- Mountain Last Judgment and Rural ApocalypsePatterns of Imagery
Both books reviewed here deal with regions that may be described as peripheries of the Orthodox world. In the late Middle Ages and early modern times, the Carpathian Mountains and the nearby foothills sheltered small monastic communities that were never important cultural centers, and their libraries were at most modest. Wooden churches in highland Rusyn villages did not boast of frescoes similar to those painted in the stone churches of Muscovy, Moldavia, and the Balkans. In peasant, mainly Old Believer, communities in the Russian North, the medieval traditions and religious imagery remained preserved for two centuries after the painful ruptures of the religious schism and reforms of Peter the Great. Both in the Russian North and the Carpathians, everyday religious experience, hopes, and, even more so, fears were imbued with eschatological imagery that is not always easy to decipher. The Last Judgment icons and the illuminated Apocalypses shaped and at the same time reflected the beliefs and the changing worldview of these communities and serve as one of the keys to a better understanding of medieval religious culture, including both political theology and popular demonology.
Yet Eastern Orthodox eschatological imagery remains for historians largely unexplored territory, if not a terra incognita. The principal Byzantine [End Page 983] and Old Russian apocrypha, treaties, and homilies about the end of the world or the struggle between angels and demons were published as late as the 19th century. Still, the historical and cultural importance of the visual material contained in these complex sources is generally underestimated by scholars.
In the last two years the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) in St. Petersburg and the University of Toronto Press have brought us two books that throw light on the eschatological imagery of the Carpathian region in the 15th–16th centuries and the Russian North from the 18th to the end of the 19th centuries. Although these books have almost nothing in common in terms of their analytical objectives and ambitions, both nonetheless provide valuable insights for analyzing the relations between ecclesiastical teaching and popular religion.
Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians, by John-Paul Himka of the University of Alberta, is more than a highly specialized iconographic study. The author not only explores the Last Judgment imagery in the Carpathian region, tracing the paths and mechanisms of its development, but tries to answer a broader question: is it possible to speak about a specifically Ukrainian sacred art in the early modern period? Illuminated Apocalypses of the Russian North, by the Russian scholars Gleb Markelov and Arina Bil′diug, is not a scholarly study in the proper sense of the term but rather an album, accompanied by an essay that presents the modern reader with the tradition of manuscript Apocalypses written, painted, mediated, and transmitted from generation to generation by the Old Believers.
The Carpathian tradition of Last Judgment iconography originated in the 15th century in the large region that includes present-day western Ukraine, southeastern Poland, and eastern Slovakia. The area was inhabited by Rusyns/Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Romanians. What is special about the Carpathians is that it has always been a border region, open to multiple cultural and religious influences from Moldavia, the Balkans, Poland, remote Rus′ principalities, and eventually Muscovy. Nevertheless, Himka’s research shows that the Last Judgment tradition examined represents a unique combination of characteristics that cannot be reduced to the sum of borrowed motifs and themes.
After briefly tracing the origin of the principal elements of Orthodox Last Judgment iconography, the author explains how the distinctly Carpathian type of Last Judgment came into being, and how during the 15th–17th centuries it accumulated a wide set of new motifs: the...