The Mystery of Russian Icon Art: Hell Icons

Have you ever heard of the legendary hell icons? They are a true mystery of Russian icon art, which remains unsolved even now. So what is a hell icon?

A hell icon is a so-called “hell-painted” icon, which, according to the belief, contains an image of the devil under the main painted layer, oklad, or primer. In fact, it is an ordinary religious icon with, however, the second “devilish” image hidden under the canon depiction of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, or saints. Nevertheless, since such incredible pieces of Russian icon art, presumably, have not survived to this day, it is hard to say whether they really existed or not. So what do we know about the legendary hell icons surrounded by so many mysteries and riddles?

The first mention of hell icons was found in the Vita of St. Basil, written in the 16th century. According to it, St. Basil threw a rock at the hand-painted icon of the Mother of God, which was considered miracle-working. The pilgrims who witnessed the incident were shocked and very surprised by the saint’s deed. However, St. Basil immediately calmed the crowd by showing that the beautiful hand-painted icon of the Virgin Mary actually had an image of the devil hidden under the first layer of paint.

It is also worth noting that “hell icon” as a term, along with “hellography” (a process of painting religious icons with hidden images of the devil), first appeared among Old Believers, who are now known for their skillfully painted pieces of Russian icon art. Moreover, some people believe that hell icons were created and widespread by Old Believers themselves to undermine the faith of Reformed Christians.

According to another believe, hell icons were a type of black magic in medieval Russia. Containing two opposite images, these pieces of Russian icon art were created to make people pray to both God and Devil. As a result, such religious icon paintings were considered extremely dangerous for Christian believers as the depicted images were inextricably linked with each other.

There are many interesting legends related to hell icons and their appearance. However, we do not know the truth about this mysterious part of Russian icon art history. Moreover, many reputable Russian icon experts and scientists doubt the fact of their real existence. Thereby, it is up to you whether to believe the legend of hell icons or not!

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