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Ancient icons from the lands where Shevchenko once lived and wandered


Rodovid Publishers recently released a book on Ukrainian folk icons.

An icon, in Eastern Christian tradition, is a representation of sacred personages or events. Icons are considered an essential part of the church and are given special liturgical veneration. They also serve as mediums of instruction for the uneducated faithful through the iconostasis, a screen shielding the altar. In the classical Orthodox tradition, iconography is not a realistic but a symbolical art; its function is to express in line and colour the theological teaching of the church.

The great significance of images of the saints for the Orthodox faithful is primarily expressed in the cultic veneration of the images within the worship service and at home. Eastern Church iconic art demonstrates a high level of the dogmatic fixation of the figures, gestures, and colours. Orthodox icon painting is not to be separated from its ecclesiastical and liturgical function.


Icons came to Ukraine in the tenth century together with the adoption of Christianity. The first icons were imported from Byzantium. Local icon painting began in the eleventh century, in the monasteries. Most Orthodox ecclesiastical artists have remained anonymous. Icon painting was viewed as a holy skill that is practised in cloisters. The icon was painted two-dimensionally because it was viewed as a window through which worshipers could behold the heavenly archetype from their earthly position.

In the course of centuries a curious phenomenon developed  icons began to be painted not only by professional icon artists but also by peasants. There were several reasons for this development to occur, the main reason probably being the difficulty of obtaining icons in the rural areas with no big urban centres or monasteries in close vicinity. Such home-painted icons differed in style and execution from region to region. Of a particular general and artistic interest are the icons painted in villages in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the central region of Ukraine (it includes parts of todays Kyiv, Cherkasy and Poltava Oblasts) which is often referred to as the Land of Shevchenko because it is there, in one of the villages of central Ukraine that the great Ukrainian poet was born and raised.


The villagers who painted the icons were either self-taught artists or those who learnt their art from others. They engaged in painting because they felt it was a vocation they should pursue, and also because they earned some money by selling icons to their fellow villagers, though their main income came from farming.

Every peasant house had icons conspicuously displayed. They were hung or placed either in the icon corner or on the wall above the table. On bozhnytsya, or the Gods shelf were placed the most important icons  two icons blessed by the parents of the present owner of the house during the wedding (blahoslovennya batkiv) and icons of the Virgin and Child and of Christ. Icons were usually draped around the frame by rushnyky, decorative embroidered towels. On holidays, the most elaborately embroidered rushnyky were used, and during Lent and other periods of fasting only plain, not embroidered ones. When parties were held in the house, the icons were covered with cloth so that they would not see the sinful drinking. All kinds of gifts were placed next to the icons  ears of wheat; the Holy Thursday candles; holy water; Palm Sunday catkins, and dry flowers. Small oil lamps were hung in front of the icons.

Icons were believed to possess miraculous properties and some icons had specific functions. There was a wide spread belief that the icons of The Burning Bush (such icons show the Mother of God and Child in the centre) were of great help in preventing fires or putting them down. Villagers from a village in Vinnytsya Oblast who retain this belief tell the following story: Once there was a big fire on one of the farms, and the priest came running with The Burning Bush in his hands. He stood in front of the burning barn and prayed, and the wind changed direction so that the main house was saved from catching fire. Icons of St George and the Dragon were believed to protect people from being bitten by animals; they were also good as painkillers, particularly helpful with toothaches.

Icons that were ritually blessed were rarely sold. They were exchanged, given as gifts, or handed down from generation to generation. Icons were placed in the coffins to help the deceased on their long journey. Icons were not to be thrown away, and if they became too old, damaged or covered with grime, they were taken to a river or a lake and put on the water to be carried away by the current and wind; they were buried either in a cemetery or in the ground near the house. Icons could also be burned and the ashes scattered over the water; also, icons could be stored in the attic. There are stories about icons being discovered many years after they had been placed in the attic. One of such stories was recorded fairly recently in the village of Byrlivtsi: Soon after my husband and I bought the house we now live in, every evening, as it grew dark we heard a banging noise coming from the attic. It was an intermittent sort of noise. It sounded like blows of an axe. But when we climbed up there was no one to be seen. We sprinkled the attic with holy water and scattered poppy seed (the poppy seed is believed to have magical properties), but the banging continued. In my dreams I heard moans coming from one particular place in the attic. I searched the place and discovered a wooden board, all in grime. I cleaned it and saw it was an icon, The Beheading of St John the Baptist. I took the icon into the house, placed it on the bozhnytsya and no banging was ever heard again.

Icons were mostly referred to as bohy, or gods, or as obrazy, or images. The shelf on which icons were placed was called bozhnytsya. Bohomazy,  literally: painters of gods  the village icon painters, painted icons mostly on boards of wood or on homemade canvas. Linden, pine, spruce and birch were most often used. Oil paints were used to paint the icons on the most elementary foundation possible; in most cases the foundation was a layer of vegetable glue. The most commonly used pigments were lead-white, lead-yellow, lead-vermilion and Prussian blue. One or two wooden struts were wedged into the board on both sides of the board on which an icon was to be painted to prevent the board from warping. Boards thick enough to withstand warping were free of struts. The face side of the board had a raised border like a frame with the central rectangular slightly sunk in. A certain number of icons were painted on home-woven linen.

Though the village icon painter generally followed the dogmatic patterns prescribed for icons, they were much freer in compositions and pictorial elements than the professional icon painters. Peasant painters did not strictly adhere to the canonical iconography. Ordinary people from all walks of life commissioned icons and the painters tried hard to satisfy their customers tastes and moral standards. God the Father and saints were often given faces of Ukrainian peasants, while devils often were made to resemble authority figures. Another characteristic feature of the peasant icons is the inclusion of familiar faces into them.

A village song recorded in the village of Poludnivka goes, I will paint my mother/on the icon in my house/ I will look at the icon/ and remember my mother./ I will look again/ and will dissolve in tears

The range of pictorial devices used was minimal. Sometimes, depending on the subjects of the icon, village painters introduced elements of landscape, architecture or scenes from everyday life. Some of the icons, particularly those of St George and the Dragon and The Virgin the Protectress, included representations of churches or church interiors. Many icons carried in the background representations of items from everyday life, birds and other animals. The palette of peasant icons is in many cases a combination of red-brown, yellow, green and white, with blue much less common. The colour schemes vary from place to place but these variations are rather subtle. The nimbi were rendered in yellow or golden, but also in green, bluish-yellow or light brown. The nimbi were made round, oval, heart shaped, or cruciform. Sometimes, the nimbi were shown as rays of light. The clothing was often red, blue or green. The backgrounds were most often painted brown or green occasionally yellow or blue. In fact, these were the colours most widely used in folk art and in the decoration of the peasant houses.

Many peasant icons have stylized floral arrangements or grapevines painted in, usually with no attempt made to show a specific variety of the flower. In most icons we can see three-petalled flowers with the green or dark-blue petals bordered in white.


The Ukrainian historian Mykola Kostomarov wrote in his memoirs about Taras Shevchenko that a painter in Ukraine is a ubiquitous phenomenon in peasant culture. Painting is one of the customary bottom rungs on the social ladder ascended by a peasant as soon as his gift [of painting] allows him to leave the soil tilling.

Painting was mostly learned through apprenticeship. Halyna Sholudko, born in 1913 in the village of Stare, a daughter of a bohomaz, said that her father, Ivan Khodos, born in 1875, went to a neighbouring village where he became an apprentice of an icon painter. Father lived with the painter for several years, first learning and then painting icons himself. Commissions came from fellow villagers and from the local church Later on, Father became well known in our region and commissions came from many places. Girls commissioned icons for their weddings, mostly The Virgin and The Saviour. Father had pupils and apprentices whom he taught icon painting. Three boys boarded with us The studio was a separate place from the house.

Most of the bohomazy owned some land and worked in the fields. My father had a vegetable garden and owned a field, but he never became wealthy, Halyna Sholudko continues her story. There were too many of us children in the family. Whatever he earned he spent on us.

Icons were usually sold at market places, or were directly purchased from bohomazy. The prices varied from place to place but were low everywhere. A nineteenth century ethnographer wrote that an icon could be purchased for as little as thirty kopecks; for comparison, a plough cost two rubles. Icons were also sold at fairs, and not only by painters but also by members of their families. There were itinerant painters who roamed the countryside offering their wares.

In the 1920s, the art of icon painting in Ukrainian villages died succumbing under the aggressively atheistic pressure of the Bolshevik regime. After Ukraines independence, icon painting began to be revived in some villages but the new icons are, of course, very much different in style, social function and commercial value from those that were painted by peasants in the past. Characteristically, some of the age-beliefs and superstitions connected with icons are still alive among the older generation of peasants.


The article is based on the materials derived from the book Ukrainian Folk Icons From the Land of Shevchenko by Lidia Lykhach and Mykola Kornienko, published in Kyiv by the Rodovid Publishing House in 2000.


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