Hello again, Iconoholics. I particularly wanted to show you today’s icon because it is such an excellent example of traditional stylization of the human form in Russian icon painting.
As you know, traditional icon painting uses layers of color. The base color — called sankir — is generally brown in Russian icons. The features of the face and hands are formed by adding progressively lighter layers of color. And of course realism is not the intent. Traditional Russian painters came to consider realism too offensively “worldly” to use for saints. So by painting a saint with his traditional characteristics of hair and beard and garments, and by severely stylizing his features, painters thought they were removing the saint from this world and presenting him in a “heavenly” form. Of course that is just a convention that developed over time.
The owner of this icon kindly sent me very large photos, and that enables us to look closely at various details of the image.
As you can see, there is a very dark outline around the head, but the base color, the sankir, is that kind of deep chestnut brown seen in his hair and in his eyes. His hair is created by a combination of the sankir with a simple dark outlining, and on the sankir itself by thin streaks of white It is a very simple but effective technique.
Similarly, his eyes are indicated by white highlights over the brown sankir base.
The features of the face are created by lighter layers of brown over the dark base, and are finished off by streaks of brown lightened almost to white — but not quite. That is how the painter has created the “ascetic” look found in so many Russian saints. The same kind of highlighting is used on the nose of the saint.
If we look at his beard, we find it is mostly just the base brown color highlighted with streaks of white, with darker lines here and there to clarify the form.
Now if we look at the decorative “frame” of the icon, we find that it is just strips of embossed metal, cut and nailed around the outer edge, and cut out where it fits above the halo. This is the old basma form of metal icon covering that was gradually replaced near the end of the 17th century by the one-piece riza, sometimes also called an oklad.
Perhaps you also noticed that this icon has a recessed kovcheg or “ark” — the area on which the saint is painted, in contrast with the raised outer border.
The style of painting — along with the basma and kovcheg — are signs that this is a 17th century icon.
As you have perhaps learned by now, it is often impossible to identify many saints without a name inscription. So let’s look at it and see who this fellow is. We already can tell by his robe that he is a monk.
It begins at upper left, in large and very clear Vyaz (“joined”) lettering:
We see these letters:
ПРЕП – and then there is a superscript (“written above”) Д — then БНЫ and a З that begins the next word. So far we have ПРЕП Д БНЫ
The word is abbreviated. If we expand it, we get:
And of course Prepodobnuiy — very loosely translated into English as “Venerable” — is the Church Slavic title used for a monk.
We already have the first letter of the next word: З (Z). So let’s go to the right side to see the rest of it:
ОСИ and a superscript М. If we put it all together, we get:
And Zosim — generally found as Zosima — is the name of a very famous monk in the history of Russian Orthodoxy.
But before we go on with that, did you notice the lines scratched into the icon above and below the letters, to act as a guide for the writing of the inscription? We often find such “guide” lines on Russian icons.
Now that we have discussed the icon image, who exactly was Zosima? Well, his name is often connected with that of another monk, Savvatiy; and not only are the names connected, but the two saints are very commonly paired together in countless icons such as this one:
Zosima is at left and Savvatiy at right. We see them holding a walled monastery between them, and that monastery is the reason why their names and images are connected. And here is a photo of the same monastery in recent years:
It is the Solovetskiy Monastery (Solovki Monastery). Its history began when the monk Savattiy moved there with another monk named German, and there they built a monastic cell. Savvatiy died in 1435.
In 1436 a monk named Zosima met German (Herman) on the mainland. German told him of his life on Solovki with Savvatiy, and the two of them journeyed to the island together and settled there in a religious life. Later more monks came to the Island to join in a community with Zosima, and permission was obtained to build a monastery there.
So, even though Savvatiy died a year before Zosima ever came to Solovki, they are nonetheless connected in accounts of the founding of the Solovetskiy Monastery, and that is why they are so often depicted as an icon “couple.” Of course to Russian peasants, the importance of Zosima and Savvatiy was that they became the saints to pray to when keeping bees for honey and wax.