RECOGNIZING OLD BELIEVER ICONS

As readers here already know, there was a huge split in the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 1600s.  Those who wanted to keep the traditional Russian Orthodox forms and rites and symbols considered the reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of the State Church to be heretical.  The State Church in turn considered the refusal of the Old Believers to accept the changes heretical, and severely persecuted the Old Believers.

In the painting of icons, these disagreements often were made very obvious after that schism.  The State Church began to paint icons in a more realistic manner similar to that used in Western European religious art.  The Old Believers kept to the old stylized manner of painting saints and scenes.

Oddly enough, today collectors and even neo-Orthodox in the West often prefer Old Believer icons to the more realistic State Church icons.

There are signs and clues that may be used to tell if an old icon is an Old Believer icon or a State Church icon  Among them is the frequency with which saints such as Kirik and Oulitta (Cyricus and Julitta) and St. Sophia and her daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity are found in Old Believer icons, as well as the frequency of icons of the Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah.

However there are also other and often more definitive signs to watch for.

Here are the most important:

First, an Old Believer icon will present the saints in a stylized manner rather than a realistic manner, as we see in this icon of St. Nicholas from the Vetka/Vyetka region:

Nikolachudvetka

Second, an Old Believer icon will use the IC XC abbreviation for the name of Jesus, not the IИС ХС of State Church icons.

Third, persons in an Old Believer icon will use the “two-fingered” sign of blessing, not the IC XC finger position used in State Church icons.

Here are more:

Old Believer icons often use the “animal” depictions of the Four Evangelists.  This was prohibited in State Church icons after 1722 by the Synodal Council of 1722.

When using the “animal” symbols for the Evangelists, Old Believers tend to depict Mark as an Eagle and John as a lion.  Late State Church icons tend to make John the eagle and Mark the lion.

When crosses are found in icons held by saints or on the domes of churches, etc., the Old Believers always use the “eight-pointed” cross, not the simpler “latin” cross.

Icons with a large amount of written text in the borders tend to be Old Believer icons.  That means text far beyond the usual name inscriptions of saints and the title of the icon.  Of course not all Old Believer icons included extensive border text, but when you do find it, it is likely from the Old Believers.

Because the Old Believers and State Church separated in the middle of the 17th century, Old Believer icons will not depict saints “glorified” (canonized) by the State Church after that time.  Nor will they depict icons of Mary new to the State Church after that time.

There are also differences in subject matter and preferences.

The Old Believers kept the old way of painting saints Flor and Lavr (Florus and Laurus) with horses and three riders given names.  The State Church prohibited the inclusion of horses and riders after 1722.

Icons of Christopher “Dog-head” (St. Christopher with the head of a dog) were prohibited by the State Church in 1722.  The Old Believers continued to use this traditional depiction.

The Old Believer saints Proto-priest Avvakum and the nun Feodora (Morozova), who defended the Old Belief at the time of the schism, are not found in State Church icons, because they were thought to be heretics.  The “Priestless” Old Believer saint Andrey Denisov is also not found in State Church icons.

The Old Believers continued certain traditional depictions of Jesus that were generally no longer favored by the State Church after the schism.  Prominent among these are:

The Wet-bearded Savior (Spas Mokraya Boroda).
The Fierce-eyed Savior (Spas Yaroe Oko), also called “Burning-eyed.”

Depictions of St. Nicholas “The Turner” (Otvratnuiy), showing Nicholas with an angry look and his face turned slightly to the right while his fierce-looking eyes look strongly toward the left are a distinctively Old Believer subject.

Icons of the Birth of Jesus depicting Mary as recovering from the birth while the midwife Salome washes the newborn Jesus were prohibited by the State Church Synodal decree of 1722, but this very old form continued to be used by the Old Believers.

Old Believer icons of the Resurrection depict it as the “Descent into Hades,” not as Jesus risen above his empty tomb, which the State Church painters borrowed from western European religious art.

The State Church also took a negative view in 1722 of icons depicting God the Father, among them the Otechestvo  — the “Fatherhood” or Paternity, icons depicting God the Father in the days of Creation, and God the Father breathing out from his mouth down to Mary in icons of the Annunciation.  The earlier “Stoglav” Council of Moscow had also prohibited the painting of God the Father, but large numbers of painters ignored the decree, and painted “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — in the way they had learned to paint him and had always done — as an old man.  And God the Father remains to this day a common image throughout the Eastern Orthodox countries, as it has been for many centuries.

In addition, certain subjects were favored by the Old Believers, while avoided by many State Church painters, among them:

The Ognevidnaya (“Fiery-faced” or “Seen as Fire”) icon type of Mary.

Similarly, the State Church in the 18th century frowned on icons of Mary as the “Unburnt Thornbush,” shown amid angels of the elements — a form that began in the second half of the 17th century — but it continued to be avidly painted by the Old Believers and was still beloved by many State Church buyers of icons as a supposed protection from fire.  Sometimes one finds greatly simplified versions of this type as a State Church form.

If you see an icon of Alexander Nevskiy clothed in royal or military garb, you will know it is not an Old Believer icon.  The Old Believers painted him in a monastic habit.

In icons of Modest/Medost, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Old Believers would paint him with cattle.  This was forbidden to State Church believers by decree in September of 1724.

Similarly, the State Church from about 1722 frowned in icons of Mary in the Troeruchitsa (“Three-handed”) type showing her with three “natural” hands, instead of making clear that the third hand was just an added votive emblem.  Of course the depiction of the third hand on Mary as “natural” began as a painter’s misunderstanding of the prototype.

The now very popular image of the Blessed Silence Savior (Spas Blagoe Molchanie) — Jesus depicted in angel form — is a typical Old Believer image not favored by the State Church, which did not like depicting Jesus in angel form.

Of course one must be careful, as the divisions between Old Believer and State Church icons were often not followed strictly by State Church painters and State Church believers buying new icons.  There were controversies even with the State Church, such as those who frowned on John the Forerunner being painted with wings, or icons including Mary painted with wings.   But these general guidelines should offer help in recognizing Old Believer icons as distinct from State Church icons after the 17th century schism and particularly after the State Church Synodal decrees of 1722.

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