QUICK AND INEXPENSIVE — BUT PLEASANT

I have discussed folk icons previously, but here is a little review of one particular kind of icon — a very popular and widespread kind.

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

Yes, it is one of those “Red” icons — a краснушка/krasnushka (plural краснушки/krasnushki).  Huge numbers of these icons were produced for the peasant and worker market.  The krasnushki were folk icons, now generally attributed to “untrained” folk painters in the village of Kholuy (Холуй), in Vladimir Province.

Krasnushki are easy to recognize because of their predominant reddish-orange coloring.  Usually only three or four colors were used in painting the icon, and the figures were commonly brushed on quickly in fluid, black outlines, as here.  Another distinctive characteristic of such icons is the silver background, which originally was commonly tinted with a yellow varnish — giving the silver somewhat the effect of gold leaf.  But often these  icons are found now with darkened varnish, and all too often it has been removed, leaving the bare silver — which was not the original intention of the painter.  Also characteristic of these icons is the use of broad foliage patterns on the garments.

It was only a few decades ago that these icons were looked contemptuously down upon by collectors, but now folk icons have gained more appreciation — though they still tend to be less expensive on the market than more skillfully-painted and detailed icons.

We can learn a lot, even from this simple image.

On looking closely, for example, we can see that the painter had a preliminary pattern to follow that consisted of lines of punched dots, visible here:

The black image lines were brushed in so quickly that often they only roughly follow the dotted pattern.  That is something often seen on this kind of icon.

If we look at a damaged corner, we learn something else interesting about these icons:

We see no evidence of a pavoloka beneath the painted surface — the cloth that was glued to the board to provide a base of the gesso ground on which the image was painted in more expensive icons.  So in krasnushki, there is generally no pavoloka or if there is one, it is only thin paper.

If we look at the title inscription, we can see that like the lines of the image itself, the inscription was very quickly and cursively done:

The inscription reads:
ВЛАДИМИРСКИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЙЫ
VLADIMIRSKIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
“‘VLADIMIR’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD

Now as you know, icons of the “Vladimir” type were among the most popular in Russia — and that is another characteristic of krasnushki; they generally represented the most common and popular icon types — those with the widest appeal.

Now if we put all these characteristics together, we can see that krasnushki were deliberately painted cheaply so that they would appeal to the taste and budget of the masses, and so they were produced in large numbers — and that is why so many of them have survived.

Unfortunately the term krasnushki is often applied today to other inexpensively-produced folk icons that are not “red” like this example, and that rather confuses matters.  So when I used the term, I use it only for icons like the one on this page.

 

TWO PODLINNIK COMPARISONS

If you are not interested in old icon painter’s manuals (podlinniki), prepare to be bored stiff.  This posting is a look at, and a comparison of, two descriptions of a saint in two Russian podlinniki.  It is likely to be of interest only to those who want to know more about painter’s manuals and to those who are learning to read them.

Here’s a quick comparison of entries from:

1: The late (1903) Bolshakov Podlinnik and
2: The 18th century Svodnuiy Podlinnik in the Filimonov redaction of 1874.

It is the first saint for the month of June:

Bolshakov:

Myesats Iiun’ imat’ dniy 30.
[The] month of June has days 30
“The month of June has 30 days.”

Svyatago muchenika Iustina filosofa, sredniy, rus, brada kozmina, plat’ okolo shei byel, riza lazor’ ispod kinovar’ z byelilom, rukoiu blagoslovlyaet, v lyevoy svitok.

“Of the holy martyr Justin [the] Philosopher; middle[-aged], [hair] rus, beard of Kosmas, scarf around neck white, robe blue, under cinnabar with white, hand blesses, in the left a scroll.”

It begins with Svyatago — “of the holy” — because this is the day of commemoration of Justin.  Podlinnik entries for saints (and old Church calendar entries) generally begin thus, with the “of” form.

Justin has brada kozmina — the beard of Kosmas/Cosmas — the popular unmercenary saint of the common icon pair Kosmas and Damian.  It simply means he is painted with a beard the same size and shape as Kosmas.

Rus as a hair color means that color typical of many Russians, which is dark blond-light brown.

The plat’ — “cloth” — generally meaning a scarf or shawl in the case of a male, depending on circumstances — is byel — “white.”  And the white scarf is okolo shei — “about [the] neck.”  If any of you have seen the translation of the Bolshakov Podlinnik that appeared some years back (1995) under the title An Icon Painter’s Notebook, you will notice that the translator of that book incorrectly read shei in this entry for Justin as “silk” rather than “neck,” and so made the line oddly read “… he has a cloth around of white silk” instead of the correct reading, “[the] scarf around [the] neck [is] white.”

You will recall that a riza is a robe in podlinnik usage, and in this entry it is lazor’, ispod kinovar z [s] byelilom — dark blue, under[-robe] cinnabar [red] with white.  The best lazor’ was made from powdered lapis lazuli, and of course kinovar is the red to reddish-orange made from powdered mercury sulphide.

When an entry just says “[his] hand blesses,” it means the right hand.  And then, as here, we are told what the left hand is holding — in this case a svitok — a scroll.

And here is the entry for Justin in the Svodnuiy Podlinnik:

You should be able to easily guess the meaning of the heading, even though spelling and form varies somewhat.  And you should be able to read the first four words — “Of the holy martyr Justin the Philosopher.”

Then it tells us:

bye v lyeto 5642
…”[he] was in the year 5642.

We can easily see that 5642 (written in Arabic instead of Cyrillic numerals here) is one of the old “from the Creation of the World” dates.  Russian Orthodox thought (and some still do) that the world was created in the year 5,508 before the birth of Jesus.  So to convert such a date as we find in the podlinnik to our modern dating system, we must subtract 5,508 from 5,642, which gives us the year 94 c.e. (Common Era).  Modern accounts of Justin’s life tend to say he was born circa 100 c.e, so the date here is not too far from that.

The podlinnik goes on to tell us:

podobiem rus

You already know that rus is the hair color — dark blond to light brown.
Podobiem refers here to Justin’s “likeness” (подобие/podobie).  We can understand it to mean he is “painted like this,” i.e. rus hair, etc.

It goes on to tell us:
vlasui s ushei kratki
hairs to [the] ears short

— meaning his hair is short, down to the ears.

So we know thus far that Justin’s hair is dark blond-light brown, and that it is short, down to his ears, instead of the long hair we find on some icon saints.

It agrees with the Bolshakov Podlinnik in telling us his

brada aki Kozmina
beard [is like] Kosmas…

and that

okolo shei plat’ byeloy
about [the] neck [is a] scarf white…
“about the neck is a white scarf…”

But it differs somewhat in saying that

v rukakh kniga
“in [the] hands [a] book”

You will recall that in the Bolshakov Podlinnik, he holds a scroll rather than a book.

The description finishes by telling us that Justin is dressed in a

riza lazorevaya, ispod svyetlokrasnaya.
“robe blue, under[-robe] bright-red.

Now if we look at old icons of Justin, we can sometimes find icons closely matching a podlinnik description, such as this 17th century example from a calendrical icon:

(Moscow Spiritual Academy)

We see the light brown hair down to his ears, and his beard is not too far beyond the range of “like Kosmas.”  He has a white scarf or shawl about his neck, and his outer robe is blue, while his under-robe is cinnabar red.  He holds a scroll rather than a book.

Compare that with this 19th century example:

(Uspenskiy Vrazhek, Moscow)

We can see some changes, such as  a cross held in the right hand instead of blessing, and a book instead of a scroll in the other hand.  We find also a the reversal of the garment colors, and the forms of the garments are more like the example given in the old Stroganov Podlinnik:

If we look further at old examples of Justin, we find even more variance from the two podlinnik descriptions.  Here, for example, is a 16th century image of Justin painted by Theophanes of Crete:

(Stavronikita Monastery, Athos)

The Greek inscription reads:
Ho Hagios Iustinos ho Philosophos
“[The] Holy Justin the Philosopher”

As you can see, there is no white scarf about the neck, no book or scroll in the left hand, and there is variation in the garments and their coloring, as well as a difference in the style of the hair.

What does all this tell us?  Well, we should learn from it that a description in a given podlinnik may not be a precisely accurate description of all icons of a saint from all periods and places.  One finds many variations.  Even in old Russian painter’s manuals, one often finds after a description of a saint the words, “but elsewhere it is written…”  —  and then a differing description is given.  So even the old podlinniks recognized that there were differences and disagreements as to how a given saint was to be painted.

 

THE PERM OLD BELIEVER ICON PAINTING MANUAL

In a previous posting, I shared a link to online access to the Stroganov Icon Painter’s Manual.  Today I would like to share the link to another and quite interesting old podlinnik (painter’s manual) in the Stroganov Museum.

This manual is identified thus:

Лицевой иконописный подлинник 1829 г. из Пермской Успенской старообрядческой церкви
Litsevoy ikonopisnuiy podlinnik 1829 g[oda] iz Permskoy Uspenskoy staroobryadcheskoy tserkvi

Illustrated icon painting manual,  [of the] year 1829, from the Perm Dormition Old  Ritualist Church.

By “Old Ritualist” is of course meant that it is a church of the Old Believers, who continued the traditional stylized manner of painting long after the State Orthodox Church had adopted the more realistic Western European manner.

As I have told you before, it is important in the study of icons to learn the Church Slavic alphabet and to learn the basic Slavic vocabulary common to Russian icons and podlinniki/podlinniks.  You can see how helpful that is in reading this rather fascinating Perm icon painter’s manual.

Here is the image for September 1, the beginning of the old Church year.  This image is not included in the earlier Stroganov manual, through it is described verbally:

As you see, it represents the “Indiction” type, which indicates the beginning of the Church Year through an image of Jesus beginning his ministry by reading from the Book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (see the earlier posting on this type at: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/the-indiction-which-is-the-new-year/)

The writing on the page reads:

МЕСАЦЪ СЕНТЯБРЬ
Mesats  Sentyabr
MONTH [of ] SEPTEMBER

НАЧАЛО ИНДИКТОУ ЕЖЕ ЕСТЬ
Nachalo Indiktou ezhe est
BEGINNING [of the] INDICTION, WHICH IS

НОВОМОУ ЛЕТУ
Novomou Letou
[the] NEW YEAR

ИМАТ ДНIИ Л
Imat dni 30
Has    Days   30

In normal English,

“The Month of September:
The Beginning of the Indiction, which is the New Year.
[September] has 30 days.”

Here is the link to the main page for the Perm manual:

http://stroganovmuseum.ru/vokrug-stroganovykh/izdaniya/item/81-litsevoj-ikonopisnyj-podlinnik-1829-g

On it you will see two entries (you can click on these links here, if you wish):

Часть 1 (с. 1-104)

Часть 2 (c. 105-216)

Часть (Chast)  means “part,” so the first link is to Part 1, pages 1-104,  and the second link to Part 2, pages 105-216.  Most of the Part 2 illustrations are lightly drawn, but were never fully inked in.

You will also find an alternate entry point with a different format on this link:

https://eikon.piwigo.com/index?/category/548-1829_%D0%B3

At the beginning of the podlinnik is an incomplete alphabetical list giving a saint’s name and where he or she is to be found in the book, which is arranged by month and day of commemoration.  The word числа (chisla) at upper right means “number” (date).

To see how it works, we can look at the second entry on the first index page:

Avvakoum Prorok, Deka[br] B

Meaning,
Avvakoum [Habakkuk], Prophet, December 2

If we look at December 2nd, we find this (the page is for December 1 and 2):

It gives us first the saint for the first (A) day of December:
“Of the Holy Prophet Nahum”

Then come those for the Second (B) day:
“Of the Holy Martyr Ananias of Persia”
“Of the Holy Prophet Avvakum”
“Of Holy Philaret the Merciful”

Notice that the female saint second from right has her name entered last, in smaller letters:
“Of the Holy Martyr Myropia.”

If we look in the halos, there are notations helpful to the painter.  In the halo of the Prophet Nahum, we see the word седъ — syed — meaning “grey.”  So we know he is an older man with grey hair.  By contrast, in the halos of the Martyr Ananias and the Prophet Avvakum, we find the word млад — mlad — meaning “young/youth.”

On another page we find Ису́с Нави́н — Isus Navvin — Joshua, son of Nun — and in his halo and in that of the saint beside him — Feodor Yaroslav Vsevolodovich — we find the word русъ — rus –“Russian” — which means the hair of these saints is to be painted in that light brown to dark blond color common to many Russians.  But in this manual, the colors of the garments are not indicated as they are in the Stroganov podlinnik.

By the way, you may notice that Joshua in Slavic has the same name as Jesus — Isus, as is also the case in the Greek Bible.  The Old Testament Jesus — that is, Joshua — is distinguished by the addition of “Navvin” in Slavic and του Ναυή — tou Naui — “of Nun” in Greek.

Here is the page for December 3-4:

On it we see the Prophet Sophoniya (Zephaniah), “our Venerable Father Sabba Storozhevsky Zvenigorodskiy,” “Holy Martyr Theodora,” “Holy Great Martyr Barbara,” “our Venerable Father John of Damascus,” and so on.  But what I really want you to notice is the entry in red at the bottom of the page:

Д ТРОРУЧИЦЫ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ
4  [OF THE ] TROERUCHITSUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
“4  THREE-HANDED MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

That notation means that December 4th is the day of Commemoration of the icon of Mary called the “Three-handed Most Holy Mother of God.”  In the standard Church calendar, its days are June 28th and July 12th, but here it is placed on the day of John of Damascus, who was associated traditionally with its origin “miracle.” This manual indicates the commemoration of days of supposed “miracle-working” Marian icons with these red entries, but it does not depict these Marian images.  For those the painter had to turn to other patterns outside this book.

I will end this little introduction to the Perm Old Believer podlinnik with this page from November 8, the Sobor Svyatago Arkhistratiga Mikhaila i Prochikh Bezplotnuikh Sil — “The Assembly of the Chief-commander Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers.”

If you are interested in old patterns, you may also wish to look at Nikodim Kondakov’s published collection of icon patterns (volume I is primarily “Jesus” patterns), which you can do at this site:

http://dlib.rsl.ru/viewer/01000869530#?page=1

On that site, click on the thumbnail pages at left to get the enlarged image on the main screen.  Be sure to look at the patterns from page 156 on.

Those of you who would like to see the 1903 “Bolshakov Podlinnik” online — more properly the Подлинник иконописный — Издание С.Т. Большакова. Под редакцией . А.И. Успенского  — the “Icon Painting Manual — publisher S(ergey) T(ikhonovich) Bolshakov, edited by A. I Uspenskiy” — will find it at the following site:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=gri.ark:/13960/t2v449g6w;view=1up;seq=1

The Bolshakov Podlinnik is a kind of revised and expanded version of the old Stroganov Podlinnik, using more casual outline drawings taken largely from that earlier manual, and adding a descriptive text (Church Slavic) modified by reference to other old painter’s manuals.  Though the re-drawn illustrations are not artistic, they nonetheless do the job, and the text is very useful for those who wish to learn the vocabulary of the old painter’s manuals, giving verbal descriptions of the various saints and indicating the form and colors of hair and garments.

The descriptions by month begin here:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=gri.ark:/13960/t2v449g6w;view=1up;seq=37

The illustrations begin here:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=gri.ark:/13960/t2v449g6w;view=1up;seq=201

One of the sources consulted in the preparation of the Bolshakov manual was the Софийский Списокъ Подлинника Новгородской Редакции XVI Века  — Sophiyskiy Spisok Podlinnika Novgorodskoy Redakstsii XVI Veka — “The Sophia Copy of the Podlinnik, Novogorod Redaction of the 16th Century.”  You will find online access to that text-only podlinnik here:

http://dlib.rsl.ru/viewer/01007492474#?page=1

Enjoy!

THE FIVE MARTYRS OF SEBASTE

In the previous posting, I discussed icon types that are “fixed groups” of saints — the same saints shown together from icon to icon, though their arrangement may vary.

Today we will look at another such “fixed group” icon — the “Five Holy Martyrs of Sebaste.”  In Greek iconography they are Οι άγιοι πέντε μάρτυρες από τη Σεβάστεια,  Hoi Hagioi Pente Martyres apo te Sebasteia — The Holy Five Martyrs from [the] Sebaste.”

Sebaste is a town in Armenia, which you may recall from a previous posting about the icon type the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.”

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

The example shown is a pleasant Russian icon from the last period before the Revolution.  The saints depicted are, from left: Евстратий, (Evstratiy) Авксентий (Avksentiy) Евгений (Evgeniy), Мардарий (Mardariy) and Орест (Orest).  In Greek they are Εὐστράτιος (Eustratios), Αὐξέντιος (Auxentios), Εὐγένιος (Eugenios), Μαρδάριος (Mardarios) and ᾿Ορέστης (Orestes).

This is a good place to point out that in Church Slavic, saints’ names ending in -ий, when used of saints found in the old Greek saint lists, commonly replace the original Greek name ending -ιος.  And when the Greek original has the letter combination  Αὐ- or Εὐ- at the beginning, it becomes in Slavic Ав- or Ев-.  That is helpful when trying to find equivalent names in one language or the other.

These five saints of Sebaste were said to have been martyred by the governor Lysias for confessing Christianity near the beginning of the 4th century c.e.  The later account of their individual sufferings from the Synaxarion of Nikodemos the Hagiorite died 1809) goes into graphic detail about the tortures they underwent, but that is a characteristic of much hagiography, and we need not dwell on it here (Nikodemos, by the way, was also the editor of the best-known work of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the Philokalia).

What I really want to talk about today is the style of this particular example.   If we look at it carefully, we can easily date it, because the style is so distinctive of a particular time and movement in Russian icon painting.

We should look at:

The careful delineation of the figures and their garments;
The elaborate detailing on garments;
The background “light” that varies in shade and/or color from bottom to top.
The stylization of facial features, etc.
The careful and abundant use of gold highlighting on garments.

All these are characteristic of the school of painting in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries exemplified by the work of such painters as Mikhail Ivanovich Dikarev ( Михаил Иванович Дикарев ), who worked first in the icon-painting village of Мстёра — Mstyora — then later moved to Moscow at the end of the 1870s and worked in the Chirikov Brothers’ workshop.

The Chirikov brothers were also from Mstyora (also transliterated Mstera), one of the three famous icon-painting villages in the Vladimir region along with Palekh and Kholui.  It was a strong area for the Old Belief, and about half its residents in the 18th century were Old Believers.  We can easily see the resemblance in style between the icon above and this example by Dikarev depicting the Metropolitan Mikhail of Kiev/Kiyev:

(State Hermitage Museum)
(State Hermitage Museum)

We can see a similar love of intricate garment detail in this 1890 icon by Osip Semyonovich Chirikov, depicting the Metropolitans Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona and Filipp of Moscow, with the Great Prince Vladimir — who converted Kievan Rus to Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity by edict in 988 c.e. — shown in the center:

(State Historical Museum, Moscow)
(State Historical Museum, Moscow)

Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona and Filipp are another frequent “fixed group” type, as in the following example, though of course such saints may also be found individually in icons.

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

The Chirikovs were an interesting family.  Osip Chirikov (Осип Семёнович Чириков), who died in 1903, had two sons — Grigoriy and Mikhail — who also went into the icon business.
As an odd little sidelight, the workshop of Grigoriy Osipovich Chirikov (1882-1936) in Moscow — where the famous “Vladimir” image of Mary was restored in 1918 — also became a center for the painting of fakes of old Russian icons.  Some call him the chief forger of pre-Revolutionary icons, which in itself says much about the quality of his work. He gained a reputation as the most eminent icon expert and restorer of his day, and a source for collectors of pre-Nikonian icons and for the Imperial museum collection under Tsar Alexander II.  His presumed expertise even got him the job of chief icon restorer under the early Soviet regime.  So skill in the restoration of old icons led naturally, in his case,  to “restoration” of early icons on which only a few bits of paint of the original still adhered to the panel once later overpaintings were removed, and even to the forging of entire old icons whose iconography was acceptable to rich Old Believers and the avid collectors who were willing to pay much for “authentic” old icons in the years prior to the Revolution.  Obviously their concept of “restoration” was not that generally held today.

It was only decades later, when careful chemical analysis of icon materials became possible, that such forgeries were made obvious.  However skilled in painting the forgers of the late 19th-early 20th century were, however familiar with earlier iconographic styles, they nonetheless failed to reproduce exactly the materials used by the painters of the old originals, and there had been notable change in the nature of pigments used in Russian icon painting over the centuries, particularly from the 18th century onward.  There is also a difference in materials used for the ground of many early icons — the gypsum alabaster levkas (or “gesso” to use the Italian term) of the early icons being later commonly replaced by a gesso made of chalk.

Grigory Chirikov, in spite of his importance even into the Soviet era, came to a sad end.  He was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and later sent to a labor camp; it is generally believed that he was executed by the Soviets.  His story reminds me of the Western art “expert” Bernard Berenson, who became known and made a great deal of money from his presumed expertise in the art of the Italian Renaissance — again before the application of technology became generally applied to the analysis of early paintings.

THE GOD-DAUBERS

There is a term anyone studying Russian or Ukrainian icons should know.  In Russian it is:

БОГОМАЗ — Bogomaz

The plural is богомазы — bogomazui (in common transliteration bogomazy).

Bogomaz was a colloquial term for an icon painter.  It comes from the word  Бог (Bog), meaning “God,” and the verb мазать (mazat’), meaning “to daub or smear on something greasy or oily.”  It is the word used, for example, in smearing butter on bread.

The common English translation of bogomaz is “God-dauber.”  Though sometimes used (rather slightingly) of icon painters in general, it has come to be more specifically applied to painters without professional training, “self-taught” artists.  They were the kind we would refer to as “primitive” artists, because they were generally untaught or unskilled or both.  As I often say, the saints and other “holy” persons in Russian icons were the replacements for the old non-Christian gods, continuing polytheism in another context, so I like the term bogomazui because it reflects that.

Bogomazui, in the context of the modern study of icons, generally refers to “folk” or “village” icon painters who did not work in professional studios, and were likely not even to be full-time painters.  Instead they were often workers in other professions such as carpentry or blacksmithing.  They painted icons in their spare time to earn some extra money.

The bogomazui did not paint for a high-class, wealthy market, or for sophisticated customers.  Instead, they painted for ordinary people, for peasants with little money who nonetheless wanted to have an icon.  And as most peasants were illiterate in those days, the painter did not have to worry too much about mistakes in spelling and even the occasional mistake in iconography.

The likelihood of painter’s mistakes was increased by their habit of painting directly, without using a preliminary outline stencil or pattern, instead brushing on the figures freehand, generally using only a very small number of colors.  So there was a derogatory saying that the bogomazui were likely to paint

…Егорья пешком, а Пятницу на коне
“…Egoriy [Georgiy] on foot, and Pyatnitsa [Paraskeva] on a horse.”

That means they might get the iconography of even common saints wrong, such as by painting St. George, who is traditionally shown on horseback, on foot; and contrariwise, by painting the female patron saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa on horseback, though that is not at all her correct iconography.

They liked painting popular “folk” saints, such as Mary, Ilya (the prophet Elijah), Nikolai (St. Nicholas), and has we have seen, St. George and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, the kind of common saints prayed to for the daily needs of peasants, such as rain or good weather, for safety on rivers, in childbirth, for the protection of animals and fowl, and so on.

The bogomazui also sometimes used subjects that were not considered entirely “Orthodox” in the traditional sense, subjects picked up from Western religious art — the kind of thing present-day Eastern Orthodox fundamentalists like to call “uncanonical.”  But of course Western art had long had an influence on icon painting in one way or another.

Some Russians like to define bogomaz icons as simply “bad” icons, but in my opinion that is far too snobbish and certainly not always true, any more than self-taught painting from any country is always “bad.”

Bogomazui worked in many places, from Belarus in the West eastward through the Urals to Siberia, and as far south as the present-day Ukraine.  The range of their works is wide in quality, and can be stretched to include even some of the less expensive icon production in Kholui, one of the three main icon painting villages in Vladimir province.  Among them is a class of icons that are often quite pleasing — those icons with bright red borders and foliage-filled backgrounds and garments that look like old gold, but are really cheap silvery metal leaf covered with a tinted varnish to make it appear gold.  Real gold leaf was far too expensive for the “peasant” market, so on “God-dauber” icons it is either such false gold leaf or else tinfoil, or to make them even cheaper, no metal ornamentation at all.

Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, 19th c. (Kostroma Museum)
Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, 19th c. (Kostroma Museum)

Such Kholui “folk” icons were sold both locally and shipped off to far distant fairs and public markets, and that was where the works of the bogomazui were generally found — ready-painted in places where the peasant with a little money and a desire for an affordable “holy icon” could easily find and buy them.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
The Feodorovskaya type (Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Just as the geographical range of production of “folk” icons was wide, so was the range of styles; there is not just a single folk style.  A Ukrainian folk icon will look quite different than one painted in Siberia.  What they all have in common is that “primitive” look, and of course even among untrained painters there were those more naturally talented than others.

Though some folk icons were painted on the traditional gesso-covered cloth glued to a wooden panel, some bogomazui cut costs by either substituting paper for cloth, or else by eliminating the gesso ground entirely.  It was not uncommon for thinned oil paints to be used instead of the more traditional tempera.

Officials occasionally made attempts to somehow control the production of inexpensive folk icons, as in 1809 and 1858, when efforts were made to prohibit such icons in the Ukraine, or when in 1872 the Diocese of Orenburg attempted to prohibit the sale of “ugly-painted” icons (“безобразно писаных икон”).  But of course the key to the popularity of such icons was their low price, and so production was merely responding to and filling popular demand.  And high-quality icons were not, in any case, easily available in more isolated regions, even if one could afford them.

There was a time when all the icons of the bogomazui were looked upon with scorn by collectors, but just as icons of the 18th and 19th centuries were originally not appreciated but have since become quite desirable, the same has begun to happen with “folk” icons.  Some are easily able to take their place as pleasing and colorful examples of popular art, but one cannot say that of all of them.  So one must be discerning in judging among them, with many of the better examples having artistic and monetary value as folk objects, but some remaining merely of interest as “antique” — and still of little worth.  A great many inexpensive and quickly-painted icons were produced just in the marshy village of Kholui in the 19th century — some two million icons a year, it is estimated.

There is an interesting and rather bizarre rumor that spread about among the Old Believers in the 19th century.  It was said that one had to be careful, because some bogomazui involved in Black Magic would paint a kind of icon called a “Hades-painted” icon (Адописная икона), often translated into English as a “Hell” icon.  It was said that such a sly and evil person would first paint an icon with the image of the Devil or devils, and would then apply a ground of gesso over that to hide it.  On top of this second ground, he would paint a saint or saints, so that when one prayed before such an icon, one was actually praying to the Devil.  Though there seems no solid evidence to confirm the existence of such images, the story gives a good idea of the kind of thinking among less-educated believers in the 19th century.  And of course it would have been a useful story for the higher-priced professional studios to promote about their cheaper rivals.

Never forget that icon painting was a business, and a very big one in Russia.