I have mentioned previously that sculpture in the round — carved, standing, three dimensional religious images — tended not to be favored in Eastern Orthodoxy, where one usually finds the two-dimensional painted icons of deity and saints. But that does not mean such religious statues did not exist in Eastern Orthodoxy at all.
You may recall that in 1721, Peter the Great created the so-called “Most Holy Governing Synod” (Святейший Правительствующий Синод) to head the Russian Orthodox Church, taking the authority formerly held by a patriarch. Peter replaced that patriarchate with the Synod, which continued in office until the restoration of the patriarchate in 1918.
The Synod interests us here because in 1722 it issued a decree including regulations intended to control the making of icons. Among those regulations, it forbade “to have in churches carved or sculpted icons” (“иметь в церквах иконы резные, или истесанные”). It blamed the presence of such icons in Russia on the Catholics and Poles.
As is usual with church decrees, however, it was not always and everywhere taken seriously. That is why, in churches here and there, carved statues (usually in wood) of noted saints such as Nicholas (in the “of Mozhaisk” type), Paraskeva and George were still to be found — in fact, as we have seen in previous postings, some such statues were considered to be “wonder working,” that is, accompanied by and able to work miracles. In the case of statues of Jesus as the sorrowing “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” (Спас в темнице / Spas v temnitse, Спас Полуночный / Spas Polunochnuiy) it was even thought such images had the power to walk about. Incidentally, the “Savior in the Dungeon” or “Midnight Savior” type — found also in panel icon form — appeared in Russian iconography in the 17th century, apparently borrowed — as some Orthodox icon types were over the years — including certain examples considered to be “wonder working” — from western Catholic art.
Also mentioned in a previous posting was the use of the colloquial term “God-daubers” for icon painters. Similarly, icon statues in Russian churches were also sometimes termed “bogi” — “gods.” For example, in the Urals — in the province of Perm — were found the so-called “Permian Gods” (Пермские боги / Permskie bogi), the present examples of which date from the 17th-19th centuries. Highly favored by the local people, these statues — in spite of church decrees — held their places in the rural churches.
We should not be surprised at the term “gods” being used for these figures, because as we have seen in the development of Christian art, the biblical deity and Christian saints replaced the older polytheistic gods — not only in Egypt and Rome, but also eventually (though much later) in the Russian countryside.
For those of you who read German, there is an interesting book on the subject of Russian Orthodox three-dimensional icon statues. It is titled Verbotene Bilder; Heiligenfiguren aus Russland (Forbidden Images; Sacred Figures from Russia) by Marianne Stößl (Stössl), Hirmer Verlag, München (Munich), 2006.