In a previous posting I discussed Greek icons of the “Ladder of John Klimakos,” and said I would talk about Russian examples of the type another day.  Well, a reader asked me about a particular Russian example of that type, so the day is here.

In Russian iconography, the “Ladder” type is called Видение преподобного Иоанна Лествичника — Videnie prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika — “The Vision of Venerable John of the Ladder.”

Here is a 15th century Novgorod example:

State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

In the center we see the main image of the ladder to heaven, found also in Greek examples.  The monks attempt the climb by perfecting their virtues, but not all can live up to the high standard encouraged by the angels at left (who hold crowns for those who are successful) — and fall among demons into Hades.  One monk has made it to the top, where he is greeted at the door of Paradise by Jesus, by Mary as Mother of God, by John the Forerunner (the Baptist) and angels.  And as a sign of his completed climb, we see he has a halo, unlike those still attempting the ascent below him.  To the left of the doors we see a crowd of righteous people of several kinds, with King David standing at their head, crowned and holding his psaltery.

On the left side of the icon is an old Russian-style church, and below it Ioann Lestvichnik — John of the Ladder — preaches from the pulpit to assembled monks.  He holds aloft a scroll which often begins:

Всходите, всходите всходы с усердием на сердци, братие…
Vskhodite, vskhodite vskhodui s userdiem na serdtsi, bratie…

“Ascend, ascend, climbers, with zeal in your hearts, brothers…”

At lower right we see the abyss of Hades, shown as a cave in which two royal figures — a male and a female — sit at a golden table.  They are the pre-Christian classical deities Pluto (Hades), ruler of the Underworld, and his kidnapped queen Proserpina (Persephone), from the old Greek myth that explains the seasons.  But because Christianity replaced the old deities, the royal pair are not considered as deities in the icon, but rather as demons, which was a propagandistic method used very early in the history of Christianity (“Your gods are demons, but our God is real”).  These deities from Greek and Roman mythology are often omitted, and simply the abyss of Hades is shown, with demons, or with the unfortunate falling into the mouth of Hades depicted as the open maw of a monster.




Here is a pleasant 19th century Deisis set, which traditionally consists of a central icon of Jesus as “Lord Almighty,” an icon of Mary approaching from the left, and one of John the  Forerunner approaching at right:

Jesus has the common inscription from Matthew:

“Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28):

Прiидите ко мнѣ́ вси труждáющiися и обременéн­нiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́
Priidite ko mnye vsi truzhdaiushchiisya i obremenennii, i az’ upokoiu vui


(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Mary, however, has an uncommon inscription for a Deisis panel:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It is the beginning of the text known in the West as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55):

Величит душа моя Господа и возрадовася дух [мои] о Бозе Спасе моем.
яко при(зре на смирение рабы своея…)

Velichit dusha moya Gospoda i vozradovasya dukh moi o Boze Space moem.
Iako prizre na smirenie rabui svoeya…

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.  For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…”

And here is the John the Forerunner panel:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)


The scroll of John is a bit odd too, because it uses John 1:29, but stops at the beginning letters of the usual “Behold the Lamb of God” text:

[Во утрий же] виде Иоанн Иисуса грядуща к себе и глагола: се, Аг[нец Божий, вземляй грехи мира]

“[And in the morning] John saw Jesus coming to him and said, behold the La[mb of God who takes away the sins of the world].”

One often sees individual side panels from Deisis sets that have lost their accompanying two panels.




Roskruish and okhrenie are two terms a student of icons should know.  They signify two steps in the painting of Russian icons.

Roskruish (роскрыш– also transliterated roskrysh) is the application of the flat, often dark base colors to the image.

Once the roskruish is completed, then the okhrenie (охрение) begins.  Okhrenie is the application of lighter colors to the dark base color of the “flesh” areas (face, hands, etc.).  It is essentially the process that creates the features of the face in paint, rather than just the preliminary drawing or pattern drawn or scratched into the surface of the icon panel (it was very common for Russian icons to have the outline of the pattern scratched into the levkas (gesso) surface of the wooden panel).

Here is the roskruish of the Igorevskaya icon:

And here is the okhrenie:

These videos use the plav’ technique, in which the colors seem to melt into one another, rather than the otborka technique, which uses fine but clearly separate strokes of paint to lighten the dark background color and thus bring out features and highlights.