Outstanding masterpieces endure through the centuries

National Art Museum of Belarus hosts 18th-19th Century Vetka Icons in Embroidered and Beaded Covers from Vetka Museum of Folk Arts and private collections
By Victor Mikhailov

The exhibition is a sight to behold, so extraordinary that words are insufficient. It is certainly worthy of being hosted by the country’s major museum. About 50 exhibits are on display, including beadwork icons.

Around fifty items are on show, featuring beaded and embroidered icon covers. Ivan Abramov, who has written an ethnographic essay about Vetka, tells us that it became a shelter for Russian Old Believers in the early 20th century. Accordingly, an ‘abundance of female headdresses is found there: beautiful brocade kokoshniks with strings of beads which veiled the eyes, and huge pearl earrings — called ‘korzinki’ and ‘malinki.’

Moreover, Vetka residents liked to cover their icons with rich ornamentation, richly beading and embellishing them with pearls. It is an art long known in Vetka, since Byzantine times, when ancient Russian icons were decorated in this manner. The technique continued until the 1930s before falling into disuse but ancient skills have now been restored at the Vetka museum, with techniques used to restore unique artworks.

Vetka used to provide Old Believers worldwide with icons and books, while Old Believer monasteries were known for their sewing mastery. The art crossed all layers of Vetka society, spreading like ripples on water. Everyone sewed: monks, peasants and middle-class families. Accordingly, their religious symbolism became imbued with the powerful breath of folk culture. People used gold threads, river pearls and beads, as well as gemstones and coloured glass to entirely cover icons.

Their garments and crowns were naturally embellished, while even the backgrounds of each picture were studded with decoration, making figures appear to be absorbed into a fantastic landscape of beads. Strings of beads were placed tightly, repeating the outline and accentuating its volume. At the same time, the background was filled with vertical ‘streams’ of bead strings, appearing like rain, dew and light. All this is easily noticed and felt if we scrutinise the exhibited icons or just icon covers. Each icon on show at the exhibition is worthy of display. The icons’ garments, halos and surrounding backgrounds are covered in beads, making the figures appear immersed in a fantastic landscape  of beads. Threads of beads are placed tightly to outline the object and give it volume while the background is filled with vertical ‘streams’ of bead threads, which symbolise rain, dew and light. Each work makes a strong impact, individually and as a collection.

Undoubtedly, the icons display great variation and continue to fascinate us today, regardless of being monochrome or encompassing dozens of shades. Paradisiacal flora were commonly embodied in Vetka arts, symbolising the ‘heavenly’ Vetka land. Craftswomen would use a branch with fantastic flowers which naturally grows in the environment. The ‘style of blossoming Vetka’ also encompassed bead and pearl weaving. 

Byzantine tradition gave deep spiritual meaning to pearls, which appeared luminescent and mystical, as if illuminated by divine light. According to Biblical traditions, the souls of the righteous would enter paradise through gates of pearl, bringing the ancient Russian notion of a ‘pearl soul’.

Gilded and pearl strings also had archaic symbolism in Slavonic women’s outfits while the rain (filled with light) brings us to pre-Christian topic of ‘divine wedding’. Of course, life-giving dew resembles pearls and spring wells, while being connected with images of the Moon and Sun and the Mother of God.

The beauty of these icons is unsurpassed so it’s quite possible to spend endless time admiring each work. Their attractiveness is so great that it is easy to imagine them as inspired from above.
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