Icons of Mystery; Icons of the Faithful

During the summers when wheat does not grow and at times when hope drains away from the soul, Ukrainians turn to faith. From farmhouse to farmhouse, men and women once worshipped wooden icons, ones they believed were endowed with a mysterious power to link the soul of a mortal with God. Peasant icons were mostly conspicuously displayed placed prominently on a table or in a wooden cabinet draped with embroidery.

Though “gifts” were often placed next to the icons — ears of wheat; the Holy Thursday candles; holy water; and dry flowers with small oil lamps hung in front of the icons, a remnant of Ukraine’s pagan past, sometimes, faith’s characters sat abandoned on kitchen tables and in the shadows of stone hearths gathering dust until waves of doubt swept over the household. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers held their wooden Gods close under the covers, praying for morning when doubt rolled in like a storm.

With the adoption of Christianity, icons came to Ukraine in the 10th century. First painted by monastery monks, icon painting was both a holy skill and an art of anonymity. Difficulty obtaining these holy figures prompted peasants to begin carving and painting their own figures of faith, particularly in the central region of Ukraine. Painted on board of linden, pine, spruce and birch wood, icons were rarely sold but exchanged, given as gifts or handed down between generations. Never discarded, icons are still often placed in coffins to comfort the deceased along their long journey to the afterlife, taken to the nearest river to be carried by the current and wind, or burned and the ashes scattered over the water or buried by the family’s house.

Iconic subject matter is not strictly limited to religious figures and Biblical interpretations. Many icons depict floral arrangements or grapevines with three petal flowers with the green or dark-blue petals bordered in white. After Ukraine’s independence, icon painting experienced a renaissance in some villages but with a more modern style, social function and commercial value from those that were painted by peasants before. Still, some of the beliefs and superstitions connected with icons remain alive in the historically pagan and Christian country of Ukraine.