A note on Russian Metal Icons
Small-scale metal icons represent an enduring and popular tradition in Russia that originates from the time of the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity in the 10th century. Russian archaeologists working in Novgorod discovered bronze amulets dating from as far back as the Scythians (2000 BC) who made small animal figures in gold and which had cultic, if not magical, powers. Thus the appearance of Byzantine Christian miniature metal icons, mostly found in Kiev, indicates a natural continuity in a long established popular tradition.
Miniature metal icons were first collected by Russian antiquarians in the 19th century. The first catalogue we know is that of the Khanenko Collection published in1899, (fig. a.).
The first major scholarly undertaking was the catalogue, published in Moscow in 1960, of an exhibition held in the Zagorsk Museum. (Today the name Zagorsk has reverted to its pre-Revolutionary name: Sergeiev-Posad.) In the intervening period a number of academic studies have been made mostly notably in Germany: Jeckel, S. 1. Russische Metall-Ikonen in Formand gegossener Glaube, Bramsche, 1981 and 2. Heiligtümer aus dem Schmelztiegel, Bramsche, 2000. For English readers see Berger, G. Images of Eternity, 150 Bronze Masterpieces of the Russian Old Believers from the Collection of Guiseppe Berger, Museo delle Ikone Russe “F. Bigazzi”, Peccioli, Italy, 2005.
The preferred material is copper and its alloys, bronze and brass. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, brass an alloy of copper and zinc. It can be difficult to distinguish between them. The craftsman works on a model in low relief. There are two principle casting techniques: the method of using molten wax (‘lost wax’) and that of open-sand casting. Enamelling is the technique of causing coloured glass to fuse onto a metal surface.
The Dormition (‘Falling Asleep’) is one of the Twelve ‘Great Feasts’ of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on August 15. The icon concludes the series of Festival icons on the Tchin (order) of the Iconostasis. The tradition of the death – or rather non-death, merely ‘falling asleep’ – of the Virgin is widely and differently understood according to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglican point of view. The discussion is further complicated by the separate, though closely related, concept of the ‘Assumption’ of Mary, in both body and soul, into heaven. The event has no historical foundation and is not referred to in the Bible. Historians generally agree that the festal celebration of the Dormition can be traced to Jerusalem at the end of the 4th century but not earlier. Other indications refer to texts (and possible images) of the 5th and 6th centuries. Theological firm ground begins to appear in the writings of John of Damascus and John I of Thessalonike in the 8th century, though these authors both draw on apocryphal or legendary material attributed to James the Brother of the Lord.
The earliest representations in art are found in ivories and steatite miniature carvings from Constantinople in the 10th century by which time the iconography, which will remain unchanged for the next thousand years, is fully formed. The classical image shows the Mother of God lying on her deathbed surrounded by the twelve apostles and to which group are added two, three or sometimes four bishops. Behind her Christ holds her soul, in the form of a small child or eidolon. Between the 12th and 14th centuries the composition is sometimes more elaborate including angels who will receive Mary’s soul and carry it up to heaven, mourning women and, most elaborate of all, the scene where the twelve apostles floating on clouds witness the entry of Mary through the heavenly gates into Paradise. Another incident is often included where the non-believer Jephonias, who dared to touch the sacred bier, has his hands cut off by the Archangel Michael. (They were later miraculously restored when he converted to Christianity.)
A similar icon is preserved in the Berger Collection, Italy (see Barbnsi, I. Ivolti Dell’Eternita, Museo di Icone Russe, Peccioli, Italy, 2005, No. 40, p. 62.) See fig. c.