Travelling Icon

St. Nicholas

This small icon could be worn by a cord around the neck while travelling. It depicts Saint Nicholas (center), Seriphs and the Old Testament Trinity (top), the Entry into Jerusalem (left top), the Purification (left bottom), Christ's descent into Hell (right top), and the Ascension (right bottom).  

Roughly one-third of Chapman University’s icon collection is comprised of cast metal icons, also known as travelling icons (putevye ikony) because of their small, portable size. The ability to easily transport and hide icons became essential to Old Believers who were persecuted by the State Church after the Great Moscow Council (1666-1667), and frequently travelled to escape violence. Metal icons were initially produced by a group of Old Believers known as the bezpopovtsy or “Priestless,” who believed that the Tsarist State and newly established priesthood were figureheads for the Antichrist, and they therefore committed themselves to remaining political outcasts. Creating icons out of metal ensured that they could not be easily damaged during travel and could be cleaned with a simple cloth if tarnished. Furthermore, metal icons were considerably less expensive to produce than traditional painted icons.

The end of the 17th century is often considered the “golden” period of travelling icons because of their burgeoning popularity. Metal icons quickly became a sought-after commodity at fairs and markets, and were frequently purchased by Old Believers and State Church followers (known as "New Ritualists") alike. Their use among the laity became so widespread that even the Church began producing metal icons that featured their own “glorified” or recently canonized saints (before the 17th century, the State Church produced only small metal baptismal crosses that could be worn around the neck). Even during the 18th century, when Tsar Peter the Great established a law to forbid the production of cast metal icons (presumably because he wanted to reserve metal for the production of weapons), Old Believers continued to meet the high demand for travelling icons.

Travelling icons were typically created as either a one-piece casting (often worn as a pendant) or folding icons with three (triptych) or four (quadriptych) panels. Four-panel folding icons were especially popular, and were colloquially known as utiugi, meaning “irons,” as in those used to iron clothes, because of their weight and shape when closed.           

The majority of cast metal icons are made of brass, but some are made from bronze or copper. To make a cast metal icon, metal alloys were heated to a liquid consistency and then poured into a mold made of sand mixed with clay. The use of fire in the icon making process took on symbolic significance to Old Believers, who believed these icons to be especially pure, as if “cleansed by fire.” Colored enamel was often added to metal cast icons to enhance the details or delineate the background from the foreground. The amount of enamel as well as the number of colors added to the icon greatly impacted their cost.