Russian Bronze and Brass Traveller Icons


   Icons are the most characteristic objects identifying the eastern Orthodox faith from other Christian denominations. They are present in great number in Orthodox churches as well as in the homes of the believers where they are venerated as the precious holly objects. Orthodox worship is an intricate combination of spiritual intensity and sensual perception. It is based on a belief in the inseparable link of the spiritual and material aspects of humanity and the mystery of the Incarnation. Icons can be beautiful examples of artistic creativity, but they are also “windows” into the other world. Hence icons often contain a deep theological and philosophical meaning.

   Icons are usually painted on wooden panel in egg tempera technique, but there is a special group of metal icons of small dimensions. They are usually of portative character and they are referred to as traveller’s icons. Traditionally they were carried by believers during long journeys as a protection and a subject of devotion, offering a possibility to a traveller to prey where ever he is. Portative traveller’s icons could be in a form of triptych or diptych (or in some instances of other kinds of polyptych). But the most commonly used were single plate icons, often with a small loop so that they could be suspended on a fine leather cord and worn around the neck. Icon worn as a pendant on chests is also known as panagia or encolpion.

   Traveller icons were cast in metal, usually in bronze or brass. Afterword the details of the represented scene were incised into the surface, usually very meticulously with many features depicted. The further decoration in polychrome champlevé enamel was also used as a prominent characteristic of some more precious Russian metal icons, reflecting the influence of Byzantine art.

   Small cast metal Christian icons were known in Kiev by the 10th century. They arrived with Byzantine travellers, soldiers and prisoners even before the baptism of the Russ in 988. The old tradition of casting metal icons persisted until the 17th century in Novgorod and Pskov. The end of the 17th century saw cultural and religious changes with pervasion of Western European influences into the Russian culture and state. Thus the emerging of religious conservatives was provoked, and they soon came to be known as the “Old Believers”.

   The Old Believers came in to existence during the region of Tsar Alexis as a result of the decisions of the Moscow councils in 1666 – 1667, which reformed the established liturgical texts and practices. During the reigns of Tsar Alexis and his successors there were enacted a variety of laws and decrees limiting the social and religious rights of the Old Believers. Nevertheless, from the second half of the 17th century in to the middle of the 19th century, they were founding many enclaves where they nurtured Old Russian cultural and religious traditions.

   They also came to dominate the production of metal icons. The most use of bronze and brass icons in the period from the 17th century and onward was made by the Old Believers and their followers. They were present in their religious observances and they were meaning of expressing the ardour for traditional Russian Orthodox Christian fate.

   Bronze and brass icons and crosses were deeply rooted in the Russian religious history. Hence they were of great importance for the Old Believers, who regarded themselves as the true keepers of the Russian Orthodox Christianity. The first centre of production of Old Believer metal icons was in the North of the Russian Empire, in Pomore region by the White Sea. The earliest dated metal icons are from 1719 and 1731, but they are among rare dated artefacts of this kind, since the practise of incising years on metal icons generally was uncommon.    

   Moscow also became an important centre of manufacture and trading in metal icons, especially after 1771 when Old Believers community became firmly established in the capital. By the middle of the 19th century the major areas for casting metal icons were the provinces of Moscow, Olonets and Yaroslavl, as well as the number of places in the province of Nizhniy Novgorod.

   It is interesting to mention that in 1723 (during the reign of Peter the Great) Holly Governing Synod of Russian Orthodox Church forbade the casting and selling of holly images made of metal. It is possible that this decision was made because of the need of the government to conserve metal for military purposes so the large-scale minting of metal objects was required. Though the producing and selling of bronze and brass icons remained technically illegal into the 19th century, they were largely produced and the trading was conducted openly all over Russian Empire.


Literary source: “Russian Copper Icons and Crosses from the Kunz Collection: Castings of Faith” group of authors, editors Richard Eighme Ahlborn and Vera Beaver – Bricken Espinola, published by Smithson Institution Press.