At the end of the 1600s – beginning of the 1700s, numbers of Old Believers migrated and settled in the region of the villages of Vetka and Starodub. Today Vetka is in Belarus, and Starodub not far across the Russian border to the East, in Briansk/Bryansk Oblast. Both are not far north of the Ukrainian border. Over the years the Old Believers there suffered much severe persecution from the joint efforts of the Russian State Church and government, but nonetheless the communities survived, though by the 19th century Vetka had faded and Starodub became the chief Old Believer center in that area.
If we look at this old map, there are three red dots from the top to the “Tschernigow” name in large letters. The third red dot down from the top is the Old Believer settlement of Starodub. Go straight West from Starodub, and the first village you come to is “Schelomy” — Shelomy, where the “Imperial Family” icon I discussed in this previous posting was painted:
And if we continue West from Shelomy and cross the red border, we come to Wjetka — “Vetka.” These were all Old Believer settlements. To help orient yourself, in the lower left-hand corner of the map is the city of Kijew — Kyiv — in Ukraine:
“Vetka” is the name given to Old Believer icons painted in this region, no matter what the village. “Vetka” Old Believers were popovtsuiy, meaning they had priests. That is why one often finds Lord Sabaoth (Gospod’ Savaof) — God the Father — on Vetka icons, unlike those of the bezpopovtsuiy (“without priests”) Old Believers, who tended to use the “Not Made by Hands” image where Lord Sabaoth would normally be found in many “priested” Old Believer icons. There were, however, “priestless” Old Believers in the region as well.
Vetka icons in general had shining gold leaf backgrounds on a flat panel without a recessed “ark” (kovcheg). Title inscriptions were commonly written in red. Highlighting on garments, etc. was often done by painting over the gold leaf, then removing the paint to create the highlight by revealing the gold beneath.
Does that sound familiar? Well, we have already seen some Vetka icons here in previous postings, such as this example:
(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)
Vetka icon painters also tended to use soft woods for their panels — woods such as poplar and aspen that unfortunately were very subject to invasion and destruction by woodworm — the wood-eating larvae of wood beetles. So it is not unusual to find Vetka icons with the panels heavily tunneled by woodworm. That severely weakens the panels beneath the painting, and if one is not careful, an icon in that condition can be easily chipped or broken.