Printer Friendly

Mountain last judgment and rural apocalypse: patterns of imagery.

John-Paul Himka, Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians. 368 pp., illus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0802098092. $75.00.

Gleb Markelov and Arina Bil'diug, eds., Litsevye apokalipsisy Russkogo Severa: Rukopisi XVII-XIX vv. iz fondov Drevlekhranilishcha Pushkinskogo doma (Illuminated Apocalypses of the Russian North: 17th- to 19th-Century Manuscripts from the Pushkin House Archives). 172 pp., illus. St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Pushkinskogo doma, 2008. ISBN-13 978-5877810051.

Both books reviewed here deal with regions that may be described as peripheries of the Orthodox world. In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, the Carpathian Mountains and the nearby foothills sheltered small monastic communities that were never important cultural centers, and their libraries were at most modest. Wooden churches in highland Rusyn villages did not boast of frescoes similar to those painted in the stone churches of Muscovy, Moldavia, and the Balkans. In peasant, mainly Old Believer, communities in the Russian North, the medieval traditions and religious imagery remained preserved for two centuries after the painful ruptures of the religious schism and reforms of Peter the Great. Both in the Russian North and the Carpathians, everyday religious experience, hopes, and, even more so, fears were imbued with eschatological imagery that is not always easy to decipher. The Last Judgment icons and the illuminated Apocalypses shaped and at the same time reflected the beliefs and the changing worldview of these communities and serve as one of the keys to a better understanding of medieval religious culture, including both political theology and popular demonology.

Yet Eastern Orthodox eschatological imagery remains for historians largely unexplored territory, if not a terra incagnita. The principal Byzantine and Old Russian apocrypha, treaties, and homilies about the end of the world or the struggle between angels and demons were published as late as the 19th century. Still, the historical and cultural importance of the visual material contained in these complex sources is generally underestimated by scholars.

In the last two years the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) in St. Petersburg and the University of Toronto Press have brought us two books that throw light on the eschatological imagery of the Carpathian region in the 15th-16th centuries and the Russian North from the 18th to the end of the 19th centuries. Although these books have almost nothing in common in terms of their analytical objectives and ambitions, both nonetheless provide valuable insights for analyzing the relations between ecclesiastical teaching and popular religion.

Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians, by John-Paul Himka of the University of Alberta, is more than a highly specialized iconographic study. The author not only explores the Last Judgment imagery in the Carpathian region, tracing the paths and mechanisms of its development, but tries to answer a broader question: is it possible to speak about a specifically Ukrainian sacred art in the early modern period? Illuminated Apocalypses of the Russian North, by the Russian scholars Gleb Markelov and Arina Bil'diug, is not a scholarly study in the proper sense of the term but rather an album, accompanied by an essay that presents the modern reader with the tradition of manuscript Apocalypses written, painted, mediated, and transmitted from generation to generation by the Old Believers.

The Carpathian tradition of Last Judgment iconography originated in the 15th century in the large region that includes present-day western Ukraine, southeastern Poland, and eastern Slovakia. The area was inhabited by Rusyns/Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Romanians. What is special about the Carpathians is that it has always been a border region, open to multiple cultural and religious influences from Moldavia, the Balkans, Poland, remote Rus' principalities, and eventually Muscovy. Nevertheless, Himka's research shows that the Last Judgment tradition examined represents a unique combination of characteristics that cannot be reduced to the sum of borrowed motifs and themes.

After briefly tracing the origin of the principal elements of Orthodox Last Judgment iconography, the author explains how the distinctly Carpathian type of Last Judgment came into being, and how during the 15th-17th centuries it accumulated a wide set of new motifs: the personification of death, a new topography of hell and a new social typography of its inhabitants, new ways of representing the tollbooths and the particular judgment of each soul, scenes of insincere confession, and so on. He concludes this survey spanning 400 years by showing how in the 18th century the tradition eventually disintegrated.

Soviet art historians usually believed that the most (or even the only) important things in Last Judgment iconography were the "social" elements: the representatives of various professional categories--usurers, millers, tavern maids, musicians, blacksmiths--tormented in hell by demons. These figures and their representation in icons were regarded as sensitive barometers of the socio-economic contradictions in the early modern Ukrainian countryside. Himka shows that most of these motifs are derived from multiple scriptural or visual sources such as, for example, post-Byzantine Greek or Moldavian Last Judgment icons. That is why they cannot be interpreted either as a direct commentary on the social conditions at the time the icon was painted or as a univocal manifestation of the so-called Ukrainian religious mentality that allegedly opposed both Catholic Poland and Orthodox Muscovy. The Last Judgment icons can and should be used as a source for reconstructing major social trends and the processes of nation building, but the relationship between iconography and these profound processes is much more complex than it is commonly believed.

Whatever its initial purpose, Himka's book is thus implicitly directed both against the vulgar sociology of many Soviet art historians and the vulgar ultranationalistic essentialism of many colleagues from present-day Ukraine. This particular stance links the Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians to Himka's earlier works on the history of the Ukrainian national movement and Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the 19th and 20th centuries, the destinies of the Greek Catholic Church, and the place of the Holocaust in the historical consciousness of contemporary Ukrainian society. (1) Indeed, it was this interest in memory and identity that prompted him to explore Last Judgment iconography. (2) Himka is questioning the major assumptions of the nationalistic trend in contemporary Ukrainian art history, which tends to project the idea of a Ukrainian nation back to the medieval and early modern period. In his view, its proponents exaggerate the degree of cultural continuity between Kievan Rus' and Rusyn/Ukrainian culture of early modern times.

Contrary to what Himka expected when he was conceiving the project, the history of Carpathian Last Judgment icons cannot be traced back to Kievan Rus' or a hypothetical Kyiv-Halych tradition of icon painting. There is almost no continuity between the earliest surviving representations of the Last Judgment (for example in the Kievan Psalter of 1397) and the later icons on wood that he is studying. Whereas Himka's predecessors and colleagues often highlight homogeneity and continuity, he emphasizes rupture: his history starts not from the very beginnings of Rus' Christianity but from the 15th century. He shows that the Carpathian Last Judgment icons follow the prototypes developed in northern Rus' lands, primarily in Novgorod, which were in turn based on Byzantine iconographic models. The most characteristic feature of Carpathian and Muscovite Last Judgment icons is the representation of tollbooths on the snake going from the mouth of a two-headed beast of hell to the heel of Adam.

The kind of history practiced by Himka is highly sensitive to the microregional context of icon production (mountains and plains, the "migration" of motifs within the region), the cultural background of painters (first more skillful monks, later lay artisans), and the evolution of materials that led to changes in the iconography (from linden boards to canvas and murals). Himka combines the diachronic study of selected motifs (the tollbooths, the "new hell," the almsgiving fornicator) with a synchronic analysis of the structure of several selected icons. He shows how the Last Judgment imagery "works" without searching for the profound pagan origins of certain motifs or using psychoanalytical terminology often employed to decipher the horrors of the medieval hell. (3)

Himka draws attention to an interesting fact: all the major iconographic innovations in Carpathian Last Judgment icons from the 15th to the 17th centuries occurred almost exclusively in the bottom part of the icon, where hell was represented with all its inhabitants. "Additions were made primarily with reference to death, sin, punishment, and hell, a tendency that ... grew in importance as the icons evolved" (109). It is interesting to note that the same tendency can be seen in contemporary Last Judgment icons from Muscovy. If we compare the oldest surviving Last Judgment icon from the Kremlin Assumption Cathedral (end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries) or the famous Novgorodian Last Judgment (middle or third quarter of the 15th century) to the numerous icons painted in the 16th and even more in the 17th centuries, we see that the zone of hell is expanding, and the torments are becoming much more diversified and "naturalistic"--that is, realistic in their depiction.


What remains unclear from Himka's account is whether the major line of iconographic development that he traces ("The First Carpathian Elaboration" in the 15th and the first half of the 16th century and the "Further Elaboration of the Carpathian Elements" in the 16th-18th centuries) was peculiar to his region or reflected general tendencies in the evolution of Orthodox eschatological imagery. I give only one example: the so-called "new hell" does not exist in the prototypical Byzantine iconography and appears only in the oldest Carpathian icons. By "new hell" Himka means adding to the classical list of torments mentioned in the New Testament some elaborate, cruel, sometimes strikingly naturalistic scenes of the sinners' torments in the Carpathian icons: a childless woman with serpents attached to her breasts, a slanderer hanging by his tongue, and so on. The analysis of these elements proposed by Himka, including his argument that they cannot be reduced to social peculiarities of particular regions, is totally convincing (66-71, 119-26, 131-32). Nevertheless, the same differentiation in the torments of hell occurs in Muscovite sacred art. When Himka speaks about northern Rus' influence on the Carpathian Last Judgment imagery he cites only one, probably the most famous, example--the previously mentioned icon from Novgorod. If one compares the scenes of hell from many Carpathian icons to that single Rus' example, it is easy to conclude that the "new hell" was a uniquely Carpathian elaboration. But if one looks closer at the wide range of 16th- or 17th-century Last Judgment icons from Moscow, Novgorod, or Iaroslavl', one finds almost the same "new hell" with its numerous inhabitants. (4) What is still needed, then, is an analysis of the history of the imagery of hell in various Orthodox countries in order to elucidate the role in its evolution played by a common theological basis, Western (Catholic) influences, and local internal factors. (5)

The social history of sacred art should be concerned not only with production but also with the perception--or rather multiple perceptions--of icons and their concrete "usage." Himka draws our attention to one interesting phenomenon: the deliberate effacement or the removal of hell from icons and murals in the 18th century (179-82). Church officials, both from the Orthodox and the Uniate sides, ordered scenes of hell destroyed if they seemed shocking and inappropriate because of their grotesque style and acute social criticism. This reaction has much in common not only with censure and iconoclasm but also with the phenomenon of erasure, the painting over or destruction of demonic faces and obscene images analyzed by Michael Camille on the basis of Western medieval material. (6)

Images are destroyed, disfigured, or effaced not only because they are obscene or theologically and ideologically "incorrect," but also because they are too powerful or too attractive, or because they are feared. We know that in many medieval Western manuscripts the images of devils or the tormentors of Christ were obliterated by readers who either feared their malignant gaze or tried to "avenge" Christ's sufferings. (7) In Muscovy we have also hundreds or maybe thousands of images where the faces of demons or heretics were effaced or crossed out. (8) We cannot generally say when and who damaged the images, but such deliberate and specific destruction appears in all kinds of manuscripts, from the modest saints' lives to the luxurious volumes of Ivan the Terrible's Letopisnyi svod. (9) This phenomenon invites us to look more closely at the spiritual and artistic censorship described by Himka. It would be necessary to know if the officially guided process of censure simultaneously affected all types of demonic images (for example, in other icons and in manuscript illumination) and whether it was also extended to the texts treating the demonological subjects in a manner deemed inappropriate by existing authorities.

While Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians proposes a historical view of the formation, development, and disintegration of the Last Judgment iconography in one particular region, the album published by Gleb Markelov and Arina Bil'diug pursues less ambitious goals but nonetheless promises to become a precious tool for scholars studying Russian eschatological imagery.

Markelov's and Bil'diug's book is one of the first attempts to acquaint the public with the tradition of the illuminated Apocalypses of the Russian North. This was a region where Old Believers' communities, rejecting not only the "new faith" but also the new Europeanized culture, managed to maintain Old Russian literary and manuscript traditions for nearly two centuries after their break from the official church. The legal interdiction on printing Old Believer books was lifted in the Russian Empire only in 1905. This restriction partly explains the importance and the survival of the manuscript book in the Russian North. The Book of Revelation occupied an eminent place in the peasant collections of such manuscript books. It could be read not only as a symbolic description of church history, a prophecy about the last days, and an "instruction" for the faithful on how to resist the forces of evil, but as a key to contemporary events identifying the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet with Tsar Alexei Mikhailovitch, Patriarch Nikon, and Peter the Great. For the Old Believers, the Apocalypse was a polemic and sometimes subversive reading.

Illuminated Apocalypses presents a selection of images from 11 manuscripts ranging from the end of the 17th to the end of the 19th centuries. The structure of the book imitates the division of the text of Revelations into 72 chapters (this division was the most common one in the manuscript tradition) and provides each chapter with one or more miniatures. Each image is accompanied by a selection of verses from the Book of Revelation in modern Russian translation corresponding to each detail of the miniature. It would be more useful if the text were given in extenso (it would show which elements of the text were "translated" into visual narrative and which were omitted) and if the Slavonic text were added (to see how the verbal metaphors were systematically transformed into visual).

A peculiarity of the album is that it presents not the richly decorated manuscripts with elaborate iconography commissioned for the monastic libraries or the private usage of powerful church or lay dignitaries, but rather specimens of books intended for relatively wide distribution among the Old Believers. (10) The album reunites the simpler, sometimes even primitive illuminated Apocalypses often possessed by peasant families. It is sufficient to compare the earliest images from the end of the 17th century to the numerous miniatures dating to the 18th or 19th centuries to see how the traditional "medieval" demons and beasts give way to the unskilled, "childish," but unconventional and strikingly individual images bearing almost no trace of the traditional iconography. This is a good example of the disintegration and even more of the marginalization of the iconographic tradition akin to what happened with the Carpathian Last Judgment icons in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It would probably be inaccurate to say that this tradition remains totally unknown to the wider public, but the Apocalypse illumination and, generally speaking, Old Russian eschatological imagery is better known through descriptions than through reproductions. The famous and still valuable study of Fedor Buslaev published in 1884 remains the only attempt to look at apocalyptic illumination as a whole and to analyze systematically its iconography. (11) But Buslaev's study itself and especially its second volume, with hundreds of color and black-and-white plates, has become a bibliographic rarity. In 1995, Indrik Publishers produced a valuable illustrated catalogue of the illuminated Apocalypses from the manuscript department of the Russian State Library. (12) Nevertheless, we are still in need of a new complex and representative iconographic study that takes hundreds of Apocalypses into account and, what is crucial, entails the systematically organized set of illustrations presenting all known variants of the same subject or personage--from the four apocalyptic horsemen to the angels of winds, from Satan and Antichrist to the personified Hell and Death. (13)

Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians and Illuminated Apocalypses of the Russian North help us understand the social functions of medieval sacred art and to analyze the complex dialectics of what was seen and what was to be believed, of the material and mental images of the invisible. A further study of apocalyptic imagery would need to analyze not only how the illuminated Apocalypses were produced and how their iconographic programs were conceived but also how they were used and interpreted.

Russian State University for the Humanities

Marc Bloch Russian-French Center for Historical Anthropology

6, Miusskaia Street

125993 Moscow, Russian Federation

(1) John-Paul Himka, Socialism in Galicia: The Emergence of Polish Social Democracy and Ukrainian Radicalism, 1860-1890 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); Himka, Religion and Nationality in Western Ukraine: The Greek Catholic Church and the Ruthenian National Movement in Galicia, 1867-1900 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999).

(2) See Himka's earlier studies: "On the Left Hand of God: 'Peoples' in Ukrainian Icons of the Last Judgment," in State, Societies, Cultures East and West: Essays in Honor of Jaroslaw Pelenski, ed. Janusz Duzinkiewicz et al. (New York: Ross Publishing, 2004), 317-49; "The Icon of the Last Judgment in the Village of Roztoka, Transcarpathia," in Zachodnioukrainska sztuka cerkiewna, pt. 2: Materiaty z miedzynarodowej konferencji naukowej Lancut-Kotan 17-18 kwietnia 2004 roku, ed. Jaroslaw Giemza (Lancut: Muzeum-Zamek w Lancucie; Narodowy Naukowo-Badawczy Osrodek Konserwatorski Ukrainy, Oddziat we Lwowie, 2004), 363-80; "What Constitutes a Ukrainian Cultural Artifact? The Case of Images of the Last Judgment," in Ukraine's Re-Integration into Europe: A Historical, Historiographical, and Politically Urgent Issue, ed. Giovanni Brogi Bercoff and Giulia Lami (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2005), 227-41; "'Social' Elements in Ukrainian Icons of the Last Judgment (through the Eighteenth Century)," in Letters from Heaven: Popular Religion in Russia and Ukraine, ed. Himka and Andriy Zayarnyuk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 235-50.

(3) Such is the approach of Vladimir Tsodikovich, Semantika ikonografii "Strashnogo suda" v russkom iskusstve XV-XVI vv. (Ul'ianovsk: Ul'ianovskoe oblasmoe gazemoe izdatel'stvo, 1995).

(4) There remains, nevertheless, an important difference. In Muscovy representations of the "new hell," with all its sophisticated torments and complex topography, we do not find any trace of the "ethnographic" elements (dancers, drunkards, tavern maids, etc.) which are common to the Carpathian Last Judgment icons. In Muscovy similar scenes can be found not in icons but in the manuscript illumination of the 17th-18th centuries: in the countless Lives of Basil the New, sinodiki, and various miscellanies centered on eschatological subjects.

(5) An interesting example of the comparative study of two Last Judgment iconographic traditions is provided by Lilya Berezhnaya, "Sub specie Mortis: Ruthenian and Russian Last Judgment Icons Compared," European Review of History/Revue europeenne d'histoire 11, 1 (2004): 5-32.

(6) Michael Camille, "Obscenity under Erasure: Censorship in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts," in Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 139-55.

(7) See the faces of the Roman warriors flagellating Christ from a 15th-century Book of Hours from the Netherlands (London, British Library, Ms. Harley 2982, fol. 31v.).

(8) For a demon with a partly erased face in a 17th-century sinodik, see Rossiiskaia natsional'naia biblioteka (RNB) Q.I.1152, 1. 2.

(9) See, for example, the erased face of Cain in Litsevoi letopisnyi svod: Faksimil'noe izdanie rukopisi XVI v., 10 vols., 1: Muzeinyi sbornik, pt. 1 (Moscow: Akteon, 2006), 21.

(10) For a richly decorated 17th-century Apocalypse, see, for example, Rossiiskaia gosudarstvennaia biblioteka (RGB) f. 173.I, no. 14.

(11) Fedor Buslaev, Russkii litsevoi Apokalipsis: Svod izobrazhenii po russkim rukopisiam s XVI-go veka po XIX-i, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1884).

(12) Otkrovenie sv. Ioanna Bogoslova v mirovoi knizhnoi traditsii: Katalog vystavki (Moscow: Indrik, 1995).

(13) We can cite as example of such complex study a well-known book analyzing the Western iconography of hell by Jerome Baschet, Les justices de l'au-dela: Les representations de l'enfer en France et en Italie (XIIe-XVe siecle) (Rome: Ecole francaise de Rome, 1993). In the field of medieval Russian studies, this research program is implemented in part in the study of Russian visual demonology that I am currently running with Dmitrii Antonov. Our initial findings can be found in D. I. Antonov and M. M. Maizul's Demony i greshniki v drevnerusskikh ikonografii: Semiotika obraza (Moscow: Indrik, 2011).
COPYRIGHT 2011 Slavica Publishers, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:'Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians' and 'Illuminated Apocalypses of the Russian North: 17th- to 19th-Century Manuscripts from the Pushkin House Archives'
Author:Maizuls, Mikhail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
Previous Article:Russia and early modern European medicine.
Next Article:Power, sainthood, and the art of myth.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters