The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home


This post is adapted from ‘The Russian House and the Craft of Living’ – Chapter Three in my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It’s the last of the current series of posts about my travels to Russia and the culture that I became immersed in.

A house in the village of Kholui

The House as Microcosm
The traditional wooden Russian house (known as an izba) is a model of the universe, and a microcosm in its own right. Although the izba may look as though it only has a ground floor, closer investigation usually reveals a trapdoor in the ground floor leading to an underground cellar, and very often a ladder rising to an unheated attic room above. This symbolically embodies the three worlds of underworld, a human or middle world, and an upper world connecting it to the sky. The decoration use and lore of the Russian home is redolent with this symbolism, connecting it to Slavic myth, and the three vertical worlds represented in the ancient Russian Tree of Life.

The house, where many generations of a peasant family lived and died, was associated by its inhabitants with a small universe, connected innately with the world of nature and the Cosmos. Peace and harmony should be reigning in this well ordered world – once and forever.’ (Krasunov, p.12)

Everything in the traditional Russian house is charged with meaning. It is a vital living space laid out according to the rules of the cosmos, and in which certain rites should be carefully observed to keep it in good health as a home, and beneficial for the humans who live there.

My own house in the village of Khouli

The Human World of the Izba
As you enter the Russian home, you may have to stoop low as you pass through the doorway. This is deliberately done, so that anyone entering must show respect for the house, and in particular for the Red Corner, the sacred area of the home where the family icon is kept. Traditionally, the icon stands on a high wooden corner shelf, draped with an embroidered linen towel, and lit by a small votive lamp. In Orthodox culture, icons are not just religious images, but are considered to be holy objects, empowered in their own right as a gateway to the divine. The icon is also a charged symbol that represents the welfare of the family itself. In a TV interview, at the time of the Kursk submarine disaster in the year 2000, an old woman sobbed bitterly as she talked about her grandson, who was trapped at the bottom of the ocean: ‘The icon fell off the wall a few days ago,’ she sobbed. ‘That is a bad, bad sign.’

The Red Corner – typically, an icon placed opposite the entrance to the room, draped with an embroidered towel. Such towels were said to have the power to heal a sick person if used to wipe their face

The Red Corner, krasni ugol, is thus called because the colour red means ‘beautiful’ in Russian culture. The word krasni for red comes from the same root as the word for beautiful, krassivi. This is a pre-Christian Slavic tradition, and the ceremonial linen towels are embroidered in red as the colour is considered sacred, and represents not only beauty, but the force of life itself. Russia is known as the ‘country of two faiths’, and it is plain that there are few boundaries between the Christian and the indigenous Slavic symbolism in Russia. The same towel that may be embroidered with figures of the Mother Goddess, the tree of life, and sky spirits in the form of horses, is used to drape the family icon in the mark of deepest respect.

An old embroidered towel in my possession. The peackock symbolises the sky, as do the horses. The figure on the house is likely to be the old Mother Goddess
An icon of St Paraskeva, otherwise known as ‘Mother-Friday’, and associated with spinning and marriages. Her role resembles that of the old Slavic spinning goddesses, and she protects women but will punish them if they do not honour her festivals
Elijah the Prophet was also a suitable subject for a domestic icon, as he was closely linked to Perun, the old god of thunder and lightning, and it was best to keep on the right side of him

The Stove

The polarity of Christian and native religion also reveals itself in the layout of the room. Diagonally across from the Red Corner, is the place where the stove often stands, the pechka that is also known as ‘the Little Mother’. While the Orthodox icon guarantees a link with the heavenly rites of Byzantium, the stove is the elemental crucible of life itself. A Russian proverb, which literally translates as, ‘To dance from the stove’, means ‘To begin at the beginning’: the stove is the origin and the perpetuator of life. Without pechka, there is no life in the home; she is the source of warmth and comfort that may actually keep the family alive during the long Russian winters. The pechka is multi-purpose – not only is it used for heating the home and for cooking, but traditionally it was also the place for sleeping. The classic construction of the stove is as a large box shape, constructed out of brick with a plaster finish; its flat top, six feet or so below the ceiling, provides an excellent sleeping platform.

An old Russian house stove or ‘pechka’. This one is probably in a house set out now as a museum (Wikipedia creative commons)

The stove requires skill and patience to manage. In the village house that I owned in the same village of Kholui, I knew that I had to listen carefully when I was given instructions on how to light it, or my stays there in winter would be icy. The critical stage of the operation was to wait observantly for the time when the logs had burnt down, and the tiny, residual blue flames had been replaced by an orange glow. Only then was it safe to close the dampers, which would keep the heat in for another eight hours or so, the brick casing acting as a giant storage heater. Otherwise, deadly carbon monoxide can seep into the home, causing acute headaches or worse. I never did master the skills of drying mushrooms or making porridge overnight in the cooler ovens of the stove, but I learnt to respect the life and death powers of the ‘Little Mother’, and to love her gentle, penetrating warmth.

A village wedding: the scene is set in a traditional home with the table in front of the Red Corner, and the stove nearby (Fedoskino lacquer miniature)

Food and hospitality

The other key feature of the traditional living room is the dining table, and to sit there is to be ‘in the palm of God’, as the old saying expressively puts it. By tradition, it would be set under the Red Corner, and much of family life would be lived around this table. Food and hospitality is a crucial part of Russian culture, both rural and urban.

An antique samovar, one of a number which I collected and brought back to the UK

The samovar, or ‘self-boiler’ as the word translates, is also a key part of Russian hospitality. It is sometimes seen as another symbol of the mother, along with the pechka and the Matrioshka doll. Its comforting curves, its decorative and gleaming brass, nickel or silver finish, and its near-boundless supply of hot water, make it a natural centrepiece for the tea table. Traditional samovars, as opposed to modern electrical ones, are heated by means of lighting a bundle sticks or some charcoal in the central funnel, which then in turn heats up the water in the large outer chamber. The tea itself is made separately, in extra-strong quantities in a small teapot, which is then topped up with hot water from the samovar itself. Samovars are still popular, and large versions are often used in hotels and offices as well as at home. But as a friend told me:
The best kind of samovar is the kind that you light with charcoal and twigs, and add herbs to as well. You can sit outside in the garden, breathing in the fragrant steam and having a cup of tea every now and then; it is happiness that lasts for hours.’

The ceremony of ‘Bread and Salt’, on this occasion to welcome visitors arriving by boat

The best known ritual of hospitality in Russia is the welcoming ceremony known as ‘Bread and Salt’, khlebsol. A round loaf is used, in which a little hollow has been scooped out to hold a mound of salt; the loaf is placed on one of the long, embroidered linen towels, and offered to guests on arrival. Although the custom of Bread and Salt doesn’t take place on a regular basis these days, it is still often carried out at weddings, when the new bride enters the home of her mother-in-law.

Khokhloma wooden table ware and decorative panels is still popular in Russian homes today. The principal red, black and gold colours are said to relate to life, compassion and eternity.

The Underworld
After the bustling life on the ground floor of the house, the middle world, the descent into the cellar may seem dark and eerie. The cellar, or podpol, is a small room under the floor of the home, generally used as a place of storage, where root vegetables can be kept in a cool but even temperature through the winter, or jars of marinated salad and home-made apple juice left until they are needed. But in terms of traditional belief, it is known as the place of the ancestors, and the residence of the domavoi, or house spirit.

Domavoi, in one of his typical guises

Domavoi’s name comes from dom, the Russian word for house, and he is one of the tribe of Russian ‘nature spirits’. These characters are temperamental, elusive, and tricky to deal with. They are akin in many ways to the mischievous ‘elementals’ of the Western magical tradition, or to the pixies and sprites of Western folklore. A domavoi is actually associated with a family rather than a house, and any family that moves house may have a difficult time ahead if they do not persuade their domavoi to come with them. One tried and tested method is to coax him into a sack, carry the sack to the new abode and then quickly offer domavoi a plate of porridge to help him settle down. Another is to cut a thick slice of bread and place it under the stove in the new dwelling. It is important to invite domavoi to come with you; even if he is capricious, the family needs him to be there.

Although domavoi is commonly associated with the ancestors, and the cellar of the home, he also likes to sit in the stove, and sometimes in the attic. In general, it is considered unlucky to see domavoi, for this can presage a death in the household. If you do see him, he should not be addressed as domavoi, but more often as ‘master’ or ‘grandfather’.( In various traditions it is common to avoid calling a magical creature by its real name; in Russia the bear is often referred to as Mishka, an affectionate nickname, rather than by its proper name of Medved, or ‘honey knower’.) You need to know how to recognise domavoi too, as like most nature spirits, he can appear in various forms. He might appear in the shape of a tiny, wizened old man, covered in downy hair, or as a tall figure ‘black as coal’, or even as an animal or a bundle of hay.

Mishka the bear, for whom there is a mixture of respect and affection in Russian tradition. Here he is a bee hive, so that honey, which he loves, can be made inside him.

Is the belief in domavoi obsolete? Some Russians may well regard it as a quaint old folk belief, but to others the presence of spirits in the home and landscape is very real. On the island of Kiji, in the far north of Russia, I asked a woman from the regional city of Petrozavodsk what she thought about the domavoi. She answered me with great seriousness:

‘Every summer I come to work with tourists here, and I live alone in one of the old wooden houses. Oh yes, domavoi certainly exists. When I sit in this dark house at night, I sometimes hear a knocking, or I hear someone singing a melody. And even when I know the house is empty, I sense that there is someone upstairs. This is undoubtedly the domavoi.’

And a small post-script: I had just sat down to breakfast with my husband after writing this, when we were both startled to hear a loud knock come from the cupboard under the stairs. Thinking that one of the cats had got trapped in there, I opened the door to investigate. There was nothing to be seen. Except, perhaps, domavoi?

Here, Domavoi seems to be on good terms with the household cat. Cats are much liked as pets in Russia, and are considered to have magical powers themselves
A Russian woman demonstrating the art of spinning, in a folk museum

The Attic and The Upper World
Many Russian houses have an unheated attic room, used mostly in summer. It is often known as svetelka, a word associated with sunlight, and with the sun itself, which is considered to be the protector of the home. Its lofty position was said to be beneficial for young girls, and would help to guard their innocence. However, although unmarried sisters and their girlfriends might officially sit up here together to sew or spin, it was also the place for divination, especially in matters of love. Here they might unbraid their hair, an action which would loosen the bonds of the everyday world, and invite the powers of magic in. While their mothers believed them to be safely occupied with spinning and needlework, they would gaze into a mirror to see the faces of their future husbands, or tell fortunes by interpreting the shapes of melted wax dropped into a bowl of water.

Divination in a mirror, which was often carried out on the eve of special festivals
Girls telling their fortunes from floating candles. This scene is set in a living room rather than an attic. They have loosened their hair to release the spirits of the otherworld

Within living memory, the women’s tasks of spinning and weaving were key activities in country life, and discarded spindles, distaffs and spinning wheels can still readily be bought at flea markets. It was not only a practical occupation, but also symbolised the bringing of order and civilisation to the community.

The Spinner – an etching by B. Zabirokhim in my collection

Mokosh the old Slavic mother goddess played a particular role in relation to spinning, and another female household spirit called Kikimora presided over distaff and loom. Kikimora was quick to punish any women who did not put their spinning and needlework away tidily at the end of the day! She might, however, help out the diligent housewife by taking on some of her work at night.

Cantankerous Kikimora, the spirit of spinning

Distaffs were often highly decorated, painted in lively colours with human figures, animals, and geometric motifs.

A museum collection of distaffs (Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

The attic, therefore, could be a place both of light and innocence, and of magic. The sky world is related to the top part of the house, which is often decorated externally to reflect this. In the Volga region especially, the protruding end of the ridgepole is frequently fashioned into a form of a horse, known in Russian mythology as a sky creature. Symbols of the sun, such as cockerels or circles with rays around them, and those which signify heaven, like peacocks and bunches of grapes, are commonly found carved into the upper part of the house façade, and boards covering the ends of the roof beams are commonly known as ‘wings’.

Roof carving of peacocks and grapes preserved in a museum collection
The bathhouse, standing well away from the main house so as to prevent fire

The Bathhouse
The bathhouse has been an important part of Russian life since time immemorial, and the custom of weekly steam bathing in an extreme temperature was noted with surprise by early travellers to Russia, one of whom described it as ‘a veritable torment.’ Saturday night is the traditional Russian day for bathing, said to be a choice of day originated by the Vikings.

The bathhouse is a house in miniature, built out of wood with a pitched roof and its own small chimney. It usually stands apart from the izba to avoid the risk of fire. Water is heated in a copper in the lighted stove, and the art of bathing involves the skilful creation of steam to the required degree. There are various stages in the ritual, such as rinsing oneself with warm water and then lying on one of the wooden benches before engaging in the more intense process of steaming. Switches of birch twigs (venniki) are used for one person to flick or whip another with; the sensation is light and stimulating, and far from painful! There is a tradition that the birch should be cut in early summer, when at its most potent. The family whose bathhouse I used told me that they try to gather them around June 24th, the old Russian midsummer festival.

Here birches are also treated as ‘wishing trees’ – ribbons tied on to affirm a prayer or a wish. Birch branches are cut at midsummer to dry for use in the bathhouse.

The bathhouse is inextricably bound up with magic and divination. Any spell or charm is most potent when cast at midnight in the bathhouse. The role of the bathhouse is considered by some authorities to be that of a pagan temple relegated to this warm and steamy place after the old religion was displaced by the coming of Christianity. The rituals once carried out on the bride’s wedding eve were always conducted in the bathhouse. This was an occasion for women only, usually with just the bride’s girlfriends present, though sometimes with the male village sorcerer in attendance too. Girls hoping to marry would take away some of the bathing water to ensure their future luck.

The special properties of the birch are also reflected in the custom of decorating the church with branches or – as here – small birch trees around the time of the Trinity (Whitsun) festival

Playful versions of divination in the bathhouse for love still take place today. Girls set up a deliciously scary ritual, in which they go into the bathhouse one by one, into an atmosphere thick with steam, and feel around until they touch someone’s hand. The type of touch they encounter tells them what kind of husband they will marry– if it’s a hairy hand, he will be rich, if smooth then he will be poor, and if wet, he will certainly be a drunkard! In practice the game is often aided and abetted by the local boys, who enjoy taking a turn to hide in the bathhouse and frightening each of the girls in turn.

Bannik – another mischievous household spirit

The Bannik
The spirit of the bathhouse is known as the bannik. Like most Russian domestic spirits and nature spirits, he is a shape-shifter, who can change his appearance at will. For much of the time, he is not seen at all, since he owns a cap of invisibility, but he might appear in the form of a large black cat, or perhaps as an old man with a green beard. Bannik can also manifest as a heavy stone or a burning coal, so potentially he could be around in the bathhouse at any time, making it a place of menace, as he is bad-tempered, and brooks no breach of etiquette. Students working on Kiji Island (in the far north of Russia) during their summer break told me that they always treated bannik with great respect. One of their number, an intellectual young man who thought he knew better, refused to ask bannik’s permission to enter the bathhouse as required, and neglected to leave a little offering of soap or a fir twig for the bath spirit as is the accepted custom. The next time he entered the bathhouse, he tripped over, dropped his glasses, and trod on them by mistake. Stooping down to retrieve the now broken glasses, he stood up too abruptly and cracked his head on a low beam. Since then, his friends reported, he has always shown the proper respect to the spirit of the bathhouse.

Potent, risky, pagan, but also a great source of pleasure to almost every Russian today, the bathhouse retains its position in the heritage of Russian traditional culture and magic.

Another representation of Bannik, partly disguised by the birch leaf switches

Decoration of the House
There is an intense love of colour and decoration in Russia, and the country is rich in arts and crafts. Houses are often decorated on the outside with wooden carvings, and home owners compete with each other to create the finest of these. As well as symbols representing the sun or sky in the upper parts, there may be carvings of lions or mermaids to protect the home, birds to symbolise happiness, and beautiful descending panels of fretwork on the front wall, imitating the embroideries on the ceremonial linen towels.

The most prominent and typical decorative feature of the izba is the carving around the window: lacy fretwork window frames known as nalichniki, which incorporate a variety of motifs, often rosettes or floral designs, and sometimes even the Communist five-pointed star. As for the origin of this custom, one suggestion is that it is a way of protecting the home, by guarding the windows against the entry of evil spirits. The other is that it provided a beautiful framework for an unmarried daughter as she sat sewing at the window, ready to catch the eye of any eligible young man strolling by.

Girls wearing another form of decoration, garlands of autumn leaves, perhaps also to catch the eye of young men walking by. (St Petersburg)

Text and photographs © Cherry Gilchrist 2020

Related Reading

Gerhart, Genevra (1994) The Russian’s World, Holt, (Rhinehart & Winston, USA)
Fraser, Eugenie (1984) The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood (Corgi, UK)
Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia, (Indiana University Press)
Milner-Gulland, R. (1997) The Russians, (Blackwell, USA)
Billington, James H. (1970) The Icon and the Axe, (Vintage Books: Random House, New York)
Gaynor, Elizabeth & et al. Russian Houses, (Benedikt Taschen Verlag – no date).
Hilton, Alison (1995) Russian Folk Art (Indiana University Press)
Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc.)
Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)
Rozhnova, P. (1992) A Russian Folk Calendar, (Novosti, Moscow)
Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight (Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)

Russian Magic – You will find much more detail about the Russian izba and traditional way of life, with folk customs, fairy tales and Slavic mythology, in my book Russian Magic, which is available in printed and electronic form .

The Legendary Art of the Russian Lacquer Miniature

The Story of the Golden Fish – Lacquer miniature from Kholui

This article was first published in the American magazine ‘Russian Life’in Nov/Dec 2001. It was based, at that point, on my nine years of travelling to and from Russia, investigating the art form, staying in the village of Kholui, and running Firebird Russian Arts in the UK. (A busy time!) Now, nineteen years later, of course much has changed. The Western market for buying lacquer miniatures has almost dried up, and many artists have switched to painting icons and commemorative panels, as this article in the New York Times illustrates. (NB – this otherwise excellent article is not always accurate on history or painting techniques!)

Everything about the history and style of the art form still stands, however. I hope that in time, the lacquer art painters will profit better from their creations, and find a market for the traditional boxes once again. One issue is the sheer time-consuming nature of creating them; as the Russian cost of living rises, and the differential between this and the West diminishes, it’s almost impossible for buyers to compensate the artists adequately for their skill and work. Money for commissioning icons, however, can be found more readily.

Please noteIt’s extremely hard to photograph Russian Lacquer Miniatures well, since they are tiny, shiny and convex! Any gleams on the photograph are from where the light is catching the lacquer polish.

Snowmaiden – the beautiful girl whose arrival heralds the winter snow, and who melts away at the first sign of spring. An older miniature from Kholui.

The article begins with an account of the scene that I described in my earlier post, ‘The Russian Diaries’.

The road to Kholui passes through stretches of open meadowland, brushing the edge of the forest, and traversing marshy tracts until it swings around the last sharp bend and meets the broad River Teza. This is the end of the road. The silver sign of the Firebird welcomes the occasional visitor. The fine, but crumbling, church singles the place out as one of historical importance. Substantial brick-built houses along the riverbank indicate that once rich merchants lived and traded here. The other houses in the village are traditional brightly-painted wooden izbas, with carved fretwork around the windows and eaves.

But this is no typical Russian village: of its 1800 inhabitants, 300 are artists. Kholui’s roots as an artistic community stretch back to the thirteenth century. For hundreds of years, it was also an important trading centre. And, along with three other villages – Palekh, Mstiora and Fedoskino, it is now home to a unique art form, the Russian Lacquer Miniature.

The quality of the Russian Lacquer Miniature is widely-known around the world, but even the average Russian knows very little about the art form. In Russian cities, cheaply-painted boxes are sold to tourists for a few dollars as ‘Lacquer Miniatures’, and in the States, many people erroneously call them ‘Palekh boxes’. Anyone can admire and enjoy a genuine lacquer miniature, but when you understand more about its history and the work that goes into it, then you truly begin to value it.

The history of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be traced back to Russia’s ancient past, yet it is a comparably young art form. It looks timeless, but was only fully established as a genre in the 1920s and 30s. There are two distinct chapters in the history of lacquer miniatures.

In the 13th century, the village of Kholui, and its neighbours, Palekh and Mstiora, were icon-painting centres, founded by monks who fled the Suzdal area to escape the Tartar-Mongol invasion. They made their way into remote forested regions about a hundred miles to the east, where they established three separate settlements. Over the course of the centuries, these three villages trained generations of icon-painters. The names Palekh, Kholui and Mstiora became synonymous with schools of icon-painting, and their icons can often be found in museums and auctions today.

A Fedoskino box, with its lavish use of gold leaf paint: a scene from Ruslan and Ludmilla, the tale in verse by the poet Pushkin

The icon-trading attracted commerce and fairs and markets arose. Kholui, now the quietest of the lacquer miniature villages, was once the liveliest and probably the wealthiest. Major fairs were held there at least five times a year, with buyers and sellers arriving not only from far-flung corners of Russia, but from abroad. Cloth, furs, fish, ‘lubok’ prints and anything and everything was sold here, along with the icons. Drunkenness, merry-making and quarrels abounded. One deep pool on the edge of the village is still known as ‘Turk’s Lake’, into which, it is said, a Turkish trader was hastily tipped after one quarrel too many. Old coins are regularly dug up in Kholui gardens, and the fair still just about lives on in the memory of old folk, though it was suppressed in the 1930s.

An incredibly detailed miniature of Kholui Fair as it used to be in days of old, with all kinds of entertainment going on, and peddling of wares. Traders arrive by boat. Artist Viktor Malkov

The trade in icons fell into sharp decline at the end of the nineteenth century, partly because mass-produced printed icons were cheap and widely available. After 1917, religious painting was discouraged, putting the remaining icon-painters out of a job. Officially, icon-painting was now defunct. Unofficially, the tradition was carried on secretly; the former director of the Kholui lacquer miniature workshop said he used to tip off the artists when official visitors were coming, so that they could hide any icons in progress.

The second chapter in the evolution of the lacquer miniatures as an art form came after the Bolshevik Revolution. Dedicated artists who remained cast around for something into which to channel their talents. They tried painting carpets and china, without great success. Then, in Palekh, an artist called Ivan Golikov began to create the first lacquer miniatures. The miniature form actually sprang out of the icon tradition, since icons often contained a border of miniature paintings around a central subject.

Icon from Yaroslavl, with miniatures surrounding the subject, and a richly-ornamented, colourful style which was adopted by the Russian lacquer miniatures artists. This is St Paraskeva-Friday, a protectress of women and guardian of spinning and weaving traditions.

But now, instead of sacred themes, Golikov took the age-old legends and fairy tales of Russia for his subjects. He retained the use tempera, egg-based paints, and much of the icon style. In particular, the richly-coloured, gold-ornamented icons of Yaroslavl served as inspiration, their horses and chariots, robes and palaces already almost suggestive of fairy tales rather than religious themes. But, significantly, Golikov changed from using wood to lacquered papier mache as a base.

A classic Palekh image, with strong colours, a black bacground and fine gold leaf ornament. The heart-shaped box though is more unusual.

This is where Fedoskino, the fourth village comes into our story. Fedoskino artists argue that they were the first school of Russian lacquer miniature painting, since their workshop was originally set up in 1798. It was the brainchild of a merchant called Korobov, who realised that he could sell vast quantities of snuff boxes if he could make them both cheap and attractive. Many people could not afford the snuff boxes made of ivory, jade or other precious materials which were in vogue at the time. Using a process which he discovered in Germany, Korobov began to produce little boxes of papier mache. He employed artists to decorate them, and he finished them in lacquer to produce a very durable and attractive finish. Over the course of time, many other beautiful but functional types of boxes were produced, as tea caddies, card cases and so on. And, since Fedoskino lay just north of Moscow, it was well-placed to serve the fashion-conscious clientele of the city.

The Fedoskino artists painted in oils from the start, and took their style from mainstream art, which at that time in Russia was very similar to Western art. They did begin to introduce a distinctly Russian flavour however, painting troikas and village scenes, and girls in national costume. They also began to concentrate more and more on the quality of the painting itself; it was no longer enough just to decorate a box. The workshop, a highly successful venture, subsequently passed into the hands of the Lukutin family, and remained as such until it became a co-operative in 1910. It has always retained its distinctive style, which is also now often characterised by an underlay of mother of pearl, or gold leaf. This gives the miniature an iridescent sheen, and an inner glow, and is particularly effective for bringing to life snow scenes, sunlight, and silken draperies.

Fedoskino artists, because they use oil paints, can achieve high standards of portrait painting. An older Fedoskino miniature.
A mother of pearl underlay is created ahead of painting most of the miniature itself. The story of ‘The Flying Carpet’ – eventually, a Firebird will be painted in the cage the prince is carrying.

Back in Palekh in the 1920s, Golikov gathered a small group of artists around him, and this founding group set the Palekh style securely in place for succeeding generations. It is, not surprisingly, very iconic, with beautifully detailed faces, and elongated figures poised in dignified stances. It consists of vivid colours, often including brilliant reds or blues, but always used with restraint on a background of black lacquer.

All the lacquer miniature schools generally use black for the outside of the box, and red for the inside, though they paint over the black to a far greater degree than the Palekh artists. Red equals life and beauty in Russian colour symbolism, and the black expresses both the mystery and the sorrows of life. The black background helps the vivid miniature scenes appear as if they are floating in another dimension of time and space, drawing us into the intense world that they create. The gold of the delicate ornament, used to highlight detail and provide a decorative border, is a symbol of eternity. This trio of colours – red, black and gold – also forms the basis of colour in other Russian folk art too, especially in the lacquered wooden ware of Khokhloma.

Kholui and Mstiora followed Palekh into the painting of lacquer miniatures in the 1930s. There was some rivalry between the villages, as each was eager to define its own status, and over the course of the years all three villages have developed very distinctive styles and outlooks. Kholui is dynamic, colourful, relying on contrast and a depth of perspective, and it often contains superb natural detail. Kholui artists today show remarkable creativity, especially the talented 26 or so members of the Kholui Union of Artists. Mstiora style is dreamy, with delicate, carefully-graded colours, and usually all of the background is painted over. Mstiora style needs a different eye; there is often less detail than in Palekh or Kholui painting, but the overall effect is wonderfully harmonious.

An example of Mistora work, with fine architecture and muted colours
Mstiora artists also sometimes use a kind of celestial blue in their creations, based on the colouring of some of the old icons from the area.

So despite the early start in Fedoskino, the genre of the Russian lacquer miniature with its four schools only really came to birth in the middle of the twentieth century. It remains a very Russian art form at its heart, with subjects drawn from fairy tales, historical legends, Russian landscapes and architecture, and festivals and scenes from old village life. The artists meticulously research their themes, if they are not within living memory. Sometimes flowers, animals, portraits, and non-Russian themes are painted, often with stunning results – but stray too far or too often from the Russian flavour, and the art weakens.

The artists of this genre go through a thorough training lasting five years. Each of the four villages has its own art school, and outsiders are welcomed as well as children born and bred in the village. There is healthy competition for spaces, with about four or five applicants vying for each slot. In general, students do not pay tuition, though schools are beginning to offer a proportion of fee-paying places simply to survive. Students must show not only a talent for art, but also must also have excellent eyesight and good general health.

Artists at work: preparing tempera paint, painting, and completing fine gold ornament

Contrary to popular belief, the lacquer miniature artists’ eyesight does not typically deteriorate more than other adults, despite the fact that they carry out such incredibly detailed work. (Painting fine gold ornament is especially taxing and is done with the finest of brushes.) They are taught so well that they work more with mind and hand than with the eye .In fact, lacquer miniature artists prefer not to work with magnifying glasses, as they like to see the whole of their composition at once. But students don’t spend all their time in such concentrated work; they are also encouraged to work in charcoal, oils and watercolours, to draw from life, and to study the history of art as well. Much of their miniature training is acquired by copying from examples, so that they learn in a very disciplined and structured way. For their diploma, however, they must produce a completely original composition.

It is important to understand that lacquer art does not depend entirely upon original compositions. The word ‘copy’ often has negative connotations in Western minds. But this does not mean something slavish and mechanical; it is rather the chance to re-create the work of a master. This approach is common in Eastern art as well as in icon-painting, where the artist does not have to strive to be original. Some artists at the pinnacle of the profession only paint originals or ‘author’s works’ as they are described in Russian. Others will only ever paint existing subjects, drawing from a range of designs and repertoire. Altogether, this forms the body of the art, which has a life of its own and a strongly collective element. Even the most ‘original’ artists usually meet in council in their union or co-operative to discuss their works – and criticisms are certainly made, especially if other artists feel that new compositions are spoiling or weakening the tradition. Artists who leave and settle elsewhere are rarely able to keep up the quality of work; the members of the collective rely on each other, the spirit of the art, and indeed the ‘spirit of place’ of their village.

The Russian belief in nature spirits, or respect for the elements of nature, is strong. This is ‘Leshi’, the forest master, said to protect all the beasts and birds of the forest. Miniature by Pyotr Mityashin, Kholui
‘Vodayanoy’, the Lord of the Waters. Each river is said to have its own Vodyanoy. A miniature from Palekh

Some years ago, the Soviet government tried to artificially create a fifth centre of folk art in the industrial city of Lipetsk. Artists were tempted to re-settle there with promises of modern flats, bathrooms and running water (luxuries not available in the ‘izba’). Sadly, the experiment was a failure; nothing new or creative has emerged from Lipetsk, and it now turns out low quality miniatures for the tourist market. The artists who moved there could never return, and gradually they lost both their individual creativity and the vital link into the main body of the art.

The four lacquer miniature villages are all quite individual, set in beautiful countryside which is a source of inspiration to the artists. Intense sunsets, deep forests, spring floods, fall harvests and winter snows all fuel their imagination. The artists are rooted in the traditional life of the Russian countryside, with seasons for potato-planting and mushroom-gathering, berry picking and fishing. And, like most rural Russians, they have to make do for themselves, mending their homes and tending the vegetable plots. Women and men are both in the ranks of artists, sometimes even working as a husband and wife team, taking turns minding the children while the other one paints.

The Firebird – a popular subject for miniatures and in fairy stories. Above is an example from Kholui, and below is one from Palekh

Meanwhile, more than ten years after the lifting of state controls, lacquer miniature artists find the situation for selling their art to be quite fluid. Though some regret that they are no longer as financially secure as they were, most prefer the creative freedom: they are no longer tied to a production quota, and can work as and when they please.

The four original state-run studios, one for each village, still function in various disorganised stages of privatisation. Some artists work there on salary, while others are members of co-operatives or unions. Still others go it alone. Much depends upon their contacts, and the selling network that they find their way into. Thus, it is not always the best artists who are the richest.

The domestic market for this art form is weak, although recently record prices for lacquer miniatures have been extracted from tourists in St Petersburg. The plain fact is that most miniatures find their way West; in Russia, only corporate customers such as banks regularly buy them. Once, museums were queuing up to buy the best lacquer miniatures, and none of the real masterpieces ever left the country. Now the museums do not have the funds for such purposes, and Russians with money would rather buy consumer goods rather than art.

‘The Bell’s Story’ from Palekh
‘The Magic Flying Stove’ from Fedoskino

This dissolution of control over production brought other challenges as well. In Fedoskino and Palekh especially, artists have split into many groups, some of them now in a difficult relationship with one another. But on the whole, genuine aspiration and honesty is still at the heart of the tradition, and the studios still work with dogged persistence in extremely difficult market conditions. Each village has its own stupendously good museum, and exhibitions, celebrations and jubilees are common excuses to get together with artists and colleagues from the other lacquer centres and party at great length once the official speeches are over.

Young newly-qualified artists celebrating one of the anniversaries of Kholui as a lacquer miniature painting centre. The Firebird remains the main symbol of the village

It is worth noting that the making of the papier-maché and the lacquering and polishing of finished work is actually not done by the individual artists. Rather, it is done by another team of craftsmen, who are skilled, but who do not enjoy the status level of the artists. It is an interesting process in its own right, involving just the right type of cardboard, from which the papier-maché is made, the ‘slow-cooking’ of the papier-maché for two or three months, and painstaking lacquering and polishing. Three or four coats of lacquer are applied before the artist begins painting the miniature. Afterwards, between seven and twelve coats must be applied, and each one dried and polished to achieve the right finish. The lacquer has to be made to just the right formula; untrained city artists producing ‘souvenir’ boxes often slap on a couple of coats of floor varnish, and hope for the best. This will usually crack up within a couple of years, whereas properly lacquered works will survive, with only a little dulling, for centuries.

Above: making and lacquering the papier-mache boxes

No genuine lacquer miniature is complete in less than three months from start to finish, and many will take a year or more. The simplest design will take the artist several days to paint; the most complex more than twelve months.

Polishing the finished box on a velvet-covered electric wheel. Great care must be taken, as the artist’s painting is already on the lid of the box!

As the basis for the lacquer miniature, the traditional form of the box is still the most popular. Yet, as the art became finer and finer, so the utility of the box was largely forgotten, and the miniatures became collectors’ items in their own right. Although the art of the miniature is the main focus, a miniature on a box is still evocative, like an exquisite treasure chest. Some of the old functional shapes have been retained, such as the ‘inkwell’ and ‘cigarette case’, but for decorative interest only. Artists often paint plaques and panels as well, and brooches have gained in popularity in recent years. They also occasionally paint wall panels and frescoes – on a completely different scale of course – and lovely examples of these can be seen in the restaurant in Palekh, and in the children’s home in Mstiora.

Artists sometimes paint murals and panels too. This is an example from the children’s home in Mstiora

It is often asked whether there is a Persian or Moghul influence in the miniatures. The artists themselves deny this, and it is more likely that there is a slight similarity of style, simply because of painting lively scenes on a small scale in vivid colours. Once at a British art exhibition, Uzbeki miniaturists were painting in the next tent to Russian lacquer miniature artists. A British interpreter was getting very heated as she defended her Uzbeki artists against the supposed crimes of their ‘thieving’ former overlords, claiming that those Russians next door had ‘stolen’ the tradition from the Uzbeks. The Uzbeki Minister of Culture, who happened to be present, gently put her right. He noted that they had actually sent some of their own Uzbeki artists to Palekh to train in miniature painting and production, having lost their own indigenous tradition some time back. With the help of this input from Russian artists, they are now trying to re-create their own style using Russian technique as a basis.

The creative potential of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be tapped in unexpected ways. But at its heart, it remains a uniquely Russian art form, its little boxes dispatched across the globe as messengers from the soul of Russia, carriers of her magical tales and traditions.

‘On the Riverbank’ from Palekh

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Baba Yaga and the Borderlands

This article is adapted from my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It opens Chapter Five, ‘The Secrets of Life and Death’ celebrating the mystique and myths of the Russian witch and crone, Baba Yaga. Although she’s a popular figure of Russian folk lore, yet she’s a shadowy, complex figure, who may have a role in the old pre-Christian rituals of the land of ‘Rus’.

This is the second of four posts celebrating the years I spent going back and forth to Russia, in search of its ancient culture and mythology. I’m flattered that the young conductor Alexander Prior said of my book: ‘It’s the first time any Westerner has understood the Russian soul.’

Baba Yaga’s Kingdom

‘Beyond the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ten kingdom there lives Baba-Yaga, the witch. Her house stands in a forest beyond the Flaming River.’ (from the story of Maria Morevna)

Original etching by B. Zaborofin, 1992, collection of Cherry Gilchrist. Baba Yaga holds a book titled ‘Russian Folk Tales’ and her house is built on chicken legs, according to tradition.

Baba Yaga is an ugly, cantankerous old woman, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s feet in the middle of the forest, and who flies around the skies by means of a pestle and mortar. She captures small children, tricks young maidens, and kills just about anyone who crosses her. This wicked witch of Russian fairy stories is familiar to every person in the land, and her fame, or notoriety, has spread further afield, so that she is also well-known in Europe and America. She is a stock character in folk tales, and also turns up regularly in other contexts: in modern Russian cartoons and children’s books, as a puppet, and in more high-minded art as a character in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite of music, Pictures from an Exhibition.

Baba Yaga is also a useful weapon for Russian parents to frighten small children who are misbehaving. 

‘Sit down, and finish your supper, otherwise Baba Yaga will come for you!’

Olga, otherwise an extremely patient grandmother, had finally had enough of small Dima’s noisy behaviour at the supper table. On hearing the dreaded name, he subsided instantly; a watchful, fearful look in his eyes as he sat back quietly to eat his meal. A few minutes later, though, after the threat of the witch had worn off, he began to jump up and down again.

Olga was quick to react. She got to her feet and peered out of the window.

‘Baba Yaga’s coming down the lane now,’ she said.

Dima was back in his seat before any of us could blink twice, and we finished our evening meal in peace. Baba Yaga is fond of stealing little children in order to cook them up for her own supper.

But although she has a world-wide reputation, and is a star of wonder tales, woodcuts, comics and animated films, Baba Yaga remains enigmatic and ambivalent, ultimately a mysterious figure whose source is unknown. No one is quite sure of her origins, her function, or of whether she is ultimately a force for good or evil. All studies seem to agree, however, that her role is much more than that of a pantomime-style witch. Baba Yaga stands at the boundaries of life and death, at the borders of darkness and rebirth.

A depiction of Baba Yaga by the famous Russian illustrator, Bilibin, dating from 1900. She flies through the air in a mortar, steering it with a pestle. The forest is her natural habitat.

‘Leg of Stone, Toothless Crone’

Baba Yaga is of grotesque appearance, with lank greasy hair, a long nose, and a leg which is either made of stone in polite renderings, or of faeces in more earthy accounts. Her bulk fills up her hut when she is at home, and, when out of it, she flies around in a mortar made of iron, which she steers with a pestle. Sometimes, as in the story mentioned below, she rides instead on a magic horse chosen from her herd of doughty mares. She lives deep in the forest, and has a fondness for killing and perhaps eating visitors, whose skulls she nails to posts impaled in the ground around her hut. This hut also has the property of revolving at the witch’s command, hiding or concealing its entrance according to her word.

In common parlance, the term Baba Yaga is used in Russian for any cantankerous old woman. There is no common agreement as to where the Yaga (or Iaga, Ega, Egibihk and other variations) part of her name comes from. The ‘Baba’ prefix refers to woman or mother, but Yaga may be connected to the word for snake, for pain, or even for pelican, according to various authorities, or, more likely, to none of these.

Her role in traditional stories is to challenge anyone who strays into her domain, whom she may then attack, kill, advise, help or strike a bargain with, or any combination of these functions. She is fond of both drinking and spilling Russian blood, and can smell it approaching from afar. New arrivals are often greeted with the question, ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ – words that suggest a ritual confrontation, a challenge to test the visitor’s determination.

Her attitude towards children and girls is different to the stance she takes with young men. She may capture and consume small children, she may imprison young girls or choose to let them go unharmed, but she always challenges and tests youths and men. This has led to a theory that Baba Yaga is in origin the ancient goddess of the underworld, who conducts young men through initiation ceremonies at their coming of age. They must show bravery and cunning, avoid the traps and snares that she sets, and perform near-impossible tasks in order to win through and be worthy of manhood.

An episode in the story of Maria Morevna, when Ivan, the young hero, agrees to look after Baba Yaga’s horses in return for her sparing his life (attribution at end)

In the story of Maria Morevna, quoted earlier, Prince Ivan encounters Baba Yaga when he is in search of his abducted wife, the warrior queen Maria Morevna. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by twelve poles, all but one crowned with a human head, and Ivan recognises that the last one has been saved for his own head to crown. But Baba Yaga promises to spare him, and grant him his freedom, if he will look after her horses for three days. She has many fine mares, and flies around the world each day on one of them; she is ready to offer Ivan one of these magical steeds if he can care for the whole herd.

The task is more difficult than he thinks, since for two days running, the horses gallop off into the forest as soon as he takes them out to pasture, and he falls into a heavy slumber till the end of the day. But he is then helped by creatures who he has been kind to earlier in his travels, and manages to get the herd back to the house with the mares intact. At midnight, knowing that Baba Yaga will never honour her promise, he decides to escape; he steals a colt and rides off towards the flaming river, where his wife waits for him on the other side.

Going to sleep on the job, as with the story of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, is a mistake for young would-be heroes, and in this case it may correspond with the sleep deprivation that often accompanies initiation rites, where keeping a vigil can be a significant phase of the process. All the old habits of eating, sleeping and bathing must be uprooted, and Baba Yaga’s offer of steam baths and food in some stories may be echoes of new and possibly dangerous experiences in this department. There is a strong tradition of women initiating boys into manhood in various societies: for instance in the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, women would present young men with weapons so that they could become warriors or knights. And in mythology, King Arthur himself is said to have received his magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

Male initiation is often sexual, too. The horrific appearance of Baba Yaga as an ugly old crone, who may be farting and exposing her foaming genitalia, denotes the reverse of everything lovely and maidenly. This may challenge the young man’s unquestioning attachment to the beauty of the female form, and force him to look with different eyes at an adult woman. The witch is also the opposite of the comforting, familiar mother figure, and this may help to break his dependence upon his mother, in order to claim his manhood, and make a new and truer bond with a woman who can become his wife. In the story of Maria Morevna, although Ivan is married to her already, she is abducted on account of his naivety and carelessness, and it is only by showing genuine bravery and effort that he can finally reclaim her, and make her truly his own. 

If the forest ritual was once a cultural event, marking the passage from youth into manhood, then most likely it would have been enacted by a person, male or female, dressed and masked as Baba Yaga, to give a terrifying appearance. Some weight is lent to this by the fact that fairy stories may contain ‘a’ Baba Yaga, or even several of them, suggesting that there could be local Baba Yagas. There may be three sister Baba Yagas, for instance. This may also relate to the symbolism of the triple goddess, an idea which is widespread through various cultures. The three faces or figures of this goddess are maiden, mother and crone, and there is no doubt that in this schema, Baba Yaga would be a manifestation of the crone figure.

Baba Yaga’s hideous appearance here is given full rein by the artist (From ‘Heroes, Monsters and Other Worlds from Russian Mythology, by Elizabeth Warner, illustrations Alexander Koshkin. Eurobook 1985)

The symbolism of the triple goddess is intimately connected with the phases of the moon, so that the maiden can be seen as the crescent moon, who then grows to fullness as mother, and finally declines into the dark phase as the crone, a phase associated with Hecate in Greek myth, for instance. The crone may be frightening, old, smelly and in some ways evil, but she is also the embodiment of wisdom, and no understanding of woman is complete without her. It has also been suggested that Baba Yaga’s hut, which revolves to conceal or reveal its opening, may itself be associated with cycles of the moon, and of feminine sexuality, so that Baba Yaga’s role as crone could also thus embody knowledge about female sexual cycles, about menstruation and the waxing and waning of fertility and desire, knowledge which young men need to acquire as they are about to enter into relationships with the opposite sex. Such an interpretation also goes a long way to explaining the ambivalence of Baba Yaga, and how she can never be finally upheld as totally good or evil.

A sample sketch of Vasilisa the Fair prepared by artist Natalia Danilin for a proposed Russian Oracle by Cherry Gilchrist

The much-loved tale of Vasilisa the Fair gives us a heroine’s perspective on an encounter with Baba Yaga. Young Vasilisa is sent to the forest by her cruel stepsisters to fetch a light from Baba Yaga’s house in the forest. On approaching the hut, she meets three horsemen, one white, one scarlet and one black; they represent Day, Sun and Night, and they are under Baba Yaga’s command, for she, as many stories about her relate, has power over the winds and weather, sun and moon. Baba Yaga sniffs out Vasilisa’s approach, and offers her a light only on condition that the little girl stays and works for her. The tasks seem impossible, but Vasilisa has an ally – a little magic doll that her mother gave to her as she lay dying. The doll helps her to do the housework, and finally Baba Yaga turns Vasilisa out of the house and gives her the light she requested to take home.

In terms of the lunar cycles and the symbolism of the triple goddess, Vasilisa may be seen as the ‘maiden’ phase of the moon, and her mother as the full moon, who then died to be followed by the black lunar crone. Vasilisa wins the light of her crescent moon back by braving Baba Yaga’s darkness, and earning her respect through hard work and integrity.

Russian lacquer miniature illustrations of Vasilisa the Fair, meeting the Knight of the Sunrise. (Left – Kholui School, Right – Palekh School)

Perhaps Baba Yaga once played a part in coming of age ceremonies for young girls too, and perhaps, too, this is an example of one, although I have not come across any direct mention of this.  

Vasilisa the Fair, using one of the lighted skulls from Baba Yaga’s hut to help her see her way in the dark and make her escape

Baba Yaga is a figure who stands at the borders of life and death, and as both boys and girls have to die to their childhood in order to enter the adult world, she is an appropriate figure to meet them on the threshold of that transition. She is herself a symbol of death in some old folklore customs; at harvest time, for instance, an effigy of Baba Yaga may be created in straw, and subsequently destroyed. This is said to act as a reminder that the day of reaping and death comes to us all.

In many tales, it is made clear that the witch lives close to the borders of the otherworld. One hero finds her abode right at the end of the earth: ‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it,’ as we are told in the story of The Enchanted Princess’.

Baba Yaga’s territory is already considered to be in the world of ‘the living dead’, known as the ‘thrice-nine land’. This lies far beyond the human realm, and from here one must set out to confront the final boundary to the ‘thrice-ten kingdom’, often understood as the realm of the truly dead. This boundary may be described as the ‘flaming river’ or ‘the blue sea’. In one story, it is charmingly defined as the ‘Currant River’, crossed by the ‘Cranberry Bridge’. Indeed, it is not enough just to reach the boundary, for a means must be found or created to pass over it. In the story of Maria Morevna, Ivan calls up a bridge by waving a magic kerchief, a trick sometimes employed to make it passable. In fairy stories such as this, the hero performs the superhuman feat of going to the‘thrice-ten land’ and  returning, perhaps as young men once did symbolically through their ritual ordeals. Baba Yaga has been the catalyst for this.

A ‘lubok’ or wood-cut print of Baba Yaga, probably in battle with a wizard

She also remains a key archetype in Russian mythology, represented not only in stories but in popular rhymes, and in old folk woodcuts, known as lubok. In one famous and often copied lubok, she is depicted as fighting something described as a ‘crocodile’, but which looks more like a furry figure, or a bearded man with a tail. This has been interpreted as representing a political satire on Catherine the Great (the witch) fighting with Peter the Great (the foreigner, and thus the dangerous crocodile). However, as one study points out, both Baba Yaga and the crocodile are designated as guardians of the underworld in traditional lore; the appearance of the so-called crocodile as half human, half furry animal may in fact be a shaman magician. These wizards were real life characters, but were popularly regarded as a combination of beast and man. According to accounts given by the wizards themselves, battles were also traditionally fought between witches and sorcerers, and it may be an old magical battle that we see here.

Whatever the final definition of Baba Yaga, if such a thing is possible, she remains as a figure who can both attract us to the darkness of her mysteries and repel us with her disgusting appearance and unpleasant ways.

Once, I was dreaming by a camp fire in Russia

References – Image of Ivan and Baba Yaga in ‘Maria Morevna’ from ‘Life in Russia’

Suggested reading on Baba Yaga and Russian myth and fairy tales

Forest of the Vampire (1999) (various authors), (Duncan Baird, Amsterdam).

Haney, Jack V. (1999) An Introduction to the Russian Folk Tale, (M. E. Sharpe Inc, Armonk, New York & England)

Haney, Jack V. (2001) Russian Wondertales (two vols), (M. E. Sharpe, New York).

Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis)

Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, New York & England)

Johns, Andreas (1998) Baba Iaga and the Russian Mother in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, No. 1.

Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)

Phillips, C. and Kerrigan, M. (1999) Forests of the Vampire, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London)

Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia,(Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Russian Diaries

In 1992, I made the first of what was to be fifty-nine journeys to Russia, something I could never have foreseen when I stepped off a plane in St Petersburg. Between then and 2006 I developed Firebird Russian Arts, a business specialising in Russian crafts, and became a lecturer in traditional Russian culture. Somehow, I ran this alongside my other writing projects and activities, although it did take over the course of my life for fifteen years! It also resulted in a book called Russian Magic, first printed as The Soul of Russia, drawing on my experiences in Russia and related research.

Returning to my Russian adventure stirs up plenty of memories, both joyful and sad. It was a unique experience, getting to know the country just after the Iron Curtain had been lifted. And in particular, for me, learning directly from its artists and discovering the charms of Russian rural life had a huge significance. This month, for the next four posts, I’m celebrating that quest through posts based on articles I’ve written, extracts from my book, and diary entries. All have been adapted as necessary for this new output. I hope you enjoy them.

Garlanded with wild hops, on a Russian picnic, of which there were many.

The next-but-one post will explain the art of the Russian lacquer miniature, which was at the core of my visits.

An example of a Russian lacquer miniature: ‘Wedding Day’
The ‘izba’ which I bought in the village of Kholui in 1995

The Russian Izba

In 1995, I bought a wooden village house in Russia, known as an ‘izba’. It was situated in the village of Kholui in the Ivanovo province, east of Moscow by some 200 miles. I’d started buying and selling Russian lacquer miniatures which are an acclaimed art form in their own right. Kholui is one of the four artists’ villages where these are painted. Although there are about 300 artists in the village, along with an art school, a painting workshop and a museum, it is still very much an unpretentious country village. It sits on the river Teza, and was once a place of annual trading fairs and passing river traffic. I was won over by its charm, the friendliness of the people, and the chance to immerse myself in the life and work of the artists. A later article this month on Cherry’s Cache will say more about this art, but this one is a memoir of that first idyllic summer, when my former husband and I took over a wooden village house, and immersed ourselves in local life.

Even on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the wooden cottage or izba, remains deeply rooted in the Russian psyche as a symbol of simplicity and comfort that also represents an aesthetic, even spiritual, perception of the world. These cottages served to diminish and humanize the vast scale of the Russian landscape, offering a place of comfort in an alien universe.

Russian Houses – E. Gaynor, K Haavisto (D. Goldstein 1994)

Many of the the houses in the village are brightly painted, with delicately carved fretwork windows

I should explain that I had to buy the house through one of my business partners, Ludmilla, as it needed a Russian signature on the deeds. She and her husband Valodya were close friends and colleagues, and Ludmilla helped us in every way with the Kafka-esque process of trying to buy a modest village cottage for about $4000 (American dollars, the unofficial Russian currency).

Extracts from the Russian diaries: What follows are extracts from my diary of our first stay in the house that summer of 1995 in Kholui. We arrived in late May, having travelled there on the overnight bus from Moscow, an experience in itself, and the first major journey that we’d made in Russia by ourselves.

Friday May 26th 1995 – Arrival

Yesterday we arrived at our dacha for the first time since the ten minutes it took to choose and agree to buying it last September.

In Moscow, Vladimir had found out that the arrival time in Uja, the nearest stop to Kholui, was supposed to be at 8am. He told us that the arrival times had been scratched off the notice boards, so that you had to go to the bureau inside and pay 1000 roubles to get the information you needed.

We actually arrived in Uja at about 6.45am. It was a lovely day. My primitive Russian began to seem even more primitive as a few friendly travellers and women travelling with their produce to market questioned us. Finally, our Natasha arrived from Kholui with a car and a driver, and it was lovely to see a familiar face. Her family, the Malkovs have agreed to be our caretakers, and they are going to look after us as well as the house.

We just about got all our cumbersome, hard-shelled suitcases and bulging holdalls into the car. Packing had been a nightmare; I accumulated what I thought were small but essential items for the house, and some useful food, as we didn’t know what provisions might be available. We packed; I weighed. We were 30 kilograms overweight. We unpacked. We repacked. Chris threw out the candles, and I put them back in again. (Wisely, as it turned out, as there were a number of power cuts during the next couple of years.) In the event, when we got to the airport, all the computers were down, and the poor airline staff had enough to do, writing out boarding passes by hand, without worrying about overweight baggage.

Driving into Kholui from Uja, we both felt a surge of euphoria. Till then, we had been full of joy and confidence in our undertaking one day, the next struck by insecurity and panic. The village looked wonderful in the brilliant sunshine, with dandelions and buttercups in bloom, the grass already rich and deep, and the dignified green and white onion domes of its ancient church crowning the scene. Already men were fishing in the river, women were washing clothes from the banks, and children were splashing in the water. Over the bridge, along the road to the right, a turn to the left, and we were there.

The church at Kholui, which stayed open all through the Soviet era, unlike many others
The house itself, that I bought, is built in a typical pattern with just ground-floor living, a summer room (on the right) and wooden steps up to the front door. Sometimes there is a proper attic room, and/or a cellar but not in this case.

Our house

The house is painted in gentle, kindly, faded, blue and brown colours. Like other Russian country houses, it has elegantly carved window frames and looks bigger than it is. Most houses have been constructed to accommodate cows, goats, potatoes, boats, tools and hay as well as people, and plenty of space is given over to this. It has two main rooms: one a large, regularly shaped front room with a traditional Russian stove built up to ceiling height, and the other an L-shape, with the kitchen built into the missing section. It’s sunny, and feels peaceful and settled. The previous owners have left two primitive tables, two wooden benches, two rickety stools, one bed base with old-fashioned metal bed-ends (useful for hanging towels on), a stove that runs off bottled gas, a free standing corner shelf, a small kitchen cupboard, and lots of rusty paint cans and empty beer bottles in the numerous gloomy wooden storage rooms that cluster around the main living space. The toilet is a wooden throne emptying onto an abyss below, with only two ancient and grubby curtains hanging across the entrance to dignify one’s privacy. (We replaced these with a door as soon as we possibly could!)

As with most country village houses, there is no running water. The local well is just around the corner at the bottom of the lane, roofed in a quaint, fairy tale style. A sort of upturned painted biscuit tin over the sink acts as a temporary water tank; we fill it with a bucket and then it comes out of the tap below. This might seem rather pointless, but does mean that you can turn the tap on and get a quick trickle if you need to rinse something or wash your hands. I have instituted a graded water programme, with bowls of good water for rinsing dishes, and less good water for first washes. An ancient fridge rumbles self-importantly, and thank God that we’ve got it, as it’s so hot, and the lovely fresh milk, butter and eggs that we have would go off in no time otherwise. Natasha has kindly filled the cupboard with basics, mainly potatoes, pasta and more pasta, which is a curious grey-brown colour.

The kitchen, much as we inherited it, although we added the cupboard on the right. Bowls and pails for everything! Plus a small milk canteen.

Settling in – We have unpacked as best as we can, but until Ludmilla comes on Monday, we will be a bit limited with cupboards and storage space. Then we hope to go to Uja and buy some cheap Russian furniture. Natasha sent her son over with one of her own soft mattresses for the bed, and she had managed to buy us a folding bed too – just as well, as we wouldn’t have been able to cram two of us into the ancient, indigenous bed.

The old iron-framed bed, plus some of the furniture we managed to acquire

Not long after we arrived that morning, I lay down on it to test it out, and was soon fast asleep after three nights of little rest. The sound of hammers ringing all around became a kind of lullaby. At this time of year, everyone is outside, planting potatoes in the garden, or improving their houses and outhouses. The growing season doesn’t begin until May, and will be over by the end of September. There is an air of ominous necessity about the frenzied activity and industriousness too; it’s been explained to us that if country people didn’t grow their own vegetables and potatoes, they probably wouldn’t eat, since some of the factories in the nearby small towns, which used to provide them with employment, have lain idle for two years.

This morning, Natasha sent round three of her brood in the blistering heat to finish the potato planting. (They’ll be using our back garden to grow vegetables, and they are more than welcome.) The eldest, Misha, knocked at the door, and asked if he could use the electricity socket. I thought he had some kind of a rotavator that he wanted to plug in, but instead he had an enormous ghetto blaster, for very loud music while they worked. The children lined up along the rows: one to open up the trench with a spade, the next to drop the potatoes in, and the third to cover them over with earth.

Enjoying tea – using an electric samovar, as traditional ones require a special technique to light and keep them going! In Russia, ‘chai pit-y’ means not just drinking a cup of tea but eating a cold collation too, plus cake and biscuits

Shopping – a challenge Today we have sorted out the house as best we could, and in the early afternoon, we went for a walk around the village, partly to admire it, and partly to find the food shops. Kholui is peaceful, yet fully alive. It is not noisy in the way that cities full of traffic are, but it is certainly not quiet either. As well as the hammers, you can hear cockerels crowing, goats butting up against the side of the house, wood being chopped, geese honking, the roar of an antiquated motor bike, the voices of neighbours loudly calling out their news to each other. And, as we discovered later, in the evening, you may also hear the plaintive sounds of the garmon, a kind of small accordion, which is often played as people gather on the riverbank, or a party is struck up in someone’s parlour.

We watched hens and cows meandering around contentedly, saw boats being pulled up on the riverbank, and old people sitting on benches outside their homes. When we got to the shops, however, my Russian began to seem useless as we were drawn into conversations and began to make our needs known. I kept asking for sugar, sakher, and was met with incomprehension until someone finally said, ‘Oh, sakher!’ Which sounded to me exactly the same as what I had already been saying.

I also got the words for butter (maslo) and meat (myaso) muddled up, when we were trying to buy groceries. One shop on the far side of the river, the church side, was a mystery to me as it appeared to have nothing in its rather impressive chilled cabinets except for a few biscuits, but was still presided over by several ladies in white overalls and head coverings. In the other establishment on our side of the river, we managed to buy margarine, and a tin of steamed Chinese cow.

Often shopping would take place wherever someone had set up a stall, or parked up a van

Across the dirt road, a man was selling provisions from his porch. At his miniature Upstart’s Emporium, we got butter; a large cardboard box was produced, which contained a gigantic block of butter. He carved some off for us, which wasn’t easy in the heat, as it threatened to slide everywhere. And we got the famous sugar at last, where the request for half a kilo mysteriously turned into a kilo’s worth, but never mind. It’s lovely sugar, only partially refined. Tomorrow I must find out where the bread comes, as it’s Saturday, and we shall need plenty for the weekend. Little quests like that take on a pleasing importance, and present an adventure in themselves.

An unwelcome visitor When we came back from our walk, we had a sleep, as we are still catching up, but our siesta was disturbed just now by a young man with blond hair, sporting an elaborate gold cross on his tanned bare chest. He marched in practically uninvited carrying two very heavy rusty tin cans. We didn’t know whether he had been sent by Natasha our caretaker, so we were cautiously welcoming. He wanted us to guess what was in the tins. He claimed they contained a kind of preservative oil for painting on the house, and he wanted three dollars for them. Since he was trying to have a good look round, and was commenting on our nice big angliski suitcases, (you can see one under the bed in the photo above) I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and decided that I no longer spoke or understood much Russian, so that he would feel he was wasting his time. (This was the only – and rather strange- occurrence – where someone was pushy and out-of-keeping with usual neighbourliness in the village)

Saturday May 27th 1995
Life at the riverside The weekend begins in earnest. Once again, it is very hot, and quite humid too, with some strange cumulus clouds appearing at intervals. It’s a family day, and motorbikes with sidecars have bumped their way into the village complete with husbands, wives and children on board. Some arrived in their faithful Lada cars, and one family was even towed in on a trailer at the back of a tractor. Everyone made for the river, and the bathing area in the centre of the village was soon full of splashing children. The whole scene reminded me of the 1950s: little girls clad only in cotton knickers, women in loose flowered shifts, metal pails, bicycles, and picnics.

You can see the hordes of happy picnickers and bathers in the background, while the goat munches on, unconcerned.
The river Teza, on a quieter day: one of the many washing platforms built along its banks

At our swimming place further down the river, there were fewer families, perhaps because the water is deeper there. You have to wade out, acclimatising slowly in my case, then strike off in a diagonal direction, though this only just about counteracts the effects of the current. Eventually, the current cuts back in with a vengeance, and I drift back downstream again. I usually end up bumping my knees against the rocks under the water where it becomes shallower again.

A younger generation of artists, probably students from the Kholui art school

I love the life of the river. This is what I observed: Terns swooping down, catching the fish out of the water from right under your nose. Swallows and martins flying over the water. Fishermen using round nets, like large shrimping nets, which they allow to rest on the bottom until the shoals of tiddlers are just above them, and then they can draw up a catch. Frogs, croaking and warbling. Water lilies and waterweed. A large herd of cows and calves which come down at about 4pm every day, and stay until they are called by their owner at about 5.30pm. Dogs which stride purposefully into the water to cool themselves down. Boats – plenty of them – narrow, pointed, elegant, and used with paddles or poles. Women washing at the edge of the river on little wooden platforms built out over the water, so that they can rinse the clothes and sheets that they haul out of the tubs, brought on little trolleys to make the load easier. Mosquitoes and more mosquitoes, worse in places where the water is still.

The riverside, with a willow tree and a rather dilapidated washing platform. As I discovered, it’s easy to lose a sock or two downriver if you’re not careful while rinsing!

The bread queue I was truly initiated into Russian life today by joining the bread queue. I decided to try the Co-op shop which we spotted last night, and found myself in line behind fourteen or fifteen women all buying their bread for the weekend – four loaves of chorni khleb (black bread), seemed to be the norm. The girl serving was dressed up in a white overall and a sort of starched white baker’s cap made of material pressed around some cardboard. She was efficient, and the wait wasn’t that long.

In the meantime, the man behind me in the queue found out I was English, and said excitedly to the ladies in front of me, ‘Did you hear that? She’s English!’

They nodded sagely and said, ‘Oh yes, we know. We know all about her.’

So, although the people we meet along the road may only give us a brief formal greeting, most of them probably know exactly who we are and are full of curiosity about these mad foreigners who have taken up residence in Kholui.

We tried to buy matches today, and at last managed to get a cigarette lighter in the Upstart’s Emporium. He has put up a little hand-written notice which says: Kino –ie cinema – and offering showings of Karate Kid for a modest entrance fee. I suppose it’s a video played on his television. We found some Djam in the Sweet Shop, along with two Mars Bars and some cherry soda. The woman who works there wears her hair nicely waved, and watches a portable TV as she works. It’s quite fun seeing what you can get hold of on any given day, but then we’re not struggling to feed a family here on a tiny budget.

The film poster, announcing ‘Karate Kid – Price 400 Roubles – Starts at 9pm’

The Kholui workshop When we went into the workshop yesterday, (the official studio, where a number of mainly female artists painted lacquer miniature boxes) we tried to find Kamorin, (the director) but he was nowhere around. However, we called in on the ‘Brigada’, and the women artists were very welcoming. They downed their paintbrushes, and soon had an impromptu lunch party in full swing. We ate macaroni, as all pasta is called in Russia, and drank to Anglo-Russian friendship with the famous cranberry vodka that I enjoy so much. (If you manage to read to the end of this blog, your reward will be a recipe for making ‘Cranberry Vodka’ – very easy and delicious!)

The ‘Brigada’ – the team of women artists in the Kohlui studio during the 1990s
Choosing lacquer miniatures to order for Firebird Russian Arts. I’m at the front, with my business colleague Ludmilla next to me, and Kamorin, the director, at the far end. What you ordered was not what you eventually got! But anything done with a good will in Russia usually works out in some way at the end.

Partying, village style Today after lunch, Chris went off to do something useful outside, and I lay down today for yet another afternoon snooze (must be the Kholui air), at about 2.30pm. Then I heard some music playing. First of all, I thought it was a recording of some accordion music playing popular Russian tunes. Then a song began, and I realised that the cracked voices raised in joyful unison were in fact coming live from the house over the road, and that a party had started up. I fell asleep while listening to them, and dreamed that they were all singing, ‘Down the Old Kent Road,’ and in my dream marvelled at how well they knew the words in English. When I woke up, the party had moved outside onto the grass verge. The men and women began dancing, doing some old Russian country dances as far as I could tell, then started on some kind of a waltz. Later, when we came back from our swim at about 6pm, the music and dancing had stopped, but quarrels were breaking out, the drink having presumably flowed freely. Now, at 9.30pm, a serious fight has broken out between two men, but a group of women have just sorted them out, and sent them on their separate ways.

Sunday May 28th
At about 10am, eruptions were still happening out of the smouldering ashes of yesterday’s volcano of a party. A young man rushed out of the house pursued by a middle-aged woman, who was dressed only in an elastic girdle and an armour-plated bra. She was holding a frying pan with which she was taking a swipe at the young man’s head every time she got near him. He put his hands over his head to protect himself, as he raced towards his motorbike, which he got to just in time, leaping on it and accelerating up the lane. The dust was billowing up behind, as she ran after him screaming, and waving her frying pan. After that, everything went quiet. They must have all exhausted themselves.

In the late afternoon, I made a cup of tea, took it down to the bottom of the lane, and sat with my book under a willow tree on the riverbank. I thought to myself: I am sitting in a Russian village, by a Russian river, drinking tea and reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What could be better?

Below are scenes of Kholui village life. Goats, cows, chickens and geese wander where they will, and return home at the end of the day.

Tuesday June 6th
Farewell to Kholui Today was our last full day in Kholui. In the morning, I went back to the studio to see if the ladies of the Brigada had any more lacquer boxes to offer me. They didn’t, and I was glad in a way, as I now have a lot of lacquer miniatures to take home, and my budget is getting tight. So we had a kind of farewell party instead, and although it was only 11am, they began preparing a feast for me. I was given a copy of a magazine to look at called Droog, or ‘Friend’, which was all about pedigree dogs, while they began scurrying around gathering the ingredients together. ‘Big Olga’ leapt up and went to purchase six little fish from one of the other factory women, and made boiled fish and soup on the spot. The soup was called Uxa, pronounced ‘Oo-kha,’ with a kind of owlish hoot. One woman opened her mouth so wide to demonstrate how to say it that I could see every bit of fish currently lodged within.

We had a merry conversation, as best as I could manage. They are curious to know about England – what kind of home do I have? Is it a flat? How many floors has it got? How many rooms? Does it have a garden? Do we have servants? Our Georgian house in Bristol is in fact very large by Russian standards, and I tried to play this down. I promised to bring some photos next time.

Ladies of the Brigada joining together for a Khorovod, a traditional circle dance. Parties in the studio were frequent!

In the afternoon, Chris and I went for a wonderful walk, our final one for this visit. The sky had cleared to a cloudless blue, and it was warm but fresh. We started to walk along in the direction of the weir, but on the opposite bank of the river to our house. Soon we had to make a detour, as one often does here, to avoid boggy patches. We’ve learnt that it usually pays to follow the path, which circumnavigates the numerous ditches, dikes, quagmires and swamps that dissect this area.

Walks and picnics from other occasions, with the Mityashin family

Reflections on the landscape Past the weir, we eventually arrived on a bank-side path which ran through a beautiful sandy, heath-like stretch of ground. Here the flowers were in full bloom, and even more gorgeous than those we saw the other day. There were magenta flowers like single pinks, buttercups, a kind of mauve campanula like a Canterbury bell, a type of yellow cowslip, scabious, wild flowering chives (good to eat with the loaf of fresh bread we’d just bought), vetches, wild pansies, and an extraordinary yellow and purple flower, the exact colour of heartsease – the flowers themselves are yellow with what seem to be purple bracts. The effect is rather like an exotic bird’s crest. There is also lacy cow parsley, a type of ladies’ bedstraw, occasional orchids, and various other blue and purple flowers, so that the whole ground is carpeted with a delicate mixture of tall grasses and flowers, and full of butterflies. It will probably be short-lived, because the heat and the rain have brought the flowers on rapidly, and during the summer, the profusion will dwindle.

Silver birches, the favourite tree of the Russians. For centuries they have provided sap for birch wine, bark for kindling, or for fashioning into baskets and storage tubs, and wood for carving.

The heathland was dotted with bracken and silver birches, one of my favourite types of landscape. There were large oaks in full leaf too. Eventually, we came to where the wood ended and the ground opened out into a large meadow ahead of us, with a village set above it on a little hill. We tried to get there, then realised that the river lay between. In the meadow on our side of the river was a herd of cows, with two male cowherds in attendance. They carry what I call long whips, and Chris, with his Scottish ancestry, calls ‘knouts’. When I looked up the Russian for whip, it is in fact knoot, so there is obviously some common origin there. Although we think of Russian as an alien language, there are lots of words which are similar to ours, not only those from Latin roots, but some which must relate to old Norse or dialect words in our language. Bruki for trousers, and ‘breeches’, barsuk the badger, and ‘Brock’ as an old nickname for badger, buk and ‘beech’, holm and hill, kot and cat, are just some of the examples that come to mind.

We passed a cemetery; I’ve noticed now that Russians often place their cemeteries in woodlands and forests. I like the idea of being planted among the trees. Finally we came out, as we guessed we would, right by the Detski Dom (children’s home) in the old monastery, and from thence our path back to Kholui lay straight and clear.

Finally…Now it’s 10.30pm, the sun is setting, and tomorrow we leave for Moscow. We’re talking about coming back for three or even four weeks next summer. The river, the walks, the studio, the artists, the museum – it’s a unique combination. We went to the museum once again today, and after ringing the bell and waiting for a long time, one of the young curators appeared.

‘Mozhna?’ I asked. ‘May we?’
‘Mozhna,’ she replied, smiling, and opened the door wide for us.

It only costs about ten pence to get in, and houses as fine a collection of lacquer miniatures as you could see anywhere. The museum employs about four female staff, but what do they do all day? I don’t think they spend their time cleaning, because the dirty footprint on the carpet today was the same as it was last week when we paid a visit. Perhaps they catalogue a bit, and read professional journals; I don’t know. Although they can’t have more than one or two visitors a day, when we looked at the Visitors’ Book today, we were astonished to find that an American from Texas had visited the museum since we came in last week. Who could he be? How did he reach these parts? Where might he be going? I’m beginning to react like a Kholui local!

Later visits included arriving in autumn, or in winter (see below)
This is very popular with friends and family at Christmas!

And afterwards – Posting these diary records tugs at my heart strings…I kept the house until the early 2000s, and visited it about three times a year. It was a colourful time, but over the course of the years became textured with challenges and even tragedy. Accidents, both serious and fatal, occurred to people we knew; wintertime in the village could be beautiful but harsh, and the old innocence of country life began to shift under the rapidly changing influence of unstable economics and the increasing sophistication of the Russian cities. But I’ve never forgotten the beauty and fulfilment of those first few visits to Kholui, or the kindness of the people there. The countryside in Russia still holds the essence of its old traditions and wisdom.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Glimpses of the Tarot

I’ve taken an interest in Tarot cards since I first came across them in the USA, at the age of 19. I was fascinated by their images, and over the following years delved into their meanings and history. When I wrote Tarot Triumphs in 2016, it was a chance at last to put together my research and findings, and to pass on what I had learnt from others too – in particular a unique divination layout called ‘The Fool’s Mirror’.

But it didn’t allow me to share the glorious images of traditional Tarot cards, which range from the opulent gilded cards from the royal courts of Europe, to the crude but vigorous woodcuts sold for popular use. There are many mysteries as to Tarot’s origins, and how it was used – you can find out more in my book – but the images have retained their power through the centuries, and are a colourful set of symbols in their own right.

And so I’m planning a series of occasional posts on Cherry’s Cache, which enables me to share images from my own sets of cards, and from digital resources. Along with this, I’ll post extracts from my book on the individual cards themselves, giving some snippets of their meaning, history and variations of imagery.

‘Cherry reading the cards’, oil painting by Robert Lee-Wade – in this case, not the traditional pack, but the renowned Rider Waite pack with its detailed symbolism. It suited Robert’s art better!

I prefer the traditional packs, which have been handed on down through the centuries, and adapted to different countries and cultures. They have a resonance, like traditional folk songs. Their river of time can carry me on its currents, whisper secrets in my ear, and speak to me of its past and future. The symbolism of the 22 Tarot Trumps, as the pictorial cards are known, echoes down through the centuries, if we do but listen to it, connecting us to an ancient way of knowledge.

Each post will put the spotlight on three individual cards – today’s cards are pictured above, in line drawings produced by my husband Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs. I’ve allowed the cards to speak in the time-honoured way, simply by shuffling the pack, and using the order in which the cards appeared in, to define the sets of three, rather using the regular numbering of the 22 cards. These are from what is known as the Major Arcana, or the Tarot Trumps; the remaining 56 cards fall into 4 suits like regular playing cards, with one extra court card in each suit.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, card master and engraver Dijon, 1709-1740

THE HIGH PRIESTESS (No. 2)
The image of the High Priestess, otherwise called the ‘Papesse’ or Female Pope, is very simple in one sense. A woman with a tall headdress sits before a curtain hung between two pillars, holding an open book in her lap. But she has aroused great debate and much learned research among Tarot historians. Does she represent Pope Joan, Isis, Sophia, the Virgin Mary, Faith and the Church, a prophetic Sibyl, a Sorceress or Pagan Knowledge? All have been proposed as candidates, along with a specific historical character, the heretical Manfreda who believed in creating female popes. After fighting my way through this thicket of possible allusions, and appraising their possibilities, I have arrived at the view that this card can best be understood not as one particular figure, but as an embodiment of wisdom and ancient knowledge, symbolised in female form.

Tarot from Bologna, 18th c, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan

In the early Renaissance, for practitioners of philosophical or Hermetic traditions, such a figure of female wisdom was not only acceptable but essential to their cosmology. The headdress and book of the High Priestess were associated with the spirit of ancient teaching, and from that standpoint, she could quite readily have been equated by different interpreters with Mary, Sophia, Isis or the Kabbalistic Shekinah, each of these a feminine representation of wisdom, current in different strands of teaching and thinking at the time. She is not a historical counterpart of the Pope, or a renegade version of the Pope in female form. There is a case though for associating her with ‘Prudence’, a later personification of Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom; some of her attributes – book and triple crown, for instance – can be found in imagery related to Prudence.

Image of Prudence (top left) with book of wise teachings and disciples. From the illuminated manuscript ‘La Somme le Roy’ (early 14th c.)

So the High Priestess is a teacher of wisdom. And if you go past the trappings, you can also see her as the symbol of contemplation itself. She sits at the entrance to the temple, and is the keeper of its mysteries. In a reading, the card may suggest the need to tap one’s inner resources and to use silence wisely.

Classic image of ‘The Lover’ or ‘Lovers’ from the Marseilles Tarot. This was indeed produced in the Marseilles area of France around the 18th c., but was more widespread than that. A reproduction of a set in 1930 by Paul Marteau set this pack on course to be the typical ‘traditional’ Tarot for the 20th and 21st centuries.

THE LOVER (No. 6)
The usual version of The Lover clearly indicates a choice: which woman will the young man decide to marry? However, some earlier versions, notably the 15th century Visconti-Sforza pack, show what appears to be a wedding in progress, and in that particular case, the figures are presumed to be Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. The couple were married in 1441, and the sumptuous set of Tarot cards may have actually been commissioned for their wedding. But the dilemma shown on the prevailing traditional image is not a straightforward, happy union; as with many of the cards, it poses a question for us to fathom.

From The Golden Tarot a historical reproduction of the beautiful 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack. Here a wedding is taking place, perhaps of the patrons themselves

One common interpretation is that these two ladies represent Vice and Virtue. This is borne out by various emblems independent of Tarot packs, such as the one in Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius (1658), where his illustration no. 109 under “Moral Philosophy” shows much the same picture, with the two women positively tugging the young man in different directions.

Comenius: his emblem ‘Moral Philosophy’ shows a young man being pulled in two different directions by Virtue and Vice.

But if we take this as a choice to be made, rather than purely a decision over love, it opens the way to broader interpretations. The question of a dilemma still remains at the heart of this image. The Marseilles Tarot version of The Lover (seen at the start of this section) is a masterpiece of cross tensions, within this Y-shaped formation, indicating this agony of decision. Here, Cupid’s arrow points towards the man’s left, and to the fair-haired maiden standing there. The Lover, though, looks to the right, towards the laurel-crowned lady with the severe face. She rests a restraining hand on his right shoulder, her left reaching out to him below, while the pretty girl on the left, in some versions crowned with flowers, touches his heart with her fingers. She looks forward, while Miss Laurel Crown looks straight into the Lover’s eyes. Both seem to say, ‘He’s mine!’

A magnificent emblem from the early French Tarot cards known as the Charles VI pack. This pack is now more reliably designated as Italian, possibly made in Ferrara, in the 15th c.

The card therefore may not always be about a relationship, but can also indicate a decision pending, a choice to be made in another area of life. Likewise, it could indicate a matter of choosing a particular path, and sacrificing another tempting way forward, in order to achieve the desired goal. And sometimes, the best choice is really very simple.

‘La Force’ – Strength: Marseilles Tarot

STRENGTH (No. 11)
The usual Tarot image for ‘Strength’ shows a woman bending over a lion, calmly but firmly opening its jaws. The French name for this this card is ‘La Force’, which means Strength, but not ‘force’ in the English sense of the word. Here, therefore, gentleness triumphs over ‘brute force’, which sets up one of those intriguing Tarot paradoxes: how can a woman tame such a savage creature without using force? Some versions of Tarot cards show this as a woman breaking a pillar in half or a man clubbing a lion, but these are crude allegories by comparison, and, to my mind, miss the point.

A savage version – and probably adrift from the original meaning. Card from the Schaffhouse Swiss Tarot deck. The style is more ornamental, and probably dates from the early 19th c. In the so-called ‘Swiss Tarot’, the High Priestess (Papesse) and the Pope are replaced by the classical gods Juno and Jupiter, so as not to offend Protestant sensibilities.

To understand this better, we can go back to the cult known as the ‘Mistress of the Beasts’ or ‘Lady of the Animals’. This portrays a woman presiding over wild animals, and in particular lions. Images are found as statues and paintings from ancient civilisations such as Crete, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, where ‘The Lady’ may be seen standing between lions, riding upon a lion’s back, or driving a chariot drawn by lions. There may not be a definite historical link to ‘Strength’ in the Tarot, but it shows that the archetype of woman taming beast resides deep within our culture. It’s also possible that this image derives more directly from the woman jongleurs, the wandering performers who travelled in mixed bands, and whose ‘entertainments’ included showing women taming wild beasts. As I’ve suggested in my book, the troubadours and jongleurs may well have played a part in shaping the Tarot.

Mother goddess flanked by two lionesses on a pithos from Knossos, 625-600 BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
A partially-restored Roman bronze statuette of the cult goddess Cybele, on a cart drawn by lions. 2nd c.A.D, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The ‘strength’ shown, therefore, overcomes danger through gentleness, patience and persistence. This type of strength works through anything that is not direct force – through confidence, compassion, understanding, or quietness.

The Tarot of Jean Noblet is the oldest surviving ‘Marseilles’ type pack, produced in Paris in 1650.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Tarot Triumphs can be bought from Amazon UK and Amazon USA as a paperback or Kindle edition