A very obvious part of the Russian icon business consisted of cast metal icons, the “golden” period of which began in Russia in the latter part of the 17th century. They were the products of Old Believer craftsmanship (originally particularly of the Bezpopovtsui or “Priestless”) but given that they were sold at fairs and markets, they were often purchased by State Church followers, and so were found in peasant homes no matter what the affiliation. Ordinarily, the State Church only produced little metal crosses worn about the neck.
It is not surprising that the Old Believers liked metal icons. They were terribly persecuted by the State Church — with the authority of the State behind it — and so often had to move from place to place to escape persecution. Metal icons, which unlike painted icons, could be carried easily and without damage, and also be easily hidden — filled their need for icons. The “Priestless” Old Believers originally held that the Antichrist had begun his rule, personified in the Tsarist State; the priesthood was no longer valid, so relations with the State were hopeless and persecution was to be their life, while the “Priested” Old Believers — who accepted the validity of State Church priests, and wanted to find a bishop to restore their church hierarchy — tried to accomodate themselves to State authorities whenever possible in hope of acquiring more “renegade” priests and eventually succeeding in getting bishops.
In the 18th century the production of metal icons was somewhat obstructed by a law promulgated by Tsar Peter the Great in 1722, which forbade the use of cast metal icons. Though it caused problems, it did not deter the Old Believers, who kept on producing such icons here and there. Various excuses were given for the law, but it seems to have been the result of Peter’s desire for more metal for the production of weapons, and not, as is sometimes said, because the Old Believer buildings filled with metal icons drew lightning and caused fires.
As already mentioned, certain metal icons were easy to transport and to take when traveling — thus the name Путевые иконы — Putevuie ikonui — “Travel icons”. And they were far less expensive than painted icons. The Old Believers saw tarnish as a sign of corruption, so they wanted cast icons kept bright. When a metal icon began to tarnish, one had only to give it a quick rub with a cloth, perhaps dusted with a bit of chalk, sand, ashes or brick powder –, and the icon was quickly bright and shining again. That did have a drawback, however, because continuous polishing wore down the finer details of a cast icon over the years — which is why one encounters examples with the features of the saints worn smooth. On today’s market, price depends heavily on how worn a metal icon is. Those still with clear and sharp details bring a much higher price that those with the facial features polished away. Of course the poorer quality icons were originally cast without good detail.
There was an expensive solution to the problem of polishing. Some cast icons were given a fancy protective finish by fire-gilding — the application of a thin layer of gold dissolved in mercury, then heated so the mercury evaporated Such an icon would remain bright unless the thin layer of gold was damaged. The very large drawback to this was for the maker, because mercury vapor was toxic.
Often cast icons were enhanced by the addition of colored enamel (powdered glass melted onto the casting). The price depended on the number of colors, so those with lots of colorful enamel brought higher prices than those with one or two colors or without any — and that is still true among collectors.
The bulk of cast metal icons one encounters (some 80%) are made of brass, consisting of an alloy of copper and zinc. A lesser percentage are of bronze (copper and tin alloy), used more prior to the 19th century, but again in the 20th. And a few are found in copper or even lead, but these latter are much softer and more easily damaged.
It is said that some of the finest cast icons were produced by the Old Believers of the Vyg Community (also called Поморцы — Pomortsui), the main center of the “Priestless” Old Believers, which was founded in 1694 by monks fleeing the Solovetskiy Monastery. Vyg metal icons, because of their finer detail, are highly valued by collectors. Other villages in other locations eventually began production, notably among them the “Priested” village of Guslitsa in Vladimir Province and others in the Moscow and Volga regions, and even in the Urals and Siberia
Cast metal icons were, essentially, metal alloys heated until liquid, then poured into a mold made of sand mixed with clay. The Old Believers particularly liked the association of fire with the process, because they saw the resulting images of the saints as bright and shining, as if “cleansed by fire.”