I do not talk much about icon covers here. In spite of their often considerable artistry, they nonetheless hide parts of or most of the painting, and I am much more interested in the painting than in the ornateness or costliness of the metal cover.
Nonetheless, one should know something about icon covers. They can be helpful in dating an icon, but should not be used alone for that purpose. An old cover can be put on a new icon. A new cover can be put on an old icon. And an old icon may have a cover added years or even decades later than its date of painting. So a cover may provide a clue to date, but should not be used as the final word in most cases.
Like the changes of style in icon painting, covers too have changed in style. Today I want to give a general idea of how they changed (and when), so that readers may have a rough idea of how to date an icon cover as considered separately from the painting it often partially hides.
We will begin in the 1600s — the 17th century — which was a time of great transition in Russia. If you have been reading here long, you will already know that in the middle of the 1600s there was a great split within the Russian Orthodox Church, with the Old Believers separating from the State Church, and suffering much persecution as a result. It was also the time when — in the mid to later part of the 1600s — Western European art began to influence the painting of icons in Russia, though its influence at first was primarily in the art of the State Church rather than that of the Old Believers, who kept to the old stylized manner of painting while the State Church gradually incorporated more and more realism.
So, we will begin with the kind of icon cover most prominent in the 17th century in Russia — the basma (басма). The basma was the early form of icon ornamentation, known as early as the 14th century. It consisted of embossed sheets or strips of metal tacked onto the surface of the icon, not as one piece, but as a series of pieces forming the cover. A basma might form a kind of frame around the outer edges of the icon, as in this 17th-century example:
Or it may extend over much of the surface of the icon, being cut to outline the portion of the painting revealed, as in this icon from the 1670s:
When you see an old icon with lots of little holes in the painted surface — holes the size of small nails — chances are it once was covered with a basma.
We can think of the high period for use of the basma as extending from the 14th to the latter part of the 17th century. Near the end of the 17th century, however, the basma was gradually replaced by the one-part metal cover, traditionally called a riza, meaning “robe.” A term favored in the Soviet period for such a cover is oklad.
When we get to the time of the one-piece riza, its ornamentation is already influenced by the fashions of Western Europe. So on a riza of this period — primarily the 18th century — we can expect rich Baroque ornamentation. Here is an example from 1778:
Even though the Baroque style began to be replaced in the late 18th century by Neoclassical influence, the predilection for the Baroque in icon covers lasted even into the middle of the 19th century However, near the end of the late 18th century, we begin to see the appearance of classical elements. We can think of this as paralleling the movement in France from the Baroque-rococo manner in the reign of Louis XV to the antique Greco-roman influences that begin to appear in the Louis XVI period and gain increasing strength through the Directoire period and into the openly classical antique-revival Empire period.
Here is a cover from 1810. Note the “sunburst” halos that will be prominent in icon covers even a bit beyond the middle of the 1800s:
And here is an even more classical-influenced cover from 1826, restrained in its ornament:
The two styles, Baroque and Neoclassic, existed together for some time. Here, for example, is an 1845 cover that is still heavily Baroque in ornamentation (and again, note the “sunburst” halo):
In about the 1860s, we begin to see another transition. The large Baroque elements gradually give way to smaller, more concentrated ornamentation, as in this example from 1867:
In the 1880s we often see the same kind of smaller, concentrated ornament, but also triangular corner pieces become more common, as in this example from 1882:
It is also in the 1880s that intertwining geometric patterns become increasingly common in the outer borders. Here is an example from 1884:
So in the last 20 years or so of the 19th century, we see an increased preference for “early Russian” geometric designs and ornamentation on icon covers, again a kind of parallel to the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe and America and its look back to medieval times. In keeping with this, there is also a growing preference for colorful cloisonné ornamentation in icon covers. Here is an example from 1892:
Note again the triangular corner pieces.
Here is another example from the period between about the turn of the 20th century and the Revolution:
So the last period of Russian icon covers before the Revolution continues the “Arts & Crafts” influence and the preference for cloisonné. In case you don’t remember, cloisonné is the filling of little spaces formed by tiny wires or strips of metal with melted glass, while champlevé is the filling of depressions in the metal surface with melted glass. Here is a rather extreme example that mixes “primitive” Arts & Crafts design with champlevé ornamentation:
And finally, in the last years of the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, there was also a style for simple elegance in icon covers, as in this example:
Keep in mind that there was no abrupt border marking one period off from another. The transition was more gradual, with the earlier style continuing for some time while gradually being replaced with the newer style.
And, of course, not all covers were equal in quality. The metals used could vary from gold to silver to gilt silver to silvered brass to unsilvered brass to tin. And of course there were also covers made of embroidered cloth, of beadwork, and of woven metal threads. Wealthier people could afford covers of silver, and in such cases one looks for hallmarks on the silver. If a cover looks like silver but has no hallmarks, chances are it is just silvered brass.
Metal icon covers were generally attached with nails of copper or silver alloy, but in thee 19th century iron nails came into use. The nails used are not always an indicator of date, because a pre-19th century metal cover might have been removed and re-attached later with iron nails.