Three Centuries of Nevyansk Icon

Three Centuries of Nevyansk Icon

I was strolling through Moscow winter streets. It was almost twilight. The smallest snowflakes slowly flashed and went out in the light of lanterns. It was Christmas Eve, a magical time when we all were waiting for miracles. Suddenly, the snowy Goncharnaya Street going down to the Yauza River led me to the incredibly beautiful small church ensemble – Athos Compound of the Holy Panteleimon Monastery – almost lost in the white whirl of snowflakes… The snow was falling silently. The city center was quiet, without any noise, passerby, or traffic. I saw only this seemingly thousand-year-old churchyard, church bells, and also a modern glass structure to the right, which looked like a time trap for the ancient arch of the Museum of Russian Icon. My imagination was captured by this fabulous, gentle, and unobtrusive metamorphosis. Here, on the quiet street of old Moscow, religion was so naturally and unobtrusively intertwined with art, soulfully reminding of the eternal truths and the beauty of the spiritual life.

The Museum of Russian Icon

The Museum of Russian Icon in Moscow is a relatively young museum opened in 2006. It was founded by the businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Abramov. The Museum’s own collection features more than 5,000 exhibits of antique icons and objects of worship, but I want to tell you about “Three Centuries of Nevyansk Icon,” a wonderful temporary exhibition of Old Believer icons. This exhibition full of warmth and charm of past centuries runs through March 19, 2019.

After the splitting of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-17th century, Old Believer communities spread across the Ural and Western Siberia regions of Russia. From the mid-18th century to the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most important spiritual centers of Old Believers in the Urals was the town of Nevyansk located not far from Yekaterinburg. Among the masters fled from the persecution of the church authorities were many talented iconographers who created a very special school of icon painting in this region. By the end of the 18th century, there were already ten professional icon-painting workshops in Nevyansk, which attracted not only residents of northern Russian cities but also people from Zauralie and even the European part of Russia.

As is known, Old Believer icons differed from the post-reform ones by several specific features: the Sign of the Cross was made using two fingers, Christ’s abbreviation in Russian was spelled with only one “и” – Исус, and the evangelists were depicted in the form of their symbolic creatures. Another distinguishing feature was the eight-pointed cross, something that you won’t find in icons of the Nikonian Orthodox Church. Besides, Old Believer icons did not depict new saints canonized after the 17th century-reform.

Nevyansk masters painted icons boldly combining the traditional iconographic school of pre-reform Russia with the images of local northern realities. The buildings, environment, and landscape became an important motif, giving icons more volume, realism, character, and sacred meaning. For example, the depicted buildings were reminiscent of the local structures, and the caves were resembling the entrances to the Ural mines. Mountain peaks covered with snow, trees, stones, grass, bushes, spruce forests, and steep banks of the rivers – the landscape was painted by Nevyansk masters from the natural surroundings. Along with that, the iconographers kept features from the old school, including the elongated figures, gold leaf, the rounded shape and form of the saints’ faces, and the distinctive position of figures in space. Over time, Nevyansk masters also added pompous Baroque, Classicism, and even Romanticism characteristics to their creations, which can be seen in the depiction of saints’ garments.

The icon frames were also decorated according to the local Ural traditions, using semi-precious stones, stone carving, and casting. Mineral pigments mined in the Urals gave the paintings a special touch; they did not discolor or fade. Gold was used not only in paints; the entire surface of the icon was covered with sheets of gold leaf. The warm brilliance of this metal shining through the brush strokes made the image three-dimensional and alive, while the icon seemed to emit soft light itself. Gold was especially appreciated by ancient icon painters for its secret sacral meaning – this metal symbolized Christ, the divine light, and the victory of good. The faces of the saints painted by Nevyansk masters were also very light. This whiteness was achieved by adding white pigments to the main ocher color. Overall, the images were devoid of too bright colors and blush, which, however, did not make them less spiritual. Glorious, beautiful, chubby-faced, and slightly smiling saints in these old icons look at us with their big eyes, radiating kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

For Old Believers living in the Ural region, the icon was not only a symbol of faith but also the possibility to self-identify. It was an attempt to preserve the ancient Orthodox rites, the way of life in pre-Peter Russia, the original Russian theological traditions, manners, and customs.