Today we will look at two Russian icons that were once the side panels on a three-panel Deisis set. As you know, the icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty” would have been the central icon, with Mary approaching him at left and John the Forerunner (the Baptist) at right. They are painted very much in the old and traditional manner:
Deisis icons reflect a royal court in which the ruler sits enthroned, and petitioners come to him with requests.
If we look more closely at the panel of John, you will find — if you are a long-time reader here — that you can easily translate his scroll:
The common inscription can quickly be recognized by its first two Church Slavic words — АЗЪ ВИДЕХЪ/AZ VIDEKH — “I saw…” You will recall that it continues “…and witnessed concerning him, behold the Lamb of God, who takes [away the sins of the world].”
The scroll held by Mary bears a very common text given her in Deisis icons, though sometimes we find variants.
This frequent text reads:
ВЛАДИКО МНОГОМИЛОСТИВЕ ГОСПОДИ ИСУСЕ ХРИТСЕ СЫИНЕ МОИ ПРИКЛОНИ УХО…
VLADIKO MNOGOMILOSTIVE GOSPODI ISUSE KHRISTE SUINE MOI PRIKLONI UKHO…
“Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, my son, incline [your] ear….”
So Mary is asking Jesus to bend his ear to her and hear her petition on behalf of humans.
A владико/vladiko is a master or ruler. In Eastern Orthodoxy, one often finds the term vladiko or vladika used when addressing a bishop.
These two Deisis panels are attributed to vicinity of Syzran/Suizran (Сызрань), a town on the Volga River, which was a center for traditional icon painting by Old Believers in the 19th century. The Old Believers seem to have been in the region from the latter part of the 18th century. In the year 1878, it was noted that between Simbirsk and Syzran there were 14 parishes of “State Church” believers, but 29 parishes of raskolniki — “Schismatics,” the deprecatory State term for Old Believers.
In this map of a segment of the Volga, we see Syzran at left, and Samara (Самара) at right:
In the second half of the 19th century, there were said to be at least 70 icon painting masters and establishments doing a flourishing business in the Syzran area. The majority of them were Поморцы-Беспоповцы/Pomortsui-Bespopovtsui — that is, members of the Old Believer sect called “priestless” Pomortsui/Pomortsy. They elected lay persons to conduct their services instead of priests. In spite of this, their high-quality icons were commissioned not only by their own sect, but by others as well — including members of the State Church. That does not mean, however, that there were no religious conflicts between the State Church and those holding other beliefs in Syzran.
One characteristic often found in Syzran icons is a kovcheg/ark with a wide and dark luzga — the bevel separating the ark from the outer border. The luzga was often painted with gold or silver floral, etc. ornament, as we see in this detail from the “Mary” panel:
Syzran icon painting flourished from the late 18th to early 19th century.