EAST MEETS WEST IN ICONS

Yesterday we looked at an interesting icon by the Crete-born iconographer Emmanuel Tzanes.  Today we will look at a surprising image by one of his contemporaries, Theodoros Poulakes (Θεόδωρος Πουλάκης, 1622–1692) ), who settled in Venice and worked there, and later also worked on Corfu.

As you already know, because of the political and trade relations between Venice and Crete, there was a strong Western influence on icons produced by Cretan iconographers, who could paint both in the Byzantine manner for Eastern customers, and in the Italian manner for Western customers.  But as we shall see, it was not just Italy that influenced icon painting of this period; it was also Northern Europe — including Flanders.

Here is the work by Theodoros Poulakes:

You can easily guess at the subject, given the large ark in the background and all the animals and birds moving toward and into it.  This image bears a title in Greek:

ΝΩΕ ΤΟΥC ΙΔΙΟΥC ΣΥΓΓΕΝΕΙC Κ[ΑΙ] ΤΑ ΖΩΑ ΕΙC Τ[ΗΝ] ΚΙΒΩΤΟΝ ΕΙΣΑΓΩΝ”
NOE TOUS IDIOUS SYNGENEIS KAI TA ZOA EIS TEN KIBOTON EISAGON
NOAH AND HIS RELATIVES AND THE CREATURES BROUGHT INTO THE ARK.”

As you will recall, the word κῑβωτός/kibotos, given in the inscription in the form kivoton, and meaning “ark” and “box/coffer,”  is the source of the Russian word for an icon case, kiot.

Notice how the two letters ΓΓ are joined in the word syngeneis,

and remember that the combination gg  is pronounced as “ng.”  Notice also the joining of the letters E and I in the words syngeneis (“relatives) and eis (“into”)

and eisagon (“into-brought”); this ligature should not be mistaken for the letter α.  In the image above the ligature is followed by the letter C — s in English.

Now let’s look again at the whole image:

The clothing and even the buildings certainly look more Western European than Byzantine, and here is the reason why:  look at this engraving:

It is not difficult to see that the image by Theodoros Poulakes is based on the copper engraving, which was done by the Flemish engraver Jan Sadeler, after a work by Maerten de Vos ((1532 –1603) ).  Jan Sadeler was born in Brussels in 1550, worked in Antwerp from 1568, then Germany where he worked in Cologne and Frankfurt and Munich, and in 1593 he moved to Italy, where he is said to have died in Venice.

It is interesting to see how Poulakes modified the Sadeler engraving, changing or omitting details here and there to make it look less “Northern.”  Note, for example, how he transformed the leafless tree behind the building at right:

Poulakis makes it into a palm tree!

Here’s a closer look at the left side of the Poulakes version:

And here is the right side:

It is amusing to see how sumptuously Noah and his family are dressed.

Though it is too faint to be seen in the image, there is a signature in the lower right corner:

ΧΕΙΡ ΘΕΟΔΩΡΟΥ ΠΟΥΛΑΚΗ
KHEIR THEODOROU POULAKI
“[The] Hand of Theodoros Poulakes.”

I keep emphasizing how important it is to realize that Eastern Orthodox iconography was strongly influenced by Western European Catholic and Protestant art, and that such influence reached even into the monastic community of Mount Athos in Greece, into the Balkans, and into the icon painting workshops of Russia, including the region of the icon-painting village of Palekh.

FROM POLYTHEISM TO THE PANOPLY OF SAINTS: THE BEGINNING OF CHRISTIAN ICONS

The god Serapis, Roman Egypt:  tempera on wood, from a triptych, c. 100 c.e. — J. Paul Getty Museum

In earlier postings, I noted that the making and veneration of icons (as the term was later understood in Eastern Orthodoxy) was not an “official” part of earliest Christianity, but rather came into it later, on the fringes of Christianity as it spread out of Judaism and into the polytheistic Greco-Roman world.  The use of icons came from polytheistic religious practice into Christianity gradually (and not without controversy), only being accepted officially as part of Church practice centuries later.

That is why the first evidence we have of icons being venerated as sacred images is found in that border where polytheism meets Christianity, the latter being influenced by the former.

In Greco-Roman polytheism, it was common for those who believed they had received a beneficial answer to their prayer to a deity to offer some sort of gift in return to that god or goddess — a votive offering.  The term comes from the Latin votum, meaning a vow or promise.  Such a gift given in thanks was part of the relationship between worshiper and deity — “you do this for me, and I will do this for you.”

There were various kinds of votive gifts to the deities, but often they were images.  One could donate a clay image of the deity, a stone or bronze statue small or large, and one could even donate a shrine or temple to house such images.  Among these votive gifts were painted panels depicting the deity or deities.  They could be donated to a temple, or placed in a home shrine.  These panels are ancestors of the later Eastern Orthodox icon.

The practice of venerating such images of the gods in polytheistic practice, whether in home or temple, involved honoring them with lights, and with wreaths, crowns, and garlands woven of flowers and foliage.

That is precisely what we find in the apocryphal Acts of John, usually dated as early as 150-200 c.e.   It records how a man named Lycomedes, raised from the dead by the Apostle John, had a painting — for all practical purposes an icon — made of John, enshrined it in his bedroom, and honored it with lights and garlands.  Here is that portion of the account:

There came together therefore a gathering of a great multitude on John’s account; and as he discoursed to them that were there, Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went hastily to him and said to him: You see me in a great hurry to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it. And the painter, giving some one the necessary implements and colors, said to Lycomedes: Show him to me, and for the rest have no anxiety. And Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near him, and shut him up in a room from which the apostle of Christ could be seen. And Lycomedes was with the blessed man, feasting on the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced yet more in the thought that he should possess him in a portrait.

The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of him and went away. And on the next he painted him in with his colors, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes to his great joy. And he took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that you always do when you come in from the bath into your bedchamber alone? do not I pray with you and the rest of the brethren? or is there something you are hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of your gods that is painted here? for I see that you are still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is you, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.

And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: You mock me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] your Lord? how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ lives, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who has imitated this my face, desires to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colors that are now given to you, and boards and plaster (?) and glue (?), and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye.

But do you become for me a good painter, Lycomedes. You have colors which he gives you through me, who paints all of us for himself, even Jesus, who knows the shapes and appearances and postures and dispositions and types of our souls. And the colors wherewith I bid you paint are these: faith in God, knowledge, godly fear, friendship, communion, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, purity, simplicity, tranquillity, fearlessness, grieflessness, sobriety, and the whole band of colors that paint the likeness of your soul, and even now raise up your members that were cast down, and levels them that were lifted up, and tends your bruises, and heals your wounds, and orders your hair that was disarranged, and washes your face, and chastens your eyes, and purges your bowels, and empties your belly, and cuts off that which is beneath it; and in a word, when the whole company and mingling of such colors is come together, into your soul, it shall present it to our Lord Jesus Christ undaunted, whole (unsmoothed), and firm of shape. But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.

What we see in this early pious tale is the making of a Christian icon by a former “pagan” who just adapts his old religious practice to new Christian circumstances.  And that is precisely how Christian icons began — with the changing of the gods from pagan polytheism to Christian polytheism — the veneration of Jesus and Mary and all the growing panoply of saints who became the new gods in practice, if not in terminology.

Just as Lycomedes was following old polytheistic practice in his obtaining and veneration of an image of John, and his veneration of it with lights and garlands, so Eusebius of Caesarea suggests that the statue of a standing man and kneeling woman once found at the city of Paneas/Banias was a statue of Jesus and the woman with an issue of blood, made by “gentiles” (meaning non-Christian polytheists).  He wrote:

“Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

So again we have an association of the making of images with the traditional practices of “pagan” polytheists — though three dimensional art fell out of favor in later Eastern Orthodoxy, the panel painting survived as the Christian icon.

For more on the Banias/Panias image and its likely real nature, see this earlier posting:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/an-anonymous-woman-the-paneas-image-and-veronica/

Note that Eusebius does not attribute these early Christian images to Christians, but rather to “pagans” following their traditional polytheistic practices of veneration, but applying them to Christian “heroes.”  As Eusebius wrote in his Life of Constantine,

“…we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

That is much in keeping with what Irenaeus  (c. 130–202) had to say about the Carpocratians (a Christian sect founded in the 2nd century), in his Against Heresies, 1:25-6:

They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [‘pagans’]”.

So again we find veneration of images in the traditional polytheistic manner, this time applied to both “pagan” and Christian images — but being “according to the practice” of or “after the same manner” as the “pagan” polytheists.  That is why I often say that the making and veneration of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just the continuation of the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods, but in Christian guise.  Like the saying from the old TV show Dragnet, “Only the names have been changed….”

 

 

A QUICK LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF RUSSIAN ICON COVERS

I do not talk much about icon covers here.  In spite of their often considerable artistry, they nonetheless hide parts of or most of the painting, and I am much more interested in the painting than in the ornateness or costliness of the metal cover.

Nonetheless, one should know something about icon covers.  They can be helpful in dating an icon, but should not be used alone for that purpose.  An old cover can be put on a new icon.  A new cover can be put on an old icon.  And an old icon may have a cover added years or even decades later than its date of painting.  So a cover may provide a clue to date, but should not be used as the final word in most cases.

Like the changes of style in icon painting, covers too have changed in style.  Today I want to give a general idea of how they changed (and when), so that readers may have a rough idea of how to date an icon cover as considered separately from the painting it often partially hides.

We will begin in the 1600s — the 17th century — which was a time of great transition in Russia.  If you have been reading here long, you will already know that in the middle of the 1600s there was a great split within the Russian Orthodox Church, with the Old Believers separating from the State Church, and suffering much persecution as a result.  It was also the time when — in the mid to later part of the 1600s — Western European art began to influence the painting of icons in Russia, though its influence at first was primarily in the art of the State Church rather than that of the Old Believers, who kept to the old stylized manner of painting while the State Church gradually incorporated more and more realism.

So, we will begin with the kind of icon cover most prominent in the 17th century in Russia — the basma (басма).  The basma was the early form of icon ornamentation.  It consisted of embossed sheets or strips of metal tacked onto the surface of the icon, not as one piece, but as a series of pieces forming the cover.  A basma might form a kind of frame around the outer edges of the icon, as in this 17th-century example:

Or it may extend over much of the surface of the icon, being cut to outline the portion of the painting revealed, as in this icon from the 1670s:

When you see an old icon with lots of little holes in the painted surface — holes the size of small nails — chances are it once was covered with a basma.

We can think of the high period for use of the basma as extending from the 14th to the latter part of the 17th century.  Near the end of the 17th century, however, the basma was gradually replaced by the one-part metal cover, traditionally called a riza, meaning “robe.”  A term favored in the Soviet period for such a cover is oklad.

When we get to the time of the one-piece riza, its ornamentation is already influenced by the fashions of Western Europe.  So on a riza of this period — primarily the 18th century —  we can expect rich Baroque ornamentation.  Here is an example from 1778:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Even though the Baroque style began to be replaced in the late 18th century by Neoclassical influence, the predilection for the Baroque in icon covers lasted even into the middle of the 19th century  However, near the end of the late 18th century, we begin to see the appearance of classical elements.  We can think of this as paralleling the movement in France from the Baroque-rococo manner in the reign of Louis XV to the antique Greco-roman influences that begin to appear in the Louis XVI period and gain increasing strength through the Directoire period and into the openly classical antique-revival Empire period.

Here is a cover from 1810.  Note the “sunburst” halos that will be prominent in icon covers even a bit beyond the middle of the 1800s:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And here is an even more classical-influenced cover from 1826, restrained in its ornament:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The two styles, Baroque and Neoclassic, existed together for some time.  Here, for example, is an 1845 cover that is still heavily Baroque in ornamentation (and again, note the “sunburst” halo):

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In about the 1860s, we begin to see another transition.  The large Baroque elements gradually give way to smaller, more concentrated ornamentation, as in this example from 1867:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the 1880s we often see the same kind of smaller, concentrated ornament, but also triangular corner pieces become more common, as in this example from 1882:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

It is also in the 1880s that intertwining geometric patterns become increasingly common in the outer borders.  Here is an example from 1884:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

So in the last 20 years or so of the 19th century, we see an increased preference for “early Russian” geometric designs and ornamentation on icon covers, again a kind of parallel to the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe and America and its look back to medieval times. In keeping with this, there is also a growing preference for colorful cloisonné ornamentation in icon covers.  Here is an example from 1892:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Note again the triangular corner pieces.

Here is another example from the period between about the turn of the 20th century and the Revolution:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

So the last period of Russian icon covers before the Revolution continues the “Arts & Crafts” influence and the preference for cloisonné. In case you don’t remember, cloisonné is the filling of little spaces formed by tiny wires or strips of metal with melted glass, while champlevé is the filling of depressions in the metal surface with melted glass.   Here is a rather extreme example that mixes “primitive” Arts & Crafts design with champlevé ornamentation:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And finally, in the last years of the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, there was also a style for simple elegance in icon covers, as in this example:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Keep in mind that there was no abrupt border marking one period off from another.  The transition was more gradual, with the earlier style continuing for some time while gradually being replaced with the newer style.

And, of course, not all covers were equal in quality.  The metals used could vary from gold to silver to gilt silver to silvered brass to unsilvered brass to tin.  And of course there were also covers made of embroidered cloth, of beadwork, and of woven metal threads.  Wealthier people could afford covers of silver, and in such cases one looks for hallmarks on the silver.  If a cover looks like silver but has no hallmarks, chances are it is just silvered brass.