I have mentioned previously my preference for icons without their metal covers.  Such a cover — known as a riza (“robe”) — or less traditionally, oklad — was generally added to show honor to an icon.  But in the case of silver and even gold covers, they were also an advertisement of the wealth of a family.

Nonetheless, my interest has always been more in the paintings than in the covers, though such covers may be artistic works in themselves.

Here is a 19th century example of an extremely common icon type — the “Kazan” Mother of God:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

I discussed its origin story in this previous posting:


Now as you see, there is a lot of gold leaf on the icon.  In fact the image of the Mother and Child seems to float on gold.

One would think that with all that gold in the background and in the highlighting on the garments, one would feel no need at all for a cover — but that did not stop anyone.

A very fine silver and gilt cover was placed over the icon, greatly changing its appearance, though of course adding even more to its “rich” look:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Much work and artistic craftsmanship went into the making of this silver cover, but in spite of that, perhaps you will agree that it detracts from the painting beneath it.

In any case, we can tell from the interlacing designs in the border that this is a cover made in the period from the latter part of the 19th to beginning of the 20th century.

Note the inset porcelain medallions on which are written the MP ФУ abbreviations for Meter Theou — “Mother of God.”

Now if you happen across an icon that has a silver-appearing cover, remember that not all such covers actually are silver.  Many are just silvered brass, and the easy way to quickly tell the difference is to look for a hallmark.  A hallmark is a stamp in the silver — often found on the side of the cover — that may reveal the maker’s initials, the date, place, and the silver content of the cover.  In 1896 under Tsar Nicholas II, a new system utilizing the kokoshnik (the head of a woman wearing the traditional Russian formal female headpiece) came into use.

From the time of Tsar Peter “the Great,” silver content was measured in zolotniki (singular zolotnik). In the Russian system used for silver content of an object,  there are 96 zolotniki to a troy pound.  A troy pound is 12 troy ounces; a regular pound is 14.6 troy ounces.

The most common silver content found on Russian icon covers is 84 zolotniki, which means there are 84 parts of silver out of 96 parts metal.  Sometimes with Russian silver one may find other levels of content.

Here is an easy table:

84 zolotniki = 84/96, or 875 out of 1000 parts pure silver (.875)
62 zolotniki = 62/96, or 645 out of 1000 parts pure silver (.645)
90 zolotniki = 90/96, or 937 out of 1000 parts pure silver (.937)
96 zolotniki = 96/96, or 1000/1000 parts pure silver (.1000)

The site link below gives a good overview of Russian silver hallmarks, as well as a helpful photographic list of makers and their marks:



Today we shall look at a very uncommon icon type.  Why then discuss it?  Because uncommon types are the “spice” of the subject of iconography — something that catches our interest after seeing countless copies of such common icon types as the “Kazan” Mother of God and the “Lord Almighty.”  But there is also another reason to look at it.  Its title gives us more words to add to our practical Slavic vocabulary for reading icons.

This icon is Russian, from the 16th century.  We might guess it is early,  because instead of having the usual one-piece riza (metal cover), it has the kind of ornate frame-shaped covering called a basma ((басма) around its outer edges.  A basma is composed of sheets of embossed or engraved metal nailed to the surface of an icon.  Use of the basma faded out near the end of the 17th century, when it was gradually replaced by the one-piece metal cover called a riza (literally “robe”).  A riza was usually fastened to an icon by nails inserted at the outer sides of the wooden panel, but a basma was just nailed right onto the icon surface, which is why we often find nail holes in the surface of very old icons where a basma cover was once placed.

Note the added metal halos nailed onto the icon above the figures at both sides of the lower portion.

The common title of this icon type (which begins in the larger inscription seen near the top of the basma), is:


Videnie means “vision.”

Proroka is the “of” form of prorok, “prophet.”

Iezekiilya is the “of” form of Iezekiil’ (Иезекннль)  the name Ezekiel.

Na means “on/at.”

Reke is a form of reka, “river.”

Khovar is the name of the river, called Chebar in the King James translation of the Bible.

So the title all together means:


The text relating to this icon type comes from the first chapters of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament.  Here are some relevant excerpts:

Now it happened in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God…

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.  And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.  As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.

And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2And the spirit entered into me when he spoke unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spoke unto me.

And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that you find; eat this roll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.  And he said to me, Son of man, cause your belly to eat, and fill your bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.

So that is basically it.  The man on the throne in Ezekiel’s vision becomes the image of Christ Immanuel in the icon itself.  And down below, Ezekiel is seen standing on the left side, observing the vision.  He is seen a second time at the lower right side, eating the scroll (“roll”) that is being handed down to him from Heaven.

The fluffy things at both sides of the circles enclosing Christ Immanuel are stylized clouds, showing that portion is in the sky.  Then come the stylized rocks representing the ground, and in the middle of the bottom portion is stylized water, representing the river Chebar.

Having said all that, perhaps you may remember that in a much earlier post on the icon type called the “All-Seeing Eye of God,” we also find Ezekiel and his vision of wheels within wheels, and his eating of the scroll, in the more elaborate versions of that type, also known as the “Coal of Isaiah.”

Here is a 17th century fresco image of the Immanuel portion alone, from the Slivnitsa Monastery in Macedonia:


The Slavic inscription at the top is taken from the Marian hymn “In you rejoices” of which this image is presented as a part in the monastery representation:

” …Младенецъ бысть, прежде векъ сый Богъ нашъ, ложесна бо твоя Престолъ сотвори́,.”

“…of whom God was incarnate, and became a child, before the ages, even our God; for of thy body a throne He made….”

In Greek, the subject is called Το όραμα του Ιεζεκιήλ/To horama tou Iezekiel.  One finds Greek-influenced Bulgarian examples in which the lower figure to the right of the river is the Prophet Abbakoum/Habbakuk, as in this 14th-century example from Thessaloniki, in the Sophia Icon Museum:


And here it is in an earlier mosaic form, from the Church of Hosios Dabid/David in Thessaloniki, variously dated from the 5th to the 7th century:


The text on the scroll held by Jesus is a variation on the text of Isaiah 25:9-10 in the Septuagint version:


“Behold our God on whom we hope, and rejoiced in our salvation, for he will give rest upon this house.”

Scholars are not unanimous on the meaning of this mosaic.  Some interpret the waters in it as the Four Rivers of Paradise, and think that the “Vision of Ezekiel on the River Chebar” significance that is quite clear in later images of the type may have been an interpretation that developed out of an earlier image of Jesus from the Apocalypse (4:3):

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardius: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like an emerald.

The rainbow association is as we have see, however, already found in Ezekiel 1:28:

As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spoke.


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, known as early as the 14th century.  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.

Metal icon covers were generally attached with nails of copper or silver alloy, but in thee 19th century iron nails came into use.  The nails used are not always an indicator of date, because a pre-19th century metal cover might have been removed and re-attached later with iron nails.


It is just a fact that collectors like icons with “fancy” metal covers. I am not a collector of icons but of information about them, so it is no surprise that I prefer to see an icon without its cover. Nonetheless, I suspect I am in the minority. People just seem to like icons with “bling.”

Today I want to talk a bit about icon covers. Technically, there is a general name for such ornamental additions, such fancy trimming. That name is OKLAD (Оклад).

Oklad literally means “trimming,” and it is used in referring to any ornamental covers and associated pieces added to the surface of an icon. An oklad is generally of thin sheet metal, but it may also be an embroidered cover, etc.

The kind of oklad one finds on very old icons, such as those from the 14th to the 16th and even into the latter half of the 17th century, are a specific type called a basmennuiy oklad (басменный оклад), a “basma” oklad.

BASMA (Басма) comes from an old Turkic word meaning to “imprint” or “impress.” A basma consists of pieces of thin metal plate embossed in relief (thus the name) with ornamental patterns by being beaten upon a metal form. These embossed plates and strips were then cut to shape and fitted together over the surface of the icon, being fixed in place with numerous nails. Inscriptions were often added by being engraved on separate strips of metal that were also attached by nails. Thus the use of the basma on very old icons accounts for the numerous nail holes left in the painted surface after the basma has been removed. It was consequently very damaging to the painted surface.

The riza (Риза, meaning “robe”) though largely synonymous with oklad, is generally now the preferred term to indicate the one-piece metal ornamental covers that were used to decorate icons from the latter part of the 17th century onward. Instead of being composed of individual sheets of metal stamped with ornamentation, as in the basma, the riza was a solid, single metal piece with edges bent at a right angle to fit over the sides of the icon. The riza was affixed to the icon by nailing it to the sides of the icon panel, thus avoiding the damage to the painted surface caused by use of the older basma. A riza was commonly decorated in repoussé work and engraving and chasing with a simplified form of those parts of the painted surface that it covered — garments, and even buildings and trees etc. in some cases, as well as inscriptions. A riza could be made of anything from gold to silver to gilded silver to silvered brass to tin, depending on what the patron desired and could afford. On gold or silver examples, one generally finds the hallmarks used on Russian works of precious metals — stamped maker’s initials, grade of metal, etc. Absence of such marks generally means one is looking at a riza of cheaper metal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a riza was sometimes made of inexpensive metal with machine-stamped ornamentation.

A repoussé chased and engraved silver or gold riza, sometimes with added filigree work and colorful cloisonné enamel, can be considered a work of art in itself. Nonetheless, it is important, when considering an icon for any purpose, to know precisely what is under the riza. Some very cheap icons consisted only of a panel with faces and hands on it, the rest of the unpainted surface being hidden by the riza. And of course a riza may be used to disguise fakes, such as paper lithographs glued to a board and varnished over to make them appear to be painted icons. By the way, the word cloisonné is often mispronounced, even by those who should know better. It is pronounced klwa-son-nay, not kloi-son-nay.

Here is an icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker, covered with a gilt silver, somewhat neoclassical-influenced riza:

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

A riza can sometimes be a helpful adjunct in dating an icon, but should never be taken as the final determinant. A riza could be added to an icon many years after the icon was painted, making the painting much older than the riza. Also, an old riza can be placed over a newer painting, which again will mislead the unwary. And of course with the amount of fakery practiced in Russia today, a new riza may be placed over a new painting, with the riza having old hallmarks that are simply modern fakes, making both icon and riza forgeries. When buying an icon, it is best to see it both with and without the riza, so that the entire painted surface, sides, and reverse of the icon may be examined.


It can be seen that these three terms “oklad,” “basma,” and “riza” may easily lead to some confusion. The question often arises, should one call a single-piece icon cover an oklad or a riza? The answer is that while technically one may use either, riza is commonly to be preferred now, keeping oklad as a more general term. Originally the riza was just an element of the oklad, a metal covering in the shape of a robe that was nailed over the painted robe of a saint, etc. on an icon. But gradually it came to signify the entirety of a solid metal icon cover.

It is not uncommon to find “jewels” added to icon trimming. Sometimes these are genuine gems, sometimes semiprecious stones, but more often just colored glass. One may also find pearls, sometimes real, sometimes false. Filigree work and cloisonné enamel may also be found on better riza examples.

Among features included in an oklad may be a separate (but attached) VENETS (Венец), or halo. The diminutive form is VENCHIK (венчик); a halo is also called a nimb (Нимб), from Latin nimbus.

Please note that there is some ambiguity in the use of the terms venets and venchik. A venets can be a halo, but in the podlinniks it is often used to mean a crown; and a venchik can be a nimbus or halo.

A feature seen on some icon covers, particularly those of icons of Mary, is a KORUNA (Коруна) or crown of metal, from the Latin corona. One also sees, as part of the oklad ornamentation, a metal crescent suspended from the neck of Jesus or Mary, called a TSATA (Цата).

Both the basma and the riza are ornamentation affixed to an icon. But there is another kind of ornamentation that surrounds the icon while not being affixed to it. That is the glass-fronted case in which some icons were kept in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It functioned rather like a clock case, both ornamenting and protecting the icon. Such a case is called a KIOT, from the Greek word kivotos (κῑβωτός), meaning “ark” (do not confuse this with the “kovcheg” ark, the recessed surface on which the central image of an icon is painted). A kiot could be simply a shaped box with a glass front, or it could be more elaborate, with added ornamentation to frame the icon, such as the gilt woodwork in the example below:

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

There is much more to say about icon covers and the ornamentation of icons, but that will wait for another day.