Icon Painting in the Lemko Region — H.Lohvyn
H. Lohvyn

The extreme diversity of style in the pictorial arts of the Lemko region makes an immediate impression on any expert in the field. A probable explanation for the artistic variety is the fact that the Lemkos lived in a mountainous border region on the outskirts of the Ukrainian ethnic territories where censorship on the part of religious authorities was weak. As a result, local painters enjoyed greater artistic latitude when carrying out requests of various rural neighborhoods for icons. Despite the amazing diversity of Lemko icons, there are still certain common features inherent in all the works, such as distinct emotional character, expressiveness, and a boundless love for bright decorative color. At the same time one often finds a restrained simplicity as well as laconic and monumental compositions which recall the earlier monumental art current in the Lemko lands during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. In particular, the presence of red and green backgrounds in Lemko art is a tribute to the traditions of wall and icon-painting popular in medieval Kievan Rus, especially in the murals of St. Sophia’s Cathedral and St. Cyril’s Church in Kiev.

When we turn to the Lemko region these traits can be observed in the fifteenth century murals of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the village of Weglowka/Vanivka (Krosno district). A monumental composition called “The Prayer” impresses the viewer with its contrasting characteristics of the three figures, which because of their rhythmically chosen positions on a field of light ochre recall the mosaic pattern contrasting with a gold background found in Kiev’s St. Sophia’s Cathedral. The most refined creation in the church at Weglowka is the monumental icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The dynamic rhythm of the composition suggests an exquisite and noble character that is permeated with an almost music-like sound of color expressed through a marvelous combination of bright and subdued tones. The specific alteration of sinuous, bent, straight, vertical and horizontal lines for the viewer to concentrate, despite himself, on every shade of color and on the outlines of various objects among which were placed the participants of this most festive event — the birth of a child. Marked by the elevated moral atmostphere, this icon is a genuine hymn to maternity enshrouded in charms of poetry and beauty.

The Pentocrator, from the church at Milik/Mylyk, late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries.

Regardless of the workshops at which they were created the icons of the Lemko region are important for scholarly research since they provide material evidence of the advanced aesthetic level of the Lemkos. Lemko artistic preferences are light and fresh colors, among which red was dominant. Bright Vermillion has been used by painters with a sense of decorative subtlety. This characteristic is readily distinguishable, for example, in the icon depicting the Archangel Michael from the village of Dalova (Sanok region). The viewer finds himself vitally unable to take his eyes from the glowing red of the Archangel’s cape.

The wide spectrum of compositions and color techniques, chosen carefully for their function in the ensemble, are characteristic of all icons from Lemko villages in the Lower Beskids. The icon of the Pantocrator from the village of Milyk (Nowy Sacz district) underlines the monumentality of this image of the all-powerful Lord. The outline of the figure is clearly emphasized against a red field, thereby evoking association with classical statues.

Lemko region painters demonstrate a completely opposite artistic approach in the icon of the Mother of God from the village of Javirnyk (Sanok district). Here the stately silhouette and the proudly uplifted head of the Mother of God emphasize her unique role.

The Prayer, detail from the iconostasis is in the church of Weglowka/Vanivka,
fifteenth century.

Icons representing the saints and their life stories form a separate group. Thus, St. Paraskeva and her life, from the fifteenth century, is one of the oldest examples of Lemko iconography preserved to this day. In the center of the icon the artist portrayed St. Paraskeva dressed in a scarlet cape which falls in heavy folds from her head to her feet, covering her entire body. This clearly suggests the painter is a monumentalist giving preference to a powerful, laconic and stern manner of painting. The loftiness of St.

Paraskeva, the principal image of the icon, is emphasized by the miniatures in the side panels that illustrate her life and saintly deeds. The pain of suffering of the heroine was well-known to the common folk. This allowed for unambiguous associations with the events of her actual life, which encouraged compassion for all the downtrodden and oppressed. This theme vividly demonstrates the humanism of traditional Lemko ecclesiastical art. The unswerving courage of St. Paraskeva served as an example to the people ana it helped them develop the unbreakable willpower needed to overcome evil and violence. Her courage also provided a model for people to follow a path away from sin and compromise which would threaten moral values.

Alongside St. Paraskeva, St. Nicholas enjoyed special respect and popularity as well as other saints like Dimitry, Basil, Barbara and the profitless healers named Kozma and Demian. This list can be supplemented with the vast composition depicting the Passions and the Last Judgement.

St. Paraskeva and Her Life Story — 15th-16th centuries

The Archangel Michael, from the iconostasis
in the church of Dalowa, first half of the 15th century.

The icons described here were all created in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a time when the modern states of Europe were beginning to form. For Lemkos this process coincides with the most difficult period in their history. However, ecclesiastical art, with its high aesthetic, sincere, and humanist ideals, encouraged the simple folk and gave them hope for a better future. This art also called for self-sacrifice in the form of the most noble of principles: “no feeling known is greater than the desire to die for a fellow’s sake.” Finally, the appearance in many Lemko icons of the canonized Kievan princes and princesses (Vladimir, Olga, Boris and Gleb) clearly revealed the cultural ties that Lemkos maintained with Kiev, the mother of the Russian cities. The fact also illustrates the unity of all ethnic groups of the Ukrainian people. We can clearly see that Lemko painting, with its own set of ethnical norms, rules and examples of highly moral behavior, is a veritable treasure of artistic masterpieces.