WHAT YEAR IS IT? READING DATES ON RUSSIAN ICONS

In the later and most prolific period of Russian icon painting — the 18th to early 20th centuries — one frequently finds dated icons with inscriptions telling the year and month and even the day on which the icon was completed. Often the name of the painter is included, as well as other information. That is a tremendous help in determining precisely when an icon was painted, which is somewhat more tricky if one must go by style alone, because styles could extend themselves over many decades.

Such dates were written in Cyrillic letters used as numbers.  To read them, one must learn that numbering system.  The same system was used in books such as the Bible and in podlinniki (painter’s manuals).  So knowing this system is essential knowledge for a student of icons.

Here, for example, is a text from a book printed in Moscow.  It contains a year date.  Such dates include three or four letters, and they are usually recognizable as “year” dates because a little double-barred cross precedes the first letter number.  The date is the last four letters at bottom right:

So here is the date:

How do we read it?  To know that, we have to know what Cyrillic letters mean as numbers.  Here is a useful chart:

Numbers in general are written with a titlo (the little horizontal line placed above the letter-number).

The numbers from 1-10 are simple.
The numbers from 11-19 are written as “one [and] ten,” “two [and] ten” “three [and] ten” and so on — meaning 11, 12, and thirteen, respectively.
At 20 the system changes, written as “twenty [and] one,” “twenty [and] two,” twenty [and] three,” and so on.

When we reach the hundreds, each number from 100 to 900 has its own letter.

When we get to the thousands, the numbers are again simple, but a thousand number has a little “double-barred cross” preceding it, as in these two examples for the numbers 1,000 and 2,000.

A higher thousand number just follows the same sequence as the first 1-9 numbers on the  first chart above, but of course preceded by the little “double-barred cross” to indicate it is read as one of the “thousand” numbers:

Let’s look again at the date on the book:

We can see that the first letter — З — is a thousands number because it is preceded by the “double-barred cross.”  Looking at the first chart above, we see that used in the first line it would mean 7, but because it is preceded by the “thousand” sign, we read it as 7,000.

The next letter — У — is found in the line for “hundreds” numbers.  we can see that it means 400.

The third letter — K — is 20.

The fourth letter — Г — is 3, as we see in the first line of the chart.

So all together, we have this, reading the number from left to right:

7,000 and 400 and 20 and 3,
or in the common form,
7,423.  And that is the date when the book was printed.

You are perhaps thinking, “What?!! That can’t be right!”  Well it is right, and to understand why, you need to know that dates on old icons were commonly written using a different system of numbering years.  Old Russian years were calculated from the supposed date of the Creation of the World, which in those pre-scientific times was believed to be 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.  So any date after the supposed birth of Jesus was given by adding more years onto the 5,508.

That means the date on the book — 7,423 — was the date from the supposed Creation of the World.

To put that into our modern year numbering system, we need only do some simple math.  Here is the formula:

Old year date – 5508 = date in modern years

So in the case of our book date,

7,423
minus
5,508
equals
1915

And that is the date on the book — the date when it was printed:  1915.  So now that you know this, you can read the dates on Russian icons and on books using the old numbering and year system.

Now let’s look at another number (just assume it has a titlo above it):

ǂЗСИ

It would read:
7000 and 200 and 8
That makes it the year 7,208.

Let’s do the calculation:

7,208 (old year system)
minus
5,508 (supposed date of Creation)
equals
1700 (modern year system)

That year, 1700, is important in Russian history.  That is the year when Peter the Great changed Russia’s official calendar, bringing it closer to the Western system.  That means for the Russian government, it was suddenly no longer the year 7208 from the Creation of the World;  it was now the year 1700 from the (supposed) Birth of Jesus.  The New Year was set at January 1st instead of September 1st.  But because both systems continued to be used, dates may be written in one or the other system.

That is useful to know, because it explains why some icons — usually those not painted by Old Believers — were dated using the modern year system, but still written in old letter-numbers.  In such dates, up to the year 1999, the first number will be the “one thousand” number:

Be aware that sometimes a painter will omit the double-barred cross (ǂ) before the initial “thousands” number of an icon date, in which case the initial number is still read as a “thousands” number.

Dates on icons may be presented in a number of formulaic ways, from the very simple to more complex.  For example:

написася [year] го года  в месаце июне
Napisasya  [year] -go goda v m[esa]tsye iiunye
“[Was] painted  [ year ]-th  year in month (of) June”

Or it may say something like:

Napisasya sia svyataya ikone v leto ___  genvarya __ dna
“[Was] painted this holy icon in the year ___January ___ day”

Then there is the form beginning with Mira (of the world).”

That is a shortened version of this:

Napisasya sia svyataya ikona ot sozdaniya mira ______ -go Maia ____ den’
“[Was] painted this holy icon from creation of world _____ -th  May ____day”
“This holy icon was painted from the Creation of the World ________(year) May _____ day”

As one example, it might read:

“This holy icon was painted from the Creation of the World 7360, month August, 10 day.”
meaning it was painted in 7360 (1852 modern system), August, on the 10th day.

So those are the basics of reading old dates on Russian icons and in books using the old letter-number system.  It is actually quite simple once one becomes accustomed to it.

To find the date in this photo of an inscription on the reverse side of an icon, just look for that “double-barred cross” and the titlo over three or four letters:

(Photo: http://www.historystudies.msu.ru)

The inscription says that “Before this icon prayed the Moscow merchant Lavrentiy Ivanov, son of Osip, and acquired for him this icon in the year ____________.

To find out what that year was, let’s look more closely:

You will find that the year is 7,318;
So,
7,318
minus
5,508
equals
1810 (the date in our system)

Here is another chart on which you will find examples of both an old system ( as 7506) and a new system (as 1998) date in letter-numbers in the right-hand column:

Note that the number 800 may be written like the word “ot” (meaning “from”) in some examples, as in the right-side line on that chart.

Now that you have that basic information in mind, you should know that using 5,508 as the base date applies generally to calculating dates for years after 1492 (the year the September 1st date for the New Year was adopted).

Now there is one confusing element to all this.  For general purposes, using the 5,508 year of Creation as our base for calculations is close enough.  But keep in mind that since the old system year began on September 1st, icons with old system dates having a month from September through December will be off if calculated by the 5,508 base.  So for icons with the month given as September, October, November, and up to December 31st, subtract 5,509 as the base, instead of 5,508.  If the month is not given on an icon (as in the Lavrentiy Ivanov example given above), technically the calculated date should be given as 1809/1810, because either is possible, and we cannot tell just which it is without knowing the month as well.  But for general purposes, we just go with the 5,508-calculated date, given that it has an 8 out of 12 chance of being correct, and it is close enough when one does not have to be exactly on the mark.

Finally, you will of course find that some icons painted from the 18th century onward may use our ordinary Arabic numbering system (1,2,3,4,5, etc.).  It is more commonly found on very late icons.

THIS IS THE “YOUR CHANCE TO COMMENT” WEEK

(THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO COMMENTED DURING “PUBLIC COMMENTS” WEEK.  NOW WE WILL GO BACK TO OUR USUAL PRIVATE COMMENTS POLICY, WHICH MEANS I WILL SEE COMMENTS SENT TO THE BLOG, BUT THEY WILL NOT BE VISIBLE TO OTHER SITE READERS AFTER NOVEMBER 17, 2017.)

I began this icon blog in 2011.  At that time, I had no idea whether such a blog would interest anyone.  Writing it was the result of remembering my frustration when I first began to study icons decades ago.  There was a severe lack of any practical information that would help one learn how to read icons, and to understand the history behind them.  Remembering that, and all the work I had to go through to learn over the years,  I decided to begin a blog that would quickly make any interested person more of an expert on icons than a great many “professionals” in the field.

My approach was not — and is not — religious.  I see icons as representatives of earlier times and cultures, extending all the way back to the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods.  I had read a lot of nonsense over the years in “religious” books about the history of icons, and I decided to dispel many of the myths they repeat again and again from book to book and website to website.

I have to say,  I have been very surprised by the large numbers of people reading this site, and the friendly messages I often receive from them.

Now as you know, I ordinarily do not post comments on this site (as many web sites do).  However, given the amount of time this site has existed, I decided to stop posting for about a week, to give readers a chance to comment publicly if they wish.  What kind of comments?  Well, anything you want to say.  If you like the blog, and why — if you don’t like the blog — if you want it to continue — if you would like more information on a certain aspect of icons or a certain related subject. Of course I know there are some very conservative religious people out there who don’t like the idea of a non-religious blog on icons at all — but given that I provide more useful information than any other English-language site, they seem to read the blog anyway.

So please, you are invited to send comments of all kinds.  If you have complaints, this is your chance to “blow off steam.”  And if you like the site, this is your chance to tell me you want it to continue.  You may also add anything about your interest in icons.  Comments may be in any language you wish.  I know I have a lot of readers who are able to read English but prefer to write in their own language, and that is good.  Write in whatever language you prefer.

If you have anything to say about this site, please let me know by posting a comment within the next seven days, beginning right now.  If you prefer to be anonymous, just tell me in the message, and I will remove your name from your comment.

This “Comments Week” will last until November 17th, 2017.

Thanks to all of you for reading,

David

 

THE “MYSTERY OF THE CROSS” ICON TYPE

There is an unusual icon type from the 19th century — commonly called ТАИНСТВО КРЕСТА —  TAINSTVO KRESTA — “Mystery of the Cross.”  It is seldom seen, though there are companies selling modern printed icons of the type.  Here is a painted example from 1814:

The type is easily recognized, because it looks like Jesus, on his way to Calvary, has stumbled into a cross workshop.  He is surrounded on all sides by crosses, each lettered with the name of a difficulty one encounters in following the “way of the cross.”

The inscription outside the circle — beginning at the top and continuing on the bottom — is taken from 1 Peter 2:21:

Христос пострада по насъ намъ оставиль образъ
да последуемъ стопамъ его
Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps.

In the double circle are the words from Isaiah 53:5:

Той же язвен бысть за грехи наша и мучен быст за беззакония наша, наказание мира нашего на Нем, язвою Его мы исцелехом
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

The inscription at the very bottom begins with words taken from Matthew 16:24:

…аще кто хощет по Мне идти, да отвержется себе, и возмет крест свой, и по Мне грядет
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

Then comes this, from Luke 14:27:

и иже не носит креста своего и вследъ мене грядет, не может мой быти ученик.
“And whosoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

It ends with a quote from Galatians 5:24:

иже Христовы суть, плоть распяша со страстями и похотьми
“And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.”

Everything about this icon cries out Western influence, and it is said that it may be traced to the influence of an anonymous French book that appeared in 1732, titled, Le Mystère De La Croix, Affligeante Et Consolante, Mortifiante et Vivifiante, Humiliante et Triomphante, De Jésus-christ Et De Ses Membres, ” as reflected in the writing of the German Catholic mystic Karl von Eckartshausen (1752-1803), author of Die Wolke über dem HeiligthumThe Cloud Over the Sanctuary.  That would account for the absence of earlier examples of this icon type.

A helpful reader sent me this photograph of a memorial card from the funeral of his great-great grandfather in Flanders (Belgium) in 1869:

(Photo courtesy of Herman Jacobs)

The Dutch/Flemish inscription reads, “If you would come with me, forsake your self, take your cross and follow me.”

 

 

“CLEANSED BY FIRE”: CAST METAL ICONS

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, and some were even found in “State Orthodox” churches.   Ordinarily, the State Church only produced little metal crosses worn about the neck, but the Old Believer metal icons were so popular and widespread that eventually even the State Church began producing some, often recognizable because they depict saints “glorified” (canonized, officially accepted) after the split with the Old Believers in the middle of the 17th century.

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

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 accommodate themselves to State authorities whenever possible in hope of acquiring more “renegade” priests and eventually succeeding in getting bishops.

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

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.

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

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.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

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 is toxic.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

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.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

In addition to one-piece castings, folding metal icons — either as diptychs (two-panel), triptychs (three-panel) or quadriptychs were quite popular, such as this one:

(Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA)

A four-panel folding icon like this was, in common slang, an  утюг — utiug, meaning an “iron,” in the sense of a flatiron used to iron clothes.  That is because of its iron-like shape when closed, as well as its weight.  For a detailed discussion of this form, see this posting:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2019/08/22/unfolding-a-flatiron-icon/

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.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

It is said that some of the finest cast icons were produced by the Old Believers of the Vyg Community (also called ПоморцыPomortsui), 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.

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

 

In Russian terminology, a metal icon is commonly a медная икона/mednaya ikona, literally a brass/copper/cupreous icon. The plural is медные иконы/mednuie ikonui.  The term литая икона/litaya ikona, meaning “cast icon” plural литые иконы/lituie ikonui — is also used.  Those cast of bronze are бронзовые иконы/bronzovuie ikonui.

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.”

IT WAS BEAUTY KILLED THE BEAST

Today’s icon, from the first half of the 17th century,  is a well-known example by the Stroganov painter Никифор Истомин Савин — Nikifor Istomin Savin.  The subject is, as the title tells us, the “Miracle of the Great Martyr of Christ Feodor Tiron and the Serpent.”  Serpent and dragon are virtually synonymous here.

The tale depicted is this:  It happened that in the town where Feodor’s mother lived, a fierce dragon took over the well that supplied the people with water, demanding tribute such as cows and sheep.  One day when the saint’s mother took a horse to the well to give it a drink, she herself was captured by the serpent.  In the image below, we see her (and the horse) being taken down into the well:

 

Now Fedodor’s mother happened to be so pretty that the serpent — who is a kind of king of serpent demons — decided to make her his wife, and so presented her with rich gifts.  In the image below, we see her deep within the earth, seated on a throne, and a crown is  being placed upon her head by subordinate serpents.

Needless to say, all this did not please Feodor.  He engaged in battle with the great serpent.  Here we see an image of the local authorities watching as Feodor and the serpent fight:

Here Feodor cuts off the bearded head of the serpent (“The vorpal blade went snicker-snack”):

Then Feodor lead his mother out of the depths of earth:

Finally, an “Angel of the Lord” flies down from Heaven and places a crown of victory upon Feodor’s head.

I cannot help thinking of the line from the old black and white thriller King Kong:  “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”  And fantastic religious stories such as this about Feodor and the Serpent entertained people in the days before such movies — or even science fiction — existed, and they took them quite seriously.