Icon-painting of the Old Believers, defenders of the Old Russian Orthodoxy [1] (2010)

Mariusz Salwinski
artdesigncafé - art | 5 November 2011
This essay was previously published with the title "The Old Believers, defenders of the Old Russian Orthodoxy" in the exhibition catalogue Russia unknown - Old Believer icon-painting workshops in the 18th and 19th centuries: Vetka, Guslicy, Nev’jansk and the Frolov workshop in Raja, (pp. 33-38), (2 June - 29 August 2010) at Ikonen-Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Icon-painting of the Old Believers

The 17th century is embodied in the history of Russian Orthodoxy as the great schism (Russian: Weliki Raskol). In this tense atmosphere, an enhanced understanding of the Second Coming combined with the aim to preserve the Old Orthodoxy of the Fathers. This evolved during a phase of social, cultural and political upheaval from the late Middle Ages into the modern era. The first tsars of the Romanow dynasty [2], Michael Fedorowitsch (1613 - 1645) and Alexej Michailowitsch (1645 - 1676) not only pressed ahead with the political consolidation of the state, but also the reforms of the Russian church. In the year 1652 Nikon the Metropolitan of the see of Novgorod (1652 - 1666) was ordained as Patriarch in a splendid ceremony held at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. In his new function, Patriarch Nikon carried out extensive reforms to the church, which ultimately were the reason for the religious split / Raskol of Russian society into the Old Believers and the Reformists in 1663 / 64. [3]

The Reformists advocated the embrace of the Greek-Orthodox tradition and an alignment to other European Orthodox countries; the Old Believers advocated a conscious adherence to old Russia and a reinforcement of sacral tradition on an Old Russian and Byzantine basis.

As defenders of the old "pure" Russian religion, the Old Believers considered the Patriarch to be the personification of Satan and an indication of the coming of the antichrist. In the Greek tradition the advocates of the old rites saw the doom of true orthodoxy.

The year 1667 witnessed the final excommunication and separation of the Old Believers from the patriarchal church. Together with their archpriest Avvakum Pietrowitsch Kondratiev, a bitter rival of Nikon, the dissidents were banned to Siberia and, strictly guarded, were held captive there in trenches. On the 14th April 1682, the archpriest of the Old Believers in Pustosjerks (under Tsar Fiodor Alexejewitsch, 1676 - 1682) was burned. [4] The volatile situation led to a fractionalisation of the Old Believers within their own ranks. One fraction related to direct spiritual leadership by Christ and dispensed with priests (the "priestless"). The second group advocated priesthood. [5] To escape the reprisals and in order to be able to remain true to their faith, the Old Believers settled in the farthest corners of the empire or in other countries. Some of them decided to settle in the isolation of Siberia.

The uprisings of the peasants in Russia at the outset of the 18th century proved advantageous to the waves of emigration. The decrees of Tsar Peter I from the years 1716 and 1721 attempted to prevent the huge numbers of Old Believers leaving the country. [6] The Russian Empresses Anna (1730 - 1740) and Elisabeth (1741 - 1761) were unable to provide a genuine solution to the problem. With the manifesto of 1734 another attempt was made to reinforce the ban on the building of houses of worship for Old Believers. The years between 1761 and 1826 were relatively tolerant in the tsarist state, although the religion of this minority still failed to establish itself further in the state system despite the easing of regulations directly after 1760.

On the 4th December 1762, the Empress Catherine II introduced her decree of re-migration. Under her rule, the religion of the Old Believers still remained officially unrecognised, although she did concede considerable freedom to this splitter group with the effect that the Old Believers were now able to claim certain rights under the state.

In 1782 they were exempted from double tax levies and as from 1785 could take up official positions. Since the Empress also sought a return to religious ground, she issued a ban in 1768 on the construction of further houses of worship. With the decrees issued in 1779 and 1787 Catherine II again— pursuing her policy of the "unique true religion" (Russian: jedinowierije)— encouraged the Old Believers to return to Russia. This particularly affected the regions of the Polish-Russian border area. In the town of Vetka (in today’s Belarus), the structures of everyday life became more anchored and the icon-painting workshops were established, visibly under the influence of the styles from Jaroslavl’, Moscow and elements of the tsarist workshops. In the 19th century under the Tsar Alexander III. (1881 - 1894), the general situation improved for the Old Believers. It was only in the 20th century that significant events altered the history of the Old Believers: in the year 1905 Tsar Nicholas II. (1894 - 1917) gave recognition to the Church of the Old Believers as having equal rights and abolished persecution of the population still living according to old rites [7], estimated at the time to count 20 million people.

After the October revolution in 1917 persecution again reared itself. In fact the Old Believers only managed to attain their rehabilitation in 1971 at the Regional Council of the Orthodox Church in Moscow. At the moment estimates claim about half a million followers of the old Orthodox rites in Russia.


The rule of Peter the Great who had initiated far-reaching reforms of state and church [8] is distinctive for the alignment of the Russian way of life to European influences and for the separation of state from church. [9]

Above all, this relates to the appreciation of art of this monarch and his successors. In the decrees from the years 1707 and 1722, Peter I. made a clear distinction between religious painting and profane art, dissolved the workshop settlements at court, and sent his artists to Western Europe to study painting.

Iconographic elements, mostly from the Occident, now came to embellish the painting of icons, subject to the prevailing baroque style. The production of icons in rural areas was strictly monitored and controlled by the bishops of the dioceses. [10] As from then, it was largely the workshops at the Old Believers’ monasteries and the provincial workshops that devoted themselves to the little esteemed Old Russian icon craftsmanship.

The icon painting of the Old Believers merges traditional medieval thought, rural art and the dogmatic and eschatological concept of the end of time ("The time is at hand", Luke 11:28, The Revelation of St. John 1:3; 10:4; 22:7 and 10). Extremely purist and pragmatic in their daily lives, the Old Believers were drawn to attitudes of mannerism in their art with strong imaging and an exaggerated adherence to ritual forms. With this, they underlined their bond with Russian tradition from the old capital of Moscow.

Of note in the paintings from the icon-painting workshops of the Old Believer "painters’ villages" [11] particularly in central Russia, is the abundance of figures in their compositions and the exceptionally delicate, miniature-like precision of technique.

The subtle bright colouring of the predominant reds, greens, blues and earthy yellow nuances is embellished with rich and golden ornamentation. The delight in detail is reflected in a symbolic understanding of the constructions and landscapes depicted. In interior scenes featuring narrative cycles there are elements of Latin. The proportions of the figures are exaggerated in length. There is a love for a picturesque arrangement of robes that enhances the depiction.

In this respect the Belousow brothers have a special status as well as M.J. Dikarev, O. S. Čirikov and V. P. Gur’janow (all from Mstera, a stronghold of the Old Believers). These icon painters engaged in Moscow around 1900 and in the wake of Pan-Slavism, i.e. with the return to Old Russian traditions, they sought to retain and revive Russian icon painting. Likewise worthy of mention from this period is the world famous workshops on the Estonian western bank of Lake Peipus where G. E. Frolov and his pupil P. M. Sofronov practised their craft.

In 1901 a committee was set up to save and preserve the “ancient soul” of the Russian icon; one of its tasks was to place icon painting and its established painting canon under the patronage of Tsar Nicholas II. (1894 - 1917). [12]


The religious and social isolation of the Old Believers at the end of the 17th century was the reason for their defensive and introverted culture. However, this did not automatically culminate in any development of the Old Believer style or the Old Believer icon painting school in the sense of distinctive artistic features of their own. It should be remembered that the Old Believers attempted to restrict icon painting to the means that had been defined hitherto in the canon of old pre-reformist rituals. Any "modernity" introduced as a result of the reforms of Nikon were vehemently dismissed. True to Eastern tradition, the depicted image was still seen as supportive of the higher planes of theology.

The exclusion of the Eastern Church from state structures forced the "priestless" groups in particular to re-evaluate the icon. To them, the icons, just like the writings, embodied a direct link back to the pre-reformist church. The icon consequently became a portable, and therefore available, central theological point of reference, ultimately one that was private and domestic, and hence the Sacrament of the Godly.

The leader of the movement, the archpriest Avvakum, describes in the following how the medium of the image takes over the function of the priest:

,,Vor dem Antlitz des Herrn macht die Kerze an, auf dem bereiteten Tisch, während des Gebets, sollte sich ein Gefäß mit Wein, Wasser und dem Leib Christi befinden. Mit Weihrauch sollte man die Bilder und das ganze Haus ausräuchern, dann das umhängende Kreuz küssen und sich vor dem Antlitz des Herrn verbeugen”. [13]

[Before the countenance of the Lord, light the candles, on the prepared table during prayer there should be a vessel with wine, water and the Body of Christ. Smoke out the pictures and the whole house with incense, then kiss the suspended cross and bow before the countenance of the Lord].

The bond of the Old Believers to their old icons defines their writings, which above all are seen as the very creed of their dissention. These are the so-called “Pastoral answers” (1719) and in particular the “Pomeranian answers” (1723). The latter are deemed to be the joint work of the monks from the monastery by the White Sea in the Vyg region under the supervision of Andrej Denisov (1674 - 1730). In the twentieth chapter, the authors of the works make reference to the past resolutions of the "Stoglav Synod", the church council of 1551 [14], to the writings of Simeon from Thessaloniki, († 1429), the resolutions of the VI. Ecumenical Council in Trullo at Constantinople from the year 691 [15] and, exceptionally, to the post-reformist work of the Muscovite Patriarch Joakim “Spiritual grammar”. The work of Patriarch Joakim was admittedly only written in 1690 after the split of the church, yet in old ritualist style it criticised the taking over and spread of western iconography.

The icon paintings of the Old Believers favoured topics that specifically supported their fundamental concepts. These included a great reverence for the old Russian images of the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael as leader of the heavenly hosts (Archistrátegos) and Lord of Souls on the Day of Judgment, as well as the multi-field icons relating to everyday life (particularly with the groups that were not led by priests). [16]

The way in which the Old Believers saw themselves is particularly tangible in the image Christ— the non-sleeping eye (Greek: Anapeson: he who slumbers). In Russia, the image that stands for the suffering and the glory of Christ is known as The Keeper of Israel does not sleep (Psalm 121:4). In this type of depiction, Christ Emmanuel (also Immanuel) is shown as a young man, diagonally, half-sitting, half-lying, floating above the Paradise-like landscape. His feet in the right bottom corner of the picture seem to touch the ground slightly. Above his head, almost central in the composition, the Mother of God inclines from the left in an attitude of intercession. From the right, likewise in bowed posture, the Angel Michael watches over the slumbering figure. In his covered hands he holds the Cross and other tools of the Passion. The eyes of the resting figure are open; the head is turned to rest on the right arm. The figure of Emmanuel is staring far into the horizon and proclaims Paradise and the Passion. The left hand is stretched out along the sumptuously clothed body. It is possible for the image The non-sleeping eye to vary with the three main actors, yet still based on this iconographic fundament.

The image might be enhanced by two angels descending from heaven (cherub and seraph), who are then holding tools of the Passion in their hands. In the heavenly sphere, the benign God the Father appears and below him the Dove of the Holy Spirit. In its place, it is possible for the Trinity from the Old Testament to be depicted. The slumbering figure is sometimes depicted on the tree of life or without any support at all, directly on the ground. It may also be that to His feet, the picture shows the empty tomb and swans. The background may be designed differently. Perhaps only the Garden of Paradise is shown in the lower region of the picture with small rocks, or the background is split threefold: the earth, golden background and clouds in the sky. Some pictures show a clear division: a lower black zone stands for the earth; the remaining upper area decorated with flowers is part of Paradise.

The ideas for this composition are derived from biblical and non-biblical sources. These include the early Christian Nature Book (Greek: Physiologus) with short stories about real and fantasy animals, trees and stones. The anonymous author of the work indulges in the Christian exegesis of the depicted world that is embellished with appropriate quotations from the Bible. Christ is compared with the lion. The eyes of the lion stay open during sleep; his successors are born dead and arise on the third day. In the Old Testament the lion stands for Jahwe. In the Book of Genesis (49:8-9) the lion symbolises anointment by God, the Saviour and Redeemer. In the apocalypse of St. John (5:5) the lion is named as lamb.

Analysis of the works of art from Greece and the Balkan states shows that the aforementioned depiction was positioned at three different optional locations in the temple: in the portico or narthex of the atrium, above the king’s portal, i.e. above the entrance to the sanctuary and in the prothesis (part of the service) chapel. The last positioning in the prothesis chapel leads us directly to the preparatory act for the Eucharistic sacrament. According to Simeon from Thessaloniki, the middle part of the prosphora bread on the diskos stands for the Lamb Christ, the left part for the Mother of God and the right part for angelic hoards and thus corresponds with the arrangement in the picture.

In the old Rus’ region, the image of the non-sleeping eye was already known in the 15th century and it can be assumed that it originated from Serbia and Macedonia. In the period from the 16th to the 18th century, large numbers of icons with this motif were created in Russia. It was celebrated as apotheosis of the Trinity, with particular emphasis— especially with the Old Believers— on the story of the Passion (angels with covered hands cf. depictions of the cross). With our own reflections on the movement of the Old Believers, the depiction of the resting Christ on earth is to be understood as symbolic for the martyrdom on earth in the kingdom of Satan. The act of sleeping is interpreted as tangible perception of death. In the ideology of the Old Believers, the earth was simply a place of despair and estrangement, and for proceeding into eternal life. The depiction “The non-sleeping eye”, that visualizes in its pictorial statement the theological allegory of "The Lord, the Keeper of Israel and Creator of the world does not slumber or sleep, but watches over and preserves his creation" confirms the claim of the Old Believers in naming themselves the "House of Israel", the "New Israel" or the "Gathering of the Children of Israel".

Icon-painting of the Old Believers: 1 | Footnotes: 2