Handmade «Heavens»

The interior decoration of the wooden churches of the Russian North includes a special overlapping of the ceiling called «The Heavens» (’nebesa’ in Russian). The collection of «heavens» from XVIII — XIX centuries of the Kenozero National Park is unique, and comprises of 16 complexes. A significant part of the «heavens» is located in the temples, of which a number of monuments are represented in the museum expositions of the Park.

Painted «heavens» are widespread in the chapels of the Russian North, and symbolize the celestial sphere with the stars, sun, moon, and the kingdom of God. The structure of  the «heavens» design resembles a sun with divergent rays. «Heavens» consist mainly of eight, twelve or sixteen radial faces.

Researchers connect the origin of this form with the appearance in the North in the XVII century of new types of wooden churches - with an increase in their volumes, as well as  the desire to create a likeness of a painted dome in imitation of the traditional stone churches. «Heavens» of wooden chapels and churches of the Russian North depicted Christ, the Mother of God, angels, apostles, forefathers and other saints.

Iconography of the Kenozero's «Heavens»

In the Christian dogma the stars should be guarded by angels, so the image of the «angelic cathedral» was traditionally placed to the sides of «heavens». Figures of the seven archangels («Celestial Host») - Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selaphiel, Barachiel and Jegudiel - are given leading places on the radial sides of the «heavens» in the chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in the village of Tambich-Lakhta. They are depicted with characteristic attributes, signs of their hierarchical ministry: Michael - with a sword and a palm branch; Gabriel - with a lantern, a book or with a floral branch of a lily; Raphael - with the peace alabastrum or with his companion Tovia; Jegudiel - with a royal crown; Uriel - with a fiery sword and so on. The source material for this iconography of the "heavens" were the murals of stone temples, where the figures of the archangels were often placed in domes and between the drum windows, as well as engravings and illustrated printed publications.

The second iconographic type of paintings, typical for Kenozero, is the «heaven» with the image of the apostles. The saints are lines in a strict order, corresponding to the Deesis rank of the iconostasis. They are represented by «heavens» in minuture perspective, thereby creating the illusion of movement. The procession of saints begins from the side located in the west part and, turning around in a circle, — goes to the eastern wall.

Images of the spiritual patrons of local peasants or customers of churches on the «heavens» are perhaps the most amazing details of the Kenozero paintings.

In the chapel of the Kazan Mother of God in the village of Minino, the image of the Great Martyr George can be seen on the «heavens», in the chapel of the Three Hierarchs in the village of Nemyata - the images of the saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. In the system of painting the «heavens» of the chapel in the village of Tambich-Lakhta images of the saints Andrew of Crete and Feodor Stratilat appeared.

A unique phenomenon of the Kenozero «heavens» is the signed «heavens» from the chapel of St. Nicholas in the village of Ust-Pocha. The painters’s signature is preserved in the lower part of one side allows us to define the monument as a rare work. 

«Евангелист Иоанн Богослов»: «Писаны сии небеса въ 1881 году живописцомъ Федоромъ Захаровым Iокомъ урожденцомъ Олонецкой гу [бернии] Каргопольского уезда Мишковской волости дер [евни]. Большого Конева. Отроду 17 леть»

«St. John the Evangelist»: «These heavens were painted in 1881 by the painter Feodor Zakharov Iok, a native of the Olonets Gubernia of the Kargopol Uyezd of the Mishkovsky volost, of Great Konev village when he was only 17 years old»

Iconographer Feodor Iok

The figure of the iconographer Feodor Zakharov Iok (1864 - 1922) looks mysterious. From the inscription on the «heavens» we learn that by the age of 17 he is already a «master». This status was peculiar only to icon painters, officially registered in the craft guild and regularly paying taxes from their incomes. For a seventeen-year-old boy, this was a significant step. As a rule, only craftsmen who had a school and experience of painting works, as well as good recommendations, joined the guild that united painters. It is known that Feodor Iok studied painting and fine art in St. Petersburg for 3 years, possibly taking private lessons from a certain famous artist, and had praticed at the Hermitage. 

A significant part of famous works of the iconographer is associated with the early period of his creativity - before moving to Kargopol in 1881. Feodor could start working independently at the age of 15 years. The Onega peasants were quite satisfied with his simple painting, and the iconographer received constant orders for paintings of local churches. The villagers, who had modest tastes, preferred to give a church commission to their peasant-iconographer.

Unique «heavens»

The 12-faceted «heavens» of the chapel of St. Nicholas in the village of Ust-Pocha depict archangels, evangelists, St. Nicholas and scenes of the life of St. Nicholas is one of the most complex and unique in the iconography of the «heavens» on display at Kenozero. On the eastern side there is no traditional Crucifixion. Instead, we see St. Nicholas, to whom the chapel is dedicated. Unusual is the decision of customers to put on the painted vault not only the figure of the saint, but also the scenes from his life. The life cycle consists of seventeen compositions depicted in rectangular hallmarks in the lower part of the facets. 

The «heavens» of the chapel of the Three Saints, depicted on sixteen radial facets, is also complex in terms of iconography. The space between each facet is unevenly divided along the vertical among the three compositions, thanks to which the «heavens» consist of three plot circles. Around the central scene the traditional host of cherubim is depicted. Below is a wide picturesque belt with images of three saints, twelve apostles, and «Resurrection of Christ» composition. And the last - a circle of The Twelve Great Feasts, and a number of plots from the Marian cycle and the Passions of Jesus. The creation of the collection can be attributed to the end of the XIX century. At the heart of the painting are the traditions of the late classicists, which sought samples in ancient art, the Renaissance. You can note a good professional drawing, built on the knowledge of the past.

A rare phenomenon in the monumental painting of northern temples is the presence of two «heavens». In the church of St. George the Victorious in the village of Fedorovskaya and the Church of the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord in the village of Filipovskaya, the «heavens» were located at the altar and in the prayer hall.

The collection of «heavens» at the Park is one of the most representative of this phenomena. For many centuries different accomplished masters worked in Kenozero, who created unique examples of monumental paintings. Peasant iconography, established due to a special way of life and specific social conditions, existed here in parallel with the work of masters drawn from the large settlements and cities of the North and Central Russia. The majority of patrons in Kenozero were peasants. In accordance with their ideas, they formed their own special artistic world of the northern temple.

1.    Heavens and surroundings of Kenozero: painted ceilings, icons, wooden chapels, churches, historical and cultural landscape of the National Park Kenozero / comp. I.B. Ostarkova, E.F. Shatkovskaya. - M., Izdatelskaya programma «Interrosa», 2009.
2.    GAAO, F.55, op.1, d.83 «Office of the Archangelsk Post and Telegraph District. Personal file of Fedor Zakharovich Iok».