I have mentioned previously my preference for icons without their metal covers. Such a cover — known as a riza (“robe”) — or less traditionally, oklad — was generally added to show honor to an icon. But in the case of silver and even gold covers, they were also an advertisement of the wealth of a family.
Nonetheless, my interest has always been more in the paintings than in the covers, though such covers may be artistic works in themselves.
Here is a 19th century example of an extremely common icon type — the “Kazan” Mother of God:
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
I discussed its origin story in this previous posting:
Now as you see, there is a lot of gold leaf on the icon. In fact the image of the Mother and Child seems to float on gold.
One would think that with all that gold in the background and in the highlighting on the garments, one would feel no need at all for a cover — but that did not stop anyone.
A very fine silver and gilt cover was placed over the icon, greatly changing its appearance, though of course adding even more to its “rich” look:
Much work and artistic craftsmanship went into the making of this silver cover, but in spite of that, perhaps you will agree that it detracts from the painting beneath it.
In any case, we can tell from the interlacing designs in the border that this is a cover made in the period from the latter part of the 19th to beginning of the 20th century.
Note the inset porcelain medallions on which are written the MP ФУ abbreviations for Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”
Now if you happen across an icon that has a silver-appearing cover, remember that not all such covers actually are silver. Many are just silvered brass, and the easy way to quickly tell the difference is to look for a hallmark. A hallmark is a stamp in the silver — often found on the side of the cover — that may reveal the maker’s initials, the date, place, and the silver content of the cover. In 1896 under Tsar Nicholas II, a new system utilizing the kokoshnik (the head of a woman wearing the traditional Russian formal female headpiece) came into use.
From the time of Tsar Peter “the Great,” silver content was measured in zolotniki (singular zolotnik). In the Russian system used for silver content of an object, there are 96 zolotniki to a troy pound. A troy pound is 12 troy ounces; a regular pound is 14.6 troy ounces.
The most common silver content found on Russian icon covers is 84 zolotniki, which means there are 84 parts of silver out of 96 parts metal. Sometimes with Russian silver one may find other levels of content.
Here is an easy table:
84 zolotniki = 84/96, or 875 out of 1000 parts pure silver (.875)
62 zolotniki = 62/96, or 645 out of 1000 parts pure silver (.645)
90 zolotniki = 90/96, or 937 out of 1000 parts pure silver (.937)
96 zolotniki = 96/96, or 1000/1000 parts pure silver (.1000)
The site link below gives a good overview of Russian silver hallmarks, as well as a helpful photographic list of makers and their marks: