the figures and their garments;
The elaborate detailing on garments;
The background “light” that varies in shade and/or color from bottom to top.
The stylization of facial features, etc.
The careful and abundant use of gold highlighting on garments.

All these are characteristic of the school of painting in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries exemplified by the work of such painters as Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev ( Михаил Иванович Дикарев ), who worked first in the icon-painting village of Мстёра — Mstyora — then later moved to Moscow at the end of the 1870s and worked in the Chirikov Brothers’ workshop.

The Chirikov brothers were also from Mstyora (also transliterated Mstera), one of the three famous icon-painting villages in the Vladimir region along with Palekh and Kholui.  It was a strong area for the Old Belief, and about half its residents in the 18th century were Old Believers.  We can easily see the resemblance in style between the icon above and this example by Dikarev depicting the Metropolitan Mikhail of Kiev/Kiyev:

(State Hermitage Museum)

(State Hermitage Museum)

We can see a similar love of intricate garment detail in this 1890 icon by Osip Semyonovich Chirikov, depicting the Metropolitans Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona and Filipp of Moscow, with the Great Prince Vladimir — who converted Kievan Rus to Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity by edict in 988 c.e. — shown in the center:

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona and Filipp are another frequent “fixed group” type, as in the following example, though of course such saints may also be found individually in icons.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Chirikovs were an interesting family.  Osip Chirikov (Осип Семёнович Чириков), who died in 1903, had two sons — Grigoriy and Mikhail — who also went into the icon business.
As an odd little sidelight, the workshop of Grigoriy Osipovich Chirikov (1882-1936) in Moscow — where the famous “Vladimir” image of Mary was restored in 1918 — also became a center for the painting of fakes of old Russian icons.  Some call him the chief forger of pre-Revolutionary icons, which in itself says much about the quality of his work. He gained a reputation as the most eminent icon expert and restorer of his day, and a source for collectors of pre-Nikonian icons and for the Imperial museum collection under Tsar Alexander II.  His presumed expertise even got him the job of chief icon restorer under the early Soviet regime.  So skill in the restoration of old icons led naturally, in his case,  to “restoration” of early icons on which only a few bits of paint of the original still adhered to the panel once later overpaintings were removed, and even to the forging of entire old icons whose iconography was acceptable to rich Old Believers and the avid collectors who were willing to pay much for “authentic” old icons in the years prior to the Revolution.  Obviously their concept of “restoration” was not that generally held today.

It was only decades later, when careful chemical analysis of icon materials became possible, that such forgeries were made obvious.  However skilled in painting the forgers of the late 19th-early 20th century were, however familiar with earlier iconographic styles, they nonetheless failed to reproduce exactly the materials used by the painters of the old originals, and there had been notable change in the nature of pigments used in Russian icon painting over the centuries, particularly from the 18th century onward.  There is also a difference in materials used for the ground of many early icons — the gypsum alabaster levkas (or “gesso” to use the Italian term) of the early icons being later commonly replaced by a gesso made of chalk.

Grigory Chirikov, in spite of his importance even into the Soviet era, came to a sad end.  He was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and later sent to a labor camp; it is generally believed that he was executed by the Soviets.  His story reminds me of the Western art “expert” Bernard Berenson, who became known and made a great deal of money from his presumed expertise in the art of the Italian Renaissance — again before the application of technology became generally applied to the analysis of early paintings.

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