A jeweled present for Mary

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | December 10, 2020

Icon covers of silver or gold serve several purposes

Are you thinking of buying a present for your mom for Christmas? Or for your grandmother, or a favorite sister or niece?

Many people turn to jewelry as gifts — a costly present shows love and devotion as well as a desire to make someone we love happy.

Late 19th century Russian icon, the Vladimir Mother of God with a gold riza/oklad. The icon is at Maryhill Museum of Art, Maryhill, Wa. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The same can be said for a tradition that involves icons — religious images in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine style, of the Blessed Mother, Jesus and various saints.

Many of us are familiar with icons — especially the famous Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon in many churches. However, we may sometimes have seen these same images covered with silver and wondered why.

Covering up

These icon coverings are most common with Russian Orthodox icons and are called riza (which means “robe” in Russian) or oklad (which basically translates as “covering”).

The practical idea behind these coverings is that, since icons often are lit by many candles or oil lamps — which give off a smoky residue — the religious image would be darkened and even damaged by grime over many years. So the riza protects the colors and pigments. Sometimes most of the image is covered by silver or gilt, with only the faces and hands left open to the air and to be seen.

But rizas are not only practical. They also have a sentimental aspect. So they are often anything but simple in design. Most are made of silver, though gilt and even gold have been used.

Gift of veneration

This is where the idea of a gift enters. When someone commissioned a riza or oklad, it was done as a form of veneration. So, the more expensive covering you could afford, the more intense your devotion would appear. So not only did rizas or oklads get made of silver or gold, they were often decorated. Sometimes, the coverings were carved or engraved to imitate the lines of the image they covered. At other times, embellishments were added in the form of more gold, flower images and even jewels.

In this way, rizas and oklads are similar to the idea of a votive offering.

Today, Catholics are most familiar with votive candles, which are burned/offered as a request for prayer and intercession. But votive offerings in the past, and even today in places like Mexico, can take various forms. For example, if you were praying for healing of a hand injury, you might place a small jeweled hand at the shrine of a saint. A famous votive offering of a replica falcon was placed at the shrine of St. Wulfstan in Ireland by King Edward I after his favorite bird was healed.

Rizas and oklads as offerings seem to have developed out of an earlier form of devotional decoration known in Russia as basma. The basma generally consisted of more than one piece added to the image, while the riza was usually made all in one piece — as if it were truly a robe for the icon.

Tiny holes

As the blog iconreader.wordpress.com notes, “The basma was the early form of icon ornamentation. It consisted of embossed sheets or strips of metal tacked onto the surface of the icon, not as one piece, but as a series of pieces forming the cover. A basma might form a kind of frame around the outer edges of the icon.”

St. Elizabeth Convent in Minsk, Belarus, points out one way to tell the former presence of an icon covering. The convent notes that a “distinctive feature of some icons are tiny holes, regularly spaced along the haloes and elsewhere, giving the impression of an attack by extremely organized woodworm. These are caused when the riza is removed from an icon, leaving behind holes where the metal was attached to the wood.”

Metal crown

According to the blog, russianicons.wordpress.com, the uncovering of many Russian icons happened in the 20th century. This happened just as oklads and rizas were starting to be made from lesser valued metals, including tin. There was also another feature that developed around this time: Some of icons — especially of Mary — received a crown of metal. This is called a koruna (crown), as well as a crescent image hanging from the necks of Mary and Jesus, called a tsata (little coin).

The idea of a basma offering was not just something that happened in Russia. When the image of Mary, known as Salus Populi Romani, in Rome’s St. John Lateran was restored by the Vatican Museums in 2017, the restorers noted that the work included repairing damage from jewels that had at one time been attached to the image, probably as offerings. Modern icons with ornate coverings are still available at many Catholic and Orthodox sites.


Sources: iconreader.wordpress.com; the Catholic Encyclopedia; russianicons.wordpress.com; christianpost.com; museumofrussianicons.org; blog.obitel-minsk.com; russianicons.com; vaticanews.va; artmagazine.com; christianiconography.info; catholicworldreport.com; and the Catholic News Service


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