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Icons in Motion: Sacred Aura and Religious Identity in Late Tsarist Russia

  • Chris J. Chulos
Cover of                Volume 23, Number 2, 2012, p. 1-343, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Article body

Sacred Aura, Icons, and Peasant Piety

Throughout the late nineteenth century, the icon stood at the centre of questions about religious authority and the peasant faithful’s ability to adapt to a modernizing and secularizing Russia. As peasant requests for icon visitations increased, church authorities faced a familiar problem — how to bring folk piety within the institutional and bureaucratic structure of Orthodoxy while not dampening popular religious fervor. Questions of ecclesial authority were never completely divorced from confessional loyalty, especially as church leaders perceived real threats from an increasingly secular primary school system, secular literature, and new forms of popular entertainment that together challenged its status as premier moral authority. When church leaders denied requests for icon visitations they inadvertently sent ambiguous messages to believers who remained steadfast in their conviction that they were indisputable members of the Orthodox faith and that this faith was an essential part of their communal identity. [1]

Icon visitations in the last decades of tsarist Russia represent a particular form of Orthodox expression among the peasant faithful and the complexity of believers’ response to the social and cultural transformations resulting from modernization, urbanization, and revolutionary activities. By reversing the direction of motion in the ancient practice of pilgrimage, icon visitations brought sacred aura to local communities of believers without requiring prolonged absences that interfered with the normal routine of agricultural work. This variation on traditional pilgrimage exemplifies how peasants used the benefits of expanding highways and rail lines and their newly acquired literacy skills to learn about wondrous images and bring them inexpensively to their communities. The movement of these images resulted in an unprecedented dissemination of sacred aura and affirmed the centrality of Orthodox Christianity in the lives of the peasantry. Although the movement of special icons had deep roots in Russian Orthodox tradition, enough to prompt special regulations in Peter the Great’s church reforms of 1722, the unexpected increase in requests beginning in the 1860s and 1870s left the understaffed church apparatus overwhelmed and slow to respond. Unwilling to wait for official approval or disappointed with rejection, many communities made their own arrangements, thus aggravating already strained relations between local faithful and diocesan authorities in the provincial capitals and the church headquarters faraway in St. Petersburg. At stake were the very nature of believers’ identity and the social role of the church as secularizing educated Russians and revolutionaries of many stripes deemed the political and moral position of Orthodoxy to be out of touch with contemporary realities.

The practice of borrowing wondrous icons occurred within the context of popular conceptions of the natural world and the innumerable uncontrollable factors that could bring harm or benefit to the peasant household as well as the village. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century, as Russian folklorists and ethnographers penetrated the countryside in search of the essence of the national character, they described the peasant worldview as muddled, dark, and simple in its Manichean principles of good/evil, light/dark, sacred/profane, insider/outsider. When it came to faith, ethnographers catalogued an immense collection of practices and beliefs that gave the appearance of paganism with a thin overlay of Christianity that came to be known as the dual faith (dvoeverie). [2] Described in this way, the peasant religious economy confirmed educated Russians’ stereotypes about the backwardness of rural folk and, after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and gradual introduction of primary schooling, provided educators and publishers of popular literature a metaphorical target against which to aim their enlightenment projects. [3] While peasants divided the world into natural and supernatural realms that overlapped and whose residents — ordinary mortals on the one side and a multiplicity of spirits on the other — constantly interacted in a complex web of relationships, the combination of Christian and older folk belief and practice helped to ameliorate the physical hardships and psychological uncertainties of life given the shortage of modern medicine, agricultural techniques, and education. [4] Common remedies for bodily aches and pains included special prayers during the liturgy or petitions to specific saints, as well as visits to the local herbalist (znakhar’), sorcerer (koldun), or witch (ved’ma). [5] Good harvests required ritual blessings of the fields and nearby water source by the priest in addition to the burial of a fertility effigy or a sacred object (often an icon). Finding a suitable life partner and ensuring a successful marriage (including fertility and wealth) had little to do with the church sacrament and priest’s blessing and instead depended on the customary visit of the local matchmaker and sorcerer who were treated as special guests and compensated generously. Icons were present in all of these moments.

In the Orthodox tradition, the icon is an important part of the visual and emotional liturgical experience, as well as personal piety. [6] Formulaic iconography throughout the church provides both a metaphor of commonality between the universal and local church and their believers. Within the context of formal worship, icons occupied a central place in the liturgy and individual devotion. The famed floor-to-ceiling iconostasis — a layered screen of religious images that divides the sanctuary from the view of believers and represents the distinction between the divine and profane worlds — offers the most vivid and lustrous visual display of the fundamental teachings of the faith in every Orthodox Church (see Figure 1). In late tsarist Russia, the home of peasant believers paralleled the house of God on a personal level and typically one corner (the krasnyi ugol or “beautiful/sacred corner”) was devoted to a shrine consisting of an icon shelf (bozhnitsa) with sacred images of importance to the family’s history and present and future well-being, a lampada (a votive lamp that was constantly lit), holy water brought from church for special needs throughout the year, and relics from a revered shrine. Framing the icon shelf was a sacred towel (polotentse) or belt (poias) that might also hang over the entire shrine and was used to mark the most important milestones of birth, marriage, and death. In this “beautiful corner” morning and evening prayers were recited, meals were eaten, newly baptized babies were welcomed into the family after baptism, matrimonial agreements were made during elaborate betrothal ceremonies, household members received parental blessings before departure, and deceased household members were bid farewell before their final journey to the afterlife. More broadly and individually, icons functioned as instruments of religious education, vehicles for communal unity, and protectors of household well-being. [7]

Figure 1

Iconostasis in the summer cathedral, Leushinskii Monastery, Novgorod Province

Iconostasis in the summer cathedral, Leushinskii Monastery, Novgorod Province

-> See the list of figures

The spiritual practice of venerating wondrous icons began in a physical space, the permanent residence of the image, and encompassed movement during ordinary or special worship services, as well during its “pilgrimage” journey to a temporary host community that shared a belief in the object’s exceptional properties and potential benefits. [8] Icon visitations have a long history in the Christian tradition and were akin to what Peter Brown has described in his study of the cult of saints in Western Christianity as the “translation of relics” — when a physical object or objects, which resided in a specific community, were transported permanently or temporarily to local communities of the faithful. This practice, which became dominant in the late medieval Catholic world, transformed sedentary holy objects into portable commodities that facilitated the establishment of networks of relationships based on the principles of “generosity, dependence, and solidarity” between local communities of believers and the church’s administrative structure while confirming the authenticity of the object in question. [9] Many centuries later, as the Catholic Church faced intellectual assaults on Christian belief beginning with the publication of Marx and Engels’ social theories and Darwin’s theory of evolution, Rome responded with its support for popular Marian devotion. Facing similar intellectual challenges in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Russian Orthodox Church leaders characteristically responded with caution and placed “icon visitations” within the framework of Peter the Great’s church reforms that established rules about the movement of sacred images, requiring the central governing council of Russian Orthodox bishops, the Holy Synod, to ascertain an icon’s wonder-working or miraculous status. [10] Although this institutional process was the only official means of sanctioning a wondrous icon’s authenticity, in practice local communities of believers regularly sidestepped Synodal authority and made their own pronouncements of a locally revered image’s special status. [11] As with most other developments in Orthodox devotional life in the late tsarist period, the lines between officially approved practices and lived Orthodoxy were in constant flux as church authorities at the national, diocesan, and parish levels struggled to maintain their relevance in an increasingly secular world of scientific discoveries; proliferating secular popular education; revolutionary movements (from the mid-1890s onward); and, after the religious toleration decree of 1905 that ended the virtual monopoly of Orthodox Christianity, competition from other faith groups. [12]

Although cautious in their pronouncements on the proliferation of loans and reproductions of wondrous icons, by the 1890s icon borrowing and the production of icon “proxies” — especially cheaply printed and widely distributed copies — had become widespread enough for the Holy Synod to issue guidelines about how to negotiate visitations, the length of visits, fees that were paid to the owners of the object, procedure for transfers (including how to greet and bid farewell to the borrowed item), protocol for unclaimed icons left at local train stations, inspection of newly discovered wonder-working icons, sale of icons, and use of religious images for non-religious purposes (e.g., in advertising). [13] The detail of these regulations attests to the commonplace practice of icon visitations and the difficulties presented when the communities making loans did not treat these sacred images respectfully. As train transport became less expensive, the Holy Synod joined with the Ministry of Transportation to establish process and procedure stipulating what should be done when icons, crosses, holographic portraits of saint other religious items of special reverence were not met by the requesting community. After a designated period of time the object in question was to be taken to the church nearest to the train station for storage and notation in the parish registry. The object was then to be moved to the offices of the diocesan administration where again it was entered into a record book. Once completed, an announcement was to be placed in the local government newspaper with the hope of reaching the owners of the icon. If the holy image remained unclaimed for a year after the published announcement, it was to be given to a local parish designated by diocesan authorities. [14] The authenticity of an icon’s status, then, occurred at and connected multiple levels of authority and identity — everything between official/national and local/communal. [15]

The movement of icons paralleled the unprecedented growth of another type of religiously motivated motion: pilgrimage, which benefited from the lifting of legal restrictions in the decade following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. [16] While icon visitations connected believers to the larger community of faithful through modern expressions of Orthodox piety they also shined a light on growing tensions between the laity and church hierarchs as they both responded to rapidly changing social and political circumstances. As spiritual essence emanated from shrines to local communities of believers the phenomenon raised questions about sacred objects’ authenticity, church authority, and believers’ growing awareness of their membership in a larger community of Russian Orthodox Christians living in an in increasingly modern, secular, and revolutionary Russian. [17]

Icon Visitations as Expressions of Modern Orthodox Piety

In the decades following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the machinery of the tsar’s autocracy introduced what became known as the Great Reforms, which set into motion fundamental changes in the judicial system, military service, primary education, and local government that aimed at modernizing the imperial structure without eliminating the autocracy. [18] Although each of these initiatives eventually challenged many aspects of traditional village life, primary schooling had the greatest impact on peasants’ social and cultural identities. The extraordinary life of Ivan Stoliarov suggests the complex and unexpected outcomes of the interaction between traditional and modern worlds. Stoliarov was born a peasant in 1882, only two decades after the emancipation of the serfs and the introduction of educational reforms. Like many other village residents, he faced a cycle of poverty that seemed as much a force of nature as the passage of time. Being the youngest son in the family, his prospects were even worse since according to custom the family’s scant resources would succeed to his eldest brother. His parents did not lack for initiative. His father, who attained a rudimentary literacy while serving in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and 1878, tried unsuccessfully to augment the family’s meager agricultural income selling buns and pretzels during the pre-Lenten carnival festivities and religious holidays, times of merriment and large gatherings of potential customers. Discouraged, he considered moving the family to Siberia where land and opportunities appeared to abound. Stoliarov’s mother refused to move and instead tried her hand at changing fate and sent young Ivan to the newly opened parish school. Ivan quickly developed a taste for reading and raised money to continue his education at the district agricultural school by assisting the church choirmaster. Describing his experience at the agricultural school as “the best time of my life [because it] introduced me to culture and connected me to the rest of Russia,” Ivan hoped to introduce modern farming techniques in his village, but his plans were altered when he caught the eye of a wealthy patroness who was active in a political party advocating constitutional democracy. Unable to stay in Russia because of his political activities during the 1905 revolution, Ivan’s patroness funded his studies at the Sorbonne. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Ivan used his knowledge of French and training in agriculture to represent the young Soviet Union in Paris and, eventually, helped procure equipment for Stalin’s collectivization campaign before defecting to France. Although Stoliarov is mostly silent about his faith later in life, two things are clear in his memoir: his respect for religious customs and his conviction that his religious primary school education saved him from perpetuating the misery of his forebears. [19]

While Stoliarov’s rise from impoverished villager to representative of the Soviet collectivization program in Paris was exceptional, the transformative power of rural education was increasingly on display in the burgeoning factory labor force, as well as in the countryside. Newly literate peasants remaining in the village took positions of authority in the institutions created by the Great Reforms and served as community leaders, schoolteachers, agricultural specialists, and scribes for their illiterate neighbors. Rather than abandon their faith these new peasants modified it by integrating the knowledge they acquired through reading with their traditional belief systems, much as earlier generations had intermixed pagan and Christian faith systems. This combination of literacy and faith was a stated goal of the Education Statutes issued by the Ministry of Enlightenment between 1864 and 1866, which encouraged the peaceful coexistence between oral and literate mental worlds by using primary education to instill “religious and moral notions among the population and to spread useful basic knowledge.” [20] By the beginning of the twentieth century, the growth in publishers of popular literature fueled the peasant reading public’s taste for stories about adventure, success, exotic lands, and mysteries while offering a regular catalog of religious and moral tales. To satisfy literate believers’ proclivity for religious themes, in 1879, one of the most important centres of religious publishing, the Trinity-Sergius Monastery outside of Moscow, introduced its four-page Troitskie listki (Trinity Leaflets), which eventually included more than 1,500 titles with a circulation of more than 200 million copies. [21] Trinity-Sergius along with other monastery and church presses published saints’ lives, explanations of the faith, and pilgrimage stories that appealed to the religious curiosity of millions of Orthodox faithful in the countryside and cities. [22] Together, this new literary genre established unprecedented real and imagined connections between communities of believers and to important spiritual centers, shrines, and their sacred objects. [23]

Raising the literacy of peasants was easier to accomplish than introducing modern medicine and scientific solutions to perennial vulnerabilities as a result of cholera, poor crop yields, and epizootics that forced peasants to resort to familiar remedies that often included wondrous icons. When cholera threatened the village of Alekseev in the central province of Kaluga in 1848, the wonder-working Bogoliubskaia (Beloved) Mother of God icon, which was housed in the Church of the Resurrection in the neighboring district, offered its protection during an exceptional visit. During the cholera epidemic of 1870-1871, the peasants of Alekseev secured another loan from the icon’s owner and, subsequently, requested an annual visitation as a safeguard against the dreaded disease. When the Church of the Resurrection refused to lend its wondrous icon, 2,000 Alekseev faithful set off on a mini-pilgrimage to the sacred image and received permission to perform a special procession with the icon to commemorate both interventions. [24]

The presence of medical assistance did not discourage peasants from appealing to the healing powers of wondrous icons. [25] When faced with the ravages of the cholera outbreak during the summer of 1910, Staro-Pokrovskoe village in the southern province of Voronezh first appealed to the local medical inspector. When his modern medical treatments failed and the daily infection rate climbed from two to six, the faithful sent a delegation to the Divnogorsk monastery in nearby Korotoiak city to make a personal appeal for a temporary loan of the Sicilian Wonder-working Mother of God icon which had protected Staro-Pokrovskoe against cholera ten years earlier. The icon was so well known throughout south-central Russia that the feast day of the monastery church attracted thousands of pilgrims eager to worship in its midst. [26] Aware of the importance of the icon and its busy visitation schedule the Staro-Pokrovskoe community accepted a very brief loan of less than 24 hours. Despite the scorching 95-degree temperatures, nearly 2,000 parishioners met the “Dear Guest” in time for evening vespers. Because of the large crowd, the service was performed outdoors and was followed by a procession through the village with prayers recited at every intersection (which, according to local belief, was an especially dangerous place where evil spirits were known to wreak havoc on mortals). By one o’clock in the morning the icon entered the church and two hours later the bells rang to announce morning liturgy, which lasted several hours. Throughout the service the faithful beseeched the Mother of God to save their village from further calamity. Following the liturgy the icon was placed on a carriage and returned to the monastery. Six days later the epidemic ended. [27]

Although cholera outbreaks were devastating and frequent, a more regular concern was the harvest. A typical example is a parish in Meshchovsk district in centrally located Kaluga province which borrowed a wonder-working icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker that was transported from a neighboring parish annually and used in an icon procession to the fields. The icon itself was large and reportedly had a busy visitation schedule traveling a circuit of villages. When it arrived, the community gathered in the field where its priest recited prayers and sprinkled the soil with holy water to encourage rain. [28] In other communities lesser-known icons were also used in protective ceremonies and, as in everyday routines, regular sacred images belonging to the faithful were also considered to be powerful. To improve the possibilities of a good crop villagers like those in Likhvinsk district (Kaluga province) gathered at the communal fields for special prayer services. With peasants forming a semi-circle and all holding their own icons and candles, their priest blessed the fields with water and scattered a sack of grain that combined small contributions from every household in the community. After this the priest walked through the fields and sprinkled the soil with holy water before leading his parishioners back to the church. [29]

Sometimes a special icon caused an interruption in natural processes in order to communicate displeasure with local parish life. In the northern province of Olonetsk, two holidays marking the wondrous Troeruchitsa (Three-Handed) Mother of God drew more than 1,000 people from regional parishes (see Figure 2). After a celebratory liturgy, the icon was usually carried by two men to a nearby lake as the clergy, choir, and congregants sang hymns and recited prayers. During the procession pilgrims to the parish attempted to receive the aura of the icon by crawling beneath it three times. Upon its return to the church, the faithful decorated the icon with ritual towels and ribbons and left small donations as an expression of gratitude for blessings received. On one such occasion, a sunny autumn day in the mid 1890s, the icon “expressed its anger” against the local priest who often served the liturgy drunk and was inebriated on that occasion. Standing at the shore with the icon, the priest placed his cross in the water for a blessing when suddenly the wind picked up, the sky turned dark, and snow began to fall. Just as quickly the weather cleared and the warm sun reappeared. To all present this unexpected turn of events was a sign that the priest needed to change his ways. Unfortunately, the priest did not heed this warning and several years later arrived at the celebration inebriated and singing silly songs at the altar before arguing with the sober deacon. Before long the priest fell asleep at the altar. This scandalous behavior incensed pilgrims who quarreled with parishioners who inexplicably defended their priest and implicitly defended their use of the wondrous icon. [30]

Figure 2

Wonder-working Icon of the Three-Handed (Troeruchitsa) Mother of God Icon, Voronezh, Alekseevskii Akatov Monastery

Wonder-working Icon of the Three-Handed (Troeruchitsa) Mother of God Icon, Voronezh, Alekseevskii Akatov Monastery

-> See the list of figures

The sacred aura of traveling icons affected individuals and communities along the routes of processions to their temporary residences and these believers also became part of phenomenon. As an anthropomorphized guest of honor, the icon was treated with care by the local clergy and secular authorities, and greeted with the same respect, pomp, and ceremony accorded any visiting notable. [31] Such was the case when a wonder-working icon of the Mother of God visited Krasnoe village in Voronezh province in 1909. Annual visitations were a recent development and dated to around 1901. On this occasion, the afternoon of 18 August, an official from a neighboring village came to announce the icon’s arrival and soon a crowd gathered under the measured ringing of the church bells. A welcoming procession formed and the faithful began to sing an akathist hymn in expectation of the icon’s arrival. Unfortunately, news of the sacred image’s arrival was premature and the faithful waited more than three hours before the icon carriers were seen walking down a nearby hill. After a ceremonial greeting that was accompanied by short prayers, the icon was taken to the parish church as people fell to their knees, praying and crying. Following an all-night vigil the icon made the rounds of village homes before making its return journey. [32] In other communities, similar prayer services and expressions of reverence were repeated during loan periods as icons were carried to public buildings (such as the village school and the newly created people’s house of enlightenment and entertainment, or narodnyi dom), agricultural spaces of importance to the community (including local fields and granaries), and individual homes for special blessings. [33] Throughout this brief period of time, the mundane reality of everyday village life was transcended and the community itself became objectified both as a receiver of the special powers of the visiting icon and as the personification of Orthodox unity replete with its harmonious and contentious tendencies.

Tensions over Sacred Aura

Not surprisingly, the crop failure and cholera epidemics in 1891 and 1892, which were the last severe outbreaks before World War I, encouraged demand for established and newly discovered wonder-working icons that could not be met by the overwhelmed staffs of the Holy Synod and diocesan consistories. Peasants impatient with the slow progress of their petitions for visitation approval regularly skirted the process and negotiated their own terms with host communities. Aware of this development and ever concerned about spontaneous piety, the Holy Synod reminded bishops to adhere to the 1722 laws and issued updated regulations about ascertaining an icon’s wondrous nature. [34] An alleged wonder-working icon was to be brought to the local district cathedral or nearby monastery for inspection. Once an icon was officially declared wondrous, a description of its heritage and miracles attributed to it were to be reported to the Synod and often reprinted in diocesan newspapers, and finally it was to be returned to its home parish. While this process improved the status of icons that received official sanctioning, it naturally disappointed communities whose sacred images were deemed to be ordinary and, combined with denials of visitation requests, was viewed by local communities as an unwelcome exertion of episcopal power. Faced with increasing political and social divisions in Russia, the newly enacted religious toleration decree of 1905, and a lack of staff and will to enforce the regulations, the Synod became less concerned about its authority over icon visitations and authenticating special powers in the decade prior to World War I. [35]

These were the circumstances in which merchant Mikhail Petrov Boichevskii found himself in 1891 when he petitioned the Voronezh diocesan board on behalf of peasant believers in the large village of Urazova. According to Boichevskii, annual cross processions with the Icon of St. Nicholas from the Valuisk Uspenskii Monastery had protected Urazova from epidemics and crop failures since the 1830s. Although the diocesan consistory had previously approved the annual processions, in 1891 it denied the loan explaining that Urazova would now have to receive permission from the Holy Synod in faraway St. Petersburg. In the eyes of Boichevskii, the village council, and several hundred Urazova peasants who signed the petition (an indication of at least functional literacy), this delay had made the people vulnerable to the cholera epidemic and required a favorable resolution to forestall further destruction. In its response to the petition, the Holy Synod dismissed any connection between the visitation denial and the epidemic and reminded Urazova believers that a Synodal decree from 1871 had ordered the procession to be stopped because the village was not far from the monastery. Seventeen years later, in 1888, Urazova believers again had petitioned diocesan authorities for the visitation to be reinstated and again it was rejected for the additional reasons of a dispute between the Urazova clergy and Uspenskii monks about the division of income from the procession and concern about the safety of the icon (no additional information was given). In 1891, believers apparently tried to kidnap the icon and civil authorities had to be called in to guarantee its safety and restore order. In the end, the diocesan consistory agreed to a one-time reprieve and allowed a procession because Urazova children had suffered greatly from the epidemic. The consistory also permitted the procession every three or four years because the faithful demonstrated its piety, an agreement on revenue sharing had been made, the civil authorities agreed to provide security, and diocesan authorities’ feared that denying the visitation would perpetuate ill will among village residents. Despite this, the Holy Synod inexplicably overruled the diocesan decision and upheld the 1871 ban. [36]

Denial of a visitation often resulted in a community’s dogged persistence over many decades. This was the predicament of the Rossoshansk village during the crop failure and cholera epidemics of 1891 and 1892, when their request for a spring visitation of the Divnogorsk Monastery’s Sicilian Mother of God icon was refused. Monastery officials cited the overly committed visitation schedule of the icon, yet they also sought to lessen ill sentiment among the faithful by offering alternate dates that were later confirmed by the Holy Synod. The peasant petitioners objected, arguing that these dates fell during the annual spring flooding. [37] Fifteen years later with revolutionary fervor raging in the cities and villages and the war with Japan failing miserably, this same community decided to supersede diocesan and Synodal authorities and appealed directly to Tsar Nicholas II. In their telegram they requested that the Sicilian Mother of God icon be allowed to leave the Divnogorsk monastery and visit their community for a special prayer service to end the war against Japan. The telegram depicted local and diocesan authorities as obstructionist in their citation of a 1901 Synodal decree requiring the icon to remain in the monastery one-third of the year (in response to its absence the entire year in 1899) and the 1902 Synodal refusal of Rossoshansk’s request for a visitation. The telegram also alluded to discord between parishioners who supported the visitation and the local clergy who may have opposed it (this is implied in the telegram). Over the next four years a representative of the community repeatedly appealed to diocesan and Synodal authorities and apparently conceded defeat in 1909 when the records end. [38]

Discord within communities about the authenticity of an icon’s special powers could invite the unwanted attention of church authorities. In 1907, peasants from Loseva village (Voronezh province) disagreed about the alleged powers of the Punishment of the Perished Mother of God icon that belonged to Feodor Makogonov, a local peasant man, but which was kept in the parish church. Despite the fact that only Makogonov claimed to have been cured by the icon, local people streamed to the church to light candles and recite prayers before it, and to make donations to curry its favor. Diocesan authorities ordered an investigation which revealed that although the district church superintendent suspected the icon to be a fraud, he feared that a public denunciation would only create chaos and disorder among those who believed in its powers. Rather than correct the peasants’ errant ways, he visited the community and donated money in honor of the icon. In an attempt to put an end to the case, the diocesan board asked the district police to announce that scientific tests had shown the icon to be ordinary, and not wondrous. [39]

As church authorities, parish clergymen, believers, and secular critics engaged in public and private debates about popular piety and the role of religion in a modernizing Russia, peasants demonstrated another aspect of their ability to combine traditional devotional expression and modern innovation when they accepted the transference of sacred aura through the reproduction of wonder-working icons. Since the beginning of Christian iconography, carefully painted copies were essential to the spread of fundamental teachings of the faith and the establishment of a sense of a universal church. In Russia, a combination of apprenticeship and official supervision of icon painting began to break down with the appearance of the lubok (pl. lubki) or paper prints in the eighteenth century. Well into the nineteenth century, folk tales, princely warriors, and religious heroes were among the most popular themes of these simple one-page prints that peasants hung on the walls of their humble homes. Locally styled images of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, St. George the Dragon-Slayer, and the Mother of God, along with more formalized depictions of church teachings (e.g., the Last Judgment), and the well-known words of the Lord’s Prayer, suggest the comfortable mingling of popular and official Orthodoxy. A revolution in print and visual culture in the late nineteenth century built upon the lubok tradition and made use of the latest innovations, techniques, and materials to provide a spiritually thirsty population with cheap narodnye kartinki (paper prints) of their favorite icons. Religious imagery even made its way into advertising and, after 1908, seeped into the rapidly emerging domestic film industry although church authorities and cultural élites condemned the vulgarization of the sacred in advertising and on consumer products. Despite these condemnations, monasteries and shrines that attracted large numbers of visitors also took advantage of low-cost printing to distribute hundreds of thousands of paper icons to pilgrims. [40]

At the level of praxis, the rapid expansion of icon reproductions, many of them produced cheaply for sale or distribution to pilgrims at monasteries and shrines or at local markets and fairs, suggests that these spiritual clones shared at least some of the hierophantic powers of the originals. [41] Indeed, the influence of the original item increased as larger numbers of believers came into contact with mechanically reproduced facsimiles they received at a shrine or purchased on their own. [42] Contrary to Walter Benjamin’s assertion that the uniqueness of a work of art is “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” and that authenticity is not reproducible and is instead diluted through reproduction, in Russia mechanically mass-produced wonder-working icons allowed for the essential uniqueness to be shared with large groups of faithful who might never see the original icon. What mattered to the faithful was a symbolic transference of sacred aura through a copy’s filial relationship to the original, which could never be owned individually. [43]

The transference of the sacred aura of an original wondrous object, as well as a reproduction itself becoming wondrous, provides a clear example of the comfortable mixing of traditional belief with a modern mechanical process that appealed to believers and the standards of the Holy Synod. Icon reproductions reinforced the importance of the original image and increased popular knowledge of its “biography” while creating and expanding relationships between communities and the national church. [44] While the original icon retained a certain individuality the image’s location and uniqueness became less important as its surrogate copies circulated the countryside and took up residence locally in one of the many radiating geographic circles that aligned communities of believers with the idea of a national church. Accordingly, many Orthodox communities assembled their own pantheons of saints, icons, or other religious items (such as holy oil from a faraway shrine), which provided spiritual insurance against the many uncertainties of life that persisted even as believers increasingly benefited from modern medicine, improved diets, education, and economic opportunities as a result of industrialization and modernization. This menagerie of spiritual transmitters made the relationship between believer and thaumaturgic object both local and personal. Farther along the geographic radius of what William Christian has called the “territory of grace,” more and more Orthodox faithful shared increasingly larger senses of identity that included provincial and, eventually, national symbols (e.g., relics of all-Russian saints) and practices (e.g., pilgrimage and behavior at shrines). Increasingly, the territories of grace coincided to bring together all Russian Orthodox Christians under a common umbrella of identity.  [45]

When distance prohibited the visitation of wonder-working icons, villages ordered reproductions to be made and local enterprises were eager to fill the orders. When the founder of the prosperous Rakochyi metachromotype (metakhromotipiia) factory died in the mid 1870s, he left behind a robust business that produced icons for church and individual use. The factory’s workers — perhaps fearing for their livelihoods as much as their declared hope to satisfy the spiritual needs of their customers — appealed to Metropolitan Isidor of Novgorod to allow them to keep the factory open to complete current standing orders and to receive new ones. [46] The Rakochyi factory was part of a proliferating industry of icon publishing that two decades later prompted an exchange of sorts in a prominent theological publication in the capital, Tserkovnyi vestnik, the journal of the élite St. Petersburg Theological Academy that was read by bishops and better educated clergy and laypeople. In a question and answer column entitled, “In the Realm of Church-Parish Praxis,” which addressed matters of widespread concern to clergy and laity, a question from a column in 1896 asked if permission was required if a diocesan publishing house wished to photograph and then mass-produce copies of locally revered icons. In a terse response, the editor explained that both the photograph and copies required permission from ecclesiastical authorities because the resulting products were intended for sale, thus implying that the line between acceptable and unacceptable use of reproductions was situational rather than rooted in theological teachings. But the question of authenticity was carefully avoided and readers likely assumed that attributes belonging to the original icons transferred to the photographic offspring. [47] More problematic was the growing production of cheap and derivative icon reproduction that replaced divine inspiration with commercial aspirations. The millions of icons officially sanctioned at the centres of commercial folk art in the villages of Palekh, Kholui, and Mstera in the central province of Vladimir were widely known within Russia and provided a more sophisticated “people’s” variation of folk icon depictions in lubki. The influential Imperial Committee for the Guardianship of Icon Painting (which functioned from 1901 to 1909) drew the line at new metallic icons and launched a vigorous and ultimately unsuccessful attack against this new vulgarization of spiritual aesthetics. The fact that these companies also produced tins for ordinary consumer products does not seem to have troubled the Synodal episcopate, which expressed its desire to satisfy the spiritual needs of the faithful while providing them with canonically correct icons. [48]

For personal devotion, most peasant believers could purchase a cheaply reproduced icon at a shrine or a local market from traveling salesmen hawking their collection of religious collectibles and thereby hope to receive the protection of a particular icon’s saint. Believers in Aduevo village in Kaluga province purchased icons at the local market from itinerant peddlers from Moscow and Vladimir and showed a preference for the Kazan or Tikhvin Mother of God and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. While religious items sold at shrines almost by definition were deemed by the faithful to be trustworthy, the goods of traveling merchants were looked upon suspiciously in part because these wandering hawkers were strangers; but they were also known to be swindlers who substituted more expensive icons with those of lesser value or one image with another. [49] When a peddler at a Kaluga market sold an icon of the horse-mounted St. Gregory the Victorious in full pursuit of a dragon instead of one depicting St. Vlasii, the patron saint of cattle frequently depicted riding a chariot who would protect livestock, the woman who bought it from him took a closer look and then scolded him saying, “What sort of St. Vlasii is that? It seems that Vlasii is on some sort of horse ….” The clever salesman defended himself by claiming that even Vlasii rode on a horse and the woman relented with a degree of skepticism only after being called an ignorant fool. [50]

Surrogates of well-known icons became integrated into local praxis. Communities in the Khvalynsk district in the southern province of Saratov diverted their limited resources to the purchase of icons that were believed to possess special power in the hope that they would provide protection against common maladies, which were treatable by the modern medicine that had not yet reached their villages. [51] In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the elders of the small village of Khvoshchevatoe (again in Voronezh province) ordered a copy of the wonder-working Kozel’shchinskaia Mother of God icon, which had begun to display miraculous powers only a few years earlier, from the Kozel’shchinsk Nativity-Mother of God Monastery in Poltava province in nearby Ukraine. [52] The icon arrived in the capital of Voronezh and was met by a delegation that stopped in several villages along the route to Khvoshchevatoe. A crowd of peasants met the arriving party and proceeded to the church for ceremonial prayers. As parishioners paid their respects to the icon the church choir sang hymns to the Mother of God. [53] Through this copy of the Kozel’shchinsk icon — an “offspring” of the original — believers from Khvoshchevatoe created a symbolic link with the host monastery.

As icon proxies became commonplace in late tsarist Russia they served as substitutes rather than replacements for contact with the original objects of veneration which required the traditional arduous journey from home to sacred shrine. The two experiences were never equivalent in the hearts of peasant faithful, yet the availability of cheap reproductions and the temporary visit of wondrous icons were considered acceptable alternatives to pilgrimage. One can assume a hierarchy of hierophantic encounters ranging from religious travel to tin reproductions, but the implicit shared experience that accompanied these items was an attempt by the peasant faithful to reconcile their traditional way of life with the rapidly changing modern world that industrialization and urbanization forced on them.

Icons and Modern Orthodox Identity

Among the many social and cultural changes that swept across the Russian landscape in the decades leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, the increased mobility of wonder-working icons that the faithful borrowed to protect against disease, ensure good harvests, and provided blessings helped peasants as they encountered the uncertainties brought by perennial poverty. Throughout the late imperial period, peasant Russia looked to icons first and foremost as living entities whose anthropomorphized subjects mediated between believer and God the Creator, and, second, as vehicles of communication between individuals and groups of believers who shared the same faith in wonder-working powers. The expansion of the railroad and the availability of affordable train travel and reliable highways facilitated the growth in pilgrimage among peasants who visited, often for the first time, faraway holy places of importance to Russian Orthodoxy. Despite this growth, pilgrimage remained a minority experience and the vast majority of peasants used improved transportation to move holy objects safely and quickly from village to village. For an even larger number of faithful the mass reproduction of icons changed the nature of their participation in a larger Orthodox experience. While church officials looked suspiciously on unsanctioned visitations, they also tacitly acknowledged what has recently been described as a “dialogue with the world” centred on modernity and the way the faithful “‘embraced,’ ‘accommodated,’ and ‘adapted’” to it, as well as their retrenchment through spirituality. [54]

Such was the case of the small district capital of Biriuch in Voronezh province which, during the cholera epidemic of 1847, borrowed the wonder-working icon of the Tikhvin Mother of God that was housed in the nearby village of Userd. One of the most popular sacred images in late imperial Russia, the Tikhvin Mother of God icon was originally from Constantinople (see Figure 3). The icon survived the onslaught of the iconoclasts during one of the most contentious theological controversies of the Byzantine period, disappeared, and then mysteriously reappeared in the fourteenth century to simple fishermen on the northern Lake Ladoga. A chapel was built in honor of the icon in the nearby forest and later the icon was transported to the Tikhvin monastery in Novgorod. Symbolically, this icon represented the translation of Orthodox Christianity’s most holy city, the second Rome or Constantinople, to the territory of the northern reaches of early modern Muscovy, whose capital would become known as the third and final Rome. When the Userd community obtained its own redaction of the image, not only did it allude to this connection to the ancient seat of Orthodox Christianity, but also the miraculous powers of the original version appeared to have been transferred. After Biriuch city officials ascribed the immediate end of the cholera epidemic upon the arrival of the Tikhvin Mother of God icon, they spent 22 years sending petitions to diocesan authorities and the Holy Synod requesting an annual visitation until permission was granted in 1869. [55] Biriuch’s good fortune was quickly noted by nearby Noven’kaia village located on the route from Userd to Biriuch. Undeterred by the denial of their request for its own annual visitation by the wondrous icon, Noven’kaia believers requested to become an unofficial rest stop for the procession between Userd and Biriuch. When the Holy Synod denied even this limited request, the village was prevented from establishing its own special relationship with the Tikhvin Mother of God icon, a sore point that became part of its communal narrative. [56]

Figure 3

Tikhvin Mother of God Icon. Church of Ipatev Monastery, Kostroma

Tikhvin Mother of God Icon. Church of Ipatev Monastery, Kostroma

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The faithful’s desires were not always met but they remained fervently hopeful as can be seen in the determination of Biriuch, as well as the persistence of Noven’kaia, which continued long after the community published its complaint in the pages of a diocesan newspaper and lamented that it had become only an unofficial stopping point on the route of an important icon visitation. Rather than abandon ancient reverence for icons and belief in their wonder-working powers or become disillusioned with church authorities who stood between them and the objects of their spiritual desire, peasant communities throughout the Russian countryside adapted tradition to the new exigencies of seasonal factory labor, personal mobility, and literacy that were set into motion with the emancipation of the serfs and the subsequent Great Reforms. The hybrid culture that emerged included a belief in the miraculous, which was essential in a society unable to provide basic medical services and agricultural expertise to its population or to solve the ever deepening social and moral crises that plagued the last decades of empire. As the provincial press expanded and provided outlets for local folklorists, ethnographers, and historians, the written word provided a new means of spreading knowledge about wondrous icons and their locations at the same time revolutionary movements at the beginning of the twentieth century increasingly destabilized traditional life. While not always aware of it, traveling religious images reminded both literate and illiterate Russians of the basic cultural fragments that bound them together as members of the same faith, despite the range of devotional expression, and as inheritors and creators of Orthodoxy’s central narratives.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes