Yesterday I mentioned the so called “Hell Icons” — Адописные иконы/Adopisnuie ikonui — literally “Hades-painted icons.” An Adopisnaya icona/Адописная икона is paradoxically an icon that existed more in rumor and gossip than in reality. Nonetheless, they are mentioned in literature and were reported in 19th century Russian newspaper stories.
The first mention of such an icon is found in the life of Vasiliy Blazhennuiy/Basil the Blessed, also called Блаженный Василий Московский/Blessed Vasiliy of Moscow. He was a noted “Holy Fool/Iurodivuiy/юродивый),” and that rather bizarre but colorful cathedral always seen in photos of Red Square in Moscow is named for him.
In the above icon, he is titled “Holy Blessed Vasiliy Iurodivuiy of Moscow, Wonderworker.”
The old account relates that there was a popular “miracle-working” icon of Mary — heavily venerated by the people of Moscow, on the Varvarskiya Vorota/Варварския ворота — which looks like it should mean “Barbarian Gate,” but actually it is the “Barbara Gate,” because there was a stone church built in 1514, dedicated to St. Barbara. Beside it were dungeons and prisons, such an unpleasant place that the local expression arose, “To St. Barbara for punishment.”
According to the tale, Vasiliy threw a stone at the icon — in the presence of a crowd of pilgrims — and they were so furious at his action that his life was in danger. But someone took a closer look at the icon and found the damage had revealed the image of a chort/чёрт — a devil — that had been painted beneath the surface image of Mary. This was blamed on the Zhidovstvuyushchiye/Жидовствующие — the so-called Judaizers, some of whom were said to be opposed to icons, and so supposedly created the “Hell Icon” of Mary to mock the practice of icon veneration.
The Russian novelist Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov wrote an article in which he discussed “Hell icons” as merely a trick of dishonest sellers of icons. The scam required two people. The first would go out to the villages with icons that had devils painted on the gesso beneath the surface “holy image.” Having sold all he could, he would then leave. Soon the other scammer would arrive in the village with his load of icons. When he tried to sell them, the people would reply that they had already bought icons. The second scammer would then ask to see one of the purchased icons. When brought, he would scrape the painted surface to reveal the painted devil beneath. The villagers — horrified by this, would then buy the second scammer’s supposedly “holy” icons, and would give him the “Hell icons” they had bought earlier, to dispose of. So the second scammer would not only share the money from the first sales of “Hell icons,” but he would also get money from the second sales of “holy” icons, and not only that, he still had the “Hell icons” the people of the village had given him, which he would sell again in another village.
Leskov used this scam motif in his story The Sealed Angel/Запечатленный ангел. Most of the talk of “Hell icons” seemed to be in Old Believer communities, which raises the issue of why people would be so horrified to find devils under conventional religious paintings, thinking those who venerated them would be venerating devils by so doing. It takes us back to one of the oddities of Eastern Orthodox thought that we find particularly strong among the Old Believers — the notion that image and symbol — the outward and visible manifestations of religion, such as icons and the position of the fingers while blessing, etc. — are more important to Orthodox belief than the intention of the heart; so a person worshipping an icon with a hidden devil painted beneath the surface image would still be worshipping the devil, though that was not the real intent of the believer.
In spite of the interesting tales of “Hades-painted icons,” scholars doubt they ever really existed, because no authentic actual examples of such old icons have been discovered. They seem to have been merely a symptom of the fears and rumors that can infest and spread through conservative and unenlightened communities — something we have become all too familiar with in modern politics.