During the reign of Grand Prince Ivan III (1462-1505), many Italian and other Western European craftsmen, architects and engineers were brought into Russia to work on various projects. The Italians (and by extension other non-Russian speakers from Western Europe), were known in Russia as Friazi, a word that developed from the Greek term φραγκος/frangkos — франк/frank — meaning a “Frank.” That is the term by which the Western European Crusaders were known to the Byzantines.
That word for Western Europeans accounts for why, in literature on icons, we sometimes find the term фрязь/fryaz applied to the later style of icon painting favored by the State Orthodox Church. It is often simply called the “Western” or “Italianate” style. It signifies the more realistic, heavily European-influenced manner of painting that began in Russian iconography in the latter half of the 17th century and gradually replaced the old strongly stylized manner that continued to be used by the Old Believers right into modern times. So this more “Italian” or Western European way of painting icons came to be known as fryaz or the Фряжское письмо/fryazhskoe pis’mo (Frankish painting) or the фряжская/fryazhskaya manera (“Frankish manner) or style.
We can easily see the difference between the traditional stylized painting continued by the Old Believers —
And the “Western” manner found in State Church Icons —
You probably recognize this icon as Ioann Bogoslov — John “the Theologian” — the apostle and purported evangelist John.
This type — which we have seen previously — is commonly known as John “in Silence,” because of his fingers to his mouth and the angel on his shoulder inspiring him as he writes the first words of the gospel attributed to him, which begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the word…etc.
Did you notice, however, that in this example the fingers of his right hand form the Old Believer sign of blessing at his lips, which marks this as an Old Believer icon?
Not all icons of “John in Silence” have that finger position — even if they are painted in the old manner. The following icon, for example, shows John with one finger to his lips, as though he is thinking, “Hmmm … what should I write next?” Other finger positions are also found from example to example by painters who did not depict the Old Believer blessing sign.
You also perhaps noticed that the second icon has the book text upside down from John’s viewpoint, but easier to read by the viewer of the icon.
Notice also that in the second example, the angel does not have a simple halo as in the first. Instead he has the eight-point “glory” (slava) and the abbreviation Д С (D S) for Dukh Svyatuiy — “Holy Spirit.” So though in some examples John has just an angel on his shoulder, this icon makes it clear that John is being inspired in writing his gospel by the Holy Spirit.
There is another element to notice in the first icon of John — the presence of the symbol of the Evangelist at left. It is a lion. A rather odd looking one, admittedly, but the painter has likely never seen a real one.
Now you have no doubt seen the photos of the statue of the winged lion in Venice, near the Basilica of St. Mark; there the lion is the symbol for Mark. But Old Believer icons favor the interpretation of the lion as John, and the eagle as Mark.
By contrast. here is an icon of John in silence depicting his symbol as the eagle, which was the form generally adopted by the State Russian Orthodox Church:
The angel in this example is again simply identified as an “Angel of the Lord,” not as the Holy Spirit.
Such details are often overlooked by the casual viewer, but students of icons must be more careful.
Here is another icon of “John in Silence.”
This icon also uses a variant finger position, and identifies the shoulder angel as the Holy Spirit. Though the book is only slightly open, the text on the right page begins with the same words as in the other examples.
And here is a version of “John in Silence” surrounded by scenes from his traditional “life.” This painter has given him the lion as his symbol, but this time without wings:
The title inscription says:
OBRAZ ZHITIYA I STRASTI CHUDOTVORTSA GOSPODNYA I EVANGELISTA IOANNA BOGOSLOVA
“IMAGE OF THE LIFE AND SUFFERINGS OF THE WONDERWORKER OF GOD AND EVANGELIST JOHN THE THEOLOGIAN.”
From all this we can see that icons need not be exact copies of one another, but in spite of the differences, we still easily can recognize the standard type name for each of these “John in Silence” images.
Those of you familiar with cinematic history will know the famous 1938 black and white movie Alexander Nevsky, with its remarkable musical score by Sergei Prokofiev. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Those of you who have not seen it may watch the film (with English subtitles) here:
Many of those familiar with the movie have no idea that Alexander Nevsky/Nevskiy (Александр Невский ) is also considered a saint in Russian Orthodoxy, and there are many icons of him. Here is one example, from the year 1880:
Two icons are above him: the “Iverskaya” Marian icon on the left, and the standard “Lord Almighty” icon of Jesus at right.
Alexander Nevskiy was a prince in the great northern city of Novgorod during the time of the Mongol invasions in the early 1200s. At that time Eastern Orthodox Novgorod was threatened on the West by Roman Catholic Swedes — the “Latins.”
Before Alexander went out to battle the Swedes, he went into the Church of Holy Wisdom to pray, and when he came out, he is said to have roused his men by saying,
Не в силе Бог, а в правде. Иные — с оружием, иные — на конях, а мы Имя Господа Бога нашего призовем!
“God is not in power, but in truth. Others are in armor — others are on horses — but we shall call on the name of our Lord God.”
Tradition relates that one of his soldiers saw a kind of vision — a boat floating upon the water, and in the boat — dressed in crimson robes — were the first two “Russian” saints, the Princes Boris and Gleb. That was considered a sign that God was with Novgorod against its enemies, and Alexander and his forces defeated the Swedes in a battle at the Neva River on Juy 15, 1240. That of course gave him his title — Alexander “of the Neva” — Alexander Nevskiy. At the time, Alexander is said to have been only 19. There is some doubt among historians as to the historical authenticity of this victory over the Swedes, but it is part of the traditional tale of Alexander.
To film buffs, however, his most famous battle was that against the Teutonic Knights, whom he met at frozen Lake Peipus/Peipsi — which the Russians call Чудское озеро/Chudskoe ozero –on April 5th of 1242. I won’t tell you what happened there, because if you have not seen the Eisenstein movie, I don’t want to give a “spoiler.”
Alexander developed good relations with the Mongol Golden Horde, and paid regular tribute as a vassal prince. He was made Grand Prince (Velikiy Knyaz) of Vladimir in 1252, and died some 12 years later. Shortly before his death he became a monk and put on a monk’s habit.
Alexander was officially “glorified” as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 1547, and is commonly given the title Благоверный Великий Князь/Blagovernuiy Velikiy Knyaz’ — “Pious/Orthodox Great Prince.”
There is of course much more to his traditional “life,” and this is just a brief summary.
As the centuries passed, Alexander became an important national symbol for Russia. He is depicted in two quite different ways. Early icons and those of the Old Believers show him dressed as a monk, as in this 16th century Moscow icon that titles him Blagovernuiy Knyaz’ Velikiy Alexandr Nevskiy Chudotvorets — “Pious Prince Great Alexander Nevskiy, Wonderworker.”
Post-schism State Church iconography, however, favored showing him in military and royal garb — often standing by a table on which lay his scepter and crown, as in this example from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:
It is only in recent years that the Russian Orthodox Church — the State Church, that is — began advocating a return to the old iconography depicting him as a monk. Old Believer icons always preferred showing Alexander in a monk’s habit.
Yesterday I mentioned the so called “Hell Icons” — Адописные иконы/Adopisnuie ikonui — literally “Hades-painted icons.” An Adopisnaya icona/Адописная икона is paradoxically an icon that existed more in rumor and gossip than in reality. Nonetheless, they are mentioned in literature and were reported in 19th century Russian newspaper stories.
The first mention of such an icon is found in the life of Vasiliy Blazhennuiy/Basil the Blessed, also called Блаженный Василий Московский/Blessed Vasiliy of Moscow. He was a noted “Holy Fool/Iurodivuiy/юродивый),” and that rather bizarre but colorful cathedral always seen in photos of Red Square in Moscow is named for him.
In the above icon, he is titled “Holy Blessed Vasiliy Iurodivuiy of Moscow, Wonderworker.”
The old account relates that there was a popular “miracle-working” icon of Mary — heavily venerated by the people of Moscow, on the Varvarskiya Vorota/Варварския ворота — which looks like it should mean “Barbarian Gate,” but actually it is the “Barbara Gate,” because there was a stone church built in 1514, dedicated to St. Barbara. Beside it were dungeons and prisons, such an unpleasant place that the local expression arose, “To St. Barbara for punishment.”
According to the tale, Vasiliy threw a stone at the icon — in the presence of a crowd of pilgrims — and they were so furious at his action that his life was in danger. But someone took a closer look at the icon and found the damage had revealed the image of a chort/чёрт — a devil — that had been painted beneath the surface image of Mary. This was blamed on the Zhidovstvuyushchiye/Жидовствующие — the so-called Judaizers, some of whom were said to be opposed to icons, and so supposedly created the “Hell Icon” of Mary to mock the practice of icon veneration.
The Russian novelist Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov wrote an article in which he discussed “Hell icons” as merely a trick of dishonest sellers of icons. The scam required two people. The first would go out to the villages with icons that had devils painted on the gesso beneath the surface “holy image.” Having sold all he could, he would then leave. Soon the other scammer would arrive in the village with his load of icons. When he tried to sell them, the people would reply that they had already bought icons. The second scammer would then ask to see one of the purchased icons. When brought, he would scrape the painted surface to reveal the painted devil beneath. The villagers — horrified by this, would then buy the second scammer’s supposedly “holy” icons, and would give him the “Hell icons” they had bought earlier, to dispose of. So the second scammer would not only share the money from the first sales of “Hell icons,” but he would also get money from the second sales of “holy” icons, and not only that, he still had the “Hell icons” the people of the village had given him, which he would sell again in another village.
Leskov used this scam motif in his story The Sealed Angel/Запечатленный ангел. Most of the talk of “Hell icons” seemed to be in Old Believer communities, which raises the issue of why people would be so horrified to find devils under conventional religious paintings, thinking those who venerated them would be venerating devils by so doing. It takes us back to one of the oddities of Eastern Orthodox thought that we find particularly strong among the Old Believers — the notion that image and symbol — the outward and visible manifestations of religion, such as icons and the position of the fingers while blessing, etc. — are more important to Orthodox belief than the intention of the heart; so a person worshipping an icon with a hidden devil painted beneath the surface image would still be worshipping the devil, though that was not the real intent of the believer.
In spite of the interesting tales of “Hades-painted icons,” scholars doubt they ever really existed, because no authentic actual examples of such old icons have been discovered. They seem to have been merely a symptom of the fears and rumors that can infest and spread through conservative and unenlightened communities — something we have become all too familiar with in modern politics.
A very obvious part of the Russian icon business consisted of cast metal icons, the “golden” period of which began in Russia in the latter part of the 17th century. They were the products of Old Believer craftsmanship (originally particularly of the Bezpopovtsui or “Priestless”) but given that they were sold at fairs and markets, they were often purchased by State Church followers, and so were found in peasant homes no matter what the affiliation, and some were even found in “State Orthodox” churches. Ordinarily, the State Church only produced little metal crosses worn about the neck, but the Old Believer metal icons were so popular and widespread that eventually even the State Church began producing some, often recognizable because they depict saints “glorified” (canonized, officially accepted) after the split with the Old Believers in the middle of the 17th century.
It is not surprising that the Old Believers liked metal icons. They were terribly persecuted by the State Church — with the authority of the State behind it — and so often had to move from place to place to escape persecution. Metal icons, which unlike painted icons, could be carried easily and without damage, and also be easily hidden — filled their need for icons. The “Priestless” Old Believers originally held that the Antichrist had begun his rule, personified in the Tsarist State; the priesthood was no longer valid, so relations with the State were hopeless and persecution was to be their life, while the “Priested” Old Believers — who accepted the validity of State Church priests, and wanted to find a bishop to restore their church hierarchy — tried to accommodate themselves to State authorities whenever possible in hope of acquiring more “renegade” priests and eventually succeeding in getting bishops.
In the 18th century the production of metal icons was somewhat obstructed by a law promulgated by Tsar Peter the Great in 1722, which forbade the use of cast metal icons. Though it caused problems, it did not deter the Old Believers, who kept on producing such icons here and there. Various excuses were given for the law, but it seems to have been the result of Peter’s desire for more metal for the production of weapons, and not, as is sometimes said, because the Old Believer buildings filled with metal icons drew lightning and caused fires.
As already mentioned, certain metal icons were easy to transport and to take when traveling — thus the name Путевые иконы — Putevuie ikonui — “Travel icons”. And they were far less expensive than painted icons. The Old Believers saw tarnish as a sign of corruption, so they wanted cast icons kept bright. When a metal icon began to tarnish, one had only to give it a quick rub with a cloth, perhaps dusted with a bit of chalk, sand, ashes or brick powder — and the icon was quickly bright and shining again. That did have a drawback, however, because continuous polishing wore down the finer details of a cast icon over the years — which is why one encounters examples with the features of the saints worn smooth. On today’s market, price depends heavily on how worn a metal icon is. Those still with clear and sharp details bring a much higher price that those with the facial features polished away. Of course the poorer quality icons were originally cast without good detail.
There was an expensive solution to the problem of polishing. Some cast icons were given a fancy protective finish by fire-gilding — the application of a thin layer of gold dissolved in mercury, then heated so the mercury evaporated Such an icon would remain bright unless the thin layer of gold was damaged. The very large drawback to this was for the maker, because mercury vapor is toxic.
Often cast icons were enhanced by the addition of colored enamel (powdered glass melted onto the casting). The price depended on the number of colors, so those with lots of colorful enamel brought higher prices than those with one or two colors or without any — and that is still true among collectors.
In addition to one-piece castings, folding metal icons — either as diptychs (two-panel), triptychs (three-panel) or quadriptychs were quite popular, such as this one:
The bulk of cast metal icons one encounters (some 80%) are made of brass, consisting of an alloy of copper and zinc. A lesser percentage are of bronze (copper and tin alloy), used more prior to the 19th century, but again in the 20th. And a few are found in copper or even lead, but these latter are much softer and more easily damaged.
It is said that some of the finest cast icons were produced by the Old Believers of the Vyg Community (also called Поморцы — Pomortsui), the main center of the “Priestless” Old Believers, which was founded in 1694 by monks fleeing the Solovetskiy Monastery. Vyg metal icons, because of their finer detail, are highly valued by collectors. Other villages in other locations eventually began production, notably among them the “Priested” village of Guslitsa in Vladimir Province and others in the Moscow and Volga regions, and even in the Urals and Siberia.
In Russian terminology, a metal icon is commonly a медная икона/mednaya ikona, literally a brass/copper/cupreous icon. The plural is медные иконы/mednuie ikonui. The term литая икона/litaya ikona, meaning “cast icon” — plural литые иконы/lituie ikonui — is also used. Those cast of bronze are бронзовые иконы/bronzovuie ikonui.
Cast metal icons were, essentially, metal alloys heated until liquid, then poured into a mold made of sand mixed with clay. The Old Believers particularly liked the association of fire with the process, because they saw the resulting images of the saints as bright and shining, as if “cleansed by fire.”