Here is an icon of another stolpnik — stylite — another “pillar guy,” one of those men who lived atop a pillar as an ascetic practice. This fellow, however, is Russian.
The title inscripton above him reads:
СВ[ЯТЫЙ] ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ НИКИТА СТОЛП[НИК]
SVYATUIY PREPODOBNUIY NIKITA STOLPNIK
“Holy Venerable Nikita Stylite.”
Nikita had a rather miserable life, which I will summarize later in this posting. But first I want to point out that by the last years of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th, icon painting in Russia was seriously threatened by the development of chromolithography — the printing of images in multiple colors — which permitted the printing of icon images on both tin and on paper.
Chromolithography — instead of using a single stone with an image engraved on it — used multiple stones, each engraved with the portion of the image corresponding to the required color of ink. As the paper was printed by one stone after another, the image aquired a new color from each. To achieve the desired tones and shading, as many as several dozen stones might be used to print one image.
To the average Russian, it was much less expensive to buy a printed icon than a painted icon. And given that painted icons were essentially copies of rather standardized images — copies of copies of copies of copies — it seemed that icons and mass printing were an ideal combination. Buyers no longer had to rely on a monochrome or hand-tinted print; now they could have printed images in color, which became quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, and hung in many homes of ordinary people — often framed behind glass.
Before the advent of chromolithography, Western European prints — in the form of engravings or woodcuts — already had a substantial influence on Russian religious art from the latter part of the 17th century, when the traditional stylized manner kept alive by the Old Believers began to be abandoned by the State Church in favor of the more “realistic” art of Western European Protestants and Catholics. The effect of such prints on icon painting only increased in the 18th century.
Black and white lithographic printing — printing from an engraved stone — was developed in Germany in the late 18th century, and spread to Russia, where both lithographed and chromolithographed paper religious images began to appear in the 1830s-1840s. Lithographs of one kind or another were printed as early as 1858 in the icon painting village of Mstera, at the workshop of the one-time serf Ivan Aleksandrovich Golyshev (И.А. Голышев — 1838—1896), which produced until about 1885, when it gave way to larger printing companies that began producing chromolithographed paper icons en masse from about 1870 — factories such as that of Efim Ivanovich Fesenko (Ефим Иванович Фесенко — 1850–1926) in Odessa, which produced the icon of Nikita shown above.
Fesenko also printed a number of other icon types — all in the “Westernized” style adopted by the State Church, which by the late 19th century looked very much like religious images produced by Catholics in Western Europe. To our eyes, they look quite bland and saccharine. Fesenko, by the way, managed to survive into the Soviet Era, and was made permanent director of what had previously been his own printing company, after the government nationalized it.
Another prominent chromolithographer of icons in Odessa at that time was the firm of Vilgelm/Wilhelm Til (Вильгельм Тиль), whose 1881 Catalog declared that with its publication, his firm had set itself the task to “make its products available — even at the farthest distance — to each and all wishing to buy for little money the representations of holy icons of worthy workmanship, and in full accord with the writings of the Orthodox Church, in that the greater part of the images are taken from icons in Russian monasteries and churches.”
“For 22 years there has been an institution in Odessa — closely known by many nearby rich monasteries, but hardly known to our village [rural] clergy. This firm is known by the name V. Til and Company. It manufactures images of holy icons, for the most part copies of wonderworking [icons] — of various sizes, at a price accessible to every Orthodox Christian.”
So by the later years of the 19th century, chromolithography — lithographed images in multiple colors — had greatly expanded in Russia, and was just the latest trend in what had become a long tradition of borrowing from the West in icon art.
That was followed by the application of chromolithography to printing on tin rather than paper — the kind of metal icons produced by the famous Moscow firm of Jacquot and Bonacœur (in Russian Жако и Бонакер / Zhako i Bonaker), examples of which are still found on the antique icon market today. Those colorful images, which had a richer appearance than chromolithographs on paper, drew even more customers away from painted to printed icons, and the business of the traditional hand-painted icon workshops declined sharply. The painters could not easily compete, and some began turning to cheaply-painted icons in an attempt to somehow stay in business.
So threatened was the long tradition of Russian icon painting, that in 1900 Tsar Nicholas II established a special committee for its preservation, the Комитет попечительства о русской иконописи / Komitet popechitel’stva o russkoy ikonopisi — “Committee for Guardianship of Russian Icon Painting.” It had three objectives:
- The banning of printed icons;
- The printing of podlinniki — painter’s manuals — to preserve the old traditions of how saints and scenes were depicted.
- The establishment of workshops for the teaching of icon painting.
It was too little too late. The printed icon business had become well-established and heavily patronized in Russia. To bring out the big guns, the “Holy Governing Synod” of the Russian Orthodox Church attempted to ban the printing of icons in monasteries and churches, and even attempted to stop the sale of the tin icons of Jaquot and Bonaker. They failed miserably. For ordinary Russians, it was a matter of economics. Printed icons, whether on paper or tin, were much less expensive than painted icons, and easily served the same purpose. When one considers icons not as “art” but as religious implements made for a purpose, there is no difference.
The icon painting workshops continued their severe decline into the last days of the reign of Tsar Nicholas, and then came the blow that finished them off — the rise of the Russian Communist State. That is when some of the old icon painters turned to other ways of making a living, like those of Palekh, who began to paint laquerware boxes with colorful images taken from fairy tales or from “Socialist life.” As a general rule of thumb, the old period of Russian icon painting may be considered to have ended in 1917, though of course some icons were still painted later, here and there.
In 1944 the making of printed icons under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church began again, this time with silk-screened images — a process which lends itself easily the creation of icons, which had originally been painted by a system of layering colors much like that followed in silk screening. And of course the revival of religious art — including painted icons — only increased with the fall of Communism. Today Russia produces painted icons, printed icons, and silk-screened icons — among other kinds. But the world has changed, and so has Russian culture.
Let’s look more closely at another icon printed by Fesenko, one of those included in his album of such chromolithographs. Here is the Sobor Svaytuikh Semi Arkhangelov — the “Assembly of the Seven Archangels”:
It depicts the Archangels with their symbols (which may vary from icon to icon):
Michael with a sword, Uriel with a flame, Raphael with a lily and lantern (but traditionally a vessel of medicaments), Gabriel with a chalice (traditionally a blossoming lily), /Seraphiel/Selaphiel with a crown (traditionally with hands crossed in prayer), Yegudiel with hands crossed in prayer (traditionally with a crown; in some icons a whip is added), and Barachiel with flowers/roses, (traditionally on a white cloth).
If we look at the printing at the base, we see the title of the image, but we also see other information typical of such prints:
Оть С. Петербургского Духовного цензурного Комитета печатать дозволяется. С.-Петербургь, 3 Октября 1897 г. Архимандрить Клименть. Хромолитография Е. И. Фесенко вь Одесе.
Собственность издания Хромолитографии Е. И. Фесенко вь Одесе
It means essentially:
“Printing approved by the St. Petersburg Spiritual Censorship Committee. St. Petersburg, 3rd October, year 1897. Archimandrite Kliment. Chromolithography of E. I. Fesenko in Odessa.
Print property of the Chromolithography of E. I. Fesenko in Odessa.”
We see the approval of the censorship board, the place of approval, the date of approval, and the name of the approving cleric, as well as the name of the printer and place of publication. So religious publications in Tsarist Russia — even prints — were subject to review by the censorship committee of the Synod, the authority at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church at that time. Such censorship was rather like the “Imprimatur” found in books approved for printing by Roman Catholic authorities declaring them free of material contrary to approved doctrine.
Now let’s turn back to the fellow in the first image above — Nikita the Stylite.
According to tradition, Nikita was born in Pereslavl Zalesskiy in the 12th century. He grew to become a violent and cruel tax collector, keeping a substantial portion of what he rapaciously took for himself. That went on for years.
One day Nikita went to church, and there he was thunderstruck when he heard spoken the words of Isaiah 1:16-17:
Измыйтеся, (и) чисти будите, отимите лукавства от душ ваших пред очима Моима, престаните от лукавств ваших. Научитеся добро творити, взыщите суда, избавите обидимаго, судите сиру и оправдите вдовицу….
“Wash yourselves, and become clean; remove the evil of your souls from before my eyes; cease from your evil. Learn to do good, seek judgment, rescue the oppressed, judge the orphan and plead for the widow.”
He could not sleep that night. The next morning, he decided to get the matter off his mind by throwing a party for his friends. But when his wife was preparing food, she saw the meat running with blood, and when it was put in the cooking pot, she was horrified to find a bloody foam on the top, and then a human head popped up in it, along with an arm and a leg. She ran to Nikita, and when he looked, he saw the same thing. He realized that his evil ways as a plundering tax collector had been murder for the people.
He then went to the Nikitskiy Monastery not far from Pereslavl. There he confessed his evil deeds with tears, but the hegumen was not certain of his repentance. So he told Nikita to show his sincerity by standing at the Monastery gate, telling all who passed by of his evil deeds. Nikita agreed to this, and began carrying out his penance. He declared his evil ways to all passing, for three days. Then he went to a dirty, swampy place, took off all his clothes, and sat down naked in the mucky water, praying to God. When the hegumen sent a monk to check on him, he found Nikita sitting in the swamp, covered with mosquitoes and blood.
Viewing that as a sign of sincere repentance, the hegumen took Nikita into the monastery and made him a monk.
Once he had become a monk, Nikita became fanatical about it, spending sleepless nights in prayer and fasting. He had terrifying visions, which he interpreted as the wiles of the devil, and so he made the sign of the cross and called on the Great Martyr Nikita for aid. It is said that through all of these privations and prayers, Nikita gained the ability to work miracles, and he became noted locally as a healer.
Prince Mikhail of Chernigov suffered from a kind of paralysis … and when he heard about the abilities of Nikita, he ordered that he be taken to see him. The tradition relates that on the way, the retinue met a monk who said he was from Nikita’s monastery. Mikhail asked the monk about the supposed wonderworker, and the fellow replied that Nikita was just a fake — a deceiver.
After the Prince had continued some distance farther, he met another fellow who told the Prince he was wasting his time going to see Nikita. Nonetheless, the Prince proceeded, and when his retinue neared the monastery, he ordered a tent erected, and sent a boyar to the monastery to inform them that he wanted to see Nikita.
Before the boyar arrived, a monk appeared to him — blind, and holding a shovel in his hands. He said that Nikita had died, and that he had just buried him.
Now the boyar was a clever fellow, and realized that these different men who were trying to obstruct the visit of the Prince to Nikita were all just a demon taking on different forms. So he spoke a prayer that made the demon stand immovable just where he was, while the boyar went on to see Nikita, who was living atop a pillar. He told him of the Prince’s affliction, and Nikita gave him his staff to take to the Prince. When the Prince held the staff, he was able to stand wand walk on his own legs to see the saint.
When Nikita was told about the mischievous obstructing demon, he commanded the demon to stand motionless before his pillar, where everyone could see him, for three hours (notice the common “three” motif here?). After the time was up, the demon swore an oath that he would never do evil again, and vanished. The Prince made a rich gift to the monastery, and returned home. Nikita continued to work miracles of healing, and his fame grew.
Some relatives came to see him to ask for help. They saw that Nikita had burdened himself by wearing chains to which three crosses were fastened, as penance. Now these chains had been worn to a shining condition by constant rubbing against Nikita’s body, and the relatives, seeing this, mistakenly thought they were made of silver. They made an evil plan to steal them. So they came by night to Nikita’s pillar, killed him, wrapped his chains and crosses in a canvas, and absconded. So Nikita died violently on the 24th of May, 1186.
The next morning a cleric discovered the body and informed the hegumen, who found it still warm and emitting a fragrance.
The robbers, meanwhile, had reached the Volga River. When they opened their cloth to look at the chains, they were so disgusted to find them merely polished iron that they threw them in the river, not far from the Monastery of St. Peter near the city of Yaroslavl.
The next night a monk from the St. Peter Monastery, named Simeon, noticed three brilliantly-shining pillars not far from the shore, reaching from earth to heaven. When he told the arkhimandrite, he — together with the head of the city and a crowd of people — went to the river bank. As they did so, they saw the chains miraculously rise to the surface of the water, and float like dry wood to the shore. Seeing this, they took the chains, and singing hymns, set off with them toward the city. On the way they met a lame man, who was healed when touched by the crosses on the chains. They worked more healing miracles, and later Nikita himself appeared to Simeon, telling him that the chains should be placed on Nikita’s coffin. So they were taken from Yaroslavl to Pereslavl and placed in the tomb with Nikita’s body.
Now as we can see, this all forms a kind of folk tale, which is typical of the stories of the Eastern Orthodox saints.
We should take a look at the scroll held by Nikita, showing his most common inscription:
ВЛАДЫКО ХРИСТЕ ЦАРЮ ПОМИЛУЙ ПАДШАГО ВОЗВЕДИ УГРЯЗНУВШЕГО В КАЛЕ ГРЕХОВНЕ”
“Ruler Christ, Tsar, forgive me, a fallen one; raise the one lost in vice from the excrement of sin.”