SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT: THE “PLANT SAINTS” OF OLGA VOLCHKOVA

In early Russia, it was not the custom to paint persons other than Bible figures and saints.  And of course those were painted in the traditional stylized manner.  When the painting of secular portraits first began to be accepted in the 16th century, they were done with the same techniques and stylization used in painting religious icons, as in this portrait of Tsar Ivan “the Terrible.”  So the techniques of icon painting, it was found, could be put to other use.

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When the Communists took control of Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century and made painting religious icons impractical, the workers in the noted icon-painting village of Palekh turned instead to painting scenes of fairy tales and foklore, again using techniques learned in icon painting.

I was recently quite surprised to find that a very talented young woman in my part of the country has come up with her own very innovative use of the methods of the icon painting tradition.  Her name is Olga Volchkova.  Olga was born in Russia, and studied at the Tver Art School, at the Tver Icon Painting School, and also studied oil restoration at the Grabar Institute.  And in her words, she has “canonized plants” — has given them anthropomorphic form, extolling their virtues (and occasionally, dangers) in the form of saints.

I was happy to receive Olga’s permission to show some of her work here.  All photos are copyrighted by Olga Volchkova.

Here is her manifestation of the Saffron Flower:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)
(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is “St. Calla Lily”:

(Couresty of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is her “Holy Spirit of Herbs”:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

This is her stylized depiction of the poisonous flower Aconite:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is “Black Tulip”:

Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)
Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

This is her visual ode to the potato.  She says the little fellow at the top, where one usually finds “Lord Sabaoth” in conventional icons, is the “Potato God.”

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)
(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

Here is “St. Cyani” the Bachelor Button (Centaurea cyanus); note the bicycle in the background:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)
(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

This is a more conventional saint, Crispin.  You may recall that according to tradition, he was a shoemaker, the patron saint of cobblers:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)
(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

And finally, here is St. Watermelon.  Note the seed decoration around his neck:

(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: www.olgalaxy.com)
(Courtesy of Olga Volchkova: http://www.olgalaxy.com)

As you can see from these examples, there is much that a creative artist can do with the skills used for icon painting.  No doubt some conservatives may wish to take offense at the playful “canonizing” of plants, but to them I would say, “Get a sense of humor.”  One could do worse than to recall in visual form all that plants do for us.

To see more of Olga’s unique “plant icons,” go to her site: http://www.olgalaxy.com

 

GREEK ICON INSCRIPTIONS: ANOTHER STEP FORWARD

Here is more information to enable the student to begin reading Greek icon inscriptions.  This does not make for thrilling reading, but it is essential for those who seriously want to understand icons.

You already know one of the most common Greek inscriptions because it is also used in Russian icons:  IC XC.   Those are the letters abbreviating Ιησους Χριστος — ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — IESOUS KHRISTOS — JESUS CHRIST.  They are found (logically) on icons depicting Jesus.

The other inscription you already know from the posting on Russian inscriptions is MP ΘΥ  abbreviating Μητηρ θεου — ΜΗΤΗΡ ΘΕΟΥ — METER THEOU — MOTHER OF GOD.  Meter in Greek is “mother,” and Theos is “God.”  When it is written as “theou,” it means “of God” — thus “Mother of God.”  That inscription is found on icons of Mary.  Remember that the horizontal squiggle (which I have not included here) is written above letters to mark them as abbreviations.

The other very common inscription found on Marian icons is ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟΣ — Θεοτοκος —Theotokos, meaning “Birth-giver of God.”  In Eastern Orthodox belief, Mary gave birth to God as Jesus.  This title was hugely controversial in early Christendom, and caused great theological conflicts, but those favoring calling Mary essentially “Mother of God” won out.  Winning factions in Orthodox theological conflicts often had the most power and political support, not necessarily the best argument.

We saw in the previous posting that the generic term for a male saint in Greek is ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS, and that the generic term for a female saint is ΑΓΙΑ — HAGIA.  Both mean literally “holy,” but we usually translate them into English as “saint,” which comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy.”

There are, however, different kinds of saints, and some categories of these are distinguished by their own titles.  For example, if we are looking at an icon of a saint who has the title ΟΣΙΟΣ — HOSIOS instead of HAGIOS, then we know we are looking at a monastic saint, a monk of some kind, and he will likely be wearing a monk’s garb.  Given that there are different saints having the same name, the title Hosios may distinguish one who was a monk from one who was not.

Remember that in old Greek icon inscriptions, the letter “S”, which is Σ (sigma) in Greek, is often written as C.

Now look at the  icon image below.  It illustrates some of the oddities of Greek icon inscriptions.  First, the triangular arrangement of the letters ΟΓΑ may mystify you until you realize that it is just an abbreviation of the word ΑΓΙΟΣ — HAGIOS — meaning “Saint,” with the “g’ in Hagios placed above the letters O (for “ho”) and A, beginning the word Hagios.  Once you know that, you can read it on every icon in which it is abbreviated like this.

Now look at the word below it.  It is ΙΟΥCΤΙΝΟC — IOUSTINOS, which is Greek for the name “Justin.”  Notice, however, that the Y (which looks like a V here) is placed right atop a very angular, diamond-shaped O.  And that next odd-looking letter is just a T with the preceding C (alternate form of Σ) made much smaller and attached just below the left side of the crossbar on the T.

On the right side, what looks like one word on the first line is really two, and it continues onto the two lines below.  It is Ο ΦΙΛΟCΟΦΟC — HO PHILOSOPHOS.  You already know that HO (the O) means “the.”  And Philosophos means “philosopher.”  So this is HO HAGIOS IUSTINOS HO PHILOSOPHOS — literally “The holy Justin the Philosopher.”  This is the person generally known in the West as Justin Martyr, which is why he holds a cross in his right hand, as is customary for martyrs in icon painting.

Note how the last C (in Greek) of Philosophos is written smaller and at an angle just below the rest of the word, with a little ornamental squiggle attached to its base — but once you know it is just C (Σ-sigma), it is easy to recognize in other icons, even when that ornamental squiggle is longer.If you learn bit by bit like this, you can soon read huge numbers of titles of saints in Greek icons.  It is not difficult, and you do not have to learn the entire Greek language to do it, because, as with Russian icons, these titles are very repetitive.  So a little learning goes a long way.

Justin the Philosopher, icon by Theophanes the...