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A popular art (icons from the Ukraine)

The icons I have shown you up to now have for the most part been prestigious, one might day, 'aristocratic' icons, the models for the icons one might expect to see nowadays in an Orthodox Church. But often very poor people also wanted to have icons in their homes. The Church was never very happy with this. In the seventeenth century, the icon painter Joseph Vladimirov was complaining:

"Where else can we see such indecencies as can be recognised here and now? The lowering and profanation of the venerable, sound art of the icons have been caused by ignoramuses for the following reason: everywhere in the villages and hamlets, wholesale merchants bring icons by the basketful. They are painted in a most ridiculous manner. Some of them do not even resemble human images; their aspect is like that of savages." They would be taken to remote villages and "exchanged, like children's whistles, for an egg, an onion, or all sorts of things" (Ouspensky: Theology of the Icon, SVS, Crestwood NY, 1992, p.333).

I want to finish by showing you some icons that were produced in the Ukraine, mainly in the nineteenth century in the area round Kiev - icons produced by local villagers who would often also themselves be farmers or craftsmen. (This section of my talk is heavily indebted to Lydia Lykhach and Mykola Kornienko: Ukrainian folk icons from the land of Shevchenko, Kyiv (Rodovid), 2000). 

The icons were called bohy, meaning 'gods', and were placed as you can see in this photograph on a special shelf called 'the gods' shelf'. The chief icons in the household would be presented to a couple, blessed by their parents, during a wedding. 

Often they would be buried in the coffin when the owner died but the traditional way of disposing of an unwanted icon was to let it float away in a body of water. The Soviet writer and collector of icons, Vladimir Soloukhin - he built up a magnificent collection during the period of Khrushchev's campaign against the church -  describes a conversation he had with an old woman:

"It was a sin to burn them or throw them away, and an icon doesn't like to be in a dusty old loft - it likes to be rubbed with oil and have a light burning in front of it. Up there it's all dust and mice and spiders and such-like nasty things. So what we did was, we wrapped the icon in a cloth and took it to the river in flood-time, and we made the sign of the cross over the poor thing and let it float away, with the holy image facing upwards. It was nicer for it like that, with the sun shining and the bees flying all around, and the birch-trees standing up straight and still." (Vladimir Soloukhin: Searching for icons in Russia, London, Harvill Press, 1971)

This is a photograph of one of the village icon painters, Ivan Khodos, with his family, taken some time after 1910. His daughter tells us that he had been apprenticed with an icon painter in  neighbouring village and himself took apprentices. They worked both for local people and for the churches, since we have to remember that local churches too required a good supply of icons without having the means to pay for the more prestigious ones. Locally produced icons would also, as we have seen, been sold in the market.

One of the peasant painters at work.

This is an icon based on a well known icon theme - the protecting veil. Although most popular in Russia, the top half of the icon refers to a siege of Constantinople when St Symeon, a Fool-for-Christ, saw the Virgin spreading her veil in protection over the city.

This is what we might call the official version. The bottom half shows the hymn-writer Romanos the Melodist, author of many of the hymns sung in the feasts of the Orthodox Church, whose feast occurs on the same day as the Feast of the Protecting Veil.

Another Ukrainian version, this time without Romanos.

Soloukhin quotes an icon painter in a story by the nineteenth century novelist Nikolai Leskov saying:

"It's an insult to say that we follow the model slavishly, as if we were just making transfers. Certainly the rules tell us what to paint, but they leave us free to paint it in our own way. For instance, St Zosimus or St Gerasimus must be painted with a lion, but what the lion looks like is a matter for the artist's own interpretation. St Neophytus has to have a pigeon, St Timothy a casket; the warrior saints George and Sabas have lances, Photius an alms-purse. Kondraty is shown with clouds because he made sermons to them. But every icon painter can depict these things in any way his fancy suggests."

And Soloukhin goes on to elaborate exactly how I see the matter:

"Suppose that a painter, an artist, a master of colouring and composition, line and tone, is set a limit of a thousand themes and forbidden to paint any others. Or, to make it clearer still, let us imagine he is set one single theme and forbidden to depart from it. All this would mean in practice is that he would be precluded from thinking about what may be called the 'literary' aspect of his work; or rather he would be set free from thinking about it and would be free to concentrate on the purely artistic or pictorial aspect. Within the limits of a single theme, the composition can be, and is, extremely varied. Our artist would be free to choose his composition, colour-scheme, technique, range and disposal of colours and shades. Being free from the need to expend his energy on the literary, accidental aspects of his work, he could concentrate on solving the purely artistic problems of colour and composition. Instead of painting extensively (i.e. a new subject each time) he would paint intensively, encountering and solving ever-new problems of colour and drawing. And an artist who thus penetrates the depths of his art is bound to reach the heights, perfecting his artistry and attaining consummate skill."

You will remember I began this talk with a Welsh painting of St George slaying the dragon. I want to show you a sequence of Ukrainian folk icons on the same theme. They may not correspond to what Soloukhin would recognise as 'artistry and consummate skill' but I find them remarkable for variety and imagination, clearly the work of genuinely, remarkably 'free spirits':

And here are some examples of the most standard of all icon themes - the Virgin and Child:

And a theme that was particularly dear to people living near Kiev - the Virgin blessing SS Theodore and Anthony, founders of the Kiev Caves monastery.

But the most popular saint of all is of course St Nicholas. I'd like to finish with this image of St Nicholas and with a prayer addressed to him and used by a woman living in the area:

"I ask you, servant of God,
The great St Nicholas,
Simple people are drowning in sorrow,
Give your hand in help.
I press close to your icon,
I ask: great servant, save me.
I ask you, servant of God,
Pass my prayer on to God.
I am surrounded, 
All roads are closed,
They wish for my death,
So that I may not come to glory.
But you, great servant,
who is so close to all,
I ask you, servant of God,
Have pity on me.
You on high 
Rescued me from the sea.
I ask you, servant of God,
Help me in my grief.
Ask the Lord to give me health,
Patience, safety
And forgiveness for my sins
for the sake of my soul.