A PLACE FOR ICONS

In the traditional Russian home,  in the right corner of the main room — generally on the east side near a window — was the “Beautiful Corner” (красный угол/krasnuiy ugol ).

In the Beautiful Corner was the Bozhnitsa /Божница — the shelf on which the icons were placed.  Little lamps hung before them or candles were lit.  It was not uncommon to ornament an icon in the Beautiful Corner with a plain white or colorfully embroidered towel.  Any visitor entering the room would always first pause and cross himself/herself before the icons.

(Painting by Vasiliy Maximovich Maximov/Василий Максимович Максимов, 1844-1911: Tretyakov Gallery)

Some families, who had the space and could afford it, might set aside a separate room for icons and prayer called the Obraznaya/Образная, the “Image Room.”  That term is now seldom used.  Instead, one often finds the term Molennaya/Моленная, the “Prayer Room,” or to use an old Latin-based term, the Oratory.

The Old Believers who kept themselves separate from the State Church were particularly fond of the Molennaya, which served not only as a place to keep the icons, but also as a kind of prayer chapel where sacred books were kept and read, The photo below shows an example from a museum:

(Museum of Russian icons, Moscow: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. )

As we can see from a closer look, this typical Old Believer Molennaya displays both icons painted on wood and cast metal icons:

When icons were placed on their shelf in the Beautiful Corner or in a Molennaya, it was generally customary to place an icon of Jesus in the central area together with an icon of Mary to the left of it, as we see in the detail above.  Next came the icons of popular saints such as Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, George, Nicholas, etc. — and beyond those were icons of the “name” saints of the members of the family — the same kinds of saints we often find in the outer borders of icons.

On the left side of this Molennaya we also see a wooden stand holding candles:


Such candles were traditionally made of fragrant beeswax.  Many years ago, I learned from some very conservative Old Believers how to make the traditional long and thin candles they use in their rituals.  It is really quite simple.  One softens the chunks of beeswax on a tray in an oven to the consistency of molding clay, and then a good-sized piece of the softened beeswax is flattened, and a long string is placed in the center of the flattened beeswax, which is then folded around it.  Then the wax with the string in it is then rolled out on a flat surface with the hands, just as a child rolls out a clay snake.  It is important to try to keep the string — which is the wick — in the center of the wax “snake,” and when it is rolled to the desired length, one just trims the string and lets the candle cool and harden.  Then it is ready for use.  It was the first time I had seen candles made in this remarkably easy and quick way, instead of by the dipping or molding methods used in the West.

On the right side we see a table containing the book of the Gospels at left, and another stand on which is an open liturgical book with a text and musical notation in the Old Believer manner:

I was once in an Old Believer Molennaya very much like this one in layout, with icons on three sides.  Relics of saints were also kept there.

Among the Bezpopovtsui/”Priestless” Old Believers, a Molennaya  — including as a separate building — could take the place of a conventional church.  In such a chapel — given that there was no Eucharist — a wall of icons with no altar behind it took the place of the iconostasis in a “State” Orthodox Church.

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