It is very common to encounter old icons that have suffered damage for one or more reasons, and it is useful to know what causes the various types of damage.

One of the most common is the vertical split running from top to bottom of an icon. Usually there is some paint loss and revealing of the underlying gesso (levkas) at the sides of the split. Here is a 19th century “Joy to All Who Suffer” Mother of God icon with a vertical split:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The most common reasons for such splits are two:  First, the best panels for icons are cut right through the heart of a tree.  Wood cut too far “off center” is much more liable to warping over time, and that is extremely common in icons.  It accounts for why so many old icons are convex — bowed out in the front.  Wooden slats were inserted in the back to prevent that, but often they were unsuccessful as the wood dried unevenly over the years.  And that bowing is one cause of the vertical split.  The other major (and usually related) cause of splits is found in icons painted on panels made by gluing two or more boards together.  When the panel warps over time, the joined panels separate and the split opens, making the crack and loss of paint and gesso very visible. 

Another common cause of  damage is seen in large areas of missing paint and gesso, as in this icon of the “Kazan” Mother of God:


(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Such large areas of loss — seen particularly here in the lower left of the icon — are generally due to water damage — exposure to moisture over a period of time.  The moisture getting into the panel eventually loosens the gesso ground and the paint with it, and it easily falls away.  Sometimes the paint losses along the outer edges of an icon are also due to moisture — “water damage” — but they may also be due simply to the icon being struck against another object when it is moved or stored — knocking away the paint and gesso where the strike occurs.

It is not unusual to find icons with a very dark surface.  It is not really “damage” as such, but it does lessen the visibility of the painted image, and makes the icon look “stained.”  Here is an example:



(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We can tell from the border and background and the style of painting that this icon of the unmercenary physician Panteleimon is from the latter part of the 19th to early 20th century — so not particularly old, but nonetheless the varnish has darkened substantially.  In icons such as this, the varnish was often tinted amber when applied, because it gave a silver background the look of gold.  But as the years pass, such a varnish (olifa) darkens even more just from oxidation and from picking up dust and smoke.  The easy solution, of course, is to have the varnish removed — but in icons with a tinted varnish that destroys the illusion of gold leaf — unless the replacement varnish is also tinted.  Most frequently, however, such icons are just left with the “bare” silver background, which is a look they were generally not intended to have.

Let’s take a look at another icon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This “Seeker of the Lost” Mother of God not only has the vertical split due to warping and/or wood shrinkage, but it also has some moisture damage and paint loss.  In addition, there is an obvious scratch on the right.  That is another common problem.  Icons can easily be scratched and scraped by handling or moving, and such scratches not only cause loss of paint and gesso, but also open the surface to moisture damage, if moisture is present. 

In previous postings I discussed another kind of damage found particularly on icons painted over a gold-leafed surface.  That was often done  to allow the painter to remove lines and bits of fresh paint to reveal gold highlights beneath.  The problem, however, is that the gold expands and shrinks at a different rate than the paint, and that has a tendency to cause the paint to loosen and flake off. 

Woodworm, too, is a problem frequent in icons — particularly those painted on panels of softer woods.  Sometimes a whole icon may be riddled with the tunnels caused by woodworm, seriously weakening the panel and making it subject to easy breaking.  Woodworm holes are more easily visible from the back than the front, so it is a good idea to always look at the back of an old icon to note the absence or presence and degree of woodworm damage.

Then too, there are those roundish black “burn” spots usually seen somewhere on the lower half of an icon, often near the lower edge.  These are caused by a burning candle left too long and too close to the icon.  Such candle burns are the results of piety, but are damage nonetheless. Be aware that sometimes, however, candle burns were used to add “age” to fake icons.

What about missing gold leaf in backgrounds and elsewhere?  There are two common reasons for that.  The “normal” reason is the gradual wearing away of gold leaf anywhere on the icon by repeated dusting with a cloth over many years.  The gold leaf may be worn away so much that it reveals the off-white of the gesso base.  The other reason for this, however, is dishonesty:  because such a revealed gesso background was a sign of considerable age in an icon, fakers of old icons took to painting icons with the base deliberately imitating the bare gesso of genuinely old icons.  Many of these fakes were made in the 19th century, often for sale to the Old Believers, who had a preference for icons painted before the middle of the 17th century — before the “heretical” reforms of Patriarch Nikon that caused the great split in the Russian Church.  And sometimes fakers will deliberately remove the gold leaf on an old icon, revealing the gesso beneath to make it look even older.

Those, then, are a few of the damage problems encountered in old icons.  Some people prefer to leave such damaged icons “as is.”  Others take them to restorers.  The modern icon market unfortunately has many icons offered for sale that have been very heavily “restored” — actually with large areas repainted when much of the original paint surface was simply gone.  That way it is easy to make money off old icons too severely damaged to sell otherwise.  Honest dealers in icons will generally either not handle icons with such major damage at all, or they will note the damage and repainting so that the potential buyer may be fully aware of the condition of the icon.