THAT’S A RELIEF: CARVED WOOD ICONS IN RUSSIA

Eastern Orthodoxy has been generally suspicious of statuary — of images in three dimensions.  Historically, statues are not entirely absent.  Even as early as the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, such three-dimensional images existed in Christianity.  But over time — and particularly after the Iconoclastic period — Eastern Orthodox art has tended to avoid the use of religious statuary.  But one does encounter icons in relief, carved into stone, cast into metal, impressed in clay or carved in wood.

That is why one sometimes finds wooden relief icons of one kind or another in Russian iconography, though they are in general more scarce than painted icons.

Wood carving has been a part of Russian folk art since pre-Christian times, and when one finds carved icons in the 18th and 19th centuries, they still have much the appearance of folk art objects, though they were used just as were painted icons.

Here is a carved wooden icon depicting the Crucifixion.  It is depicted as though in a church interior, which is why we see seven church domes above it:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We see the usual figures found in painted Crucifixion icons — Jesus in the center, his mother Mary and another Mary at left, and at right the disciple John and the Centurion Longinus (Login Sotnik).  Even the inscriptions are carved in wood, and considerable time must have been required for such detail.  When the carving was finished, the icon was painted in suitable colors and then varnished.  The surface has oxidized and aged over the years, which is why the surface now has a rather dark appearance:

Each figure has its title inscription, and above Jesus we see the usual inscription, written here as IНЦI, abbreviating “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  And at the sides of his head is the common IC XC, abbreviating “Jesus Christ.”

Most notable, however, is the very long carved text in the outer borders of the icon.  The novice student of Russian icons might at first despair of determining what it signifies, but one should always keep in mind that icon inscriptions tend to be very repetitive.  Also, certain texts tend to be associated with certain images.  Given that, can we possibly make any sense out of all those hundreds of letters carved without punctuation or even separation into individual words?

Fortunately, it is not as difficult as it looks.  In fact if you have read the earlier postings on this site, you will already have been given the key to translating it.

What does one do with such an unfamiliar inscription?  One first looks for the familiar, whether in words or phrases.  And if we go to the beginning of the text, which is at the upper left corner, we can begin to work with it.  In general the starting point in most icons for a sequence of images or a long text is at upper left:

That is a bit dark, so it would be helpful to brighten the image to add clarity, like this:

We can now see, looking carefully, that the inscription begins with these letters:

ДАВОСКРЕСНЕТЪБОГЪИРАЗЫ…

Where have we seen that before?  The most logical place to look is in materials dealing with Crucifixion images.  You may recall that some time ago I did a posting titled “The Instant Expert on Russian Crosses“:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-instant-expert-in-russian-crosses/

In that article, I gave the standard inscriptions associated with the Crucifixion type.  And among them, you will find this:

Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…

ДА ВОСКРЕСЕНЕТЪ БОГЪ И РАЗЫДУТСЯ ВРАЗИ ЕГО И ДА БЕЖАТЪ ОТЪ ЛИЦА ЕГО ВСИ НЕНАВИДЯЩЕЙ ЕГО…

 “Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Kresty — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

Now one thing we will notice about the form of the text on this icon is that its wording in Church Slavic is a bit different than the standard Russian Orthodox version.  That is because this icon uses the old text, not the revised wording used by the State Church after the separation from the Old Believers.  That tells us this is an Old Believer icon, and indeed such carved relief icons tend to be found more commonly among Old Believers than in the State Church.

Here is the Old Believer text:

Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его, яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут, яко тает воск от лица огня,тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменающихся крестным знамением, и да возвеселимся рекуще: радуися, Кресте Господень, прогоняя бесы силою на Тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Исуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго, и поправшаго силу диаволю, и давшаго нам Крест Свой Честныи на прогнание всякаго супостата. О Пречестныи и Животворящии Кресте Господень, помогай ми, с Пресвятою Госпожею Богородицею и со всеми святыми небесными силами, всегда и ныне и присно и во веки веком, аминь.

And here is the text as found in State Church prayer books:

Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его. Яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут; яко тает воск от лица огня, тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменующихся крестным знамением, и в веселии глаголющих: радуйся, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень, прогоняяй бесы силою на тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Иисуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго и поправшаго силу диаволю, и даровавшаго нам тебе Крест Свой Честный на прогнание всякаго супостата. О, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень! Помогай ми со Святою Госпожею Девою Богородицею и со всеми святыми во веки. Аминь.

You can see that there are some differences, but not enough to prevent us from recognizing the text in both cases.  Do not be intimidated by this.  All it means for practical purposes is:

If the beginning words read:
Да воскреснет Бог, и разыдутся врази Его… then we know it is likely an Old Believer icon.  But if we see the text beginning like this:
Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его… then we know it is a State Church image.

Keep in mind that one need not be concerned about minor differences in spelling, but differences in wording help us to distinguish icons of the Old Believers from those of the State Church in Russia after the latter part of the 17th century.  One can even see slight differences between the form of the text used on the carved icon and that given above as the Old Believer form of the full prayer.  The reason is that the text on the icon more closely follows the spelling used in the Ostrog Bible (Острожская Библия ) — the first complete printed Church Slavic Bible in the corrected edition of 1581.

 

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