Iconography: Sacred Painting In Subcarpathian Ruthenia.


Sacred Painting In Subcarpathian Ruthenia.

The Ruthenian people of the Subcarpathian region highly appreciated and loved their Byzantine Rite, and they were always ready to make great sacrifices to have beautifully painted and decorated churches. Their wooden churches are gems of sacred architecture, while their inconostases (icon-screens) are insuperable monuments of artistic wood carving. And their old icons, painted in a popular style, today serve as centuries old witnesses of a deep faith and strong attachment of the Carpatho-Ruthenian people to their Byzantine Rite.

Unfortunately, the majority of the venerable Ruthenian icons was not properly preserved, or even worse, disposed of as ” useless waste.” For this reason the oldest Subcarpathian icons, that by some miracle were preserved to the present time, are only from the fifteenth century. In recent times these icons are highly admired and many of them are being meticulously restored as the national monuments of Subcarpathian art.

1. The old masters of icon-painting in Subcarpathia are mostly unknown to us, since the icons were considered by the artist as their gift to God and, usually, were not signed by them. It was only in the seventeenth century that the iconographers started to sign their names on the icons in order to promote demands for their artistic work. Thus, for example, we know that the miraculous icon of the Blessed Mother of God in Mariapovch was painted by the popular Ruthenian artist, Stephen Pap in 1676, who was the brother of the local pastor of that time, Rev. Daniel Pap.

From the seventeenth century several Galician artists of the famous School of Iconography in Sudova Vyshnia, who painted churches in the Subcarpathian region, are known to us. The most famous of them was Elijah BrodlakovychVyshenskyj, who, in the middle of the seventeenth century, took residence “in Mukachevo and proudly added to his name the words: “maljar Mukachevskyj” (painter of Mukachevo). His masterpiece, the icon of St. Michael the Archangel, originally painted for the church in Shelestovo, near Mukachevo, is preserved at the National Museum in Uzhorod. In the second half of the seventeenth century there were several artists from Sudova Vyshnia working in the Subcarpathian region, among them Stephen (1656), John (1678), and James (1682).

In the eighteenth century, the Icon School of Chust, founded by the master Elijah of Chust (about 1737), became very famous for promoting the popular style of icon-painting. This popular style in the Carpathian region reached its summit in the works of the painter Stephen of Tereblja, whose works among others are preserved in the church of Alexandrivka, in Maramorosh (1779). In the Prjashev region during the eighteenth century, artists Andrew Hajeckyj (1736) and his son, Nicholas Hajeckyj (1744), became very popular painters. They proudly added, to their names on the icons, the words : “Painter of Bardejov.” From the same region we find some icons painted by Francis Ferdinandy (1782). otherwise an unknown artist. With him the so called period of the popular artists had ended.

2. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the first professional Ruthenian masters appearedwho studied painting in the famous European academies, artists like: Joseph Zmij-Miklossy (d. 1841), Michael Mankovich (d. 1853) and John Rombauer (d. 1849). They all died young.

Joseph Zmij-Miklossy, the first official painter of the Prjashev eparchy, studied art in Vienna. He left behind many outstanding icons in the churches of the Prjashev eparchy, among them the beautiful iconostasis in the Prjashev cathedral. Michael Mankovich was the most popular Ruthenian painter of his time. He studied painting at the Academy of Arts in Vienna after having finished the Eparchial Seminary in Uzhorod. His better paintings are preserved in the side chapel of the Prjashev cathedral. Just recently they were restored by the artist Nicholas Jordan, and are recognized as national monuments.

John Rombauer started as a wandering painter, but later finished the Academy of Painting in St. Petersburg and became court painter of the Russian Czar Alexander I (1801-1825). Because of his artistic genius he was named a member of the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts. After the death of his protector, Czar Alexander, he returned to his native eparchy of Prjashev, where he painted several churches and some iconostases, e.g. in Cernina, Sharish district. His best work is the icon of Doubting Thomas, also preserved in Prjashev, but in the Evangelical church.

The leading artists of the Prjashev eparchy in the second half of the nineteenth century were of the Polish family of Bogdanski, who collectively decorated 25 churches. But their style of painting was rather western and did not meet the requirements of Byzantine iconography.

Much closer to the Byzantine style of painting were the icons of Ferdinand Vidra (d. 1878), who became the first official painter of the Mukachevo eparchy. He studied painting art in Vienna, and then in Rome. Among his many sacred works the most outstanding is the iconostasis at the cathedral church in Uzhorod (1858), executed under strong influence of late baroque. After his death Julius Fencik, otherwise an unknown artist, became the official painter of the Mukachevo eparchy.

The most outstanding Carpathian artist at the turn of the nineteenth century was Ignatius Roshkovich (d. 1915), who studied painting in Budapest, and then in Paris and Munich. Although he reached his fame as a secular monumental painter (see his paintings in Royal Palace in Budapest), during his summer vacations he used to return to his native land under the Carpathian Mountains and paint some of our churches. Among many others he painted the Cehol’na church in Uzhorod and the parochial church in Mukachevo. In the Prjashev cathedral he painted some inspiring murals (1891) and a beautiful Holy Shroud (Plaschanicja).

At the end of the nineteenth century, a t ime when a good number of churches were built, many other church artists were active in the Carpathian region. Known to us are the following : J. Fencik, G. Mihaly and E. Hriniak, as well as some Galician artists, like N. Holovchak, J. Chmil and Kopystynskyj (d .1916). Among them only Julius C. Fencik and Theophil Kopystynskyj showed some truly artistic skill in iconography.

4. Carpatho-Ruthenian iconography reached its Golden Age during the beginning of the twentieth century. Among the prominent artists of this period the following outstanding Ruthenian iconographers should be singled out : Julius las – Jacik, Julius Virag, Joseph Bokshay and Nicholas Jordan. They all had a higher education in painting.

JULIUS lAS – JACIK (1874-1941) – as a gifted artist studied painting in the academies of Budapest, Munich and Paris. After an extensive tour of Europe and America, he returned to his native land under the Carpathian Mountains and dedicated himself to sacred painting. In 1924 he was appointed an official painter of the Mukachevo eparchy. Unfortunately, his paintings were never studied and remain forgotten . JULIUS VIRAG (1880-1949) – finished Julien’s School of Painting in Paris and Academy of Arts in Munich, where he received the diploma of professional master of painting. After his study tour throughout Europe, he ventured to the United States, where he was rewarded for his monumental painting, the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On his return he settled down at the Basilian monastery in Mukachevo, where he painted the entire church and created a most beautiful iconostasis. In 1928, after being acclaimed as a master of sacred painting, he was also appointed an official painter of the eparchy of Mukachevo. His best icon, the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is preserved in the village church of Zniacevo.

JOSEPH BOKSHAY (1891-1975) – is considered the most outstanding Ruthenian master of sacred painting. Having finished the Academy of Art in Budapest, he made an extensive study tour throughout Italy, especially in Rome. After World War I he completely dedicated his painting to the Ruthenian people, their churches and including the Carpathian Landscape. His inspiring icons vividly reflect the life and customs of the people. On his icons Jesus is depicted preaching to the Ruthenian highlanders; performing miracles in the presence of Ruthenian peasants in their national dress; teaching the children with the Carpathian landscape in the background, and so forth.

It would be impossible even to try to describe Bokshay’s outstanding icons and monumental biblical scenes, which are to be found in numerous churches of both Carpathian eparchies. Unfortunately, his most inspiring works: the church of the Basilian monastery, the Bishop’s chapel and the chapel of the Teachers College in Uzhorod, remain closed to the public by the Soviet authorities. But his monumental mural, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (1939), covering the entire ceiling of the Uzhorod cathedral church, proudly testifies to his artistic genius. Bokshay’s better paintings can be still admired in the parish church of Jovra (presently called – Storozhnyc;a) and in the former Redemptorist church (now serving as the Orthodox cathedral) in Michalovce, Eastern Slovakia.

The present altar with the miraculous icon of the Blessed Mother in Mariapocs, Hungary, was also designed by Bokshay.

Professor J. Bokshay also excelled as a secular painter. His monumental murals and Carpathian landscape canvases brought him high honors. He was promptly inducted into the Academy of Arts (1958) by the Soviets, who also bestowed on him the honorary title of the People’s Artist (1960).

NICHOLAS JORDAN (1892-1977) – the official painter of the Prjashev eparchy, studied in Budapest not only painting but also the restoration of artistic works. Thus he was able to save numerous icons in our churches of Prjashevschina, Including the miraculous icon of the Blessed Mother in Krasnyj Brod, painted in 1769. Jordan was a very dedicated promoter of sacred art and painted almost 90 churches, all in the eparchy of Prjashev. His best work, the Resurrection of Christ, is preserved in the Prjashev cathedral. He also was famous for his portraits and figurative paintings. Pope Pius XII decorated him with the order of St. Sylvester (1947), while the Czechoslovak Academy of Art conferred on him the honorary title of Academic Artist.

5. There were many other Ruthenian artists but they reached their fame in secular painting. Only a few of them tried their skill in sacred painting. Among them we should mention Rev. Zoltan Sholtes (born in 1909), acclaimed as a master of the Carpathian landscape. He painted a considerable number of icons, but they are not sufficiently studied and remain forgotten.

Albert Boreckyj (born in 1910) is known for his impressive biblical scene, Near to Crucified Christ (1943), and his celebrated Madonna of Rachovo, with a Hutsul background. Finally, we should mention Ernest Kontratovich (born in 1912), who restored and repainted many old icons in the wooden churches of the Mukachevo eparchy. And his two original icons, the Blessing of Water (1938) and the Carpathian Madonna (1939), deserve special consideration.

This is only a superficial description of CarpathoRuthenian iconography to open the eyes of our general public to our artistic treasures. And we hope that someday someone will study our venerable icons and their masters in depth, giving us a complete presentation of the iconography and sacred art of our homeland under the Carpathian Mountains.

Cover: Mother of God with the Saints, in the church of Becheriv, Bardijov County, the 15th century. Artist unknown. Preserved at the National Museum in Svidnik, Eastern Slovakia.


The veneration of the icons is one of the most characteristic features of the Byzantine Rite, introduced into the Carpathian region simultaneously with Christianity. We venerate the icons of Christ, of the Mother of God, and of all the Saints, who are the friends of God, in order that we may be sanctified and inspired to imitate their virtuous life. As St. Basil the Great (d. 379) says: “A spoken word edifies our ear, but a silent icon induces us to imitation” (cf. his Sermon on the Forty Martyrs, 2).


In the Byzantine Church, after the sixth century, very firm rules governed the way in which the icons were depicted, and the forms remained fixed throughout the centuries. Therefore it is very hard to date them on their stylistic criteria . It is even harder to attempt to distinguish the hands of the individual painters, for once again church authority did not favor any type of personal expression, and the themes and styles had to be reproduced exactly according to approved models. Only since the eighteenth century did we notice more freedom in style and composition of the Carpathian icons, due to the influence of the Western art.