Icon of the Physical Labor of the Holy Family

Icon of the Physical Labor of the Holy Family - History


Icon of the Physical Labor of the Holy Family


It is an icon that is rarely encountered.

The icon depicts Mary, Jesus, and Joseph during Jesus' youth. However, it differs from the usual type known as "The Three Joys." In this particular icon, the family is portrayed working in Joseph's carpentry shop. Mary is shown spinning wool, Joseph is cutting a board, and the young Jesus is carving a slot into a beam. It is easily distinguishable from the "Three Joys" icon (which also has its roots in Western prototypes) due to the absence of the youthful John the Baptist and the lack of labor depicted by Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and John.

This specific example of the "Physical Labor" icon originates from Mstera (pronounced Mstyora), one of three villages renowned for icon production, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The other two villages are Palekh and Kholui. The icon was painted by V. O. Mumrikov, as indicated by the signature at the bottom right corner.

What makes this icon particularly intriguing is that it was painted in 1923, which falls within the period of the "Renewal Movement" (Obnovlenchesto) that emerged in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922. Considering the Russian Revolution and the subsequent development of the new Communist state, it is quite late for a Russian icon to have been painted. The creation of this icon at such a time was an attempt to align icon painting with the newfound emphasis on workers and labor. This explains the unconventional title of this icon type, "Физический труд Святого Семейства" (Fizicheskiy Trud Svatogo Semeistva), meaning "The Physical Labor of the Holy Family."

If we disregard the historical context in which it was painted, we would simply view it as a pleasant and rarely seen representation of the "Holy Family." In different circumstances and eras, it would have been perceived as such. Similar images can be found in Western European art, and this particular version of the image with a Russian title signifies its adaptation from Western European biblical depictions:

However, when presented with the title "Physical Labor" and considering the time period in which it was created, this icon serves as an early indication of the significant changes that Russian icon painters had to confront as the Soviet regime gained power. Eventually, these changes severely limited icon painting in Russia. To survive, painters had to pursue other occupations or adapt their artistic style. This is exemplified by the villages of Mstera, Palekh, and Kholui, which shifted their artistic focus to decorating lacquer boxes with motifs inspired by fairy tales and Soviet worker imagery. Paradoxically, this new form of artistic expression followed a similar manner to the traditional painting of old icons.

Indeed, this icon is a captivating piece with a rich history.




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