How Did Icon Painting Workshops (Artels) Work in Russia?

The 17th century was a time when churches were actively built and revived in the Russian state, resulting in growing number of craft societies, called artels. Some icon painters were on the Armory payroll. These foremen’ position was stable. They received a permanent salary and were therefore called “allowanced”. However, most icon-painters received the so-called “feeding”, that is, piecework payment for their work. The “feeding” craftsmen were given ranks between 1 and 3 based on their professionalism, 1 being the highest. When a mural painting project began in a large city, nonresident icon painters were called here. For example, more than a hundred people from Tula, Kostroma, Yaroslavl and other cities worked on the murals of the Moscow Kremlin’s Archangel Cathedral.

If you have visited the temple of the Prophet Elijah in Yaroslavl, you must have noticed the amazing purity of colors, the careful elaboration of details and the rhythm of the wall painting. The unique fresco ensemble was created by the artel of icon-painters from the city of Kostroma. For thirty years it was headed by the icon painter Guriy Nikitin, an artisan of the first rank. Under his leadership the Kostroma artel painted churches in Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov and Kostroma. Now they are famous monuments of church art.

The artel hallmark was defined by Guriy Nikitin who was not only in charge of the icon-painting, but also performed other important work himself, even after he became the headman. Guriy Nikitin was responsible for marking out the contours of the future painting, creating the “foundation” of the composition. Muralists have their traditional specialist fields. There are facial image experts who also work on other open parts of the body, and then there are artists who write everything else. Researchers believe that Gury Nikitin divided his artel into several groups. Each group had one person in charge of the outlines, one facial image expert, two people working on dress, landscape etc. and a tracery specialist who wrote patterns and ornaments. Thanks to such a division of labor, the Kostroma artel was able to complete their works on time.

Guriy Nikitin’s workshop often caused disagreements among the customers trying to hire them. An armed marshal once came to the Danilov Monastery demanding for the crew to return to Moscow. In 1689, the archimandrite of the Novospassky monastery, Ignatius Novospassky, complained to the sovereign that Gury Nikitin and other icon painters, avoiding the work in the monastery cathedral, took on a mural painting job in Saint Euthymius monastery’s Church of the Savior in Suzdal.

We do not know how that dispute ended, but the Church of the Savior was painted in a short time. The beauty of the murals, hidden under the 19th century frescos, was fully revealed only in 2014, after the half-a-century restoration. It is a living, harmonious biblical story.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

Avatar photo

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Know everything about Orthodoxy? We can tell you a bit more!

Subscribe for our weekly newsletter not to miss the most interesting articles on our blog.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: